Thursday, August 15, 2013

What Sends Grown-Ups to the Barre?

By Terez Mertes

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer, is a compulsively readable new novel that chronicles the lives of six precocious young people who meet as teens at a summer camp for the arts, back in the 1970’s. They dub themselves “The Interestings,” because that’s how they see themselves: bright, clever, full of artistic talent and urgency. The assumption between them, as well, is that with enough hard work and determination, professional artistic success will be theirs in adulthood.

But we adults all know what comes next. Wolitzer chronicles the characters’ lives through the next four decades, as the characters learn first-hand, some more than others, that what sets you on fire during adolescence and young adulthood often isn’t enough to sustain you beyond your twenties, much less your thirties and forties, no matter how compelling and special it—and you—seemed in earlier years. Only a few of the friends are allowed the luxury of actualizing their youthful vision, while the others are forced to adjust and re-define goals, ever haunted by “what once was,” and what will never be.

It’s a great read. I’ve long been fan of Meg Wolitzer’s writing, but this story resonated particularly with me, partly because that, too, defined my feelings throughout adolescence, through middle age. My own solution has been to write about the performing arts, and take ballet classes as an adult. And now I wonder about my comrades in ballet class, those other middle-aged adults I share a barre with. Do they share this, too—a sense that they once had an extraordinary streak in them, an artistic impulse, that might have gotten thwarted? A dream, perhaps, once-crushed and now renewed?

Here’s my own “thwarted” story: in my late teens, the fiery infatuation with ballet and the performing arts kicked into full throttle. During my university years I performed with a local dance company, an unforgettable experience with a wonderful group of like-minded people. We were a Tribe. We, too, were The Interestings. When I graduated from college, leaving behind company and country for a job with the Peace Corps in Africa, I fiercely told myself ballet wasn’t over. It couldn’t be. I harbored no further illusions about being a performing arts professional, but, at the least, I felt assured of a lifelong nourishing relationship with ballet. There in provincial Africa, I still clung to my ballet practice, stretching and giving myself a comprehensive barre twice a week. I did so without fail throughout those two years. Back home, in the Midwest, I eventually took on a salaried job, unrelated to the arts. I lived too far away to return to my former company and dance companions, but found, instead, a well-regarded local studio with strong ballet classes and a solid following. But the magic, unfathomably, began to slip away. Even during class, I started to feel hollow, bereft. I remained an outsider in this studio, a stranger, even after a year. Class became something to dread at the end of a long, hard day of work. Yes, I could have found yet another studio. But something else was dying, that little frisson of well-being, the voice that whispered to me that ballet would always be there for me, nourishing my soul. One day it left and never came back. When, a few months later, I was promoted and relocated to California, I said goodbye to family and ballet alike. Out with the childish dreams and illusions. Moving on. I had a real job now, responsibility, I told myself. A real life; an adult’s life.

Over the next several years I grieved losing ballet, even as I scorned it. It was like mourning a true love who went on to be more faithful to someone else. For a long spell, I couldn’t watch a ballet performance, even though now I could well afford the tickets. It hurt too much. Besides, I told myself, that was the past. Like the characters in The Interestings who’d been forced to move on, I’d done just that.

And yet, if the urge is inherent in you, you can’t just push it away. It will return, again and again. And for me, it did. For a while, I ignored it. But a few years later, when parenting clogged up my life, pushed me even further from a nourishing, self-absorbing artistic place, I finally understood that it was time to take back what I could. Anything I could. Without it, without art in my life, the flickering candle flame inside my soul would go out.

And so I went back to ballet.

And I found a home again.

We grown-ups at the barre all fall into one of a few categories. There are those like myself, who danced when we were younger, stopped for a while, and understood, only later, that we needed to return. Others of us are there because we didn’t do it when we were younger, due to circumstances beyond our control, even though we’d longed to. Then there is a third category, those who never even considered doing it in their youth, due to other obligations, or body type, or gender, and now, in this more evolved, actualized adult state, we realize that no one is going to stop us, or harshly judge us, or point and snicker. A powerful understanding kicks in: as an adult in a recreational ballet class, anything goes. Anything. How liberating.

When I admit to people that, not only do I take a ballet class, but I take violin lessons as well, as an adult beginner, many of them share a common reaction. Their eyes will widen, they’ll cock their heads at me and say, “Omigosh. How interesting.” They sound both confused and impressed. Because, of course, this is the kind of thing a kid does. Not the mother of a kid. Not a middle aged adult who should be beyond that.

Oh, thank goodness for the impulse we adult recreational dancers have, to keep life interesting and dynamic through and beyond middle age. I do believe it would make the perfect epilogue to Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings. And truly, nothing, to me, is more interesting than an adult who has wised up, suffered setbacks, battled loss and disillusionment, and has returned to address and conquer a dream, be it a long-held one, a brand new one, or even an unnamed one. We grown-ups at the barre are The Interestings, indeed.

Terez Mertes blogs at Classical Girl.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Recording your progress and your journey: Keeping a dance journal

Ballet is a journey of incremental advances and long plateaus.  We work and advance, but how do we know that we're making progress in the absence of levels, grades, exams, or other concrete assessments?  Some adults do take RAD or Cecchetti or other prescribed ballet exams, but for most adult dancers, taking the measure of one's dancing is not so obvious.

I was inspired to write this after reading a blog post by adult dancer Reece at Dancing Over The Hill (a regular read on my internet wanderings),  who touched on the very valid question of what are the "performance metrics" for adult dancers:

How do you measure improvement? Shouldn't there be some sort of performance metrics, for without them how am I to know if I'm improving?

In pilot training, all a student has to do is look at his (or her) older logbook entries to recall what he was working on, and how those things that used to cause such trouble no longer seem challenging. What do we have in dance?

A couple of things in Reece's post resonated with me, including seeing my own improvement when I went back to a class I hadn't been to in a long time and found that the previously baffling combinations made sense.  But what really struck me was the mention of a pilot's log book as a record of work and improvement, which has a parallel known as the dance journal/notebook. :)

I always keep a small spiral notebook with me, usually one with a fun cover, lined pages, and a spiral binding that I found at a bookstore, discount mart, or sidewalk sale.  I use this notebook to jot down my observations and impressions of each dance class as well as note particular combinations I want to remember or work on, steps or jumps that I want to look up in my technique books or find on the internet, and personal or group corrections that I want to put in the front of my mind.  One of my weekly classes is an adult syllabus class in a program that consists of progressive levels.  Each of the discrete terms in a given level builds on the terms and levels that precede it, and I have found it is quite helpful to note what we're working on from week to week to be able to see the links and small improvements.

For example, in this class, we do a new barre every three weeks or so, which means that the first week is spent getting a feel for the new exercises, which often have a theme (weight transfers, changing accents, port de bras, foot articulation, etc) that supports a particular quality or skill that our instructor wants us to concentrate on.  The second week we try to improve and brush up the same exercises, and then in the third week, we really polish them and put forth our new and improved effort.  I find that if I make notes of each 3-week theme, particular exercises I found challenging, imagery or explanations that clicked, or places where I noticed a significant difference on one side vs. another, I remember more from week to week, and if I review my notes before the next class, I'm primed to focus on my areas for improvement.  We also work on a particular set of centre exercises for 3-week periods: centre practice (port de bras, tendus/degages, positions of the body, weight transfers, etc), an adage sequence, an en diagonale waltz/pirouette sequence, petit allegro, and grand allegro.  I write down as much of these exercises as I can remember after the first class and jot them down with question marks or spaces indicating where I realize I need to fill in the gaps.  By the second week, I know exactly where the blank spots are, and I can work on filling them in/writing them down in my dance notebook so that by the third and final week, I have them fairly well internalized.  My ability to absorb and remember longer sequences of choreography has improved since I began taking notes/reviewing notes/revising notes in my dance notebook.

It is also very helpful to see the patterns of mood, energy, and motivation that I see recorded over time in my dance journal.  Some days are magical, and when I have a good class, it's clearly evident in my notes.  The bad days I see now as just part of the journey; they happen, but they are part of the learning process. Sometimes there's a reason, sometimes it's just random, but a good day will eventually come along if I keep going to class!  I've also noticed that what started out as strictly a "dance journal" has morphed into my "everything journal" where I jot down many other things as they happen, like workouts, observations about how I feel that day, a stretch I saw someone doing after class that I want to try, things that affect my mood, things I'm thinking about on a given day…dance helps me express myself in a myriad of ways.  Looking back over a month or a couple of months or even a year of notes, I'm shocked at how many classes I did, how many improvements I've made, how my corrections have evolved, and just the arc of my progress in ballet and my experience of myself.

The pursuit of adult ballet is truly a journey and not a destination.  If you haven't tried it, consider starting a dance journal. Don't stress about what you should write down or why or how you should say, just DO IT: get a notebook and start making any type of notes about your dancing…I predict you'll be hooked and discover a new avenue of self-expression and a way of tracking your progress.

Happy dancing and consider taking time to record YOUR personal journey :)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Another wonderful thing about ballet: Comfortable silence

One side of my family is of Finnish origin (a heritage I share with Johanna of Pointe Till You Drop).  My grandparents emigrated to North America (Canada and the U.S.), and I grew up immersed with many transplanted aspects of Finnish culture.  One is an appreciation for a good Finnish sauna, the kind with a wood-burning stove that produces sizzling steam when you throw water on the lake stones piled on top (a dry and stuffy hot room at the gym is NOT a real sauna!).  Another is a love of good strong coffee (the Finns drink more coffee per capita than any other nation).  And one of my very favourites that I have come to cherish more and more as a busy adult is the concept of comfortable silence.  For Finns, "silence is cozy, restful---even fun*", and periods of silence are not awkward pauses to be filled with idle chatter and small talk.  In North America, it seems that silence is something suspicious to be banished or avoided, and I will never get used to the tendency to fill every gap with some noise. 

Yes, there IS such a thing as awkward silence, such as the kind that occurs at business dinners with strangers, contentious family events, or other situations with a tense vibe where everyone is painfully attempting to keep the mood light or desperately reaching to find common things to keep the conversation going, but "comfortable silence" is something that you share with close friends and loved ones, where you can be in the same room, sitting on the same couch, engaged in separate activities but feel no need to speak or fill the silence because you just appreciate the cozy company and the peace.  I experience this with my immediate family members, a few close friends, and my partner…and also, in ballet class! 

I love the fact that ballet is mercifully nonverbal.  After a day filled with words, including presentations, work meetings, status reports, emails, phone calls, manuscripts, memos, and so on, I love the absence of words in the studio where the teacher's instructions, the pianist's music, and the quiet brush and soft landings of ballet slippers are the only sounds.  Sometimes I feel like walking into the studio is like entering a church or a monastery, where actions truly speak and words are insufficient.  It's a contemplative time where my thoughts, energies, and emotions can turn inward, and I can enjoy the presence of my classmates doing the same in comfortable silence. :)

I thought about this today while I basked in the peaceful work and comfortable silence in the ballet studio.  I hope you feel it too and incorporate a little comfortable silence in your own lives :)

*Quoted from a book on how to do business in Finland, called "Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf", by Richard D. Lewis.