L’Ancien often uses stories to illustrate key lessons. Today, he told us about a dancer who came to South Africa (where L’Ancien was dancing at the time) after the Chernobyl disaster because the world’s best research center for radiation sickness was there. This dancer from Kiev joined the company, and for six months L’Ancien watched his beautiful grand battements, mystified by how he was doing what he was doing.
And then one day it became clear: this man from Kiev, a principal dancer in his home country, initiated his grand battement from high in his back.
It didn’t begin, as all too horribly often it does, in the hip. It didn’t begin in the heel, or in the middle of the pinkie toe of the free leg (which is definitely NOT where your grand battement should begin).
It began in his back. The impetus pushed down from just below the shoulder blades, which both lent great energy to his legs and kept his back high and open.
Study this in second, L’Ancien told us, as he always does, Study everything in second; the en dehors and the balance are already there, so you never have to think about them.
Try it a couple of times, he said.
So we did.
It’s amazing what simply thinking about something a little differently can do. When you begin by sending your impulsion down through your back, not only does your chest stay high and free and open, but you don’t do abominable things with your pelvis.
I’ve realized I often short-change my own jumping power by dumping my pelvis and allowing my lower back to turn into a slinky, which absorbs some of the force that should drive me into the atmosphere. If I can jump pretty high whilst jumping that badly, I should be able to hit the ceiling if I just freaking well do it right.
I suspect that the same principle applies: begin with your back.
Now that I think about it, this reminds me of a principle in classical horsemanship: a horse can’t properly collect himself if he doesn’t know how lift his back.
We often think of this as bringing the hindquarters underneath, but it begins in the long muscles parallel to the spine, around the ribs, and in the core. In order for to collect his hindquarters beneath him (and to lighten his forehand and eventually lift it off the ground), a horse must lift his spine just a little—not so much he arches like a cat, but enough to make room and connect his whole body into a single piece.
In ballet, if we want our legs to go up, we must first send the impulse down through the back and through the heel.
I’m going to try to remember to ask L’Ancien about this next week—that is, whether I’m correct in guessing that this concept is also applicable to turns and jumps. Ballet is modular like that.
It’s an exciting thing: something that feels like a key to a few of my stubborn ballet problems (double tours, I’m looking at you).
Today L’Ancien said my posture is much better. That’s a huge step in the right direction.
Sometimes I feel like his goal as a teacher is to take us all apart, shake out the extra screws and pieces of gum and paperclips that accumulated while we were initially being assembled, and put us back together as more perfect dancers.
I, for one, am totally down with that.
Have I mentioned that this is a man who has been dancing for more than 50 years? He’s been dancing for more than 50 years.
To L’Ancien, we’re all beginners.
*Now with music!
When you’re a kid, you might experience adults as mostly functional, mostly giant walking disasters, or some combination of the two—but you probably don’t experience them as people quite the same way you experience yourself and your friends as people.
- There are some exceptions: my riding instructor was one of those rare adults who are phenomenal at connecting with kids on a very human level without being a total wishy-washy pushover, which you can’t be when you’re teaching 50-pound 7-year-olds how to handle half-ton beasties front-loaded for panic.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Nothing at all. It so happens that kids and adults in most of the Western world move in fairly separate spheres, and that the developmental worldview of childhood tends to be a bit solipsistic for entirely developmentally-appropriate reasons.
But, anyway, the upshot of this is that an awful lot of us reach adulthood without having the faintest idea how to, like, adult.
…Which is evidenced by the fact that “adult” is now a verb as well as a noun.
I think maybe this wasn’t always the case. Like, up until pretty recently, people were pretty explicit about training up a child in the way he (or she) should wash the ding-dang-darn dishes for crying out loud (and turn down that racket).
Then my generation came along, close on the heels of Gen X but a bit more computer-y, learning from day one that we were supposed to, like, Follow Our Dreams and self-actualize our unique snowflakitude, but also learn math and science a whole lot, and how to do things with technology, and also how to ballet or football/soccer or handegg or violin or speak seventeen languages or be a Mathlete and a representative in the Model UN or pwn all the Mock Trials.
In short, we were so busy getting a First-Class Education and becoming (in many cases, anyway) Well-Rounded that we never had time to absorb some of the critical secrets to Adulting.
Like, to be honest, COFFEE.
I’m just gonna admit up front that even my Mom will tell you she’s almost never sick. I think germs are just way too scared of her. I remember her being actually sick exactly once during my childhood, and it was totally miserable for about a week, and she confirms the same.
HOWEVER. Given that she worked a billion hours a week and sang in at least one choir at any given time and was (for several years) also working on a Master’s degree and somehow found time to design, plant, and maintain an absolutely lovely garden and did at least some of the carting around of a ridiculous kid who somehow thought it was a good idea to jam ballet and horses and gymnastics and choir and skiing and ice skating and the violin into any one week … anyway, what I’m trying to say is that my Mom was almost certainly crazy tired at least part of the time (though she also has the “can sleep any time, anywhere” super power).
And, somehow, I never quite grokked how spectacularly helpful coffee can be in those circumstances.
At least, not until now, when I’m definitely ill but probably on the mend, and I can’t stand the fact that there are three days worth of dishes piled up in the kitchen, but also not sure I can just plain stand long enough to wash them, because frankly one of the major symptoms of Whatever I Have (probably yet another sinus infection) is knock-you-on-your-keister fatigue.
I don’t usually drink COFFEE after noon, because frankly it’s a terrible idea if you’re already a night owl but you’re also a dancer and you regularly have to be able to function in class at 9 AM. In fact, I usually drink exactly one coffee per day, in the morning, less for the caffeine (though that helps when I’ve had to take a sleeping pill, because see above re: night owl) than for the ritual of it.
However, when one is definitely not well enough to go to class (blargh) but also not ill enough to remain in bed without going crazy, one cup of coffee will help one wash some dishes.
So there it is. COFFEE is tasty, but—used judiciously—also one of the secrets of adulting.
I feel like I really should’ve figured this out before.
It’s probably not a secret at all to vast legions of people my own age and younger than my own age who are simply less, like, insular. I am also the kind of idiot who insists on using a hand-cranked kitchen mixer partly because the electric ones are fecking loud, partly because my inner hipster finds it satisfying, and partly out of sheer cussedness, so draw your own conclusions.
But, anyway, I guess this is a thing I know, now. If you need just a little help adulting, a cup of coffee might do the job. So there you have it.
Anyway, if you came for teh balletz but you’ve had to sit through my long digression into the magic that is COFFEE, my apologies. Anyway, here comes the bit with teh balletz in.
A couple weekends back, I shot a bunch of video of balances on the BOSU balance trainer at Suspend. I posted a couple of them to the Instas, then promptly failed to get around to uploading them to the YouTubes so I could toss some music in and easily post them here and critique my own technique.
Belatedly, I have now uploaded a handful (which is to say, three) videos and slapped a little music on them. The actual soundtrack of gleeful cackling from people working on stuff nearby was pretty amusing, but also pretty distracting.
Now they’re running loose on the Tubes. Sort of. (Okay, so they’re currently unlisted, because people like to be mean—by which I do not mean ‘critical, but fair,’ but instead ‘douchy jerks’—in the comments, and I’m mean enough to myself for about five people, thanks).
Anyway, without further ado, here’s the first one:
…This one hasn’t been on the Instas yet.
Here, I’m working left, which is currently my stronger side balance-wise—which is to say that my right leg is better at the “supporting leg” role and my left leg is better at the “free leg” role.
- L’Ancien favors these translations from the Russian over the usual English “supporting leg/working leg” dichotomy: he points out that the supporting leg, really, is the one doing most of the work, and says things like, “And which leg do you imagine flamingos think about?”
If you watch closely, when I first step onto the BOSU trainer (and then promptly step off), you’ll notice one of my most constant and worst ballet habits: I lead with my freaking hips, like I think I’m on a catwalk in Milan or something.
Ballet is not a catwalk in Milan, you guys.
The shirt I’m wearing (half my costume from Death Defying Acts) makes it hard to see, but at the very beginning my sternum is behind the point of my hip. This is so problematic (and, on the BOSU trainer, so bleeding obvious) that, at 0:05, I step back down so I can basically fix my entire approach.
If you pause the player at 0:07, you’ll notice that I’ve corrected pretty reasonably. I haven’t really turned on my turnout yet (it’s easier to mount the BOSU trainer, then turn on the turnout), but I’m much more squarely balanced over my supporting leg.
At the same point in time, you can also see that my knee is roughly over the arch of my foot: I’m shifting my weight towards the ball of my foot on the supporting side by shifting through the entire leg as well as my body. This allows me to keep my hips level from side to side (at 0:10, I actually tap them with my hands to remind myself to stay level and pull up).
Given that I’m still working in kind of a half-baked turnout, the passé balance that follows is pretty decent. You can see me actively resisting the urge to pull up and back (one of the things that makes passé easier for me than coupé is that you typically bring your arms up to third/en haut, which—as long as you keep your elbows lifted—helps keep your weight forward).
I also correct the height of my passé in the midst of the balance—it still wouldn’t be high enough for BW, and neither would my relevé, but in this video I’m still getting used to the BOSU trainer, here, so I’ll give myself a pass on those. It’s high enough for just about any application, anyway, and lifted correctly from behind and beneath, allowing for increased height without a hip-hike.
It’s when I begin to extend that things go a bit pear-shaped.
The legs themselves are rather nice, I think: I carry the working knee up and out, as one should, and though I lose a couple of degrees and wind up at full extension just a little above ninety (for a split second), the overall mechanical process is fine.
I totally fail to adjust my upper body to counterbalance the weight of my leg, which is considerable (the average human leg apparently weighs 40 pounds, which is nearly 1/3 of my entire weight). This actually has a lot to do with the loss of elevation on my extension: any extension requires a fair bit of counter-balancing, and those above 90 degrees require quite a bit more counter-balancing than we tend to realize.
Usually, we effect the counter-balance by shifting the weight away form the free leg. Often, this means performing the complex ritual of simultaneously pulling towards the free leg (to engage the muscles that will help it stay up) and away from the free leg (to counter-balance its weight).
In this video, I do absolutely nothing to counter-balance my free leg. I’m thinking too hard about keeping my weight forward, and so I fail to shift it back just a little. As soon as my free leg begins to move through croisée, I am powerless to resist the pull of gravity, and it “knocks me off my leg,” as we say.
In this case, I should have allowed my shoulders to open slightly in opposition as my arms transitioned to allongé. This is accomplished, more or less, with the breath: you breathe in and allow the breath to lift your sternum until it can’t go any higher, so it has to go back a bit, and while this happens you stay engaged so you don’t turn into a sway-backed cow.
Instead, I kept them exactly as they were.
While, to be honest, I find that fairly impressive in and of itself (I’m forever doing crazy stuff with my upper body and actively, rather than passively, putting it where it shouldn’t be), it’s not very effective if you want to balance that extension.
So there you have it.
Also, rather a nice sustained passé balance (or, well, technically retiré, since I’m not really changing my leg from back to front; it seems that way, but really it’s an artifact of mounting the BOSU).
What works best, here, is the lower-body transition into the extension: I keep the hip open as I extend, rather than allowing it to turn in, then extending from parallel. Also, it blows my mind how flat-out steady I am through much of this. Placement: it works.
What doesn’t work is the failure to counter-balance the extension, which in turn costs me both the height of the extension (which I begin to lose immediately) and the duration of the extended balance. Also, my free-side hand:
I do finish my rather graceful emergency dismount with a nice, deep, turned-out, knee-over-toe plié, at least, though I immediately let go of my turnout as I swing my right leg around and step toward the camera.
Next time: a comparison of two first arabesques, followed by a comparison of two penchés (one that kinda works; one that kinda knocks me off the BOSU).
Fifth in a series of posts on the details of technique that focuses primarily on steps and aspects of dance that I’m struggling with. Take it with a grain of salt.
I find it helpful to write things out in an effort to get a grip on them. These aren’t so much instructions (though if they work for you, awesome!) as observations.
Today, in HD’s advanced class, we were given the option to do the frappé at the barre on flat or rélevé as we saw fit.
Since I’m trying to see my way back to being fit, I chose to do the whole combination on rélevé.
Frappré en rélevé has been a bit of a white whale for me for a while. I tend to knock myself off my leg. Today, HD fixed that for me.
The source of the problem it seems, is that en rélevé, I tend to snap! my leg out from the knee.
Not only is this bad for your knees, but it has a way of making your turnout muscles say, “Aw, hell naw!” and let go. Hence, the knocking-one’s-self-off-of-one’s-leg part.
HD caught this and told me to squeeze the working leg out, as if against the resistance of a Theraband (or, in my mind, a giant vat of chocolate pudding … I went to class without breakfast this morning).
On the second side, I tried it, et voilà!
Much better frappés en rélevé.
So that’s today’s snack-size serving of technical notes: yes, frappé should be quick and sharp, but it’s still a squeeze and not a snap!
That’s it for today. Problems to solve in the world, etc. (Dancer problems, but still…)
On Monday, M. BeastMode drilled us all about conservation of motion. Since I seriously need to work on that — I’m all about the attack, but sometimes at the expense of letting myself sort of fall apart — that was a very welcome topic.
Anyway, today, while catching up with the Tweeters after literally months of trying really hard not to look at Twitter ever because, seriously, it’s like being kidnapped by some secret spy agency; you go in and then you wake up and it’s three days later and you don’t know what happened and it feels like someone hit you in the head with a brick.
Okay, maybe minus the part about the brick, except when eyestrain occurs.
So today I saw this fantastic tiny video from Miami City Ballet, and I went, “HOLY CRAP. THIS IS IT.”
It’s in time-lapse, and that’s what makes it work. Here are these dancers, and their arms and legs are like all over the place, and their bodies DO. NOT. MOVE.
This, people, is how you use your core. This is conservation of motion. This is what will make your turns a thousand times better and your renversés and balances all Balan-shiny. This is what Ms. B picks on me about now that my pelvis seems to be more or less reliably sorted 😉
So, here you go. Watch (you may have to click through; I’ve never tried to embed a Twitter video before) and absorb, and then the next you’re in class, install and run this mental image. I am dead certain that this will help me, and pretty sure it will help almost anyone.
— Miami City Ballet (@MiamiCityBallet) April 15, 2016
…As if Ballet Geeks needed more reasons.
This weekend, we caught Louisville Ballet’s “Studio Connections” performance. It was super cool for many reasons (not least that we got to sit with Claire and T :D). The whole idea was pretty cool: the performance took place in the big studio downtown (the one where company classes and rehearsals are held, as well as the advanced class that I aspire, someday, to join).
Padded bleachers were set up to give the audience somewhere to sit, and we got to watch the dancers “up close and personal.” (It was comforting to know that I’m not alone in sounding like a freight train when I dance while congested). For those of us in the audience who dance, this provided a really great opportunity to observe technique.
I was watching one of the guys when the solution to my waltz balancé problem suddenly materialized in a flash of light (or possibly a glint off a rhinestone; there were definitely some sparkly costumes).
It’s the same problem that was afflicting my arabesques, promenades, and penché — I’ve been dropping my chest for some reason.
When we got home, I tried a more vertically-oriented balancé, and — what do you know — it worked quite nicely (even strung together a little combo — balancé, balancé, pas de bourree, fifth; plie, turn (en de hors); plie, turn (en de hors). The second turn was impeded by the door to the dishwasher, which I’d forgotten to close. Such is Practice At Home.
Anyway, there you have it. I remember noting that Brian’s balancé looked rather different (and, of course, better) than what I was doing, and now I’ve figured out how and why. That feels pretty cool.
So watching ballet is most enjoyable, but it also makes us better dancers.
So, there you go: another excuse to cram all the ballet you can into your eyeballs. You can thank me later 😉
First, On Unhelpful Thoughts
If you do ballet, you already know that ballet class affords very little time for indulgent mental wanking. Especially when you’re new, or “re-new,” as I currently am. However, because our minds are capricious, every now and then an unhelpful thought finds its way in.
Like, for example the following:
- Is my butt really shaped like that?
This is the unhelpful thought that I had last night. It actually wasn’t judgmental or anything … just. You know, like, WTF? Because my butt was all, like, pointy and triangular in profile in the mirror while we were doing something facing the barre (I can’t even remember what, now!). I didn’t know butts could even be pointy and triangular, but there you go.
I don’t remember any other random, unhelpful thoughts from last night, so there probably weren’t any. But that one was amusing enough to last a good long while.
And Now, the Round-Up
- Our teacher! She is awesome and does not hesitate to provide extremely useful corrections. It helps that she puts them in terms that work really well for me.
- Sautés: I felt pretty good about these last night. Good enough to take the point position once when we were doing passes across the floor in two groups of three and to focus on remaining synchronized with the girl who was in the point position when I was in back. Now, if I could just stop being surprised when I come to the end of the diagonal … oddly enough, it’s the same length every time ._.
- Grand battement: Felt pretty good about this, too, particularly à la seconde. I seem to have regained the feel for it, so I focused on working from the hip and keeping the rest of me still, like it’s supposed to be.
- Surprisingly enough, sous-sus. It’s weird when your body suddenly says, “Oh, you mean we’re doing that! Why didn’t you say so? We haven’t done that in ages!” and you find you are really kind of together after all.
Arms! Why won’t you do what I tell you to do? (Admittedly, they’re getting better at this.) Why do you insist on coming decoupled from the rest of my body and doing crazy stuff sometimes?
I blame cycling for this. My arms are now exacting vengeance after years of being mostly ignored. After class, Denis said, “Sometimes your arms aren’t doing what everyone else’s arms are doing.” At least they were cooperative about the arabesques and the sautés.
- Counting. Still. I am still not great at counting, and I really seem to lose it during degagés every single time. At least now I have figured out that if I get off the count somehow, I should not so much try to catch up by doing degagé-on-crack. Rather, I should treat it the way I would treat a missed beat on stage. Interestingly, I came to this realization while practicing the organ.
- Relevé retiré — for some reason this just wasn’t happening last night. I think I was over-correcting and pulling my weight out of alignment to the back while trying to look, you know, all upright and princely. Note to self: Princes do not fall over backwards.
Clearly, more core work is in order.
- Staying connected. I am still doing too much of executing one thing, then executing another thing without really making any connection between them. This is my great weakness in all life’s activities (except singing), so should I be at all surprised that I do it in ballet class? No. Our teacher called me out on this at least twice during class.
- And, of course, freaking chaînés. I keep over-rotating. I think I need to mark the crap out of these, walk through them slowly, and then try again*.
In class, though, I tend to go for the, “WHEE! SPINNING IS FUNNNN!!!!!” approach, which is dumb.
I asked Denis last night what he’d like to see in a beginning ballet blog, and he asked for explanations of basic positions and stuff with links to videos, so I think I might put together a wee series of that sort of thing.
That’s it for now. I must go forth and clean, then try to learn not to fall over whilst executing chaines.
Notes on the Notes
*Unfortunately, we do not yet have a surface at home on which one can practice more than two chaines at a time, because I cannot do chaines small enough to fit more than two in our tiny kitchen, any everything else either has carpet or huge area rugs. We are in the process of planning a studio for the basement, and — come to think of it, there’s always the storage room and my backup slippers.