Monday, September 1, 2014

How to find, survive, and enjoy drop-in ballet classes whilst away from home

It's been a long while since my last post, but it's a realistic function of good and not-so-good things, including work changes/life changes, family events, injuries/illness, and a little bit of travel.  I've been travelling for work, pleasure, and necessity off and on over the past year and have enjoyed taking ballet classes in different places to keep up my technique, to experience the variety of classes, and just have some active fun!  What follows is a overview of the best (and worst) of my experiences and my tips for braving the barre in new locations :)  Please add your own tips and observations in comments...I'm looking forward to hearing about others' experiences as well.

Finding ballet schools/classes:
I usually start with a Google search and also ask my various classmates, friends (online and real life), and teachers for recommendations.  In major cities, there are usually many classes available but in smaller locations, the choices may be limited or nonexistent.  I also look at ballet message boards, blogs, and forums because these resources often contain reviews and tips, but ultimately, I've ended up picking classes based on convenient locations and schedules.

Selecting a class level:
First of all, wherever you go in the world, the structure and vocabulary of ballet class is similar. Barre is the same sequences of familiar exercises and the French terminology and "hand marking" or miming of exercises is fairly easy to follow even in a country where you don't speak or understand the language very well (or at all!)  However, when dropping into a classes on a short-term basis, I recommend looking at the levels offered and  descriptions given and choosing a class that looks like it may be slightly below your regular class level.  The reason for this is that each school, class, and teacher will have a somewhat unique style that will most likely differ from your familiar and comfortable classes and instructors at home. As most teachers tend to repeat similar barre exercises or centre combinations based on their personal preferences and style,  it usually takes a few go 'rounds of a class to pick up the "flavour"  and get a feel for the rhythm and style of the instructor.  If you only take one class, it's much more enjoyable and productive to be able to easily follow along and work on your technique instead of mentally and physically (and emotionally) struggling to absorb an unfamiliar set of exercises on the fly. You may be shocked at how much your usual classes have been absorbed into muscle memory and find that your body wants to do it "your usual way" when confronted with a different port de bra or a barre exercise with a new pattern.  The challenge can be refreshing, if that's what you're looking for, or it can be overwhelming.  If in doubt, start low and work your way up the levels to find the right fit.  I've found that emailing or ringing up the studio to ask about levels or inquiring at the front desk or before classes can be very helpful.  The names and numbering of class levels cannot be directly compared as Level 1 at one school may be more advanced than Level 3 at another (not exaggerating!0.  The studio may have the option of taking only the barre portion of class (helpful if you are limited on time or are apprehensive about the level and just want to try the barre portion) or may only offer the entire class (though you may always leave between barre and centre after thanking the teacher and perhaps offering a brief explanation for why you are leaving; a simple "Thank you for class. I'm sorry I can't stay" is sufficient).

Arrival and pre-class:
Map out and plan your directions and leave time for getting lost on the way to the studio.  Try to arrive a bit early to ask questions, register/pay, and find the changerooms and studio where your class will be held.  In new class situations, I always dress conservatively in a dark leotard, pink or black tights/leggings (the adult dancer's best friend), and a ballet skirt, with my hair in a very tidy bun and light makeup and no jewelry except for small earrings.  A clean and tidy presentation sends the message that you are a serious ballet student who knows what is expected in class.  I like to pick a place to stretch and warm up in an area where I can watch other students arrive and take their usual places at the barre (many dancers are rather territorial and protective of their "usual spots"), but when it gets close to class time, I look for an unoccupied area of the barre where I have room to move and can see the instructor at the front of the room.  Simply asking the dancers around you if this spot is free usually will garner some good advice or assurances.

When the instructor is ready to begin class, you should be standing and ready for the teacher to give any introductions or explanations and to show that you are focused and ready to work.  It's always good form to begin and end an exercise with the correct preparatory and ending positions, which shows attention to detail and good discipline by being ready to start and finishing neatly no matter how the exercise went.  If the barre exercises are confusing, you can always adjust on your own by simplifying: keep your arm in second if the port de bras are complicated, do exercises or balances on flat instead of releve, do a balance in retire instead of a turning at the barre, etc., but try to retain the basic structure of the exercise (i.e., tendus en croix) so that there is no danger of colliding with the dancer in front or back of you and also out of respect for the teacher who set the exercise.  In general, both in barre and in centre, you should strive to do the exercise to the best of your ability in whole or in part, even if it's just the legs or just the arms, as long as you keep moving and stay out of the way of other dancers.

Centre exercises and order may be very different than those you are used to.  It's helpful to find an open spot towards the back of the pack at first where you can watch the regulars but still see the instructor.  The instructor may often rotate lines and you may end up in front, but if you are very unsure or uncomfortable with the centre exercises, you may discreetly stay to the back unless it is a very small class in which it would be quite noticeable.  When the centre exercises begin to travel across the floor, you may want to head towards the back of the pack to watch the previous groups and mark the combination in order to pick up the exercises more completely.  When going across the floor, maintain adequate space amidst the other dancers in your group and make sure you keep moving with them; even if you lose the combination completely, keep moving in rhythm and try to do something, even if it is the arms and head.  Always start and finish every combination.  Even if you are lost or make a mistake, the discipline of ballet requires that you finish it with as much poise as you can (even if you simply walk in rhythm with the music), which also reduces the risk of collisions or getting in the way of other dancers. Don't stop or duck out in the middle of the diagonale because it may create a danger to the other dancers and quite frankly, is rather bad form.  You can also simplify exercises to a certain extent (keeping the arms in demi-seconde, putting the hands on the hips and concentrating on the feet, performing balances in instead of pirouettes, etc). In fact, knowing when and how to simplify without getting flustered shows maturity and savvy that reflects well on you as a dancer.  If any of the exercises are so unfamiliar that they are beyond your present skills or physical capabilities, you can discreetly stay to the back and mark as much as possible.  Again, this demonstrates both good judgement and discipline.

After class:
There may be formal reverence or simple applause for the instructor and accompanist.  Thank your instructor for the class and the accompanist for the music on your way out of class.  Again, this shows good manners and discipline as well as appreciation.

Most of the classes I've attended while visiting many different cities have been very good and were at least enjoyable.  Occasionally, an instructor might offer an insightful correction or give an explanation that is a revelation.  I've also attended some adult ballet classes that were truly dreadful, with exercises that were not appropriate to the level of the students, instructors who offered very little teaching or skill development, or were more of a ballet-inspired fitness class than a classical ballet class.  

Sometimes it can be a refreshing change to view ballet class from a completely different perspective, from a teacher who is different than your usual teachers, with people who have no preconceived notion of who you are and in an environment that encourages risk taking and freedom...after all, you may never see these people again, so who cares about your mistakes or weaknesses!  Especially when one is in a bit of a funk or has hit a plateau, it can be easy to sink into complacency and lack of inspiration, but a change is sometimes as a good as a rest, and a chance to dance as if it doesn't matter is sometimes a freeing experience.  Taking a drop-in class in a different place bit of a gamble, but most of the time, you win!  :)

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 :)