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Variations on a Theme 

When I was fourteen, I read Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story for the first time. His potent image of all later loves as an elaboration on the theme of the first love; a “crab canon,” stuck with me—not so much because I agreed with it (I knew enough to know that I didn’t know anything about it), but because the language was so powerfully evocative. 

Anyway, I still don’t know if I agree with White’s narrator about the nature of first love (honestly, it’s been a while since I last read A Boy’s Own Story; I’m due for a re-read). I can, however, say that it’s a pretty good description of ballet. 

BW and I talked about this last night (while I walked in circles with my hands on my head, attempting to catch my breath, after the second round of the second petit allegro). As dancers, everything we do do is essentially an elaboration on one of a handful of basic themes. 

I look at my ballet notes from a year ago, and sometimes they literally say exactly the same thing I wrote down the day before yesterday. The literal content doesn’t necessarily change much, but the meaning changes immensely.

Something you’ve been working on for a year can feel like a revelation when your brain suddenly fires up a proliferation of shiny, new synapses in just the right pattern. So you write it down—lift and rotate from under the hip—only to realize later that you had already written it down a million classes ago.

But back then, it didn’t bear the same freight. You hadn’t yet learned to feel the individual muscles of your deep rotators. You didn’t yet know how to isolate and activate your adductors to the same extent you can now. Rond de jambe en l’air meant, simultaneously, exactly what it means now and something completely different.

Which is to say that the goal never changes. The goal, always, is the perfect execution of technique; mastery coupled with musicality, with expression.

The image in your head remains the same, but your sense of how to achieve it evolves.

What was conscious a year ago is automatic now, 15o or so classes (and countless repetitions) down the line. What is conscious today, presumably, will be automatic a year (200 classes or more, because you take class more often now) from now.

I find myself returning to the idea that the bodies of dancers are supremely educated bodies: just as years of (good) academic schooling hones our abilities to analyze and reason and helps us learn to activate the fibers of our minds in powerful and subtle ways, years in the studio help us find muscles most people never notice and use them to create beauty.

Dancer’s bodies (and minds) become fluent in movement the way the minds of mathematicians are fluent in math. Just like mathematicians, we achieve our fluency through repetition; through exercises that awaken capacities latent within us until, suddenly, we achieve new understanding.

So we continue: nearly three years (and G-d alone knows how many tendus and pliés and ronds des jambes) into this adventure in rediscovery, I continue to discover anew the things that I thought I already understood. 

This might be the most powerful ballet lesson of all: we never achieve perfection. The goalposts will always recede. 

No matter how much we have learned, there’s still learning to be done. Ballet forces us to be honest and keeps us humble (well, sort of). When I’m 80, and I’ve done more tendus than there are particles of dust in the desert of the Great Basin, I still won’t know everything. I still won’t be perfect.

That’s a powerful thought for someone who is, by nature, a bit of an overconfident know-it-all and a relentless perfectionist.

Lastly: right now, this body of mine is still gaining ground. Ballet tells me that. I am stronger and fitter and faster and more flexible than I was a year ago.

Someday that will change. Ballet forces us to acknowledge that reality, too, and either to evolve with it or run from it. 

I’m a jumper. For me, the ability to simply get off the ground is a G-d-given gift (though also the reason it’s bleeding hard to find trousers that fit). Age can be hard on jumpers: a day will come for every one of us in which we begin to feel our power slipping away.

I hope that day is still far off for me—but also that when it comes I’ll accept the lesson that comes with it: that there are subtler arts that age invites us to master; that the power and brilliance of youth are not the only or even the greatest power and brilliance.

These, too, are variations on a theme: one has little choice in the matter of aging (in short: we can age or we can die), but one can choose how to execute the movement that is age.

I hope that when I’m older, instead of being consumed by mourning for the loss of this power, this particular gift of flight, I’ll be able to be glad that I had it once and content to explore other, subtler gifts.

Either way, my ballet notes will probably still read, “Lift and rotate from under the hip*.” 

*Or, if I’m really honest, “Litt und ritoti frim uder tte hip”

Ballet Lessons: Get Out Of Your Own Way

Little by little, piece by piece, Ms. B of Hard Mode Ballet Class is making a dancer out of me.

Not just a guy who knows how to execute a bunch of ballet steps, but a dancer — someone who executes a bunch of ballet steps with élan; who uses his head and his eyes and his port de bras; who relates to the music intelligently and expressively; who doesn’t grip with his neck, for frack’s sake.

In order to do that, one must learn one’s own body in depth: how to feel the minute muscles in the hip socket; how to knit the ribs together without collapsing; how to open the collarbones without throwing the shoulders back behind the hips.

One must also learn how to get out of one’s own way.

There’s a magical thing that happens when you learn how to get out of your own way: suddenly, things get easier.

In order to execute a high, smooth grand rond-de-jambe, you must know where to place your pelvis so you don’t block either your extension or your turnout. The first time you find that balance (perhaps after having had it and then lost it), it’s like magic.

Curiously, some dancers naturally find it early in their training only to lose it again as they begin to work more consciously on turnout, placement, and extension.

That’s pretty much what happened to me: I started really thinking about pelvic placement about a year ago — and at first I over-corrected, as is my wont. As I began to work into more advanced classes and to work towards higher extensions, I found myself inexplicably blocked at times: and then Ms. B got around to sorting my pelvis, and it turned out that I was basically getting in my own way.

Once I let my pelvis find its own neutral spot and stopped thinking so hard — once I got out of my own way — my extensions got better, my turnout got better, and I could start really thinking about other stuff.

Ironically, the whole source of the problem with extensions and turnout resulted from a conscious effort to place my pelvis so I could … like … better access turnout and alignment.

I think this makes a good allegory.

Often, in life, we get so concerned about being correct that, in fact, we over-correct. We try really hard to do things just right, and we find ourselves stumbling into unexpected road-blocks; tangled in the intricacies of the details.

In short, we get in our own way.

Sometimes, the best answer is to stop thinking, stop concentrating so hard on being correct, and get out of our own way. (This is, I am almost certain, a corollary to the rule, “Don’t make it happen — let it happen.”)

So there you have it. If you’re having difficulty in your dancing or in your life, maybe try loosening the reins and getting out of your own way. It might just help!

So that’s my Ballet Lesson for today.


In other news, I apologize for my recent absence. I’ve had a sinus infection, and the first really noticeable symptom (besides, randomly, pain in my teeth) was a wicked fatigue that seemed to come from nowhere. I haven’t been posting because, in short, I’ve had nothing to post. I’ve basically been asleep, for the most part, for the past week.

I did do part of class (and part of juggling class) on Saturday, but I was actually too tired to write about it afterwards, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know. If I’m too tired to write, I’m probably too darn tired to do just about anything.

First World Ballet Problems

Yesterday, I struggled to get my développé to 90 degrees, let alone above. The muscles whose job it is to carry the legs just said, “90 is all you’re getting today, and you’re only getting it at the cost of immense effort.”

I blamed my lack of condition, of course — which was fair, but missed a critical element: the cross-training problem.

” Cross-training” means training until you’re feeling cranky and irritable, then kvetching at your poor innocent husband for no good reason.

Wait, that’s not right.

“Cross-training” means, in short, mixing it up to keep things balanced — tossing in a little cycling if you’re a dancer, or a little dance if you’re a cyclist.

The operative phrase, here, being “a little.” Or, well, “just enough.”

Last week, I banged out several hours on the bike, including a bunch of zippy climbing sprints, and basically none in the studio.

Should it come as any surprise, then, that I’ve managed to lose a bunch of the ground I had gained in correcting the muscle-balance problem attendant in being someone who, for several years, spent around twenty hours a week riding a bike and did essentially no cross-training?

I am lucky, in a sense, in that my body adapts very readily to exercise — but I tend to forget that, as in everything else, if I want the balanced muscles necessary for ballet, I need to make sure I’m not essentially overspending in one area while underspending in another (an aside, here: it says a great deal that autocorrupt — ahem, that is, predictive text — recognizes overspending as an existing word, but not underspending).

While a trained cyclist does make some use of the muscles that flex the thighs, it’s paltry in comparison to the use made of those that push down (I’ve touched on this before). Especially for someone like me — one who straddles the line between light rouleur and climber, and thus relishes his ability to crank out brutal speed on short- to medium-climbs — it’s all too easy to lose sight of how quickly that can add up to a disaster at the barre.

When I wrote yesterday’s post, I had forgotten that a couple of Saturdays back I was enjoying easy extensions well above 90 degrees even though my right hip was still weirdly tight.  A couple of classes before that, I wrote about the fact that getting the leg higher made a promenade en dedans in écarté derriere (or was it avant? I’ll have to check that later) much easier — and when I said higher, I meant “hey, my toes are basically at shoulder-height right now!”

So basically, I’ve now created a situation in which I’ll need to overcome a muscle balance problem again, one which I’d sorted before.

In short, this means dancing more and riding less (and more gently; probably no more 20+MPH sprints on the rolling climbs for a while) — in short, shifting the balance back so I’m actually allowing cycling (which I do as a matter of course, although I love it) to act as cross-training for ballet (which may be the one thing I love more than cycling).

I’m not sure yet how to achieve this balance — or, well, the exact details elude me.

The “pushing down” muscles in the legs already get a greater workout in daily life (one word: stairs!) than the “pulling up” muscles (or the “pushing up” ones that lift from beneath the buttocks and thigh in ballet), so I need to take that into account.

Regardless, this is entirely a First World Ballet Problem. I recognize that it’s the result of something in my body actually working well (maybe too well), and I’m grateful for that (not that I feel grateful right now, but I’m rationally aware that this is a Good Thing). I also recognize that “développé at 90 degrees” is a goal that many adult dancers find elusive, and I shouldn’t complain too much.

Yet again, I’m reminded that ballet is a great analogy for life (tl;dr: It hurts, and there’s always someone yelling at you — wait, no, that’s not the analogy I wanted ;)). You have to work to keep everything balanced (and not just when your instructor hairy-eyeballs you and growls, “You know you can balance in passé relevé without the barre.”).

So, um, yeah. There we go.

I plan to write about this a bit more, as there are tons of articles out there that day,” Cross-training is good for you!” but not too many aimed at explaining how to figure out how much cross your training actually needs. I should probably Ask Denis about it and just post an interview. Maybe even a video.

Speaking of which, I have not forgotten that I owe all you guys a ballet video about balancé. I’m trying to figure out where to film it.

So that should be coming along soon, too.

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