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

Knitting Projects for Class: Fingerless Mittens and Barre Leveler

Two problems that sometimes arise in ballet class are cold hands and wobbly freestanding barres. I found these two quick and easy knitting patterns that provide simple solutions.

Fingerless Mittens

With cold weather here, I see people layering on garments: leg warmers, rip stop (“trash bag”) pants, wrap sweaters, and more. One day I saw a person wearing fingerless mittens and thought, how clever! Fingerless mittens keep your hands warm while allowing you to still feel (or in my case sometimes grip) the barre. This free pattern from Lion Brand Yarn called Highland Gauntlets is perfect. Scroll down for instructions.

If you want to cover your lower arms as well as you hands, just follow the pattern. If you want to shorten the gauntlets and just cover you hands and wrist, simply shorten the gauntlet potion of the pattern to you desired length. I altered the pattern a little to shorten the gauntlet into fingerless mittens.

knithand2 (1)

knithand1 (1)

Freestanding Barre Leveler

 

Have you ever started class only to hold the barre and realize you unfortunately picked a wobbly one? The music has begun, the teacher has handed out combinations and it is too late to changes places … so you are stuck with a barre that moves every time you touch it. This barre is no help for balance and the sound it makes with every wobble is irritating/distracting. You could solve the problem by putting a towel under one of the barre’s four feet, but you might want to use your towel. A piece of paper is usually too thin to be helpful. I’ve seen an old ballet shoe shoved under a barre, but who wants to use his or her own ballet slipper in case there isn’t an extra one lying around the studio?

I’ve encountered plenty of shaky freestanding barres and finally decided to 1) test the barre for steadiness before class begins and 2) if needed, whip out my simple knit square to put under a foot of the wobbly barre. I used this simple pattern called “Not Your Average Washcloths” by Elizabeth Prusiewicz.

knittingbarre

Of course you could use any small square pattern — think of it like a coaster for the barre. Find simple knitted square patterns here and here.
Now you’re ready for the cold weather with warm hands on steady barres!

 

Common Physical Therapy Exercises Applicable to Ballet

(Editor’s Note: These are notes from an adult ballerina’s experiences and the article was not written by a trained Physical Therapist. Please see a doctor before starting a new training regimen, and don’t push yourself beyond your limits! Read our disclaimer.) All photos by Helen Mao except #10. 

Two months after surgery for Morton’s Neuroma, I recovered well enough to move around fairly normally; I could even walk one mile for exercise. However, my left foot wasn’t strong and had little flexibility. I couldn’t curl my toes without using my hands to bend them! In order to help the last part of recovery, my podiatrist sent me to physical therapy.

I didn’t know what to expect but was delighted that many of the physical therapy exercises were ones that I had done in the past for ballet and pointe. Of course I needed to keep attending physical therapy sessions to make me DO the exercises consistently. Nonetheless, I found that the following physical therapy exercises designed to rehabilitate my foot also helped prepare me for returning to ballet class.

Exercises 1-5 are done seated in a chair.

  1. Golf Ball Rolls: Warm/loosen up your foot by rolling it forwards and backwards over a golf ball. Although the small hard golf ball helped me for physical therapy purposes, I’ve seen many dancers use a tennis ball before and after class to massage their feet.ex1golfball
  2. Towel Curls: Place a towel flat on the floor. Starting on the closest end, curl your toes to pick up the towel. Lift the towel slightly off the floor and pull the towel a little toward yourself. After putting it back on the floor, place your toes a little further away on the towel and repeat until you reach the other end of the towel. ex2towel1 ex2towel2
  3. Marble Pick-up: Pour a cup or bowl of marbles on the floor but keep them in one place.Using your toes, pick up the marbles one by one and place them back in the cup or bowl. I vary the toes I use to pick up the marbles (big, middle, smaller ones) in order to strengthen all toes. ex3marble
  4. Ankle alphabet: Pretend your big toe is a pen or that you are holding a pen between your big and second toes. Keeping your ankle still, draw the alphabet A-Z (either uppercase or lowercase) with your foot. ex4ankle
  5. Ankle Circles: Keeping your ankle still, slowly rotate your foot and ankle in a counter-clockwise direction and then in a clockwise direction. Repeat 10 times in each direction. ex5circle1ex5circle2ex5circle3ex5circle4ex5circle5

Exercises 6-9 are done while seated on the floor.

  1. Resisted Ankle Plantar Flexion: Loop a TheraBand around your left foot and straighten your left leg. Slowly press your foot down and up (resist popping back up!) using only your ankle. Repeat 20 times. ex6flexion1ex6flexion2
  2. Resisted Ankle Eversion: Straighten both legs. Loop the TheraBand around your left foot and hold the excess band with your right foot and right hand. Turn your left foot out and repeat 20 times. Switch the exercise to your right foot and repeatex7eversion1 ex7eversion2
  3. Resisted Ankle Inversion: Cross your legs with the right leg underneath. Loop the Thera-Band around your right foot and hold the excess band with your left foot and right hand. Turn your right foot in and repeat 20 times. Switch the exercise to your left foot and repeat.ex8inversion1 ex8inversion2
  4. Calf and Achilles Tendon Stretch: Loop the Theraband around your extended leg’s foot. Position the Thera-band around the ball of the foot and gently pull on the Thera-band to stretch your calf muscles and Achilles Tendon. Keep your knee straight. ex9calf
  5. Hamstring Stretch: Can be done using Therabands or a strap, rolled towel, bungee cord, etc. Just lie on your back and wrap whatever you’re using under or around your foot. Then, trying to keep your leg straight, pull your leg up with your arms.
    Image via Flickr user bwanderd with Creative Commons License.

    Image via Flickr user bwanderd with Creative Commons License.

Exercises 11-14 are done while standing.

  1. Thera-Band Loop Side Walk: Tie the Theraband in a loop around your legs just above the knees. Walk sideways slowly by first stepping hip-width with your right foot; then bringing your left foot in next to your right foot. Keep feet pointing straight forward. Walk about 25 yards. Repeat walking sideways the other direction.ex11side1 ex11side2 ex11side3
  2. Thera-Band Monster Walk: Use the same loop and position but this time step forward and out to the side so feet are hip distance part, alternating feet. Keep feet facing straight forward. Walk about 25 yards.ex12monster1 ex12monster2 ex12monster3ex12monster4 ex12monster5 ex12monster6ex12monster7
  3. Balancing on half ball: Stand on half ball balance trainer (i.e. a Bosu Ball), first with two feet and then with one. Balance for 1-3 minutes.ex13ball
  4. Heel Lifts: Stand behind a chair (or anything stationary and releve on two feet 20 times. If desired, repeat exercises on one foot, and then the other. ex14heel1ex14heel2
  5. Cool-down roll: Finally you’ve earned the right to sit down in a chair and cool down by rolling your foot over frozen water bottle.ex15cool

Of course you can look up more detailed information on these exercises and use whichever ones help you not only in ballet but also in everyday movement. Luckily, most of these exercises can be done while watching TV!

Easing Back into Class

In my earlier post “To Return or Not?”, I concluded that restarting ballet has been a surprisingly positive experience. As I dip my toes in the water, I need to preserve my toes (and the rest of my body) by heeding advice from a professional ballerina friend:

  1. “Take it slooow.” (i.e., proceed slowly and with caution)

The first time I rolled up to demi-pointe, I anticipated pain in my left foot and, much to my relief, felt nothing. Just to be safe, for barre exercises I stay mostly on flat because my feet, ankles and calves are relatively weak. For retiré/passé, fondu and pique steps, I sometimes gingerly venture onto demi-pointe. In center during the first class, I marked pirouettes on flat but when dancing full-out, I automatically rotated on relevé – without pain! Although I can dance some steps in relevé, I know that in order not to strain my muscles, I’ll gradually have to work up to a more consistent demi-pointe.

  1. “Don’t be frustrated or disappointed by not being able to do what you used to do.”

When I saw myself in the mirror, I grimaced: feet shaped like spatulas when pointed, heels not raised high when feet in relevé/demi-pointe, and a 5th position resembling 3rd position.  While standing in retire/passé, I noticed that my passé knee was not as turned out as used to be, but instead it drifted forward. Although I know this rustiness is expected, I’ve decided to stop looking in the mirror until I’ve been back to ballet consistently for a few months.

I’ve thought of a few more pieces of advice:

  1. Be aware of bad habits formed by previous injuries or chronic pain.

Before surgery, at bottom of a grande-plié in first position I used to favor my left foot and rest more weight on my right foot because of my injury. The first time after surgery when I lowered into a first position grande-plié, I instinctively braced myself — for what ended up being nonexistent pain in my left foot. So now I need to retrain my body to plié correctly while evenly distributing weight between both sides.

  • Maintain your sense of humor about:
    • coordination: When working on side tendus from 5th position at the barre, I kept closing in front while the rest of the class kept closing in the back, and vice versa!
    • speed: While executing double frappés at the barre, I found myself concentrating more on getting my foot out (front, side, and especially back) on time, rather than on proper technique – wrong priority!
    • combinations: When my teacher marked a long center combination toward the end of class, I glanced at clock and was dismayed to see we still had 15 minutes left!
  1. Just do it. (i.e., GO to class)

Although responsibilities (like jobs, childcare, housework, errands, etc.) dampen my motivation for class, I’m even less inclined to go because I’m out of shape. Yes, you read that correctly: I don’t want to go to class because I’m out of shape. Of course going to class is exactly what I should do in order to get back into shape! While driving to class I frequently ask myself, “Do I really want to go? Eh…. I don’t know. Should I go? Yes, I’d better or I’ll regret it.” Despite these internal debates en route to the studio, I’m usually happy once I’m in class. On the drive home I always smile and think, “I’m glad I went to class after all.”

Featured Image “Untitled” By Alice Barigelli

To Return or Not?

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Many adult ballet dancers take a break for various reasons like work, family and school obligations, health issues and financial constraints. Returning to ballet after any hiatus is often difficult. Even harder for me was deciding whether or not to return. Until 10 months ago and despite having Morton’s Neuroma, I attended 2-3 ballet classes per week. Non-surgical treatments (Epsom Salt soaks, acupuncture, acupressure, cortisone shots and even ultrasound guided radiofrequency ablation – which is sounds scarier than it is) helped temporarily, but eventually dancing full-out become impossible. Rolling up onto demi-pointe was painful; even everyday walking in comfortable sneakers hurt. If I stood high up enough on my toes (e.g., en pointe or on 3-inch heels), I could roll through and past the neuroma in the ball of my foot. However, in flat ballet slippers or low heels (like 1-inch character shoes), my weight rested squarely on the ball of my foot, radiating pain to my third and fourth toes.

Stubbornly, I kept trying to dance but eventually stopped; I had to stay on flat or mark steps whenever I put weight on my left foot. After years of avoiding surgery for Morton’s Neuroma, I finally gave up and gave in. Due to work and family obligations, however, I couldn’t fit surgery in for another 5 months! During that period, I missed ballet but also felt strangely relieved too, no longer rushing to and from class squeezed in between meetings and errands.

In the meantime, on other adult ballet blogs I found similarly ambivalent feelings towards ballet. Last year Nikki (profiled on ABP) of Mercietchatons also had surgery and during recovery wrote, “You’d think I’d be dying to go to dance. But I don’t. I want to be normal again most of all.” Nikki returned to class but noted, “sadly a lot of the Adult Ballet-er blogs I followed have gone silent.” I was touched by the insightful, articulate and self-aware posting by Zoe (also profiled on ABP) of Bush Ballerina on why she decided to stop dancing this summer. Blogger Rheumatic Princess admitted, “I’m in such a ballet funk. I really just don’t want to go at all, right now.

5 months post surgery: I’ve endured a slow but steady recovery that progressed from barely putting weight on my left foot and using my hands to bend my toes to walking 2 miles and pointing my toes unassisted. Physically, I may be ready to return to ballet but ask, why?

My reasons for “why not” are:

  • Money (gas, parking, class fees, gas)
  • Time (a 45-minute commute each way to and from the studio for a 1½ hour class)
  • Preparation (changing on the run; remembering necessities like a water bottle, shorts to wear over my leotard, change for parking, etc.; putting up my hair at red lights)
  • Guilt (I’m not a pre-professional teenager and thus have trouble justifying devoting so much time, money and energy to ballet).
  • Fear (Will my foot hurt? Will I be able to dance?  If so, will I ever return to my previous level?)

My reasons for “why” are:

  • I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try at least a couple of classes again
  • Ballet is one of the few forms of exercise I actually like
  • Ballet is a unique pursuit among 40-something suburbanite women (that I know)
  • I love and miss dancing ballet

During recovery, the only ballet step I’ve executed outside of physical therapy and on my own at home was relevé (on both feet) to put away dishes in the kitchen. I’ve tried to relevé on my left foot alone only a few times and for no longer than 2-3 fraught seconds. Was I really ready? A professional ballerina friend was encouraging but advised, “Take it slow and don’t be frustrated by not being able to do what you used to do.”

Fast forward to after my first class back, which I’ll discuss in another post: I enjoyed it! I survived class and fulfilled my 3 criteria of success:

  • I didn’t fall or hurt myself
  • I didn’t hurt or make anyone else fall
  • I didn’t get in anyone’s way

The disciplined barre exercises, muscle memory/ingrained technique for combinations (on both sides), live piano music, and my welcoming teacher and classmates all made me feel like I returned home after a long trip. I’m rusty, weak and out of shape, but at least I’m back.

Image via Flickr User Kryziz Bonny via Creative Commons License