Dancing At Home – 6 Struggles that have Made Me Grateful for the Ballet Studio

“All of these challenges, while conquerable, help us to realize what a gift it is to dance in a studio.”

I live in a small apartment. It’s about 740 square feet — just barely enough for two adults, all their stuff, and one cute beagle. I’ve never had negative feelings about living in a small space though. Considering the fact that we will be moving soon and it’s not permanent, I try not to stress about it. But the past six months has had me wishing I had infinite square footage, or at least a spare room at my disposal.

These are my top home studio complaints and struggles. I don’t think that I’m alone when I say that we may have taken some things for granted when we were in the studio…

1.) Finding justtt the right space – My home ballet journey has definitely evolved over the past six (now almost seven?!) months. When this all started, it seemed like such a funny, novelty moment to grab my dance bag, dress for class, and head to the kitchen. I first deemed the kitchen to be the best space for ballet purely because of the floor — our kitchen and bathroom are the only areas with a hard linoleum surface; everywhere else is carpeted. As the months wore on though, I found myself setting up in the living room instead. This began partially due to the fact that I was switching spaces mid-class anyway, in order to allow my legs enough room to extend and rond de jambe by the time I reached fondus. I basically tired of the mid-class move and started sticking it out for the whole class in the living room. This is my new norm, and I can also easily pop on a YouTube barre and follow along from the TV.

2.) “The commute” – Commuting to dance class used to involve me hopping in the car with my dance bag and driving about 15 to 20 minutes into Charlottesville. While dancing from home eliminates the commute, there’s also a whole slew of things I need to do to prep for a class that basically add up to a commute time when all is said and done. When I was taking class from the kitchen, I found myself constantly having to wipe down the counters, move drying dishes, give the floor a quick sweep, move our kitchen floor mat, etc. I am a bit embarrassed to say that one time during a Zoom ballet class I even went so far as to pop some roasted potatoes in the oven, turn off my camera once they were done, remove them from the oven, and then turn my camera back on like nothing had happened (what is life).

The many faces of dancing in the kitchen…Can we also acknowledge that Skylar Brandt shared me to her story?!

3.) Distractions abound – It is a constant struggle to focus when there are other things going on in your apartment. Not to mention easily accessible snacks! Going to a studio there is always a clear mission, a defined moment for myself to dance, exercise, and enjoy the art form. But at home the intention can get so clouded by everything else.

4.) Technical difficulties – If these were listed based on “most challenging to deal with”, this would definitely be rated number one. The list of potential tech problems is long: freezing, audio problems, loss of internet connection, loss of power (I can never remember to keep my computer charged), finding a successful camera angle — you know the drill. Fine tuning your tech set up is an art form in itself. While I feel like I’ve learned a lot about technology in the process, I also still feel very much like a confused 31-year-old.

“Overall, there is a lesson to be learned — a lesson in patience…”

I took a lot of these towards the beginning of quarantine, thinking it would be fun to see how many classes I took in the kitchen…and then the novelty wore off…

5.) Aches and pains – While tech problems are frustrating, the aches and pains of dancing in an unconventional space are hard to deal with as well. To be honest, there have been times when I have had to simply admit defeat. Without a sprung floor or marley for some cushion and support, there have been moments when it is just too painful for my body. While I like my current set up working in the living room, it does also put a lot of extra stress on my hip flexors and calves — as I constantly must try to lift up and out of my heels and my hips, “out of the carpet” essentially. I’ve taken a break from center work for a bit because the carpet poses too big of an obstacle sometimes. While I already am not much of turner, carpet makes the push to turn quite difficult and has made my landings very questionable, to say the least. While the kitchen floor provided nice solid footing for a while, that too became an irritant, inflaming my bunions and the soles of my feet.

“I’m not in the way, am I?”

6.) Dancing with pets – While I love my dog, there has definitely been a learning curve in trying to complete a class with my beagle nearby. We’ve had some good moments and some laughable moments. While I used to just start a class and hope for the best, I now know that I’m going to have the best results if my dog is occupied and/or tired. Oliver is now a pro at staying out of the way of my workouts and ballet classes, but it took us a while to get here. Let’s just say that he’s very aware of Zoom and FaceTime. He’s found his own unique way to participate in some classes — both sitting directly in front of me during Pilates so my teacher can’t see me and standing too close during ballet. He’s not a fan of frappes anymore!

Trying to stay on the positivity train!

Overall, there is a lesson to be learned — a lesson in patience, something I don’t always have much of. All of these challenges, while conquerable, help us to realize what a gift it is to dance in a studio. It is such a blessing to have access to dance education in a quality space, with friends and students who are also invested in the arts surrounding us. While this time is difficult, it has also given me moments I will never forget — plenty of laughs, Oliver howling at other pets on Zoom, taking an afternoon to teach my mom a virtual class. While virtual isn’t necessarily best, we can still have those human moments with one another — gathering in a common “space” of sorts, to dance and be “together”.

Watchful Eyes

“…there is something about a formal presentation of one’s skills, that definitely ups the ante.”

What exactly is it about an audience that shakes our nerves to the core? Is it the desire to attain perfection? Or maybe the worry that we might fail? Or is it that very simple and innate human fear of judgement? We all have different reasons, both stated and deeply personal, but I can assure you that if observing eyes send you into a panic, YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

As a ballet teacher, I am currently in the midst of “Parent Observation Week” – the three dreaded words for any teacher that equate to an annual or bi-annual event held during the academic year. This busy week presents an opportunity for students to share their class experience with family and friends, and showcase the development of their dance technique, as well as their favorite steps and combinations. For teachers, it is a time to become better acquainted with parents and to highlight a class’ progress, as well as the individual advancements of students.

However, despite the obvious positive points of parent observation, it can be an anxious time for students and teachers. For young students especially, it is an introduction into the pressures of performance and the anxiety that can come along with it. For more advanced, mature students, it is necessary time to prove oneself and gain practice for future auditions and opportunities. For teachers, too, it can be a nerve-racking experience, ensuring that a class’ abilities are adequately showcased. The best teaching strategies and tools must all be used, different learning types attended to, attention paid to corrections and discipline, and, of course, a little humor to keep it light and get some laughs, can’t hurt.

When it comes right down to it though, all parties involved just have to act natural. But there is something about a formal presentation of one’s skills, that definitely ups the ante. It can affect a person in any career or stage of life. Our basic human instincts come into play-our desire to impress and succeed, and our fear of rejection and judgement.

It’s a wonderful thing to be motivated to give 110% percent and go above and beyond one’s normal expectations, but it’s also okay to experience nerves and anxiety in such a situation. Sometimes in tense, high pressure moments, we create and experience our best work. Under the watchful eyes of others, we may discover something about ourselves that we did not know before.

I've totally used this pic before, but what a great reminder...
I’ve totally used this pic before, but what a great reminder…

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An Allegro Anecdote: “I Can’t Turn Left.”

“It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me by any means, but, man, it makes for a good story.”

“I can’t turn left.” Many automatically think of the classic Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander when they hear this phrase. I, however, have actually said this when referring to myself.

In the winter of 2009, I was diagnosed in the West Hartford, Conn. ER with vertigo. Two days previous, the morning after Valentine’s Day, I rouse with a sensation of dizziness like nothing I had ever experienced. Each time I tried to focus my eyes, my gaze was repeatedly pulled downward. I was perpetually on the down slope of a roller coaster. I rested the entire day, tried unsuccessfully to nourish myself (everything came immediately back up), and of course called my Primary Care Physician for life-my Mom. I explained the circumstances, but my mother warily kept implying that I might’ve had “one too many” the night before. (True, we were in singles V-Day celebration mode-cosmopolitan style-the night before) But as my symptoms persisted, I knew it was not at all related.

I went to bed praying/assuming that this weird experience would have exhausted itself by the A.M.—WRONG…conditions remained the same the next day. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t go to dance classes, I couldn’t even watch TV in bed comfortably. The severity and persistence of my symptoms quickly got my Mom’s attention. She left work early and drove the hour and a half down to my college to accompany me to the ER. Finally, (after a long and fearful wait in the height of flu season) I was seen and diagnosed with a bout of vertigo. I wasn’t given much explanation, and was quickly sent home with an anti-nausea med prescription and motion sickness relief patches. I was told the symptoms would gradually fade on their own…

As a student whose college major involves movement about 90% of the time, I had to get back into the groove. But I struggled to get back into dance class. I could only do half of class, and the extreme motion I constantly felt required me to cling to the barre for dear life. The nausea med helped, but the motion sickness patches put me over the edge-the side effects hit me hard. The eye on the same side of my head as the patch (you only put one behind the ear on one side of the body) became severely dilated and my vision blurred. Now I was a vertigo inflicted college student, with blurred vision and one psycho dilated eye. Great.

So I went to see a specialist. I was given a series of tests, involving sound and the condition of my ears. The diagnosis-I had been coming down with a virus prior to the onset of vertigo. In response, the nerve controlling my balance within my left inner ear had swelled as a defense mechanism. Enough to the point that I had lost control of my balance and developed vertigo. As my inner ear readjusted, the vertigo would lessen, but it would take an undetermined amount of time. (Supposedly) I would never experience vertigo again.

“I survived two episodes of losing my greatest gifts-my balance and my control of movement.”

As a dancer, the vertigo proved to be quite a handicap for the 3-4 months it took to fizzle out. Because my left ear was the one primarily involved, I had a reoccurring struggle with any movement led by the left side of my body. Pirouettes to the left were a terrible thing for a long time. I struggled in modern class too. Already the ultimate “bunhead”, now in addition, anything too off-center or involving inversion was practically impossible. I was constantly uncoordinated, and was concerned about my progress. It was a stressful time. But it all turned out okay…for about five years…

In the spring of 2014, vertigo again came knocking at my door. This time, I took to the stage. As an apprentice with Ballet Theatre of Maryland, I had a performance that evening. Nothing like timing right? I didn’t have too much responsibility in the show that weekend, but I also didn’t have a solid understudy. I felt pretty uncomfortable attempting to dance under stage lighting and strobe lights, but I didn’t have a choice. I did a low key warm-up that night, enough to get by, and friends and co-workers were on high alert backstage, in case I needed to make an impromptu getaway off the stage (potentially to a trash can). I went out there and modified like whoa. It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me by any means, but, man, it makes for a good story.

Dancers have thick skin (I mean, literally, too…those calluses!). I survived two episodes of losing my greatest gifts-my balance and my control of movement. In my current state, I now have the time and flexibility to truly take care of myself-mentally and physically. Would I have still had vertigo twice if I hadn’t been in the midst of two strenuous, performing arts programs? Probably! But I would have been able to better take care of myself afterwards, and therein lies the difference. It’s okay to push, but treating yourself like a human is okay too. As a dancer, these struggles seemed insurmountable. But they are also distinguishing challenges that have brought me to this point. There’s satisfaction in knowing I’ve survived it all.

Hope And Strength

“I am concerned…but I am hopeful…and I am strong.”

…We’re all thinking about it. Election 2016…So I will do my best to lightly touch on the topics of the past week. I am just here to say what is on my mind and potentially on the minds of others.

{I am concerned.} As a liberal, a woman, an artist, and a supporter and friend of all races, nationalities, and sexual orientations, I worry what is next for the diversity of America. When and why did the idea arise that we need to selectively “take back” this country? America is alive and well! We all want America to be great, but why “again”? When did the greatness halt? Why is our consensual faith in America waning? There will always be laws and policies that require adjustment and adaptation, but it is impractical to expect all Americans to conform to a narrow minded set of ideals. That is not why we live in this country. Our differences are what make us so beautifully unique.

{…But I am hopeful}…my hope is scant (one week out), but without hope we will not get through this difficult time. I strongly believe that this change we are experiencing will push us to be proactive and to speak up for our beliefs and rights. Volunteer. Discuss. Be informed. Peacefully protest. The future of our democracy stands before us. The progress that has been made on behalf of many in this country, stands on the precipice of destruction. If we fade into the background post-election, we cannot hope to protect our liberties.

{And I am strong.} Hope must walk hand and hand with strength. While a hopeful outlook is crucial, it is an empty wish without strength and momentum. This will not be an easy time, but we must spark the change we wish to see and be ready to respond. We are the people. We are the popular vote. We are unique, capable, hopeful, and fierce.

Be ready. Harness your hope, find your strength.

An Allegro Anecdote: The Duct Tape Fiasco

“Spending numerous hours either aggressively dancing or standing around awaiting rehearsal in pointe shoes, I needed a tape option that would stay on my feet all day…Hence, the introduction of duct tape into my dance supplies.”

Plaids. Penguins. Stars. Stripes. Florals. All cute patterns, right? In this case, though, I am actually referring to some of the many kinds of duct tape I’ve used throughout my dance career. Now if you’re not a dancer, you’re probably thinking, “what does this chick need duct tape for?” I started using duct tape about four years ago, as a super resilient alternative for toe tape.

Repetitive work, literally on the toes, can create a bit of a disaster for the skin and nails of a ballerina’s feet. It’s customary for dancers of all levels to apply a “toe pad” of choice and/or protective tape and/or bandaids to individual toes while dancing en pointe. Spending numerous hours either aggressively dancing or standing around awaiting rehearsal in pointe shoes, I needed a tape option that would stay on my feet all day despite blood, sweat..and tears, I guess. Hence, the introduction of duct tape into my dance supplies.

The longer I’ve used duct tape, the more interesting the designs have become! Florescent pink used to be my most exciting option, but now they have everything from paisley florals to macaroni and cheese (always discussed amongst my friends as a great option, but then again, I feel awkward putting images of pasta with melted cheese all over my foul smelling feet…).

I remember once mentioning to my Dad that I had duct tape on my toes. Protective Italian father that he is, he panicked. “Why are you using industrial strength tape on your toes?!” (Good question, but it seemed irrelevant at the time) I responded with some sort of, ‘I know what I’m doing’ comeback. But father certainly knew best.

One of my favorite pics of myself ever....note that tape, lurking at the bottom right!! PC - Keith Alan Sprouse
One of my favorite pics of myself ever….note that tape, lurking at the bottom right!! PC – Keith Alan Sprouse

Now this particular disaster actually happened to me twice. However, the play-by-play of the second experience was particularly hilarious…Flashback to over a year ago, a typical day in the life of a professional dancer – dancing, immediately followed by a few hours of teaching. With just a little time in between these two blocks of time, I had left on all the duct tape I’d applied to my toes earlier. After teaching, I took a moment in my dressing room to change out of dance clothes and remove all the tape from my feet. In my haste to leave and feeling “maxed” out from my day, I overzealously tugged the piece off that surrounded my big toe (which one, I honestly can’t remember). Blood started pouring out of the pad of my big toe as I stared at it, confused and in disbelief. The tape had stubbornly clung to one of my calluses and pulled a large chunk of skin with it-the flesh I had lost still bound to the tape. I did my best to audibly mask my anger, shock, and pain (an academy class going on just outside the room), as I tried to figure out what to do. I hobbled over to a box of tissues and stuck a huge chunk to my toe. I assumed I’d just need to do this once or twice, but that wound kept on gushing, one wad of kleenex after the other.

” ‘Why are you using industrial strength tape on your toes?!’ (Good question…) I responded with some sort of, ‘I know what I’m doing’ comeback. “

Enough time passed that I realized I had to leave that room for assistance and supplies. But there was the issue of having to hobble across a studio full of young students with a bleeding toe, so I literally phoned for help from the other room. I shamefully called my friend at the front desk of the dance studio to fetch me some first aid supplies. With her she brought not only band-aids, gauze, and ointment, but also our company podiatrist and my two co-directors. Initially shocked to find me curled up on the floor tending to a gushing wound, we all eventually also found some humor in the unusual situation.

I spent the rest of the following week reminded of my mistake each morning, as I re-wrapped my wounded toe. It required Neosporin, a band-aid, and a good amount of self-adhering gauze in order to protect the “hole” I’d created. All this to somewhat lessen the pain of stepping on or pointing the toe. Of course, I had an in-studio performance the following Friday in which I was supposed to dance barefoot. I was thankfully able to ween myself off of a great deal of the gauze by that point, and managed to perform the piece with only a small amount for protection.

The duct tape fiasco was a grave error and something that would only happen to me, but I had learned my lesson for the time being. However, I must admit, I still tape my toes with duct tape to this day…but I take my sweet time and attention when removing it.

Don't try this at home. PC - Keith Alan Sprouse
Don’t try this at home. PC – Keith Alan Sprouse

Back To (Ballerina) School

“I love this time of year. I thrive off the thrill of day one.”

September looms before us as students, young and old, head back to school. The nights are a bit more crisp, school sales are underway, and Halloween decorations have somehow crept onto store shelves. Bear with me, because this all makes me rather nostalgic. A truth has hit me (and I accept it willingly, but need to talk it out of course): this is the first year of my life since I was five years old that I will not be “going back to school”, so to speak. Obviously, for 17 of those years, I was truly attending an academic institution of some kind. However, the past five years of my life I have started each late August with a “first day of school” as well. “Ballerina school” – five years of company life.

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Just another day at school – happy ballerina – April 2015

I know I’m not the only one that treats the first day back for the company season as the fantastic fresh start that it is. Just as a student preps with a backpack full of fresh notebooks, their coolest outfit, and the yummiest lunch, a dancer preps their shoes, their best leo, and the lunch and snack that will fuel their long day back. It’s clean slate time. Although not all mistakes may have been forgotten, the purity of summer allows even dancers a chance to unwind and be real people. The possibilities are endless now, there are new faces and old friends, spirits are high, and the road that is the next year of your life is laid out before you.

I love this time of year. I thrive off the thrill of day one. Freshness (I’m convinced I have a low grade case of OCD), new beginnings, organization, and plans, plans, plans. But this year is not like the rest. There will be no first day of school for me (for those of you who haven’t heard). It is not ideal, and, honestly, it makes me sad. But it’s what’s happening. A year ago today I took a fall (Balanchine loved dancers who fell, by the way). It was obviously a stumbling point, and it has caused me to stumble again and again, but I won’t let it be an end point.

“What if nothing else besides dancing makes me happy?”

I don’t know when I’ll have another opportunity to be on-stage…another opportunity to pour out joy and emotion and leave it there for the taking…but I know that the skepticism I have about the road ahead is okay and it’s natural. Sometimes this is where the true magic lies–in the unexpected.

I admit I am questioning things. Because I like to know what I’m doing…I like a good plan. Not knowing what I’m meant to do next is killing me. What if nothing else besides dancing makes me happy? (teaching dance makes me happy, but in an entirely different way-that’s a convo for another time…soon) What if there isn’t a replacement, a supplement for it? I’m afraid that I won’t be content with anything else…But I’m trying to figure it all out because that’s what I do. That’s me.

So to all my good friends who have started school – regular schooling or “ballerina school” – good luck. Put your best foot forward and plunge into the new.

To ballet company life – this isn’t goodbye, it’s see you later.

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“the true magic lies-in the unexpected.” PC – Wendy Grande

Namaste Turned Out

“…quiet the mind, peel away correction after correction, shun all self doubt, and embrace the desires of the soul.”

Namaste and welcome, to this week’s J.O.D. Feeling fueled and positive after some afternoon yoga today, I started thinking about the vast benefits of yoga for dancers. As the summer winds down and we find ourselves preparing for new classes (academic and/or dance), new schedules, and the rigors of our Monday thru Friday lives (or Monday thru..always, as some of us may experience), yoga is an excellent way to prepare for a return to the ballet barre. While aspects of this practice can be quite foreign to classically trained dancers, there are many benefits to the practice, even if only attending on a weekly basis. As movers we are reminded of the need to breathe, thoughtfully stretch, work alternative muscles, and search within ourselves for both mental and physical needs.

the outdoors + yoga = beauty & inner peace <3
the outdoors + yoga = beauty & inner peace  ❤

The main benefit of yoga for dancers is the consistent emphasis on breath and breath support. Lack of breath support in accompaniment with movement is a common problem for dancers of all levels. Without breath support (and more specifically-correct breath support), dancers can become fatigued and lose stamina quickly. It is common, during class time especially, for dancers to exhale aggressively after completion of a combination-a sign that the breath is becoming pent up within the body while dancing. Yoga, on the other hand, promotes constant movement of the breath-both in moments of stillness and motion. Although it takes a great deal of practice, really focusing on the breath can make the process of utilizing it much more enjoyable. Not only does yoga help to promote breath support, but it also introduces different techniques of breathing (i.e. – use of the diaphragm for strength and stamina of breath).

Yoga is also a great alternative and/or addition to traditional ballet stretches. Whether you’re practicing in the Vinyasa technique (more rigorous; flowing and connecting from posture to posture) or Yin (long-held postures, focusing on stretching the fascia and reaching an appropriate “edge”), the poses of traditional yoga practice are excellent formats for allowing dancers to stretch both the lower body and the less commonly used (for ballet technique) muscles of the upper body. Poses like “plank”, “forward fold”, “warrior three”, “standing split”, “frog”, and “supine butterfly” are all excellent for strength and stretch and physically come easily to the “dancer crowd”. However, the prominent, sometimes glaring, difference between ballet and yoga that presents itself, is the lack of turnout. I still find myself wanting to outwardly rotate my hips and most definitely my feet, for certain poses within the yoga technique. However, sticking to the traditional parallel is definitely more successful. Although we desire to stick to what we know physically, the challenge of keeping the hips and feet parallel strengthens different muscles of the body, ones that aren’t commonly used on a day-to-day basis as a dancer.

Peace, peace, peace.
“Peace, peace, peace.”

Now some may say that they attend yoga for one reason – good ol’ savasana – a chance to literally lay back, corpse pose style, and let the worries of the day melt away. This deeply meditative moment within the practice is truly important for artists. It is an opportunity to quiet the mind, peel away correction after correction, shun all self doubt, and embrace the desires of the soul. Even if savasana is the only thing that gets you to yoga class, keep it up, because it’s certainly a good reason to be there.

Kripalu yoga @ Tanglewood this past weekend - always a delight
Kripalu yoga @ Tanglewood this past weekend – always just what I NEED. PC – My Mom  ❤

Yoga is a fantastic pairing or temporary alternative (for injury purposes) to dance. Before ruling out the practice as something too anti-ballet, give it a chance. There is nothing else like it. Although there is a strong meditative, spiritual, and individual component, yoga, like ballet, is also a disciplined practice. Take the opportunity and lie back…breathe, rotate those legs inward a little bit more than you’re used to, and focus on you.

Just Like The Pros

“…the world of ballet [is much more] than just going to class and performing. It is a culture and a lifestyle.”

They say that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” (Charles Caleb Colton) As we each create our own personal journey as dancers, it is only natural that habits and inspirations are gathered along the way. I can remember the extreme distraction, fear/utter respect, and curiosity I felt whenever I was around a professional dancer. I wanted to dance, walk, talk, dress, and altogether BE like them. Now, despite any qualms I may ever have about myself as a professional, I can “feel” the eyes that evaluate my movements as well.

There is much more to the world of ballet than just going to class and performing. It is a culture and a lifestyle. The fashion, hairstyles, cross training, eating habits, and even character traits of dancers are greatly affected by their profession.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” –Charles Caleb Colton

When I consider some of the important elements that construct my life as a dancer, it is safe to say that many of those details I “stole” from others or adapted as my own. Hairstyles (I’ve watched Sara Mearns’ instructional French twist video on YouTube, and I have perfected a braided hairstyle that I developed from Sarah Lamb), leotards (you better pair those two Yumi colors you like together first before someone else does, or you’re just going to look like a copycat), warmup apparel choices (everyone got on the dance overalls “train” at some point or has cut up a pair of tights to make a shrug; also, trash bag clothing is everything)…Ballet is really quite the fashion world. Even if you’re not on the cover of Pointe Magazine, someone may very well be eyeing your leo and thinking that if they had that very one they’d be a beautiful dancer too.

The world of dance can feel like a foreign place as you take your first steps into the professional world. Thankfully, there will always be opportunities to learn from one another and from the pros we admire above us. As we grow as artists, we gather information and assistance as needed from others – recommendations or personal touches that keep us in touch with our dance culture and that help us further our career or passion for ballet. After all, dance is a hard enough endeavor – the least we can do for one another is share some tricks of the trade.

If It Hurts, You’re Doing Something Right.

“We must distinguish between what is a warning sign and what is simply hard work.”

Blisters. Bunions. Muscle spasms. TURNOUT. There are many unpleasant aches and pains in ballet. Breathing is allowed, surprisingly, however, good luck fitting that onto your to do list in class. We all have a lot on our minds when we’re trying to move and create gorgeous lines, but sometimes the technical highlights and the pure muscle behind it all need to take precedence.

Stretch it out.
Stretch it out.

After many months of experiencing constant pain and instability due to my ankle injury, I realize now how much I appreciate good pain. There is definitely a point when muscle exhaustion can become counterproductive, but the lines and movements of ballet technique are completely foreign to the body. In order to train ourselves physically, “muscle memory” is key. If you consider ballet posture from head to toe, there really is nothing natural or organic about it – drawing together of the shoulder blades, the extreme lift of the abdominals combined with closure at the top of rib cage, length in the lower spine, strength powered from the inner thighs and hamstrings, seemingly impossible length of the knee caps, extreme outward rotation of the hip, corresponding turnout of the legs and feet, all without overcompensating and allowing the arches to fall to the floor. The list of extreme demands is long and only further complicated by the addition of movement and steps.

“I appreciate good pain. Post injury…makes me so grateful for the moments when I am able to PUSH again….”

Probably one of the proudest moments of my life. Returned to the stage in a beautiful and complex pointe work - "A Palette of Influence" choreographed by Julia Mitchell. PC - Me
Probably one of the proudest moments of my life. Returned to the stage in a beautiful and complex pointe piece – “A Palette of Influence” choreographed by Julia Mitchell. PC – Me

With all of these different parts of our bodies working together, yet against, each other, how do we know how far to push ourselves when we feel muscle pain? (I find this even more difficult post-injury) I completely stand by the method of “practice makes perfect” – repetition until fatigued is crucial. But this also creates a window for error and injury. We must distinguish between what is a warning sign and what is simply hard work. A smart dancer knows when to say no, but also has a vast understanding of his/her physique and how to fully utilize it. What will save you in the moment of fatigue is creating a whole body experience – engaging the abs, lifting the sternum and chin – “sending energy” elsewhere can be a saving grace.

As a teacher, I frequently see students who are afraid to push themselves. The glaring concern of “it hurts so much!” disrupts the opportunity for muscle memory and drive to kick in. I tell my students, “if it hurts, you’re doing something right.” Absolute truth. The art of dance presents a difficult and challenging road. Personally, post-injury, it is still difficult for me to distinguish when I’ve maybe had enough. I am fighting to better understand that point, and it makes me so grateful for the moments when I am able to PUSH again…when I know that my body is working as a harmonious unit, and it’s okay to go for it. Call me crazy, but no matter how much pain ballet bestows upon me, there is nothing I love more than knowing I have done everything…110% given and barely able to move a muscle. I will always keep coming back for MORE.

Back in the tutu. MORE.
Back in the tutu. Back for MORE.

Back To Basics

“…strength and energy, experience, and understanding. To an extent, a more mature dancer has all these tools, but I definitely took for granted the continuous maintenance…required for ballet.”

A dancer’s ballet technique can undergo constant evolution. The criteria that produce an excellent dancer are by no means black and white after all. Mastery of a step or concept does not guarantee your “ownership” of that progress for life. Although all art forms and physical activities require practice and diligence, ballet requires a special brand of patience and supervision.

I’ve spent the past week standing alongside my students. Taking class and working on the basics-things I’ve done millions of times before, but things that still benefit me.  Although age and experience grant us a sense of muscle memory for many movements and also choreography, there is still room for error and regression (not to be depressing).

I remember that as a young student I assumed, to some degree, that as an older, more mature dancer, the pathway was “only up” from there-easier coordination, a broad dance vocabulary, muscle memory, infinite strength and energy, experience, and understanding. To an extent, a more mature dancer has all these tools, but I definitely took for granted the continuous maintenance (in truth, A GREATER AMOUNT of maintenance) required for ballet. Whether I am taking class on a daily basis or returning after a short hiatus, I find myself not only making adjustments and correcting errors, but also discovering new areas for improvement. In layman’s terms, never a dull moment. I hate to play the strict teacher card (but actually, I love it), but if you’re bored in (any level) class or not feeling challenged, you must not be working very hard.

The constant battle for the “it was perfect” (Black Swan) moment is what keeps a lot of us going isn’t it? For all the perfectionist, OCD types out there (like myself), ballet is an art form that constantly offers a challenge – things to fix, new approaches to investigate, new characters and emotions to explore. A world of perpetual art, whether you’re refining your technique or simply going back to the basics.