Review of the Joffrey Ballet School’s Ballet-Fit

Okay, so you wrote a book on dance.

Or you produced a DVD.

Will you do me a favour, pretty please?

Give it a name that reflects what’s in it!

If you’re not sure if the name you picked fits the content, just send it to me. I will tell you. And I’ll save us both the pain.

I go on about this a lot, but it’s a real problem. I’ll be looking at some great product, but the name is just totally off for what it is. Then I go to the Amazon page, and of course half the people are annoyed that the thing they got isn’t the thing they bought.

This came about recently because I was on my way out of the house and, being a little bit obsessed with ballet as I am right now, I went to my dance bookshelf and picked a book at random. I’ve had a copy of The Joffrey Ballet School’s Ballet-Fit for years now. Years. I bought it in a mad rage I had for barre fitness — and this was in the days before a hundred barre DVDs came out. But I never really cracked it open.

It takes me a few minutes of reading to realise that this is not a barre fitness book. Yes, it has a section with exercises, but that’s totally not what this is about. In fact, when we get right down to it, it’s not even about fitness.

The Joffrey Ballet School’s Ballet-Fit is a guide to adult beginner ballet. That’s what it is. It’s for people who are thinking of starting ballet as adults or returning to it after a long time away. It’s for people who are already doing adult ballet and need tips on practice and goals. And it’s even for adults who are thinking about pointe.

And it’s excellent.

In fact, it’s a book I wanted without knowing it existed. I’ve googled “adult beginner ballet” so many times and only found superficial information. Most ballet books are for child dancers or their parents. Then there are books for pros. But adult learners are an afterthought.

Dena Simone Moss and Allison Kyle Leopold, the authors of Ballet-Fit, cover everything. They talk about reasons to start ballet as an adult, address typical fears potential students have, and give lengthy and detailed advice for choosing a school and teacher.

For the student who has started classes, there is advice on what to wear, the structure of a class, even which way to turn after working one leg at the barre (answer: towards the barre). I discovered, to my horror, that my beige-tights-and-black-shoes look that I wore to our recent recital was a no-no — the beige tights are too jazz and the black shoes cut the line. There was so much I didn’t know here!

Throughout, the authors are completely honest and realistic about what an adult ballet beginner can expect of themselves. They make it absolutely clear that with minor exceptions (men starting in their 20s), an adult beginner will never have a professional ballet career. They talk about the limitations of various body types.

But they are also positive. Adult dancers have a wealth of cultural knowledge to draw on when they’re learning — they have advantages children don’t. Adults are there because they want to be. And if they become passionate about ballet, they can still make it part of their lives by applying their dance knowledge in another form of dance, or in a dance-related career.

Some of the advice the book gives is so specific that it has to come from experience, and is completely unlike the vague and often pointless advice one finds on the internet. The authors tell you, for example, why you shouldn’t always imitate the pros (they may make mistakes or be taking shortcuts that make sense at their level), how to behave in various situations in class, why it’s worth not sitting out centre work, why private classes are often not worth the money, how often you need to go to class, how to challenge yourself if you’re taking a class below your level without annoying your peers, and so on.

Ballet-Fit explains all the basics. The positions, arm and head movements, why tendus are important, what adagios and arabesques are. I loved this section because it allowed me to look up a number of the movements we do in class.

And then there is the workout. The workout has three sections: a warmup you can use at home or even before class, a basic series of barre exercises, and a set of strength and stretching exercises for the floor.

Now here is the thing. Most of these books sell the workout as a standalone workout. Ballet-Fit doesn’t. This is clearly a practice that is meant to supplement class. The assumption throughout is really that you are taking regular class with a teacher who can correct you and other students who can motivate you.

Someone else might not like it, but I love it. I wanted a guide to what I could do at home to supplement my classes, and here it is. Including warmups, great stretches, and strength work. And it’s all dialed down the way it should be for home practice. For example, the authors advise you to put your hand on your waist at home, so you can really focus on the action of the leg. The exercises also include counts, a series of tips for proper execution, and occasionally, options for advanced beginners.

The final section is on pointe: how to tell when you’re ready, how to build towards it, how to buy and tie shoes, and what to expect from a pointe class. I can’t imagine ever being on pointe, but I found this section fascinating, especially the explanations of how doing pointe clarifies why we learn the technique at barre.

You might not like this book if you react badly to the authors’ occasionally stern tone. They are very clear on what’s possible and what’s not, what’s appropriate and what’s not. Ballet has its traditions, and while the authors of Ballet-Fit acknowledge that some things (like in-class wear) will be looser for adult beginners, they still uphold those traditions.

I, for one, love it. It’s the perfect accompaniment to my regular ballet classes.

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