February 17, 2014

"You Should be Doing Triples"

"You should be doing triples." Just something one of my teachers said last Saturday, during pirouette exercises. Before that, I had managed a  few wobbly doubles and a couple of fairly neat singles. Okay, I was really tired (late Friday night), but that's not my excuse. The truth is, that after twenty years of ballet, I'm still working on turning consistently clean doubles. With pirouettes there's always so much going on, so much that can go wrong, and a whole lot of corrections that you can work on. Believe me, I've tried them all. The hardest part has been un-learning bad habits, like sickling the foot in passé retiré or jumping into the turn. That is why, if I were to give you one piece of advice, it would be this: quality must come first! Then, a deep plié and remember to breath! Oh, and it's perfectly fine to make a lot of mistakes. Believe me, I've done them all. It's also fun to keep trying, even after 20 years and counting.

Back to the "you should be doing triples." I'm not sure if I should be encouraged or embarrassed. Part of me feels like there was a test that I failed, and that I'm missing important ballet credentials because of it. A few years ago, I got a similar comment from another teacher: "You should know how to do fouettée pirouettes." It seemed odd to be graded in class, considering that we were all recreational dancers (some with more experience than others.) The thing is, it is quite rare to have adult ballet classes with a progressive curriculum all the way up to advanced levels. Even though adults can learn some things faster than children (and often have better focus), technique takes time and dedication. When I moved from basic-intermediate to intermediate and advanced levels, the gulf between those classes was such that I'm still trying to cross over! Fouettée pirouettes were done at the end of class, and you either knew what you did or you got out of the way. It did not bug me, I never expected to be in the same league with the ballet vets and semi-/pros. Even when another teacher introduced Fouettées 101, I did not catch up. I guess, you can't win them all.

I've never been embarrassed that my turns are not up to par (annoyed, yes). But I have sometimes felt dispirited by my lack of flexibility and range of movement. I used to dread split stretches in class. I hated being the only one who could not make contact with the floor. To me, the message was that I was not flexible enough for ballet (past beginner levels). It made me feel excluded from the rest of the class. Well, I've gotten over it. I stretch as far as I can, and I don't care if it looks less than ballet-ready. You can only work with your own body, not that of bendy-ballerina's next to you. Anyway, in the past three years I've actually gotten a lot more flexible! I can do a split with my left leg in front, I can stretch my legs into a semi-sidesplit and lie flat with my belly in between. Talon à la main? I can now lift my left leg up way past my shoulder. The stiffer right one is also coming nicely along. I still wish that I could be stretchy like a ballerina (who doesn't?), but I've stopped fixating on my weaknesses, or stiffnesses. I think having a positive mindset even helps with the stretching!

The comment my teacher made? I've decided to look at it as encouragement. Clearly, I must be doing something right. I have taken less than ten classes with this particular teacher (half of it last summer). He does not know my history, and has not seen my progress from adult beginner to adult passionate. I don't know what he sees when I dance, but I like to think it's something good.

Finally, some things you should be doing in class:

Knees over toes, always.
Breathing into the movement - it's good for you.
Mistakes. Because you're trying.
Pay attention to details. It's all in the details!
Keep your popo down and your head up.
Look where you're dancing.
Smile. You love to dance - don't keep it a secret. ;)

Wishing you all exciting learning experiences - keep dancing!
- Johanna


  1. Tätä lukiessa rupesin miettimään, että sä oot tanssinut melko pitkään, mutta et kuitenkaan ole kovin edistyneellä tasolla. Oletko treenannut miten aktiivisesti ihan alusta alkaen, ja onko sua edes opetettu miten tavoitteellisesti? Vai onko sun tunnit sellasia, joissa ei ole asetettu tavoitteita?

  2. Hm, in response to the above comment, I'd have to say that your goals should be your own, especially as an adult, non-pro dancer. Yes, there are certain goals you should have, but above all those should be good technique in what you do (for longevity and fewer injuries!) and enjoyment, not necessarily virtuosity.

    In response to the post, I'd say you should definitely take it as encouragement! This past weekend I too got a "you should be doing..." comment, regarding turning a single fouetté en dedans en pointe into a double. She wasn't calling me out on slacking or not being good enough; she was telling me to not worry about the double, go for it, and to let it happen. And it was good advice--sometimes your brain is more what's in the way. You know that moment before a turn when you go "Single or double? Double or triple?" and then you turn and it's all wonky? Maybe she sees your non-turn technique and is telling you that you should add triples to your repertoire of goals so you feel inspired to "go for it."

  3. I'd just like to thank you for this post. I started dancing at a relatively late age, and I've never managed to get past corps de ballet status. It's an incredibly frustrating and depressing feeling, watching my batchmates get promoted one after the other, while I'm still stuck in the same old classes and not getting any younger (or more flexible). I'm glad I'm not the only one that feels this way, and you've encouraged me to start looking for something that only I can give, whether it's on stage or elsewhere. :)

  4. I think we should always set little goals for ourselves, but as adult recreational dancers we dance more because we love it and because it keeps us sane, not necessarily to move up to the next level. However, I do think you should take your teacher's comment as an encouragement because they obviously saw a good deal of strength/talent in you which made them believe that you are capable of more challenging work :)

  5. You seem to be really good at measuring your own success, without comparing to others, which is one of my biggest goals for the year. Pirouettes have lately become one of the things I realize need some attention, and I'm definitely trying to focus on the quality of each and every one. And I hear you on bad habits, a childhood spent in rhythmic gymnastics means I have some fantastically horrible hand movements that I've been trying to train out forever.

  6. Thank you for this! My teacher always tells us that the pirouette is the least important part of the exercise as there is something about it that gets to us all mentally. I'm 27 and have been dancing for 2 years, and I have to watch myself so I don't start comparing myself to classmates who have obviously been dancing since they were little (there's just something about their physicality isn't there?! You can just tell!!) I recently started a dance journal and I find it really valuable for keeping me focussed on my own aims - not anyone else's. I also included a "positives" heading, which forces me to reflect on what I've done well, and not just on corrections etc. I have difficulty executing a clean pirouette but I'm proud of my elegant port de bras!

  7. Your blog is really nicely done... and your post gives anybody something to reflect on, whether they dance or not. How do we take a comment like that, "You should be doing something that you're not yet able to do." I like your attitude that you're going to view it as an encouraging statement. I'm actually writing to you to ask a question for my own work. What is the name for the main dancer in a ballet production? Is it Prima Donna? Are there more terms for it? Also, what are the terms used for the understudy to the main dancer, if there is such a thing? I'm doing a dance-related artwork and am looking for a good title. Thanks! And I'll be checking back when you master that triple that I know you're going to get.

    1. Hi Katherine,

      Thanks for your comment. What you call a "main dancer" is actually a "principal dancer", os simply "a principal". They are the dancers (and stars of the ballet company) who would do the main roles in a ballet. However, it is also possible for lower ranking dancers such as "soloists" to do these parts. The term prima donna is not used in ballet, although one can be called a prima ballerina if her career has been exceptionally formidable. At the Paris Opera Ballet, you also have "étoiles" (star dancer) - which is the highest rank one can attain. As for understudies... Every principal role has several casts (just as there are several principals asn soloists), so more than one dancer rehearses the role. Some of the dancers may also understudy a part, even though they might never perform it. Same goes for smaller parts.

      There are quite a few good pages, if you want more detailed info. Check out The Ballet Bag - it's brilliant!

  8. Greetings Lovely blog! I am writing as an artist. I have been working on two series for the last 2 years. I am looking to gain some exposure for my work and am hoping you may offer some assistance. In what form I am not sure, I just want my images to be seen and shared especially throughout the ballet community. Please take a look at my work and share thoughts. sincerely, John C Miller


To That Special Ballet Teacher

To that special ballet teacher, who not only teaches you about technique, but helps build your confidence, nurtures your inner artist, ...