Reality check

Recently, life has taken a tumble. I graduated, all in one piece, so maybe I should be happy. I moved back in with my parents to hunt for jobs and eat noodles. Unfortunately, ballet has gone on hiatus. And I don’t know how long I’ll stay away. Right now, I also have an injured right foot. It’s an old stress injury that won’t heal. No one knows what its problem is, but I guess it just can’t take the stress that my weight places on it.

I wish I could write more about dance and of course dance, dance, dance! But for now, it’s just the sofa and the cold summer rain.

blackswan

Source (click on image)

 

The Caged Bird

Dance is the only art form that speaks of prayer and blasphemy in the same language.

Before time started ticking in atomic clocks and ancient animal debris fueled our hunger for travel and luxury, humans lifted their hands to the skies in ancient dance, a song to the gods, asking for good fortune, rain, a good harvest, a healthy child. Dance was the song, the medium of the prayer. It was the language of community, a public supplication to the god that breathed wind and rain and roamed the sky.

But time has changed and we have changed, as an organism, a culture, a mind. Nature has turned into steel and concrete canyons, thousands of reflecting eyes in which we see our fragmentation. The world has shrunk, but we’ve drifted apart, faster than the continents. We see each other not in the flesh, but in thousands of bits traveling through space in arteries of light. I am no longer eyes, body and touch, but an endless stream of updates, texts and instgrammed moments. I don’t know the side effects of this particular addiction yet. In time, we shall all know.

Somewhere along this endless stream chronicled as history, came along the French and the king in his mirrored hall, and harnessed dance, caught it, placed it in a cage with rules and obligations.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

writes Maya Angelou. She is not writing about dance, but the mind supplies the narrative even when it is uncalled for. I think of ballet as the caged bird, an ancient artform reborn with rules.

Somewhere along the road we began to think in dichotomies, in borders drawn on water: night and day, black and white, woman and man. Shimmering borders that seem absolute. Thus came also the arts of the mind: painting, literature, music and poetry and the art of the body: dance.

I was recently at a ballet recital. It was one of the “nude” ballets, that modern choreographers are fond of putting together and presenting to eager audiences. A man and a woman, in minimalist leotards, on a stage together. Bodies entwining. I am intrigued and ashamed. I feel that intimacy is violated in the dusky lights of the stage even though this is a performance. At the end I clap, with everyone else. The loud noise shatters the moment I want to savor, the moment when the danseur gently touched the hand of the ballerina, brushed her body. There is something that appeals to the very ancient part of my brain in that touch, in the close contact of hands and torso.

After the performance, I discuss something mundanely existential with a platonic friend. We dip into the dance performance of the evening. “That touch was…” I leave the sentence hanging between us. “ Carnal”, he says. The trill of the r hangs like an unpleasant expletive. As an afterthought, he hovers the bottle over my glass. “More?” “Sure”. Chiraz, when poured slowly, has an oddly seductive quality, the bruised grape blood flickering in the dim room. Carnal. Dance for years was among the persecuted art forms, forbidden, because it inspired lust and carnality. A blasphemy.

Somewhere, far below in the glass canyon between the two buildings, an ambulance wails. Someone is bleeding on a gurney beneath fluorescent lights. The body is so frail in these moments, when it hovers on the brink of death or on the brink of touch.

silver and exact

What bothers me is that I cannot see myself. Not in the way I see others. I cannot, to paraphrase Atticus Finch, walk in another man’s shoes, see the world how he sees it, feel the wind falling on his face, the sun shine on his arms, experience his joy and excitement. As a child, I used to look into people’s eyes. The polite thing to do, my mother said. I used to gaze into my mother’s hazel ones (so different from my washed out blue), but all I saw was my own face reflected in the retina. When I first heard the age-old adage, the eyes are the mirror of the soul, I always thought it meant that the eyes are the mirrors of the soul of the person we are looking at. Growing up I understood that the eyes of the other person are the mirror to our own soul.

So I stopped looking into eyes of others. Because in them, yet another mirror.

College was a kaleidoscope of human mirrors: professors, fellow students, boyfriends. Too many ways to see oneself, and one night, overwhelmed, alone and homesick, I, clutching a pair of worn out ballet slippers, went into the ballet studio. The lights had been dimmed. I lay on the cold Marley floor and mentally traced the patterns on the ceiling. In the mirror, I could find myself. I stood up and put on my slippers. Looking was easier than I thought.  In the mirror, I saw myself or perhaps a version of myself, someone who could only exist in this space and in this moment.  I prepared in fourth, good, old-school Vaganova fourth, and turned my half-formed pirouettes, until I was only a blur on the silver surface.

Dancing is a way of being blindfolded. Because when moving, when dancing, when pirouetting, looking at oneself from any angle is impossible. Perhaps that is what bothers me about dancing, and about ballet. The external mirrors that become the ultimate judge and executor, dealing sentences in harsh silvery light.

Some cultures believe that a mirror captures the soul. The eye of the little god, wrote Sylvia Plath. Once again the eye and the mirror are synchronized. Eyes are like mirrors. My mother’s eyes and my own acne-marked teenaged face rising from the black liquid iris. I have surely looked into the eye of this god for countless hours in the confined space that is the ballet studio. I have seen the reflection of other women and men, dancers whom I thought were superior to me. I wondered if what I saw in their reflection was what they saw of themselves. We were looking at the same image but from different worlds. “We see things not as they are, but as we are,” wrote Anais Nin, those tired heavy words tumbling into the world through her journals.

My mind and body have shared an uneasy space for many years. For those I refused to look into the mirror, for fear of finally knowing that this is how I am going to appear for the rest of my life. This is my body, the shape that I will live in. The only shape that I will live in. Ballet forced the confrontation of the two antagonists. The body that bluntly refuses the societal standards. The mind that aspires to conform to them. Even my numerous attempts to reduce the body to a starving saint of fashion have done little to melt away the mutinous mountains of fat. I feel their burning weight in the mirror of the ballet studio. It all  comes down to looking and seeing.

But dancing, in its purest, truest, brightest form (whatever that may be) is being blindfolded, oblivious to the shape, and open to the flow, for lack of a better word. I hold onto those moments like a child trying to hold a fistful of sand. I go back and back, back to the studio, back to the pain, and sweat and blood and tears, like a moth burning in the lamp on a warm summer night. Every step, every turn, a reclaiming of space. Am I body or a mind? Does it matter?

Taking class with Kathryn Sullivan

“Now you’re in New York!  These streets will make you feel brand new. Big lights will inspire you
Hear it for New York, New York, New Yooork!”

Okay, okay I better leave the singing to Alicia Keys, but let me tell you this song had been kicking around my head for ages. As an adult ballet hobbyist (dare I call myself dancer?), I have a love affair with New York City. Compared with the meager amount of classes available at my suburban college and the nearby metropolitan area, New York City seems like a ballet treasure box. There are ballet classes for every level, classes in Horton and other modern techniques as well as various floor barre classes. Every time I go to NYC to take a class I feel like a kid at one of those ice cream places that have every flavor imaginably.

Although NYC is a mere hour and a half (an hour if you afford the express train) away, going there is expensive and hence at most a once-in-a-semester thing. Since I was flying home from JFK, I decided to take advantage of the time and the fact that I was already in NYC, and take a class at Steps.

Yes, THE Steps School on Broadway.

I took an early train from suburbia and arrived in NYC at 8am. After some frantic dashing around Penn Station to find the right subway platform, I managed to land myself and my heavy bags at 72nd and Broadway. It was only a 2 minute walk from the subway station to Steps, but someone with my sense of direction is bound to get lost. Steps is located on the corner of 74th and Broadway (closer to 75th), but the entrance is neatly tucked away between two deli stores and easy to miss. So much so, that I walked around the same block five times before I finally noticed the narrow entrance leading to Steps.

The reception area was a beautiful, well-lit space. Two lovely receptionists helped me get my Steps card in order and gave me directions to the ladies’ dressing room. None of the classes had started yet, but through the open door of a studio I saw two tall, slender ballerinas (pros?) warming up. More dancers (those lithe swanlike creatures that seem to radiate gracefulness) were doing warm-up exercises in the hallway.

I was grateful the dressing room was empty. After seeing the swanlike dancers stretching in the hallway, this ugly duckling felt less than willing to undress (especially in the presence of those lithe bodies). I jammed myself into the only dance outfit I had packed for winter break (a black unitard…) and headed downstairs. The studio was located in the lower level of the building. My “excellent” sense of direction once again lead me on a small tour of the building that included a few empty staircases and a couple of fire exits, but in the end I managed to find the small studio.

Every time I go to a new dance school, I become frightened and anxious. Will I be able to keep up with the class I have chosen (the class levels and the labels vary from dance school to dance school so you never know what you’re getting)? What will the other dancers be like? Will I accidentally take someone’s barre spot? Barre spot territoriality is no joke, by the way. Take this from someone who has previously been angrily chased away by a ballerina when I came too close to her regular spot. So I huddled in the corner, while the other dancers took their places.  I had never seen Kathryn Sullivan-in a picture or in person-but I assumed that the lady standing by the piano was the famed ballet instructor. It turned out, I was correct. Ms. Sullivan-dressed in a green leotard and ballet slippers-turned out to be the rare kind of teacher who wants to know her students by name even if the student is just a mere drop-in.

The class started out with a facing-the-barre warm-up of the hips followed by a plié warm-up and two tendu sequences. I was pleasantly surprised by the flexed battement jette, which is done with a short staccato rhythm and is meant to build up the strength of the inner thigh muscle. The barre was much shorter than in Ms. L’s classes (Ms. L, my regular teacher, teaches only Vaganova) and I fumbled on the frappe (the bane of any ballet student, who has multiple teachers all teaching different schools of ballet).

The center adagio and jumps, however, was where the real beauty of Ms. Sullivan’s teaching style came through. She is one of those “no adult-ballet student left behind” teachers. The music will be stopped and Ms. Sullivan will go over the steps again and again until every student has a confident grasp of the material being taught.

After the last whirlwind of grand allegro, I was sweaty, happy and fulfilled. I desperately wanted to linger in the class, take a stretch or two and practice some pirouettes, but the students for the next class were already filing around the door. Sadly, it was time to go back up to the dressing room, pack up and head to JFK.

 

Looking for an Awesome Ballet Teacher

Wanted: a ballet teacher, preferably one who wants to teach adult beginners. Mandatory: giving a damn about adult beginners (at least occasionally) and  (at least occasionally) giving corrections and making sure that no one hurts himself/herself.

In ballet a good ballet teacher can make or break your “adult beginner career”. It’s the sad truth, but there is no other way to learn ballet other than by doing it. No amount of books or videos will equal the correction of an experienced former dancer/ballet teacher.  A good teacher will encourage the adult beginner, correct them and be patient when their adult bodies don’t bend to the strict requirements of ballet. When I started out in adult ballet, I used to think that most adult ballet instructors wanted to teach adult beginners, but as I’ve been exposed to more and more classes with different instructors, I’ve noticed that this is not always the case.

Some just don’t think adults should dance ballet. I honestly don’t care what teachers think about me or my wobbly pirouettes in private, but I do care whether they correct my mistakes. A while ago, I took a class with a wonderful teacher. He was extremely knowledgeable, enthusiastic and clearly a former pro. But he didn’t really care about sickled ankles and droopy elbows. Ignoring droopy elbows I can forgive, but ignoring sickled ankles is dangerous! Especially when every class is finished off with a fast choreography involving multiple pique turns and jumps.

A few years ago I did come across an Awesome Ballet Teacher (term courtesy of Bead109). Her name was G and she taught at the Big Dance School in the Small Northern Country where I grew up. What most struck about her teaching style was the personal relationship she developed with each student. Before class, she took five minutes to learn everyone’s name and ballet background. During class, she was never afraid to correct a student hands on, whether it be the ankles, the toes, the back or the position of the leg. She didn’t give out praise lavishly, but she always maintained that progress was possible as long as one worked hard. And it was okay to fail. It was okay to fall and get up.

G and all other Awesome Ballet Teachers are the people that make you love ballet, wait anxiously for every class and try your best at every exercise! If you haven’t found you Awesome Ballet Teacher, don’t settle, but keep looking. Having a great teacher can make ballet into a lifestyle instead of “just a hobby”.

Another ballet blogger shares her Awesome Ballet Teacher experience:

“About My Awesome Ballet Teacher” by Bead109

 

Ballet goals for 2013

The big five things to work on.

Work on a higher three-quarter pointe

I have a very stiff big toe joint, which makes my three-quarter pointe extremely low. I know I need to work on the flexibility of my joint, but it’s just so dang painful to stretch it.

More plié when jumping

This is a correction I am constantly getting in class. My jumps don’t have the catlike bounciness that makes grand allegro a joy to watch and I don’t have the strength required to complete long changement-echappe exercises.

Core, core and core.

You need it for high extensions, for pirouettes, for jumps, for adagio, for everything. So there’s no excuse not to do it.

Higher extensions

Yes, it won’t happen overnight, but it’s something to aspire.

Turnout

I won’t be vying for more turnout, but for more control over the turnout I already have, especially in grand battement and developpe a la seconde.

Pointe Dreams

I have been dancing ballet seriously (adult beginner seriously, not pro seriously) for a mere three years (it’s my fourth now), but I’ve been surrounded by the magic of ballet a lot longer. In fact, I can remember the precise moment when my obsession with this form of art began.

I was 5 or 6 and angrily demanding that my mother take me to ballet class. Unfortunately, being a single mother, she wasn’t always able to give me what I wanted, so instead my grandmother bought me a VCR of a 1968 performance of the Swan Lake by the Kirov Ballet. From the very first moment, when Odette, in her romantic flowing tutu, still in human form appears under that lone spotlight on the stage, I was enamored. In love with the beauty, the grace, the strength. For me, a pudgy, couch potato child reared on chocolate and hours of bad soap operas, it was unbelievable that a human body could be so graceful and strong, so beautiful and delicate. Part of the grace and delicacy of ballet is of course pointe work. A ballerina balancing on the very tip of her toes gives ballet an ethereal, weightless, floating feel.

I did eventually go to ballet class as a child, but I soon quit, because, sigh, of my pudgy body. To this day I regret that decision, but I digress. Back to pointe and the silly dream this adult beginner has of one day dancing on pointe.

Before I joined the web balletblogosphere, I was convinced that pointe was only for the pros in training and real ballerinas, not logshaped 20-somethings. But then I started reading blogs of other adult beginners. And it seems that pointe is indeed possible. Johanna from PointeTilYouDrop has detailed accounts of her experiences as an adult beginner learning pointe and so do many other bloggers. Not only are adult beginners embracing pointe as a part of their ballet practice, it seems that everyone ( in the blogosphere) is breaking in their pointe shoes within months or maximum a year after starting ballet for the first time. I know I don’t have a huge amount of years under my belt, but definitely more than a few months (hear the envy speaking…). I’m starting to think there is something wrong with my body. Being shaped like a huge piece of heavy timber sure doesn’t help with getting approval for pointe. But what is it’s something I can’t fix? What if it’s my appalling turnout? Or the fact that I cannot wing my foot and hence it looks sickled?

Of course one can advance to a very high level in ballet without ever wearing pointe shoes. You can be challenged every class even in soft shoes, but alas, it is the gracefulness, the feeling of being weightless that I crave.

Maybe one day… but in the mean time, let’s get back to those calf strengthening exercises.

I wanted to leave you with a video of the beautiful Swan Lake prologue in which Rothbart turns Odette into a swan, but it seems the more contemporary versions available on YouTube no longer incorporate the prologue. Luckily, they have the same scene (or nearly the same) as a dream sequence in the Black Swan.

Additional reading on adult beginners and pointe

So with this beautiful video, I wish you all a very merry and peaceful Christmas!