A Happy Week in My New Dance Life

I love it when things fall into place without too much strain in the planning department and it feels as if the Universe is conjuring magic using the tiny rockets of desire that you send out while daydreaming. Last week … Continue reading

Cardio Day and Nice Reward

How is everyone doing with your 12-Week Challenge? Here is how my calendar looks like:

12-Week Challenge - Balletomanehk - www.balletomanehk.com

For me, keeping up with the light schedule is itself a challenge. I had to swap a lot of the exercises to fit them into my schedule. But going back to regular class definitely helps to get me into the groove. The cardio is often the part that stops me…. I would find all sorts of excuses, like having a sore back or headache, for not doing it. As on any day of the week, I have a short supply of time today, but the weather is super nice and I decided to give cardio a try. So I made a search on YouTube and found this awesome video—a 10-minute cardio workout for busy people by Amanda Russell:

It’s made up of 10 exercises. You would do each for 45 seconds and rest for 15 seconds then start the next one. This would make the set a High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), perfect for fat burn. In the past, I have done HIIT in the form of jogging. I have to admit that these exercises are much more fun to do than jogging, as they provide a good amount of variation. But at least half of them are extremely difficulty for me as they require a lot of strength in the core, thighs and quads. At first I thought that 45 seconds would be easy peasy. Nope! I had to stop in the middle of at least three exercises to catch my breath. The good thing is that they really get my heart rate up fast and they are not as tough as the other set by Jenna Wolfe that I mentioned in my last post. Give it a try and see if it suits you. The best part is that it takes less than 10 minutes to complete once you are familiar with the routines. I think this would make the cardio part of the challenge easier for me. And I am starting to appreciate the benefits of doing cardio exercises for my ballet training. They seem to contribute to my stamina and strength.

Before I did those exercises today, I was actually starting to get hungry and debated whether I should eat first or exercise first. But I decided to hold off eating and finish the workout first. Sure enough, I forgot about the hunger and got the exercises done. It didn’t take that much time as imagined. Then I rewarded myself with an organic garden salad, freshly harvested from my little rooftop garden. Yummy yummy!

Organic Garden Salad with Salmon - Balletomanehk - www.balletomanehk.com

Hope you are having fun with the challenge, seeing progress in your ballet training and most important of all, feeling good about yourself! See you next time!

Postural Alignment for Ballet

Second day of Kathryn Morgan’s 12-Week Challenge: I had to switch things around as I couldn’t really do the cardio as suggested on her January calendar. It was raining cats and dogs for the most part of the day, so I decided to do some gentle stretching instead, especially since I have developed some muscle aches after my first class yesterday (as expected!). “Yoga” was suggested for Thursday, so I decided to swap “cardio” with that. And since I haven’t really properly learned to do any yoga myself, I opted for Egoscue exercises instead.

You may never have heard of Egoscue exercises. They are exercises for correcting our postures so that our main loading joints align properly, giving the entire body balance from left to right and from front to back. I learned to do these more than eight years ago, about the same time I started to take ballet lessons. At that time, I had a severe case of back pain, and I tried many different modules until I hit the jackpot—the book “Pain Free” by Pete Egoscue showed up in my local bookstore right in front of me. Following the exercises for back pain in the book helped me get rid of most of the pain and I was able to function normally again.

Later on I realized that ballet strictly requires a symmetrical alignment of the body and mine was far from the ideal. In fact, being desk-bound for my work made my right shoulder much lower than the left, and there was a serious imbalance between my left and right hips. Such imbalances caused pain in the lower body, such as pain in the knees and ankles. So I looked into the Egoscue Method further and found the following book: “The Egoscue Method of Health Through Motion.”

The book shows three different kinds of imbalances and mine (left-right and anterior pelvic tilt) are two of those covered in the book. The other one is posterior pelvic tilt. I started doing full sets of exercises to correct both the left-right and front-back imbalances. I did them first thing in the morning every single day for about four years, and the result? Voilà!

Egoscue_Condition1_Before-After-Left

2007 vs. 2011

Egoscue Exercise for Condition 2 - www.balletomanehk.com

Life got busy, and I haven’t been doing these exercises diligently after the initial four years. Sure enough, the long hours sitting behind the computer screen have taken a toll on my posture again. With Kathryn Morgan’s 12-week challenge, I have found the motivation to squeeze some time into my busy schedule to realign my posture again.

Some of the exercises are borrowed from yoga and some are unique creations by Pete Egoscue himself. Below are some snapshots of what I did today:

Egoscue - Downward Dog - http://www.balletomanehk.com Egoscue - Frog - http://www.balletomanehk.comEgoscue_Standing-Quad-Stretch Egoscue - Abdominals - http://www.balletomanehk.com
Egocue - Supine Groin - http://www.balletomanehk.com

I feel so good now that I have aligned my posture for the day. The whole body feels relaxed and light, and the exercises have given me the kind of gentle conditioning that would prepare me for the ballet workouts that are coming up.

Thanks to the rain, I did manage to do a tiny bit of cardio after all—it made a mess with my garden on the roof, so by cleaning up the mess, I did get my heart rate pumped up and I got a little sweaty too! 😉

How has your challenge been so far? Share with me in the comment section below.

Relaxing Your Hip and Back for Ballet

If you are like me, who find yourself sitting at the computer desk for way too many hours a day, you probably would have developed tight hip flexors, or psoas—the largest muscle group in our body responsible for flexing our legs from the hip joint. Well, this is bad news for anyone serious about doing ballet the right way, because a good ballet posture calls for a relatively neutral spinal alignment (vertical, but allowing for the natural curve of the spine). When the hip is tilted forward as a result of tightness in the psoas, it is more difficult to move your legs freely from the hip down, and it affects the balance and all sorts of movements too.

The following photo illustrates how an anterior-tilted hip looks like (yea, that was me many years ago 😉 ):

Anterior Tilt of Hip Joint, a no no for ballet - www.balletomanehk.com

I’m sure most of you have heard this instruction from your teacher in class: “Drop your tailbone!” or “Coccyx forward!” Basically, it is a reminder that we should keep our hip level and not tilted forward (or in some cases, backwards).

But most of you probably have found it difficult to maintain that neutral position, having to constantly be reminded or try to remind yourself.

There is a solution to this problem. But before I share the solution, let me just explain the reason why we have anterior tilt in a simple way: Our muscles in the back are too tight from many hours of sitting. The tension of these muscles must be released before they can do their work of properly holding the upper body in the upright position.

The following picture shows how we can release those tight muscles in a very easy and relaxing way. It is free and can be done in the comfort of your home. Find a chair, a sofa or any piece of furniture that has the height of the length of your calves, such as a low coffee table. Lie down on the floor. Place your calves on the flat surface of the furniture so that your calves and thighs form a 90-degree angle. If the surface is too low, try to pad it up with a firm cushion so that you get that 90 degrees. Lastly, place your arms on the side at a 45-degree angle to your trunk. Make sure the palms are facing the ceiling.

Egoscue Exercise - Static Back

Egoscue Exercise – Static Back

Now, you’re likely going to feel some tension at the lower back at this point. Try to place your hand under your back and feel if there is a gap. If you have a gap there, it is a sign that you do have an anterior tilt. What you do next is just to lie there, deep breathe through your diaphragm (horizontal expansion of rib cage), and relax. You can listen to music, daydream, go through ballet combinations in your head, or just dose off—whatever you feel like doing in a relaxed state. Just try not to watch TV as this would strain your neck and back muscles and defeat the purpose of doing this exercise.

Gradually, you will notice the tight muscles on your back loosening up. You may feel so relaxed that naturally fall asleep! How long should you be doing this? It depends on how tight your muscles are, but check the gap under your back after 10-15 minutes. If it is still there, I suggest staying there until the gap disappears. Half an hour would be really good as a start. Of course, if you are short of time, just do whatever you can. But if you keep doing this 10-15 minutes a day, you will find a difference in your spinal alignment. This simple exercise can contribute a great deal in achieving the “aplomb” that is so important for ballet. Try it, and let me know how you feel! Off I go to do this!

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?

Pointe-Shoes-on-the-Rock-5

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?

Book Review: ‘Dancing Through It’ by Jenifer Ringer

Dancing-Through-It

Jenifer Ringer, of “Sugar Plumgate” fame and who just retired from her long career with the New York City Ballet, came out with her memoir, “Dancing Through It,” at about the same time as Misty Copeland published her mid-career autobiography, “Life in Motion.” Both dancers faced incredible challenges and hardships in their careers with two top-tier ballet companies in the United States. While Copeland’s big obstacle has been racial discrimination, Ringer’s great stumbling block was eating disorder.

I still remember back in 2010 when the subject of Ringer’s non-existence weight gain issue was blown up by a New York Times dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, who criticized the principal dancer for having “eaten one Sugar Plum too many.” This critique set in motion a sleuth of debates on TV as well as on social media, with lots of ballet fans and non-ballet fans joining in to defend Ringer.

I recall looking at the beautiful dancer while she was being interviewed by Today’s Show‘s host Ann Curry. Nowhere could I find evidence of this extra sugar plum on  her lean body. “How cruel this dance critic was!” I thought. Ringer gave graceful and well-versed replies to Curry’s questions.

At that time, I didn’t know that Ringer had already gone through a few years of eating disorder and depression in the early stage of her career. In this memoir, she chronicled her entire career and took us through the events that led to her weight issues.

We all know that eating disorder is not a rare occurrence in ballet companies—partly due to the demand by the companies themselves on how their dancers should have that specific “ballerina look,” which often means not just lean and long limped but also a kind of boyish figure. This is especially true at New York City Ballet, whose founder, George Balanchine, was known to prefer this kind of “ideal body” to the more womanly figure. However, what actually goes through the minds of the dancers themselves when they are given the pressure not only to achieve technical and artistic perfection but also to keep their bodies so thin that it borders at a point where the strength of the bones won’t support the body weight safely?

Ringer gives us a very detailed look into how she descended from one of NYCB’s up and coming stars to someone who was too heavy to fit into any tutus—and dancing roles for that matter. What I find interesting is that her anorexic behavior was the only way she knew to be able to help her gain any sort of control over a highly stressful life where she could not control the outcomes. She became a professional ballerina at the tender age of 16 and was plunged into the strict demands of the ballet world without any psychological preparation. She was that “perfect girl” who was best in school and was pretty and proper (a Southern ideal) and was “supposed” to have no problems whatsoever. So when life dealt her a big blow, when the ballet master signaled to her that she needed to lose weight, it was a moment of truth that stroke hard, leaving her with little self defense.

Through a long journey—in her case, going back to her Christian faith and, later on, meeting and marrying a fellow dancer James Fayette—she healed herself of the emotional trauma caused by the eating disorder. So when “Sugar Plumgate” happened, she was actually strong enough to face the “attack.” Better still, she was able to transcend her personal problems to become an inspirational force for women—dancers or not—who were struggling with the issue of body image and eating disorder.

Here is a poignant passage about the painful perfectionist conundrum ballet dancers face:

“…our life is spent seeking perfection and correcting infinitesimal errors of line or technique. If something about our dancing is good, we ignore it because it will take care of itself. We fixate on the parts that are wrong. Ask a dancer what her weaknesses are, and she will be able to give you an immediate and very detailed list. Ask a dancer about her strengths, and she has to pause and think about it.”

After reading her book, I actually feel glad that I never entered the ballet profession. I wouldn’t have been able to pass such rigorous tests and would probably have gone through worse nightmares than Ringer did! I have had a close shave with eating disorder and have been struggling with weight issues and body image ever since I was a teenager. Ringer’s story really inspires me. I relate to her spiritual growth as a source of strength, even though I do not relate to her Christian faith. I think if we put aside the religious aspect—which may turn some readers off but which she took the risk to lay it out on the table—her story still serves as a great inspiration for anyone with the same struggles that she went through.

Since the “Sugar Plumgate,” there have been a greater awareness in society on the body image issue, with more discussions leading to a gradual liberation for women from the impossibilities of what the society—or the ballet world in the dancer’s case—deem “ideal.”

See the following articles on artistic endeavors and social movements related to body image:

 

My Non-Dancing Dream

"The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage" by Edgar Degas

“The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage” by Edgar Degas
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

I had a dream last night, in which I saw myself standing in the dark wings of a theater stage, watching my adult ballet friends and a bunch of kids dressed in tutus rushing by, getting ready for a performance. There was an old lady watching over the dancers. She must have been the teacher. I was dressed in casual clothes and felt invisible, sidelined and useless. “When can I dance again?” I thought in silence.

Following that sequence in the dream, I saw myself sitting in a classroom attending a course. I realized it was Saturday–and there usually was a ballet class in the evening. But I heard myself thinking, “I’ll take it easy and skip the class.” Turned out there was no class scheduled after all, and I felt a sense of relief!

Well, I think this dream reflects my physical and mental state perfectly. In my heart I really long to dance and perform again, yet my body isn’t ready. I need to wait it out until the internal scars of my surgery have properly healed. Yes, I do feel a tiny bit of frustration, as I my limbs are stiff and my arabesque is only at a pitiable 25 degrees! But at the same time I also feel patient. I have never felt this patient before in my life. I trust the body’s self-healing ability and will let Nature do its marvelous work.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to dance in my head, and in my dream.

P.S. One night I actually dreamed of doing a super pirouette–10 turns and a perfect finish in 4th!