Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tendu with Plie barre combination

Instep Barre Combination

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dance Career Alternatives

Many dancers simply dance, without thought to what might happen if they became injured and unable to continue dancing. It's important to think about alternatives to a dancing career, not only due to unforeseen circumstances such as injury, but after you retire from dancing at the ripe old age of forty or older (if you're lucky). One of the best ways you can ensure continued employment in the field you love is to begin teaching dance. Ballet companies usually have a school associated with them, and this is the perfect place to begin training as a teacher. Being a great dancer doesn't necessarily mean you will be a great teacher, but the best way to learn how to teach is to do it!

There are many wonderful books about teaching ballet. Some of my favorites include these:

Classical Ballet Technique, by Gretchen Ward Warren

This book goes into great detail about the tradition of ballet, the ideal body structure and posture for ballet, methods of teaching, positions of the body and when to introduce steps, and includes notes on classroom etiquette, a pronunciation guide, and glossary of terms.

The Pointe Book: Shoes, Training & Technique Second Edition, by Janice Barringer and Sarah Schlesinger with forward by David Howard

In this book you will find a history of pointe dancing, the foot and pointe shoe making process, the fitting process, caring for shoes, basics of teaching pointe, sample pointe classes, and pointe-related injuries and their remedies.

Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet, by Gail Grant

You will find diagrams for directions of the body and feet. Arabesques, port de bras, and positions of the body are described for the Cecchetti Method, the French School, and the Russian School (Vaganova).

There are many other careers that are dance-related, too. Click here to see a listing. You may end up going back to school to get certification in physical therapy; you may decide to get a bachelor’s or a master’s degree in dance so you could teach at the university level; you may find that you have creative talent in the area of choreography; you might open a dancewear store, like I did. The opportunities are endless, and your expertise will be valued by beginning students and their parents, by audiences, and by school administrators if you wind up teaching, choreographing, or even selling dancewear (and knowing how to fit shoes properly).

Do any readers have ideas to share about alternative careers for dancers? Feel free to leave a comment below!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Life After Dance

I just learned that Merce Cunningham died last night at the age of 90. He danced until the very end of his life. This, in itself, is incredible. His legacy is monumental. So now I’m feeling a bit low, and wondering how he managed to stick with it into very old age. I’m thinking that Merce Cunningham created a way of moving that was specific to his body type, as he was known for a particular style all his own. Then there are people like me, who try to contort our bodies into shapes that were not meant for our body types at all—leading us to middle-aged back pain and chronic tendinitis.

What do you think? Even if you’re only seventeen, how do you see yourself in the future? Do you think dancing will be more an aid or a hindrance to your physical well-being when you’re forty years old? I had a chiropractor who talked to me when I was twenty-four. He said he was worried that I wouldn’t be able to walk when I was forty. I laughed. But now I’m forty-one, and I’m realizing he had a point.

I wouldn’t trade my years spent dancing or teaching for anything in the world. It’s the love of my life. But I can see how realistic the teachers are in Russia when they determine whether or not a child should begin studying dance by first looking at his or her proportions and physical tendencies. If someone is not blessed with a dancer’s body, they are not expected to dance. However, I’m thankful here in America we are all able to pursue our dreams, regardless of our potential.

Petit Allegro

Frappe 2/4

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ballet Class Etiquette

Rules for ballet class are usually communicated clearly, and most dancers who begin as young children are taught the appropriate way to behave while in the classroom. Not only are rules—or etiquette—for class a sign of respect towards the teacher and the other students, they are necessary in order to progress through all the combinations that make up a full class. There is simply not time for a teacher to be reprimanding students or calling them back to attention every few minutes. However, you may begin taking lessons at a new studio or academy where the etiquette may differ from your former school, and it might be up to you to find out what the standard expectations are for students.

Many schools have a dress code. Quite a few require pink tights. This sounds easy enough, but there can be many variations: students are clever at turning a rule on its head by changing it enough to say they are following the rules, when actually they are not. You need to know if pink tights means footed, or if transitional tights, stirrup tights, or footless tights are acceptable. Sometimes a student will have on transitional tights—which, when worn over the toes are considered footed—and have them rolled up to mid-calf. When it comes to class, pink can probably encompass ballet pink, classical pink, light pink, or European pink. (Or, as it was in my case as a kid, white tights dyed into a pink that came from red food coloring!) For performances, most teachers will be painfully specific about what color pink they want and if they want the tights to be mesh, seamed, or seamless; supplex, cotton, nylon, or a combination of fabrics; Capezio, Bloch, or Danskin. To make it a lot easier, some teachers will tell you a style number to be sure you get exactly the right thing. The Danskin mesh seamed tight in style 32 is very popular, for example.

Along with tights, some schools will require that you wear a specific color leotard or a specific style: camisole, tank, short sleeve, or long sleeve. A lot of schools will not be too picky about style as long as you wear the correct color, or a solid color. Make sure you are wearing shoes that are acceptable as well. Usually this is left to the discretion of the dancer, but some teachers don’t particularly care for canvas over leather, for instance. Some want you to have a full sole rather than a split sole. Just be certain you know if there's a preference, and make sure your shoes have the elastics sewn securely. Elastics that are tied behind the ankle or kept on with paper clips or safety pins are irritating to most teachers. You’ve been warned.

Hair and jewelry are biggies in ballet class. To be safe, I would say to put your hair in a bun with a hair net and plenty of hair pins and hairspray, and don’t wear any jewelry at all. Here again, there will be variations of what is acceptable at your particular school. You may be allowed to wear your hair clipped with a great big barrette so it doesn’t flop at all when turning, and it might be fine to wear earrings as long as they don’t dangle. Sometimes earrings that slip through without a catch at the back can fly out during grand allegro or turns across the floor, so use good judgment here. Click here to see a great video by dancers at the Anaheim Ballet on how to make hair buns. And a fun place to find ballet needs is at For hair accessories, click here.

Finally, we come to the behavior that is expected in class.

  1. No talking unless you have a question for the teacher (and questions are normally very welcome, especially in beginning to intermediate levels). This includes any kind of communication with others in class, so no miming or eye-rolling either!
  2. Do not chew gum, eat, or drink during class. Sometimes you may be permitted to get a drink between barre and center, but it's typically best not to leave the room to do so.
  3. Do not arrive late. If you arrive during the plié combination you can usually catch up. Otherwise you need to check with the teacher to see if it’s okay for you to join or if they prefer that you just observe class.
  4. Do not yawn.
  5. Do not get impatient with yourself—this can be misinterpreted by the teacher who thinks you don’t care for their class or combination.
  6. If you have an injury prior to class, let the teacher know that you may not do everything full out.
  7. If you get injured during class or pull a muscle, let the teacher know. Get ice, if possible, and watch the rest of class from the sidelines.
  8. Do not always stand in front. Take turns.
  9. Do not always go first across the floor unless the teacher asks you to.
  10. Do your best and have a positive attitude.

I encourage readers to add to the list if you can think of others I omitted. Of course, cells phones and ipods are also not good to bring into class. A few pet peeves of mine when I was teaching included students who had to go to the bathroom (although there might be exceptions, just don’t do this every single class), students who wanted to teach the class or recommend steps, and students who wore sweats over their tights once class began. Again, if you have an injury and you need to wear extra clothing for warmth, get permission from the teacher prior to class.

The nicest thing about class is the end. I always thought it very appropriate when I was dancing that we would let the teacher know we appreciated class by applauding at the end. Some teachers will tell young dancers that they should "give themselves a hand" so they get into the habit of clapping after class, but I believe that this part of ballet etiquette is more a show of respect for the authority and guidance of the teacher.

Medium Petit Allegro

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Taking an Extended Break from Dancing

One year when I was a student at Indiana University, we had a whole week off for Thanksgiving. The week we came back to school we had technical and dress rehearsals for The Nutcracker, which opened the very next weekend! My toenails felt bruised and every time I had to go onto pointe the pain was excruciating. Just putting my pointe shoes on after a full week off made me cringe. I felt like my feet had become bloated and soft in such a short amount of time.

After that experience I made sure to do certain things during any extended breaks from dancing (which made me feel like one of Pavlov’s dogs). Here’s a list of things you can do to keep from regretting time off, but still enjoy having that time off.

Stretch a little bit everyday. It doesn’t have to be a full barre workout, but stretch your hamstrings and lower back especially. This can be done while watching television or even while you’re waiting for water to boil. You may want to do this in the privacy of your own home or wherever you happen to be vacationing—just so people don’t wonder what you’re trying to prove in public.

I know it’s cruel—you’re on break, for crying out loud—but put on your pointe shoes at least every other day. Just put them on and walk around in them. You don’t really have to do much else, although it will probably be impossible to resist doing a few relevés since you went to all the trouble of putting them on. Keep your feet conditioned to remember that they’re still going to be expected to be squished in the near future. That no, this is not the beginning of retirement.

Do some sit-ups. Whenever I took a break, my balance suffered when I returned to class. I found that if I did a few repetitions of 20 sit-ups or crunches everyday it made a world of difference.

Another thing I tried to do during breaks was to sew as many ribbons and elastics onto new shoes as I could (if I had money to buy new ones, that is). If I didn’t have new shoes, I worked on old shoes to make them last longer. You can fix fraying ribbons by cutting them on a diagonal, covering the ends with clear nail polish, or burning them off with a cigarette lighter.

Keep your feet and arches in good condition. There’s not much worse than feeling like your foot is stuck in a pointed position and you have to manually flex it to release it. If you simply point and flex your feet a little bit everyday this will help.

Are there any other dancers out there who have more tips to add? Please leave a comment!

Tendu with Plie barre combination

Center Pointe Work

Adagio Barre Combination

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

How to Pick Up Combinations Quickly

I was reading someone’s blog the other day, and one of the comments was from a young dancer who was having trouble remembering combinations in ballet class. I thought this would make a great blog post because I, too, was one of those dancers who stood in the back and tried to blend in. Eventually I became one of the quickest to pick up combinations and was no longer afraid to stand in the first spot at the barre or go with the first group in the center. Here are some of my ideas about how you can pick up combinations quickly.

Probably the hardest part for me was just learning all the steps…period. When I started dancing at Butler University as a high school student, I encountered so many steps I’d never seen before. Learning the basic mechanics of faille, temps le cuisse, ballonné, flic-flacs, brisé, entrechat trois (to name a few) took some time. It’s all part of the learning process, and until you are familiar with how to do each of the steps then you can’t be too impatient with yourself.

Once you’ve mastered the basics and you at least know how to do all the steps in a given combination, then you can begin putting things together. I found the single most valuable way to learn how teachers put combinations together is to begin recording them in a notebook. Now, when you first start doing this you will not be able to recall every combination from class; begin slowly and jot down one or two barre combinations that you remember and one or two center combinations.

As a prospective teacher yourself, you can always refer back to these one day and reuse them in your own classes. To make the most out of this exercise, here are the pieces you should note.

Type of combination

Teacher’s name and date

Time signature and beginning position

Counts and Steps

An example would be as follows:

Pointe Center Petit Allegro

Melissa Lowe 3-25-1987

2/4 Begin R foot front 5th croisé

1-2 Echappé to 2nd position en pointe, close L foot front 5th croisé

3-4 Detourné toward back foot, tombé front onto R

5 Step coupé back onto L

6 Pas de chat R to end L foot front 5th

7-8 Sous-sus L foot front, plié croisé devant

1-8 Repeat all to other side

Over time you will begin to notice how a particular teacher structures his or her classes, and how they structure the individual combinations or exercises. I tried to always stand behind someone at the barre that I could count on to know the steps, and in the center I did my best to be in the second group of dancers so I’d have time to watch the first group and review the steps. For petit allegro, sometimes just marking things with my hands was helpful, or making up a cadence to say in my mind that would help me know what came next. For the combination above, I might have made something up that went in time with the musicality or counts: out, in, turn, step front, coupé, pas de chat and up and down.

Learning to switch feet quickly, where to place your weight, which foot closes front or back, how to reverse a combination—all of this takes time to accomplish. Besides writing down the combinations, it can also be helpful to go over them in your mind while your body is actually at rest. Much of this is a mental task anyway, so wearing yourself out and tripping over your feet might not be the most efficient way to learn how to pick up steps faster.

Knowing that you are going to need to recall a certain combination after class in order to jot it down in your notebook will help your long term memory. You’ll be amazed at how many steps are commonly linked together in the same pattern. Also, if you memorize the sequence of steps, you’ll be able to do them at a much faster rate in your head than you could do with your body. When I was learning lines for a play, for example, I would always try to say them as fast as I could just so I knew that I had them down; I never intended to perform them aloud at the same pace, but it boosted my confidence if I could say them quickly. The same thing applies with combinations: you can fast forward the time signature and watch it in your head at a very quick rate, so when it comes time to do a similar combination in class you’ll be more prepared to tackle it at the right tempo.

Do any other dancers out there have tips for how to pick up combinations? A lot of it is just perseverance and not giving up. Each day your brain is putting two and two together and before you know it things will begin falling in place.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Performance Butterflies: 10 ways to make them work for you

Every now and then I get the itch to go back in time. I put on an old VHS tape from my ballet dancing days--mostly what I have on tape are from performances at the University of Arizona when I was working on my MFA degree--and I can't believe the courage I had back then. It was common to work with other graduate students, performing their choreography so they'd reciprocate the favor, and I often worked with a guy named David Woods. We were usually paired up for partnering anyway because of our heights (suffice it to say he was not a real tall guy and I was always one of the shortest dancers around). But some of the stuff that David came up with was really nuts! I remember him describing what he wanted to try, and I'd just shake my head and say, "Impossible!" He would let loose his funny little laugh, then get all straight-faced and start explaining the mechanics of the move in question.

And we'd do it.

Maybe partly it was a trust thing; I worked with him everyday and we rehearsed so much it practically became second nature by the time we performed his crazy little notions in front of an audience. We were also in incredible shape back then. I have to remind myself that at one point in my life I really had some major control of my body. And with a partner giving me the edge I needed, there was no limit to the number of finger turns or pirouettes I could pull out, or the length of time I could hold a pose. My strength and flexibility were taken for granted back when they came so easily--you should see me sweating like the overweight, over-the-hill, mother-of-three that I am today during just the first five minutes of yoga class. On second thought, no, you shouldn't.

There was more to it than that, though. We were just as likely to miss as we were to hit some of the stunts we did in rehearsal, but in front of an audience we almost never missed. There was the arrival of an extra power within that always showed up just in time to lasso the butterflies from overdrive into automatic pilot. My body knew what to do; every minute on stage had been rehearsed hours on end for weeks leading up to that minute. But looking back, I remember there were steps I took to ensure that would be the case before each and every performance.

1. Don't take yourself too seriously. I mean, really, what's the worst thing that could happen? And if you know of things that could go wrong, make pretty darn sure they don't. (Double fold the ribbon before sewing it to your pointe shoes, stitch the ribbons after you've tied them so they can't come unraveled on stage, put the extra pins in your bun and use a hair net to firmly secure it, etc.) My dad taught theater at the high school level and even though he tended to worry about every last detail, when it came down to performance night he always had a saying that I repeated to myself before stepping on the stage: It's just a show. With emphasis on the word 'just'.

2. Warm up thoroughly. Take class with the cast before the show. Not only does this make you part of a team, it shows you have respect for whoever is teaching. By all means, if the teacher asks for something you know will pull a muscle before you're sufficiently warm, modify it until you're warm enough. Most teachers won't do this as part of a performance warm-up, but if they do then you are fine to lower the extension from 90 degrees to 45 if you aren't ready. By the same token, after warming up with the cast go over the choreography that tends to trip you up. Practice that big lift with your partner just to make sure you're both feeling it right. Whatever. Just make sure that before you step onstage in full make-up and costume that you are really warmed up.

3. Make a list and check it twice. This is before you even set foot in the theater. There's nothing worse than finding out you have only one pair of tights and there's a big run in them. Have plenty of extra pins, all your make-up, all the pieces to your costume, extra tights, shoes, and whatever else you may need so you don't go into panic mode thirty minutes to curtain.

4. Give yourself plenty of time to get into make-up and costume. If you have a quick change, do everything in your power to make it as fast and painless as possible. Usually there are people around backstage who will assist in such a case, so you don't have to spend time and energy trucking back and forth to the dressing room. Make sure to practice with them at dress rehearsal so they know the drill.

5. Spend a few moments alone.

6. Meditate or pray. Clear your mind. When you do this is totally up to you. I usually made sure I had some time to just do my own thing or hear my own thoughts for a while before making my way to the stage door. If not, then I would simply close my eyes in the wings and take a few deep breaths to put everything in perspective.

7. Put your trust in something greater than yourself. My dad always said the audience was the magic ingredient, and I tend to agree. They want you to succeed; nobody goes to the ballet to hold onto their theater seats wondering if you'll come out of that lift alive or not. They know you will, and you'll do it gracefully! Just deliver what they expect and you'll be fine.

8. Don't second guess yourself. If you're doing a part that you think someone else was more qualified to perform, well, you weren't the casting director, were you? No artistic director will put you in a role that they don't believe you can pull off.

9. Be in the moment. I remember one night when David and I were dancing the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake (and dang if it wasn't a dress rehearsal that no one got on tape!) and we were so in sync with the music and with each other...we were so ON it was almost scary. It was the closest to perfection I've ever come in my life, and I'll treasure those few minutes always. I was in the moment, enjoying the fruition of all the hours of labor leading up to that point in time.

10. Never let a mistake show on your face. Unless you're in the corps, supposedly doing the same thing as the other ten or eleven people on stage, if you mess up no one will even notice...if you don't show it in your face. Stay in character always, and immediately forgive yourself for any mistakes you make. There's nothing more capable of ruining a performance than berating yourself mentally over a small mistake that probably no one even noticed. Remember that what is past can't be changed; it can affect the future only if you let it.

Even though I haven't been dancing professionally for the last couple of decades, I'm sure many of these are time resistant and would still apply. And not only would many of these steps be helpful to a dancer preparing to take the stage, they could also help anyone who has to suffer the effects of butterflies: someone preparing to step into an interview, or walk down the aisle at their wedding, or call an agent about a book they're hoping to publish.

Any other dancers out there who have more tips to banishing the butterflies? Please leave a comment!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Your First Pair of Pointe Shoes

The fascination with pointe shoes and dreaming of the day you'll actually get your first pair is surely part and parcel of growing up in ballet. Every young ballerina looks forward to this rite of passage. I remember when I was fitted for my first pair of Capezio pointe shoes at Kinney Dancewear in Indianapolis, Indiana--by Frank Kinney himself, no less! That was at least thirty years ago, and the store is still in business, having expanded to Louisville, Kentucky and on the web. My first impression was that the shoes were extemely painful, and there were lots of things that I needed besides just the shoes, such as lambs' wool and ribbons.

I wore those shoes way beyond their lifespan; I had them at least a year because they aren't cheap. Plus, as a beginner I didn't know that they'd been worn past their time. All I knew was that they finally felt, well, vaguely comfortable. Back in those days we didn't have the World Wide Web and cool YouTube videos that showed us how to break them in and how to tie the ribbons. We relied heavily on our teachers to impart that knowledge to us, and we learned from those who were older and more experienced in the ways of the pointe shoe.

When I grew up, I went to graduate school and I also danced with a company that was just getting off the ground in Tucson: Ballet Arts Ensemble, now known as Ballet Tucson. Needless to say, I was spending several hours a day in my pointe shoes, and was going through a minimum of a pair a week. Then I discovered Freed. I had switched to Bloch's during my undergraduate days--feeling that the square box was a good match for my square toes and metatarsal--and then I fell in love with Freed. The great thing about them was that they were practically broken in without doing anything to them. They seemed to fit and move with my foot right from the very beginning. Unfortunately, they only lasted a couple of days. Alas, most of my financial aid went toward pointe shoes. But they really helped my dancing improve, because I was strong and didn't need a hard shoe to force me to work to get en pointe. I didn't need to fight with a shoe; I was so happy to find a shoe that worked with me and was an extension of my own foot.

There are lots of techniques people employ to break in their shoes, but the best by far is this one I found on YouTube offered by Lisa Howell in Sydney. Gently massaging the shoe at the top of the arch and at the break in the metatarsal will ensure that your foot is properly supported and that you are able to "work through" the foot as you go from a flat foot to demi-pointe, and finally to full pointe (and reverse). Click here to watch how to break in your shoes.

Some teachers have a preference for the style of shoe you should start out with, and some rely on the dancewear store to fit you properly. When I had my own dancewear store, we had some teachers who made a day of bringing in the students who were moving up to pointe work, and they worked with us to fit their students.

Other teachers wanted strictly Capezio or Sansha or Veronese. We carried more than twenty different brands of pointe shoes in our store because there are so many variations of feet. People with high arches usually did well in Grishkos, for example. Professionals often wanted Freeds. It ran the gamut, but ideally your teacher will know what to recommend and the store personnel will know how to fit you properly. As long as you don't sew the ribbon or soil the satin by standing in the shoes too much, you should be able to return them to the store for a different pair if your teacher doesn't approve of them.

Your teacher will undoubtedly have opinions on what kind of padding (if any) you are allowed to wear with the shoes, if you should tape your toes or not, and will teach you the proper way to sew and tie the ribbons. For most teachers, this is a special time they are sharing with you as well; it's a time they'll remember because it's one day they will have your complete, undivided attention!