Weekly Ballet Post, 10/12/17

Went back to Hardcore Studio this week, after a week off. During the week I tried to work a bit at home, practicing various basics: brushing with the tendu, not letting the knee fall during a developpé, passés up and down (4x flat, 4x in relevé), and 24 daily elevés on each leg. Not sure which of those was the hardest …

But the best prep I actually did was a lot of practicing how to turn at the barre. Most combinations are done first on the right or left, and then switch to the other side. If you are at the barre, this generally means you need to turn 180 degrees so that you can switch hands (and feet). This is not done casually. No. It is accomplished by some variation on:

1) Rise into sous sus
2) Turn 180 degrees on the working leg (defined as the leg away from the barre) towards the barre
3) Come back down on working leg while simultaneously placing the other leg in front of working leg; now it is the new working leg

I’m not sure if that made sense in writing. It certainly did not in speaking, which is why I spent so much time staring at YouTube and tied my ankles into knots at home trying to practice.

The other hard bit about this turn is you don’t want to start either too close or too far from the barre; otherwise once you finish the turn you will either end up squeezed into the barre or so far away that your arm can’t reach. So you have to place the working foot correctly at the start. Here’s where it came in handy to learn that in sous sus, 1) the toes of both feet are supposed to be aligned (this is a very popular pose for pointe photos, especially from the side) 2) when you rise into sous sus from fifth or whatever, you don’t shift both feet towards the middle; you pull the working foot to line up with the standing foot. Consequently your working leg will be at the same distance from the barre as your standing leg, thus ensuring that once you’ve turned around, you will remain at your ideal distance (assuming that you were at a good distance before the sous sus). Clever, that one. Anyway, this sounds like a very small matter, but I assure you that with the amount of turning there was in class, I felt much less awkward compared to last time when I had zero idea what to do. It also helped with other small turns; having the muscle memory to pivot and close in fifth without thinking too hard is very handy. Unfortunately this bit me somewhat when we did a combination with a passe relevé closing in the back. I think out of eight times, I closed in the front seven times.

Now back to staring at videos trying to learn assemblé, which was whipped out last night and I had never heard of it before. I was able to stay late and get some tips but for sheer patience, nothing beats YouTube for a teacher.

I still have no idea what a “perris” lilac is

So my leo collection is nowhere near epic, but I have definitely expanded from the single black short sleeve Capezio leo that I’d started out with.

In particular, I have (with some embarrassment but obviously not enough to stop me) longed after the leo/skirt outfit worn by certain years/classes of Vaganova swans-in-training. It took me a stupidly long time and much failed googling before realizing they were probably wearing Grishko, which is the Russian ballet brand. Well, Grishko dancewear is not easily if at all available in the states (although their pointe shoes appear to be readily available). P.S. you can find some creepy yet hilariously awful photoshopping if you trudge through their English website in desperation like I did.

An aside: this obsession set in just before Worldcon, so I had the genius thought “Finland is close to Russia, maybe in Helsinki …” and so I spent my first sleep-deprived day pounding some pavement at dancewear stores instead of, you know, going to the con. Anyway it was a bust. I should’ve gone to some panels …

But I was undeterred! And after weeks of googling for various combinations of “cornflower” “periwinkle” “[insert other blue-purple shades here]” “leotard” and “skirt” I hit lookalike paydirt. I am now the proud owner of a Dansko leotard in perris lilac and a Mirella skirt in periwinkle.

Having obtained my objective, the real question is, how shameless do I have to be to go to class dressed like that?! Answer: I have less ballet budget then shame, so I’m not letting these acquisitions go to waste. Do svidanya, see you in the studio.

(Where was the class post last week? Out sick, like myself. Hopefully I will be able to attend a class tomorrow night.)

Weekly Ballet Post, 9/28/17

I wasn’t able to make it to my regular studio this week, but I was able to arrange a consolation prize: there is a farther away studio that holds adult beginner classes on Wednesday nights. I had the suspicion (quickly confirmed) that they were a more hardcore studio, so I was pretty curious to try it out.

It was much more hardcore, complete with a live pianist, what riches! And it was wonderful. The class was pretty large—16 people, when I’m used to under 10—and it was a notch above the beginner class I had been attending. I wasn’t too surprised by this because I knew this studio offered an “adult fundamentals” class. The “beginner” class assumed a lot of knowledge. Fortunately I knew almost everything, if not from my class then from YouTube. The only things I missed were the turns, and if I had had the time/confidence I think I could have stayed after class to ask questions. Two other girls (whom I observed in class as being REALLY GOOD) were doing just that.

The class was 1.5 hours, and I’m used to 1 hour, but at least everyone was flagging in the last half hour. Which was of course when center practice is. LBR I started flagging in the second half of the barre, and of course combinations are most complex near the end. Life is cruel like that. Stress testing was interesting, however, personally speaking. I could tell that things were easier on my right side, whether it was balancing on the right foot or doing fancy combinations with the right working leg. And there was much balancing. So … much … passé. And arabesque. And attitude, which is more accurately ‘assitude’ when I do it. And then it was demi-pointe. So … much … sous sus. Shockingly, I stayed up most of the time, and even managed a few balanced moments on demi-pointe in passé. I think it was partly that I had no time to think, hey I can’t do that, but instead just shrugged and went with it. Kathryn Morgan, my lady and savior of ballet, once said in an interview on getting through performances that she aims to get completely exhausted ASAP, and as soon as that happens, the rest is easy. I didn’t believe her at the time but now I see what she means. If your muscles know the steps, then you’re too tired to think about how you can’t do this or that, and you just do.

The class was faster paced so I didn’t have a lot of time to slow down and contemplate technique. For instance, when we were in the center, it wasn’t until the fourth repeat of a combination that I remembered: draw the toes up the leg in a passé. And my feet fell out of turnout because my muscles aren’t strong enough to maintain the rotation. Of course that kind of thing needs to get baked in to the cerebellum, but these moments are what do the baking, I figure. In addition, in such a large class we also got almost no individual attention, but the teacher did correct my arm placement on the barre (way too far back for good balance in attitude!) and at one point turned my leg out more during a dégagé to the side.

Lastly, the studio is clever: your second class is free, good for 60 days. I’m definitely going back. I’m seriously trying to figure out whether I can arrange to make this my new weekly class. It’s more expensive than the other area studios, and more of a PITA to get to (bike ride to metro for a ride with a transfer!) but it’s also obviously better. Of course if I had the time I would probably do as many others and take both classes: slower one for refining technique, faster one for learning new techniques. Shhhhh. I can dream.

Weekly Ballet Post, 9/21/17

Nothing teaches you the existence of muscles that you didn’t know existed like a nice slow dégagé to the side … except maybe ronde de jambe en l’air. It kind of feels like gravity is wrenching your hip out of its socket.

Other discovery: one major reason that turning is hard is because no matter how good your spotting is, your damn body has to support the spot. If your body can’t maintain a vertical line and keep your eyes at the same level in all three axes, you’re sunk. This discovery brought to you by trying to do chainé turns quickly, which required going on demipointe, which I was not terribly stable on.

And in the annals of “skills I have but did not find them as helpful as I had hoped,” an interesting divide was visible in this week’s class. The teacher doesn’t always follow the musical pattern during combinations, which drives me batty. Why are you doing four count combinations on music with 3/4 time? Unless you are combining three beats into one. Anyway, at one point she said to do eight jumps, but the music was in 6/8, so a couple of us just … kept going … because the measure wasn’t over! (And sometimes the teacher totally goes off the beat, and then I just can’t follow at all, because the movements and the music don’t mesh in my head, and it all gets tossed out of short term memory.)

The other bit where classical piano training made dance hard for me at first is that in ballet, steps are often syncopated. Hence the joke that “and” is a number. At first I was really annoyed by this and thought it was irrational, then realized I was the irrational one. This happens because these movements are usually in two parts: you do the step, then you pull back into the starting position. So if you are doing four tendus in a 4/4 measure, you should extend on 0.5, then close on 1. So that you can extend on 1.5, and be closed again on 2. Etc., with the goal of finishing on the last beat. And if you are doing the steps slower, then you are effectively working in 2/4, and you’re still moving on the off-beat. It was a revelation. (I suppose those who did marching band would have understood immediately!)

Unbelievably, however, the best skill I brought to ballet was something I learned from doing junior high musicals. Now I was too terrible to get a real part—four failed tryouts ha ha ha are testament to this fact—but the chorus line (essentially) was come one come all. The pas de bourrée (youtube link)—a really common step in Broadway-ish dancing—was drilled into our skulls and feet. So thanks, Mrs. Hoffenberg. You might have taught me the most out of anyone else in that school, in the end. (Teach the arts in public school! /soapbox)

Speaking of classes, I have now used up the 10-lesson card that I purchased at my current studio. I love my teacher but it is a long drive (now that I’ve moved) and conflicts with another need for the car this school semester. There’s a studio closer to me that I can bike to and gives beginner class on the same night. Am contemplating trying it out next week, although it makes me sad. We shall see. Worst case, I can go back in January.

Weekly Ballet Post, 9/14/17

Had an exhausting introduction to piqué this week. We didn’t do the turn, just the step. Thank God (Terpischore?). There’s nothing like a basic exercise that is REALLY HARD to remind you of how inadequate your legs* are. I got myself through by reminding myself to pull up from the hips, and pretending that I looked Damn Good.

And I could deceive myself thus because there was no time to check in the mirror. A ballet studio is the one place where an entire wall covered in mirrors is not vanity, it is the opposite. It shows not only the inadequacy of my technique, it reveals the difference between what I feel my body is doing, and what I can see it to be doing. Mind you, I know I’m doing everything imperfectly, but the disparity between “bad” and “worse” is enormous. The really cruel irony is that I can’t actually take that much time in the mirror anyways as long as I’m doing something—the amount of concentration it takes to check my form interferes with, you know, counting to eight. Or remembering the combination. Or keeping my form. The mirror works better if I’m already standing still while being instructed, trying to carve a form into muscle memory so that it can then be done again, sight unseen.

* Hips remain the worst. I feel like the pregnancy actually messed with my hip sockets (not medically impossible) and that I had more turnout before it happened. Still, after a lot of sulky reading, it was nice to discover that almost nobody had perfect turnout. Even at Vaganova, which rumor says chooses its entering students 99% based on proximity to the Ideal Ballet Skeleton (talent is an afterthought**; five hours of dancing six days a week will train that into you) you still see via YouTube that most of them aren’t doing 180.

** I feel like writers can also learn from this XD In fact the lesson is an optimistic one! Turnout is restricted by the genetics of one’s hip socket. Last I heard, there are many ways to get words down on a page/computer screen.

Weekly Ballet Post, 9/8/17

First day of school was this week, and that applies to dance students too. I’d been too busy moving into my new place to do any real practice between lessons (also there was no free space to dance on) other than a few floor barre/core exercises that I did in bed. Still, the muscles more or less remembered what they were supposed to do, except for tendu in back, which always ends up going out to the back and side. Turnout breaks my proprioception somewhat, but hopefully that, like the ability to spin, can get slowly trained in. On that note I was hoping for just one class without spins, but no, we practiced spotting and chainé turns.

As ever I had trouble with passé relevé but was lucky enough to find a great demo from Ballet In Form. The tip about the toes drawing lines is fantastic and has really helped. I’m not on pointe, but having enough trouble with the demi-pointe as it is. That said the issue is honestly that my calf muscles aren’t strong enough to support anything on one leg in demi-pointe–but while I slowly train them with daily elevés (on both legs & one at a time), I’m also practicing finding my center with passé while standing flat. Someone had a tip about doing so while facing a wall, forcing you to reflexively turn out. So far so good. Now I just need to clear enough space to actually do a full barre at home again …

Ballet Shoes

Probably the biggest new happiness multiplier in recent memory: I (re)started taking ballet at local studio. Although I am a complete beginner, I grew up on a steady diet of ballet books at varying qualities. I don’t remember when I first saw the photos but I remember being completely entranced by the unparalleled beauty of the form. Lessons were not possible, so I read books, which is always the next best thing. I read all the Noel Streatfeild books, random teen serials where no book is complete without someone bursting into tears mid-dress rehearsal, and of course I read Jill Krementz’s “A Very Young Dancer” so many times that it’s burned into my mind. I also read all kinds of books about technique, and pored over photographs of classical ballets. Thanks, well-stocked childhood library!

One of the really flattering things that a teacher said at my very first lesson was “I can’t believe you’ve never taken ballet before.” And no matter how failhard I am at every lesson, I definitely laid up that comment to live by whenever I feel discouraged (the adagios in center practice, they slay me). And I do fail pretty hard, even for a beginner. My hips are stiff, I can barely follow simple choreography, and my placement is a mess. But I flatter myself that I have been mentally dancing for a very long time. So even when my feet are not right, I do know exactly what I am supposed to have done, and that sometimes–somehow–just a bit–shines through the mess of bad posture and worse turnout.

The other thing I love about ballet is that … I am a fairly competitive and perfectionist person in most areas of my life, but dancing shuts down that part of my brain. That makes it freeing and meditative–I suspect that ballet is to me as yoga is to a lot of people. If my steps are not perfect, that’s just my version of it and it’s as valid as anyone else’s, and I am shockingly content with that.

Which is the complete opposite of how I feel about writing! I submit my stories for publication, and I love it when people read and hopefully enjoy my stories. Part of me feels that a story is not real until it is shared–that it’s just a hallucination in my brain until someone else confirms that they heard those voices too.

In ballet, I do not feel that way. I am overjoyed just to be in the studio. I could do endless tendus alone save for the accompanying music on my phone. I feel absolutely no need to be on a stage.

I wonder if I would be a better writer, if I also felt that way about my writing?

Anyway, this was a rambling post. If you want to read a serious post about taking ballet as an adult, I wholeheartedly recommend the excellent essay “Swan, Late: The unexpected joys of adult beginner ballet.”

Bloomers for a Bean

A toddler in shorts, with the head cropped out.

I love sewing but don’t usually have enough uninterrupted free time for a project. So on Memorial Day, I treated myself to a morning spent making Wiksten bloomers for my almost-two-year-old Bean. Three hours to make and three weeks to outgrow! If I’m lucky.

Now for a brief review of the pattern, followed by process photos. I consider myself an adventurous beginner (applies to sewing and pretty much the rest of my life). The pattern was perfect for my level. Highly recommended, especially if you have a small human on hand. If not, perhaps you will make a relative or friend very happy.

Paper pattern pieces cut out and taped together.
The cut out pieces of the pattern, taped together and ready for action.
Cut fabric with pins for sewing
Fabric, after cutting & pinning. The hardest parts!
Wiksten bloomers (leg openings not finished)
“Where the #$%@ did I stash the rest of my elastic?”
Wiksten bloomers, finished
The finished bloomers!

I enjoy many creative endeavors but sewing and knitting are special to me. I think it’s because of the unspoken the guarantee of the craft: if I do all the preparations and follow all the instructions correctly, I will end up with exactly what I intended. For this writer, that is the true treat above all treats.

Story sale!

I am very happy to announce that “A Remedy for Memory”, a short SF story about love and memory and the perils of mixing them together, will be in the July 2017 issue of Empyreome Magazine.

I love all my children equally … said the parent of one child (and this is true, she said, in Peter Sagal’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” voice). But in all earnestness, “A Remedy for Memory” represents something special to me, not least that I don’t know when to quit. I wrote my first version of this story back in 2009, and since then I’ve lost count of the number of times I revised or completely rewrote the piece. I was going to rewrite it again–I still have the outline in my Google Docs–if there were no takers this year. But I am beyond happy that someone does want it.

As for the story sitting in my revised outline, I still plan to write it, or something like it, one day. Like I said, I don’t know when to quit.