My First Real Class after the Hiatus

First-Ballet-Class-2016

Yesterday was the first time I went back to the ballet studio after half a year’s hiatus. I was so thrilled and nervous at the same time! Also, as I just recovered from the flu, I was a tad worried and didn’t know if I could make it through the class or not. On top of that, I was too careless not to have checked the ballet studio’s Facebook updates to see if there was actually a class today. So I messaged the teacher but I didn’t hear from her even though it was only 15 minutes before the class would start. The door to the studio was locked and I started to wonder if I had wasted the almost two hours’ trip from home. Well, turned out that the teacher was stuck in cross-border traffic and the class would start half an hour later and so my journey was not wasted after all. But I had to cancel a tutoring appointment, which I scheduled right after the class… and lost HK$500 :'(.

In any case, I was determined to rekindle my ballet training this year. So off I go against all odds! This just happened to be first day of former New York City Ballet dancer Kathryn Morgan’s ‪”12-Week Challenge.” I mentioned this challenge a couple of days ago, and was super excited about starting it. I am really not sure if I can follow through even the light version of the challenge, but to get started would be to have won half the battle, at least in my case, as I had so many reasons to put off resuming class last year. But I finally made it!

The class was conducted by a young substitute teacher, whom I have been an acquaintance for quite a few years. It was slow-paced but she really made sure we got the alignment and movements right. We had only two center exercises, starting with a tendu+temps lié and ending with sauté. The last set of sauté was long-ish and I almost felt like collapsing, but I persisted till the end and am really proud of having completed the exercise.

To my surprise, my technique is still there, despite not having much strength and flexibility. But I know these will come back in time. To me, at this point, being able to move my arms and upper body in a graceful way means more than being able to have high leg extensions or super flexibility, as the important thing is to be able to do what I can still do to get back the feeling of dancing again. So, I’m just taking things in baby steps now.

After class, I could feel the endorphin rush… I wanted to sing James Brown’s song out loud: “I FEEL GOOD!!!”

Looking forward to more ballet this year.

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.

Back to the Studio

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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.”

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.