Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Ballet Evolution

I didn't get to class Sunday. I wasn't feeling all that well (turns out I have tonsillitis). I may not get to class tomorrow night either, as I have a lot to get done before I run off to a conference next week.

That's not to say I didn't dance this weekend; Saturday a friend of mine and I went to a Victorian-themed party (in full Victorian attire) where there was a good bit of dancing. Despite feeling ungainly doing balancé in class, it did make waltzing rather easy to pick up.

My friend sent me an email earlier this evening containing a link to a YouTube video in which Ursula Hageli, ballet mistress for the Royal Opera House in the UK, describes the evolution of the basic ballet steps from the Baroque period to present day. My only complaint is that it's just too damned short!

Here's a link and the embedded video:


Saturday, February 23, 2013

LINES Dance Center video

In yesterday's posting I mentioned a video of an adult ballet company. It's quite good, produced by KQED TV in San Francisco, so I thought I'd link to it here. It runs almost 23 minutes, but it's worth watching. I don't seem to be able to embed the video, so here's the URL:


A note to anyone thinking of taking classes and looking at this video to see what it's like. This instructor seems to scowl a lot, something none of the instructors I've met have done. Everyone I've taken class from has seemed happy to be there, as if this is an escape from the "real world". Which, for folks like me, it is. From the praises her students are singing, I'm guessing she's a lot more personable than the scowling taskmaster she sometimes appears to be in the video. Don't be put off by it.

One of the things that's had me scratching my head is a man who first appears at 04:14 into the video. He talks a bit about how he found his way into this class, which I'm sure rings true for many of the men who started dancing ballet as adults. He also talks about how he wanted to find a class where he could learn pointe, which men rarely do. At 04:46 we get a shot of him in pointe shoes doing a demi-plié, and again at 05:00 doing some tendus. I'm a bit surprised a teacher would put him on pointe at his level of skill and flexibility. We never see him en pointe (he does one rise to what looks like demi-pointe, though we can't see his feet) so maybe going en pointe is a future goal? It certainly doesn't look like he has enough ankle flexibility to get over the box yet.

Mind you, I don't have any problem with men doing pointe work. My concern is whether the instructor is allowing him to attempt something he may not be physically prepared to do yet, and might injure himself attempting. Maybe those with more experience can tell me whether my concerns are warranted.

Thinking about it more, I'm beginning to wonder if the video's director asked for shots of him in class wearing pointe shoes, even though he doesn't do so in class normally. In both shots of him in pointes he's also wearing leg warmers that are pulled down to cover everything behind the throat of the shoe, so there's no way of telling whether they properly fit him or if they're just stuck on his feet well enough to be filmed. Directors seem to have a very tenuous attachment to reality when it interferes with some fanciful image they have in mind -- many of the fire scenes in the movie Backdraft were filmed on an upside-down set because real fire refused to behave the way the director wanted it to, thus teaching millions of people that fire behaves in a way that it doesn't. But that's a different rant.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

More chaînés success

Decided to go to class tonight too, despite being a bit stiff still from last night's class. After barre exercises we repeated the sequence in the center from two weeks ago. Once again I was able to do sequences of fast, tight chaînés turns, something I would have said I couldn't do only a few months ago. At least I can do them turning clockwise; counterclockwise I'm still a bit off but I can tell what I'm doing wrong and it'll fix itself with practice. But I no longer feel like a total dolt in the center.

Something else that contributed to the feeling of confidence was watching a video of an adult ballet company in San Francisco this afternoon. In that video were a number of men who took up dancing as adults. Some were really good, but some who had been taking class longer than I have looked... well, let's just say I feel graceful and capable by comparison. I'm not putting them down, mind you, but it gives me additional points of comparison.

Of course, Sunday will come around and my ego will get punctured and shrink back to normal size. But for the next couple of days I think I'll be feeling pretty good.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In search of consistency

An alternate title could be "Dancing Sardines", as there were 28 students this evening by my count, including 4 men. The instructor exclaimed, "I hope the fire marshal doesn't show up!", though I suspect the maximum occupancy for the room for life safety purposes is somewhat higher. On the other hand, the fire marshal isn't concerned with performing grand battements at the barre without kicking each other. I wish I'd dug out my phone and taken a picture.

Towards the end of class this evening, the instructor again had us do the special request pirouette practice. She also gave a proper teasing to the student who had requested it two weeks ago but failed to show up for it last week. I'm finding that most of the time I can do quarter- and half-turns en dehors with stability to either side, and full-turns about half the time. And by "stable" I mean finishing the turn, holding the passé relevé position for a moment, then come down in a controlled plié to fifth. The rest of the time, though, I'm unstable and fall out of it. I flip-flop between being excited that my first success wasn't a total fluke and being frustrated at not being able to do them consistently, though I suppose consistency will come with practice.

Sunday we did a combination that included a turn en dedans. What a disaster. I couldn't figure out what provides the impetus for the turn. I never did figure it out. If I find a free moment I'll dig out GWW and see if that explains it, or maybe one of my DVDs. For the moment, though, it's a mystery.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

By special request

It snowed a little this evening. Not enough to do anything more than make the grass white and the streets wet, but in this town full of imports from warmer climes, that's all it takes. Thus class tonight wasn't crowded at all. I'd guess 10-12 women and 3 men.

Most of the sequences at the barre I picked up fairly easily, but one just confounded me. It wasn't technically difficult, but I just couldn't wrap my head around the sequence. It's frustrating when that happens.

After class last week, one of the class regulars asked the instructor if we could do the pirouette turn preparation sequence I previously mentioned here. The instructor said ok, and this evening she announced that we'd do it "by special request". I pointed out that the person who requested it wasn't present, which brought a laugh, but I'm happy to say we did it anyway. Here's what we did:
  1. Start standing in fifth, right foot front, arms in first.
  2. Tendu the right foot to the side, arms to second.
  3. Draw the right foot in to fifth in demi-plié, leaving the weight on the left/back foot. Right arm comes to first, left arm remains extended in second.
  4. Push off the ground and rise to passé relevé, left foot standing, right foot working. The left arm comes in to first.
  5. Lower both feet to fifth, right foot in front.
The key seems to be that the rotation doesn't come from throwing your body around. This just destabilizes an otherwise simple balance. It comes from the working foot (in this example, the right) pushing against the ground before it rises in passé. Bringing in the opposite (left) arm helps, but isn't the primary mover.

We did quarter- and half-turns this evening. As before, my turns to the right were better than to the left, but those to the left weren't terrible. I think I could have done full turns to the right without too much difficulty, as I was stable enough to be holding the passé relevé for a brief but deliberate moment after the turn before returning to fifth.

Color me happy.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

How did this happen?

Dancers deal with pain all the time. They do unnatural things with their legs and feet. They move in ways that even yogis don't attempt. All this puts stress on their bodies. That stress sometimes comes out as pain.

I've had my share of minor aches and pains. Sore feet, sore legs, sore hips. But I've been fortunate, nothing has seriously affected either my dancing or other activities. Until now. So what's hurting? My left shoulder and arm. Any time I try to raise my arm, especially to the side and out, I get a harsh burning pain that starts in my left shoulder and radiates down my left bicep. This makes it a pain, literally, to put on a coat, or open the car door, or a dozen other normal, everyday actions.

I went to see my massage therapist this weekend, who is a whiz at identifying and correcting aches and pains. His belief is that I've spent so much time with my hands and arms extended in front of me, working at a desk or using a keyboard, that my body has become used to this position as "normal." In learning the proper ballet posture, with shoulders back and down and chest open, is causing my body to say "Hey! What is this new position you keep demanding?" The result is pain.

Yes, you read that right. By correcting years of bad posture I'm causing myself pain.

The good news is he doesn't believe I've torn anything or developed a joint problem. I have better pain-free range of motion in my shoulders than I've had in years, as long as someone else drives the motion. It's just the muscles that are unhappy. He gave me some exercises and stretches he thinks will help. Now I just need to get one of those reusable cold packs so I can ice the thing.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Stink, Stank, Stunk

With apologies to The Grinch who Stole Christmas for the title.

One of the women in class showed up the other week with brand new slippers. Aside from having become rather ratty with wear and age, she explained that the old ones had begun to smell. She'd even taken to keeping them in a plastic bag when not wearing them, but they'd just gotten too pungent.

Well... erm... is this a common problem? I'd noticed many of those who showed up for the SAB auditions had their shoes bagged, but I don't know if that was because they smelled or just to keep them clean before an important appearance. I wouldn't expect bagging shoes to do anything but make them smell worse, as they wouldn't have a chance to air out (and I think the bacteria that makes the smell is anaerobic).

I keep my slippers in my open dance bag so I don't mislay them. Open because the bag is not breathable, as I discovered by forgetting to take out my wet shirt and tights when I got home after class. A couple of days later they were still wet and reeked! But with the bag open and empty of all but slippers and socks, I've not noticed any odor from the shoes even after 3-4 hours of wear a week for almost two years.

Would it make a difference that mine are canvas and hers leather? The instructor that day opined that leather shoes lasted longer but couldn't be washed, while canvas could be but often shrank when washed.

In closing, I'd like to thank the person who found my blog using the search keywords "smell ballet feet" for indirectly reminding me that I'd wanted to post this question. I'm not sure if the searcher is looking for a cure or has a rather odd fetish and I'm pretty sure I don't need to know.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Performance Metrics

How do you measure improvement? Shouldn't there be some sort of performance metrics, for without them how am I to know if I'm improving?

In pilot training, all a student has to do is look at his (or her) older logbook entries to recall what he was working on, and how those things that used to cause such trouble no longer seem challenging. What do we have in dance?

I guess those who train in the Royal Academy of Dance methodology have their myriad of exams and levels. The rest of us have only the title of the classes we take. One can spend a long time in a class named "Beginner Ballet", yet still be making significant progress. Much like a student pilot's logbook, this blog is the way I keep track.

I found a new metric tonight. I hadn't been to my Thursday evening class in quite some time, and the instructor has been sending me "We miss you! Come back!" emails. Tonight I decided to go, as much to catch up on the personal goings-ons as for the classwork. One of the differences in this class is that our center work is more long sequences rather than short, repetitious exercises we do elsewhere. I think I've really benefited from the latter, boring though they may be. One of tonight's sequences included chaînés turns leading into an arabesque; I've always had trouble with chaînés turns, but tonight I fired off sequences of four fast turns and didn't slip or feel off balance. I had a bit of trouble with the transitions to the arabesque, being slightly behind the music and a touch off balance, but I was able to hold the pose and the instructor thought the problem was lack of anticipation and planning in the transition. Honestly, though, I was so shocked by being stable I hadn't given any thought to a transition. She then suggested I tighten up my foot spacing, and I was able to do that too, even on the comparatively slippery wooden floor. Attempting the same sequences to the left weren't quite as stable, but still far better than I'd ever previously been to either side.

My instructor finished the night by commenting that as much as she hates to lose students to another school or instructor, she'd like it even less to lose one because they stopped dancing. And she said she could tell that I'd definitely been dancing. Wow.

So despite my concern that some might read this as unseemly bragging, I'm posting this so I can look back on it when I'm feeling like I'm not getting anywhere. Just like I did as a student pilot.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

No place to hide

I felt healthy enough to go to class tonight. I didn't have quite as much energy as usual, and my balance on one foot wanted to fall to the outside of my foot, but otherwise things went just fine.

One thing I've noticed about being a guy taking ballet classes is that even in a crowded room (4M/18F tonight) there's no way to hide in the crowd. Especially if you're a regular. Especially once the instructor has learned your name.

Yes, this instructor has begun addressing me by name. I'm getting regular compliments now, and what feels like a bit of special attention. Or maybe it's my imagination and some wishful thinking. I'm really hoping it means I'm making progress. I'm almost wishing we got periodic report cards (did I really say that?).

What I really need to do is work on my flexibility. My range of motion in my shoulders is getting better, as is that in my ankles, but I need to work on my torso, hips, and legs. This evening the instructor pointed out that in passé rélevé I'm not keeping my hips even with the ground, but I don't have the range of motion in my hips to make any adjustments. Frustrating.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Yup, I'm sick

I felt worse overnight Wednesday, and spend most of Thursday and Friday asleep. Even today I'm sniffly and don't feel all that great. I'm dedicated but realistic. So no class for me tomorrow.