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.

 

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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!

A recap of Fall 2012

Being a college student, my time is conveniently divided into semesters and quarters. The fall semester is short and sweet, punctuated by breaks and holidays, and a slow mellow transition from the hot last days of summer to a chilly, golden fall. That is, if you don’t take into account the stress, the endless piles (hah, almost spelled that as plies…) of homework, papers, projects. That being said, education is a privilege and I shouldn’t whine. But sometimes, just sometimes I wish that I was already done with this phase and out in the big world. Working a 9-5 job, shuffling papers. And dancing ballet.

Because when you are a student at a small college in the suburbs with nonexistent public transportation, paying skyhigh fees for tuition, books and room and board, ballet becomes a rare luxury. We do have a small dance program at the college, but there is only one class for each level, and the gaps between the levels are huge. For example, the intermediate level caters for people with 1-3 years of experience while the advanced level is for people who have danced pretty much their whole lives. Also every semester, the intermediate and the beginner level “start from the beginning”. So there is really no way for someone in the intermediate class to advance to the beginner class, unless one wants to jump into the deep end of the pool all at once.

Fall 2012 was kind of wishy-washy in terms of ballet anyway. In the summer I had a hamstring injury that came from overuse, and I wasn’t sure whether I could come to ballet at all. Luckily, the muscle felt better as August progressed and I was able to take my spot at the barre as classes started. It was the same class with the same instructor, but luckily, in ballet, one is never ready. There are always those extra inches to work toward with your extensions, more bounciness for those echappes and changements, double and triple pirouettes (I wish, sigh…). But two classes per week are just that. Two classes per week. It’s a welcome respite from the studying and problem sets, but it’s just “ballet” padding. No real progress is taking place. I sit and read other bloggers, who clock in astronomical ballet hours, 9-10 classes per week, take private classes and are on pointe within a year of starting ballet. I’m afraid pointe will always be a silly dream.  I have been an adult beginner for the past 3 years, and I haven’t even come close to being pointe ready or participating in recitals, or heck even making into the more advanced classes. There have been times when I’ve wanted to quit.

I do love ballet. For 90 minutes, twice a week, I get to be someone else, a shape in space intertwined with music and time. I can choose to have emotions, express them, be them. A pure fantasy world. But sometimes, I feel like I wasn’t meant for this (and you, know, I kind of wasn’t). My body is big, slow and lumbering, a log. The dancer I am in my mind never materializes in class.

But I will keep coming back. Coming back to the barre, to the studio, to the practice of discipline and dance. Even if the barre is just the back of the chair and the studio my small college room.

The first breath of dance

It’s been silent in this corner of the world wide web. It’s been silent in my dancing life, partially due to injury, partially due to dance burn-out (I didn’t think it could happen, but lo and behold, it did. There does exist such a thing as too much dance.) I spent most of the summer in my room, gazing outside as the arctic rain washed the window panes again and again. I spent countless hours in the offices of the orthopedists, the physical therapist and the osteopath. Most of them were not optimistic. And neither was I. I didn’t want to be optimistic. I felt like I had had too much dance. I danced through pain, illness and fatigue. I danced when I should have just sat back and let my body heal.

I promised that I would not go to ballet class this fall. I sat in my dorm room and watched as the clock crept toward 2 pm- the time at which the intermediate ballet class starts. I was wearing an old baggy t-shirt and worn-out running pants. 20 minutes until class starts- should I go or should I not go? 10 minutes until class starts- go, now, no, wait. 5 minutes- I dashed out of my room and grabbed a pair of ballet slippers on my way out.

In the studio, there was an assemblage of perfect leotards, tights and buns on perfect dancer bodies, and then there was me, my baggy t-shirt and running pants. But all of that didn’t matter.

Because as the music began, and the arm drew the first breath of the port-de-bras, everything else, but the purity of movement in time, ceased to exist.

An injury.

I’ve been sulking in my apartment for the past few weeks, because of a hamstring injury. The weather outside has been fitting to accompany my mood: brooding grey skies ready to unleash a cold, wet watery fury on the few brave people attempting to a have a summer picnic on the beach.

From the very beginning of my brief relationship with ballet, I have had problems with my legs. My hamstring, especially the top part of the hamstring tendon that attaches to the sitbone has been inflamed and irritated. The pain, a nagging literal “pain the rear” has been growing steadily worse and worse over the course of the year. I’ve been ignoring it, because of the fear that the imagined conversation that I keep replaying in my head will come true

Dr. Orthopedist: Well, well, what do we have here? You’ve injured your hamstring. Tell me, what is it that you do as a hobby?

Me: um, I take ballet lessons.

Dr. Orthopedist: *raises eyebrow*

Me: [in my mind] ok, ok, I’m not exactly your perfect ballerina body type.

Dr. Orthopedist: In light of your test results, I really recommend that you change to something more “suitable” for your adult body.

Someone will tell me I have to quite ballet. That’s what I was afraid of. And it seems that my stupid fear of facing the Dr. has really led to this nightmare coming partially true. Two weeks ago, I woke up in the morning, to find the sitbone area extremely sore. Even sitting on the chair was pain. After several futile attempts to ice the living daylight out of the area, I finally conceded defeat and signed up to see an orthopedist.

The gist of the meeting was clear. I have to take it easy. Start from scratch. Not even from scratch, from the “minus 5 level” [yes, those were the exact words of the Dr].

Dear blog readers, I apologize. I am not at my most eloquent right now (if I ever am eloquent). A blogger friend and fellow adult dancer, Lorry at Bead109, has written a beautiful account about her own experience with being injured as an adult. I really recommend her post.

Now, I’m going to get up and get some more ice for that hamstring.