Reflections on a ballet recital

Yesterday my ballet studio had its regular summer recital. My experience of it was different from all the others, and I wanted to capture that briefly here.

The background is that the past few months were busy and stressful — perhaps no more than my work usually is, but I had expected and badly needed a quieter summer, and was not prepared for it to be as hectic as it was. What that meant for my dance was that I attended regularly but not as frequently as I wanted (once a week instead of twice), and even then often had my mind on problems at work. As a result, I had trouble learning the barre program that we wound up doing for the recital. Even in the morning rehearsal, I realised I didn’t know what was coming for any given exercise. Conversely, I found it pretty easy to learn the choreography for our little dance at the end.

Usually I am nervous either before a recital or during it — or both. But a funny thing happened this time. I didn’t have it all down, and I knew it. And I also didn’t care. I was completely calm and relaxed throughout. Instead of thinking about what my feet should do, I focussed on having an integrated posture, on the quality of my movement, and on relaxing my face. I made mistakes, but I left them behind somehow. I truly did not care about the mistakes.

Now if you know me, you know I very much do care about mistakes. But I didn’t yesterday. It was such a peaceful, happy experience of dancing. I’ve wondered why this happened yesterday. Was it that I was so stressed out in the previous months that dancing was allowed to be an escape? Was it my new, beautiful Bloch leotard that made me more aware of my posture? Was it the five Tibetan rites I did for the first time that morning? Who knows! Physically, I was not at my best for a number of reasons, and yet I had a lightness and sense of beauty in the dance that I rarely do.

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ballet with constanze janssen

Movespiration weekend with Khalida

Months ago, I decided my end-of-summer treat would be a weekend of workshops at Khalida’s studio called Movespiration. I knew Khalida a bit, through her DVDs and from online conversations. I’d reviewed her Shimmies DVD and worked a bit with her All About Arms program, and over email we geeked out a bit on dance and movement. So when she said she wanted to bring her favorite movement teachers into her studio for two days, I thought it would be worth going along for the experiment.

I also liked the idea of easing into bellydance by trying it again along with other dance and movement forms. And frankly, after so much stress this year, I thought it might be great just to focus on my body, no matter what the practice was. These were my two goals for the weekend.

What I knew was that we would do some taekwondo with Master Chae Seung-Eun, ballet with Constanze Janssen, and bellydance with Khalida. In fact, the two days I spent in Würselen were even more varied. Master Chae is also an expert in Haidong Gumdo, Korean sword fighting, and one of our classes with him was devoted to this art. Constanze did ballet barre exercises and centre work, but she also led us through a modern-inspired floor barre.

Sandra van Frankfoort-Mamentu, who was in the workshop as a participant, took the lead on Sunday morning and led us through a tai-chi warmup. Even Khalida’s own classes were varied: we did do a bit of bellydance movement and technique, but Khalida also introduced us to a wealth of exercises and body techniques: lymphatic drainage, tricks to improve alignment or release certain muscles, practices for increasing turnout and flexibility and reducing pain. (She taught us so many things, in fact, that at one point I had to sit down after a session and just write them all down as fast as I could.)

My biggest surprise of the weekend was how much I enjoyed the martial arts we practiced with Master Chae. Now, I’m not a very high energy person, nor do I think of myself as particularly strong, so I was a bit nervous about what taekwondo would be like. The exercises we did were exhausting, but in the best possible way. I found, to my surprise, that I loved punching and kicking. I had the good fortune to work with a partner (Lou of Brussels) who practices taekwondo, and she pushed me hard. It was wonderful. With every kick and punch I felt I was getting some of the year’s stress out, felt like I was cleansing myself of negative emotion and frustration. And at the end, although I was sweaty and had pushed myself to the limits of my energy, I actually felt revitalized.

The same was true for haidong gumdo, which we practiced using foam-covered swords for the most part, and blunt wooden swords for cutting paper. This required more precision and speed than I could muster, but also had that element of force. It felt like something I desperately want to do again. Later, as I was telling Master Chae how therapeutic I found it, he said calmly, “It looked like you had some things to get out.”

Atisheh cutting paper with korean sword

Cutting a newspaper with a blunt sword takes a bit of practice

Ballet was a learning experience too, though in another way. I’ve been taking beginner ballet classes for a couple of years now, and figured I knew the basics. In Constanze’s class, I found so much to improve just in my posture and pliés that I was sweating from the first minutes. It was such difficult work (even keeping my stomach in is still a challenge), but so important in terms of how it felt to work with that strength. My balance and turns are still terrible, and I think part of that is that I’m still not pulling my muscles in the way I need to to rice up out of my legs. On the other hand, floor barre, while challenging, was a lovely release, with lots of stretching and flowing movement.

It will take a number of weeks to work through what I learned during the Movespiration weekend. There are a few things though that I want to reflect on:

  1. Sometimes it’s great to go really far out of your comfort zone. I would never have thought that I’d enjoy taekwondo as much as I did. But not only was it great psychologically, it also felt good as movement. I wonder what it would be like to take that knowledge that I actually enjoy putting maximum energy into something and bring it to dance.
  2. I think it would be a fun exercise to take a similar type of move and practice it in two or different ways, switching between movement traditions. Like: doing a tai chi walk, a ballet walk, and a bellydance walk one after the other. Or alternating taekwondo kicks with grands battements. Or playing with tai chi, ballet, and bellydance arm paths.
  3. I love stretching programs that are intense and feel like something is really happenig, but I need to learn more about the ways smaller movements and alignment changes can affect flexibility.
  4. So much of what we learn in bellydance has to be drastically unlearned for ballet. I knew about legs — we practice keeping legs slightly (sometimes very) bent in bellydance, while ballet is all about the straight leg. Then there’s the stomach, which needs to be flexible for bellydance, and pulled in tight for ballet. But I was surprised to see how useful it can be to keep the glutes really tight too in ballet, which of course would be harder to do in bellydance. I’m not sure if there’s a good solution to switching, other than consciously practicing both.
  5. It might be worth incorporating some journaling into dance: thinking more clearly about what I want out of any given class or practice session, and articulating for myself what kinds of things I want out of the dance itself.

This is where I am right now. I took this week to rest and let things settle — and have a bit of fun — but tomorrow I return to ballet. I’m curious to see how what I learned affects my approach, and eager to start experimenting with some of the adjustments I learned in class. I’d also love to do more taekwondo. I’m not sure I have time for another regular commitment, but I’ll see if there are any introductory lessons close to me.

And what I will definitely try to do is attend Movespiration again. Given how much we did and learned, it was an incredible value. The variety of practices we tried out took so much concentration that it felt like a real mental vacation from daily life — and that was just what I needed.

Atisheh and Khalida

Me with Khalida, who gave me an impromptu lesson on posing!

Review of Lastics: A Stretch Workout Like No Other

One of my biggest challenges since starting to take ballet has been flexibility. This is odd: I’ve never been a particularly inflexible person. But ballet shows you your limits fast. So I have been on the search for programs that are focused on increasing flexibility. Yoga is great, of course, but sometimes I don’t feel like it, and it’s not necessarily aimed at the kind of flexibility one needs in dance.

Enter Lastics. It’s the creation of Donna Flagg, a former dancer, and advertised as “A Stretch Workout Like No Other.” I bought the DVD bundled with the book, since I wanted to know as much as possible about what made Lastics different. There are quite a few stretch DVDs out there, and many of them seem just to offer the same stretches most active people already know.

I’m happy to report that Lastics is quite different from all other stretch programs I’ve done. One major difference is that Donna Flagg has you extend muscles, then stretch them. I’m not a physician, and can’t tell if she’s right that it’s pointless to work on flexibility on an unextended muscle, but I do know that doing that hasn’t brought me much. Another aspect of Flagg’s program is using, as much as possible, internal force to stretch muscles, rather than external objects or devices.

The DVD itself has an intro on Common Stretching Mistakes, and then moves on to four sections:

Stretch in Motion (15 min)
Get into Your Body (19 min)
Feel the Rush (14 min)
Body Meets Mind (9 min)

The idea is that any one segment will stretch all of your body, but that you can do more if you want. This is true, but the names of the sections have no real relationship to what’s covered. I’ve done the program twice all the way through, and I think it works well that way, but I do like the option of doing a smaller program if I have less time.

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Donna Flagg demonstrates Lastics stretch with a modification

Donna’s instruction is excellent. Every single breath and move is cued, directions are clear, and every move is done equally on both sides. As good instructors do, she often anticipates your mistakes and corrects you. She also often shows adjustments for people with less flexibility.

So does it work? And is the DVD worth it? Well, I’m not sure if it works. I haven’t seen any increase in my flexibility in the days after using the program, though it’s probably expecting too much for one hour to make a noticeable difference. I think it would be more effective to do this program after some other kind of movement or warmup, instead of stretching cold — which is what I did both times.

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Donna Flagg demonstrating a Lastics psoas stretch

I am, however, very happy with the purchase. There are a number of stretches in this program I haven’t seen elsewhere, and still others that I haven’t seen directed quite in this way. Lastics targets certain areas that other programs don’t, like the psoas muscle, and its in intense focus on stretching hamstrings with a straight leg, it’s particularly useful for students of dance or ballet. Dancers might wish for more stretches that aim towards turnout or straddle splits, but the program stands on its own as it is.

And while I can’t tell if the program really improves flexibility, it certainly is a delicious and deep way to stretch, one that I suspect prevents quite a bit of pain. I think Lastics is particularly great after travel or long days of sitting at a desk, as it works on the quads, neck, and arm muscles. Lastics offers a deep stretch comparable to a yin yoga practice, one that is perfect if you don’t want to do yoga,

Miranda Esmonde-White doing Classical Stretch

Review of Classical Stretch – The Esmonde Technique: Complete Season 10 – Strength and Flexibility

I only recently found out about Classical Stretch. Why? I don’t have a television set, that’s why. But a very nice woman I know only from the internet had sent me a copy of Oxford American’s Southern Music Issue internationally, and she refused payment, and so I managed to convince her to accept an Amazon gift certificate, and then she announced on Facebook that she had bought a Classical Stretch DVD with it. So of course, I was curious.

Miranda Esmonde-White doing Classical Stretch barre work

Essentrics kindly hooked me up with a review copy of Classical Stretch Season 10 – Strength and Flexibility. This was in the spring. I really had no idea what to expect, even after reading descriptions on the website and various reviews online. It seems that the Essentrics DVDs are for younger, fitter people, while Classical Stretch runs on PBS and is more geared towards stopping aging. Would I be bored?

The answer was a resounding no! In fact, I’ve fallen a bit in love with Classical Stretch.

Here are the basics, for those of you who, like me, don’t go to PBS for your workouts. Classical Stretch workouts are led by Miranda Esmonde-White, a Canadian dancer and fitness trainer. Each one is about 22 minutes long, filmed in a gorgeous place, and consists mainly of flowing movements that get your muscles warm and flexible, use and extend your range of motion, and encourage you to stretch in all sorts of directions.

The movements are inspired by ballet, tai chi, and physiotherapy. They are surprisingly intense and dynamic. What you don’t have are twenty repetitions of the same exercise. Instead, you’ll be reaching down low with strong, sweeping stretches, then to the side, then up. You’ll spiral. You’ll be doing something with your arms while your legs are in a plie. Some movements are large, but then Esmonde-White will introduce a tiny variation that gives you a different feeling or a deeper stretch.

Imagine yoga, but with a thousand more directions.

Or modern dance, with less moving around.

Or pilates, with more stretching.

Miranda Esmonde--White doing Classical Stretch standing moves

In short, the movements are intensely pleasurable, and I tend to break a sweat. Which is funny, because Esmonde-White talks encouragingly about how you can maintain or improve flexibility even in old age, and the entire time I am thinking: “Who are these eighty-year-olds doing Classical Stretch? I’m thirty-four and dripping wet here!”

The other thing to know is that there is a lot of variety. Classical Stretch Season 10 – Strength and Flexibility contains four DVDs, with a total of thirty episodes. (About eleven hours of programming.) I haven’t done every last one of them, but over the last months I’ve tried to work with a range. Some are barre-oriented, either with a chair or simply balancing. Some are all on the floor, with combinations of strength training and stretching. And my favourite, because they’re the newest to me, are the standing segments with all their flowing, challenging moves. All in all, there are many, many exercises I found myself doing for the first time with these DVDs.

Also cool is that the back of the DVD case tells you the goal of each program. You can choose to work on “Back Pain Relief” or “Full Body Strengthening” or “Waist Slenderizing.” (A full list of the contents is here.) My one beef here is that it’s not always clear which episodes are on which DVD. That aside, it’s great to have a workout dedicated to whatever it is you need on a particular day. And all of the episodes I’ve tried have some kind of full body stretch, so all the particularly tight bits get loosened up.

But what I love the most about Classical Stretch Season 10 – Strength and Flexibility is that this is a workout designed to get me doing it. I can almost always fit in twenty minutes. If I’m about to go to bed, but really want to get in some movement, or have some back pain, I pick one episode, do it, and go to bed happy. If I wake up in the morning, and I want to exercise just a bit, I do an episode.

Miranda Esmonde-White does standing work Classical Stretch

The other thing that makes it really easy to do these workouts, and that I wish more DVD producers would keep in mind, is this: you need so little space. You need no special equipment. Not even a mat. You can use a chair for a barre, and books instead of yoga blocks. I’ve found this set of DVDs to be the perfect travel companion, because I can do them anywhere, and because they help me stretch everything out after sitting in planes or trains for a long time.

While Classical Stretch is aimed at anyone, really, I think it’s particularly great for dancers. I’ve been working, haltingly, on establishing my own dance practice, and I find that I can use an episode as the day’s warmup. The workouts get me properly warm, more flexible, and ready to move into a variety of directions. Then I can either do a dance DVD or just practice on my own.

I have just one criticism of some of the programs. While I find most of the workouts highly accessible and very careful about bodily safety (knee alignment is cued, etc), I think some of the barre work is really hard to follow along in proper form. In fact, in one case even the instructor has trouble keeping the hips even while she shoots her leg up. A modification should have been offered for this.

Miranda Esmonde-White does Classical Stretch barre work

That said, Classical Stretch Season 10 – Strength and Flexibility has become, in the past months, my go-to for moving, stretching, getting warm, getting relaxed, toning my waist, soothing my back, and working my quads. I’m still not quite sure I understand what it is, but for me, it hits the spot.

You can find out more about Classical Stretch and Essentrics at www.essentrics.com.

Little ballerina

Two Ballet Memoirs

I think I may be turning into a balletomane.

It always just sneaks right up on you, doesn’t it?

Well, alright, it isn’t just that. I’ve been taking ballet, and I’ve been trying to think through what makes adult ballet so pleasurable, while childhood ballet was so dispiriting. And in the process, some fellow dancers and dance-lovers have been giving me book recommendations.

I am eating these books up like there’s no tomorrow. Seriously, last night I sat on the steps beside my bedroom at 1:30 am, hall light still on, because I wanted to finish one of the books I was reading.

This week’s obsessions were Toni Bentley’s Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal and Joan Brady’s The unmaking of a dancer: An unconventional life.

Winter Season is Bentley’s journal over one season in which she was a member of the corps du ballet of the New York City Ballet. Bentley is at a low point in her career. She has an inkling that she isn’t going to be one of the ballet’s stars. Still, she is obsessed with beauty, and most of all, the beauty of dance. What this means for her is that she is happiest when sitting behind the side curtain, watching one of the principals dance.

Bentley is also torn between life and dance. Life, in this case, means everything outside of dance: friends, parties, food, love. There are some dancers who treat dance as a job, she says, but many are completely wrapped up in the world of the theatre, and she is one of them. How much harder, then, to see women younger than her moving into the top roles.

Still, she is generous towards the young ones, still in love with the sheer beauty of it all. I looked her up and she wound up spending about a decade with the NYCB, so she must have reached her peace with it.

The unmaking of a dancer is a very different kind of beast. First, it’s really the story of a very eventful life, one that happened to a woman who just happened to be a ballerina. Joan Brady had two brilliant parents, brilliant but impossible. Her father was an economist at Berkeley who attempted suicide and later had a debilitating stroke. Her mother was an overbearing and jealous woman, though as brilliant as her husband. She twice sabotaged her daughter’s career (at least in Brady’s telling of the story). What did Brady do? Marry her mother’s former lover of course.

Brady was also a budding ballerina, competing at the San Francisco Ballet School with her friend Suki Schorer, who turned out to have a successful career in ballet and became a noted teacher of Balanchine’s style. After missing out on a company job in San Francisco, Brady went to New York and studied — where else? — at the School of American Ballet, which feeds into the NYCB.

The difference between Brady and Bentley is that Brady doesn’t seem to like dancing much at all. While Bentley is still in love with the ballet, if not with herself or her own dancing, Brady seems not to enjoy the art at all. Ballet seems to have been an escape from home for her, one she was reasonably good at and kept going on with, despite not having a real passion for it. She seems more wrapped up in jealousy and criticism of other dancers than in the dance.

And yet it is so important to her to know that she could have excelled at the dance, if her mother had not intervened. The book ends with her in her late thirties, auditioning for European companies, having dyed her hair and lied about her age. She gets into one, or so it seems. And she tears up the acceptance. I kept thinking that this wasn’t a woman who wanted to dance — it was a woman who wanted to be good enough.

The major presence hovering over both memoirs is B — George Balanchine, of course, the utterly charismatic choreographer and co-founder of the NYCB. Bentley’s memoir is suffused with an intense feeling of admiration for and obedience to Balanchine. She’s not sure if she’s good enough for the religion, but she certainly still believes in its god. Brady is taught less by Balanchine, and so has less experience of him, but her memoir does include some fascinating reflections on the development of Balanchine’s style, which became associated with American dancers.

I tend to expect memoirs, especially art memoirs, to be written by the winners — those who were passionate enough, dedicated and disciplined enough, to excel beyond anyone else. But it’s almost more interesting to read the stories of the almost-theres: women who would have been exceptional in most places in the North America, but were only so-so in the context of the New York City Ballet. I’m fascinated by the stories of women who realised their best would simply not be good enough, or, worse, that they were not capable of giving their best at all.

Photo from www.morguefile.de.

Joffrey ballet school's ballet-fit

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.