Monday, October 29, 2012

Life lessons from ballet class: It's not how you look, it's how you dance!

We all do it to some extent: you walk into that adult ballet class, look around for an unoccupied space at the barre, and notice the other people warming up while you make inner assessments of who "looks like a dancer."

"That woman in front of me, with her sleek French twist and sinewy arms, is surely a brilliant dancer. The one to my right – I sneak a look at her as I stretch out over my legs – is arching her back, and between her shoulder blades I can see the tiny bumpy ballet muscles sitting just under the skin. I feel instantly intimidated, and make a mental note not to stand next to her at the barre. Comparison is the thief of joy, and if I dance next to these women, I’m going to get mugged."

But this wonderful article by Chloe Angyal sums up the honest truth: looks can be deceiving and simply because someone does or doesn't "look like a dancer" doesn't mean a thing once the music starts and the bodies of all shapes, sizes, and ages start moving.

"In the classes I take in New York, there are women who are shaped like dancers, all lean and long and willowy. When they walk into the studio, my instinct is to feel instantly intimidated. But then they start moving, and they’re totally outclassed by the chubby woman next to them. She doesn’t look like a dancer, but she has ten times the grace and strength they do."

If you or anyone else you know has felt intimidated or uncomfortable with the idea of trying a ballet class or any other dance/exercise class, this article states what many of us in the grown-up ballet community know from our own experience: it's not what you look like, it's how you move and how you feel.  One of the most naturally beautiful movers I have ever seen in an amateur dance class was a middle-aged woman who otherwise would never be mistaken for a dancer; she was nearly completely invisible until she started to dance, and then no one in the room could take their eyes from her...she had that intangible ability to transform through her movement. Models look stylish when they are posed artfully and statically in front of gorgeous backdrops after hours of professional styling, but a dancer can look fluid, graceful, and otherworldly simply by moving across the floor of a stark empty room in her practice clothes regardless of her age, height, weight, build, body shape, skin color, hairstyle, etc. if she has movement quality and embodies the inner joy that dance seems to impart.

Angyal also extends this lesson from ballet class and challenges us all to examine how we make assumptions about a person's appearance, our own included:

"We live in a culture where body size and shape are considered indications not just of what a person can do, but what he or she is worth. We see a slender woman and see discipline and fitness. We see a fat woman and see greed and illness. It’s a snap judgment we make, one we rarely stop to evaluate. It’s also often wrong. 
The truth is, you can’t know much about a person just by looking at them. You can't know much until you let them dance."

Read the entire article's a good one:

Happy dancing and enjoy the movement :)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Lessons about Ballet Class: How to NOT get Kicked in Class

Learning ballet is not only about pirouettes and jetes.  Ballet has been around for over 300 years, that's a lot of tradition. There's so much to learn in ballet class and hopefully your teacher began your training with an understanding of balletiquette and an understanding of how ballet class works, since its pretty much the same deal all around the world. But it seems to me that a lot of people didn't get the 411 from their teachers on how to work in a ballet studio. So here is some info on where and how to stand and space yourself in ballet class.

I am not alone in ballet class, you are not alone in ballet class, we are in this together. Let's all remember this "togetherness" at the barre and in center. Seriously, ladies and gentlemen, this is really important! When you settle into your place at the barre, please take the time to space yourself out well. If the class is really full work this fact into how you take up your space. No one wants to kick someone and we, none of us, wants to get kicked! Honestly, getting kicked with a wicked grand battement could be truly dangerous! In center, things can get even more hairy! Not only could you get kicked or whacked but you could end up ballet road kill by some ballet pile up and traffic jam! Sometimes my ballet teacher will take a moment to space us out. It was his job to teach us how to do it as brand new-ballet-bies. But really, guys, it's part of our job now. Perhaps your teacher does the same, or maybe you've got a teacher who let's you figure it out the hard way, with a few bruises. But we waste precious ballet class minutes when the teacher has to take the time to arrange us into lines like, um... a real ballet class or when we wander about trying to figure it out. I'm in a real ballet class and so are you, so let's do this right. Even in those times that I am blessed by the ballet gods with five or six classes in a week, I still don't want to waste a second of it on things that we shouldn't even have to think about anymore. I'm very sure that you feel the same way.

Here are some rules and tips:

1.              It is your responsibility to make sure that you are not going to get kicked.
2.              Be responsible and make sure that you are not going to kick anyone... if the class is really full, turn into the barre in order to make any grand movement backward. If you are unaware of how to do this correctly, ask your teacher.
3.              Do not spread  your stuff out under the barre to take up more than your share of barre space. Honestly, that's just rude.
4.              Look around and adjust your use of space to the space available.
5.              I know you like your little piece of heaven (your own personal private claimed barre space) but be prepared to move if you have to... consider it a challenge to try a different place at the barre and in the studio.
6.              There should be straight lines in center - straight lines.
7.              The rows in center should then be staggered so that everyone can see themselves in the mirror.
8.              Ballet class is old school. Boys in the back, please.
9.              Do a little test motion with your arms and legs and make sure you have enough space to move them about... but...
10.           Don't be a space hog in a crowded class, place yourself in accordance with how many people are in class and the available space for everyone.
11.           The front line should be in front, make sure that the line is moved up enough to make room for the rows in the back.
12.           If a combination is traveling, the whole class should move the straight lines over to make room so that everyone can travel in the correct direction. So, for example,  if the exercise is going to travel to the right, everyone move over to the left to start, that way no one ends up going into a barre, wall, or mirror.
13.           Line up for exercises that are going to travel across the floor. Bunches and gaggles of ballerini are not lines, they create confusion from the get go. Again, ladies first. I didn't make the rules, it's just the way that it is.
14.           Get ready to go. If you aren't ready to go, get out of the way and let someone else go.
15.           If you are dancing with the music, you should not be causing a traffic jam by either going too fast or too slow, if you are creating a bottleneck or running over people, listen to the music and speed up or slow down accordingly. Just because you can go fast, doesn't mean that you should.
16.           If you don't know what you are doing, just keep going! Walk it through if you have to. You cannot stop in the middle of the floor - well, you can, but you shouldn't. Please don't. Please.
17.           You are a grown up. You don't have to do anything you don't want to. If you want out, just step to the side.
18.           If the exercise is going to be repeated, hustle and get back in line! There is no meandering in ballet class. NO MEANDERING. Wandering about is a waste of time and energy. Keep your energy up by moving.
19.           In exercises that move downstage, travel in your lines. The same rule about dancing with the music applies, the lines should be moving in unison. If you aren't, speed up or slow down, the music will tell you what to do.
20.           When dancing downstage and you arrive at the front of the room, peel off in the direction closest to you and get back in line. The no meandering rule still applies.

Let's keep ballet class safe by being conscientious ballet students. When we all feel safe and respected, we can concentrate on having fun and dancing! I think that one of the great things about learning ballet is to be found in the studio experience. I love being with my fellow ballerini! Watching us all learn and grow together is truly exciting. I love to see my ballerina friends do something awesome in class and when we dance together it's positively thrilling. The next time you are in class at the barre take a minute to listen to the brushing of the flatties against the floor - all in unison - its really beautiful. Think about how cool it is when your whole line dances across the floor together - like swans or shades - well, okay, probably not nearly as cool as that but hey, we can dream and a line in unison is still way, way cool. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

100 Reasons To Study Ballet: Part 1

If you are one of the many adult ballet students around the world, you have probably been asked the question "Why?" with the implied or spoken questions of age, utility, safety, use of time/money, you name it. I suppose I understand the puzzlement; until I started ballet, I had no idea that people did ballet for fun in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond! Why study ballet? Well, the flippant answer is "Why NOT?", but to dig deeper into this topic, I used a simple but powerful brainstorming tool, The List of 100, as described at this website:

Over a year ago, I made my list of 100 reasons to study ballet during a time when a lot of changes were going on in my life, both personally and professionally, and I was enmeshed in introspection and examination of priorities and motivations. I made this list, jotted down on a couple of sheets of notebook paper, and then promptly stuck it in a desk drawer where it sat until I happened upon it during a fit of spring cleaning last week. Let me tell you, GUB friends, re-reading that list was a revelation and a resonance…just about everything I had written down on that list was validated by my dance experience or had rung true to me at some point during the year that had lapsed, making it seem nearly prophetic (to my great delight). And so I will share with you my list of 100 and some short thoughts on each in manageable chunks over a series of posts.

So without further ado, here is Part I, the first 20 reasons why you or anyone should study ballet (and I'd love to hear your thoughts and your own reasons in comments!).

  1. Exercise: Ballet is certainly good exercise, from the thigh-burning slow grand plies and controlled adages to the brisk petit allegro and flying leaps of grand allegro. And it's tons more fun than the gym!
  2. New challenge: I had never done any kind of dance as a child or an adult. I had watched ballet, but the extent of my knowledge were the words "plie" and "pirouette", so I knew I was embarking on a formidable task and jumping into unknown territory. However, I like taking on things that are difficult; as Johanna has said, "It doesn't get any easier, you just get better!"
  3. Enjoyable music: Though I hadn't studied dance, I had been subjected to years of piano lessons and band/orchestra. I hated practicing and recitals, but I loved classical music and the orchestral music that accompanies ballet.
  4. Athletic skill: A lifetime in sports and athletics had given me a good level of fitness and excellent body awareness, two things that certainly came in handy for learning ballet. The blend of artistry with athleticism is one of the qualities that makes ballet unique in the performing arts and I wanted to get a taste of that myself.
  5. Spatial ability: Although I had developed spatial ability in sports and the study of mathematics, the spatial ability required in ballet was new, especially the concepts of "self space" (the bubble around you) and "stage space" (how you and your bubble fit into the larger space).
  6. Brain work: The amount of brain work and concentration required for ballet is astounding. From trying to remember a tricky combination to building the ability to make your arms and legs do two completely different things simultaneously, ballet requires you to use all your powers of concentration and focus.
  7. Grace: Gracefulness has never been one of my strong points; I figured that studying ballet could only help me in that regard, as I had always admired the poise, carriage, and grace of dancers. Grace is defined as "seemingly effortless beauty or charm of movement, form, or proportion", which immediately comes to mind, but another definition, "a temporary immunity or exemption; a reprieve", was revealed to me when I found that no matter what stresses, moods, or anxieties I brought with me to the studio, once class began, it all fell away as I immersed myself in the mind and body work, leaving me refreshed, lightened, and literally in a state of grace when I left class :)
  8. Posture: This was the most immediate and most noticeable outcome of my foray into ballet. Friends, family, and acquaintances all remarked on my much improved posture. As a tall and awkward kid, I had learned to slouch and slump, and years spent at university and at work hunched at a desk or in front of a computer had only contributed to my bad habits. Ballet makes you ultra-aware of your spine and skeleton and keeping everything lined up and vertical, supported by the core and finished off with a lifted gaze.
  9. Emotional outlet: This was another surprise that went along with 6. and 7. I did not expect that ballet and dance would be such a wonderful way to process, direct, and express my inner emotional state, to channel all that I felt and internalized, all thankfully without requiring words.
  10. Musicality: Learning to take the music and use it to give meaning to the movements and vice versa is a skill and a treat. Having a live pianist play exciting and gorgeous music just begs you to lose yourself and really dance those steps.
  11. Interpretation: Those ballet movements have a history, starting with court dances and manners of the nobility, and then the story and the choreography adds another layer, and finally, the dancer his/herself adds to the rich meaning of a simple offering of a limb or graceful bending of the body. Adding interpretation to the steps gives dance it's life and power. Whenever I get a little glimpse of that during a good day in class, it gives me chills!
  12. Sense of rhythm: One of my instructors challenges us constantly with new rhythms: counting in 5s or 9s, asymmetrical phrases, syncopation, emphasising certain beats, all of which develop a new appreciation for and mastery of rhythms.
  13. Group activity: Ballet class can be social! The shared experience of working hard, mastering complex movements, sharing tips on ballet shoes and dance wear sales, and sweating in summer/freezing in winter in the studio together makes for good camaraderie and inspiration.
  14. Make new friends: Although talking in class is discouraged, chatting with classmates before and after class has expanded my circle of friends and put me in contact with a larger group of people than I encounter in the rest of my work and home life. Contrary to the stereotype of snooty ballerinas, adult ballet students are a quite friendly and welcoming group. We encourage each other and laugh together and sweat together. I look forward to seeing my "barre buddies" and I like that I feel accountable to them as well as to myself for showing up and giving each class my best effort.
  15. Step out of my comfort zone: This was true for me in so many ways. I'm an introvert. I was never a centre-of-attention person, I have a phobia of performance in front of people, I hated the thought of being stuck in front of a wall of mirrors, I didn't think I was particularly graceful or had a ballet body, I was afraid I would be awkward and awful and everyone else would be sylph-like and skilled, but the more I came to class, the less weird it seemed and the less self-conscious I was until one day I realized that the dance studio had become a place where I felt at home and was proud to take my turn in the front line.
  16. Have a routine: I like a lot of structure in my daily life (as long as it is self-imposed and not externally imposed) and the weekly schedule of regularly occurring ballet classes gives me a set of anchoring points around which I arrange the rest of my activities. When I travel or go on vacation, I try to find a drop-in class not only so that I can stay in shape but also to carry a little bit of my happy routine with me.
  17. New outfits: Taking ballet class means new additions to the wardrobe, from your first soft slippers and yoga pants to leotards and tights, and maybe even pointe shoes and tutus. I'll never be a fan of pink (it clashes mightily with my olive skin tone), but I have learned to be more comfortable in form-fitting dance wear and see it and myself as functional AND decorative. I now have a drawer devoted to tights of various colours, styles, and fabrics, and another drawer of leotards in jewel tones with interesting backs.
  18. Historical link: Ballet is so rich in history, both its own history beginning with the court of Louis XIV, and also heavily influenced by the history of the cultures and times that ballet spread to. I enjoy feeling that connection to the past and musing on where ballet is heading in the future and reading about great ballet dancers and choreographers of the past. Learning about dance history is also an education in art history and world history!
  19. Culture: Learning about ballet and watching ballet and soaking in the stories and the music has made me a more educated patron of the arts and increased my knowledge of Western culture. Learning about dance history is also an education in art history and world history!
  20. Tradition: From the quiet lining up at the barre and commencement of plies to the lovely ending with reverence, the traditions of ballet class are the same no matter what studio you find yourself in, practically anywhere in the world. It feels good to be part of such a longstanding ritual that connects me to dancers everywhere, past and present.
More to come...stay tuned, and please share your thoughts and observations in comments :)
-Kaija for GUB

Monday, March 12, 2012

Adult Ballet Dancers

There is nothing easy about ballet, that's how the adage goes. Except that ballet is easy to love! It does not matter whether you're nineteen years old or forty-three, or if you spend your balletic time in the audience, on the stage or solely in the classroom. Or if you're really lucky, in all of the above! Ballet is seriously addictive, and it can hook you from the first count to eight. Just like that. Plié into the floor, and leave your troubles behind the class-room door. Dance not only sculpts your body, it feeds your brain - mind and soul alike.

Yes, ballet is hard, and it presents a constant challenge. But that's the way we like it! I'm going to do something slightly embarrassing and quote myself:
"If ballet were any easier, where would the challenge and the fun be? Sure, at times it's frustrating. Pirouettes come and go, you confuse left with right, steps refuse to travel from brain to feet, you fall and bruise, you try and fail, you get up and try again. And then you have a moment. And it's bliss." (Pointe Til You Drop: Six Classes Until..)
Bliss. Those moments when all your hard work pays off and you finally nail that double pirouette. Or when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror, looking almost ballerina-like. When you jeté off the ground and for a split-second feel air-born. Those moments when the music, the sauts and pas and the port de bras all come together and you have become a dancer. Short-cut to happiness.

Adult recreational ballet dancing is not vocational training, but that does not exclude a passionate pursuit of skill and quality! Adult dancers respect the art of ballet and its traditions, and can be seriously committed students. Class is a common ground, for the new beginner and former semi-pro alike. Even though we are a mixed crowd, anything aged between 18 and 80 (presumably). Students, office workers, stay-at-home-mums, doctors, architects, teachers, artists, it really does not matter in the class-room. You put on your leo and tights, and whatever social status is left in the locker.

Ballet is demanding, even at a recreational level. I get frequently asked how much one can expect to advance as an adult student. Well, it really depends on your motivation, commitment and dedication. And your teachers! Without good teachers any ballet student is adrift in a sea of weird sounding French ballet terminology. You have to know your pas de chats from your pas de chevals.. If I were to give out any advice to a beginning student, it's this: find yourself an awesome ballet teacher! Someone who has respect for the art, but thinks no less of you just because you will never turn pro. That teacher will correct, coach, push and praise you - but still adjust demands to your personal abilities. Class will have a disciplined and positive vibe. There are going to be flushed faces, hard-working, sweaty and smiling dancers.

Adult ballet dancers make up a world-wide and wonderful community. Ballet is our common language and our passion. It is also lot of fun. Ballet keeps giving us happy buzzes, something we want to share with our fellow dancers - and it's the reason for this new blog to go live!

- Johanna for G.U.B.