Thinking through assemblé

We all have that one step, you know that one thing which is just so hard to communicate to your feet, no matter how much you think your brain has grasped it.

For me, this is assemblé. It just makes me feel like a baby elephant. Really ungainly.

Aww baby elephant allegro.

Aww baby elephant allegro.

I wrote here ages ago about this, and my search for some tutorial vids. I guess it goes to show how long you have to think about and sit with a step sometimes before you start to feel any progress or “click” with it.

I’m still not comfortable with them in the centre at all, but I am feeling pretty good at the barre practicing them. I think my problem is that I am holding back from my plié and into the jump so I don’t actually have time/space to “assemble” properly. I think this just is fear that I will somehow break my ankles!

I have to perform assembles as part of the exam I’m working towards. I’m really learning to love allegro, although I don’t think it is my strong suit – I am an adage girl really and truly.

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Talking about Examinations

I posted here a while ago about thinking about taking ballet exams.

Well, I’ve been taking the RAD Intermediate Foundation syllabus class for a couple of terms now, and I’m just getting ready to step it up to twice a week to start prepping in anticipation of taking the exam in the near future.

I totally love it, but here are a few things to think about if you’re considering syllabus work.

First of all, time commitment. What’s your week like? How often can you dance? If you’ve got a steady one-class-a-week habit, I would consider sticking to non-syllabus class. It totally depends on what kind of learner you are and what you enjoy, of course, but I think I would go a bit mad if I was only taking syllabus class and no others. Plus, I do think taking an exam-focussed class alongside a much more free form, creative class that is not end-goal orientated is the perfect complement to one another. In exam class the whole point is that this is stuff you can do, and the challenge is to memorise it and perform it to a high standard. And performance is key here – you are expected to present and communicate to an audience. In general class, the constant and unexpected challenge, and the fact that you are doing it for yourself with no other expectations, is what it’s all about. I definitely think that my work in both types of class have improved what I do in the other.

Another thing to think about is financial commitment. Of course, it’s taking on a new class, and as you become a bit more proficient and start thinking about the exam, it’s pretty much essential that you pick up two classes a week. There’s also private lessons to think about, for focussed attention that you can’t get in class. There’s ways to lessen the cost here – taking privates shared between two or three students to a teacher is a good option, and some schools offer student-teacher (as opposed to fully-qualified teacher) rates. When you’re getting ready for the exam there’s the exam uniform to consider too, which depending on your school and exam level might involve specialist kit like a tutu.

Of course I want to do the variation that means I have to wear this.

Of course I want to do the variation that means I have to wear this.

Then there’s homework! Again, it helps to think about what kind of learner you are as the syllabus textbooks and DVDs are of more use to some than others. However, I am such a verbal – and above all text-based – learner that being able to read and write my own notes in the textbook is incredibly helpful. I also have the RAD videos on my phone to watch when I have moment on the bus or the tube. I really enjoy giving myself a little bit of structured time to revise like this, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea!

The kids in the learning materials are SO CUTE.

The kids in the learning materials are SO CUTE.

But here’s what I love about syllabus class. It’s so clear to self-assess how you’re progressing, which is really satisfying. Going from having difficulty doing barre without being led by the teacher, for example, to fully memorising all the barre exercises feels really great. I’ve just had a bit of a confidence boost recently because I feel I’ve got our 3rd allegro under my belt – which when I was first taught, seemed like such a far off prospect! My absolute favourite aspect of exam class, however, is performance and musicality. These are criteria in the exam so they are something you have to pay critical attention to, and I find it really rewarding. It is like rehearsing a part for performance, especially in the solo sections like the variation. It’s so nice to have your expression and performance quality recognised and developed like this. Our teacher often tells us that performing out to a big audience (which we should feel our audience is, even if it’s just the examiner!) is like projecting outwards from the heart. I think that captures something of the special and rewarding nature of working like this. I have to add that my teacher is great too and makes class so pleasurable!

I think ultimately, although taking ballet exams as an adult isn’t necessary at all, it’s really satisfying to work towards a recognised level, and I will be so proud if/when I eventually reach it!

Adventures En Pointe #2

You may remember I had a bit of a moan about feeling overwhelmed in my first pointe class.

I kind of psyched myself out of returning to that particular class, and instead waited for my usual, fabulous, teacher to start a pointe course for absolute beginners. Which started today.

I feel wonderful! I feel like I own my shoes, they don’t own me.

We were very lucky to have a ballerina from the Northern Ballet come in to chat to us about pointe shoes. Although I had already sewn my ribbons and laccys, it was great to have a pro there and be able to just chat and ask questions about everything related to pointe. I learned that my elastics actually should be moved slightly, and I asked all about darning and demi-pointes and all the stuff I wonder about on here. I will post a pointe pics and walkthrough up here soon I reckon.

And then we tried it out, just getting up there, seeing what it feels like. This was incredible. I can’t tell you how great  it is just to know what your feet in the correct position actually feel like. The problem with being shoved straight up onto pointe and trying to do combinations is that you have no idea what correct positioning feels like, you’re kind of flailing around trying to get through the combination whilst never coming a safe and correct “home” position. So Fab Teacher came round, shoved my demi-pointe over for me a bit, and said – fab!

I’ve got it!

Next week, the real hard work begins…

 

I don’t know what relaxed feels like

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.

 

 

We don’t dance for praise

I’ve often thought to myself: wow, I couldn’t be a professional dancer. Day in day out of correction and criticism, and if the dance documentaries I’ve seen are anything to go by, batsh*t craziness from your choreographer and/or director to boot. At the end of a performance you might get an enraptured audience, but you’ll definitely get an onslaught of critics. It must be tough to retain focus on your own abilities and what you’re doing right.

This got me thinking about us amateurs. We dance and get corrections, which we’re very grateful for. Sometimes I’ll pop in to a different teacher’s class, just to get more or differently-phrased corrections. I got severely man-handled the other week, which was great. My usual teacher will notice if I manage something I’ve been struggling with and say : yes! that’s a thousand times better! And he gives us general class-wide encouragement. We know when we’re really on it.

But. I don’t know what I’m particularly good at.

I know what feels really good to do. But so often in ballet what feels good and what’s correct don’t necessarily align.

I don’t dance for praise. I certainly don’t expect recognition for practising a hobby I really love to do. But the brain loves rewards and the learning process can be stimulated with well-judged encouragement. Could there be room in the amateur ballet studio for some of the praise the pros don’t seem to be allowed?