We All Start Somewhere

Hello dancers! The Fall/Winter semester is already about half over. Now is a great time to check in on yourself and your training. What’s working for you? Are you making progress in the areas that you need to?

When this season started, I challenged you to be strategic about your new training year. That entailed setting specific goals and putting together a plan of attack for each. Mid-semester is the perfect time to review your progress and re-assess your plan.

What were your goals when the semester began? Have you been able to focus on them while you train, or did you forget about them and just “get through” your classes? Have you been consistent with any special exercises or stretches you needed to do outside of class? Be honest. And remember, New Year’s isn’t the only time to make resolutions! If you’ve been slackin’, resolve now to get refocus your efforts and rededicate yourself to your goals for this year.

Don’t forget that your teachers are there to help you, too. If you aren’t sure how you’re doing, talk to your teacher about your progress. Above all, stay focused and keep your eye on the ball. Watch dance movies that inspire or motivate you to enjoy your training. If you’re lucky enough to have good performances taking place in your city, try to make it to a live professional show. While you’re watching the pros, remember that they were once students too, trying to apply corrections and become the real artists that they now are. Just like you one day could be.

I’m just a dancer, not a miracle worker!

First position, arm in second. Core engaged, neutral pelvis. Long neck, shoulders down. Elbow below shoulder, inside of elbow faces front. Wrist below elbow, inside of hand faces front. Fingers slightly curved, thumb tucked in. Chest open, rib cage closed. Rotate the legs from the hip socket. No rolling in. Energy through your limbs, but don’t grip. Now breathe, smile, look effortless and … grand plié!

Does it feel sometimes like there are too many things to think about in ballet at one time, even in the simplest of steps? That’s because there are! The corrections I just listed would be impossible for a beginner to keep in mind all at the same time. So how can you master a step when there are so many corrections to deal with?

The answer is: Don’t think about them! More specifically, your mission is to get corrections so ingrained in your muscle memory that you can “forget” about them and focus on other, new corrections. What’s the secret to that? Like the tortoise and the hare – slow and steady wins the race.

Your teacher is responsible for providing only as many corrections at a time as you can properly process and apply. Then, like a careful gardener, she must patiently remind you and even reteach the info in different ways. You must keep focused and stay dedicated. Finally, it “clicks” and muscle memory has made it a habit. Tada!

You are certainly capable of handling a multiple new corrections at one time, but there is also a limit. Your teacher might focus particularly on one part of the body for a few weeks or on a certain movement quality. As you become familiar with a correction, she may only need to say one or two words before you instantly know what adjustment to make. This means the brain is learning! She might then introduce you to a brand new correction or two, though it could take some months before the prior step or correction is really solidly learned. Even after a correction is solidly learned, occasional reminders may be necessary. Be patient with yourself if you notice this, particularly if you are having to “retrain” aspects of your technique.

Your teacher is responsible for providing you with corrections that are challenging but also achievable – A good teacher won’t ask you to do anything you are not capable of but won’t push you beyond your limit either. Keep focused, don’t be afraid of new information, and be patient if you are hearing the same corrections for a while.

You’ll be surprised what you can achieve with diligence and patience. Don’t forget that a dancer’s education is never truly complete – we are all always striving for improvement.

Ballet in Print: Cuban Ballet

In order to reach their full potential as artists, many Cuban ballet dancers leave their country to escape the complicated politics of Cuba. And that nation’s loss has become the world’s gain as pointed out by noted dance critic and this book’s author, Octavio Roca. Cuban Ballet explores this evolution and is gorgeously illustrated with both vibrant full-color and dramatic black and white photographs of current and former Cuban ballet dancers.

Cuban Ballet provides an exceptional portrait of Cuban ballet’s history, including stories of select Cuban ballet stars. This book also features a forward by Mikhail Baryshnikov and by Alicia Alonzo, who you might have guessed is one of the dancers featured most prominently. Released only last month, this exciting and beautiful new book is available at a significant discount through Amazon.

Dear CBT: Tendu Translation

Dear ClassicalBalletTeacher,

What does battement tendu mean?

– Anonymous Dance Student

Dear Dancer:

The literal translation is “beat stretch”. This describes the outstretched extension of the leg from the body with the toes á terre (on the ground) and in time with music. Battement tendu is an superb exercise for the body when done correctly.

Battement, or beat/beaten, is the word that precedes most ballet steps involving an extension of one leg while standing (as opposed to jumping). Examples are battement jeté, battement enveloppé and battement fondu. If you are interested in the translations and definitions of ballet technique terminology, you will really enjoy grabbing a copy of Gail Grant’s Dictionary of Classical Ballet. Happy Dancing!

The Barre is Your Friend!

Ah, the ubiquitious ballet barre. But is it really needed for developing good technique? Why don’t other forms of dance use a barre? Where on earth did it come from?

As you know from this site, ballet originated from court dances that look almost nothing like the ballet technique of today. And as that dancing evolved, steps got more difficult and more balance was required for them. Eventually, dance teachers had their students hold on to the backs of chairs while learning the tough steps, and so the ballet barre was born. It’s hard to imagine ballet without it now – imagine beginner pointe in the center! Continue reading

Technical Tricks of the Trade: Advice from an Amateur (via You Dance Funny, So Does Me)

How about some technical tricks and tips today, kiddos? Here is an excellent (and funny) article with a by a male dancer and amateur dance historian with a concise list of some of the best quick technique tips!

You’d be surprised what you can learn from a set of new eyes, even when they may not be the most experienced.  The fact that people read this blog has given me an inflated sense of ego, and I feel impudent enough to offer some advice when it comes to taking class.  I believe that our flaws shape our perceptions, and as someone with bad feet, bad turnout and no natural flexibility, I’m always looking at how people use such things.  One of the teac … Read More

via You Dance Funny, So Does Me

Dancewear en l’air: The Pro Pad by Ouch Pouch

Toe pads are essential for most pointe students, but some can be bulky and prevent articulation. The Pro Pad by Ouch Pouch is an excellent alternative to traditional pads because it features gel padding only on the top of the pad to protect the toe joints from friction and pressure. The bottom of the pad is fabric only to allow real connection to the shoe and floor.

Fits Like a Glove – For Your Foot! – Part 2

Once you’ve found the best pointe shoe combinations of box, width, vamp and shank, try the remaining shoe or shoes with cushioning. I do not recommend loose lambs wool, paper towels or newspaper. There are so many much better options available these days!

Cushions should enhance comfort and fine-tune the fit; they should not be used to compensate for a sloppy fit! Use as little cushioning as possible. Many dancers who wear no pads find they need at least one of the oval or mushroom cushions. If these are not sufficient, use additional cushions. It is also possible that a narrower box or a box liner is needed to prevent the foot from dropping in too much. If the length and width are correct but there is pain or pressure on the toe(s), more cushions may be needed. Here are some options: Continue reading

Ballet = Mad Skillz Versatility!

It’s true! Dancers who begin their study with solid training in ballet are preparing themselves for maximum versatility for other dance genres. And here is an article on this very topic.

In my opinion though, it is important that other forms of dance like modern, hip-hop and tap be introduced soon after an intermediate level of ballet is reached by the student. We can’t all be Alex Wong! – Most dancers have to learn how to use their ballet training to explore new ways of moving in space. But like the article says, it rarely if ever can work the other way around.

Square Foot, Round Shoe?

In the U.S., anyone can open a dance studio or dancewear shop – no regulated training or certification required. And this is a good thing for a lot of reasons. Even principal dancers have no document proving their abilities – their careers just speak for themselves. This does mean, however, that a lot of unqualified people get to open studios and shops regardless of their training. When it comes to a dance technique as advanced and specialized as pointe, the results of their undereducated counsel can be devastating to a growing dancer.

What can you do about this? First, you must research the background of your teacher to make sure she is well qualified. A professional career, training at highly ranked dance schools, and pedagogical study are things to look for. Unqualified teachers are rarely educated in or enforce pointe readiness parameters.

Second, educate yourself before you walk into your first pointe shoe fitting. To help you out with this, I posted basic pointe shoe terminology yesterday. Today, I’ll give you an intro to basic foot shapes and how to choose pointe shoes that make sense for each.

You should look for a pointe shoe that mimics the general shape of your foot. Feet come in many shapes and sizes, but the basic common shapes are:

  • Greek or Morton’s: This foot type has a long second toe. The rest of the toes are shorter. The width tends to be narrow to medium. These feet tend to prefer a somewhat tapered box.
  • Egyptian: This foot type has a long first toe. The rest of the toes taper. The width tends to be narrow to medium. This foot tends to prefer a tapered box.
  • Giselle or Peasant: this foot type has at least three toes the same length (sometimes more). The toes tend to be short and the width medium to wide. This foot usually prefers a square box.

Stand on flat parallel to a mirror and examine your foot. Is it flat against the floor? Do you have a high arch that protudes upwards?  Or do you have a foot height that is somewhere in the middle? This will affect your selection for the profile of the shoe.

Lastly, look down at your toes. Are they very long, short and stubby, or just medium length? This will affect the vamp length that you need.

Using these three basic parameters (footprint, foot height and toe length), you can choose which shoe types to begin your fitting with. In order to do that, however, you need to know which shoes mimic these shapes.

Unfortunately, marketing departments of pointe shoe manufacturers do not always give correct information in their pointe shoe descriptions. But there are researchers out there who carefully measure and examine pointe shoes for historical and scientific purposes. This is where you can really get good data on what shoes exhibit each feature that you need. My favorite pointe shoe resource is The Perfect Pointe. The researchers from this group have compiled an invaluable Master List of Pointe Shoes, which is an easy to use chart for choosing shoes with the features you need.

Following this basic guide should get your fitting off to a good start. In upcoming posts, we’ll talk about choosing a size (It’s not like street shoe fitting!) and examining each shoe you try for proper fit.

Core Competency: Pilates to the Rescue!

Do you struggle when you teacher asks you to engage your core during battements, balances and turns? The core muscles – not to be confused with the muscles that create a six-pack – are vital for a dancer in any genre. Ballet especially, with its specific and sustained demands on your posture and alignment, constantly uses the concepts that pilates specifically addresses.

Control of your core or “powerhouse” goes hand in hand with dance and is fundamental for proper ballet and pointe technique, but it can often be one of the most difficult things to master. Your torso has layers upon layers of muscles. Generally, the core refers to the muscles from your abs, sides and back at the deepest layers which are designed to provide support to the spine. Of course, if you are looking to get that six-pack look (which is created by the more superficial layers of the abdominals), core training is still an important part of reaching that goal.

Pilates was created by Joseph Pilates, a prize-winning gymnast from Germany. This method is alive and well today because of its consistent and excellent results. Pilates opened his first studio right alongside a number of dance studios, and Pilates soon became an integral part of the dancers’ regimen.

Many ballet schools provide classes or even require them for their students. If you are interested in Pilates training, look for a certified instructor. Ideally, find a former dancer or dance teacher that understands the complexities of Pilates as it is intended for dancers. Private lessons are fantastic for beginners. If you don’t know where to look for a qualified instructor, check out the Pilates Method Alliance® for a list of first-generation teachers (who studied under Pilates and his wife) and to search their PMA Pilates Certified Teacher database.

Tis the Season – for Casting Stress!

Fall audition season is wrapping up and cast lists at tons of schools are either in the works or already posted. Welcome to casting season! Have you been waiting with bated breath to scan your school’s bulletin board for your name? Do you already know what parts you’ll be working on this year? Is it stressing you out? How are you dealing?

You know casting season can be tough. After a year of hard work and maybe a summer intensive or two, a lot of students dream of solo or even lead roles, but not everyone is going to get what they want. If you are still waiting for your cast list to be posted, how should you deal with the pressure of the wait?

When you start thinking about that elusive cast list and all the “what ifs” that you cannot control, turn your mind to the things that you do have control over. Ask yourself, what should I be working on in class to keep improving? What are my goals for this year? Most teachers will be more than happy to talk to you one-on-one about what you need to improve most and how to go about focusing on those issues. Working on strengthening specific areas of your dancing will help you to continue on a path to success regardless of how the casting turns out.

Have you already found you name up on the casting list? Did you get the parts you hoped for? If not, are you motivated to work harder? Or are you busy picking apart the students who got the roles you wanted? If the second one sounds like you, it may be time to take a deep breath. Casting season is often when rumors about favoritism and politics take hold and may start running rampant among students and even – shockingly – among parents. Don’t get caught in this spiral. All it will do is keep you from focusing on you and how to get where you want to be.

I know it can be hard – especially if you have friends or even parents telling you that you deserved the role that Suzie got, but I promise that 99% of the time, casting decisions are made with careful attention to countless factors. For example, different students need different treatment at different times in their growth – Sometimes a students needs to be pushed to handle a solo role, and sometimes they need to be pushed to learn how to dance as a team member or team leader in the corps. Once again, the solution is to shift the focus from other students back to yourself. Focus on your dancing, what you need to do to move forward and how you can work on things that might be holding you back.

Finally, if you got that coveted role you’ve been dyin’ for – Congratulations! But remember, the work doesn’t stop here. An important solo or lead role can mean much longer rehearsal hours and a tougher standard that you need to meet. A lot more may be expected of you than you’ve had to deal with before – and you’ll still need to get all of that homework done! Take advantage of the guidance that your teachers and directors can provide.

However the casting chips may fall, remember congratulate yourself for working hard and getting through a competitive audition process. And get ready to rehearse your butt off!

Is a pro school right for you year-round?

I’ve often talked about how crucial training at a professional ballet school can be for students who aspire to a professional career, a high quality college dance career or both. Here is some great advice from the recent issue of Pointe Magazine about deciding whether a year-round program is right for you – and whether you are ready for it.

Dancewear en l’air: The Two-Tone Practice Tutu

In my recent post on the tutus, I featured this lovely rehearsal piece, C705, by Primadonna Tutus as the example. But such a well-made and economical piece really deserves it’s own post.

This practice tutu comes in classic white tulle. The black and white basque mimics the pointed basque-waist of a performance tutu’s architecture when worn with a black leotard as shown. This is a gorgeous rehearsal piece, but if you are looking to dress it up for a competition or recital, be forewarned that the two-tone feature doesn’t really lend itself to evolution into anything else. Primadonna offers all-white and all-black options if you need that versatility.

The price is nice on this piece and options include a 12″ or 14″ skirt, a hoop on request for $20 more, and either eight or ten layers of tulle. All told, you’ll probably won’t even reach $200 for the most expensive version.