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

Back to the Studio with NYCB Adult Class

Guess what? I finally went back to the ballet studio last Saturday. It was a workshop called “NYCB Ballet Essentials” hosted by the New York City Ballet in the building where the School of American Ballet is (Samuel B the  & … Continue reading

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?

A Christmas Gift to Myself: Back to First Position

First Position - Balletomanehk.com

This Christmas, I gave the best gift to myself… No, it’s not those Christmas slippers (I bought them for Christmas two years ago). It was a home ballet class.

For various reasons, I’ve taken a six-month hiatus. But yesterday, which happened to be a full-moon day, I finally got an impulse to start picking up ballet again. I took to the roof, placed a couple of children’s thick play mats (which are placed together like a jig-saw puzzle), covered them with a sheet of Marley, and made a “sprung floor” out of it. It actually felt pretty darn good! Then I just used the edge of the roof as the barre (though a little low). Voilà!

Ballet on the Roof - www.balletomanehk.com

Kathryn Morgan was my instructor, and here are her easy ballet lessons on YouTube:

Barre:

Center:

It feels so good to have worked up a good sweat after the barre and center. Kathryn Morgan’s videos for beginners as well as dancers returning after an injury are really wonderful. They are slow-paced and do not demand high extensions. Yet they are beautifully choreographed. They made me feel like I was totally ready to get back to class yet was not forced to do anything uncomfortable. All the exercises were manageable and Morgan’s tone was so encouraging throughout the tutorials. 

I had so much fun doing the center exercises, especially the port de bras 😉 To my surprise, my balance is still quite good and my ankles didn’t wobble very much during rises! 

A neighbor peeked out from his roof and was wondering what the heck I was doing. Obviously he could not understand the English instructions coming out of my laptop, but the beautiful piano music and my movements got him curious, ha ha! I bet no one in my village does adult ballet. Perhaps this will get people interested.

In the new year, I hope to be able to do class more regularly. My the force be with me!

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

SJBallet_Library_View
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.

SJBallet_Studio2

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.

SJBallet_Studio2b

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.

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.

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.”