Ballet: Examining the Details
I’m home now, with many lessons learned.
Taking class at the Joffrey reminded me both how far I’ve come since I started dancing again and how far I still have to go (which has very much become a recurring theme for me): yesterday’s intermediate class, in particular, proved to be both a sound indicator of the progress I’ve made and, at times, a stark challenge.
I’ve improved the most in port de bras, adagio, and — surprisingly — turns.
The first of these, port de bras, represents a place where there was a great deal of room for improvement — as a kid, I’m not sure I grasped the importance of port de bras, or at least I didn’t grasp why it was important in and of itself.
Adagio, meanwhile, is simply something I didn’t really think about much in the past. I was the little kid that saw the Nutcracker’s Russian dance and went, “Where do I sign up?!” I was all about the fireworks.
My appreciation for adagio is, shall we say, more recently acquired.
I’ve come to look at it, in a way, as similar to dressage: just as dressage forms an ideal formation for any equestrian discipline, adagio is foundational in ballet.
The control, poise, balance, discipline, and lyricism necessary to good adagio are also essential for good allegro; moreover, you can fake your way through allegro if you’re physically strong, but it will never be graceful and balletic if you don’t have the foundation that adagio requires.
Imagine, if you will, the difference between grand battement with a solid core and grand battement with a jiggly core (must be jelly, ’cause…): grand battement initially really feels more akin to grand allegro, but it’s adagio that teaches you how to sustain core strength while executing controlled extensions. Likewise, grand battement done well is controlled on the way back down, and that control is strengthened by the sustained work one does in adagio.
That said, taking class with instructors who have really forced me to calm down, pay attention, and learn to do adagio well has in turn fostered a profound appreciation for it in and of itself. It’s like what I always say about promenades: you can pick out the dancers in an audience by listens to who applauds the promenades. Non-dancers have no earthly idea how freaking hard promenades can be, as often as not, they’re like, “Lolwut?” Meanwhile, every dancer in the audience is like, “OMG DID U SEE THAT PROMENADE EN DEHORS IN ÉCARTÉ ARRIERE?!”
Learning how difficult good adagio can be has really transformed my understanding. I certainly still enjoy the fireworks of grand allegro passages, but I have come to really appreciate adagio in its own right.
Besides, it feels good to have gained a great deal of ground in an area that, historically, hasn’t been the locus of my strength (in short, A.A. Milne never once wrote, “Adagio is what Tiggers do best!”).
As for turns … actually thinking about how to execute turns cleanly and elegantly has really helped. When I first started dancing again, I tended to forget to spot (which is weird, because as a kid spotting came to me very much by instinct). I also tended to lose my core, over-spring, and do all kinds of crazy things with my shoulders.
I’m not going to say all of those things are 100% fixed (because that would be a big honking lie).
They’re not — but I seem to have regained the “spotting instinct,” as evidenced by the chainés in last night’s class. Chainés have been the bane of my balletic existence in part because I have tended to forget to spot them; last night, my chaine&ecaute;s weren’t great (my legs were all WTF for some reason), but I spotted like a boss.
Meanwhile, I’ve really come a long way with those other details as well.
The areas where I’m weakest, relatively speaking, are quick petit allegro sequences and some of the leaps — particularly grand jeté and, to a lesser extent, saut de chat.
Quick petit allegro sequences, I suspect, will simply come with time and repetition. I can do the steps, and I can do them well (though I don’t always use my plié as I should); now I just have to do them a million times — and do them well — to reinforce the circuitry and muscles that power them. The challenge is to increase speed without sacrificing lightness and buoyancy.
Likewise, as Brienne pointed out, I need to adjust for my particular body: the bendy feet and hyperextended knees that make my legs look awesome when they’re working right also mean I need to be quicker in order to reach the end of each movement within a step. That means I need to practice, practice, practice (like, I should be doing the 8-8-4-4-2-2-1-1-1-1 exercise 17,000 times every day).
I tend always to focus on completing movements — using what in baseball would be termed “follow-through,” I guess. If you watch professional dancers, there’s always a sense of reaching beyond the terminus of any given movement, in a way — as in degagé, you’re always reaching, reaching, reaching through the leg and foot (while at the same time holding your core together, your hips in alignment, etc.: this is why ballet is not for the faint of heart, heh).
I realize that this is both a strength and a weakness of mine: I’m forever running into dancers who are much better at actually getting all the steps in (which is to say, quicker) than I am, but not as good at the follow-through part, if that makes sense — so while they get all the steps in without fail, I manage to look more “balletic” when I do get it all in*.
There’s a missing piece on each side of the equation; I just tend to notice the piece that I’m missing.
I haven’t encountered this problem in a Beginner class in ages, for what it’s worth, which suggests that it can be solved.
I suspect that, like the “drill it to you kill it” vs. “fake it ’til you make it” dilemma, this is a question of focusing on … er. I’m tempted to say “style versus substance,” but that might not quite be right? I feel that, in ballet, style and substance are mutually inclusive. Perhaps it’s “style versus speed,” or something like that.
As for leaps: I think I dissected that pretty well the other day. I’m not using my plié right; instead, I keep trying to launch from my upper body.
Some of this is a direct function of something that should be a strength: my feet. Cycling, gymnastics, and the way I climb stairs have left me with ridiculously strong feet and ankles (though there’s still always room for improvement).
You guys, just because your feet are strong enough to launch your whole body doesn’t mean that they should. Somewhere along the line, though, I developed a bad habit of launching from my feet, which is A) ridiculous and B) a bad idea.
I’ve now sorted this out in little jumps (my calf injury pretty much ensured that would get resolved), but it’s still the number one thing I get corrected on where big (and medium) jumps and leaps are concerned.
This is doubly frustrating, because I know I can do these things correctly;
it’s just that I’ve developed a bad habit that I now have to un-learn.
Fortunately, that’s what class is for. Now I just have to get my behind back into the studio on the regular, three days per week or better.
I’m planning on hitting Brienne’s class tomorrow and advanced class on Saturday morning. That will allow me a two-day break between, which I suspect I’ll need. Depending on how advanced class goes, I may just keep that one in the rotation and leave myself a two-day (Thursday – Friday) gap for the time being.