Friday, November 3, 2017

Ballet Techniques review

I've now taken three of the four classes in the four-class "Ballet Techniques" series. It's so much like an intro class that it seems like it should be easy, but it's not. Or maybe I should say this is really basic beginner stuff but I'm still having trouble with it. Of course, that's why I wanted to take this class in the first place.

This posting started out to be a narrative of the first two classes, but it's taken until now to sort out what I wanted to say. I've finished the narratives but switched to more of a commentary (or rant) at the end.

Before the first class I'd carefully figured out when I needed to get up so I could get there unhurried with plenty of time to stretch before class. Instead I slept through my alarm and woke up 45 minutes before class start with a 30 minute drive to get there. I walked in as the instructions were being given for the first exercise. Not a good way to start. I had a bad spot at the barre where I really couldn't see the instructor very easily, and no one visible to follow during that first exercise. I did okay but did not distinguish myself. It was hot in the studio, and although there were long gaps between exercises while the instructor explained things, I was dripping with sweat by the end.

The class started with 13 students, ranging in skill from one who may be pre-pro to another who does grand battement with her working-leg knee bent. I left feeling like we'd spent far too much time in explanation and not enough practicing. But to some extent the explanation is necessary. Unlike some other classes where the goal is to get 20-some students through a bunch of exercises, the this class is focused on getting a few things right. There's more emphasis on port de bras than in any of my previous classes, where that is kind of something added on after we've figured out the feet. In this class it's part of the package from the start.

The second morning I was determined not to repeat the mistakes of last week. Rather than depending on the soft beeps from my phone I set my real alarm clock for 7am and went to bed early. Unfortunately I didn't sleep well and was up for a while at 4:30, so when 7am came around I really did NOT want to get up. But I still managed to arrive 40 minutes before class time. I spent most of that time stretching slowly and carefully.

Another change I made was to consciously position myself so I could watch another student during the first time through each barre exercise. I found the instructor's explanations to be unclear at points. Sometimes I didn't understand the intended timing; other times he'd explained several possibilities and wasn't really clear on which he wanted us to perform. The student I was behind is one of the best in the class, and despite occasional mistakes seemed to understand better what was intended. The second time through an exercise we faced the other direction, of course, but by then I'd generally figured out what was wanted and felt confident doing it on my own.

I'm getting pinged on some errors more-or-less consistently. For example, I have a tendency to focus on the floor about 20 feet in front of me, rather than looking out at the "audience". He's not the only instructor who has commented on this, and I'm trying to remember not to do this in all of my classes. He also claimed that my working foot is sickled in passé, and tried to physically move my foot into the correct position. In reality the problem is that I don't have the flexibility to move my leg or foot into the position he wants, with assistance or without.

The morning of class #3 I've already mentioned in an earlier post. I got to sleep early and was fully awake when my alarm went off, but had very little desire to get up. But I did anyway, and arrived for class early enough to stretch out. Four of our 13 students didn't show up, bringing us down to 9 hardy souls.

During barre our instructor found that several students didn't really understand what a tendu was, especially to second. He told them that the reason they had difficulty keeping up with the pace of a particular exercise was that they were swinging their legs in a circle, rather than directly out and back. After trying to help a couple of the others, he decided mine went a bit forward rather than directly to the side. He placed a small object directly to my side and told me that my tendu a la seconde should reach for it. Every single instructor until now has made a point that your tendu to the side should track toward where your toe points when fully turned-out, and if your turnout is not 90 degrees then it will track diagonally somewhat. That includes a number of active and retired professional ballet dancers. My maximum turnout is about 50 degrees, not 90, so my tendu a la seconde is not and should not be directly to the side.

By the end of class we were doing short exercises with balance and small jumps intended to work up to turns. It would be really nice if I didn't feel exhausted by the time we start these, as it throws off my balance. I find it really frustrating when attempting something I know I can do when I'm not exhausted but instead feel like an idiot.

Up to now I've given a narrative description of this class, but I feel the need to change that here.

I don't really mind it when this instructor tells anecdotes about how his 8 and 10 year old boys respond to certain instructions. I'm well aware that there are pre-teens who are more capable dancers than I am. However, I do object to us as a class being told that we should be able to do something because even his boys can do them. Further, comments about how professional dancers do ten times as many relevés or pliés every day are also not helpful. Nor do I find comments on how he, a former pro, can still do more at 62 than we can to be inspiring. Instead, these come across as insulting.

Why would someone take a class like this, if not because they recognize the gaps in their abilities and want to improve them? In this situation it's the instructor's job to identify what the students need to improve and work on those skills. The most likely reason that we don't have the skills his boys have is that we haven't had structured training for several years. Most of us got started by jumping in to an adult beginner class and picking it up as we went along; nothing structured about it. I think the idea of this class is a good one but I'm not sure it's being well executed.

An example of this is the focus he's placing on little motions of the hands and sometimes arms that add to the expressiveness of the movements. These are wonderful tidbits, and I wonder if this isn't what he was hoping to be teaching. Instead he's working on basic techniques that we would have mastered at a young age, if only we'd taken classes at a young age. Maybe that accounts for the above.

I suspect it's going to be another fight to get to class Sunday morning. In favor of going is that I think I am actually learning things I won't learn in my regular classes. Also, Daylight Savings Time ends here in the US at 2am Sunday morning, so class effectively will start an hour later according to my body. On the other hand I blew off class last night so I could cook dinner and go to bed early, and I really like Mané's classes. I might just decide to spend this weekend working on my house. Only time will tell...


  1. I hear you when you say, "The most likely reason that we don't have the skills his boys have is that we haven't had structured training for several years. Most of us got started by jumping in to an adult beginner class and picking it up as we went along; nothing structured about it." I feel exactly the same way; I took ballet for 2 years when I was in elementary school and then could not again until college. After college I did not take any ballet again until I was 40! So I definitely have gaps in my ballet education because I did not have much structured and consistent instruction. Even now, I keep starting and stopping class (sometimes 3 times/week, 2 times/week, 1 time/week and right now, 0 times/week) due to family and work obligations, health reasons, etc. Frustrating!

  2. I've always been taught the opposite about 2nd position - that it's straight out to the side. I've read of teachers who teach beginners to track along the same angle as the feet/turnout, feeling that that's easier for a beginner to do, but they then later teach them to go straight out.

    Thinking of it from a professional or even pre-professional point of view, surely the dancer needs to learn at some stage to go straight out to the side, so that for eg the corps de ballet all track to second on the exact same angle? A raggle-taggle of angles, some perfectly straight, some not quite, would ruin the entire line of the corps.

    Another thought ... Teaching adults, I'm finding teaching the littler, subtler movements helps the dancers to conceptualise what they're doing, why they're doing it and what will achieve both of the above. I haven't taught kids through the grades yet but thinking of my own journey as a dance student through them, the higher the grades, the more my teacher included these subtleties - ie she taught them in developmentally appropriate levels. Adults can totally understand those things right away, so when teaching, for me it's more a matter of what my students can take on board in that lesson without getting overwhelmed by it.

    As for passe - called retire in Aust! I've had the same sickling issue. For the record I found lying on my side and doing retires enabled me to get them right without having to fight gravity. (I have to a) really relax in the hip joint -stop the hip flexors being overactive and b) really really really pull up on my supporting leg, to get the position right.)
    Once I had it on my side, with a bit of experimentation I could get it standing up. Videoing myself helped, too. I felt like I was pulling up on the supporting leg but the video showed me my feelz and the reality of it were different!

    As a teacher it's really great to read your experience of the classes though. Thanks for that, things to keep an eye out for in my own classes.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

      I delayed replying until I had a chance to talk to all three of the instructors I take classes with frequently. All have been teaching for many years; one is a former principal dancer with the Washington Ballet who knows the instructor in question very well, having trained together under Mary Day. All said the same thing.

      In second position the feet are indeed aligned with plane of the body. However, in tendu to second the foot should move diagonally at an angle to the plane of the body consistent with the dancer's maximum turn-out. Moving directly to the side requires that either the working foot be turned in or sickled, or the body rotated to the rear. This is a simple matter of body mechanics. The only exception is when the dancer has 180 degree turn-out, which allows the motion directly to the side without twisting. Unfortunately, most of us don't have perfect turn-out; I'm lucky to get 100 degrees, let alone 180.

      My experience is that passé and retiré are used interchangeably here. I took a couple of classes in London while on travel, and found there really was no difficulty in understanding the different usages. I was once tempted to take a class in Japan when I stumbled across a studio offering adult classes, but I didn't have any of my dance gear with me.

      Have you come across so-called "Floor Ballet" yet? It's basically practicing ballet positions and movements while laying on the floor, much as you describe. The first time I took such a class I thought it would be a joke, but found it to be quite a challenge.

    2. Oops... make that "Floor Barre".


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