How We Improve
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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).
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???), you know that things will improve. Eventually, anyway.
- 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.
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.
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: Hips and Partial Deafness
L’Ancien continues to rebuild us.
Today was not my best dancing day, but it was acceptable at times. Weather fluctuations are leading to mold blooms and so forth that make my allergies crazy. Ears are connected to noses and throats; all three of mine develop problems.
My hearing gets iffy. I miss bits of combinations (L’Ancien delivers his combinations very quietly, which makes us all listen as ahard as we can) and I start to get stressed out and tense, even though L’Ancien tells us over and over again, “Don’t worry if you do the wrong step. This is class. This is an exercise. That’s not what I’m looking for.”
He’s really not. He cares less what you do; more how you do it. An approximation of the exercise done beautifully will make him happier than a perfect log of the steps done without feeling.
But still, sometimes I get nervous when I feel like I can’t hear.
Still, there were good things: the petit allegro combination in which we did fancy pas de bourrees of a kind that none of us (not even Killer B) had learned because evidently almost nobody teaches them(1)—that is, pas de bourrée a quatre pas and –a cinq pas—coupled to entrechats quatres. My entrechats are a thousand times better for L’Ancien’s insistence that we JUMP! and show essentially a second position in the air around the beats.
- They’re taught in RAD Advanced 1, apparently, but RAD syllabus programs aren’t exactly a dime a dozen around here.
It’s not just switching the feet: I can do that all day. It’s launch STRIKE! beat STRIKE! land fifth.
Last year, I learned to prevent “flappy feet” by thinking about my beats happening higher up in my legs. L’Ancien is transforming them into something worth looking at.
…Which is good, because apparently my assumption that I’m not built for petit allegro is incorrect.
After class I thanked L’Ancien for reviewing and clearly explaining petit battement. He pointed out that the configuration of my pelvis, which is rather shallow, is good for quick batterie.
I suppose I should’ve figured this out earlier, as I was the first member of my first childhood ballet class to nail down entrechats and so forth.
A few weeks ago L’Ancien mentioned our dancer RS, who does a stellar Bluebird (so much so that when my brain chooses to reboot and I can’t get his name to come to mind, I refer to him as “our Bluebird”), and how his shallow hips and relatively short torso make him well-suited for petit allegro. He said the same thing to me today, about my own body.
This is one thing I really appreciate about his teaching style: he teaches to his individual dancers, and not to some nonspecific imaginary dancer, as much as he can.
It’s worth noting that he does this not only by pointing out our weaknesses, but also by pointing out our strengths. By ballet standards, I’m a muscly kind of boy (which always results in a frisson of cognitive dissonance when I’m moving in cirque or modern dance circles, where I’m borderline dainty).
Too often, as dancers, we find ourselves lamenting what we don’t have (in my case, David Hallberg’s “imperially slim” build, with its endless, beautiful lines) instead of celebrating what we do have (…what K calls “that Bolshoi body,” with the enormous, ridiculous Legs of Power and square shoulders that let you do Bluebird left like it’s NBD).
- If you know this poem, you know that it’s beautiful and also a tragedy. I’m not calling Hallberg a tragedy; I just like that phrase. It sounds like him.
In the end, we have to learn to work with the bodies we have: to make the most of them. I think I’ve touched on this before.
Up until now, I have been learning technique—building the elements of movement—but perhaps haven’t learned my body as well as I could have.
By way of analogy, this is like painting in watercolors and being frustrated that they don’t behave like oils. I’m rather a good watercolorist, and that’s partly because I understand how watercolors are and I work with them accordingly.
As a dancer, then, I need to begin to understand how my body is and to work with it accordingly.
I suppose that, once again, it comes down to this basic principle: start where you are.
That means don’t force your turnout, but it also means, discover your gifts.
If you only ever know what’s not great about your body, you’ll never optimize your training as a dancer. Quietly, gently, firmly, L’Ancien says to us, Learn what is great about your body. Every body is different. Every body has gifts.
But also start where you are. Know your strengths; know your weaknesses; train accordingly.
I’ll try to remember all this tomorrow at the BDSI audition, though I’ll also try to just have a good class and enjoy the singular pleasure and specific torture of Vaganova technique.
I hope that I’ll make the cut—not so much because it would make me feel good about myself as a dancer (though I’m sure it would), but because I think two weeks of Nothing But The Vaganova, imparted by a roster of master instructors, is enough to make anyone a stronger, better dancer.
And, possibly, a good way to learn to optimize on one’s strengths.