Category Archives: learning my craft
In the specific alternate universe that is ballet, it’s easy to spend all of your time being horrified by how much you still have to learn. There’s simply so freaking much material that it’s essentially impossible for one single human being to learn all of it in any neat, systematic sense.
That’s why a consistent focus on the basics is so essential: if you have placement, aplomb, a general sense of the structural logic of épaulement, and the deep training of muscles and brain, you can generally learn any step that a choreographer throws in your path.
You don’t have to actually know, for example, pas de harp seal. You see it and do it a few times, and because the laws of ballet are written on your bones (and muscles, and brain) in relatively short order you’ve got an acceptable ballet step[2, 3].
Still, as human beings, we’re wired to look ahead from time to time—and that can be terribly discouraging. We may find ourselves thinking, “There’s so much I still have to learn!” and reaching for the nearest pint, be it of ice cream or beer.
As such, I think it’s healthy, once in a while, to look back. Sometimes it’s very surprising to realize how far you’ve come.
Anyway. Yesterday, at Cirque rehearsal, I was standing on a bouncy tumbling track waiting for one of my partners to return, and because I can’t stand still I randomly did a whole bunch of entrechats sixes.
It didn’t occur to me then, but it wasn’t, in the overall span of things, that long ago that I did my first entrechat six.
It was only a few years ago that I learned Albrecht’s variation at LexBallet’s SI and found it, to say the least, rather a stretch. It was only five years ago and change that, having just returned to ballet, I struggled to get my brain back around glissade-assemblé (which isn’t really a compound step, but as well be, since it shows up all the time as a kind of balletic comma).
When I think back, I can recall the sensation of being vaguely daunted by the appearance of a pas de Basque, since I was taking a class in which knowledge of the same was considered a given and I hadn’t done one since middle school. At the time, I had to think of it as a handful of steps instead of as one entity.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit how recently balancé felt challenging (thanks again, Brian!). I spent a year or two just crossing my mental fingers and hoping it would come out right before Brian schooled my entire class by breaking it down, then putting it back together in a way that makes sense.
Two years ago—okay, as recently as a year and a half ago—I hated chaînés (mostly, to be fair, because they seemed to hate me).
Likewise, a year and a half ago and change, I realized that I needed to completely deconstruct my turning technique, and immediately despaired of ever getting back to a reliable triple. Two ear infections and a lot of concentration later, I’m just now at the point where I feel it coming: but my turns look so much better than they used to.
I used to hate adagio. I don’t know exactly when I fell in love with it (though I know I wrote about noticing it one day in class), but In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t that long ago.
Last year, quick sissones fried my brain every time.
I’ve reached a point at which learning new steps isn’t a major goal. Once in a while one comes down the pike—Mr D taught us revoltade a few weeks back—but mostly I’m honing what I already have; learning to use my body as a collected and polished machine. Picking up new steps isn’t usually difficult, so I don’t focus on it on the same way.
In learning ballet, we necessarily work from the specific towards the general.
The first things we learn are profoundly specific: the five positions of the legs and feet become the foundation of our entire body of technique. The coordination engendered by always using port de bras informs every movement in the canon, even if it’s in the unspoken, “The canonical port de bras for this step is backwards.”
Over time, as we absorb the language of ballet into our bodies, we learn to speak it fluently, with no trace of an accent. When I watch video of myself dancing now, I see that process in progress: gaps in my absorption of the language appear as hesitations and faults that might or might not be imperceptible to an untrained eye, depending on circumstances. Where I’m closest to fluency, I’m finally beginning to actually look like a proper professional dancer.
When I look at video from last year—Nutcracker, for example—I’m surprised by which things I clearly have to think about, and by the fact that what now feels like an instinctual awareness of the audience which governs things like the angle of my body in a moment of stillness was definitely not instinctual then. I can see myself thinking about it, and I can see myself forgetting to think about it.
(I suspect that a year from now, I’ll say the same thing. I’ll watch this year’s Nutcracker video and say, “Oh, no! How can you possibly have forgotten to open your downstage shoulder just another ten degrees?!” Maybe I’ll be saying that for the rest of my working life.)
When I look back at video from two or three years ago, I see what I’m guessing Mr D saw when he first invited me to come take company class: a lot of potential coupled with a whole lot left to learn.
All of this reminds me that, although there are days that I feel I’m standing still, or even rolling backwards down Mount Ballet, I’m not. I’ve come a long way.
I’ve written several times about how, in ballet, the goal posts keep moving.
I think that will always be true: ballet is an athletic pursuit, but first and foremost it’s an art. Once you approach raw physical mastery, there’s infinite room for improvement in artistry. Indeed,one governs the other: the requirement that each step be executed with beauty and feeling shapes the way we train our bodies.
But the endless progress of the goalposts doesn’t mean we don’t also progress.
It just means that we are never without the joy of pursuit.
- This is not a real step, unless it’s the step where you finish a demanding dance and just lie on the floor and wonder why your AD is trying to club you to death with choreography.
- …Though the meaning of “acceptable” varies by context. Because my arms like to do their own thing, it takes me a bit longer to get them to a professional standard than it really should 😑
- The caveat is that it may take you years to really feel that you perform the step in question beautifully: but an acceptable minimal professional standard will look beautiful to the bar majority of people who aren’t dancers.
Okay, so my turns are often, erm, not horrible these days (probably because my AD is relentless in his quest to make us do six billion turns per class) … And yet I’m still entirely capable of making a complete hash of them from time to time.
In the interest of full disclosure, clarity, and the greater good, then, here’s a spectacular example caught on video in the wild today and translated into handy screenshots. (I am NOT posting the video. I don’t want to scar you guys for life.)
We’re not even going to talk about my arms. They’d just doing it for the attention, and we cannot reward their egregious behavior by acknowledging it. I haven’t been this disappointed since … Well, tbh, 2016, but … you know.
Okay, I will say one thing about my arms. See that first photo? Balanchine prep up top; Cecchetti downstairs. No wonder this turn failed. It was the balletic equivalent of a mullet … replete with hamberder hands.
I’m going to cry.
This turn was not assisted by the fact that there’s a divot in the subfloor under my standing foot, but honestly that excuses nothing. Without said divot, it still would’ve been a fugly turn. You could take it to a salon and give it hours and hours of mud wraps and so forth, and it wouldn’t do any good. Lipstick on a pig*.
*I mean … some members of the porcine family are quite handsome. But lipstick? They don’t really, like, have lips.
Here’s a less bad example, just so I can feel better about life
The gesture leg is attached. The supporting leg is … well, sort-of turned out. My core, like, exists. The balance is fairly straight up and down. And in the video it’s evident that I spotted this turn like a boss.
That last one was of the “effortless double” species. The MOST important factor, for me, is simply keeping my coreengaged. This prevents Slinky Back (would that it could prevent Nickleback), which in turn basically prevents EVERYTHING ELSE THAT IS WRONG WITH THE FIRST TURN.
So engage those core muscles, kids!
…And remember: only YOU can prevent
There are so many reasons I’m glad that I auditioned for Gale Force, and right now one of the most significant is the opportunity it’s given me to begin honing my partnering skills.I wouldn’t say I’m great at partnering (yet: I might get there, who knows?), but I’m learning fast. I seem to be good at keeping my partners from hitting the deck when things go south,which is comforting, because honestly I mostly have no idea what I’m doing, still.
Anyway, of all the things I’ve learned about partnering thus far, the most important seems at once staggeringly obvious and perhaps a little surprising (which: remember the time you tripped over that brightly-painted curb that you’d noticed before but forgotten and immediately thought, “Jeez, what’s wrong with me?”).
And that most important thing is, of course, trust.
Last night, we started working on a new piece, and AA, the choreographer for this one, gave all of us leeway to toss in elements we thought might fit, including partnering stuff. At one point I looked at Dot and, perhaps because we’re both equally mad and utterly extra, I said, “Cradle to Bluebird?”
And she said something along the lines of, “Slay, Queen!” (Because, as I’ve mentioned, we’re both extra AF.)
And so we tried it, annnnnnnd:
I don’t know if either of us expected this to work on the first try: but we trust each-other, so we both dove in full-steam ahead, and it worked like a charm.
- Though if you know how this lift is supposed to work, you know she’s a little forward of her balance point in this shot, which was the result of my failure to sufficiently account for her skirt. D’oh! Obviously, we made it work.
I would say, “Obviously, you need good technique as well,” but I’m not sure that’s quite as important as it sounds. You need to understand how your body works and possess a feel for the laws of physics. If you’ve got those two things and trust, you’re most of the way there.
Ballet is great at teaching you to use your body. So are acro and gymnastics.
As for physics … People are forever observing that ballet dancers begin training early because it takes ages to teach the brain and body to work together to produce beautiful technique, but I think there’s another element as well.
Only experience can develop a gut sense for the way bodies behave in space. When you’re faced with the daunting task of grabbing your friend and tossing her up into a balance on your shoulder, you don’t have a lot of time to make calculations. You may be strong, but if you try to do it slowly, the laws of physics are likely to come out on top.
You have to be able to mentally spitball the physical process and the trajectory; to be able not only to visualize what’s going to happen, but to tactilize it, if you will: to imagine with your body how the forces involved will feel.
That way, when you attempt the actual lift, you’ve got a model already in place.You don’t have to consciously think it through–which is good, because lifting humans is a finicky business, and you need to be able to respond without delay of something begins to go wrong. You don’t have time for conscious thought.
If something starts to feel off, you instinctively call upon a lifetime of being a body that moves through space with power and freedom. The accumulated experience of that lifetime drives the inner mechanism that makes you shift your weight, lift your shoulder, step back just a little on one foot (all of which I’m doing in the photo above, to compensate for having placed Dot too far forward).
You don’t think about it; you just do it.
The unspoken knowledge that your body will figure out how to keep you safe when things go south is the foundation of the kind of trust that dancing requires. If you need proof, show a sedentary person a sauté fouetté or even a pas de chat en tournant and ask them to give it a try: they’ll probably respond, “Are you out of your mind? I’d kill myself!”
Partnering required that same trust on a different level: when you grab your friend, swing her into a cradle lift, and roll her up onto your shoulder, she’s trusting you to be able to make the necessary split-second adjustments that will stop her falling, and you’re trusting her to make herself as liftable as possible.
You’re tacitly agreeing that both of you operate from a profound applied understanding of gravity, mass, momentum, trajectory, balance…
You’re tacitly agreeing to apply that knowledge even if things feel a little shaky for a second here or there.
That last bit is crucial.
When we feel we’re in physical danger, our true, inborn instincts tell us to ball up and protect our vital organs.
That’s fine in cradle lift–in fact, the tighter your partner tucks, the easier cradle lift becomes, at least until she’s tucked so tightly that she cuts off circulation to one of your arms. Then you’ve got a whole new problem.
It’s not, however, true for any other lift in the repertoire, and especially not for Bluebird.
Excepting cradle, every lift in the classical repertoire involves some degree of extension–which means that the partner doing the lifting has to overcome gravity in challenging ways.
- One of the entry paths to shoulder-sit is also facilitated by your partner turning into a ball, but only for a moment. Also, purists sometimes argue that shoulder-sit isn’t part of the classical canon. I’m no authority on the subject, but my opinion is that while shoulder-sit is a circus trick, so are many of the showstopping elements in the canon: literally. According to Jennifer Homans’ exhaustive and authoritative history Apollo’s Angels, ballet really did adapt many of its steps from the circus. (#TheMoreYouKnow) At any rate, Serebrennikov covers shoulder-sit in his text on partnering,which is good enough for me.
If you’re attempting to sling your partner into a hip-balance (to borrow a term from the aerial arts) on your shoulder, she needs to trust you enough to unfurl herself into a profoundly vulnerable position in which she becomes, in essence, a see-saw.
If she doesn’t, at best, the beautiful bluebird lift turns into something closer to a dead-bird lift. Dead-bird lift probably has its place in tragic ballets and in modern dance, but it’s also a thousand times harder for you, with your feet on the ground, to support.
At worst, she’ll pivot around your shoulder and faceplant, and if you’re lucky she’ll kick you in the back of the head in the process and knock you out cold so you don’t have to live with the shame of having failed to save her (which is why it’s always the boy’s fault, in classical ballet: your job description involves making sure your partner doesn’t get hurt, since you’re the one with your feet on the ground). At least,not til you wake up.
Just about anyone can sling, say, fifty pounds of board lumber of a reasonable length up on one shoulder with relative ease. On the other hand, slinging fifty pounds of potatoes, loosely packed, is a much greater challenge (not least because you’re likely to take a potato or two to the jaw when you least expect it: potatoes fight dirty).
Now multiply that challenge by three, and you begin to see the problem.
Thus, as you’re merrily tossing or slinging or rolling or pushing your partner onto your shoulder, she has to tell her inborn instinct to fold up for safety, “Not now, we’re busy” whilst simultaneously listening very closely to the acquired instincts that help her do the astounding things that make up every ballet dancer’s bread and butter. She also has to listen to whatever your body is doing.
When she trusts her body, so to speak, and you trust yours, then you can trust each-other so much more easily. When you trust each-other, you try things that frankly seem a bit daft and they work.
Curiously, all of this happens without a great deal of talking. In fact,when it works, it’s about as close as I’ve come to experiencing actual, literal telepathic communication .
- Some people might argue that making love must be closer. I doubt any of them have tried dancing a pas de deux, let alone creating one from whole cloth. Sex is great, but if your version involves, say, bluebird lift or overhead press lift, it’s probably much more interesting than mine.
If you don’t trust each-other, at some point in the process, one or both of you will hesitate at a critical moment–and while I’ve yet to drop anyone, the experience that stems from that hesitation is always terrifying.
That moment’s hesitation is a moment in which your partner has no idea what you’re “saying” with your body or what you’ll do next.
Whether you’re the lifter or the liftee, this is akin to the moment in a relationship when Boo says, “If you can’t figure out why I’m so upset I’m certainly not going to tell you!” …Only with the added risk of catastrophic injury. You’re basically left with no way to predict what your partner will do next: you just have to guess and hope you get it right.
Someone with reasonable experience in partnering can often save a lift even then–but when you’re learning, if you’re the one doing the lifting, your goal instantly becomes simply to not drop your partner; to save them by any means possible.
Which, if we’re honest, can be scary as heck for both of you: for you, because suddenly all the responsibility is in your hands; for your partner, because suddenly they have no control and can’t predict what’s going to happen.
Hesitation can also render many lifts pretty much impossible: I’m pretty strong, but I doubt that I could slowly dead-lift, say, 140 pounds above my head.
When I press-lift someone, timing and momentum are crucial. Her jump overcomes enough of the pull of gravity to allow me to lift her past the part of the movement in which I’m weakest—the part where she’s above the level of my shoulders but not yet high enough that I can lock my arms out to sustain her weight above my head (which is totally a circus trick, in my book, but it’s a good one!).
For whatever reason, Dot and I seem to have developed a trust that prevents hesitations and allows us to overcome the inevitable glitches when we try new things together.
I think this stems in part from the fact that we’re both very game experimenters, natural-born crazy monkeys, if you will. But it also stems from familiarity: during our experiments, sometimes things do go sideways, and when that happens, I always manage to catch her, and she always manages not to kick me in the face. Then, I wouldn’t mind if she did: my willingness to risk a kick in the face is crucial to my ability to keep her from hitting the ground when we find ourselves at a sticky wicket.
Anyway, there you have it: the most important thing I’ve learned about partnering.
If you don’t have perfect technique, trust will get you through.
If you don’t have trust, though, nothing will.
- …you’re trying to figure out where to cram in a side-side-side gig so you can make some extra money this summer so you don’t have to worry as much about expenses during the main season >.<
- …you realize that you’re performing at a gig you couldn’t currently afford to attend
- you look at your summer rehearsal and performance schedule and realize that you have officially broken your summer break o.O’
- …you discover that inflatable bathtubs exist ❤
- …you realize that, although you don’t think of yourself as an ambitious person, you actually do have some pretty lofty goals that you want to achieve in your lifetime … they’re just not necessarily ones that chime with conventional ideas about “success”
Last week, DS and I put the final touches on our piece for PlayThink’s mainstage show, Gale Force rehearsals began, and I discovered that I do really freaking good turns if I don’t have contacts or glasses on (weird, right?).
My hypothesis about the turns thing is that being unable to see anything clearly prevents the following:
- Spotting too high … which I STILL do all too often
- Hyper-focusing on my spot spot. I didn’t realize I might be doing this until I paused to analyze the feeling of those really, really nice and effortless doubles (and one effortless triple) I tossed out there the other day. I think I get so fixated on the idea of ACTUALLY LOOKING AT AN ACTUAL THING IN THE ACTUAL WORLD that my neck stiffens up in an effort to fix my focus. A stiff neck doesn’t help your turns, guys.
I also finally started listening to Hallberg’s A Body of Work, which I bought on Audible before the season ended and have been putting off because … well, reasons, I guess. I don’t know precisely what those reasons are, though I could probably figure it out if I sat down with my inner being and had a good conversation.
I know part of it was just the sheer dread of having to hear The David Hallberg talking about his amazing successes as a dancer during a time when I was feeling like literally the worst dancer alive.
It turns out, though, that Hallberg is as engaging and humble as an author as he is lyrical and princely as a danseur. So it turns out that in addition to being a fabulous dancer he might ALSO be a fabulous human being. He certainly comes across as thoughtful and very, very human in his writing.
Curiously, many of his struggles are #relatableAF in fact. I found it immensely edifying to hear about his difficulties with his early efforts at partnering, you guys.
Speaking of edifying, I also got an offer for a full scholarship to a summer intensive in Europe, though sadly it coincides with tech and theater week for GFD’s show, so I can’t go. But it was really cool, anyway.
This summer I’m focusing on partnering, tuning up my turns, and NOT DOING DUMB THINGS WITH MY HANDS.
As you may or may not be able to tell from this picture, I’m also working on #BalletFitness … specifically:
- whittling down my thighs so I don’t have to fight with them in 5th position ;D
WRT that last one: I don’t mean spot-reducing; I mean focusing on using the right muscles so my stupid quads will chillax and get out da darned way, while focusing on eating good food so I don’t either gain a lot of weight or constantly feel puny and starved.
I’d like to reiterate, once again, that for me, the size of my thighs is a functional thing. There are people who are much softer and curvier than I am who can dance really well with much bigger thighs because their pelvises are arranged in a way that allows them to access a tight 5th position at their size (which might, for some of them, be harder at a samller size).
Over the past year or two, I’ve realized that I not only have hyuuge quads, but I also have very little clearance because of the way my pelvis and my humeri come together. This means that regardless of my apparently awesome capability for rotation in the hip joint, my 5th position is prone to difficulty because my big, stupid legs are in the big, stupid way.
I mean. They’re not really stupid legs. They’re good legs, Brent. They’re powerful legs. They make it easy for me to jump high and lift people (and yes, in case you’re wondering, you legs and core really do most of that work almost all the time).
But they are big, and they’re set close together, and those factors conspire to place them right in each-other’s way if I’m not vigilant about working in such a way that A) my quads don’t go, “COOL WE GOT THIS BRUH” and inflate to the size of intercontinental ballistic missiles* and B) there’s not much extra “fluff” to get in the way. “Fluff” is probably better than muscles, since it’s squishier, but there’s just no freaking room.
*intercontiental balletic missiles???
So basically I’m in the midst of this crazy transition during which I continue to be sort of flabbergasted by the fact that I am apparently doing this dancer thing now, but also not entirely flabbergasted in the same way I used to be. I don’t know exactly how to describe That Feeling When, so I’ll leave you instead with this lovely picture of ya boiii Mercutius T. Furbelow expressing his sentiments about the arrival of summer weather here in the 502:And this update on the status of my surgical scars (or relative lack thereof):
Thing the First: I’ve submitted my contract for next season with Actual Ballet Company. It’s going to be interesting, as it looks like the roster is changing quite a bit. I’m not sure how many boys we’ve got for next season.
Thing the Second: last week I had a very nasty surprise cold. It completely knocked me flat for several days, but I seem to be better now. Yay?
Thing the Third: I’ve begun work on my piece for PlayThink and my solo piece for GFD. My friend DS kindly agreed to be my partner for the PlayThink show, since I apparently traumatized Denis by making him improvise last year and he doesn’t want to do it this year 😀
I’m actually quite happy to be working with DS, because she’s a fabulous dancer and, more importantly, loves performing as much as I do.
She also is totally fearless about partnering and she taught me a new lift yesterday:
Just in case you’re wondering, I don’t always partner in a mask. There’s a reason I’m wearing the mask, but IT’S A SECRET so you’re just going to have to cope. Time reveals all, or at least mostly all.
I don’t actually know what this lift is called. It’s kind of an over-the-shoulder-whirly lift, but I’m sure that’s not its actual name.
It worked the first time we tried it, after which DS said to me, “You’re really strong!” That was a lovely surprise, as I’ve been sadly neglecting core and upper body work for a while (though I’m back to working on it now). I think part of it is that I’ve just had really excellent teachers when it comes to lifting things, especially people. The whole “lift with your legs” thing comes in really handy, especially when your legs are used to launching 160 pounds of strapping lad into the air about a million times a day.
I’m also becoming, well, less bad at partnering promenades in passé, though I still think I look stupid doing them. OTOH, I have almost a month to improve them.
I had some thoughts on technique that I wanted to drop in here, but they’ve apparently evaporated out of my brain, so I’m going to call it a day.
- I am trying to accept the fact that “strapping” is pretty much the adjective that best describes my build at this point.
- One might argue that as long as my partner doesn’t look stupid, I’m more or less getting the job done.
Where to begin? BP went well, as did LouBallet’s Spring Dance Festival. My group’s piece in our show in SDF got a resounding response from the audience and made our director happy, and those are the things that warm the cockles of a dancer’s heart, or at least this dancer’s heart.
BP was my first show with a Big Giant Head, and while the Big Giant Head itself was awesome (our costumer is AMAZING), dancing with it on was a learning experience, even though I did very little actual dancing. I had exactly one lift, which didn’t go well in our first full-dress rehearsal (it was impossible to make the established lift work with the costumes in question), so we changed it to a simple cradle lift that both looked fine and worked. Except in the closing show I somehow managed to bonk my Big Giant Head against my partner’s Big Giant Head, which caused my Big Giant Head to go slightly askew, which led to me almost running both of us into a leg curtain on the exit.
Fortunately at the last minute the curtain hove into sight in what was left of my peripheral vision, and I was able to take evasive action. No dancers were injured in the making of this ballet, or at least not by me.
- I did dance on a somewhat dislocated hip for three weeks, and I’m still paying for that.
So goes the glory of the stage, eh?
Anyway, on the last day of our season I was presented with a contract for 2019-2020. Since I’d just auditioned for another company with surprising success, this left me with a quandary: dance with New Company next year, which will let me stay at home and work on getting the house together, etc, or bite the bullet and rent a room in Lexington, knowing I’ll need to add a second job into the mix in order to cover my expenses?
I’d be lying if I said I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I’m doing the right thing, but I’ve pretty much decided to go ahead and re-up with Actual Ballet Company The First for next year, even though it’s potentially going to make my life more difficult. I think the structure of the full-time schedule is what I need right now, and while I love the fact that New Company has thrown me straight into the deep end, they rehearse part-time.
- Regarding which, I’m doing the Cinderella Pas De Deux in their summer show, which is both delightful and terrifying because like, OMG Pas De Deux, but also NO PRESSURE o.O’
- Regarding which, summer ballet goal: “Improve Partnering Skills” looks like it’s getting checked off the list via the Baptism By Fire method
On the other hand, I really like the people and the company culture at New Company, and part of me feels like I might be making entirely the wrong decision. I’m not actually even sure who to consult about it, though I plan to buttonhole my various ballet peeps after class tomorrow (I’ve been out of commission for about 5 days thanks to a really nasty sinus/chest bug).
Technically I have until the 11th to hand in my contract.
I honestly didn’t expect to actually have, like, a choice at this point (or, for that matter, ever) in the thing I still have trouble calling “my career,” so to have a choice between two options that both have more bright spots than dark is sort of incomprehensible.
Either way, I’m embarking on a side-gig that should help keep me afloat throughout the season without also causing me to stop and catch fire, as it were.
Coming back to my old stomping grounds at LouBallet School after basically being away for the entire season, I’ve been able to see where I’m a stronger dancer than I was last September (and, of course, where I definitely still need work). I’ve been greatly enjoying class with L’Ancien, particularly the moments that I’ve actually managed to earn some shocking words of praise (don’t worry, though, to preserve my reputation I’ve made sure to be a complete screw-up whenever possible, and to do stupid things with my hands at all applicable times).
It’s weird, because one rarely has the chance to step away from the group of dancers with which one has done most of one’s meaningful training for a significant period of time, then return.
Anyway, needless to say, I’ve got my goals in order for the summer, and I’ll definitely be dancing somewhere in the fall.
I’ll also be dancing with New Company for the summer, which I suspect will be a delight. More on that soon. I don’t think I’ll be doing summer intensives, but I might do some masterclasses at LouBallet and LexBallet.
I have been wrestling a sinus infection, one of those opportunistic tagalongs that grabs hold on the wake of a brief-but-fierce virus. Thus far I’ve been trying to wait it out: but while the initial fever has abated, the lingering congestion, drainage, pharyngitis, and fatigue have pretty much convinced me that resistance is futile and a trip to the Immediate Care place is probably in order.
Throughout all of this, I’ve been prying myself out of bed to get to class and rehearsal. It’s just what you do. If I was still running a fever, I’d stay home to avoid infecting the rest of the company: in a company this small, two or three dancers out sick is practically a massacre.
I’m not feverish, though, so I gather my gumption and go.
It occurred to me this morning (a blessed reprieve, since the company isn’t called until 2 PM) that I wouldn’t do this for a desk job.
In fact, I couldn’t. Being still and concentrating is an enormous challenge when I’m at my best. Right now, it’s impossible.
At the ballet, I can mostly keep my head together when I’m moving, and when I’m not needed it doesn’t matter as much if my brain clicks itself off for a while. I can be a zombie on the sidelines, passively absorbing as much as I’m able to, until I’m needed on the floor again.
I don’t think I would’ve figured this out if I were working a desk job. I’d just have known that other people work through non-contagious illnesses that turn me into a zombie. I couldn’t have figured it out, because I wouldn’t have had the necessary data.
Think of me as a kind if intellectual shark: if my thought process is to live, I have to keep moving. At the best of times, micro-movements and occasional breaks to get up and walk around can do it. If I’m sick or sleep deprived, though, I have to really move to pass enough water over my metaphorical gills.
Driving is the most stressful part of my day right now: too much bodily stillness as the body and its protective shell—a missile that weighs a literal ton—hurtle down the road at around seventy miles per hour. Keeping my brain out of screen-saver mode is far harder than usual even with Adderall.
But I’m getting through it. After the intense mental burden of the drive, I manage all right at the ballet.I
And this is new information, and valuable: it’s not that I’m somehow weaker than my fellow desk-jockeys were when I worked at a desk. It’s that I need different inputs.
So that’s that. And now I need to go gird my loins and enter the fray. The dance, after all, isn’t going to rehearse itself.
It just occurred to me that I think my turns in second are getting worse because they are,
…And that they are because I keep stopping when I’m doing them wrong because I don’t want to look like an ass.
So I’m reinforcing the wrong technique.
I’ll begin with a caveat:
This will be my first attempt at a BG-style breakdown of a basic technical movement, and goodness only knows if it’ll succeed. So, if this turns out to be even more confusing than the explanations already out there, feel free to feck it out the window and be after finding yourself a better explanation.
Pas De Bourée: Another of the Hardest Easiest Things
As a dancer, you’ll probably execute some or another flavor of pas de bourée more often than any other step in the entire canon of ballet (not least because it’s one of the ways that we all surreptitiously change our feet when we suddenly realize that everyone else is standing on the other foot, so to speak).
This means, ironically, that it’s probably the single most important step in the entire massive arsenal.
By the time you’ve been dancing for a few years, you’ll be able to do the most basic PdB so readily that you’ll find yourself using it to navigate your way through the press at every social function you att—
You’re probably already using PdB that way, even if you’ve never taken a single ballet class or, for that matter, seen so much as a single poster for a ballet.
That’s because the plain-vanilla PdB is a staggeringly pedestrian movement … literally, in fact.
Pas de bourée is very much an organized stagger-step. I’ve often seen its name translated as “Step of the Drunk,” and while I’m pretty sure that “Bourrée” in this sense refers to a social dance.
Then again, at its core, social dance is just so much fancy walking and organized staggering anyway, and we must acknowledge that social dance and drinking go almost as far back as drinking and the attendant less-organized forms of staggering.
Okay, But What The Heck Does That Mean?
In short, your basic pas de bourée is just a sidestep that changes which foot is in front.
TL;DR: your whole goal, basically, is to move one foot out of the way so you can put the other one in front (or in back, if you’re going that way) without losing momentum.
When you execute a little sidestep to stop your toes being squashed by the latest SuperPram or avoid tracking through something nasty, there’s a good chance that you’ll automatically execute a nice little PdB.
There are, of course, umptillion fancier versions, many of them specific to the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus, whose decline L’Ancien routinely laments (with good reason: the refinements of PdB are both useful and beautiful).
Forget about them for now.
There’s no point in trying to wrap your head around pad de bourée a quatre pas until you’ve quite mastered the bog-standard pas de bourée that ballet teachers often describe with the shorthand “back, side, front.” Besides, entire classes full of advanced and professional students who struggle with those rare and specialized versions (ask me how I know 😑).
So where, then, do we begin?
First, by pinning “back, side, front” to a convenient spot on a mental pegboard where it won’t get lost and in which we can completely ignore it for now.
“Back, side, front” is helpful once you’re basically familiar with what you’re trying to accomplish, but it’s also vague: do the individual terms of the equation describe which foot to move or where to move them?
If you think about it too hard—even as someone who’s danced for yeeeeaarrrssss—it’s easy to get it wrong. There’s not enough of the right information.
So we will, for now, bid adieu to “back, side, front” and get back to Fancy Walking.
Let’s try a mental experiment.
I apologize in advance to those of you whose brains don’t do the visualizing thing. You might want to read through this a couple of times, get a feel for the story, and then actually act it out, ideally somewhere in which your loved ones or co-workers won’t wonder why you’re shouting, “Oh, no! It’s Boris the Pug!”
Oh, No! It’s Boris The Pug!
Imagine that you’re in walking along, minding your own business. You’re pretty good at walking by now, so if I ask you, “Which foot comes after ‘left?'” you’ll probably give me a long look and say either, “What are you on about?” or simply, “Right.”
Presumably, you also thoroughly grasp that after right comes left again, and so on ad infinitum, or at least until you reach the coffee shop.
Now, imagine that as you’re walking, in mid-stride, you spot your neighbor Pat just ahead, to your left, walking Boris The Pug.
Boris is an enthusiastically sociable pug who is locally famous for crashing into his favorite people (which includes anyone and everyone in eyeshot). As a resukt, Pat keeps Boris on a shortish lead—but good old Boris is nothing if not determined, and all at once he’s wheezily lunging towards you in hopes of head-butting your shin with ecstatic glee.
You, however, don’t wish to be party to Boris’ next collision. First of all, Boris is a bit of a dribbler, and you’re wearing your favorite trousers (or skirt, or whatever you like). Second, Pat lives to recount Boris’ history of hilarious head-butting incidents, and although you like Pat, you secretly like Boris more, and you hope this once to spare him from being the butt—dare I say, the head-butt—of the joke.
So as you put your right foot down and Boris the Pug torpedoes himself towards the place where he expects your left leg to appear, you sidestep: you swing your left leg to the right.
Because this does funny things to your mass with regards to gravity, and probably also because you want to give Boris a little extra wheezing room, instead of swinging the left leg forward and right and setting your left foot down in front of your right foot, you swing the left leg a little to the back and right and set the foot down just behind your right foot.
Your weight shifts onto to your left foot, and then your right leg also swings a little to the right, so your left leg has somewhere to go.
Next, you put your right foot down, and now your left leg is free to swing forward.
Finally, you can put your left foot down in front of your right foot and resume the normal course of your walk.
Congratulations! You have spared poor Boris from becoming the subject of yet another embarrassing collision story that Pat will tell at every neighbourhood soirée for the foreseeable future!
Oh. AND you’ve executed a pas de bourée in parallel (which is, I am led to understand, called a “grapevine step” in Jazz? But don’t quite me in that; my knowledge of Jazz is sketchy at best).
So that’s the size of it, really: your garden-variety pas de bourée. In the ballet context, you do this particular kind of PdB going sideways, with turnout, like so, assuming you’re beginning from first position:
- Shift your weight onto the right foot.
- Lift the left foot, swing it in behind the right foot, and put it down.
- Lift the right foot, swing it just a little to the right, and put it down.
- Lift the left foot, swing it to the right and put it down in front of the right foot. (If you’re doing the brushed version, it might very well feel like you’re brushing side to close front—another reason I’m putting a freeze on the “back, side, front” analogy.)
You do not, at this point, “do the hokey-pokey and turn yourself around.” That is absolutely NOT what it’s all about. At least, not unless your director tells you to, in which case all bets are off.
Anyway. Where was I?
Oh, erm, right.
Just like balancé, pas de bourée goes “right, left, right” or “left, right, left.”
If it attempts to do otherwise, it is forced to become a sort of mutant temps-levée, and nobody wants that.
In actual practice, you might either brush the feet out, then brush them back in (as you do in degagé) or crisply lift them. (The degagé version is usually taught first, probably because it feels more intuitive.)
In fact, you’ll often begin your pas de bourée with one foot already in the air, so the initial brush or lift is more implied than actual. You’re already there. You don’t have to close and then open again unless you’re specifically instructed to do so, because PdB is a linking step.
If a combination calls for tombé-pas de bourée (as so many do), and you’ve just tombé-ed onto your left foot, you’ll simply close the right foot (which is already in the air) behind the left foot, put your weight on your right foot, and so forth.
You’ll do this any time you need to change feet through a linking step without losing your momentum, but don’t need a glissade changée. In fact, it will very frequently be followed by a glissade changé, especially in that balletic equivalent of “shave and a hair cut, two bits” technically known as “tombé, pas de bourée, glissade, assemblé.”
Eventually you’ll discover that pas de bourée occurs at other moments, as well—sometimes even as a means of changing direction (tombé, pas de bourée, piqué arabesque has been known to occur, for example).
Even the fanciest versions (I’m looking at you, various flavors of PdB a quatre- and cinq pas), however, hew to the rule of “left, then right, etc” (or its equivalent, “right, then left, etc”) simply because we’re upright bipeds. The quadrupedal equivalent, the side-pass, is a fairly advanced dressage maneuver, presumably because coordinating twice as many legs is about fifty times as hard, so be glad you only have two legs.
This Was Really Long Though 😶
You’re right: it was. Just remember that pas de bourée will almost always change feet (ballet shorthand for “switch which foot goes in front”), and if you do it wrong you can cheat by surreptitiously coupé-ing one foot or just doing a little tendu, if you have time.
Of course, as soon as that becomes thoroughly hardwired, you’ll run into a teacher who throws in an occasional PdB without a change of feet, in which case you’ll find it edifying to know that basically everybody grits their teeth and prays when that sort of thing comes up, so don’t worry, it’s not just you.
- Reasonable enough, considering that the question suggests that I’m either profoundly intoxicated, deranged, an alien impersonating a human but not quite sure about the cookbooks t, or all three.
- Unless you’ve got a marching cadence running through your head, in which case you might reply, “Left … Left, right, left!” in which case, I don’t know but I’ve been told…
- Why a pug? Honestly, I have no idea. My inner world is a very strange place.
- The version in which you lift each foot precisely to cou-de-pied (which is usually short-handed as “coupé,” though technically coupé is an action rather than a position) while executing the whole movement on demi-pointe is called pas de bourée piqué, and if you want to see it in action, shows up in the female corps choreography in every Petipa ballet that I’ve ever seen.
- This is what makes “back, side, front” confusing. It’s telling you where to put your feet, but “back” and “front” are frequently used as shorthand for which foot in other contexts. It also doesn’t tell you where to start, which can be problematic, since either foot could end theoretically close back on the first count, but only one choice will lead you to end on the correct leg. There are few things as distressing as failing to change legs and proceeding to glissade directly into the person next to you.
But first: housekeeping! By which I mean, apologies for totally failing to post anything on Saturday. We had an unexpected visit from my MIL, AKA Momma Fluffy, who is awesome, and who I haven’t seen in quite a while, and as a result I totally blanked on it. I’ll try to get it out ASAP to keep the series going.
Tomorrow, we begin the second half of my first season with ActualBalletCompany.
During the first half of the season, I learned a great deal both about being part of a ballet company and about myself … and one of the things I learned is that I’m still horribly, horribly shy and socially-awkward.
Apparently, over the past few years–years in which I’ve settled comfortably into a dance- and circus-based social scene here in Louisville–I slowly forgot how terribly, terribly hard it is for me to connect with people I don’t know, especially when they already know each-other. (Admittedly, my summer intensive experiences should’ve reminded me of this, but since they resolved successfully, they didn’t.)
I also forgot, apparently, how my particular flavor of social awkwardness can make me seem like a bona-fide idiot.
When I’m nervous, my working memory, like, stops working. And when I’m around a bunch of strangers whose opinions of me matter immensely to the shape of the next year or so of my life, I get nervous. Like, really, really nervous.
I should note my nervousness isn’t a question of fearfully wondering, “What will they think of me?”
It’s more a question of experience. I’m really, really bad at the initial stages of getting to know people. When there are other people in the room who find my flavor of social awkwardness charming, that isn’t a big deal … but that’s a fairly rare circumstance, in my experience.
And dance is one of those contexts in which being a cohesive part of the group is immensely, immensely important.
Ironically, the working-memory failures that come with a bad case of nerves make it even more important.
When you dance, the greatest resource available to you isn’t the music, or the big fat book of ballet technique, or even YouTube.
The greatest resource available to you, right then and there, is your fellow dancers.
Because when you’re learning a dance, you’re going to miss something.
This isn’t because you’re stupid, or careless, or distracted (though, yeah, sometimes you’re probably going to be distracted, especially if you’re me). It’s because choreography comes at you hella fast, and you have to, like, blink sometimes.
To complicate things, you also can’t really see yourself in the way that other people can see you. So you might be absolutely sure that you Know The Steps, and you still might be wrong.
When you’re unsure, or better yet, you know you don’t know a step or a phrase, the single best thing you can do is ask another dancer.
If you’re shy, the thing you’re least likely to do is … you guessed it! Ask another dancer.
Obviously, this is a problem.
It’s an even bigger problem when your AD or your choreographer says, “Hey, you! You don’t know this part!” and it’s a part you’re dead certain that you know (because it’s, like, saute-balance-saute-balance-pique turn-pique turn-chaine-chaine-chaine-run away … why, yes, this is an example from my actual life, what makes you ask?).
Because that means that you’ve missed something without realizing that you’ve missed something, and now you have to figure out exactly what that is.
In my parenthetical example above, what I was missing was the arms. It wasn’t that I was doing something inherently wrong with my arms: my port de bras was one of the eleventy-million acceptable versions for the combination of steps in question.
But it was wrong anyway, because it wasn’t the one our AD wanted.
The problem is, he didn’t say, “You’re doing the arms wrong,” he just said, “You don’t know this step.” Which, to be honest, is valid: in the context of this dance, I didn’t know the step.
You guys: THE ARMS ARE PART OF THE STEP.
At this particular moment in the dance, I couldn’t see what anyone else was doing with their arms, so I didn’t realize that I was doing something different. Mr D called me out on it a few times in a row, but it didn’t occur to me to ask the girl standing next to me (who is actually one of the nicest, sweetest, and funniest people in the world, but because I was in Super Shy Boy! mode, I didn’t know that yet) what I was doing wrong.
It wasn’t until I videoed the piece and sat down to watch it that I figured it out … and because I couldn’t quite tell from my tiny phone screen what I was supposed to do, I finally, like, asked someone.
And it took almost no time to fix once I did, except for the fact that I’d done it wrong so many times that it’s burned into my brain the wrong way, and I still have to double-check it before we perform that particular piece now.
If I’d just asked earlier on (“Hey, BossMan says I’m wrong, here, but I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong … any thoughts?”) I could’ve saved myself that struggle.
When you’re shy, it can be extra hard to feel okay asking people questions that expose your weaknesses.
In a dance context, however, everyone’s performance depends on everyone else’s … so it’s deeply unlikely that someone’s going to say, “OMG, if you’re so dumb you can’t figure that out, I’m not gonna tell you.” (If someone does, you might be dancing in a group that’s toxic enough that you should think about finding somewhere else to dance.) Usually, they’ll say, “Oh, it’s this,” and demonstrate, and then you can go, “Okay, so like this?” and if you’re right, they’ll say, “Yup, that’s it!” and if not, they’ll adjust you accordingly, and you’ll all go on with your lives and learning the rest of the dance.
What it took me for-freaking-ever to realize is that one of the reasons I sometimes struggle to learn new choreography is that I am extraordinarily shy about asking when I don’t feel like I’ve got it.
Then, knowing that I’m very much a kinaesthetic (that is, physical) learner, I don’t walk through the choreography and nail it down, because I’m afraid I’ll learn it wrong and then have to un-learn and re-learn it.
Both of these things put me behind the curve. First, by failing to ask, I don’t patch the holes in my knowledge base. Second, by failing to loosely work through the choreography on my own I greatly lengthen the process of learning it.
In turn, both of these realities make me nervous (when you have to have the piece down and you know you’re not getting it as fast as everyone else, nervousness is pretty much the guaranteed outcome), which makes my working memory stop working, which makes learning anything next to impossible.
Which makes me look like a complete idiot (because in those moments I am one, albeit temporarily). Which makes people think I’m a complete idiot. Which makes them not want to work with me. Which is glaringly obvious even to someone like me who is not very good at reading social cues. Which makes me nervous.
Repeat ad nauseam.
The solution, of course, is obvious.
In this case, there’s only one way forward, and that’s just to bite the bullet and talk to the least-scary-looking person in the room.
Occasionally, you’ll get lucky and discover that she also isn’t sure about the step in question, and then together you’ll go and prevail upon her friend or friends until one of two things happens: you might find someone who’s dead certain that they know it, or you might discover that nobody’s really entirely sure and thus you might work something out by consensus.
And then, the next time you run it, either your AD will go, “Oh, hey, that looks better,” or s/he’ll say, “No! You’re all wrong.” (S/he might also add, “Oh my G-d, how many times do we have to go over this?!” but try not to take it personally: even the sweetest ADs get nervous, too.)
More likely, the person in question will say something like, “No big deal, it’s this,” and will show you (or tell you) what’s supposed to happen.
The thing I have noticed is that other people do this way more proactively than I do. They don’t waste a lot of time trying to muddle through and figure it out by trying to dance and watch at the same time (by which I don’t mean the usual kind of “watching” that you do to make sure your spacing is okay and that you’re in sync with the people in your group: I mean the high-cognitive load kind of watching that you do when you’re trying to learn brand new choreography).
Most people, if they’re really unclear on something, just ask someone.
So I guess one of my goals for the next half of the season is to stop being afraid to ask people when I’m unclear, even if I feel like I should have learned the choreography in question five months ago.
This won’t fix the thing that makes me amazingly adept at saying the wrong thing at the worst possible moment, or the fact that my sense of humor is (to say the least) odd and that people who don’t know me very, very well often don’t seem to understand that I’m joking.
But it will help me learn dances faster, and that’ll be a big step in the right direction.
With, I hope, the correct port de bras.
- You guys, for future reference: if you’re talking to me in person and what I’m saying sounds completely ludicrous, assume I’m joking. Likewise, I’ll continue to work on my delivery, in hope of someday being able to use irony, sarcasm, and guerilla-theatre-of-the-absurd without convincing everyone around me that I am, in fact, actually stupid.