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!

My Story as an Adult Ballet Dancer

Pointe Till You Drop, one of my favorite ballet blogs/FB pages, has recently invited its adult ballet student readers to contribute to its “Adult Ballet Dancers” album. This is not the first time the page owner, Johanna, an avid and long-time adult ballet dancer from Finland, extended such generosity to her fans. I have seen photos of other adult ballet students she posted earlier, and felt very inspired by all the stories behind them. So when she opened up a new album this time, I jumped on the opportunity to participate, in the hope that my photo and story would also be a source of inspiration for other adult ballet students, especially those who have not yet started and wondering if they should or can do ballet at all as an adult.

Here is the link to my photo and story, which I am reposting here on my own blog for my dear readers:

River Nymph

Photo by Westkenny

This photo was taken during a dance competition I participated in two years ago, when I was 41—the first and only time I ever performed on stage. It was a special moment as I was dancing with my best ballet buddy to original music composed by my husband and original choreography created for us by our teacher from a long distance (in Kazakhstan)!

Here is my story: I started learning ballet at 35 and eight years later am still loving it! I took two years of ballet when I was a kid but switched to modern for a couple of years and then stopped dancing altogether. When my health started to deteriorate in my 30s, I asked myself what would make me feel whole again. It didn’t take long to find the magical answer: “ballet”! Doing ballet at an age when most professional dancers would have retired presents a special kind of challenge–not to mention the large fibroid tumors inside me, which had given me serious impediments in the learning process since hip alignment is so crucial to ballet. Nonetheless, I kept calm and carried on. Now after my operation I am starting all over again as a beginner. I know that technically it will be an uphill battle. But I don’t let age get in the way of my enjoyment. Ballet is my biggest passion in life! I want to keep on dancing for as long as possible.”

And to throw in a little bonus, here is the video of the dance I did with my friend Carrie two years ago at the dance competition. It’s called “The River Nymphs.” Original music composed by Fredix. Original choreography by Nurlan Baibusinov. Enjoy!

Dancing Fixes It All

Dancing-Fixes-it-All
“Sometimes I hurt because I dance.

Other times I dance because I’m hurt.

Either way, dancing fixes it all.”

I have come across this quote in social media quite a few times. Perhaps only dancers would really understand the pain behind such a statement.

The first line is easy enough to understand. Dancing, especially professional dancing, brings with it certain perils. Bodily injury is a common occurrence. The second line gives a more complicated picture of the psychology of dancers. Dancing expresses our joy; it also expresses our sorrow. It helps us channelize feelings that are not easy to express through words or any other forms. On both the artistic and psychological levels, dancing provides such an outlet for expression. Dancing is emotional therapy. I wouldn’t say it “fixes all.” But it does fix quite a few things, especially when you are stuck in a funk.

My earliest memory of dance as a therapy was more physical than emotional. At the age of 14, I suffered from muscular pain similar to arthritis. It was so bad that I limped along as I walked. But somehow I got the idea of joining the aerobics class in a dance studio in my building. After taking the class for some months, my pain was completely gone. It was then that I realized the power of physical activity—and more specifically, dance—in healing.

The other time when dance came to my rescue was when I was living in New York in my late 20s. I became terribly depressed after a relationship breakup. I searched and searched for something that would lift my mood and take my mind off from the pain of separation. It so happened that the gym that I worked out at, right in the same building as my office, started to offer a ballet workout class by New York City Ballet. I remembered how dance made me happy in my youth, so I immediately enrolled.  Despite the physical strain I felt in my stiff body, the joy I obtained through the challenging moves and the beautiful music played in class helped me go through one of the toughest times of my life. The instructor talked in such an encouraging and uplifting way, that just being in her presence made me happy—if only for that one hour in class.

Another critical juncture in my life where I needed a fixing was when I suffered from a frozen back at the age of 35. I mentioned in my first post “Diary of an Adult Ballet Student” how going back to ballet class has helped me heal that back pain.

Then, one day when I was 39, my dad was diagnosed with acute leukemia. I flew to New York to visit and care for him. During this time, I became emotionally downtrodden and stressed, which later turned into depression. My only light of the day was those evenings and weekends when I sneaked an hour or two into ballet lessons at Alvin Ailey’s Annex, joining a big group of adult students just like me, in Finis Jhung’s adult beginners’ class and workshops. Being able to get “lost” in the moment and focus my attention on all the details of executing a movement while enjoying the pure pleasure of dancing had allowed me to forget about the grim reality outside the studio. It had meant the world to me.

And today, eight years after I restarted ballet, I’m still going to class and going through the process of healing—this time from a major abdominal surgery. The journey goes on. Ballet may not be able to fix it all, but it is my faithful friend through thick and thin.

Moldy Pointe Shoe Ribbons

Photo by Michael Sheehan (HighTechDad@Flickr) Creative Common License

“Sewing the Ribbons” – Photo by Michael Sheehan (HighTechDad@Flickr) Creative Common License

The constant tug of war between my desire to dance more and the inability to do so in real life has led to a overflow of my subconscious frustrations and regrets with ballet. A few days ago I had a short dream after drifting back to sleep in the early morning. In that dream I saw two ballet classmates, one of whom asked me for spare ribbons for her pointe shoes. I went and looked into my drawers and found a pair of old ribbons. “Ewe, they’re moldy!” I told my friend while taking them out for her. The dream ended just like that. Perhaps it reflects my desire to go back to those good old days when I was enjoying pointework and all the rituals related to it–and the current regret and uncertainty of when I will be able to get back en pointe. Worse still, the classmate who asked for the ribbons in my dream is someone I have unfriended. So much for an unpleasant dream. Hope my next one would be more delightful. Actually, I remember having an extremely pleasurable ballet dream around Christmas time last year. I’ll recount that a bit later, when I have more time. Hope your adult ballet life is off to a better start than mine in 2015!

Balletomanehk’s 2014 in Review

A big thanks to those of you who have been reading my blog. Due to a major surgery, 2014 was an inactive year in terms of my ballet dancing. It pretty much reset my technique back to square one. But during those inactive months, I devoured books, videos, articles and images of ballet the same way a starving person devours every piece of food in sight. I imagined myself dancing and tried to activate the brain cells related to dance and movement. I even managed to watch a few live performances. Well, it wasn’t nearly as bad being an armchair dancer after all. What will 2015 bring? I certainly hope to continue to bring you interesting content in the upcoming year! Dance on, my ballet friends!

The WordPress.com has prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog. Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,500 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Back to the Studio

Back-to-Studio_2014-11-08

After taking a six-months hiatus from ballet, I finally stepped into the studio again. Words cannot fully describe the excitement and joy bubbling from within me when I had donned myself in full ballet gear, placed my hand on the barre and started dancing with my ballet friends once again.

Six months ago I underwent a major abdominal surgery to remove a few large tumors that I had lived with for more than five years. I had put it off partly because of ballet. I didn’t want to and couldn’t stop going to class. I knew that a surgery like that would put me out of commission for what would seem like eternity. Those of you who do ballet would know exactly what I mean. Ballet is addictive, especially when you’re not forced into it for any reason. It can become an all-consuming passion, especially for those of us who do not find great fulfillment in our daily grind.

Well, I became obsessed with ballet about seven years ago when I was desperately searching for a way to get back into health after experiencing a frozen back. I asked myself, “What did I love when I was a kid, at an age when I had absolutely no health issues at all?” My answer was simple: to dance.

Even though most of my childhood was spent in learning modern dance, my first lesson was in ballet. I did it for two years, after which my parents probably couldn’t afford it so they sent me to free classes offered by my school. And those free classes were modern. But I didn’t care. It was fun. I enjoyed moving along with music, and sometimes without, as when I practiced gymnastics anywhere I could find enough space to do a somersault or a split.

Then I picked up ballet at the ripe age of 35. I fell in love with it and my passion only grew as time went by. Well, in those seven years I learned not just the technique but also artistry—neither of which I can claim to be good at, but at least I learned what they actually entail and have become much more appreciative when I watch ballet performances. Being a student of ballet has made me realize what kind of discipline and pain that professional dancers have to go through to present an effortless image of absolute beauty on stage.

Fast forward… after my surgery, I could not dance anymore for months. All I was able to do was to look at ballet photos and videos on the Internet, and read tons of articles and books about dancers. I also launched my FB page and wrote this blog more frequently. When I was able to, I went to a couple of local performances. Being an armchair dancer was not as fun as actually dancing, but it helped me deal with the itch.

Gradually, I lost that addiction for ballet. Maybe it’s a good thing. I found balance in my life once again. There was a period when I would practice for a competition seven days a week. I hardly had any time to talk with my husband, who had been super understanding and allowed me the luxury to pursue my dream. During my hiatus, I got to spend more time with my husband. Also, I lost the habit of being a perpetual pedantic critique of my “ballet self.” What I mean is that I stopped judging myself solely based on how well I dance and how good I look—according to the impossibly strict standard of the ballet world. The result of that judgment, of course, was always disappointing, as the ideal of ballet is sky high and my perfectionist self was never satisfied. A sort of self-loath developed subconsciously. A hobby that I was supposed to enjoy would sometimes turn into a nerve-wracking occasion. The more I wanted to achieve, the more strained my body was, and I got into injuries, which in turn put me out of commission from time to time. Any loss of time for catching up with my training was a source of stress. When I found myself going back to Square One and starting over again and again—while my peers moved on to more advanced classes, I became utterly frustrated, as it felt like I was never going to advance after a certain point.

The half year away from class helped me lose that “toxic love” for ballet. Today, I was back to the studio with an open heart. I didn’t realize the toxicity that plagued me before. But a pause put me into perspective. That’s why I said it was probably a good thing. Today, I felt relaxed in class. If I did something wrong or ugly, I caught myself laughing at me in the mirror right away! No big deal! And if my extension was super low, no sweat! What I tried to focus on, was the musicality aspect of dancing (artistry), and the use of the core (technique).

I learned something invaluable from my Pilates instructor during my rehabilitation period (which is ongoing). It is the use of the pelvic flour muscles. I didn’t realize it before, but if you hold your pelvic flour muscles and lift them up while exhaling—at the same time when the diaphragm is lifted up, the lower back naturally drops into a neutral position and the big gluteal muscles release their grip. Previously, I was in the habit of tensing those muscles up, causing the undesirable anterior pelvic tilt and super-tight psoas muscles in front of the hips. Even though I was well aware of my pelvic tilt, it was almost impossible for me to correct it due to the obstruction of my tumors. But now, I finally learned the way to correct the posture. Having a neutral pelvic tilt is so crucial for executing all ballet movements. When I tighten up the pelvic flour muscles, I find it much easier to activate my turn-out muscles and inner thigh muscles. It is not about contracting those muscles. The impetus has to come from deep within, and then those muscles would fire off much more easily. That’s the core at work!

So, instead of trying to force myself to get a fake turnout or high extensions at the expense of improper alignment, I decided to let them go. From now on I will focus on the ground work, the core, and let my movements come from the center first and then out. Most important of all, I will keep on reminding myself, joy will be my new “No. 1.”

Baby Steps

Fifth Position

Practiced again today. Most of the barre movement sequences came back, so I was at least able to dance with the music most of the time. Still had major cramps in my left foot whenever I tried to point it. Extension and turnout remained pathetic. But I focused on holding out my arm in a proper second position this time instead of dropping it like a flappy chicken wing as in my last practice.

Happy that I was able to hold out my leg for a full count, even in adagio. Proudest moment was when suddenly I could do petits battements sur le coup de pied on the beat… but only with the right foot 😉 It feels like ballet is gradually coming back to me… at least I am enjoying the pure sensation of moving with the music once again.