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!

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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

Happy International Dance Day: A Celebration that Everyone CAN Dance (Part 2)

In yesterday’s post, I featured a few disabled dancers who have shown the resilience of the human spirit. Today, I want to feature a few more courageous souls who inspire me beyond imagination.

Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a 33-year-old ballroom dancer, lost part of her left leg during the tragic bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013. But after having visited her in the hospital, MIT professor Hugh Herr decided to build her a high-tech prosthetic leg, known as a bionic limb, to allow her to dance again. Around the first anniversary of the bombing, Haslet-Davis went on stage again and performed a dance with Christian Lightner at the 2014 TED Conference in Vancouver. Read more about the story here, or watch the entire TED Talk by Prof. Herr, which climaxed at the end with the highly emotionally charged performance by Haslet-Davis and her partner, here. Below is a short clip with some snapshots of the dancer’s performance:

These days, Noah Galloway has become America’s household name and superhero for his amazing performances of chacha, samba and more on the TV series “Dancing with the Stars.” This Alabama Army veteran lost part of his two left limbs during a 2005 bomb blast in Iraq. He did not only survive but thrived after getting a bionic prosthetic leg. In the past 10 years he trained himself in all kinds of athletic activities—running marathons, climbing mountains, conquering obstacle courses and even parachuting from airplanes. Now he has even picked up latin dance with the help of his partner Sharna Burgess. Watch one of his performances below and stay on to hear the judges’ touching comments too!

 

In China, there is a dancing couple who do not have the help of high-tech prosthetic limbs but they dance beautifully nonetheless. They were the first disabled dancers I ever saw performing in a professional manner. Their stories are both tragic and inspirational. Ma Li was trained as a professional dancer and joined an art troupe when she turned 18, but later on she lost her whole arm in a car accident. Having danced almost her whole life, she couldn’t imagine how she could carry on living. But with the help of her mother as well as a program for disabled people that encouraged her to get back into dance, she rebuilt her life and started training and performing on stage. As for her partner, Zhai Xiaowei, he lost his left leg at the age of four while playing and then falling from on a heavy truck. He trained as a paraplegic cyclist but one fateful day he met Ma Li in the rehabilitation center. She introduced him to the world of dance and invited him to learn dancing from her. Eventually he gave up cycling and took up dance with her. The rest is, as they say, history. Since then, they have been dancing on stage and in TV shows, wowing the audience in China (Today, they are married with a child). Here is a video showing their award-winning dance, “Holding Hands”:

Simona Atzori is an Italian visual artist and dancer born without arms. Thanks to the strong support of her mother and her own determination, she started painting at the age of 4 and dancing at the age of 6—against all odds. Later on, she even pursued a university education in visual arts in Canada, combining her passion for both painting and dance. She has been exhibiting her paintings around the world and performing dance on stage. I am so impressed by the expressiveness of her legs and feet, as well as the strength of her core! In the following video,  you can watch her perform at the Paralympic Games in Turin:

I would like to wrap this post up with the same closing remark I made yesterday in case you have not read that post.

These dancers are so inspiring because they are not born with the “right” body or have the “right” conditions. They are great despite lacking those.

Happy International Dance Day: A Celebration that Everyone CAN Dance (Part 1)

Today is the International Dance Day, which was inaugurated in 1982 by the International Dance Theatre (ITI)’s Dance Committee to be celebrated every year on the April 29, the anniversary of Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), the creator of modern ballet. Each year a message from an outstanding choreographer or dancer is circulated throughout the world. The intention of the “International Dance Day Message” is to celebrate Dance, to revel in the universality of this art form, to cross all political, cultural and ethnic barriers and bring people together with a common language: dance. This year, the message comes from Spanish choreographer and dancer Israel Galván. You can read the message by going to the following website:
http://www.international-dance-day.org/en

I really like this all-embracing idea of celebrating dance regardless of the dance form and who the dancers are. This year, I would like take this opportunity to present a few extremely inspiring dancers and the messages they share with the world.

Luca “Lazylegz” Patuelli, who creates powerful dances with his crutches, says: “No matter what age, race, sex or ability one may have, everyone can dance. Dance is within all of us. Some choose to share it with others and some choose to keep it to themselves. Life is a dance whether we know it or not. We are constantly dancing with every movement we make, with every breath we take, and with every beat our hearts make, a rhythm is being created. It’s the slightest movements that make the greatest difference in a performance, just like in life it’s the little things that matter. Dance is the connection between you and the universe while we are dancing we are developing ourselves based on the energy, the emotions, and the challenges we experience. It is up to us to determine how we want to communicate our dance to the world. Dance is the ultimate form of self-expression and it is the escape that always reminds us that everything is going to be ok. Dance challenges us to surpass our limitations by discovering strength within. So, live your life to the fullest and dance beautifully!”

Alissa Sizemore, an eight-year-old American girl, lost her calf in an horrible traffic accident last year. A car drove over her and she lost her entire right calf. Despite the tragedy, Sizemore, who started learning dance at the age of four, picked herself up courageously and started taking ballet lessons again after she got her prosthetic. “I don’t want to give up!” she said. “I just want to dance!” Within a year, she is on the stage performing, and her mother is sharing what this brilliant little star can do with the whole world through videos she posts on YouTube. So inspiring! She made me tear up!

Another story that inspires tears is that of the Latkovski sisters. The younger sister, Gracie, has cerebral palsy and cystic fibrosis and is wheelchair bound, but she does not let that stop her from dancing. She started to take dance lessons since she was three and loves it. Her elder sister Gracie has choreographed a special dance, “Reflections,” to perform with Quincy on the WHAS Crusade for Children telethon. The choreography is ingenious, considering how young even the elder sister is. Absolutely touching video. Get yourself a tissue before watching!

Lastly, I would like to share with you a video showing a group of deaf dancers. Although they can’t hear the music, they can feel the rhythm in their breastbones. One of the dancers, Tashina, has been dancing since she was 3 years old. She has some words of encouragement for anyone who aspires to be a dancer: “It feels like a different world, one that I can shape myself and let go of everything I am going through and just leave them on the dance floor. I just feel so free. Don’t give up. You are going to experience a lot of frustration, and trials and tribulations. You just have to take one day at a time, and it’s going to add to your life experience. Just don’t give up. Once you set those goals you will be able to accomplish them. As long as you keep chasing them.”


These dancers are so inspiring because they are not born with the “right” body or have the “right” conditions. They are great despite lacking those.

Click  here to read Part 2.

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:

 

A Ballet Dream… Full of Regrets

Ballet-Studio-in-Dream

I had another ballet-related dream last night–very vivid, probably due to the approaching full moon.

I saw myself riding a bus to get to a place where I would attend a dance audition. The bus passed by a building with a red, old-fashioned script of “YMCA” on it. I pointed out to the person next to me–apparently my husband–and told him that this was a colonial building left behind by the Brits.

Then I arrived, alone, to this gigantic place where there were three huge studios. I walked through the first one, and upstairs to the next. The studio had a high ceiling and portable barres sparsely placed. The space must have been at least 3,000 square feet or larger. It looked like an old horse stable turned into a studio. The surrounding had a rural feel.

A handful of dancers were warming up and stretching before the audition began. I saw a woman doing a complicated movement in a corner. She was dressed in black from head to toe. I felt intimidated and decided that this class would be too advanced for me.

So I walked further to an outdoor “studio,” where I found ballet barres set up on a piece of red mud/sand ground, much like the kind of tennis court ground you’d find in the French Open.  I thought, “How am I supposed to dance on this kind of floor?” while using my right foot to draw circles in the sand, trying to imagine how it would feel like when I had my canvas ballet slippers on.

There was a man standing in a corner, facing a group of dancers who seemed to be getting ready to dance. He looked authoritative, and reminded me of Peter Martins of the New York City Ballet. He must be the ballet master, I thought. So I went up to him and asked if I could join this group for the audition. He nodded his head and signaled me to go join the dancers.

Before long, the ballet master gestured the dancers to start dancing. I was in my leotard and ballet slippers whereas the other dancers, mostly black and Hispanic, were dressed in glamorous and glittery costumes with big feathery headpieces, much like the dancers in a Brazilian carnival. I was confused. Some unfamiliar music was played… some sort of dance music but certainly not classical. The dancers started to dance in unison while I, being the odd one out, didn’t really know what to do as none of the steps were familiar to me. So I started to do my own modern ballet concoction to get through the music. Boy, it was hard! I felt embarrassed and it seemed like the three-minute piece of music would last forever.

At last, the ordeal was over, and I left the studio with my head down. I regretted having changed studio. I regretted not having taken a proper ballet class in the more decent studios indoors with the other ballet dancers. After all, when would I have a chance again to dance in such a gigantic ballet studio? As I left the place, I walked past the wings of a theater. On the stage, I saw my best ballet buddy, dressed in tutu, waiting for her performance to start. Seeing that I had no part in the ballet, I left, feeling bummed out.

I woke up to the sound of torrential rain beating at my windows, remembering every bit of details of my dream, understanding fully what had been released from my subconsciousness… then, lazily, I drifted into another dream.

 

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!