Too Fast, Too Furious (rant)

Warning: this post is rant-y and whiny. If you’re easily irritated by rants (don’t blame you at all if you are), don’t read it. My whining is really irritating.

You hope for it, you expect it, you know it’s impossible or nearly so, but still there is a glimmer of a chance. And then that much anticipated thing does not come. Disappointment follows.

I’m now in a state of post-disappointment. For the whole beginning of the year, I anticipated moving to intermediate level. Last week, I finally worked up the courage and decided to stay after class and ask my wonderful ballet teacher if I could join the intermediate class just for a class or two, just to see if I can make it. But that day, my teacher did not start with the usual plies and tendus. Instead she wanted to talk about progressing in ballet. It appears that some students from the basic beginner class join the more advanced classes without having permission from the teacher. When the teacher asks them to drop back a level, these students take her recommendation as a form of personal criticism. Needless to say, I didn’t feel like presenting my question after her speech.

“This is not like school,” my teacher said as she surveyed her class. What she means by this, I assume, is that once you’ve been a year on a certain level, you don’t simply move up one grade like you do in school. “You might spend 10 years in basic beginner,” she said. I gulped. 10 years at the basic beginner level! Other, more experienced, ballet bloggers have told me this over and over again. The basic beginner level is one of the most important aspects of an adult beginner’s education. This is the level where you learn your tendus, fondues, grand battements and developpes.

I am under no illusion here. My extensions haven’t reached 90 degrees. I can’t yet quite hold my turn out during extension. I can’t manage a clean single most of the days. So I shouldn’t even aspire to be in the intermediate class. I know this.

And I’m lucky to be taking class at all. I should be grateful for the opportunities that I am given. Yet sometimes being a ballet student at the basic beginner level feels like slogging through thick melted rubber. You keep working and working and sweating and sweating. Exercise after exercise, class after class. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t make that arabesque higher or that shabby pirouette into a clean one. Sometimes you feel like for every step you take forward, you move ten steps back.

The frustration with being forever-basic beginner always begins in autumn, when new “graduates” from the absolute beginner level arrive. And then we have to start all over again relearning how to properly place yourself in a tendu, how to execute a fondue, how to do an arabesque. It’s all good review of course, and necessary.

After my class, it is time for the intermediate students to come in. Sometimes I watch as they do their across the floor series. Arabesque sautees, assembles, pas de chat. It’s like flying across the floor. I want to be there, in that class, flying across the floor. Johanna from PTYD helped me see this issue in another way. Being in the basic beginner level doesn’t mean you suck, it means you something to aspire to. And good things are worth the wait and the work, right?

It seems I’ve been having some kind of case of “Too Fast, Too Furious.” From  my one class per week as a beginner nearly three years ago, to more than four classes per week (unfortunately there are no more classes available at my level where I live), I feel like I’ve been speeding on the fastlane.  This insatiable desire to dance comes with a price (and  I’m not talking about the mountain of bills that my dance school sends me). In the past year, I’ve pulled my hamstring, injured my hip and had problems with my Achilles tendon. Some days I feel like taking of my ballet slippers and throwing them from the fourth floor of the studio and onto the head of a poor passer-by. Yet, I keep going, for those rare magical moments when the body, music and space become one.

If you made it this far, thank you for reading!

Slow as a Snail

Sometimes things don’t go as planned. You expect yourself to go forward, and yet here you are months later still spinning in the same spot, unable to move on. This summer marks the third anniversary of starting ballet. I expected to go on to the intermediate level this summer, but here I am still in basic beginner.

For a while there, I thought there was progress. But even after 3 years of being diligent (more or less), I still can’t do a decent single pirouette, do fast soutenus en diagonale or hold a decent attitude in center.  I guess this just goes to show that in ballet, you are never ready. There is always something to tweak, or correct. And really, that’s a good thing. Imagine, how boring it would be if after two or three years, you have learned everything there is to learn! Nevertheless, even keeping this in mind, it is easy to get frustrated. It takes a long time to establish a positive outlook in your mind, and a few negative thoughts can trump all of that progress in a span of minutes. Just a few days ago, I looked in the mirror while doing tendus en croix, and immediately one negative thought after another took root in my mind.

“Yeah, my butt looks awful in these pants.” “My turn out sucks.” “I should try to lose a few pounds of that stomach fat.”

You get the point.

I sulked for the rest of the class. What a waste of precious class time!

The next morning as I was jogging along the river that runs through the suburb I live in , I saw a snail crossing the road. It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen a snail, but it was one of those mysterious moments when something mundane turns into something almost allegorical. I stopped. There it was, bravely and fearlessly crossing the pedestrian road, slowly, but steadily and surely.

“Why can’t we be like the snail?” I thought. The snail might never make it to the other side of the road, but even so it goes on. And so should we, adult ballet beginners. Slowly. Steadily. One snail step at a time.

Reclaiming Space and Embracing the Cliche

Last week, I ran away from Camp Ballet, but just for an hour.

Modern class.

Basic Level.

I like ballet, because it is structured, organized and disciplined, but at times, it encourages harshness. It makes you turn to the mirror and seek out all the little (and big!) things that need fixing. In beginner and basic level classes, the amount of center work is limited due to time constraints (the class is on 60 min after all), and sometimes all there is to class is barre.Barre is important, perhaps the most important thing for the beginner student, but the habitual routine of plié-tendu-developpe at the barre shrinks one’s personal dancing space. Within weeks, the sense of space, the sense of freedom, the sense of flying through time deteriorates.

It happened to me. I unlearned moving in space. So yesterday, when the teacher showed her “little dance etude” as she called it, I stood watching with mouth open, in fear. All of a sudden, there was no structure; there was just legs and arms making shapes in space, moving across the floor, moving on the floor, whirling in space. The freedom was exhilarating. Moving in space is an entirely different thing.

But it is also a treacherous thing. The instructor encourages us to dance with feeling. What does she mean? What does it mean to dance with feeling? In ballet, movements do not have a predefined emotional structure (at least, in my opinion, but then again I’m no pro ballet dancer or dance critic).  What I’m trying to say (I guess…) is that an arabesque can be both and expression of grief and an expression of joy. It can be tragic or exuberant; the particular flavor is given to the movement by the choreographic context and the interpretation of the dancer. But an increasing trend in modern dance is to infuse everything with a sense of tragedy aka dancing out my broken heart.

If you’re brave enough to venture into the videojungle, you’ll find countless of examples of modern choreography that somehow involves grief, sorrow or loss. Not that this makes a choreography bad. Not  at all. It’s just that in a beginner class, it’s so easy to do the cliché without stopping to think: what does this piece truly mean to me?

Here are some modern/lyrical pieces set to popular songs

Almost Lover by A Fine Frenzy

Fragile by Delta Goodrem

I love the floorwork in this one…