I’ve been taking a Saturday class that’s usually taught by one of two very effective teachers. It’s one of the classes for advanced students at a school that offers a pre-professional ballet track and a competitive dance track, and includes students from both tracks.
Today, our regular teacher was out sick, and the teacher who would usually cover her had a different class to run, so one of the senior students ran class for us.
The end result was quite unlike the traditional 30/30/30 ballet class I’m used to–we warmed up, then did a couple of across-the-floor exercises, and then we did jumps and turns that were largely definitely not classical, but were, in fact, a lot of fun.
Having fumbled my way into a professional career, typically I approach this Saturday class with a commitment to setting a good example both in terms of classical technique and in terms of classroom deportment. Like, in short, Serious Ballet Is Serious.
Today was different. We did jumps and turns I’ve literally never done in my life. Early on, I realized I had a choice:
- I could be vaguely annoyed that I came for a classical ballet class and was getting something else entirely.
- I could go with the flow and enjoy the class I got.
Being vaguely annoyed wasn’t going to help, so I chose option 2 … and I’m glad I did. It gave me a chance to set aside the mantle of “professional dancer” and just be a student trying new stuff and seeing how it worked.
And you know what? It was really good to be just a student (okay–a student with a killer grand battement) trying new stuff.
Because the steps we were doing often weren’t from the vocabulary of classical ballet, I didn’t waste time thinking about how to do them within the classical framework in order to try to jump-start correct execution. Instead, I just did them … including jazz turns, which are not my greatest strength, since my body typically balks at the idea of turning in parallel.
Sometimes I did the new steps well. Sometimes I did them laughably badly. Often my actual execution fell somewhere in the middle. But the whole time, I was having a blast.
In short, it was really nice to be doing something I didn’t have to be good at.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s also nice to be good at things … but the pursuit of being good at things–that is, at gaining skill–can be stressful.
As an artist, there’s a real (and necessary) pressure to pursue perfection in your medium, even knowing that perfection is literally impossible to achieve. You work to honor your medium–your artform–and to develop your skill to its maximum potential.
Sometimes, that pursuit is like a meditation–our ego gets out of the way and we just do the work, correcting what needs correcting without getting hung up in judgment and attachment to outcomes.
But a lot of the time, because we’re all human, we frown and berate ourselves as we still do that turn in second wrong and as we still pull back instead of up on the pirouette en dehors and as our footwork is still too slow in the petit allegro. And then we think our legs were great in the grand allegro, but we don’t even want to think about what our hands were doing the whole time.
When we’re doing steps from a different dance idiom, it’s a lot easier to let go of all that stuff. We know we don’t know how to do it! We don’t even know what it’s supposed to look like! We can be forgiven if something doesn’t work the first time, or if our hands are doing that weird duckface thing, or if we land on the wrong leg because our bodies are convinced that this step really, really is just a weird saut de basque.
And when we’re not worried about all that stuff, suddenly it’s a lot easier to have fun.
So it can be really fun, sometimes, to step outside your primary medium. When you know that you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s a lot easier just to let go and do (hey, there’s that Beginner’s Mind thing again … hmmm).
When you try something new and different, sometimes you find you can let your hair down (metaphorically, anyway … in terms of pure practicality, when you’re dancing, it’s probably still a good idea to keep it pulled up out of your eyes so you don’t crash into the piano).
I never quite figured out one of the jumps today (I have no idea what it’s called–I should’ve asked). My body kept trying to do the saut de basque from Ali’s variation in Le Corsaire instead of … whatever the jump was actually supposed to be. I kept landing facing the wrong way and with the wrong leg in front.
And you know what? That was okay.
Nobody died! I had fun, and I found a degree of release and freedom that I haven’t felt in a while.
And because of that sense of release and freedom, there were other things I did better than I usually do them–things that you would encounter in a strictly-classical class.
There were also things I did as, erm, less-than-perfectly as I usually do, but in which I was able to figure out some of the factors that are hampering my technique. I was relaxed enough to just kind of feel my own body, without feeling the pressure to analyze my technique and try to do things well that I don’t actually know how to do well.
So this is something that, both as a dancer and as a teacher, I really need to take with me.
It’s important to hone technique and work hard. As a dancer, as an artist, that’s part of how you make progress. Sound technique gives you the tools for musicality; for expression.
But, as much as I tend to lose sight of the fact, it’s also important to relax and have fun … and sometimes, when you relax and have fun, you might even learn things that you wouldn’t otherwise learn.
Ultimately, I guess it’s a question of balance.
It’s easy to get so focused on honing your Srs Ballet Skillz that you don’t get a chance to just enjoy dancing (especially when you’re stuck dancing in your tiny basement most of the time for going on a year). But, ultimately, we dance because we love dancing.
For amateur dancers, love is the only motivation that makes sense. There are much easier and more efficient ways to get exercise, and a lot of them are much less expensive, too. There are artforms in which it’s much, much easier to find opportunities to grow and perform as an amateur artist.
Ultimately, it’s pretty much the same for professionals: you have to love dancing. Working in dance is just too freaking hard if you don’t love it more than anything else; if it’s not, in a sense, the only thing you can do.
Either way, you dance because, deep within you, something is called to dance. You dance because you need to dance; because dancing is in your blood and your bones. Because dancing is your blood and your bones.
You dance because your soul sings in movement.
Today’s class reminded me that sometimes, it’s good to just let your soul sing. And also that sometimes, while your soul is just singing to sing, you learn anyway.
Today I did the Monday Double Header — Margie’s Ballet Essentials followed by Claire’s Beginner/Intermediate class.
Essentials was well populated, and we’ve gained couple of new students. We did a fairly low-intensity class (Margie was under the weather), so we got to focus on technique — which meant I got to focus on not focusing so darned hard!
My goal for the day was to practice the two big lessons from last week — Jim’s “Watch your mouth!” and the “Don’t make it happen, let it happen” philosophy from Ballet Talk for Dancers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this two-pronged attack on tension and over-focus works really well. “Watch your mouth” becomes shorthand for “Relax!” which leads naturally into letting it happen.
This let me move much, much more freely, though at times I still lost count during little jumps (in Margie’s class, this was because I was thinking about feet — specifically, observing how everyone’s feet looked — instead of just doing my thang; in Claire’s class, I’m guessing I was just having a tired moment and hadn’t yet caught my second wind).
Claire’s barre was lovely, and I got to share a bare with the wife of our friend Nicolas. Nicolas is one of the Saturday Ballet Essentials regulars.
Nicolas’ wife (whose name, sadly, I cannot recall just now) is a very good dancer. She does the advanced class and the daytime intermediate classes as well; this is the first time I’ve done class with her. I found myself mostly able to remember the combinations (another thing I decided to work on today — no following!), so I watched the way her back and arms worked and tried to emulate it.
I think it actually made a big difference; my barre was much prettier than usual. It was definitely more “port des bras” and less “port de bro.”
(You guys, true story: I was totally going to put a picture of men doing port des bras badly, here, but now that I want one I can’t find one.)
Better still, Claire gave me another amazing correction. I’ve been overbalancing myself when in coupé and passé en relevé and I couldn’t figure out why. It turns out I was A) still hollowing my lower back and B) my head was tipping back beyond my center line. This threw the whole column off, causing me to be tippy.
Claire’s correction worked like a miracle cure. As before, it felt weird, but holy cow, guys! It worked!
Suddenly I was on my leg, balancing on a nice high demi-pointe in passé, and just, like, there. Wow.
I think the hollow back thing is also the source of my squidly-middly problem, because my grand battement in Margie’s class was questionable, but in Claire’s class I did it pretty well at the barre and then used it in a combination, without the barre! OMG grand battement without barre and without falling over, you guys!
And I did not even die (though I was so shocked that it worked that I proceeded to totally fumble a simple little arabesque immediately thereafter)!
And then, of course, I had to demonstrate how awesome I was by picking up the wrong freaking leg while doing turns.
Wait, let me back up.
So across-the-floor went really well at first. In my new “letting it happen” mode, I wasn’t freaking out about the combinations.
Instead, I walked through them (even when nobody else was), recited them to myself, marked them, and put myself in one of the first few groups* so I didn’t have time to A) stress out, B) forget the combo whilst waiting in the “wings,” or C) confuse myself by thinking too much (cue Jaws theme: How are we getting to piqué arabesque? What comes aftertombé-pas de bouree?? Do I even remember how to tombé??? And whatdo I do with my arms again?!).
So we did a couple of lovely runs on our first combination across the floor, and then we did … um … something with pirouettes from fourth en dedans.
And on the first pass, I did fine.
And then, on the second pass, Heaven help me, I did some horrible thing where I somehow picked up the wrong leg entirely and still attempted to turn en de dans. Claire called out, “The other leg!” and I said, “Oh, right!”
And then I did it wrong.
But at least my piqué turns were okay, I guess?
I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one who was DOIN’ IT RONG, though, because then we all got to practice pirouettes from fourth en dedans. Of course, it wasn’t until I got home that I mentally ran the audio description of the combo that I’d hosed up and realized that was exactly what it called for (so why did I do it right the first time and wrong the second time?!).
But, anyway, after that, we did some leapy stuff, and that was good.
Claire suggested that we end a run with either jete or saut de chat and I only heard the “…de chat” part, and while mentally sorting it out I said, “Oh, saut de chat, not pas de chat,” and then Claire said, “You can do pas de chat if you want.” So I did it that way once, then with grand jeté a couple of times.
The pas de chat version turned out to be fun. Especially since last week I couldn’t seem to wrap my brain and body around glissade, pas de chat, but this week, I let it happen, and there it was.
A couple of my classmates also tossed in pas de chat, which made me feel kind of great ^-^
In other news, Jim only had to call me out on making faces once! I did it a lot more than that one time, of course, but a lot less than I was before last week. So there we go. I am at least working on becoming a Smiling Squid instead of a squid who sucks his lips into his mouth and bites them while doing leaps. Because that just looks dumb, and it also makes you really tense.
So there it is. I discovered a couple of good ideas, and suddenly instead of struggling through the choreography at the end of class, I’m freaking well dancing! And looking decent enough at it that I no longer hope I won’t catch sight of myself in the mirror.
Okay, this is long enough, and I still have a couple other odds and ends to clear up before I can stuff some Triscuits in my face and go to bed (in that order). So, you know the drill. Sunny side up, leather side down.
Good night, everybody!
*Class was huge today, y’all. We used all the barres. We were also packed into the small studio. The group was so big that even though we angled ourselves at the barre, I still collided (lightly and briefly) with another dancer while doing grand battement. It was so big that someone who came in just after me paused and said, “Is this company class?”
…And, of course, even though I was pretty sure she was joking, the really nerdy part deep inside me went, “Yaaaaaay! We look like company class!”