Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Successes and Failures

I'm off work this week, and as I did last year I used this opportunity to take some classes I normally can't get to. I had a conflict for the Floor Barre® class yesterday, but I did get to today's Beginner II and Advanced Beginner classes. These are taught by the same instructor who teaches the Sunday and Thursday evening classes, so I figured I wouldn't have any trouble with them. Well, no more trouble than normal.

The Beginner II class was mostly the same as Sunday morning's class, which is what I expected. We're starting to get more emphasis on port de bras during barre. I didn't realize that they also have en dehor and en dedans movements, though it's kinda obvious once you think about it. Unfortunately, adding this to simple leg movements like tendu en crois makes me screw up either the arm or leg movements, whichever I'm not concentrating on. So much complexity to what seems so simple from the comfy seats in the theater. I'm starting to get the hang of pirouettes en dehor from fifth. That's not to say they're pretty, but I'm more on balance and get around further.

We did a combination in the center I want to record: glissade, petit jeté, coupé, chassé, pas de bourrée, glissade, assemblé, échappé, hold until the start of the next measure and repeat. I want to preserve this because I made it all the way through it twice to the right, and one and a half times to the left with confidence. I blame my screw-up at the end going left to the compliment our instructor offered, which distracted me badly. Apparently I haven't quite reached the point of being able to handle a distraction yet. If someone had said a year ago I'd be doing this combination at the speed we're doing it, I'd have laughed.

After the 15 minute break between classes I moved on to the Advanced Beginner class. Although the two classrooms are next to each other and have the same thermostat settings, this one was much colder. I've been wearing mid-thigh length shorts to class, but I may switch to tights to keep my legs warmer and maybe invest in a pair of knit warmers.

We've started to do yet another variation on the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise at the barre. This one has the outside leg doing nothing but degagé a la seconde on the odd counts, and the inside leg doing degagé devant or derrière as appropriate. This one is easier for me to follow, and it certainly gives practice with weight shifts (something this instructor is noted for).

In center I was doing pretty well until the last 10 minutes of class. Apparently we were running late, and the instructor decided to merge the last two jump combinations she had planned. As she walked us through the combination I followed for about the first quarter of it, then realized this was just something I wasn't going to get. When she then demonstrated the timing I gave her a little salute and moved to the back corner of the studio to watch. It was quite impressive, but nothing I could have done even half of. Someday, maybe, but not today.

As I watched the rest of the class I became aware of an ache in my right foot. It felt like I had a fold in my sock under the 4th or 5th metatarsal, but when I took my shoe off there wasn't anything there. My best guess is that it's the edge of the suede pad under the front of my foot. This encouraged me to bail on the last combination too as a precaution. Even now, 8 hours and a soak in the tub later, it's still sore. Maybe it's time to finish sewing the elastics in my backup pair of slippers so I can switch between classes.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Suddenly winter

Earlier this week it was in the 60s. This morning the thermometer outside my window read 23F (-5C). The low tonight is supposed to hit 19F (-7C), and with the wind chill it'll feel like 8F (-13C). The thermostats in the studios read 73F, but nearer the windows it was chilly and the hallways felt downright cold. Especially if you're only wearing shorts and a thin shirt. One of the women wore three layers of socks, two layers of leg warmers, two pullovers, and knit mittens through barre. Brrrr.

It's been a while since I've been in one of the Tuesday evening or Saturday morning classes due to other commitments. This morning one of the students who takes those classes and the Sunday AM B2 class came up to me to tell me that my absence has been noticed and commented upon. My plan has been go back to the Tuesday PM class after the holiday, but I don't think I can afford to spend a big chunk of both Saturday and Sunday in dance classes. At least not until I hit the lottery.

Today's instructor made a point of separating learning the "vocabulary" of ballet from executing the combinations. I feel like more of the steps are becoming familiar enough that I can execute them without conscious thought, leaving me more brainwidth to think about linking steps and combinations. In this morning's B2 class I realized that one of my problems is I'd come to think of a combination as a set of phrases, and I'd always stumble at the transition from one phrase to the next. Thinking about it as a continuous sentence let me get through the entire thing without the hiccup.

This helped a little bit in this afternoon's AB class, but I'm still struggling to keep up with the music. It's less desperate flailing and more a flow now, but it's still a struggle. I managed to do one combination reasonably decently, only to screw up the next. But it'll come with time.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Arf. Arf. Woof.

The plan for yesterday was to skip class and be very productive around the house. Instead, I woke up with a nasty case of allergies and spent the day in a Benadryl-induced haze, accomplished little more than sleeping, eating, watching DVDs, and creating a mountain of used tissues.

This morning I wasn't sure I'd be clear enough to go to class. The shower helped clear a bunch of it out of my lungs, so I got dressed and drove to class. I was tentative about the AB class when I checked in, promising to let them know if I decided to bail. Having pre-paid for the entire four-month semester makes it easy for me to leave that decision late. Warming up before class was uncomfortable in ways I can't attribute to skipping class Saturday.

The B2 class was interesting. Taking the AB class has given me an increased sense of confidence in my Sunday B2 class. I'm still learning things in B2, though. For example, I didn't realize that pirouette en dehor from fifth turns toward the front foot, not the back. I'm still having trouble with those, but I guess it'll come with practice. By the time we moved to the center I was feeling good enough to try attacking the combinations. We spent quite a bit of time on spotting. I guess our instructor has decided that my ego can survive being picked on (she's right), because she used me as her example. At one point I was standing alone in front of the class attempting turn after turn with her yelling, "Look at Reece! See Reece in the mirror! Now turn, and look for Reece!" Kinda like a dog trainer. But it did help.

After B2 finished I changed my shirt, refilled my water bottle, and found a spot at the front-most portable barre. No trouble seeing the instructor from this vantage point! I did try to avoid obstructing those behind me. The barre combinations were more fun than those in B2, as the complexity and the tempo encouraged more of a flow than individual actions.

I was tempted to bail before we started center work, but I decided to try it anyway. One of the combinations seemed very complex when explained, but when we marked it it seemed to flow fairly naturally. The first time through I noted the places I'd goofed on and was looking forward to fixing them on the second pass. But halfway through my second pass the instructor decided to "help" me spot by shouting "Look at Reece! Find Reece!" at me again. From her tone it's completely clear that she was trying to be encouraging, but without context and with my focus on anticipating the next step it just was totally distracting and I didn't realize what she wanted until I was off the floor. Everything went (gently) downhill from there. The highlights being that I still think I have one of the best tour jetés in the class, and one combination ended with the four of us in my group achieving a synchronized grand jeté.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Faster than a speeding bullet!

I went to my second Advanced Beginner class this evening. Traffic was a mess, again, requiring an hour to travel what is usually a half-hour trip on the weekends. This is why I try to leave 75 minutes before class: instead of being late I was changed and started warming up with 5 minutes to spare.

Barre was OK, and I only had trouble with one combination. It's one where the outside foot does dégagés en croix while the inside foot does a single dégagé at a regularly irregular timing. Sometime between now and Sunday I'll have to figure out how that works. I did make one mistake in energy conservation, though. We were given the option of doing some parts on demi-pointe or on flat and I did a bunch of it on demi-pointe. That might not have been the smartest idea, as it took a bit out of me later. Oh, and I still hate petit battements.

In the center the combinations weren't all that long or that complex. But oh are they fast! I'm having trouble remembering what comes next in time, and not getting the transitions and weight shifts done. Because the combinations are short we do get to repeat them several times, and I feel like I'm getting more and more of the sequence every time through. The instructor is being quite encouraging though, saying she does lots of the same combinations and that in a couple of months I'll either be quite annoyed at the repetition or have quit in frustration, with the former being preferred. Ok, that's fair.

One thing we did that I greatly enjoyed was a tour jeté. I sorta remember these from my first ballet lessons back in the 1980s. Back then we were dancing on smooth wood floors and I was only taking one class a week, so on occasion I'd have trouble getting my foot underneath me for the landing and would face-plant rather ungracefully. With better flexibility and a comparatively sticky Marley floor, that's less of a concern. This combination ends with a piqué arabesque, followed by a turn, a couple of linking steps the other direction and the tour jeté. I don't know if I did the linking steps she called for because after the arabesque the ancient muscle memory sorta took over and I did whatever it was we used to do in preparation, kicked that leg up high, turned in the air, and stuck the landing. It was either so wrong the instructor decided I was still figuring it out, or right enough to not warrant a correction. It felt right to me, and given that it's been almost 30 years since I've done one that felt very satisfying.

I'm probably going to take Saturday off, so my next classes with be the 3-hour B2/AB combination Sunday.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Risen from the Dead

Reports of my death by ballet were somewhat exaggerated. In fact I felt pretty damned good afterward, given that I'd just been in ballet classes for 3 hours straight. Changing in the dressing room afterward, one of the older men from the class said "Oh, I'm going to feel this in the morning." I thought, "Why? That wasn't that bad." But this morning I had to agree with him. The upper part of my left calf muscle was really tight most of the morning (and it's still stiff), and it took some gentle stretching before I could flex my right foot enough to go down the stairs. But I used to feel far worse after a single 90 minute class, so I'll call that progress. Of a sort.

I think the difference in my pirouettes from morning to afternoon is due to the starting position: in the morning we started from fifth, which I haven't done much of, while in the afternoon we started from fourth. One mystery no longer mysterious. I think I'm starting to see results from the stretch classes too. Grand battements to the front put my foot at or above barre level (roughly horizontal), and while I don't get as high to the rear it's a lot higher than it used to be. My position in attitude is also looking better. My turnout in grand plié a la seconde still leaves a lot to be desired but may be a bit better.

At the Advanced Beginner level I'm starting to see students showing real skill. One of the women has extension and control worthy of a pro. Another took class en pointe. I'm back to being on the bottom rung of the ladder, but instead of feeling out-classed I just feel challenged in a good way. I even got words of encouragement from fellow students when I looked doubtful. Now if I could just figure out how to get to all the classes I want to take without abandoning my already-meager social life...

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Death by Ballet

Having carefully cornered myself mentally into attending the Advanced Beginner class this afternoon, I made preparations. I packed an extra shirt and hand towel for the class, along with an extra pair of socks and tights just in case. Walking up to the check-in counter I announced my intention to take both the Beginner 2 class at 11 and the Advanced Beginner class at 12:30. That earned me a double-take from the clerk.

In the Beginner 2 class I felt pretty stable. A couple of minor hiccups at the barre but nothing significant. In the center I felt pretty good, though I couldn't do a pirouette in any direction with any grace. Starting a combination of piqué turns across the floor I somehow got nominated to be the lead-off dancer and did pretty well. I was a bit conservative with my energy and finished class feeling like I had enough left for at least barre in the AB class.

There isn't but a few minutes gap between the B2 and Advanced Beginner classes. I ducked into the men's changing room, toweled off and changed shirts before heading into the new classroom. I found a spot at the barre near the back next to the guy I mentioned in my last post. The combinations were unfamiliar, made more difficult by the students standing between me and the instructor who completely blocked my view much of the time. I must find a way to get a better spot. But none of the combinations were that difficult. When I screwed up it was because I'd mis-remembered the sequence not because it was too difficult, even the double frappés. Except, of course, for the petit battements: I have the worst trouble with them.

I expected the center work to be horrible. It wasn't. Some of the combinations were unexpectedly familiar, and my ability to turn pirouettes was restored as if by magic. Not that I was doing triples like some of the girls did, but my singles weren't bad and I didn't feel rushed or off-balance. It wasn't until the last 15 minutes of the 90 minute class that things started falling apart, and even then it was the speed of execution combined with my unfamiliarity that caused the trouble. At the end I walked out feeling better than I do after many of my Tuesday/Saturday B2 classes.

So this weekend I've taken 4.5 hours of ballet classes and a 75 minute stretch class. That's a new record for me.

Now I have a time management problem. Which classes to I take from which instructor on which days?

Friday, November 8, 2013

Irrational Envy

Is that redundant? You can be irrational without being envious, but isn't envy always irrational?

But this isn't a blog about language, it's about dance. And about people who dance. The other character in this story is a young (late 20s?), tall, thin, adult student in some of my classes. He dances as if he's been doing it for years, though when I asked him several months ago he said he'd been taking classes for less than a year. Since then he's moved up to the Advanced Beginner level and seems to be doing well there.

Sunday a friend and I went to see TWB's production of Giselle. During a scenes where the hunting party arrives, two beautifully sleek dogs are led on stage for a few minutes. This seemed to be a big hit with the younger members of the audience, based on the comments I heard from those near me. Of course they were led off again before the dancing started again.

During the break in Tuesday evening's class I overheard a discussion of this performance and wandered over to join. It seems the man leading one of these dogs was the student I mentioned above. He made it sound like it was no big deal — it was a non-dancing role as an extra and he was on stage very briefly — but we all offered honest congratulations anyway.

And my congratulations were honest. I'm very happy for him. But at the same time I have this twinge of envy. Absolutely irrational, but present nonetheless. I like to think I'm progressing. Improving. And I am. I can see it in the mirror. But there's this little part of me that asks, why is he so good with so little apparent effort? Why don't I have a family friend call up and ask if I'd like a walk-on role in his professional ballet company's show?

What follows is a cascade of what-ifs: What if I'd taken classes at this school in my 20s (something I'd considered) rather than a community center? What if I'd stuck with it instead of dropping out when my commute changed? When will my improving skill intersect with the inevitable limits imposed by age and health?

Like I said, irrational.

I almost went to the Advanced Beginner class last night. I had my bag in the car, but I had to work late instead. I'm considering staying for the AB class Sunday after the B2 class that morning. At least for barre. Right.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

I'm confused

Just got home from the Washington Ballet's production of Giselle. I really enjoyed it. We had great seats, center orchestra just a tiny bit stage left of center, far enough back so that our eye level was above the stage by a couple of feet but not so far back that I felt distant from the stage. Such a sad story, though. And why did Albrecht get to live while both Giselle and Hilarion end up dead? I guess royalty has its privileges.

I am confused about what it is about six clean piqué turns performed by a professional dancer that drives the audience to applaud and shout "Brava!", yet a developpé that starts from a sous sus en pointe and slowly develops to a very high extension with no support and nary a waiver is met with silence. Yeah, the turns are flashy. Maybe it's just that I can do six piqué turns, but can't hold a simple retiré balance for half that long even without the weight shifts.

I saw one slip in the entire performance, by the Wili Queen, and she recovered very well. I'm not sure anyone else even noticed it.

There was one moment where the Wilis exit stage right in groups of four that reminded me of my classes where we dance across the studio in groups of four. I don't know that I'd look good in a romantic tutu though.


I got two of 'em today. One at the barre and one in the center. Color me bouncy.

I don't remember what I was doing at the barre, but in the center we were doing a simple combination at a rather fast speed (fast for us, at least). Starting from fifth effacé: glissade, jeté, coupé with a turn to the corner, tombé, pas de bourrée turning back to fifth effacé and repeat. The first pass through wasn't great, and our instructor suggested avoiding a pause after the jeté, "bouncing" straight into the coupé instead. Somehow I ended up in the front of our group of three, and with nothing to distract me I just launched into it. With the bounce the timing worked so much better, and I found myself keeping to the beat with no difficulty. It felt like dancing rather than a a gym exercise, which is still a rare feeling. About half way across the floor the instructor called my name in delight and said something like "that's wonderful!" Wow! That was going to the right, my strong side. Going left it wasn't quite as good, but still OK.

We did another simple combination, this one with turns: starting in "B+" the back foot comes forward into tombé, pas de bourrée, chassé to tendu derrière, plié in fourth, pirouette en dehor to fifth, chassé to tendu derrière, plié to fourth, pirouette en dehor to a lunge, and repeat. Trying again to heed all the advice on turns I focused more on position than rotation, and was excited when the turn seemed to happen as if by magic. In fact, I was kicking myself for not attempting a double on the last turn of the series to the right. To the left, though, my right leg was uncooperative and I barely made it around with an extra little hop even on my best attempt. Still, I think the form was better and the rotation will come when my leg is happier.

After class I had a chat with one of the other regulars about compliments. She admitted she's one of the "zombie dancers", as our instructor calls them, who is so totally focused internally that she appears to be staring blankly into space. She was on the last repetition of one of the combos when the instructor called her name and said "that's good!" Hearing her name, through, broke her concentration and caused an immediate screw-up. She said she never understands anything an instructor says while she's dancing, be it compliment or correction. While I sympathize with her, I'm glad that I don't have quite that much difficulty with it.

I have tickets to see the Washington Ballet's production of Giselle tonight. I'm going to go dig up my copy of "101 Greatest Ballets" and read up on it first.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


I found myself in a strange position in class today. That of being one of a few who did the center combos right while many others struggled. Not perfect, but not feeling confused about what we were doing. I like this feeling.

A bunch of things I've been told repeatedly about pirouettes are beginning to stick. Today's comment was, "On a single turn, it's all about balance, not rotation. The turn is almost an afterthought." Coupling this with the "lock your supporting leg straight" comment from last class has resulted in what feels like a big step forward. I'm didn't always get all the way around, especially to the left (en dehor), but it was much cleaner and far more on balance. I'm quite tickled. If only these had sunk in earlier...

The combo with the emboîtés made another appearance. I don't know if I'm doing them quite right, but they're fun. Our instructor referred to them as a sort of piqué, but I still think they're better described as chaînés. The timing was faster today, and the first time through I heard a call "Musicality, dancers!" from the instructor. The second time through was better, and I'm sorta OK with the way the third turned out. Meaning I know there's lots of room for improvement, but it's good enough for today.

Then came the Stretch class. A group led by this instructor is apparently headed for China, and a professional videography team was recording her classes. By request of the students we didn't do "frog", it being considered unattractive. Regardless I wobbled out of class feeling unsteady. I'd had a bit of trouble with my hip flexors and quads during the ballet class, and the stretch class exacerbated the problem. Still, I'm seeing benefits that make it worth taking.