Dancers, Go out in the Sun!

Louisa_PointeShoes_Rocks

Summer is here! Dancers, what are your plans? To many of us who are in love with the barre, the prospect of taking a summer break without any dance class is just a torture, isn’t  it?

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Well, let’s take a look at the issue from a different perspective. Dancers spend most of their waking hours indoors, inside the studio, away from exposure to natural light. Without the benefit of the sunlight, our skin would not be producing enough Vitamin D, which is a vital hormone that aids the absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc, among hundreds of other benefits it brings to the body. I referred to Vitamin D as a “hormone” instead of a vitamin, because it functions differently from vitamins,  in that it can actually be manufactured by the body itself without the help of food. Its production is triggered by exposure to sunlight. Knowing that it helps the absorption of the important minerals that contribute to bone health, it is therefore of utmost importance for dancers to get adequate amount of Vitamin D.

A study presented at the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine’s Annual Meeting has linked too little vitamin D in the body to an increased risk of muscle injuries in athletes. While the study involved football players, you have probably seen the list of the most demanding athletic activities, in which ballet ranks higher than football (sorry I can’t find that list now). So the warning from the research can definitely be applied to ballet dancers and students alike.

Louisa_Dancing-on-the-Roof

Practicing barre on the rooftop

By now, you probably have guessed what the best way to get Vitamin D is. Yes, get out in the sun! But do so without those horrendous “visors” ubiquitous in Asia, and sans the carcinogenic sunblocks. In case you haven’t heard, most commercial sunscreens contain questionable ingredients that could lead to cancer or hormonal disruption and other terrible long-term health issues. In the reference section below the article, you can find a link to how to choose sunscreens that are safe. Personally, I do not use any sunscreen at all, except for a thin layer of tinted moisturizer by 100% pure on my face. My body likes getting the tan. I have a lot of natural pigments (melanin), which protects me from the harmful effects of ultraviolet rays. I also eat a lot of vegetables in a rainbow spectrum on a daily basis, which serves as a natural protection from sunburn. I have read that people in tropical countries apply coconut oil to protect their skin (http://bit.ly/1gHJJfL). I haven’t tried it myself but you might want to give it a try (best to use extra virgin coconut oil).

I have once overheard a conversation involving the parents of a girl who hopes to become a professional dancer when she grows up. The parents were asked about the summertime activities they have planned for the girl. They replied: “She wouldn’t be going outdoors much. It’s best for her to keep her skin color fair, as it would be ideal for ballet dancers. She’ll be swimming in indoor pools and mostly playing indoors.”

I balked at such a suggestion. Not only is this a most unscientific approach to their daughter’s health, it also reinforces the stereotype that ballerinas should have fair skin (read David King’s blog post about the idea of “passable white” in ballet, http://bit.ly/1SuWrdC). Why can’t we, Asians, maintain our natural skin color and create our own ideal for ballet dancers?

Well, I’m way past the age of becoming a professional dancer, but in my whimsical way, I like to think of myself as an “outdoor ballerina”—having fun in the sun—and I am not ashamed of my brown skin. Let’s have some fun in the sun this summer, shall we?

 

 

References:

Vitamin D: Health Benefits and Recommended Intake

Vitamin D Deficiency Links to Risk of Uterine Fibroids

Lack of Vitamin D Leads to Muscle Injuries

The Environment Working Group’s Guide to Sunscreens

Classical Ballet: An Art or a Sport?

See the Music, Hear the Dance

George_Balanchine_See the Music

“See the music, hear the dance.” ~George Balanchine

Nobody has described the relationship between dance and music better than the legendary choreographer George Balanchine. In just six words, he has painted the essence of how dance visually expresses music, and what dancers should always bear in mind when they perform.

Simple statements often beguile great wisdom. In this case, behind what appears to be a catch phrase lies a great deal of sophistication, sensitivity and a lifelong dedication to the ephemeral art of movement in time and space.

One of the main reasons that I am so drawn to the art of ballet is the music—and to a great extent, it is classical music that is the ultimate charmer. Long before ballet fell into my adult consciousness, I was already enchanted by the world of classical music. The fact that my husband is an aficionado of classical music, a one-time cellist in an orchestra and a neoclassical music composer, means that I am constantly exposed to beautiful music and the history behind it.

It is no surprise, then, that I immediately became smitten by the music used in class when I started taking ballet lessons as an adult. Classical music just makes dancing so much easier for me, and it gives me the generous illusion that I am actually dancing more gracefully than I actually am. No matter how I look, it makes me feel graceful and feminine, and that’s what really matters.

There are, however, times when the music in class does not inspire me to dance. The worst case is when the music actually turns me off as if a switch has been flipped and my muscles no longer respond. Am I too picky? I have seen fellow students who do not react to music the same way I do. Basically, whatever music is being played seems to be fine for them. Granted, the taste for music is a highly personal thing. For me, certain types of music just makes me cringe or feel blasé. The No. 1 inspiration killer for me, is cheesy Christmas melodies adapted for ballet class, played during the entire December month. Second in line is Broadway musicals converted into class music. Third is petite allegro music that is too cute or pretentious. Call me old fashioned or whatever you like. Just give me some good-old classical music—some adapted from the classical ballet repertoire, or neo-classical music, and I am a happy dancer!

Music for Dance_Karen Salmansohn

Of course, we can’t always choose what music we dance to. In that case we might have to follow Karen Salmansohn’s advice of adapting our way of dancing to the music.

What are  your pet peeves when it comes to ballet class music?

What kind of music gets you into the “zone”?

Do you have any favorite CDs that you use for your own practice? Please leave me a comment. I’d like to hear what you like!

Here is my top favorite ballet class music CD: Dmitri Roudnev’s “Favorite Classics of Ballet for Ballet Class”

Let me end this post with another quote by Balanchine:

“Dance is music made visible.”

Let’s dance to and, more importantly, in music!

Dancing off the Beaten Path: The Stories of Three Young Chinese Male Dancers

Photo credit: Self portrait by Mickael Jou (Click on photo to visit Jou’s FB page)

Male ballet dancers in Asia are a rare species. Not that they don’t exist. But generally speaking, parents do not encourage their sons to pursue the path of becoming a professional dancer because dancing is still very much considered a feminine activity and thus a dancing boy would be seen as a “sissy.” In addition, in Chinese societies, especially in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, where there is scanty government funding for the arts, dance is not regarded as a prestigious profession, as being a dancer does not equate a big salary and a “stable” future.

Against these odds, there are a few young male dancers who have followed a non-traditional path and carved a niche for themselves. By defying the skepticism around them, these young men have become a source of inspiration for many aspiring dancers.

Mickael Jou (周楷), an American-born Taiwanese dancer and self-taught photographer, has wowed the world with a series of selfies showing himself dancing and jumping around the world. His photos have recently been published in the Huffington Post (http://huff.to/1GEPiAZ) and the Daily Mail (http://dailym.ai/1IlaDER), in which he is described as “the man who defies gravity.” The Chinese-language Apple Daily newspaper has even met up with him in Berlin and done a video interview after observing the painstaking process of him taking self portraits (http://bit.ly/1LQc27y)

When you look at Jou’s “selfies,” it is hard to tell that he is not a professional dancer. What surprised me the most is that he actually did not start to take ballet lessons until he was 18. He studied business in university and started working in sales. His adventurous spirit brought him from the United States to Paris, France and later to Berlin, Germany, where he is now working with photography. His passion of dance+photography has taken him around the world doing crazy jumps amid wide-eyed and head-scratching crowds. He is a perfect example of someone who lives outside the traditional box—a box that is perpetuated among Chinese families. He is a true inspiration of creativity for us Chinese people!

Photo courtesy of Meng Ting

Another young Taiwanese man, Meng Ting (孟霆), grew up in his mother’s ballet studio and eventually pursued ballet studies at Taipei National University of the Arts. But after graduation, he has chosen to join the army’s Honor Guard. The Taiwanese media published a report on this (http://bit.ly/1eCjDJG). Why has he chosen this career path? “The main consideration was the practical side,” he answered, hinting at the uncertainties of pursuing the ballet profession in Taiwan. He said he did not audition for a ballet company after graduation. But he still practices and performs in his mother’s studio’s yearly school performance, and finds tremendous satisfaction in that.

In the video posted by Taiwan’s Security Department as a recruitment ad (above), Meng said that he has chosen to work in the Honor Guard as there is a chance for him to perform on stage and he finds a parallel between the work there and ballet dancing. Both have very specific and detailed demands for each movement and require a strict discipline. At the same time, there is a constant need to come up with new choreography for the Honor Guard, so it is just as challenging as dancing ballet. The “selling point” used by the Taiwanese military is that a man who can execute graceful movements can also be suitable for work in the military—a perfect harmony between the soft and the hard sides of masculinity. Meng told me that the job suits him because he can find the perfect balance between financial stability and an outlet to make use of his dancing talents, applying the spirit of ballet in his military work.

Kelvin Mak

Photo courtesy of Kelvin Mak

Back in Hong Kong, my home turf, we have a “miracle” created by Kelvin Mak (麥卓鴻), who started learning ballet at the age of 16 and has successfully become a professional dancer three years later. The 21-year-old started off learning hip hop and fell in love with performing arts, moving on to ballet and contemporary dance. He graduated from the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, majoring in modern dance, and in 2013, joined the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), the most prominent contemporary dance company in Hong Kong, as a professional dancer. Why did he pursue dance? His answer: “I believe that dance has chosen me.”

Like so many Chinese mothers out there, Kelvin’s moother has never really supported his choice of becoming a dancer. But Kelvin dances on, in the hope that one day he will earn her support through his success. Among his numerous achievements so far is winning the third prize in the Classical Pas de Deux category at The American Dance Competition in 2013. Watch him dance in the YouTube links below.

Besides dancing for CCDC, Mak is also a dancer with the newly established Beyond Dance Theater (舞界限舞蹈團), founded by his ballet teacher Linus Kwok. When asked how dance has inspired his life, he said, “Although ‘impractical,’ dance gives me a strong sense of living in the moment…. The process is not painful at all, but rather, very joyful. Dance definitely brings me a kind of spiritual enjoyment. It gives me a channel to express my emotions.” When asked about his advice for students who are looking to develop a dance career, he said, “Be truthful to who you are at any given moment. Although you may be ‘imperfect,” you need to enjoy the imperfection, too. As a dancer, there is a bright spot in every step. Take in every moment carefully, and you will never regret the rest of your life!”

Dance Like Nobody is Watching… Not!

Grand Jete Expectation vs. Reality

How many of you have experienced this moment of truth shown in this ballet meme? Well, I have had plenty in the long and winding path of my adult ballet journey, but I can truly say an emphatic “reality bites!” after my barre practice on the roof recently.

Due to numerous reasons which I will not bore you with, I haven’t been able to go to class for quite some time. So I try to grab a make-shift barre in the corridor of my workplace to practice whenever I can. Recently the weather has been surprisingly “cool” (relatively speaking, as it is still in the upper 20C’s to lower 30C’s here, but with a nice breeze), so I practiced in the early morning on the roof of my home.

What became my make-shift barre on the roof is the flat surface of one side of the wall, which came up to about the right height for me. But there isn’t any possibility for me to grab it. So I just laid my hand on it. First awakening: Without grabbing the barre, I found that my supporting side was actually much weaker than I thought, so that my working leg had a lower extension and less stability when it moved. First lesson: Work on the core to stabilize the supporting side, and don’t rely too much on the barre.

Now, there is a little window that reflects the image of my trunk. When I looked at it during practice, I was quite appalled to see how much my pelvis tilted forward and my belly just sloughed during my exercises. There isn’t any reflective surface in the corridor of my workplace, so I hadn’t been able to see myself from the side. Second lesson: Tilt the pelvis backward a bit and engage the pelvic floor muscles, as I have learned in Pilates. It surely wasn’t easy to to do that in every single movement. My muscles felt so very different!

I tried videotaping myself by placing my smartphone on the floor. It captured the movements of my legs and feet. Gosh! My knees were not straight. My turnout was horrible, and because of that, the feet looked a bit sickled. Despite the horrid awakening, I realized that I hadn’t been putting enough effort into firing my muscles and using the correct alignment in the simplest exercises. So, lesson Number 3: Give up the need for 180-degree turnout and high extensions, and focused on the basics instead. It turned out that every movement required so much more muscle power to be right. I have often felt that I have straightened my legs and pointed my toes enough. But the reality is, “straight” for everyday living is still far from the “ballet straight.” The same goes for pointed feet. I just have been way too relaxed in my practice over the past year. But then I forgive myself, as I am making a come-back after all my muscles went into post-surgery entropy. The muscles are gradually waking up and firing with the help of physiotherapy and Pilates training. Now, this has to translate into my regular practice.

Recently I come across an article by dance physiotherapist Lisa Howell, who wrote that it takes a much longer time to correct wrong movements than to learn them (see  here: http://bit.ly/1KRfs9r). So I expect a lot more repetitions to correct everything that’s wrong about my movements. Luckily, I am at least aware now of how I am doing things incorrectly. So that’s a good start, LOL!

I also recommend my fellow adult dancers to try to check your posture and alignment in the mirror whenever possible, and to videotape yourself just to see how you are progressing over time. While we often hear the saying: “Dance like nobody is watching,” when we practice and aim for improvements, let’s try to dance like everybody is watching, and put up a good performance!

Attention Ballet Studio Owners: 5 Things You Need to Know about Adult Students

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Recently I was invited to a press conference of a new ballet studio in town. Unlike most studios in Hong Kong, this one, SJ Ballet Des Arts, is relatively large in size (two 600+ sq. ft. studios), with an exceptional sea view to boot, and located in a porsche tourist district where the rent is predictably high.

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I had the chance to sit down with the founder of the studio, Song Hai Feng, who has just retired as a coryphée of The Hong Kong Ballet. Song emphasized that his school will focus on nurturing students’ artistry and spiritual fulfilment through a holistic approach—ballet books and music will be available in the library corner, and lectures will be provided to parents in the art of ballet, nutrition and safety, so that they can become a source of support for their children’s artistic development. Song’s wife, Jin Yao, currently a principal dancer of The Hong Kong Ballet, explained the goal of the school is to build a solid foundation for ballet students based on correct methodology from Day One. She said that she has seen innumerable young ballet students who went on auditions for Hong Kong Ballet’s annual Nutcracker, and was surprised to find that most did not exhibit the basic techniques correctly.

It all sounds wonderful—not many ballet studios in this over-commercialized city would have this kind of lofty approach. It remains to be seen how these goals will be accomplished.

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SJ Ballet Des Arts is going to offer two types of adult ballet classes on top of its elite pre-professional track, one-on-one coaching, toddler classes with parents and Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) track for young hobbyists. One type of adult class is for beginners who have zero experience in ballet. The marketing angle is “Beauty and Slimming,” and the content of the course is a combination of Pilates mat exercises, stretching and some basic ballet movements. The other type is for those who have some experience of ballet. While I think that it is a great idea to require absolute beginners to do stretching and floorwork—which are usually omitted in Hong Kong’s adult ballet courses, the marketing concept of “Beauty and Slimming” is geared toward a clientele who may not be seriously interested in ballet as an art form. And the fee of HK$350 per lesson (students must pay three months’ fee in advance) is really prohibitive for many. Perhaps I’m wrong about it and perhaps there are plenty of wealthy ladies out there who don’t mind parting with what is equivalent to about US$45 for each session. But I definitely cannot afford to do this. In terms of class structure, I would rather that the school offers adult classes divided into different levels, with Level 1 consisting of floor barre and stretching on top of the basic movements, and then progressing to higher levels thereafter.

According to the studio founder Song, the plan is to introduce ballet basics through this class, and those interested in taking serious ballet lessons can move on to the regular adult class. Well, over the past few years, we  have seen the growth of interest in adult ballet around the world as a result of non-traditional classes geared toward those who want to keep fit and achieve a beautiful body shape (such as Ballet Beautiful, Xtend Barre and Sleek Technique). So maybe this will create a similar effect. We’ll see!

When I introduced myself to Song, he asked me what the challenges for adult students are. One of the things I told him about was that adult students often get injured as most of us do not receive core strength training in class, and some of us are not taught the right placement and technique from the start. Instead, we are often just asked to copy the teacher’s or other students’ movements, without understanding how to use the muscles in a correct manner. He was very surprised to hear that adults could get injured in ballet class! He told me that children in China who receive professional training almost never experience injury until quite late in their training or during their career, when they over-exert themselves.

I realized that for experienced ballet dancers and new studio owners, there may be specific aspects of adult ballet training that they may not be aware of, given their professional background and their relatively young age. So I decided to jot down a list of things for them to take into consideration when designing course content for the mature group:

1) Adult students come in vastly different body types and physical conditions that may include serious muscle imbalances, inflexibility and even deformity or diseases that affect the body’s alignment or stamina. It would be helpful to observe and check our body conditions, talk individually about our needs and make some effort to give us exercises that cater to our specific conditions. Treating everyone equally—or worse, treating us as if we were kids or teenagers—would not necessarily yield the best result.

2) Adult students come with baggages in life. We may be parents with tons of obligations. Or office workers who have to put in long hours or overtime regularly. We may have to go on business trips from time to time. Or we may have illnesses or diseases that prevent us from attending class regularly. Heck, some of us may even have dramatic family or life situations that cast a shadow in our minds, making us a little less capable of focusing and fulfilling the demands in class. These are some of the things that a young ballet student would not normally have to contend with. So beware of adult students’ erratic schedules and the impossibility to attend classes regularly. Try to pace the classes in a way that allows for us to make up for our lost progress. Many of us adult students wish to do well in class so badly, that missing a class itself is a source of stress. And the more stressed up we are, the more easily we get injured. So putting adult students’ mind at ease by offering some make-up classes or words of encouragement would be highly beneficial.

3) As I mentioned above, most ballet studios in Hong Kong do not offer core and flexibility training as a preparation for ballet training. At the same time, most adult students in Hong Kong are impatient and want to learn those “stylish” and “tricky” movements right away—and ballet teachers would give it to their “customers” without hesitation. Unfortunately, skipping this crucial preparatory stage could lead to bad habits/wrong muscle usage down the road, setting the body up for injuries or even repeated injuries. A serious studio would insist on this kind of foundation training for beginners before they are allowed to proceed to the next level. In addition, even though we all know that warm-ups and cool downs are necessary routines before and after a class, how many of us really know which movements are safe and helpful to do? (Read this article about warm-up frustrations.) We need explicit guidance, so it would be a good idea to build those into the class time—and that may mean lengthening the class by another 20-30 minutes. Some teachers or adult students may appall at the extra time they have to put into class time (there are those who habitually show up in class after the plié and leave the classroom as quickly as the reverence was finished), but this is about changing the mindset and creating the right routine for serious and safe training.

4) Adult students can be serious about technique and artistry too! So don’t assume that we are in the studio just to pass some time, have some some fun or get some exercise done to lose weight. Yes, those are some of the common motives. But many of us really want to learn to do ballet properly,  seriously and beautifully. So correct us properly and don’t be stingy about it. Yes, some of us may be a bit sensitive about criticism. But only giving compliments would not help us improve. Instead, make it part of the education process to let adults know that constructive criticism is part of ballet training and necessary for progress. On the other hand, do give confirmations or compliments whenever they are due. I know some teachers who never openly give praises for fear that certain students may get jealous. Well, if you give compliments to individual students for the improvements they have made over time—whether obvious or small, and take turn in giving each student some attention and correction from time to time, I don’t see why there would be an issue.

5) This last point is as much for the studio owner/teachers as for adult ballet students. Interesting enough, many adult students in Hong Kong wish to take RAD class. Their goal is to obtain certificates to prove that they have achieved a certain level of technical ability and artistry. Based on my observation over the years, I have come to understand that some adult students take the exams so seriously that they would risk all kind of injuries to get enough preparatory training for the exams. And in some rare cases, angry birds might surface when their scores come out and they don’t get what they expected or if they get lower scores than their classmates! Perhaps due to the fact that Hong Kong is a former British colony, most ballet schools’ syllabi is based on the RAD system and would enroll their students—even adults—in exams. The system is also an easy way for studios to maintain profitability because students enrolled in the exams are told they would be required to take X number of classes per week to achieve the right amount of training for their respective levels. Of course adult students are easy targets because many of them are willing to splurge on a hobby that they were often denied of in childhood, now that they are earning money as adults. So, enrolling adult students in exam classes is a sure-fire way to maintain a steady stream of income. And many new adult students are so impressionable, that RAD exam classes are the only way of taking class that they know of. The truth is, not every adult does well in an exam-oriented environment. While some claim that they won’t be motivated to take class if it wasn’t for the exams, some thrive without the constant pressure in the back of their minds. Others really just want to take class and do well. Still some others want to have an opportunity to eventually dance en pointe or/and perform on stage. Regardless, it is important to provide a friendly environment to adult students in which they would not feel pressured to follow the exam track.

Oh, one more thing: As women age and go into the peri-menopausal, pre-menopausal or menopausal stage, some of us have to deal with hormonal changes, which affect us both emotionally (e.g. mood swings, depression, etc.) and physically (weight gain, loss of bone density,  hot flashes, etc.). These are things that most young teachers would have not experienced themselves. As more and more adults start to take ballet classes, and some of them do fall into the age groups that experience these symptoms (the onset of peri-menopause could be as early as in the late 20s but is most common after the mid-30s), there is a whole new area of knowledge that ballet teachers need to equip themselves with. When teaching those of us who are going through these stages of our lives, please try to add a little extra sensitivity and gentleness.

Congrats, Misty!

Photo by New York Dance Project

 

Congratulations to Misty Copeland, for having been promoted to Principal Dancer at the American Ballet Theatre a few days after she debuted her role as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. She is the very first African-American ballerina who has ever been promoted to the rank of Principal Dancer in ABT’s 75 years of history. A true historical landmark.

Besides her unique style of gracefulness and technical prowess, I really like her strength and her athleticism—qualities that the stereotypical ballerina does not and should not possess. Some critics have pointed at her muscular limps and disqualified her as a pure classical ballerina based on that! Others have argued that her artistry is not at a level where a principal dancer should be. Not having seen her perform live, I am not in the position to judge the quality of her presence and artistry. But summarizing the dance reviews I have seen so far and the videos of her dancing, I have no doubt she has great potential to hone this vital aspect and grow into her principal role. To me, a dancer’s evolution is even more interesting to watch than a “finished product” that is perfect and has no room to improve.

What truly excites me and thousands and thousands of audience members worldwide, is that she has opened a new window to who the modern ballerina CAN be. The possibilities are limitless. By far, the strength of Misty’s mind is her greatest asset, and she has become a true inspiration for so many people, especially aspiring dancers of color. Yes, her promotion is a complicated story and has generated innumerable controversies on whether she deserves the principal role just because she is a great black dancer, and whether or not ABT should be more inclusive in its dancer profile.

To me, it is too difficult to separate the underlying politics from the artist. But why should we? It is a healthy debate. Misty’s vocal and proactive stance on the need to make ballet more inclusive has created wonders. She is bringing in a whole new group of audience who would otherwise not have become interested in ballet at all. And needless to say, she has inspired countless little brown girls to explore and advance in the art form. Just that itself is no small feat.

Bravo, bravo, Misty!

Related articles:

Book Review: ‘Life in Motion’ by Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland Is Promoted to Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theater (The New York Times)

Misty Copeland’s success shows ballet leaping in the right direction (The Guardian)

Geeking Out With Misty Copeland’s First Ballet Teacher On The Bigness Of Today (Huffington Post)

Misty Copeland, New York Dance Project

Oprah Winfrey’s Supersoul Original Short on Misty Copeland