Monday, September 30, 2013

Reflections on the TWB Open House

I've been reflecting on the conversations I had at The Washington Ballet's Open House yesterday.

One of the questions I asked was whether there was a lot of competition between dancers in the company.  One responded that there was a fair bit between the women, but not as much between the men even though there were more male dancers in the company. Perhaps that's because there so many more women wanting to become professional dancers. I don't know.

I also had an interesting conversation with a woman who was one of the students in the classes I took at another school. They have only three levels of adult classes: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. She found the beginner class to be a bit too basic for her tastes, but the intermediate class was far too hard. She seemingly has accepted that she'll be in the beginner class as long as she takes classes at that school, and that it's just the way things are.

My reaction is far different. I would push myself into the intermediate class anyway and learn whatever bits and pieces I could until I could handle the whole class. In fact, I took their intermediate class once about a year ago to see just how much harder it was (barre was OK, but I sat out after the first half of center work). The only reason I'm not pushing myself into my current school's advanced beginner class is that I feel like there's so much to learn in my current classes.

Perhaps that's what the student meant last week when she said I was competitive. If so, then guilty as charged. I just don't want my fellow students to feel like I'm in competition with them.

Another thing I noticed during the Open House was what I focused on during the Giselle excerpt. When I watch ballet I've usually paid the most attention to the women. There are several reasons for this. One is that I'm wired to prefer the female form. Another is that most ballets give the women the best and most challenging parts, and I love to watch their pointe work.

The Giselle excerpt had some great dancing by some really talented women, and I really enjoyed their dancing. The more I learn the more readily I can identify the steps and challenges, and the more I appreciate how hard it is to make it look effortless. But when the men danced, I watched their technique. Where are their feet placed. Where is the weight distributed across their toes. How did they move to make their dancing powerful. I don't think I'd ever really paid attention to those details before.

One of the things I sometimes find myself doing during turns is allowing my weight to shift to the outside of my foot. Watching a woman do a turn wearing pointe shoes tells me nothing about how her weight is distributed, but I noticed that some of the men do the same thing at times. I'm not sure if that would be considered an error in technique or not, but it's reassuring that I'm not the only one who does it.

I was also reassured by the sight of one of the male dancers standing in the corner on demi-pointe practicing petit battments. Oh, how I hate those things!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Zombie Apocalypse Vampires

Also known as the "Wilis" from Giselle, according to the Washington Ballet's Artistic Director Septime Webre. That's how he described them to the young audience at today's open house. How better to help a group of 21st century kids relate to a 19th century ballet classic?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Not So Settled

You know that confident conviction that I was going to claw my way into the Advanced Beginner class? It lasted all of two days.

Monday, September 23, 2013

What does "competitive" mean?

Just before Sunday's class, a new student was looking for a place at the barres. She asked one of the other students, who replied, "You could stand at that barre, with Reece. He's competitive, but nice."


What does it mean to be "competitive" in a beginner ballet class? We aren't competing for limited slots in a class or company. We aren't ranked with respect to each other, other than some people are more willing to stand in front during center work.

Maybe some might say I "compete" with myself. I'm more likely to kick myself for not trying or quitting than for trying and failing. I try to do things as best as I can at that moment, and I want to improve over time. I do compare myself against others in the class, but that's because I have no other points of reference. But I don't see myself as being in competition with anyone.

Does this make me "competitive" enough for someone to mention to another student? There's plenty of barre space, and if I'm in front of someone I'll move to avoid blocking their view of themselves in the mirror.

What does the peanut gallery think? Anyone? Bueller?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

(Advanced) Ballet or Bust

The three-day break between Tuesday's and Saturday's B2 classes has bothered me for a while. The only other evening B2 class is Monday, and the Wednesday B1 class feels really slow to me. A Thursday evening class would be ideal, but the only class offered then is Advanced Beginner, taught by the same teacher as the Sunday morning and Monday evening B2 classes. With some hesitation I resolved this morning to ask this teacher if she thought I could handle her Thursday AB class.

Class went ok today. I feel comfortable with this Sunday AM B2 class. It's challenging enough that it demands focus, but the combinations are mostly simple enough that I have brain bandwidth to work on improving. The instructor is a former principal dancer with 20 years professional experience, and she's not hesitant to give individual feedback. At barre today, as we were about to do a circular port-de-bras in fifth, she stuck her fingers between my knees and said "Squeeze my fingers!" Stifling a laugh I tried and managed a bit better — limited turn-out means I don't have a very tight fifth — until I bent forward. I'm still not sure how to fix this problem, but oddly I feel pretty good about it: if she's correcting details like that it means I'm doing ok on more basic things. At the same time, the attention to detail appeals to the engineer side of my brain.

After class I asked the instructor about taking her Thursday night Advanced Beginner class. She said she said that was the easier of the two AB classes she taught, thought I could probably get though most it, and suggested it would be ok if I sat out those parts that I wasn't ready for. I thanked her, and started to say something about having been taking the Saturday AM B2 class for several months. She cut me off, exclaiming, "You've been taking her class? That's not a beginner class. I love her — I'm the one who hired her — but she doesn't know the meaning of the word 'Beginner'. You'll be fine in my Thursday night class." I guess that's settled.

I think I need a bumper sticker that reads "Ballet or Bust". But not in pink.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Splish Splash

I just took my first bath in months.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Holes in my brain

Tuesday night's class had about 15 people in it. None of the "star pupils" were in attendance so the combinations weren't all that difficult. I've had several classes in a row now where my balance was better than normal, but this night I struggled more than usual. That was really frustrating because I pretty much had the combinations down but I wobbled a lot doing them.

I'm not sure what the deal was with the pianist during barre. I'm sure they get bored playing the same music again and again, keeping a metronomic beat. But this night I had the worst time at the barre counting beats. Yes, I'm one of those, but if we're doing a circle stretch in eight counts, then knowing where I need to be in the sequence on, say, beat four, lets me end up at the right place on beat eight. But this night it seemed like every so often there'd be an extra or a missing beat in the music -- she'd reach the end of a phrase too soon, then a few phrases later there'd be an extra bit of music. I'm sure it'd be lovely if we were just sitting and listening, but when you're trying to follow a combination it's really disconcerting.

Eventually we got to the last combo of the class. This instructor always does jumps of some sort (changements and échappés this time) before one last allégro combination, I think to make sure we all are exhausted when we leave. The combination wasn't all that complex, something like this: sauté arabesque, faille, glissade, petite jeté, coupé, tombé, coupé, assemblé (over), coupé, assemblé (over). For some reason very few of us could figure out the transition after the jeté, including me. I could do what came before and what came after, but there was a blank spot in my brain at that point. Our instructor, who developed and teaches the most basic adult intro class the school offers and seems to have the patience of a saint, seemed annoyed and frustrated. I don't recall ever seeing that emotion from her before. We tried it again with the same results, then ran out of time.

As she called to the pianist for a quick reverance, one of the quieter students asked if we could stay after class a bit to figure it out. Her response was, "Don't worry, no one is leaving here tonight until they get it!" Her tone left doubt in my mind whether she meant that she was happy to stay until everyone figured it out, or if she intended to force people to stay.

With about half the class gone, the rest of us asked questions about that one stubborn spot. About 30 seconds in a light bulb went on in my head and it suddenly made sense. Others followed suit with varying numbers of trials and errors. I scurried out, changed clothes, and made my way home.

I didn't get to Wednesday's class because of work. I didn't win the $400M lottery either, so daytime classes are still impractical. Thus I had classes Sat/Sun/Tue, and then no classes for three days. I've tried to do some stretches in the interim, but I'm expecting Saturday to be uncomfortable.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Paper Chase

Friday evening I watched a favorite old movie: The Paper Chase. It's about first-year law students at Harvard and the stress they're under.

There's a bit of dialog that struck me as rather profound. I wish I'd written it down, but I didn't. Basically the main character, James Hart, is categorizing his fellow students into three groups. The first are those who volunteer to answer questions. They raise their hands in class, the offer opinions, and they get noticed. The second group doesn't raise their hands, but will gamely try if they're called upon. The third group cowers in fear of being called on, to the point of moving from their assigned seats to empty seats at the very back of the lecture hall. Hart brings this up because he's planning to make the move from the second group to the first.

What does this have to do with dance?

I've observed that the students in my dance classes also fall into the same three broad categories. There are those who are willing to lead, to stand in the front row, and who challenge the combinations. There are those who will stand in the front if they have to, but they don't want to be there. And there are those who fight to be in the back row even when the lines rotate.

Like Hart, I'm in the second group but try to be part of the first when I'm feeling confident.

In class today, the instructor pulled an evil trick on those in the back row. We were doing a combination in the center that moved forward. When the front row reached the mirror, instead of everyone moving back she had everyone turn around and face the back wall of the studio. Suddenly those who had been fighting to be in the back row were in the front row.

It'll be interesting to see if the back row folk try to find a new "safe space" in the middle now.

Ballet is my religion

Yesterday morning's class started with a discussion of religious observances, which was summed up by one student's exclamation that "Ballet is my religion!" After which we commenced with our observance of Barre.

Finally, a religion I get behind.

I finished class dripping as usual. I'm starting to see glimmers of consistency in my balance, which excites me greatly. Center work is still a challenge, but honestly, if it wasn't I'd be looking for a harder class. The allegro combination I thought I'd figured out last time got changed up, and as my group was going across the floor the instructor yelled to the pianist to speed it up. Nothing like having the music start going faster and faster while you're in the middle of a combination.

This time I was smart enough to bring a big fluffy towel and a change of shirt for the Stretch class. That teacher can be quite hands on. But she understands that not everyone is bendy-twisty, "and that's why you're here" she told me. True enough.

After lunch I was feeling abused enough to warrant a small ice cream. My weight has stabilized at about 190lbs, which isn't the 174 my doctor wants but it's 10 below where I was not long ago. What hasn't stabilized is my waist size: I need to punch some new holes in my belt. So imagine my shock when the scale read 195 lbs just before I went to bed! This morning, though — my regular time to check — it again read 190. Still, I guess I'll have to go back to paying more attention to my diet.

Had my second class with the other Beginner II teacher this morning. Her style is more formal than some of the other classes I've taken, but I think that's because she also teaches the kids. Her sense of humor is also more subtle but no less present. I feel more confident in her combinations, with my screw-ups being one-offs rather than falling behind and never catching up again. I got a couple of compliments on a few things. It's a good thing this class is a bit easier, though, because I'm still sore from yesterday's classes.

If ballet is my religion, can I deduct my costs and contributions on my taxes?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Some good, some bad

Had a couple of things go right tonight. And a couple that didn't.

One of the center adagio combinations made sense almost immediately. Except for an occasional wobble I knew what I was doing and had time to think about the transitions from one position to the next. I was really happy about that; I don't recall ever feeling like I knew an entire sequence down cold before.

We also did an allegro that we'd done before. It's a really simple sequence of tombé, coupé, assemblé dessous (under), then repeat to the other side. The complexity is the very rapid weight shift during the coupé. Last time I just couldn't wrap my head around it, and spent some time between classes trying to get it to work. It'd started to feel ok, but I was far from confident in it until this evening when it started to feel more natural. Not graceful, mind you — my arms were all over the place — but the feet were in the right place.

Between the two successes, though, I managed to totally brain-fart on simple things like a waltz turn. I'd recover from that, only to forget the balancés that followed. It's amazing to me how I can go from feeling like I might be one of the better students in the class to feeling like a total klutz in the span of 10 minutes.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Beginner two-and-three-quarters

With apologies to Harry Potter fans everywhere...

I did get to Wednesday evening's class. Half the number of students as the preceding evening, which allowed our instructor to provide more individual attention. That's a good thing.

Saturday morning's class again was crowded, though I didn't make a count. Challenging as usual, I walked out after class with my shirt absolutely dripping. My initial thought was to change and have lunch, as I had an appointment in the area a few hours later, but I decided to sample the "Stretch" class instead.

There's a half hour break between the two, and I ended up in a conversation with one of the regulars from the Saturday morning class. She's been taking this instructor's Beginner II class for quite some time, and it had been several years before she started feeling comfortable in it. When I said, "I usually describe it as 'Beginner two and a half'" she shook her head. She's taken the Advanced Beginner classes and said that about the only difference between the two is that in AB they expect you to get the combination from description, rather than from demonstration. "It's closer to 'two and three quarters'" she thought.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Old El Paso

Off and on for several weeks, our instructor has commented during evening classes that barre was so good we should quit and go have tacos and margaritas. She's done it often enough that it became a regular joke, and I started thinking I should stop at Taco Hell on my way to class.

Grocery shopping this weekend I spotted an item on sale: