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)

 

a dancer, more than any other human being

There is always an end in the distant future. It is almost 11pm. Classes are over, exams have been finished papers written. A thunderstorm is raging outside and I am trapped in the library , soaked completely wet and too scared to walk back to my dorm.

 

I haven’t written, danced or lived much during the past few months except for the routine things of classes, homework, dinner and lunch, a TV flick caught here or there. The truth is, all I have wanted to do is cocoon myself from the world. Endings, death, goodbyes, loss have all been present and at times I have felt at a loss. Loss of what to do or what to turn to. Dance, the ever healing presence of music and moving bodies, became a burden. So I stopped, slowed down, let time run around me like a river washing over.

Martha Graham once remarked,

”A dancer, more than any other human being,

dies two deaths:

the first, the physical when the powerfully trained body

will no longer respond as you would wish.

After all, I choreographed for myself.

I never choreographed what I could not do.

I changed steps in Medea and other ballets to

accommodate the change.

But I knew. And it haunted me.

I only wanted to dance.”

source

Her words have often been with me during this spring. I imagined the burden of knowing that one day the body will no longer be a fine tuned instrument. I imagined the coming of that realisation, that end.

I also imagined a world beyond my obsession with ballet. The mirrors that reflect all that beauty also reflect all of that which is vile and undesirable, both in the body and in the mind. I have sought escape from that.

I have been away from ballet for nearly two months. I have looked at my pink satin slippers lying on the floor, week after week untouched. I have put on weight again, so that black leotard will have to stay hidden.

And yet in one of the insomniac moments, I pine to live in the moment’s dream, extend myself if you will beyond the everyday, breathe and exhale the music.

Because moments are not everlasting.

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.

 

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.

Open and closed

My regular teacher Mrs. G is on summer leave, and we have substitute, the enigmatic Miss S. Miss S used to be a dancer with a big national ballet company. She is petite, molded from graceful turns, pliant, soundless jumps and a love for musicality. Before class, she stretches in an empty ballet studio, the music gently trickling from the stereo, the lights are turned off. The studio is plain and ascetic, filled by the presence of is this former dancer, clad in black teaching attire, stretching in the dim glow of the late afternoon. The moment is so translucent, devoid of worldliness, that students hesitate to go in.

Miss S has a very peculiar style. She begins her class by having students stand away from the barre, gently stretching their body, neck, head and ankles. The barre is light and focused on dancing instead of incessant technique drills. “Breathe,” she instructs us as we perform the final allonge in the plié series. Breathing brings an atmosphere of calmness, a finality before the arm settles into the lower preparatory position.

Last week, at the end of the plie section, Miss S gave a very interesting correction to a fellow dancer about her port de bras during dancing. “You are doing your movements very closed,” Miss S said and proceeded to demonstrate. When opening your arms from the first to the second in the port de bras, it is not merely a movement, but an opening with the whole upper body, chest, head and neck included. Even though you are exhaling at that same time, you have to think about opening. The way she demonstrates it is graceful, elegant and elevated, like the opening of a flower.

Closing also has its own accent. With a simple inclination of the torso, one can demonstrate so much, and it is the contrast between the open and closed poses that make a simple plié exercise truly breathtaking. Although, I was first put off by the light barre section and the warm-up exercises I considered odd, the amount of musicality and expression that Miss S teaches her students is absolutely astounding. I am happy to have had the privilege of taking Miss S’s class.

Beating the Ballet Blues

This should be an entry in Urban dictionary

ballet blues

n.  A state of disappointment and mild sadness regarding one’s progress and ability at ballet. Applies particularly to students who have begun ballet as adults

So you’ve got the ballet blues. How to beat it?

1.       Look at how far you’ve come.  Recall that wee, scared beginner who couldn’t do a proper plié and did not know what a battement tendu was? Look where she/he is now. Sometimes we get so engrossed by always going forward, always being better, jumping higher, being more flexible we forget how far we’ve come. Just two years ago I couldn’t do a decent tendu to the back in the center without completely falling over. Now I can at least get the leg a couple of centimeters off the floor.

2.       Read dance blogs.  Reading dance blogs by other adult beginners is a sure way to beat the Ballet blues. There are some inspiring individuals out there.
3.       Watch a full ballet. Even if there are no companies performing in your vicinity, you have an internet connection (I know you do, how else would you be reading this?). We adult beginners of post-YouTube world are lucky. There is such a wealth of performances available on YouTube, everything from contemporary ballet choreography to classical full length ballets. Here are some examples

 Swan lake (Svetlana Zakharova, Roberto Bolle)

Sleeping Beauty (Bolshoi, 2011)

The perfection of the pro dancers can be depressing, but watching them dance gives one something to aspire .

4.       Don’t compare yourself with other dancers in your class! This is a bad habit that I cannot seem to beat. You are dancing in your body, and you have your strengths and your weaknesses. Someone has high extensions, someone else is good at petit allegro. It’s just a fact. Work on  your weak points and take pride in your strengths.
5.       Read a ballet inspired novel. OK, there aren’t exactly a lot of them out there (at least that I know of), but there are some pretty good ones. I recently read Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay. It had some beautiful scenes from the life and training of a ballerina.
6.       Watch Dance Academy. This might work only if you’re a sucker for sappy teen rom coms, but this series actually gets me inspired to dance. Pst, it’s on YouTube.
7.       Watch pros train. These videos always inspire to get back into ballet, even when I feel like I totally suck.

A Day in the Life of a Ballerina
8.       Read and reread this gem of an advice. I hope the original poster doesn’t mind me copying it here, but there is no better way (or at least I can’t come up with one) to say it.

Now I have no natural talent for either dance or music, but I do have one talent that I’ve brought to both sport and dance. I just keep showing up. I’m a natural persister or plodder. And in persisting you let time work its magic. Your expectations surrender. You accept yourself for who you really are and the talent level you have. Yes, you want to improve, but more so you want to enjoy the moments you are in class, rehearsal or on stage. I don’t know that they ever go completely away, but bouts of dancer’s depression become fewer and fewer and last for shorter periods of time.

                                                                                                                                -Username “Garyecht” from this thread on the forum Ballet Talk for Dancers.

9.       Whatever you do, don’t quit!