Guest Post: Ode to Beginner Ballet Class

Kristen’s post, “There’s A Reason Why We Do The Boring Exercises,” reminded me of advice I once heard: “Every dancer — even a professional — should take a beginner class once in awhile.” Initially puzzled, I gradually understood this statement.

For the past two years I have studied with a wonderful teacher at my studio’s Beginner II (Beg II) and Advanced Beginner (AB) levels. The labels are a bit misleading; the Beg II class uses vocabulary that presumes previous training and the AB class  — often attended by professional dancers — moves rapidly through complex combinations. Instructing levels from Beg II to professional company classes, my teacher pays meticulous attention to and offers corrections to dancers of all abilities and training experiences.

When first returning to ballet, I took Beg II class twice a week. Eventually I realized that in order to progress, I needed to try the AB level. I worked up the nerve after

  • my studio cancelled my second Beg II class;
  • I learned that my excellent Beg II teacher also instructed an AB class that fit my now “freer” schedule;
  • and my neighbor (a professional ballerina) convinced me to accompany her to this teacher’s AB class … and I survived.

Despite feeling intimidated, I was relieved to hear the some of the steps taught in Beg II … only now quickly executed in longer, more complex combinations. During the first few AB classes, I was happy just to survive barre before getting lost when we moved to the center. After a month of barely managing to keep my head above water, I actually could keep up somewhat without fear of getting in anyone else’s way (i.e., becoming ballet roadkill). Most importantly, I committed myself to venturing into my teacher’s Thursday AB class while continuing her Tuesday Beg II class.

Why? I discovered that practicing basic technique and simple steps in Beg II before applying them in more complex combinations in AB class was a great formula for improvement. In Beg II class, the teacher breaks down steps that are taken for granted in AB class.

For example, I had no idea what a demi-contretemps step was. In the AB class when dancers reversed direction mid-combination with a demi-contretemps step, I just stared in confusion (they looked like they were almost tripping themselves!); I would simply switch direction to keep up (and not get run over). Then one day in the Beg II class, my teacher dissected a demi-contretemps and I actually understood the step’s proper mechanics. Two days later in AB class when I again encountered the demi-contretemps, I tried to execute the step instead of merely running in the opposite direction. Of course my demi-contretemps step was not good right away, but at least I had learned and could work on the step’s proper technique.

In Beg II class my teacher also isolates specific steps for us to practice that she mixes together in AB class combinations. For example, in Beg II class we can practice proper technique (i.e. spotting, arm and leg positioning, balancing in passé in full releve for a complete rotation, etc.) for a specific pirouette or turn by executing lines of the same step across the room. Then we practice simple combinations of alternating steps (like one pique turn en dedans, then one pique turn en dehors, repeat to end.) Therefore, by the next AB class, when this same teacher gives out combinations of different pirouettes and turns mixed together, I can concentrate on each step’s technique.

My teacher tells us in Beg II class that when she teaches or observes the higher level classes (i.e., AB, Intermediate and above), she sometimes witnesses “bad behavior” — poor habits, sloppiness and incorrect form as advanced dancers move quickly through complicated combinations. Beg II class provides valuable opportunities to hone proper technique under close observation with helpful corrections … so I’m not just imitating others or guessing at steps in AB in order to keep up with (and stay out of the way of) other dancers.

Middle-Age American Grand Prix (MAGP) Exhibition

My daughter’s ensemble performed well enough at Youth America Grand Prix’s Semi-Finals in Providence, Rhode Island to advance to the Finals in New York City. After countless rehearsals, one dancer’s father was asked if he had knew the music by now. “Know the music?” he chuckled, “Ha! I know not just the music … I know the steps now!”

The parents all murmured assent – we have listened to the dance’s contemporary piano piece so many times that we can’t help but have memorized the choreography.

“I have a great idea,” I joked. “How about a we start a Middle-Age American Grand Prix (MAGP instead of YAGP) Exhibition where the parents of all the dancers perform their kids’ pieces? Our performances would give the competitors a break and make them all look good! Instead of First Position, we could be the subject of the documentary Fifth (or Third) Position!”

Of course we all laughed at this hypothetical event but the more I thought about this idea, the more I realized that nearly every ensemble member has a parent who is (or was) a dancer. Five of us have performed in Olney Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker productions for the past few years: one person as Clara’s mother Frau Silberhaus as well as three fathers and me as Party Scene parents … plus one father who also dances with Mother Gigogne/Ginger in the second act.

Outside of The Nutcracker, our collective dance experience includes:

  • five mothers who currently study or previous studied ballet (a couple of us through pointe)
  • three mothers who have studied tap
  • at least one mother studied who jazz seriously
  • and one father was a national competitor in both tango ballroom dancing and aerobic dance.

As an added bonus, one mother and two fathers (non-dancers) who are professional musicians – and have contributed their talents to past Olney Ballet Theatre productions — could play piano, violin and trombone for our MAGP performance! Yes, I could feel our MAGP performance coming together, at least as comic relief during this high-pressure competition. Now if we only could coordinate rehearsal times between our kids’ rehearsal times …

How Does an Adult Beginner Break in Pointe Shoes Safely?

bend that shankWhen I started pointe class last fall, I had no idea how to break in pointe shoes. Of course I heard of people bending the shank, banging the shoe on the floor, hammering or standing on the box and even slamming a shoe in a door frame. Remember the montage of dancers breaking in their shoes in the movie Center Stage? Since I didn’t know what I was doing, I knew that trying one of these methods was a surefire way to break (not break in) my pointe shoes.

On the first day of class, my instructor had us put on the pointe shoes and walk, then run around in demi-pointe. Although I felt like I was shuffling around in wooden shoes, I knew this was the first step to actually breaking in the shoes … I just couldn’t imagine my feet being strong enough and lasting long enough to break them in successfully. I felt more discouraged when I releved – my feet looked like tiny stilts.

A bit depressed and embarrassed, I lamented about my first class to my neighbor, a ballet dancer who performed the Sugarplum Fairy role in a professional DC-area Nutcracker production just 8 months after having twins. “Oh … maybe I’m in over my head. Maybe I’m not ready. Maybe I shouldn’t even be trying pointe,” I sighed.

She scoffed, “That was your first day! And you had on new pointe shoes! What do you expect?” She paused and thought for a moment. “Try this: wear your pointe shoes in the house, but put socks on over the shoes. Walk around the house in demi-pointe while doing your normal tasks, like the laundry, dishes, etc. with socks over the shoes.”

I wasn’t sure if this was going to work but tried it anyway. At least this method seemed safe (for me and my shoes) and built onto what I did in class. After a few of 20-minute sessions of walking around in pointe shoes in demi-pointe (that is all my feet could stand at the time), I felt like the shoes were not so stiff … and I felt less discouraged. Of course breaking in the shoes didn’t happen overnight and more exercises in class were needed to break them in, but I felt encouraged by this low-maintenance, convenient method that worked from my own body heat and foot strength. I liked this method because:

  •  the socks kept in body heat to warm up the shoes, which of course softened the shank and box, allowing them to mold to shape of my foot;
  • I wasn’t breaking or bending the shank in random places;
  • the socks protected the shoes from being scratched up;
  • I didn’t worry about slipping on the tile floors with the socks’ traction;
  • I was strengthening my feet at same time and;
  • this method took no time out of my day since I could incorporate it in my everyday activities – especially important for adult dancers!

By my second class, the shoes felt much more comfortable and I could bend and flex my foot to roll up and releve. I can’t say that walking around demi-pointe in pointe shoes covered with socks broke in my pointe shoes completely, but it was an encouraging start.

Projects for Knitters (or Knitters-to-be): Ballet Shorts and Knee Warmers

Having envied knitters for years, I finally motivated myself to learn by starting with small and useful projects: ballet shorts and knee (not leg) warmers. Despite admiring the look of delicate chiffon ballet skirts over leotards, I have always been a shorts person. I don’t mean long sports shorts, like basketball mesh shorts, or tight booty shorts, though. Over my leotard I wear either yoga shorts or my own hand-knit ballet shorts. My original inspiration was this lovely pair but I decided to try the pretty pointelle pattern at the leg hem another time.

After Googling variations on search terms like “knit ballet shorts” and “ballet shorts knitting pattern,” I found these basic “Studio Shorts”  — a pattern accompanied by photo of a ballerina on pointe! I downloaded the pattern, focused on the “dance” version (instead of the looser “lounge” version), collected a few needed items (same-size circular needles of 2 different lengths and yarn) and went to work. You can adjust the pattern to make the legs, ribbing and waistband as long or short as you wish. In ballet class, I found myself studying other students’ knitted shorts to see how long their legs’ ribbing was … only to quickly explain what I was doing so they would not think I was just staring at their behinds.

shortsfront

 Using medium weight acrylic yarn, I knitted these black shorts but realized that the shorts ended up a little thick and heavy. For my second pair, I am trying softer baby yarn that hopefully will yield lighter shorts. In fact, I am using heather gray just like the shorts knitted by Nicola Lynde of the most recent Beginner Ballerina Profile  Her DIY shorts pattern looks like a great item to try.

During this cold winter, I decided to make knee warmers – not full-length leg warmers. A ballet classmate gave me this idea when she wore a pair of children’s knee warmers that were short and just fit over her knee (extending a little above and below the knee).  I liked this pattern for its cute checkered texture to allow for the knee to bend easily. Using light pink baby yarn, I quickly fashioned a pair of knee warmers for class. The only drawback I found is that the checkered area in front of the knee creates excess wrinkling when I stand straight – looking a little like small kneepads.

kneewarmer

Nonetheless, they do keep my knees cozy during barre so by the time I move to the center, my knees are warmed up enough for me to take the warmers off. The first time I wore them in class, my teacher noticed them during plies at the barre and commented, “Helen, I see you have new knee warmers.” I proudly nodded and was about to tell her I knitted them myself when she said, “If you have knee issues, don’t grande plie in first. Keep it in demi.” Well, she may not have been admiring them, but at least she did not say they looked like football kneepads … and as any adult ballerina should appreciate, she was looking out for my safety.

Guest Post: Adult Ballerina Adventure: First Pointe Shoe Fitting

HMao2Being approved to go en pointe was a dream come true – clichéd but true! With a daughter en pointe, I had an idea of what to expect in a fitting, but only as an observer; I had no idea how the process would actually feel. Despite my excitement, I didn’t immediately rush to the dance store and camp outside like a concert groupie pining for the box office to open (pre-Internet) or an Apple product fanatic ready to storm the doors in order snag the latest iProduct.

Instead, I emailed Joy Ellis, owner of Footlights and fitter for my daughter and her ballet classmates for years, to see when she would available to fit me. I planned to go Footlights in the middle of a school day and workday to avoid other customers–of any age but especially young ones :). The fewer witnesses to my fitting, the better.

On the big day, Joy immediately put me at ease as we sat down and chatted about non-ballet topics like our kids, good books, and the weather. I joked that at 44, I was probably the oldest person she had ever fit for pointe shoes. Joy smiled, “No, just last week I fit a dancer in her 70’s.” Oh, well that sounded encouraging. I kept babbling nervously to procrastinate until Joy said “Okay, let’s get started.” She carefully studied both of my feet, noting their shape, size, and narrowness before selecting the first pair of pointe shoes for me to try on.

The first pair was Gaynor Mindens, which I thought were for advanced and professional dancers – but what did I know? They felt like narrow wooden boxes on my feet but: 1) I didn’t know what pointe shoes were supposed to feel like and 2) probably any pointe shoes would have felt that way to my virgin feet. I waddled to the barre and stood in first position. I knew what was coming next. “Okay, releve!” Joy said. I stared back at her but didn’t move. She gently prodded, “Come on, up, you can do it.” Bizarre scenarios crossed my mind: what if my feet broke … or I damaged the dance floor … or I fell over like Mary Katherine Gallagher (Saturday Night Live hyper-klutzy Catholic school girl from the 90’s) … or crashed into the mirror … or pulled down the barre?

Taking a deep breath, I plied and rolled up. I thought, wow — I am up high. Then whoa – getting completely over the box is difficult … and ouch — my toes hurt! Uh-oh, maybe this is not such a good idea. Maybe I can’t do this. I looked at my feet in the mirror – sadly, they looked like short stilts. Of course I was not expecting beautifully arched feet, especially as a complete neophyte in unbroken-in shoes, but my stick-like feet were a bit disappointing. Joy checked heels and asked me to describe what I felt (since I couldn’t judge how I felt — as in good or bad — since I did not know what was supposed to feel correct or not). She didn’t particularly like how the Gaynor Mindens looked on my feet and suggested other pairs. We worked through several different brands, models and sizes so she could eliminate obviously poorly fitting shoes and narrow down the selection to hone in on better fitting ones.

Joy compared pointe shoes fitting to solving a puzzle – matching different shoes to feet of various sizes and shapes. Much to my relief, each subsequent pair felt better. I was not sinking into the box, my toes were not hitting the end, and my feet felt breathable snug but not squeezed (or encased in a wooden box). After trying about 8 pairs, I found the most comfortable pair to be the Suffolk Standard Spotlight, 5 ½ N.

After purchasing the shoes, ribbon, elastics and Gellows by Pillows for Pointe toe pads, I thanked Joy profusely for her patience and expertise. Driving home merrily humming to myself, I called my daughter to share my excitement. She asked, “What kind did you get?” I told her Suffolk Standard Spotlight 5 ½ N. Silence. Then she exclaimed, “Oh no, that’s what I have, only mine are 5N. Now I want to get a different kind!” Nonetheless, this typical comment from an adolescent didn’t dampen this adult ballerina’s enthusiasm!

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