The first time I ever went to ballet class, I didn’t know how to plié. Two years later, my plié is still evolving, but back then in that first class I just bent my knees and hoped…
My teacher is fabulous. (I’d love to go all out on a full description, but I’m worried about preserving anonymity on the internet; he’d be instantly recognisable. I’m just going to call him Fabulous Teacher.) Seeing I was terrified at his approach in front of the whole class, he tells me, “Smile! This is beaming out on SkyArts 1 later!” – hilarious. Instant rapport. He asked me to plié, and then grabbed my torso firmly and asked me to go over it a few times more. This was when posture really clicked for me for the first time in my life. I’m staggered at the degree to which my arse used to stick out! All the time! Yoga classes hadn’t even made me realise. So: Revelation One. But my plié still wasn’t starting to take shape. Still grabbing and prodding me he told me to relax. The very first class I had taken, and this correction is one I’m still hearing and struggling with now. As Fab Teacher said to me at the end of my Sky Arts 1 performance: “You’re just a big tense mess!”. Yes, pleased to meet you, and you are?
Fast forward to the other week and I’m doing a ballet-specific Pilates workshop. I keep getting gently told to relax. There’s only so much you can do when someone says that really, isn’t there? It’s almost like being told to cheer up: how? Seeing I was struggling, the teacher came and guided me through some of the movements. “You really do need to relax”, she said. “Your muscles are constantly working full-out, you must be exhausted.”
Well, yes I am. I have certain medical stuff going on which makes me think that a lot of this is significant in a “mind/body continuum” sense. I don’t mean that I’m just feeling a bit wound-up – although of course we all do sometimes, too – but that my body at a functional and organic level is holding on to a lot of tension.
Still, what to do about it? The pilates teacher suggested some visualisations – just the bones of your body are moving, your muscles aren’t involved. Think of your movement, say a tendu, like an elastic band constantly stretching and retracting, never coming to the end of its fluid movement. She demonstrated this in contrast to an old-fashioned ballerina way of executing a staccato, disconnected kind of abrupt tendu.
I have taken this on board, and I am also paying a lot more attention to breathing and mental relaxation in class. It’s incredible how much worrying about the next step or concentrating on what someone else is doing finds expression in my body. Recently I’ve been receiving, gratefully, these relaxation corrections in every class – relax my hip is a huge one. I’ve had even my jawbone and clavicle held, physically, for relaxation during a combination.
Fab Teacher slapped my hip playfully the other day because it was still not doing it was it was told. The next class he just grabbed my leg, which I was holding under the thigh as close to my torso as I could (leg bent, everyone, leg bent!!) and pushed it in and up. I love these physical corrections because it’s as if, finally, someone is overriding my body and just telling it how it should be feeling in a position. I think as far as my hips go, “relaxed” actually feels like like an engaged, active pushing down of the working hip – which lengthens the hip flexors. It’s taken me several weeks to piece this together. A bit like the time I realised my teacher meant physically, anatomically where my stomach is and not what I think of as my belly when he was telling me to pull my stomach up. What he means by “relaxed” didn’t match up to what I thought “relaxed” felt like.
That’s as far as my hips are concerned. I still don’t know what relaxed feels like, and it’s a quest I keep writing up in my dance journal. Other approaches I’ve thought of are taking more pilates, and getting some deep tissue massage. Even trying acupuncture or hypnosis. Of course these all cost money, and I don’t want this type of secondary conditioning activity to get in the way, financially, of my being able to attend ballet class. Still, building stretches and pilates into my daily routine is definitely a possibility. (Although boring. Boredom is why I don’t exercise AT ALL outside of class.)
Sometimes it feels like a frustration, as if my body is working against me as I’m doing something I enjoy so much. I try to hold on to the fact that, really, ballet is relaxing. Ballet is mindful. I can let it help me learn how to relax.