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Author’s Note: I apologize for my lack of proper diacriticals in this post. I’m writing it on my PC, and while I know how to use HTML entities to make them happen, I’m tired and apparently can’t be arsed ^-^’


I.The Secret To Brisee’-Vole’

Back when I was working on the Cavalier variation, I think I mentioned that I hadn’t even really been able to reliably do brisee’-vole’ a year ago. Not that I did it well when I actually performed the variation in question. I most assuredly did not. But I at least knew how to do it, and was able to do it most of the time. Just not, apparently, when it really counts, and will be recorded and slathered all over the innertubes. Le sigh.

Anyway! At this point, I’ve pretty much nailed it down, though of course it still needs polishing, because this is ballet. You never get to stop polishing things. Everything can always be better.

But the process of nailing down brisee’-vole’ reminded me, yet again, of a Truth About Ballet that I rediscover on the regs.

The truth in question, as it relates to brisee’-vole’, goes like this:

The secret to brisee’-vole’ is … there isn’t one. You just do brisee’, both back and front, until you (almost) can’t get it wrong. Then you learn to link them (which is what turns “brisee’-devant, reorganize the feet, brisee’-derriere, reorganize the feet,” into brisee’-vole’). Then you do brisee’-vole’ until you (almost) can’t get it wrong.

A male dancer (the author) in an ivory jacket and white tights in midair facing the left of the frame with the arms extended diagonally both legs extended to the front, left leg slightly higher than and ahead of the right. Embarrassingly, he is staring at his feet and sucking his lips into his mouth.
Exhibit A: Okay, this brisee’-vole’ could have been worse. But the ones I did today were a LOT better.

II. How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

As a physical process, learning ballet involves both the accumulation of masses of experience and breakthroughs that sometimes seem to come out of nowhere and sometimes seem to be the direct result of all that massed experience[1].

  1. I’m not using the phrase “massed practice” here because it’s used in two different ways that conflict with each-other. As I learned it, it basically means “cramming”–doing a whole lot of practice all at once, which isn’t a very effective strategy for long-term learning. It can also be used to mean frequent repetition of a skill, accumulated over time, which does work reliably (and is typical of how kids learn things–they learn a new thing and they do it a billion times just for fun, because they can). That’s what I’m talking about here.
A male dancer (the author) in a burgundy sleeveless shirt, black tights, and black shoes, halfway through a pirouette with his arms curved and raised so his hands are just above eye level, his right leg raised and bent so the toes are touching the bottom of his left knee. He does not appear to be enjoying himself, although as the author and the dancer I can attest that he was.
Here I am, playing in the studio, enjoying my freedom to just dance. As you an 100% tell by the look on my face. Not.

One of the challenges that a lot of adult students run into is insufficient opportunity for practice. Either it’s hard to find enough classes, or the classes in question aren’t systematic in a way that allows the accumulation of experience in complex steps, or they have access to systemic classes part of the time, but not often enough to overcome relatively-limited studio time[2].

  1. Pre-pro students get hours and hours in the studio–as many as 20/week. It can be much more difficult for adult students to build similar practice schedules. Part of my success as a dancer who wandered away and then returned was a question of sheer volume. I had access to high-quality training at high volume because my schedule allowed me to take both morning and evening classes.

That’s a shame, because one of the things that makes ballet so engaging as a career path, for me, is that you never stop learning new things. There are so many steps that, no matter how long you’ve been dancing, there’s a reasonable chance that there’s something out there that you haven’t tried–and it’s certain that there’s something you haven’t perfected (those ever-receding goalposts again).

A male dancer (the author) in the same burgundy sleeveless shirt, black tights, and black ballet shoes. He is standing on his right foot with his right arm extended to the front. His left arm is raised, extended, and blurred. 

His left leg is extended and elevated with the toes above shoulder height. The author was surprised to discover that his toes were actually still that high at that point in the movement, not that you can tell from the picture. 

He looks slightly off balance, because he is.
Oh, look. Something I haven’t perfected. For some reason I kept wanting to turn this grand rond into a renverse’. It isn’t one. Anyway, I would’ve made my life easier by thinking about pulling the right shoulder back and pushing the left (gesture-side) hip forward as I reached the gesture leg back through ecarte’. But I didn’t, and here we are.

The difference for professionals is that daily class, studio access, mentoring by fellow dancers, and coaching all provide ample opportunities to learn and improve new steps. (They also provide the all-important input of eyes other than one’s own. Our bodies are notoriously bad at accurately reporting how they’re doing new ballet steps, so it really helps to have someone who can say, “Dude, your right shoulder needs to come with you,” as my men’s class teacher told me today.)

Success breeds success, so while inevitably one’s first attempts at any new step (or any new approach to an “old” step) are likely to be awkward and frustrating (How? HOW DO I KEEP DOING SWITCH LEAPS ON THE WRONG LEG???[3]), you know that things will improve. Eventually, anyway.

  1. The answer, of course, is that I’m miscounting running steps, as I often do. Once my body gets used to the coordination required for switch leaps, it’ll figure out how to count running steps.

You can bash through those awful early attempts because you know that, sooner or later, you’re going to figure it out.

The same dancer again (still your humble author), seem from the back, in the same burgundy sleeveless shirt (which is tied in a knot in back), black tights, and black ballet shoes, executing a pirouette. 

His arms are extended towards the ceiling. His face is slightly turned to the right. His left leg is bent and raised so the thigh is close to level with the hip and the toes are touching the bottom of the right knee.
Ignore the weird port de bras (I was either bringing my arms up from second or opening to second; I don’t remember which), and instead observe how even my back looks calm. If I can learn to be calm in turns, anyone can learn to be calm in turns.

III. Okay, Yeah, But … So What?

I write this in part because I’m stoked that brisee’-vole’ has begun to really come together for me (OMG! A petit allegro step I don’t hate! ^-^), and that it’s somehow really sparked this sense that my technique can improve by dedicated practice and not just, like, by chance.

I write it also because it’s a thing I think I should keep in mind both as a teacher and as a dancer.

I have friends who have felt stuck on specific steps for years (reverse’ is probably the most frequent culprit). It occurs to me now that they’re probably stuck simply because they haven’t had opportunity to practice those steps until their motor planning systems (and other neurological systems important to learning movement) and bodies can figure them out.

A dancer (still the author, but on a different day) wearing a dark grey tank top, dark grey mid-calf leggings, and tan ballet shoes, performing a renverse'.

His right arm is gracefully bent above his head, his left arm is extended towards the camera. His left leg is lifted to hip level and bent so it forms an arc behind him. His body is slightly canted and forms a continuous arc from his left toes to the top of his head.
For me, renverse’ is a poor example of the effect of practice. It’s one of the steps that someone showed me and I went, “Oh, like this?” and there it was (in fact, for a while, thinking about it and practicing it while doing so made it slightly worse ^-^’). But for a lot of people it’s one of the harder steps.

This knowledge can inform the way I develop teaching plans, particularly for adult students who might not have as much opportunity to amass experience (what with having jobs and families at so forth).

It can also inform the way I approach helping friends with steps they find challenging that I don’t (spoiler alert: I might be able to help you with your double tour, but not because my body has decided that it’s just part of my everyday life–in that case, it’s more that I’m good at spotting it when other people do the same wrong things that I do ^-^’).

It also informs something that’s shifted in the way I think about dancers practicing on their own.

In the past year, we’ve all spent a lot of time practicing on our own. And you know what? Pretty much everyone I know has found a way to make it work.

I used to be one of those people who was deeply ambivalent about the idea. It’s pretty easy to wind up ingraining bad habits when you don’t yet have a lot of experience, and some steps can be a bit on the dangerous side (especially in small spaces crammed with furniture -.-). I had been raised with the idea that YOU DON’T PRACTICE ON YOUR OWN, PERIOD.

And while I thought I was following that rule, I really wasn’t. I used ballet-based movement patterns constantly on–ice skates and rollerskates; when making up choreography with my sister (we like to improv to the Andre’ Previn/LSO recording of Holst’s The Planets, because obviously we were totally normal kids in every day); on the playground; in the gymnastics studio; when fidgeting in line; when doing any number of other things.

I’m sure that I strengthened some bad habits along the way, but I also strengthened good habits. I figured out how to balance my body (which can be unwieldy, thanks to an unusual combination of naturally muscular physique and extreme flexibility).

And you know what? Nobody died. Nobody even got hurt (like many dancers, I mostly seem to injure myself doing anything other than dancing). In fac,t I seem to have not only survived, but gone on to a career as a professional dancer and as a ballet teacher.

So, in short, maybe there’s something to be said for solo practice. And I know we’ve all been doing turns in our kitchens since forever, anyway, so we might as well practice other stuff, too.

And you know what? It’s probably not even the end of the world if you decide to try some steps that might be a bit out of your reach, or even a lot out of your reach.

Kids do it all the time, and it turns out okay. Sure, in some cases, adults might be a bit more breakable, but as long as you’re cognizant of your own physical limits, why not?

We learn ballet like we learn anything else: successive approximations of the goal state. It turns out that sometimes the best way to learn to do a step well is just to start doing it badly. As beginners, we know messing up is part of the deal. It’s too easy to lose sight of that idea.

Anyway. Here’s where I stand, at this point, on the question of solo practice, even for “beginner-beginners:”

Go ahead and do the thing. If you’re just starting to learn a thing and you’re doing it badly, great! You have to start somewhere.

As long as you know that you’re doing it badly (okay–and can video yourself or get another dancer to watch you from time to time or whatever so you can begin to see why you’re doing it badly) you’re already on your way to doing it well.

Saturday Class: Re-Beating Myself

Today’s we had class with John, who sometimes teaches Advanced Class, and it was very good. He’ll be teaching next Saturday as well. Huzzah!

During his really excellent barre, John noted that even at barre we should remember that we’re dancing.

There was more to that point, but you must forgive me; I’m exceedingly tired.

Nonetheless, it was a reminder I quite liked — it lines up well with my philosophy of practice. It’s easy to think of barre as “just exercises,” but any performer will tell you that you perform as you practice. If you dance at barre, you’re more likely to dance at center (as opposed to just moving from step to step without really dancing).

John also pointed out that, in order to master the timing of the slow port de bras-fast rond de jambe thing, you can simply use the number of ronds and the four points of the port de bras compass to figure out timing.

If you’re doing four ronds, for example, the start of each rond corresponds to one point — second, fifth, first, en bas (or the reverse) — and you use the remaining time to move between them.

Obviously, you’d need to modify this if you’re doing an odd number of ronds, but for any even number you can just multiply or divide as needed. I’ve never bothered to think about this before, but it’s really quite a nice way to make the pat-your-head-and-rub-your-belly thing that’s happening in that sequence easier (so you can then do it more gracefully).

That said, for the record, this is the only ballet class I have ever attended in which the instructor proudly announced, “It’s math!”

(To be fair, much of ballet that isn’t technique or expression is basically math. It’s just math you do with your feet.)

At center, during our lovely adagio (which we, as a whole, eventually did quite well), John noticed that, rather than drawing my working leg up through coupé, along the shin or calf, and to passé during my turns, I kept coming through second.

That is, of course, what you should do … if you’re turning from second.

If you’re turning from fifth and coming through second, though, you’re Doin’ It Rong: throwing your working leg wide at the start, which makes for messy turns.

Predictably, I applied the correction in question and, what do you know, my turns sucked a lot less. It seems like every class my turns suck less. Perhaps, eventually, they’ll stop sucking altogether!*

*I really shouldn’t complain so much about my turns. I have seen worse.

Baby steps.

After a lovely adagio (full of attitude, literally — and also full of renversé, which we haven’t done in aaaaages) and so forth, our petit and grand allegro segments were full of beats.

I got the entrechats down, but didn’t manage the brisée. Next time.

B and I also finally got my audition video done. Parts of it are very pretty.

We wound up having to rework some of the choreography to spare an injury, so it’s still very obviously a work in progress, but a nice one. Except for the freaking cabriole. There is one jump in this piece. One**. And I hosed it up. I was tired by then (Denis and I were out quite late last night) and should have substituted a sauté of some kind — but, meh. Worse things have happened.

**There will be more, but we took them out to try to reduce the strain on B’s Achilles’ tendon. The cabriole, however, is important: if you watch footage of cranes dancing, they kind of cabriole at each-other, so it’s part of the cranes’ leitmotif, so to speak, in this dance — and since it’s not necessary for both (or all) the dancers to do it, I left it in.

Obviously, given that we were working on choreography, there are definitely moments where one or the other of us sort of hesitates either to remember what’s next (after all the last-minute rewrites!) or to decide whether a given step or movement is actually the right one for a given place in the music.

That clearly wouldn’t fly if I was auditioning for a technique program or a company position (ha) or whatever, but this context is a little different. A lot of those moments are about give-and-take between two people working and improvising together, which seems like something that could be useful to see if you’re the admissions committee for a DMT program.

On the other hand, watching the video made it very plain to me that, when I hesitate, I drop my arms and sort of curl into myself. Basically, I forget to dance, or at least look dancer-ly, while thinking.

Oy vey.

So, breaking that habit is now on my list of Subtle But Important Ballet Corrections. It’s like, don’t curl up; just stay placed and keep going (file under: Do Something Even If It’s Wrong).

I also discovered that, when I get tired, my turns get ugly. This is probably universal, but still an annoying discovery. I completely failed to apply John’s correction from this morning while we were recording. Ah, well.

Still, the end of the thing is quite lovely, as are some of the partner-y moments. My opening developpé was also nice, but I’m facing in such a way that my leg points directly into the camera, so it loses some of the effect. Next time I have occasion to record a video, I’ll have to keep this in mind when placing the camera.

The second developpé — to ecarté derriere — came through rather well, and looks good — though, being the nitpicky jerk that I am, I feel that my working leg could stand to be straighter and more pointed. There’s an absolutely lovely moment in which B and I both fouetté to first arabesque on essentially identical lines, then penche rather beautifully.

Sadly, when I stepped through to begin the next phrase, I paused to run a mental check on the choreography and dropped my chest. Meh.

I’m learning an awful lot from my own videos, to say the last. I plan to play around with videorecording a lot more, even if it’s only at home.

I didn’t get to roll my legs out last night, nor did I have much time to do them this morning before class or between class and the video thing, so I plan to roll everything thoroughly tonight.

Tomorrow will be a rest day — which is to say that I’ll try to remember to keep my extensions at 45 or below when I find myself dancing in the kitchen or what have you.

So there you have it. My balancé video is STILL UPLOADING (and, sadly, is queued behind two others). Last night’s upload died for some reason. I still hope to get it posted tonight, but if I don’t, it’ll be something to post tomorrow.

And now I’m going to go lie in the tub and read, or something, until it’s time to eat dinner.

À bientôt, mes amis!

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