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 guest artists.

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…

Personal Stories: How Dancing Saved My Life

Editor’s note: This is our first user-submitted post! Want to submit your own? Check out here!

There is no easy way to start my personal ballet story.

My name is Lucia, I’m 24 years old, and I’ve never dance before in my life. A couple of years ago my father took of,f leaving me alone: my mother is really sick and she is under medical attention 24/7.

A lot of things had happen to me through the years and on 2014 I though life was over for me. I was alone, struggling with a lot of stuff, including cocaine addiction. It wasn’t until earlier this year that I found by coincidence a ballet video of an adult dancer that I considered to take classes. I was literally sinking, hopeless, sad, I was all in all: an addict. As my addiction grew my health was very bad. My nose started to bleed, I lost so much weight I look like a skeleton. I knew I needed a change but I couldn’t figure it out.

Days passed and that video was stuck my head and the song too! It wasn’t until then that I realized that may be if I picked something, a hobby or something else I could get better. I started ballet classes everyday for 2 hours. And I’ve been clean since the first day I started. I can’t believe I’m healthy, I’m happy and full of energy.

Ballet gave me the strength I needed. It gave me hope, it made me push myself harder it made me test my limits. I’ve never been happier in my entire life, ballet saved me. Ballet was the hand that saved me when I was drowning and nobody else was there. That’s my story.

I’m currently taking 12 ballet hours per week and looking forward for more. NOTHING is impossible if you try hard enough.

Personal Stories: Army to Arabesque

Editor’s note: This is our first user-submitted post! Want to submit your own? Check out here!

My story is one part satisfaction, one part regret, and hopefully one part encouragement!

I took my first ballet class at age 27, after returning from 18 months in Kuwait in the Army. My sister grew up taking ice skating and some ballet, but I never would have thought of trying ballet as a teenager for fear of what my family and friends would think. After graduating West Point and serving in a wartime environment, I felt I had enough “man cred” to go try something very different than the sports or music I had grown up doing. Plus I was moving to a new city where nobody knew me anyway.

I had seen the Nutcracker a couple of years before, and thought more seriously about giving it a try once I was finished with the Kuwait tour and back in the US. If nothing else, I would get more flexible, strong, and work new muscles that weren’t used in the running or weightlifting which I would usually do. Plus meeting some people in a new city where I didn’t know anybody couldn’t hurt.

I joined a class at an arts center in St. Louis that had a lot of dance and other performing arts classes. The teacher was great – it was more of a beginner-intermediate class with some challenging stretches and pilates exercises in between barre and center. My legs and back felt like a million bucks the day after classes. This studio had a teen performance company, but no adult performing opportunities as far as I knew. Not that I was good enough necessarily, but as I approach age 40 I wish I would have tried harder to improve enough to have a performing role in something, somewhere, no matter how small. If I had it to do over again I would have tried to become a regular student at studios with regular performances or recitals and see where that ended up.

I read many stories where guys are in demand and get a lot of encouragement wherever they start classes, but I never really experienced it myself! Maybe I was no good, too old, or just at a studio where adult classes were more for fitness rather than any other goals. Over a couple years I think one other student told me that I was pretty good, a couple of them wondered why I was taking the class, and another older student said I had a lot of courage (I don’t think she was being complimentary – it was more in the style of “You have a lot of courage to wear THAT in public…”) I did overhear some students once say they liked it when guys were in the class, so that was good.

When you are usually the only guy, you sometimes feel like you are invading the ladies’ space and that some of them probably wish you weren’t there. I had to take a semester off after a severe ankle sprain I got while running on city streets near potholes, but I still managed about six semesters before getting married and stopping ballet. I had my girlfriend come watch one of the observation classes, but she didn’t like the idea of me doing ballet—it was a big turnoff for her, so I stopped as we got more serious. At the time I didn’t think I would miss it much. In hindsight I wish I would have made it more clear that I enjoyed it and wished to keep doing it.

Now that I have a few kids I don’t have the time or money for regular classes. I figure my daughter is a more worthy recipient of dance classes right now anyway, as her whole future is in front of her. But, I do manage to take drop-in classes when I am out of town for work, and I look forward to the opportunity to do so. I routinely visit the DC area and have found some good adult classes at Maryland Youth Ballet, Russell Ballet and Kintz Mejia Ballet. In other jobs, I would visit studios in Kansas City and San Jose. The teachers have been good and encouraging and I get something out of the classes every time. I also sneak in some practice at home when I can.
In order to get any better I realize I need to work hard at my weaknesses – for years I have been terrible at pirouettes, but last week I did some pretty good ones at home, much to my surprise. We’ll see if I can replicate them in the next class!! In recent weeks I lost a few pounds, done more plank exercises, and also did more hamstring curls at the gym—an exercise I hadn’t done in years. In high school I found the hamstring curls seemed to help my balance as a baseball pitcher, so maybe they help balancing in ballet? I also spotted a little differently – I think I had been waiting too long to turn my head, and lost balance as a result. Now I move my head earlier to get my spot, and my body follows better, I think. If I could routinely pull off single pirouettes without falling out of them I would be thrilled.
What else am I working on? Turns, in general – I can do pique turns all day but pirouettes have usually been awful, and I could never figure out why. Also my turnout is horrible once my legs are straight – maybe it is my hip structure. I’ve tried every different kind of stretch that I can find for turnout. Once I start a plie my turnout is much better. And, I would like to have better balance across the board. I have a very hard time balancing on releve on a single foot, but I can hold two-foot releves all day. (If anyone else has suggestions on improving at these particular things, let me know!) I also seem to have trouble remembering complex combinations in some of the classes I take – I lose track what direction to turn, what foot should be in front or where my arms should be. I usually have to follow someone else, but then I’m slightly behind the beat. Plus, being rather tall with long legs I have a hard time keeping up with quick leg movements anyway. Maybe this comes with regular practice, or maybe trying a new class after a long day at work when the brain is already fried is a bad idea!
Am I glad I got up the courage to try ballet? Yes, very much. It was fun doing some of the steps with my little girl when she was taking her class. I also have a MUCH bigger appreciation for what I used to call “girls stuff” growing up – ballet, ice skating, gymnastics, things like that. Some of the things these athletes can do is mind-blowing. Its more impressive to me than lifting 400 pounds or running really fast, actually. I grew up playing baseball and these seem much harder. I guess it comes down to what you are raised doing – hitting is easy for me, but maybe not for someone who has danced their whole life. It’s just impressive seeing what other people can train their body to do. To other adult beginners – if you like it, keep doing it! If you want to perform, go find a place with opportunities and work towards them. Even if you try and fail, it’s better than not trying at all!

Personal Stories: My first few months in ballet

Editor’s note: This is our first user-submitted post! Want to submit your own? Check out here!

There are many ideals to learn from ballet. I first started researching the topic in hopes to prolong the demise of my decaying body. I was a serious couch potato. I’ve just recently converted my desktop computer to a standup ‘workstation’ (it’s still just a big screen to play video games and watch TV shows on). All in all, I feel better and love what I do, which is constantly practice ballet.

The first ideal in ballet is posture. Core strength is EVERYTHING in ballet. Thus, the most important part of dancing is to activate your core. Spine stabilization allows for other muscles to be used for range of motion to lift your legs past 90 degrees, or just to balance better.

However, the classical teachings of ballet are still in practice, and I believe it is time to usher in a new wave of thought, that abdominal bracing is superior to abdominal hollowing, most notably praised by Dr. McGill. As an adult, I’m most likely not going to dance professionally, so the idea of sucking in your belly button to look pretty (and classically activate your core) are obsolete, according to recent studies. However, showing my beer belly (because I’m 30 years old and like my craft beers) is much more beneficial to spine stabilization than I ever thought possible. I use abdominal bracing when I bend over to brush my teeth over the sink. The entire concept is a revolution to the idea that we would forever be known as hunch-back computer homo sapiens. It could very well be the cure to lower back pain in the majority of adults.

The second ideal in ballet is flexibility. Witnessing those young dancers hyper extend their splits, is almost as psychologically painful as watching The Deer Hunter for the first time.

Jules Mitchell, who is developing the concept of stretching in her master thesis (soon to be a book), processes the exact nature of muscle tissue, down to sarcomeres and myosin. The idea of “tightness” is a fallacy we perpetuate over and over again when in fact we really just need to build strength in the muscles to increase range of motion. Mitchell also adds that regular stretching is not completely bad and that it does add a comfort level, so not to retreat from our maximal range of motion; however, the classical thought, yet again, could be revolutionized by this new way of thinking.

So, I’ve been researching and practicing dynamic stretching. Leg swings, arm circles, squats and lunges, all to help loosen major joints. It’s now known, that passive stretching can decrease your strength in those muscles. Thus, picture yourself doing the splits before class, and then getting yelled at for not going higher than 45 degrees in your developpe. I’ve still been putting off actually pushing my comfort level to increase my range of motion, but at least I know the proper steps, and willing to at least try.

The third ideal in ballet is to love ballet. My beginner class teamed up with the intermediates, and I was so jealous that they could so easily follow the routine. Of course, they’ve been at it longer than I, but WOW! They do the little mimicry with half motions of their arms and legs to get the muscle memory going, and all of a sudden, they can either hear it, see it, or feel it. Me, on the other hand, I was just trying to follow them. I think the ideal to love what you do, is paramount to everything in life.

I might look kind of odd when I’m standing at work doing rond de jambe, and releve, but I love ballet! It is such a beautiful display of art, that when standing at my standing ‘workstation’ I find myself in arabesque, and perfecting my port de bras… and I could care less who looks in on me dancing to my heart’s content.

New Feature: Submit Your Personal Ballet Story or Guest Blog Post!

abp-submit-postWe’re now piloting a new feature here at Adult Ballerina Project –you can now submit your own personal ballet stories directly to ABP to be published!

At ABP, we frequently like to feature writing by others about their triumphs as well as struggles in ballet, including  personal stories, too! We also welcome guest articles, interviews, how-tos, and more!

You can submit using the form below, or e-mail guest post ideas or articles to aballerinaproject@gmail.com. I look forward to reading your ideas and submissions!

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