A Tough Winter

It has been a tough winter for many of us who live in places where the temperatures are unseasonably low (most likely due to global climate change). Hong Kong recorded the lowest temperature since the 1950s. On the coldest day, January 24, we registered just above-zero temperatures—around 2-3 degrees Celcius in the outskirts of the city (roughly 35 degree Farenheit). While it may sound “warm” to those of you in North America or Europe, the high humidity level, the zero insulation and lack of central heating or built-in radiators in Hong Kong’s buildings means that we have all been freezing our butts off!

Prior to the cold spell, I got sick with a nasty stomach flu. Luckily I was back on my feet within a week (thanks to many factors but mostly the wonderful probioticsDr. D’Adamo’s Polyflora—I have been taking and Miracle Mineral Solutions 1 & 2). Yesterday I made my way back to the ballet studio. It was very very chilly and most of us didn’t get warm even after the barre exercises! For me, I usually start to sweat after the first tendu, but yesterday I didn’t start to feel warm until ronds de jambe!

Gaynor Minden Paws - balletomanehk.com

So happy to make it back to ballet class after being sick and then hibernated in the extreme cold. Nothing feels better on a cold day than working up a good sweat! BTW, those Gaynor Minden paws are really great!

 

During the class, I also found it a big challenge to maintain the proper ballet posture as I had been lying in bed a lot and sitting in a hunched position in this chill for the whole week. My muscles were so tense (still are!). My teacher kept on reminding me to activate the scapular as my upper back was not upright and my arms and shoulders were not properly stretched out. This really affected all my movements. I felt it acutely when doing pirouettes. But as soon as I became more mindful of my alignment, I had a better go with turning.

The pirouette has always been the bane of my ballet existence through the years. Even after almost nine years (with many hiatus in between), I have yet to make a good clean single. In the past, I would condemn myself and feel devastated each time I failed to execute a good pirouette. But my mental state has changed. I have learned to laugh at myself and pat myself on the back every time I fail. In fact, I don’t even use the word “fail” in my head anymore. I just think of it as an attempt that leads to mastery one day. And I try to really focus on what went wrong and make an effort to do it differently the next time. So instead of pouting, I would put on a smile and try, try again.

While I’ve totally “gone off the wagon” of the 12-Week Challenge, I just try to go easy on myself and allow my body to slowly adjust to the temperature and my physical conditions instead of feeling frustrated. It is never a good idea to push yourself from zero to perfection, especially for those of us mature recreational dancers. Don’t you agree?

Here is Your Big Challenge!

Balletomanehk_Positive_Attributes

Today I saw a challenge from fellow blogger Bead109:

“Can you come up with five awesome things about your beautiful dancing self?”

Since I have not been taking ballet class for a while due to my health condition, I think this challenge is pretty easy to take up as I have not had the opportunity to get fixated on all the flaws of my physique and technique.

Here is my list:

1. I am focused.

2. I have a good posture.

3. I am confident.

4. I am motivated.

5. I have good musicality.

How about you? Up for a challenge?

Feel free to write your own list or link your blog post in the comment section!

THE 109th BEAD

Been having some tough times in and or with class lately? Have you been looking in the mirror and worrying about what you see? Has your confidence been as shaky as your balance? Are you angry at your feet, your knees, your toes?

I hear you. Ballet class is tough. And it is as tough on the emotions as it is on the feet. Sometimes tougher.  It is so easy to fall prey to overstimulated self-criticism. I know that I do it all the time. I don’t really know why I can so easily bypass a garden of beautiful and meaningful compliments and focus on the one single and sharp insult to my heart. But I do, all the time. I fixate all the time. I’m good at that – I’m little a little pit bull. I can grab hold of something and never let it go. But where does that get…

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Steps on Broadway

Steps on Broadway

I love going to Steps on Broadway. It has an old-fashioned feel to it, with high ceilings, wooden floor and barres in the corridor, large, professional studios across the entire floor, and a wall adorned with photos of reknown dance teachers over the years. I remember seeing a signed photo of Maya Plisetskaya, given to Steps when she visited America.

On any given day, you might run into famous dancers and teachers. During the few times I was there, I had seen Isabella Boylston of ABT and one of the Billy Elliot boys take class. Before David Howard passed away, I also spotted him teach with great enthusiasm, despite the fact that he had to rely on a walking stick in class.

One time when I was getting changed in the locker room, I chatted with a fellow classmate, who was probably in her 60s. She recounted how she saw the performance of “Romeo and Juliet” by Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in the 60’s (see video below). I could see sparkles coming out of her eyes and she smiled like a little girl. Obviously, the magic of these two legendary dancers has transcended time and stayed on through the years in her heart. How lucky she is to have that experience!

During my recent trip to New York, I took class with a Russian teacher, Alexander Filipov, who was a student of Alexander Pushkin, the teacher of both Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. At the Vaganova Academy, he had also studied under Asaf Messerer, before joining the Classical Ballet of Russia and deflecting to the West and joining the ABT and San Francisco Ballet in the 1970’s.

The class was “interesting.” Even though it is categorized as the “Beginning Intermediate” level, it was quite demanding. There were lots of repetitions of the same combinations for each exercise at the barre—very grueling practice but I reckon that the purpose is to help build strength and stability. The center exercises gradually became more complex and turned into a showcase for the couple of professional dancers in the class… 32 fouettés en pointe by a French ballerina Cécil, and big jumps and leaps by a male dancer, who took every chance as an opportunity to shine! Even though I could not follow these demanding exercises, it was a pure joy to watch the professional dancers take class.

A little side story: While in the locker room, I felt a woman sizing me up and down and checking me out when I was getting changed. I guess I was one of the slimmer ones who had a slight look of a dancer (I guess I stood out because I was considered small, being an Asian, compared with the typically larger body frames around me). Later on she was in the same class with me and she probably got disappointed about how poorly I danced. Nonetheless, it was quite possible that she was interested in me, and that was a new experience for me, ha!

The Benefits of Ballet Lessons for Adults

Female Ballerina

As I mentioned in my previous article, “Diary of an Adult Ballet Student,” more and more adults all over the world are taking ballet lessons nowadays. What’s attracting them to the dance studio? Apparently, ballet brings with it tremendous benefits in terms of health and emotional well-being.

Health benefits

Many of us who take ballet lessons know that it is a great way to keep fit.

Studies of professional ballet dancers in the United States have showed that what these dancers do is as difficult as what professional football players do. It is not hard, then, to imagine the amount of training the body gets when you do ballet.

In ballet, every inch of your muscles is actively engaged in movements. No wonder many ballet students find that they end up shedding some fat and having well-toned muscles after having started regular training.

Another benefit of ballet is that it does wonders to your posture. As the basic requirement of ballet is to have a neutral stance with the spine straightened and hips “squared” (meaning, parallel on both sides), this posture is going to have a “spill-over” effect on your day-to-day posture. If you work on it consistently, you will end up looking as graceful as Audrey Hepburn! No kidding. Hepburn had many years’ training in a professional ballet conservatory, and this training showed in the way she carried herself on stage and behind the camera.

Besides the beautiful look, a good posture is extremely important in staying healthy. Many pain syndromes that people living a sedentary lifestyle experience are a result of poor posture and muscular-skeletal dysfunction. So if you don’t have a good posture to start off with, ballet is going to magnify the problem – which is great, because you will now want to work on it and along brings the great health benefits of a correct posture. I will write more about ballet stance and healthy posture later.

Brain exercise

Speaking of sedentary lifestyle, ballet is a wonderful activity to get you off your chair. While many people choose yoga or Pilates these days to balance off the long hours of sitting and the lack of movement, some choose ballet for its high “fun factor”. In ballet we get to move along with music and make beautiful patterns with our bodies. We use a lot of “brain power” to remember the steps and to coordinate the different body parts. For example, we exercise the left brain for getting the “mathematical” parts – the logic of the step combinations – right; the right brain for interpreting the music and expressing our body in an artistic manner; the upper rear portion of the brain for interpreting spatial relationships; and the lower part of the brain for memorizing the steps.

Since we do not use words to express ourselves in this art form, the part of ourselves that cannot be expressed verbally now gets a channel to come out. And the part that deals with language gets a welcoming “time off.” For me, this is a wonderful form of relaxation. No need to find the right words when I dance. It’s just direct, intuitive expression.

Classical music is most often used in ballet lessons. There have been studies that confirmed the positive influence of classical music, especially that of the Baroque era and that of Viennese Classicism (especially Mozart). It is found that such music stimulates the alpha waves in the brain. Alpha wave is the wave form detected when the mind is calm or in the meditative and intuitive states. Being in alpha mode would therefore enhance thinking, learning and intuition.

Artistic development

Ballet is a highly aesthetic art. In my experience, those who have picked up ballet as a hobby or as a way to keep fit usually end up being in love or even obsessed with the art form. In fact, cultural development comes naturally to any serious ballet students. The more you learn, the more you are likely to delve into the wonderful traditions behind it.

You will become interested in watching ballet performances, learning about all the current and past performers, and reading up on ballet history and other related art forms, especially music. You will start to learn about the different ballet composers and choreographers. Your musicality is also likely to improve over time, as you learn to move your body with music instead of just counting the beats.

Performance

Ballet is inherently a performing art. However, for most adult learners, performing for an audience may not be a possibility at all. Whether you end up on the stage or not, the ballet classes do provide a chance for you to “perform,” even if it is only for the teacher, your classmates and yourself. You will gain a sense of confidence in your own ability to execute movements along with music. If you are a shy person, you might even overcome your lifelong shyness! And if you are lucky enough to go on the stage, the applause and recognition you’ll get from the audience is worth gold.

If you are sold on joining an adult ballet class by now, I can guarantee that you will be reaping a combination of the above benefits, even if you simply start off with the intent of keeping fit or shedding a few pounds. And along the way, you will also get to make friends in a niche field – friends who are as misunderstood by their familiar circle and as obsessed as you are with this art form.

Diary of an Adult Ballet Student

Little Ballerina Balletomanehk

A couple of years ago, I signed up for an adult ballet class. It was out of an urge to improve my health that I made that move. Prior to this, I had major problems with my lower back. Sometimes it would go into spasms when I did little things like bending down to brush my teeth. Once or twice I couldn’t even stand up straight after the brushing. I felt that something serious was happening to my body and so I started a frantic search for solutions.

First I went to stretch therapy and yoga. But it didn’t help that much. In fact, the difficult yoga posts added stress to my already frozen back. So I kept on searching, until one day it dawned on me that I had to first experience the “feeling” of health before I could achieve health. I searched in my own experience to see if there was an age when I was feeling absolutely healthy, with no ailments whatsoever. Voilà! I arrived at age 7. That was the time before I wore glasses. I remember being in total health. And that was the time I started taking ballet lessons. How did I feel back then? All I could remember from my faint memories was that I was happy. I was feeling “whole.” I loved to move my body. I loved to jump and turn and point my feet. So that’s the feeling that I decided to relive, at the beautiful age of 35.

When I told others about going back to ballet, many scoffed at the idea in disbelief: “What? Do you want to become a child again?”

Well, that’s the attitude most people have when you mention ballet. They think of little girls in pink tutus jumping around with their chubby little legs. But ballet lessons are not reserved for little girls. Increasingly, adults are getting interested in taking ballet lessons for various reasons. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 1 million ballet students over the age of 30. In other countries, too, adult ballet has become a very popular leisure activity – from China to Japan to UK. Where I live, Hong Kong, the trend started a few years ago and the number of adults joining the dance studios is increasing. I constantly come into contact with adults who take or have taken lessons – male and female across a wide age spectrum and some whose children also take lessons.

In the beginning my back pain did bother me a bit during class, as there were some movements that I simply could not do, like the back bend. Luckily I started off with a studio that combined some sort of Pilates stretching with simple barre and allegro exercises in the center. So I was given a good, slow warm-up and opportunity to improve my flexibility. Flexibility is a thing that comes extremely slowly. Even some dancers who have studied for years struggle with it constantly. So I had no illustion at all what I would be able to achieve.

Over time, my back pain started to get better. Of course, ballet itself is not the main antedote to the problem. But it did help by getting my butt off the chair and into the “swing of things”. My main cure was the Egoscue Method by Pete Egoscue. With the help of his functional exercises (introduced in his book “Pain Free“), I was able to get rid of my lower back pain from the root level. This really freed up my ability to pursue ballet on a more serious level.

I mentioned “serious” because, funny enough, there is a spectrum of seriousness when it comes to adult ballet students. There are those who consider it a hobby to keep fit or to lose weight, with the added benefit of a socializing opportunity with those who share the same interest. There are those who want to fulfill their childhood dream to do ballet because financial limitations or other reasons prevented them from doing so as a kid. Then there are those who are balletomanes and want to gain firsthand experience of their beloved art form. And then there are “ballet moms” and “ballet dads” who study it in order to understand their dancing kids better. Finally, there are those who take lessons with the goal of becoming a ballet teacher or even to perform.

For me, it is really a combination of all of these, except for the fourth category. You’ll find many adult ballet students get hooked to ballet lessons once they have started. It is not difficult to understand why.

Entering a ballet studio is akin to entering a sanctuary, where worries of daily life and work go out the window. Instead, you allow the beautiful music – often classical – to flow through your body and then move along with it. This moment is transcending. No words. Just music and movement. Everything is contained in that sacred body of yours. Whether you lift your arm or point your toes, it is your pure being experiencing the moment in its full presence. Your mind cannot wonder, as ballet requires full concentration, or else your movements won’t coordinate and flow with the music. This total presence in the moment is what makes it a transcending experience. At least for me it is. Dance, in this sense, surpasses words as a way to express our soul. You cannot hide what your body sends out to the world, whether it’s a feeling, mood, or just, you.

Beyond this spiritual experience, I would say that many of us enjoy ballet as a “me time” – a time to spend on a passionate hobby that belongs to you alone, 100 percent of the time. No bosses, children or relatives to nag you during the hour or hour-and-a-half lesson.

And what gets adults to go back again and again to the dance studio is the exhilarating feeling of seeing ones’ own skills improve. This may happen quickly, but most of the time it occurs extremely slowly. Sometimes we dance students have those blocks that are similar to a writer’s block. We get stuck with a particular step, position or movement. We do it over and over again but we still fail – sometimes to such a degree that we feel jinxed. But then one day, it suddenly clicked! Eureka! That’s how I feel when I manage to do a nice and clean single pirouette. I think I can count the number of times with my fingers on one hand. Still, it feels almost like a miracle when I managed, and to come to that illusive perfect turn, you spend countless lessons trying to achieve it. When you manage, it’s only a split of second, and then it’s gone. But the joy lasts for weeks and months to come.

I don’t know if there is a particular type of adults who are drawn to ballet. But I would say those who have continued to take lessons year after year are those who really like challenges. Every lesson is filled with challenges. An outsider may not notice that at all, as the challenges are very subtle. But because ballet is an art form that requires precision and aims at perfection, the challenges are wonderfully numerous. Onwards and upwards to my next challenge!