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?

9154522701_e7e8bc8f45_z

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 

Breaking In Pointe Shoes By Lisa Howell

Thanks to Pointe Til You Drop for sharing this on our Facebook Page!

Finding the Best Fit for Your Ballet Soft Shoes

5281539131_7b6bd70ed3_z(1)

Fitting the right ballet shoe is somewhat like finding a brassière or the right shade of makeup: it’s almost impossible to buy the right one unless you’ve tried plenty of them on. Even if you have a pair of shoes that you’ve worn before and that seem to work well, it’s always a good idea to try on multiple pairs before deciding on one. There are always new and enhanced styles that might suit you better than your last pair, and you might just find a new favorite.

If you’ve never been professionally fitted before, trying to find your own pair can be overwhelming. Dancewear sizes are typically different from street clothing or shoe sizes and the numbers vary between companies and styles. Because all of this can make you crazy with confusion, here are some tips for making sense of the process:

1. If you’re enrolled in a formal class, check with your instructor before you buy anything. They or the studio might have rules or preferences about footwear and you’ll want to know what they find acceptable. They might even be able to recommend a specific brand or style that they think will fit your individual needs.

2. Consider the many, many style options. Soft shoes vary in more than just size – most companies make shoes in several colors, materials and sole types, and many of them incorporate fancy features like elastic or mesh arches. Here are the basic factors you should use to get started:

Material

Typically, soft shoes come in either leather or canvas. Both are perfectly suitable for regular practice, but they each offer different benefits.

Leather shoes provide a good grip on wood floors, but they might be too sticky for a vinyl Marley-style floor. This material will stretch and shape to your foot as you dance in them, so keep this in mind when you’re sizing them. Leather shoes also tend to last longer than canvas.

Canvas shoes are usually better suited for vinyl floors as they may slip too easily on wood. There isn’t much give in the fabric, so make sure the fit is perfect before you buy them. Canvas shoes are often shaped with more pleats than leather, which generally makes them able to accommodate wider feet. One great thing about this material is that there’s practically no break-in period, so how they feel when you first buy them is how they’ll feel until they wear out. Canvas can also be easily cleaned in the washer and set out to air dry – just be sure to avoid the dryer.

Color

The most common soft shoe colors are black and pink. There are also endless shades of pinks ranging from tan to bubblegum pink; the particular pink you choose typically depends on your preference, but you may want to check with your instructor to see if they have a particular preference (although generally, adult studios tend to be more relaxed about it).

Sole

Two basic sole types are full-sole and split-sole. For young beginners, teachers usually recommend a full-sole shoe because it offers more resistance and helps build arch strength early on. However, split-sole shoes are most commonly used by teens and adults as they tend to look nicer on the foot.

3. The sizing chart is a good guide for trying on your first pair, but don’t trust it blindly. Try to avoid buying shoes online unless you are very familiar with the company’s sizing or don’t mind returning a few pairs. Like any other shoe, ballet shoe sizes vary from company to company and many of them are measured in inches or European sizing charts. So if you’ve never been fitted before, it’s best to go to a dance supply store and try on the shoes in person. Most brands run 1-3 sizes smaller than street shoes, so use the company’s sizing chart to tell you where to start.

4. Once you’ve found your size, stand in them and try out a few pliés and relevés. Your toes should have enough room to spread out flat on the floor. If your toes feel crunched now, imagine how they’ll feel after a two-hour class! Point and flex your foot to make sure the heel doesn’t slip off or cut into your skin. A great measure for shoe length is to pinch the fabric at the back of the heel where the seam is. The ideal fit will allow you to pinch a thumb-width section together when your foot is pointed, yet have no gathered fabric when your foot is flexed.

5. Pull the drawstring just tight enough so that there are no gaps at your arches. You’ll probably want to tie a bow instead of a knot in case you need to adjust later. Remember to tuck the ends inside the shoe when you wear them for class.

Image via Flickr User Quinn Dombrowski

Back to the Basics: Five Tips for Polished Dancing

5-Tips-For-Polished-DancingBallet is an intricate, complicated style of dance. Whether training begins at a young age or later in life, the technique is challenging and requires not only great strength of the body, but of the mind, as well. Sometimes, successfully memorizing combinations and releasing the distracting thoughts of the day is a triumph in itself.

At times, the details of the steps may overwhelming. However, by focusing on five key points of ballet technique, your dancing will look polished and clean, even if you muddle up the ronde de jambe combination!

Five Tips for Polished Dancing:

Keep your core tight.

In every movement of every combination, keep your core tight. By pulling your abdominals up and squeezing your glutes together, your dancing becomes a strengthening exercise, in addition to artistic expression.

Fix your gaze slightly above eye level.

A small increase in eye level can do wonders! Try to avoid looking at the floor, which creates a shy, unsure effect. Your upper body presentation will instantly improve, as well as your self confidence.

Release tension in your hands.

Achieving a lovely, gentle hand position is tricky, especially when holding muscle tension in your hands. Try this easy fix: touch the tip of your middle finger to your thumb throughout  the combination. The tension leaves automatically!

Use your back to support your arms.

While performing quick footwork at the barre, your arm in second position may gradually begin to droop. Use your back muscles to support the position, rather than letting your arm grow tired. A strongly held arm completes every position.

Relax and smile!

While a giant smile might come off as a little extreme, maintaining a happy, pleasant expression captures everyone’s attention. Remember, dancing is supposed to be enjoyed, so let the joy shine from your face!

Sometimes, tiny changes bring about grand improvements. By integrating these five tips into your class time, your dancing will look clean and polished!

Image by Gabriel Saldana modified using Creative Commons permissions

Skip to toolbar