March 21, 2017

The Balletlove Interview

A while back, Singaporean dance wear company  asked me if I would like to do an interview. As it happens, is not just a dance wear company, but they also offer adult ballet classes. Which is probably why they're also interested in the adult (recreational) ballet experience... Not that it is so different at heart: professional dancer or not, we all share the love for ballet.

Here's my interview, full-length:

1. What is your earliest memory of ballet? Describe your journey in ballet from the start to now. 

When I about was eleven years old, my grandfather took me to the Finnish National Ballet to see Giselle. I remember very clearly being mesmerized by the entrance of the wilis, but the experience did not yet prompt me to sign up for classes. My best friend had been in ballet school, and I admired her for it, but I also thought it’s something that only the chosen few get to do. In retrospect, I’m glad that I didn’t start early, because inevitably there would have been disappointment and heartache. I do not have the facility for a professional career.

I was 21, when a friend suggested we take jazz dance classes at a studio close to our office. I hadn't done any kind of exercise program for quite a while, and sitting at a desk all day was already taking its toll... Jazz dance sounded like fun, so we signed up. Towards the end of that fall semester, our teacher told us about adult beginner ballet classes, and in the coming January 1991, I stood at the barre. Incidentally, the jazz dance teacher who pointed me into the direction of adult ballet now takes the same morning class as me. Oftentimes, we go together across the floor. Time flies when you dance!

2. How did you come to love ballet? What is it about ballet that you love?

Long before I fell for ballet, I loved to watch musicals for their dance scenes. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, all the classics. When I listened to classical music, I imagined myself moving to it. Then there was Fame (the TV-series), and White Nights with Baryshnikov (and those famous 11 pirouettes), and I found myself reading Dance Magazine at the library. I couldn’t understand English yet, but I kept gazing at the pictures. The lines of ballet, the elegance, the interplay of movement, music, stories and emotion... It lifts your spirits.

3. Do give us an example of an (unusual) thing you do to show your passion/obsession with ballet (this question is for fun)

I suppose my blogs and facebook page (Pointe Til You Drop) are testament enough ;).

4. Describe some earlier challenges you've had learning ballet as an adult and how they are no longer challenges.

One of the early challenges was going across the floor… Seasoned girls/ladies did these elegant preparations us adult late starters had not yet been taught, and I was never sure which leg was supposed to go first on which count… Also learning about directions, ecarté and effacé, and basically the entire French ballet vocabulary. I borrowed/bought all the literature I could find (this was before internet), and I know a little French from high school, so I studied the theory as well. Knowing the steps and how to pronounce them has helped tremendously.

5. What inspires you? EDIT: question Nr. 5 was missing from the original interview, so I came up with my own.

Music, musicality, certain dancers/teachers, other adult students, passion.

6. What are some challenges now? What are the feedback you regularly receive from your teacher right now? (can be both positive or not-so-positive)

One of the biggest challenge for me is correcting old & bad habits, like a sickled ankle in retiré during pirouettes, or losing that last bit of turnout in degagés (especially to the back and in ronde jambes), or not aligning my toes over knees in landings. I have to make a conscious effort every time, instead of letting my muscle memory take over. That’s why I also take a very basic level class, because there’s more time to refocus and re-learn. Another challenge is a sometime lack of self-confidence combined with too high expectations. I also tend to be my own worst critic, so I need to remind myself to let go a little, dance “under”, and enjoy the process. As for my teacher, she’s very generous with positive feedback, regardless of your background, facility, age or skill level. It’s a very nurturing environment to learn in.

What is the feedback I receive regularly? I suppose it’s the same for every student… “Keep your turnout, don’t lose it, heels forward, popo down, stretch knees, lengthen back, long neck, juicy pliés, point toes, do more, dance big, use your eyes, present yourself, don’t be shy…”

Not-so-positive feedback? As I mentioned before, I do sometimes struggle with keeping a confident and positive attitude... When those negative voices take over, I’m not the most pleasant student to teach. I get emotional, feel too strongly… I didn’t know it was so visible, nor that it could affect anyone else besides me. I learned that I cannot be selfish in class, that a positive attitude is not only to help me but also vital to a healthy and happy group dynamic. And I’ve gotten much better at managing my moods, and finding inner calm even on the most challenging of days. Actually, I’m in a pretty good place right now :).

7. Do you get down moments in ballet? How often? Do share... and how you managed those.

I think I just answered that in the previous question. Another way to manage possible down moments is to take good care of yourself. Get enough sleep, eat well, prepare for class, wear something that makes you feel pretty and confident… Everyone has bad days, and gets down moments, but it’s impossible to learn and progress without failing, making mistakes, or feeling stuck on learning plateaus… What I have (finally) understood: there is no such thing as a bad day without good moments, or down moments that are not preceded or followed by something better! We tend to focus way too much on the downs, but I guess that’s human nature. The best thing is to shake it off and move on, literally.

8. What are your strengths in ballet?

Enthusiasm, curiosity, passion. I never get tired of learning. If you mean less abstract strengths, then I do have fairly strong legs, and a natural ballon. Great for allegro!

9. What are some goals and aspirations for ballet? Or in an ideal/dream world, what would you like to be able to do?

My main goal is to get rid of my bad habits, be a “clean” and elegant dancer, who is not shy to express… And, of course, to dance as long as possible!

In an ideal/dream world, I would like to be able to teach.

10. What is your ballet pet peeve?

Oh dear… Perhaps the trend of having celebrity amateur students/dancers represent ballet in the media/advertising, instead of professionals. Either have a pro (or dancer-in-training) demonstrate the steps, or have a professional teacher give class to adult students (celebs included). Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s great to make ballet more accessible to a wider audience, but it should remain ballet. It's not about being elitist, but being true to the art form and its demands. Ballet is very hard, and it takes time and patience, and proper teaching. It’s not cos-play.

11. What do you think is the greatest misconception adult dancers have about ballet?

That you have to be young, skinny and flexible to begin. Of course, youth and a “ballet-suitable” facility are desirable and helpful, but adult students do not take class to become professional dancers. Everybody can learn and progress, and enjoy the journey.

12. What do you think it is the greatest challenge an adult has learning to dance ballet?

I think that’s very individual… You can’t put all adults into the same box. There’s not even such a thing as “your average adult student”. It really depends on your motivation, abilities, natural talent, discipline, attitude, schedule, adult obligations, budget, availability of classes, the quality of teaching, your learning type… For some the challenge is mainly physical, perhaps a lack of turnout or a stiff back. For others, it’s trying to find time and suitable classes.

13. What is it like to be dancing for over 20 years as an adult? 

Compared to professional dancers/performers, it’s a very different experience: to be forever a student, but never a dancer. My goal has never been to dance on stage, instead class is an end in itself. It works for me, because I love the work but not the performing. I did participate in a few school spring/xmas shows, but to be honest, I only enjoyed the rehearsal process. Being on stage, in front of a real audience? Horrors. But I’m grateful for the experience.

I wish I could revisit the student I was 25 years ago, or even observe myself in class ten years ago… You can only dance in the present, and it’s easy to lose sight of progress. Obviously, I’m no longer a beginning student. Technically, I’m probably a mix of advanced beginner and intermediate, with a bit of advanced thrown in. I’m not just talking about “step repertoire”, but execution and expression.

As a younger (20+) student, I was perhaps more courageous and adventurous. I knew nothing, and was willing to try anything - even if steps were way beyond my skill level. As I’ve gotten more experienced, I know & see all the mistakes and flaws, which can be hindering...There really is a certain bliss in ignorance.

14. What do you think it takes for an adult dancer to improve?

A positive attitude, patience, persistence, focus & attention in class, readiness to apply corrections, willingness to try new things, and the best teacher you can find.

15. How do you friends and family feel about your love for ballet?

My family is used to it. I think they would be concerned if I ever decided to quit. My friends? Quite a few also take ballet class, so we share a love for ballet. My non-dancer friends probably think I’m a bit weird, a curiosity…;) But they’ve all been very encouraging and supportive!

16. What is your dance wear style?

Black leggings, nude/tan slippers, long skirts tied asymmetrically, leos with long sleeves, loose & long open yoga-style cardigans that I use to warm up and hide in (but which can also be wrapped around the waist or tossed aside). It’s definitely NOT a classic dress-code ballet school look… And I like to play with it, wear bright blue leggings with a blue leo and star-print skirt, or a cherry red leo with a floral print skirt, or go all in black. As long as I feel pretty and comfortable.

17. What are some of the memorable moments you've had in your ballet journey? Do share with us.

The first class I took, when I realized that I had to come back. The time my first teacher praised me for my musicality. When I nailed a challenging balance in advanced class, early on in my dance years - and my teacher’s response to it. Coming back to ballet, after a three-year absence. Taking professional morning class in Berlin (and being able to keep up). Putting on pointe shoes for the first time. Every pointe class I’ve ever had. My stage debut, scared stiff. Writing a ballet blog. Readers! Being backstage at the Finnish National Ballet, observing company class, volunteering at the Helsinki International Ballet Competitions. Wonderful teachers. Finding “my teacher” at the mature age of 41, and discovering that I’m able to do much more... Learning about all-important details, precision footwork, presentation and elegance, colors and nuances, even artistry. Applying thousands of corrections, seeing and feeling gradual improvement, the sense of accomplishment and joy… Every class since.

18. Share some funny moments you've had in ballet class.

The time we did petit allegro, my skirt slid down, and I jumped out of it. When we changed directions, and I was the only one facing the wrong side, happily… until I saw myself in the mirror (and my teacher laughing).

19. What is your happiest moment in ballet?

The whole experience, from first class to the latest and next one. There is no single happiest moment, because there have been so many!!!

20. Lastly, what would you like to be remembered for (can be anything! from words, to character, to attitude, to allegro, to being an amazing dancer) in the ballet community?

Some of Pointe Til You Drop’s followers/readers have said that my posts have either inspired them to start ballet, or to continue with their classes. I’d like to be remembered for that :).

After class, wearing my floral print Balletlove skirt.
Sorry for the less-than-sharp mirror selfie, but there was no one else left to take the pic ;) also asked if I'd like a freebie ballet skirt and leotard. No strings attached, but they would appreciate my feedback. I said yes, of course. Some time later, I received a beautiful black leotard with mesh sleeves, and a floral print skirt. Unfortunately, the leo was too small for me, so I handed it over to a young friend who's also a dancer-in-training. But the skirt has been a nice change from my usual black! 

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, ...