Applying Real-Life Ideas to Ballet Technique

15909542962_6cb31f980b_oHug a cactus. Jump out of a bucket. Avoid the “dirty diaper” syndrome. What do these actions have to do with ballet? Surprisingly, these and other unballetic images help me remember ballet technique. I find that the most memorable instructions in class are those that relate to something in real life. Different teachers’ aesthetic tastes and senses of humor have led to vivid, sometimes funny but always helpful ideas for learning and correcting steps. Here are some of my favorites:

Barre work

Circular porte de bras: While stretching and extending your body, think of drawing a large circle with your head.

Arms in second position: Rainwater should be able to run from your shoulders down the arms and off of the second fingers; keep your elbow up and not sagging (or the rainwater will run off of your dipped elbow).

Hands: Keep the thumb in line with the middle finger, as if you were holding a thin sandwich, like a cucumber tea sandwich at Downton Abbey. Speaking of Downton Abbey…

Ballet arms vs. Downton Abbey arms: Remember how Cora, Mary, Edith and Sybil Crawley received guests at their stately mansion? The ladies always stood with fine posture and straight arms that hung relaxed at their sides. To achieve ballet arms, think Downton Abbey arms — but then raise them up to belly button height, strong and curved yet with a soft, relaxed look.

Ballet feet vs. street feet: You have street feet when you stand in parallel; turn them out and voilà – you have ballet feet.

Arms in first position when on balance (for example, when in retire/passé): Hold your arms up in a strong circle, not drooping like you are cradling a baby or flower bouquet.

Plié: Keep both hips balanced and don’t tip them to make a “sexy” plié.

Battement en cloche: En cloche means “like a bell” think of your working leg swinging like a bell’s clapper ringing “ding dong”!

Rond de jambe en l’air: For a single rond de jambe, use your pointed working foot to draw a circle the size of an American dinner plate. For double rond de jambes, draw circles the size of European dinner plates.

Fondu: Melt like chocolate or cheese.

Frappé: Keep your frappés crisp (like a cold frappe drink) in movement. On the extension or brush out, strike the floor to make a sound as if you are trying to grab a barista’s attention.

Las Vegas: Right after a grand battement à la seconde, the dancer turns the working leg in, bends that knee and swings it across the body and under the barre in demi-plié. Then the dancer straightens the standing leg and turns out the working leg for another grand battement à la seconde. I couldn’t find any terminology to describe this common move, but once heard it described as a showgirl-like “Las Vegas”.

Center work

Arms in first position for pirouettes and turns: Pretend you are hugging a cactus, – obviously keeping arms rounded to avoid being pricked. Or imagine you are hugging a balloon (don’t pop it), an egg (don’t break it) or a beach ball.

Tour jeté: One instructor practiced tour jetés in a hallway to make sure she stayed straight during the entire step (the grand battement, the turn and the arabesque landing).

Petit jeté: Avoid the dirty diaper syndrome when executing petit jetés by jumping up, not side to side as if you were wearing an uncomfortable dirty diaper.

Echappé in flat shoes: When standing in fifth position, pretend you are inside of a short bucket; then plié, jump up and out over the sides of the bucket, plié in second position, and then jump back up and bring your feet back together over the sides of the bucket and land in the bucket in fifth position plié. One teacher suggested imagining that your legs and feet are drawing McDonald’s golden arches.

Sissonne: Think of your hips as car headlights; you always want them facing forward evenly. When you sissonne forward, pretend you are driving down a road — you want to stay square on the road while moving straight forward.

Waltz turn: Pretend you are flirting with a suitor at a ball. Brush the skirt (with the hand on the working side); turn halfway to look at your suitor and extend the other hand for a kiss. But because you are a coquette, pull back your hand as you turn away halfway to complete the full waltz turn.

And of course one who hasn’t heard, “Let’s hit the bar after barre!”

I love applying real-life ideas or everyday imagery to learning ballet steps and corrections. What other fun images or descriptions have helped you in class?

Image by Maria on Flickr used under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Provence and Pointe Shoes: Writing About Ballet as an Adult Ballerina

This is a guest post by Jessica Rosevear Fox. Read our interview with her here.

I’ve been a lifelong Francophile, and two years ago, my Provence-themed wedding led to a French honeymoon. After spending a few days in Paris, my husband and I headed down to Provence, where we spent our time in lavender fields, strolling down tiny village streets, and exploring the rustic countryside.

I bought a book while I was there–I thought it was French chick lit, but it ended up being a French translation of an British novel. Titled Tout ton portrait and written by Isabel Wolff, it told the story of a portrait artist and her family relationships. The character’s mother was a former ballerina who retired after an injury. I hadn’t thought about ballet in years, and I had a moment when I thought–Oh yeah–ballet. That’s a thing.

The idea of ballet stuck with me, and when we got back to the States, I dove into the Internet for more. I’d taken ballet for a few years as a kid but was never serious about it. Now, as an adult, I became much more interested in the art form. I found beautiful ballet images on Pinterest, technique and documentary-style videos on YouTube, and helpful information in online communities like the Adult Ballerina Project and Ballerinas by Night. After engaging with ballet at a distance for a few months, I finally took the plunge and started taking adult ballet classes at a wonderful studio nearby. After a year, I advanced to pointe. I absolutely love it!

I’m also a writer. I typically do one major writing project each summer, and I knew last summer that I wanted my project to have elements of Provence and elements of ballet. They were both areas of my life in which I wanted to spend time, even if just in my imagination. That writing project became “After the Ballet,” a short story that I published through my indie imprint, Killing the Angel Press, an extension of the literary magazine I run.

“After the Ballet” was the first time I started writing from a sensory point of departure–the buzz of cicadas, the scent of the lavender in its endless purple lines, shiny pink pointe shoes. I’d been learning about the career trajectories of professional ballet dancers and found it fascinating. What really interested me was the fact that some dancers advance so quickly from the corps de ballet, to being a soloist, to being a principal dancer, while others take a very long time. Others don’t advance beyond the corps de ballet. Nothing is guaranteed. I became interested in the question of what would happen if someone decided to leave that world behind for something new after a lifetime of singular focus. I also wanted to pair that character with a sister experiencing changes of a more domestic nature. The idea of facing change against the backdrop of a lavender farm in Provence really inspired me. It was a world I just wanted to hang out in for a while. In the meantime, the theme of the story grew beyond the external details into one that might be more universal, something many different people could recognize.

A few people who read the story told me they could see it becoming a full-length novel. I think I agree, and so I’m looking forward to this summer’s writing project!

Ballerina Profile: Jessica Rosevear Fox

10150550_10103658194825129_715991065_n (3)When did you start doing ballet as an adult?

I started ballet when I was 31 and have been dancing for about two years now. I started pointe last September. I love it!

Did you ever take lessons as a kid?

I took ballet lessons for a few years in elementary school and quit after fifth grade. It was just something I did; I wasn’t passionate about it.

Why did you decide to take ballet as an adult?

I became really intrigued by ballet the summer I turned 31. I read a book where the mother was a former ballerina, and I sort of thought, “Oh yeah, ballet, that’s a thing.” I started watching ballet videos on YouTube, reading different ballet blogs, and looking at ballet-themed photos and posts on Pinterest. I became really interested in pointe work. It fascinated me. Finally, I decided to check out an adult ballet class with the goal of eventually getting to pointe.

Where do you take classes?

I take classes at a dance and yoga studio about ten minutes away from my house. The classes are small, and so I’ve been able to grow a lot in a short amount of time. It’s a really nice community there. I’ve taken other classes in different studios, both in the area and in the city, but nothing beats my local studio.

What is your favorite part about ballet?

I have so many! I’m really drawn to the emphasis on precision, even if I don’t always achieve it. I love the push to be both powerful and graceful simultaneously. I also love my pointe shoes. They are my prized possessions! I love the feeling of waking up the day after a great class and feeling the soreness that tells me I worked hard previous day. I also love grand allegro. Tendus are my favorite barre exercise. I have lots of favorite parts of ballet!

What is your least favorite part?

I have really tight hamstrings, so developpes and extensions in general are hard for me.

Who/What is your ballet inspiration?

I’m inspired by professional ballerinas, pointe shoes, classical ballet music, my ballet teacher, and other adult ballerinas who are out there making it happen, imperfect as we are!

What motivates you to keep dancing?

I’m motivated by my own goals. I love dancing en pointe, and it’s something you need to do consistently to keep it up.

Do you take any other dance classes?

No, just ballet.

What are your hobbies outside of ballet?

I run a literary magazine inspired by Virginia Woolf called Killing the Angel, and I recently wrote a short story called “After the Ballet”, now available on Amazon, in part inspired by the ballet world. I’m obsessed with French language, French culture, and lavender, so part of the story is set in France on a lavender farm! I also like cooking, knitting, and running.

What advice would you like to give to those who want to start ballet or have just started?

I would say to go for it! Don’t worry about the reasons not to go; just try it out. Also, if you don’t like your studio, try others until you find the right one. In my experience, having the right teacher and the right environment makes a big difference.

Do you have a blog?

I have a website for my literary magazine and indie press.

Photo by Skyler Fox

Performance Story: Once Upon a Ballet

The walls of the theater look like the walls of a castle, don’t they? And scenery is like the page of a storybook…

“She sleeps: her breathings are not heard
  In palace chambers far apart.
  The fragrant tresses are not stirr’d
  That lie upon her charmèd heart.”

-The Sleeping Beauty by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Stepping inside a fairy tale never gets old.

Growing up, I loved getting so lost in a book that I felt like I was in its story. I went on to major in English in college.

But, with narrative ballets, I discovered a more thrilling way to be lost in a story—by becoming a character in it.

I also love music, particularly classical music. So, I find it special that, in this form of storytelling, music plays a large role in creating your character’s feelings within you, sweeping you into the plot and inspiring expression in motion.

Sleeping Beauty is, thus far, my second favorite story ballet to perform in after The Nutcracker. I’ve been in it three times now, most recently this past winter when I entered the tale as a member of the royal court and as a villager.

 My costumes! Garlands and flowers for the village Kelly Milam as the Queen

 1. My costumes 2. Village garlands and roses 3. Kelly Milam as the Queen

Being absorbed into a drama is also liberating on a personal level, because, like many performers, I’m rather reserved in real life.

During rehearsals, it’s harder to come out of my shell and act in the studio than onstage. In the theater, the atmosphere of fantasy created with costumes, sets, lighting etc. helps dissolve feelings of self-consciousness. In the studio, that alchemy of elements isn’t present.

One little thing I found that helped the dramatic process this time though was giving my rehearsal look a makeover.

In the past, I typically wore everyday clothes to rehearsals for character roles. But it was time for a change. My fellow adult ballerina Kelly Milam usually wears a lovely, long dance skirt to practice in. I used her as my fashion inspiration.

I looked for character skirts online, but the reviews of most available styles said the sizes ran very small. So, I ended up purchasing a Body Wrappers worship dance skirt to wear with a leotard.

The movement of the skirt’s fabric as I rehearsed formed its own dance, simulating the sensation of wearing the kind of costumes I would wear in the performance. It helped me be more immersed in the story and feel freer.

A new look.

The week before we transitioned to the theater, I thought I knew pretty much everything I’d be doing in the show: attending a royal christening, birthday, and wedding, whirling through village merriment…

Then, I got a last-minute surprise.

I found out I was going to be dancing with one of the professional male dancers who were guesting from Madison Ballet in Wisconsin.

Phillip Ollenburg and I would dance together in a passage of the “Garland Waltz”– which just happens to be my favorite part of the ballet. (As Disney fans know, the song Once Upon a Dream is based on the music used in this scene.) Our dance was composed of balletic folk/historical type-steps: natural, uncomplicated choreography that allows you to enjoy the movement and the moment. Yes, it was as fun as it sounds!

Sleeping Beauty unfolded during the last weekend in February.

Yes, it was all over too soon, as always.

Inevitably, with any performance, there are things you wished you’d done better, but that’s the nature of live theater. And, by the end of the week, you feel like you’re ready for your own hundred-year nap! At the same time, you’re wishing you could come back and do it all again the next weekend and the next weekend after that.

Post-performance blues? Ouch, they hit hard afterwards. To any performer, I highly recommend Dance Spirit’s article Coming Down Easy. It’s a great breakdown of the slump you feel following a show, why it’s normal, and how to deal with it.

Still, coming out of that slump is different for each performance. This one proved more difficult than others. Well, I guess that’s a good thing. It means it was that much more enjoyable!

Hopefully, it won’t be long before it’s time for “once upon a time” again…

Meet Mary Fran Wiley’s hope.dance Project

sp-adBallet saved me. Dance was medicine when nothing else was working.

I took my first ballet class since childhood on February 16, 2015 and I haven’t stopped since. I’m quite the unlikely ballerina – I’m a bit curvy and I suffer from a rare, progressive and incurable pain disorder called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. It causes constant, intense pain even from a gentle breeze or soft fabric. The treatments I underwent caused my left leg to feel heavier and not feel the floor.

Ballet gave me the opportunity to start taking my body back. The building of the movements throughout class, the repetition of exercises on each side allowed me to relearn how to engage the muscles on the left side of my body. The stronger I got, the less secondary pain I had started to go away. I was able to walk and get through my day with more confidence.

I want to help others who suffer from pain disorders find this strength and freedom, so I am starting an organization to do just that. Hope.Dance will be focused on creating dance classes rooted in traditional dance forms like ballet and tap for pain sufferers. Using a model similar to the English National Ballet’s Parkinson’s classes, I want to create classes that are welcoming and beneficial. A place where the pain can melt away and no one feels like a burden on the rest of the class or be afraid if there are movements they can’t do.

To get started and before I can start fundraising, I need to create the legal entity for the organization (legal fees, state fees). I’m selling shirts to help cover these costs and maybe even help rent a studio for my first class.  If you don’t want a shirt, I have also set up a GoFundMe page.

The goal is to sell 100 shirts. If I hit that goal, I will raffle off a custom-made ballet skirt to one of the people who either bought a shirt or shared the campaign on social media. To enter the giveaway, send your order number or a screenshot of your social media share to hello@maryfranwiley.com with the subject “Sweat and Pirouettes Raffle.”