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!  :)