June 23, 2015

All That Jazz and Ballet Too

When I looked at the Kuopio Dance Festival's course programme, I searched for ballet classes first. That's my main focus, everything else comes second. I was delighted to see Arja Tervo teaching the professional morning classes and the adult intermediate course (among other levels). Arja substituted at my studio for six weeks this past spring, and I really enjoyed her friendly manner, positive attitude and professionalism. The combinations are more complicated and difficult than I have gotten used to, but it’s a welcome challenge. Arja also gives lots of personal and detailed corrections, and always encourages to push beyond your current ability. That’s how you do it. If you wish to progress, you have to step outside of your comfort zone, again and again! While still keeping in mind that there are no shortcuts. Solid, clean technique takes a lot of time and hard work, and the focus should always be on quality and musicality, not tricks. Better to make it simple and beautiful than to rush through levels and end up with messy in-betweens. If memory, muscle strength, proper alignment and coordination are not ready to catch up, you will risk learning mistakes - and possible injury. So, step outside that comfy zone, but don’t try to leap over a canyon. If in doubt, ask your teacher.

Okay, back to Kuopio Dance. I figured that I might be able to do morning class with the pros (dancers, teachers, students..), but that class overlapped with Pattie Obey’s jazz course. I would have also liked to take the intermediate contemporary course, but it was at the same time as intermediate ballet! Finally, I decided to take jazz intermediate (10:15 - 11:30) and adult ballet intermediate (13:30 - 15:00). There would be just enough time for a light lunch in-between.

4th floor dance studio (Kuopion Tanssistudio), with views to the City Hall and market place.

I haven't been to jazz class in, like, forever. To be more precise, the last time must have been in the mid-90s. Back then, I was taking classes with Maiju Pohjonen at the Tanssivintti dance studio, but I never progressed beyond advanced beginner. I had a hard time learning coordinating and adding of move upon move, and more often than not I fell behind. Now that I think about it, at the time I was still a beginner (basic level) in ballet - and solid jazz technique also requires solid ballet technique! Really not the best background to jump into an intermediate jazz intensive 20 years later, especially one that is being taught by renowned master teacher Pattie Obey... But, there were no basic levels for jazz at Kuopio, and I really wanted to take the plunge, hoping that my ballet would be a strong enough foundation to build all that jazz on! It felt like the right timing, despite my very limited experience. I’m not getting any younger, and you have to grab those once-in-a-lifetime chances like there is no tomorrow.

How convenient to live next to the dance studio! My usual one-hour commute was reduced to five minutes, which meant that I was always in a rush to get there. But never late! The studio is on the fourth floor, and I skipped the elevator to give myself a warm-up (which got harder with every day). When I got to the studio, I realised that I had not thought about footwear. Most dancers wore black jazz shoes, a few had socks. I slipped into my worn-out ballet flatties, only to realise that they were much too slippery for the studio floor. It was okay doing exercises in place, but as soon as we got moving across the floor, I felt extremely insecure, and tossed them back into my bag. I tried to do the next class barefoot, but it was too sticky for tendus and turns. Finally, I found a suitable floor contact with thin socks. Combined with sweat and humidity, they gave secure traction but were still low-friction enough to allow for turning and sliding. What did I learn? Always come prepared for different floors and conditions!

Before class started, Pattie asked us about our jazz dance experience. For a moment, I felt my heart sink. If I told her that it had been advanced beginner 20 years ago, would she give me a raised eyebrow? I settled for "some jazz", which is accurate enough. She also asked if we do any teaching, which is common for Kuopio course participants. Sure enough, there were two contemporary/jazz teachers in the first class, and more throughout the course (the size kept changing as many had overlapping courses, performances and volunteer duties). I said to Pattie, "just ballet", and later realised that I had inadvertently introduced myself as a ballet teacher. I'm still a bit embarrassed about it.

When class started, I was not as lost as I had feared. I think Pattie gave us a basic level introduction instead of an intermediate class, just to see what we could do. Many of the warm-up and stretching exercises were surprisingly familiar, taking me right back to my first ballet teacher Jill Miller's dance workout classes. Jill had been a jazz dancer, but she taught mainly ballet (beginners to professionals). She also gave "workout" classes, which I now realise, had elements from jazz dance warm-ups. Roll downs, flat backs, ab exercises, to mention some. Coincidentally, Jill Miller and Pattey Obey were both trained in the Cecchetti ballet method. The ballet part of Pattie's jazz class was the "easy" part, not that ballet is ever easy. But I could do the pliés, tendus and jetés and chaînés, developpés and attitudes and whatnot without overloading my brain capacity. The part where we started adding moves onto moves? Oh my...

Thankfully, we practiced basics first. Getting my somewhat rigid upper body to contract, release, isolate, roll, swing was fun - and oh boy could I feel it by day three. I realise that I've underused my body and its capacity to move in different ways! Ballet keeps things pretty square, even with neo-classical and contemporary influences. I'm always excited when teachers urge us to "dance big", but it's not easy to move away from a strictly academic style. Some teachers will admonish you right away if you go for temps lies with big sliding glissés or upper bodies that move out of their most square confines. Which is why I like Arja Tervo's and Marie Greve's ballet classes so much. They are constantly reminding us that we are no longer at "ballet school", meaning that it's time to dance and to express - not just to execute the steps in a technically correct manner. It has to be interesting, both to the dancer and to the audience (even if you only ever do class). Personalities should not disappear underneath technique! The same with Pattie Obey's jazz class.

Expression in dance class has always been more challenging for me than the technical aspect. I'm not a performer by nature, and my inhibitions tend to surface whenever we are told to "dance as if you were on stage!" In fact, after our first ballet class at Kuopio, Arja took me to the side and told me in the nicest way not to be "so Finnish." In this context, being Finnish means being too reserved. Of course, you cannot put every Finn under one hat, but it's a recognized national tendency. There's also the fear of what others might think of us. If we step out of line and draw attention to us, it might convey that we consider ourselves to be superior to our peers. "Who does she think she is?" But why take dance class if not to express yourself, be the dancer you truly want to be? I have learned that some classes work better for me than others. The atmosphere has to be positive. An encouraging teacher with a sense of humour definitely helps. As do fellow dance students. What I loved about those jazz classes: after we took turns across the floor, every group was applauded. You don't see that in ballet class, at least not where I dance.

I wish I could have danced more "out there" in those jazz classes, but I was hard at work to keep track of triplets, ball changes, funky moves and port de bras that seemed to have a mind of its own. I would have needed twice the time to pick up all the combinations, and then add some flavor. Sure, my ballet technique helped, but it also got in the way at times. I can do consistent double pirouettes, but turning from a parallel position is surprisingly difficult. Even harder when you have to finish in seconde parallel. My feet keep turning out automatically! So much of my ballet technique is embedded deep into muscle memory, which is fine for ballet, but... It was interesting, to say the least. When we did ballet steps, it was a welcome rest for my brain. Just as everything jazz was exciting to the point of being overstimulating. Too much new information to handle! I think it was day four when my brain fried (apparently not than uncommon). Day five I can't remember, but during the last two classes we did jazz in the style of musical theatre. It was a short combination out of "Over There!" (1976), and I loved it! First time I felt myself dancing, not just trying to keep up. I still messed up some steps and moves, but I had so much fun getting there!

I have to add that Pattie Obey is a great teacher: passionate, professional, inspiring and chock full of dance wisdom which I would have liked to written down, word for word. She's demanding but friendly, and has a terrific sense of humour. Pattie often told us that she's old enough to be our grandmother (well, not mine), and if she can do it, so can we. Except that she was in better shape than any of us! What did she say...? "If you stop (now), that's it." Considering that she demonstrated full out while still suffering from a cold and jet lag, I have only one word: respect. No wonder Dance Magazine has named her "Teacher Extraordinaire!"

I'm very happy that I took the plunge into jazz, it really pushed me into a new direction. Even my ballet teacher Arja noticed the change! She had urged me to show my love for dance, to present myself and to bring some pizzaz into my steps.. And I did!

Last day group photo (class kept changing, some switched to advanced when their schedule allowed it). Pattie in the middle, I'm third from left. My eyes are closed, which happens a lot in group shots. But it was a great group!

P.S. Another benefit of jazz class: All that upper body work loosened up my stiff neck. It also helped with the lower back pain that had been bothering me all year (ouch in cambré)! Since I got back from Kuopio, I've added some of the exercises to my daily pre-stretch warm-up. 


  1. Sounds like it was a great idea indeed to take a jazz class. I was very much struck by the connection you make between expressing yourself artistically and achieving technical success. I think sometimes artists in any medium, from literature to dance to sculpting, can be too in love with the creative experience to acquire proper technical skill. By way of example: Piet Mondrian's wonderful late works like "Broadway Boogie Woogie" could only have been built in the sort of formal know-how on show in a work like "Devotion". And Hemingway's gift for prose in large part rested in his training as a working journalist. Finnish or not, you clearly have the sort of technical skills that will let you create beautiful art indeed!

  2. Good for you taking the plunge to start the jazz classes and how great you seem to have an enthusiastic group and a good teacher. I wish I lived nearer to a dance school. I do live near an arts centre that has some dance classes but I have yet to be brave and sign up. However, you've inspired me.

    Stephine @ Donita Ballet


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