Down And Up

This week I’ve been feeling down – perhaps burned out or maybe just down, it’s sometimes hard for me to tell. The weather’s turned chilly and wet again, bringing with it soreness and aches. It’s one of the surest signs for me that I am getting older, when I see my decade-younger dance classmates happily skipping through the rain, not bothered by the cold and I can’t (after last year’s slip and fall in the rain, I treat the rain with respect!). One one level I don’t care; I’m doing quite well for my age (and – perhaps more importantly – for myself; certainly a decade ago I wasn’t able to do the things I can do now with my body). For a long time I was worried that I had to keep my age a secret, that if the teachers found out they would think I was a liability risk (most of my classmates at my regular school are in their late teens to very early twenties). Now I start to see the occasional older student, even much older than I, and it’s somewhat reassuring (however, these older students are usually not adult ballet beginners, but returners, and more advanced than me). But then, they usually don’t participate in the recitals and stuff, so I go back to feeling like I need to “fit in” (or at least not stand out from, too much) the younger students. Though I do have the energy to keep up (especially since it appears at a younger age one doesn’t place such a high priority on health and taking care of their body – I know I didn’t at their age…) for the dancing aspect of it, it’s exhausting in the more human interaction aspect of it (some of them act like immature brats, and it takes all of me to just metaphorically close my ears and let stuff go).

Still… things have been bothering me, so if you’ll excuse me I’m just going to whine, rant and speculate for a bit before going into abbreviated class notes.

After Beginner class, a few different more-beginner classmates have approached me to chat (thankfully, due to my introversion and anxiety, one at a time), asking me questions about ballet. Sometimes it’s clarification, like ‘how do you do pas de bourre?’ or ‘how does that center combination go again?’, stuff like that. I’m always happy to answer any questions, and the fact that they are comfortable approaching me with their questions (there’s at least three or four more advanced students than me in the class) makes me feel good. I wish when I had first been starting off there had been someone that I could have approached with questions (yes, I’m aware there’s a teacher, but when you’re too intimidated to ask the teacher, then what? Besides, F Teacher has said numerous times during class that more beginners should observe the more advanced students and ask them questions if they need to.)

I know this is a tricky subject to get into, so I’ll tread lightly, but I think it has to do with feeling comfortable with people that you can relate to. While I mostly fixate on the fact that I’m different because I’m an adult beginner, and I’m rather top heavy, those are not the only things that set me apart from the other more-advanced (or, less-beginner, I don’t know which would be the proper term) dancers in class: I’m also a woman of color and I don’t come from a priviledged background and prior to staring ballet I did not have dance training (because, trust me, starting ballet from scratch is so much more challenging than if you already have a sense of balance).  The girls that tend to approach me perhaps see me as more relatable or less intimidating? We do plenty of bonding over stories of wanting to try dance as a child and not being able to due to finances or cultural factors. I’m happy for them that they are going for their dreams now as a (young) adult, but I do feel the slightest amount of sadness over all the years I wasted doing absolutely nothing once I’d hit adulthood. Oh well, can’t do anything about that, so look forward and keep going…

Anyway, during these conversations the subject of pointe comes up. I’m completely honest with them, telling them that I did not start ballet to get to pointe, that it wasn’t something that I set as a goal. In fact, I tell them that when I started (and realized just how much I sucked at ballet) my goals were as simple as plie and tendu in center without fallling over. They usually reply with something about how I’m decent at ballet now (they say “good”, but let’s face it, I’m not good, it’s just that they’re looking at it through beginner’s eyes), and is it a goal for me now? That’s when I bring up that no, it’s not, I can’t afford it. They don’t seem to understand that it’s more than just the one-time purchase of a pair of very expensive shoes; it would involve trying different pairs until finding one that hopefully feels like I can dance in them, and all the padding and accessories to actually make it possible as I think I suffer from the dreaded longer-second-toe-than-big-toe issue. If it’s enjoyable to someone to go shopping I can see how this may sound fun, but since shopping is something that I absolutely cannot stand doing, I think I would be miserable.  I’m happy to just dance in my flat slippers.

But then, I read a stupid article that states how it’s not ballet without pointe, and how it’s every beginner ballet student’s goal to get en pointe, or else why are you even bothering. So I think, ‘good point, why do I even bother?’ It upset me enough to think ‘maybe I shouldn’t be doing ballet then – perhaps I should do modern, or jazz, or something! After all, according to know-it-alls (who perhaps are technically correct, but still) it’s not really ballet that I’m doing anyway.’ So then I started to feel even more down. I like to measure my successes (is that even a word?) by how far I’ve come from where I started, but it’s only when other people’s expectations get in the way that I feel that in effect I have accomplished nothing. I love to dance, both alone in my kitchen and during class. Can’t imagine giving up this joy that movement gives me, but perhaps I need a little break sometimes in order to miss it.

Then, last night I had a dream that I was in class with one of my teachers (who’s opinion I really respect) and she said something like ‘don’t go en pointe with your feet’ or something like that. I guess I certainly have been fixating on the subject recently…

In an unrelated – yet still ballet-related, somehow – issue, I still have lack of confidence issues. When the more beginner group finishes their center combination and the more advanced-beginners have to run out to center to do theirs, I shy away from the front row. If I may be completely honest, it’s because I worry that even if I can do the combination correctly, the fact that I don’t have this certain attitude (the mental kind, not the position) gives it away that I don’t belong there in front. But, here’s the paradoxical part (and I hope this makes sense), part of the reason I like ballet class is because it’s the only time that I am comfortable looking a certain way, like the way you almost look down your nose at your hand when in arabesque, for example. In ballet class I’m able to … I don’t know how to put it… I guess, carry myself in a way that would just be unimaginable for me in the real world, in a very snobby-looking way or something similar. I am one of the most humble, down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet, so it’s a complete change of character, like acting. I am able to do this once the music starts and I “get into character”, but before that I’m just me, and the contrasts between the two must be quite apparent. As “me” I can’t be in the front, but as the ballet-version of me I could… I realize this all makes me sound like a complete weirdo, but whatever.

I guess just be glad you don’t have annoying thoughts like this getting in the way of your life?

In Beginner class, at barre we did plies, tendus, and degages one after another, going from side to side with soutenus without resting at all in between. I like it, it really gets me warmed up. When there’s too long of a pause between the barre exercises I think it doesn’t get me warmed up quick enough, and trying to ballet while not warmed up feels very sluggish to me, like my legs are heavy (not that I attempt to ballet without being warmed up often or anything, but I’ve noticed during my own practice sessions that when I first start barre I feel almost too lazy to move much, but by degages I’m feeling like ‘yes! let’s do this!’).

Center combinations in Beginner class: 2 demi-plies, 1 grand plie, developpe devant, a la second, derriere, balance right and left, 2 pas de bourres, other side.  More basic option was just 2 demi plies, developpe devant and a la seconde, 2 pas de bourres. I remember struggling with that one when I first started –  I just couldn’t balance on one leg no matter what! It would be like, pick up foot and attempt to coupe, and I would tip over. Then  I would try again and again and would not be able to get it up to retire in order to developpe without falling over and having to bring my foot down, and by this point the group had moved on to the second  developpe and it was so embarassing because I was the only one who couldn’t do it at all. The darkest times in my personal ballet history…

In both Beginner and Intermediate we worked on turns across the floor. In Beginner it was chaines (with hands on shoulders for the more beginner students), just chaines for the more beginners, and chaines for five counts, chasse to arabesque, tendu close, prepare, and repeat all the way across for the slightly less beginner students. In Intermediate we did 3 pique turns, 1 soutenu, chasse into chaines for the remaining counts, repeat. The tempo was really fast, but I think I’ve improved a little since last time we did this. My transitions from pique turns to soutenus to chaines especially seem smoother. I still have the problem of losing my spot when I get too close to the thing I was spotting.

I can’t remember the center combination from Intermediate, but I remember it involved a lot of direction changes, like facing the left in croise and then chasse towards the right, or somehow changing facing to developpe devant to the left croise when we had been facing right. There were promenades in arabesque in there as well, and I actually got around in all of them without falling off balance – this is a first. For a while now I’d had a feeling that I can physically do it, I was just not focusing and really pulling  up, so this confirms it. After the promenade came a pas de bourre and pirouette en dehors from fifth, which I fell out of to the right, but completed to the left.

In Intermediate, we worked on sissones, sissone oueverte to be more specific, and that sucked. The combination was sissone ferme, pause in plie, 2 sissone fermes in quick succession, sissone oueverte, hold balance, sissone ouevert to the other direction, reverse.  I actually like sissone ferme (the regular kind that seem to start and end in fifth plie, even though I realize that if correctly done you land on one foot. But my brain is tricked by the optical illusion that it’s less force on my body for whatever reason so yeah…), especially a la second. To the front and especially to the back they’re still a big challenge for me – to the front my body keeps wanting to do a saute arabesque, and to the back it’s just as complete mess. But still, I enjoy them.

The other kind, the open kind, not so much. It was landing one of these that I hurt myself about six months ago, and I certaily didn’t want to repeat that.  So I approached the exercise rather cautiously, just marking until the last possible second, and closing them a bit sooner than what would be considered technically correct. Of course, that just got me plenty of individual correction from Teacher, as she thought I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do… not what I had intended – so many sissones! One of the more advanced girls who went in the group before mine kept staring at me while I was attempting to sissone correctly and it was so annoying. So I raised my hand and asked Teacher if our back leg was supposed to be bent or straight (advanced girl was bending hers) and she said ‘straight’ – probably passive-agressive of me, but this girl always looks at me like I’m stupid because I don’t have the decade or more of training that she has.

Anyway, I managed to finish out class without getting hurt this time. I don’t know if I’m actually stronger now than I was a few months ago, so I’ll continue to approach these sissones cautiously. A part of the problem is that when I do big jumps I tend to jump really big, and it’s the landing that gets me. Since I didn’t have much experience with jumping at all until I started ballet, it can be difficult for me to jump smaller (this especially gets me in trouble during petite allegro, because I want to make each jump super high and I’m instead supposed to do little quick ones. I prefer the slower tempo that the men use when they do their jumps). If I try to do a little jump I feel like I’m not using enough force to leave the ground and point my feet. Definitely something I need to work on. I think all the little prances and small jumps we do in Modern have definitely been helping in this aspect.

Since I’ve noticed that one of the issues I have is that I tend to lose my turnout when moving quickly, I’m commiting to working more on my turnout muscles. I think the key is to get to the point where I can feel when I’m engaging them, and then I’ll be able to know when I’m not. Hard to explain, but all I know is that at some point I could barely feel my lats, so it was hard for me to engage them. But ever since I began to work on strengthening them (mostly through Pilates), I’m able to feel them so clearly, and this has helped me so much with holding my balance. So I hope to get that way  with my rotator muscles. For now I’m going to do the side-lying rotating opening exercises every day (clams, with the feet on the floor, then the feet in the air, then the legs tied together with a theraband) and see how it’s going at the end of the month (I figured the start of a month would be a good time to set a workout goal).



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