Category Archives: teaching

A Slow Accumulation of Competence

Today in modern class we did a neat little combination that involved a kind of hunchy, quasi-parallel barrel turn[1]. My first thought (after, “I probably really shouldn’t do that,” which I promptly ignored) was “I haven’t done a barrel turn in a while—I wonder if I still have it.”

  1. That is to say, one of the stylized Modern-flavored ones, launching and landing in parallel, but moving by necessity through turnout, since you sort of have to rotate your knees out to do a barrel turn in the first place.

So I tried and discovered that I did still have it, and that it was comparatively easy to do.

In fact, I managed to do it in such a way that landing in either direction it didn’t make my foot hurt: lightly, softly, with just a little loft.

It’s weird to think that the barrel turn was one of last year’s Ballet Goals, and that it probably seemed like something really quite difficult, because otherwise it wouldn’t have been one of last year’s explicit goals. In essence, there are always a million things to learn where ballet is concerned, and if you make all of them explicit goals, your head will explode, so you have to come up with some way to decide which goals will be explicit (and hope, of course, that the rest will just happen along the way, I guess). My lists of explicit goals are apparently driven by Persnickety Details and Grand Allegro Pyrotechnics, with a universal criterion of “oh, that sounds hard.”

So, anyway, the barrel turn is still there, in the same way that I discovered my tour jeté and assemblé battu and entrechat quatre still waiting in a dusty corner of my somatosensory memory like so many disused bicycles when I started dancing again.

I couldn’t begin to tell you in words how to execute the barrel turn, by the way. I have absolutely no conscious notion of how I do it. I know that there’s a plié at either end and in the middle both your knees are sailing through space, but if we’re honest that could be a description of almost any jump in which both legs are bent.

If I worked through it about seventeen times right now, capturing mental “video” of the things I do and see and feel in the midst of a barrel turn, I could learn to describe it … maybe. But right now I can’t (because my foot is still healing).

Anyway, I just know that the barrel turn is still there, because as long as I don’t try to think about how to do a barrel turn, I can do one. It’s a bit of a centipede’s dilemma.

I was going to put a picture of an innocuous-looking centipede here,
but then it occurred to me that no matter which one I chose,
it would probably creep someone out. So I didn’t.

You’re welcome.

Anyway, I think a lot of learning to dance—and, indeed, to do almost anything physical—is like that. You don’t have to accumulate the ability to explain how you do what you do any more than a toddler has to be able to explain how she runs in order to make off with your keys so she can drop them in the toilet. How do you use chopsticks? How about a fork? A zipper? Try describing how you skip.

It’s not impossible to describe any of these things, of course—if we think about them carefully, we can describe them, though any student in a Physiotherapy or Kineseology program will tell you that it’s a lot more complicated than it sounds.

It’s not impossible to describe them, it’s just hard—and it’s hard because, in general, we don’t learn these things by thinking about them verbally, but by mucking about in our bodies until we get them down.

The best exception I can think of to the rule that physical learning tends to be, you know, physical is horsemanship: but I think, really, that’s because as a riding student, you’re learning how to give instructions to the horse as to how he should use his body as an instrument as much as, if not more than, you’re learning to use your own body as an instrument.

As such, a riding instructor teaching a student (especially in dressage) will often offer a correction that might seem ludicrously specific to a non-rider: “…More weight in your left sitz bone, and apply your left ankle at the girth and the right one a little behind the girth,” or what have you[2].

  1. This isn’t, by the way, a complete set of instructions for any specific thing. It could mean a lot of things in a lot of contexts: maybe you’re asking for a lateral bend; maybe you’re light in the left sitz bone and it’s confusing your horse; maybe your riding instructor needs glasses or to lay off the sauce. The last horse I rode regularly would, if you did this basic set of things at the halt while collecting him between seat and hand, give you a nice turn on the forehand, which was really handy for opening and immediately closing gates. On the other hand, at the walk in the ring, he would toss his head like a teenage girl at a parent-teacher conference unless you collected the frack out of him all. the. time. Retired field hunters, amirite?

This isn’t to say that dance can’t be analyzed using the literate part of the mind. It can; the works of Vaganova and Tarasov demonstrate that it can (though trying to read a description of a step that’s well above your “pay grade” can be a real headache).

As a student, D really benefits from a very thorough verbal description of what he’s supposed to do with his body when it comes to dance or aerials. I find that difficult to grok. Then, he’s such a verbal thinker and I’m such a non-verbal thinker (with good translation software that sometimes crashes) that we actually find it really hard to imagine each-other’s modes of thought[3].

  1. This would be less difficult for me if it weren’t for the fact that D is pretty capable of mentally manipulating objects in space, even though he can’t picture them in his head. I’m great at that, too, but that’s because I can picture them, and rotate them, and toss them around, and shuffle them, and assign various qualities of mass and so forth by feel in my head. 3D sensurround is my native mode. He, meanwhile, apparently keeps some kind of giant spreadsheet of more-or-less verbal data in his head—a kind of tabular reference, if you will. Basically, in short: the human brain, WTF.

Anyway, I can’t help but think that this is part of the difficulty of teaching dance—especially to beginners, and perhaps especially ballet.

Beyond a certain level, as a teacher, you’re probably mostly dealing either with students who are strongly kinetic-spatial-visual thinkers and/or students who have developed really good compensatory mechanisms for not having strong mental visuo-spatialization ability. Beginners, on the other hand, are likely to be a mixed bag of all kinds of thinkers, and so you have to figure out how things are done and, even more dauntingly, how to convey that information to your students.

Later, as your students accumulate their own competencies, you’ll be able to say things like, “Then you just do this [insert visual demonstration]” or “Yes, but don’t rond the leg” and they’ll get it.

In the beginning, though, it seems like there’s a lot more explaining, and that it has to be done incrementally.

This Sunday, M, one of my friends from Trapeze, finally found her way into our dance class. AM very soundly and rightly gave her only one or two corrections to work on, and later checked me when I wanted to funnel too much information her way. I constrained myself and ultimately only asked her to reduce the rotation of her ankles a little bit in turnout so her knees would track over her toes.

Anyway, being prevented from drowning a new student in information was a good thing: I’m still very much learning how to teach.

I suspect that, for me, learning to teach will be harder than just plain learning. One involves the simple accumulation of competence; the other involves the intelligible description of the elements of competence.

One last anecdote from Sunday’s class: AM give the class an exercise with a sauté fouetté in the mix. Interestingly, only M did it right the first time.

The other two did something else entirely. I was sitting on the sidelines, watching and offering what guidance I could, and noticed that our other two students were doing something that wasn’t sauté fouetté, but was somehow familiar.

The third time I saw it, I realized what it was: they were executing rather nice révoltades, presumably because nobody had bothered to tell them that they—as dancers with very little ballet background, and definitely no men’s technique—couldn’t possibly know how to do nice révoltades.

So, there you have it. The human body is a mysterious thing, and apparently a révoltade is just a sauté fouetté executed, um, more or less inside-out.

Not that I could possibly begin to explain what I mean by that.

A Quick Break So My Head Doesn’t Asplode

Still working on the Great Data Restoration of 2017.

I wish I knew what our desktop PC had done with its backup files, because Jiminy Cricket, this is ridonculous.

From now on, I’m going to upload backups of our backups to The Great Cloud In The Æthers so this will NEVER HAPPEN EVER AGAIN.

Anyway, I’m still working on this. I expect to finish it by … I’m not sure. Tomorrow morning at the latest. It would be tonight, but rehearsal. THE SHOW MUST GO ON, amiright?

In the process of doing this relentless desk-bound and detail-oriented job, I have discovered that I will do almost anything to avoid sitting at a desk and futzing about with financial datas, including cleaning the house. “Oop, can’t enter the datas right now, our friend who’s in massage therapy school is coming over to work on us!” (Speaking of which: OMG. You guys. Evidently I have needed a legit massage for like 17 years or something.)

Anyway, one of my Avoidance Strategies this morning was to come up with a set of cards for an improv game that I’m going to try with our Dance Team, which is divided into Kids Who Grok Improve and Kids Who Are Like, “Wait, What Steps Am I Supposed To Improv?”

There are three sets of cards, as such:

Animal

  • cheetah
  • elephant
  • falcon
  • lion
  • snail
  • trout

Movement

  • crawl
  • glide
  • run
  • skip
  • stand (yes: in dance, standing is a movement)
  • walk

Feeling

  • angry
  • bored
  • confused
  • joyful
  • sad
  • thoughtful

The idea is to give the kids something a little more concrete around which to improvise movements.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Choose an Animal card (these are orange in my set). Think about how that animal is shaped and how it moves. Think about how it might feel to be that animal. Are you heavy or light? Are you relaxed or focused? Do you live on the land or in the water, and can you fly? If you live in the water, do you live in lakes, rivers, or oceans? If you live on land, do you live on the plains, the mountains, or the forest? Is it hot there? Cold? It’s okay to start out moving in ways that look like the animal in question, but ultimately you should try to move your body in ways that feel like the animal in question. Explore this for at least one minute; at most, five minutes.
  2. Choose a Movement card (these are green in my set). If you draw “Elephant” and “Glide,” think about how a glide would look and feel if an elephant were doing it. Try to capture that movement with your body. Is there more than one way an Elephant can Glide? How would a Falcon Skip if it were by itself? What about five Falcons together? Explore this for at least one minute; at most, five minutes.
  3. Choose a Feeling card (these are blue in my set). We tend to associate certain movements with certain feelings, but we can mix them up. What would an Elephant Angrily Gliding look and feel like? What would a Snail Joyfully Standing look and feel like? Is there a difference between one Cheetah Thoughtfully Walking and three Cheetahs Thoughtfully Walking? Explore this for five minutes, to give yourself time to connect all the parts.

I plan to couple this with the classic North, South, East, West flocking exercise. I’ll run them through the flocking exercise first, though, so they get a sense of how flocking works before adding weird stuff.

Next time, I might add in “vegetable” and “mineral” categories. How might sad seaweed skip? How might a confused granite cliff-face crawl?

And now, back to our regularly scheduled strugglecast day.

Callbacks ‘n’ Sech

Today was a long day: class at 10:30 (with a smidgen of rehearsal afterwards); teaching at 1 PM; suspended meditation at 2; callback at 3:30 (ended a little past 6:30).

Class was … erm. Like, barre was great? And the rest of it was … yeaaah. Erm. I had issues. On the other hand, I did manage one not-very-good triple, and except for the points at which I actually screwed up, things looked okay.

All three members of my Ballet Girl Posse were in class, and two of them stayed after, so we ran through our choreography … and I actually learned all their names. YAY! So at least I’ve accomplished something today. BG was still around, so he ran us through our bit a couple of times, and we decided that we like fourth arabesque better for my bit of the first partnering piece (a series of supported fouettés).

I begged off the last ten minutes of the modern dance portion of the apprentice-teaching class because my legs were a bit angry at me and I was going to need them for the audition. I used the time to foam-roll the crap out of them.

During meditation, I fell asleep. Given that I am the world’s worst napper (seriously, I can normally only nap when I’ve been awake for at least 48 hours straight), that’s saying something. Evidently, I was pretty tired.

The callback turned out to be the highlight of the day. It was more like a dance-and-theater workshop than an audition—we did some partnering stuff, then learned a dance and performed it in groups, then played theater games and ran some sides. Honestly, it was a hell of a lot of fun with a great group of people (both judges and fellow auditionees), and if every audition was that much fun, I’d audition for everything.

It turns out that I know the guy who’s directing the production. I met him at a party (which happened to be at his house) and felt instantly very, very comfortable with him, which speaks very highly of him. Also: proof that my world is incredibly tiny, heh.

We’ll hear back in a week or so about roles and such. Fortunately, I have too much going on to have much time to chew my nails about it, though I don’t have class with BW on Thursday this week.

Regardless, BW gave me homework—jumping rope to improve my cardio as well as the usual Turns Homework and … erm. I’m supposed to be doing something else, too, I think? Fehhhhcccckkkk. I can’t remember. It’s in my notes somewhere.

Anyway. I will miss BW’s class this week, but I suspect my body will welcome the extra rest. The fitness is returning, but my body hates me so much right now.

Ballet All The Things 

Yesterday, we worked on piqué turns with our Sunday class. 

Teaching piqué turns, it turns out (sorry again), is a finicky business. 

There are a lot of little details that are actually fairly important—open the whole body, and not just the supporting leg, from éffacé to croisée; don’t fling the baby; bring the hips along with the shoulders; keep the hips level; find the right amount of attack (with adult beginners, I’ve noticed that too little attack is more common than too much); keep the turnouts engaged; etc. 

I found myself wondering whether we were overwhelming our students with information, and whether my input wasn’t just sort of making things harder. I sometimes forget, in the moment, that human beings learn ballet in tiny increments that build up over the course of many years. 

As we progress as dancers, we get used to absorbing corrections on the fly. We add their content to—or subtract it from—layers of existing information. We build and modify habits over years and years. Now and then, a “eureka!” moment leads to a swift and significant change, but mostly we learn by a thousand cuts; a million steps compounded one atop the other. 

We forget what it’s like to be completely new; to be learning not only an entirely new movement vocabulary, but an entirely new language vocabulary.

This is part of what makes teaching ballet hard.

After a while, it all begins to make sense—sure, turnout (for  example) began as pure artifice, but ballet technique evolved around it and depends upon it. A good tour lent/promenade depends on the turnouts remaining engaged—as do piqués and chaînes and all those other turns. 

You can do turns in parallel, but they’re different. They look different and rely on different body mechanics. They can be nice, but they’re not ballet. 

Ballet begins with engaging the turnout—so we harp on about it endlessly.

In the beginning, though, it probably feels arbitrary and baffling (not to mention a bit unnatural). 

You don’t really “get” it until you learn to feel your deep rotators well enough to understand, for example, that you fell out of that otherwise-nice tour lent because your turnouts unspooled themselves and destabilized the hip of your supporting leg and everything attached to it.

That can take years. 

Our AD Emeritus once called me out on failing to really engage my supporting leg before driving on through Adagio or turns. That moment is a bit of a watershed for me, because it made me really think about how I was using my deep rotators. Prior to that, I accepted turnout as a part of ballet without really thinking about it—which meant that I also wasn’t feeling about it.

I’ve noticed that understanding why helps people remember things. The challenge is to impart the reasoning without drowning students in a frothing sea of information.

It occurs to me that perhaps figuring out how to impart that sense of feeling might help—to set some time aside during each class to consciously work on getting to know the body mechanics of ballet by feel. 

Of course, this is ruddy hard to measure: asking students to report back on sensations deep within their hip sockets is inherently subjective and prone to the same kinds of reporting errors that researchers encounter. Perhaps it would be best to ask them to explore their turnout, then describe how it feels at the point at which it’s most correct and solid? 

I’m going to have to remember to talk this over with ABM. She’s a gifted teacher, and I think her insights could be helpful. 

A Break, Maybe?  

I’ve started and scuttled four or five posts this week, and just now figured out that maybe (GASP!) I should take a brief break from the ol’ blorg. I’m not really doing social media right now, either. 

Now is a good time—this week has been jammed with rehearsals and, for me, last-minute learning of choreography for a piece that lost a dancer to illness (I mean, she didn’t die, she’s just out sick; fortunately, this dance is neither long nor difficult, so picking it up in two days has been okay). Next week is the last week of Dance Team for the semester, so we’re doing an improv workshop and team banquet on Friday. I also need to check in with my own wee group of dancers and schedule rehearsals for “Work Song.”

Class updates: Thursday class is on hiatus until after Nutcracker (because BW is Dancing All The Things), Wednesday Class has a sub (who I like very much) until the end of the month because Killer B is also Nutcrackering (IIRC, on Key West!). Saturday class continues with excellent substitutes. I’m going back (finally) tomorrow, though I may just do barre. I chose to call it a day after barre on Wednesday this week, and I think that was the right decision, and while I’m feeling more like normal now, JP’s teaching, and I may or may not have it in me to do his full class. Sunday, I’m back to teaching.

I’ve put Monday class and all Tuesday classes on hold until I get my waterfowls in a linear array, because it’s the only one I feel the least bit flexible about. I’ve been having a rough time getting caught up on stuff that got behind behind at home  while I was sick (in other words, literally everything). That needs to get sorted quickly, and now (before we jump into the fray of “Work Song” rehearsals, Spring Dance Team, and Even Moar ballet) seems like a good time. 

So I am pretty sure I’ll be taking a one-week break, and I might make it two.

But I am, as always,  Not Dead Yet. 

And for all all those celebrating all the various holidays:

So paper. Many joy. Wow

Wild Wednesday: Missing the Moment

But first, Killer Class.

This morning, I took a shower for once (to clarify: it’s not that I don’t wash myself; I just don’t usually shower in the morning). While showering, I found myself thinking, “Gee, we haven’t done saut de basque in a while. It would be really cool to do saut de basque.”

Apparently, the Divine Killer B read my mind, because we not only did SO MUCH PETIT ALLEGRO (which I managed mostly to do right), but we did an awesome grand allegro combination with sauts de basque and cabrioles.

So, basically, it was an awesome day. I also learned, by the by, that I’ve been over-crossing my arabesques, which makes my penché glitchy. Killer B came over at one point and was like, “Try not to overcross,” and moved my foot over, and then it was like, “OHAI, FLOOR!” So that was awesome, too.

On the other hand, I really missed the bus on what could’ve been a meaningful thing at DanceTeam practice.

One of the girls, who is actually a really awesome dancer when she gets out of her own way (with which, being middle-schoolers, they all struggle), randomly said while I was drilling some choreography with her and her friend in a breakout group, “I feel so fat.”

Aaaaaaand, I totally dropped the ball.

There are so, so many meaningful things I could’ve said — and while it’s true that probably none of them would’ve taken hold immediately, it’s important to hear those messages.

I could’ve said, “Don’t worry, there’s no one right body for dance,” or “The right body for dance is whatever body you’ve got” (though that one can sound a touch judgmental) or “All kinds of bodies are beautiful” (though, honestly, that might be a bridge too far for someone who’s in seventh grade and wrestle with all the stuff that people wrestle at that age). I could’ve pointed her to some amazing dancers that are shaped like she is, if I wasn’t so terrible at remembering names :/ (1)

  1. Honestly, I am stunnnnnned that I’m actually remembering the names of ALL my DanceTeam girls; it’s a bleeding miracle.

Instead, I sort of choked and said, “You look fine!” and then, over the course of the conversation, reiterated the things that I think are great about her dancing — she has attitude for days and she’s really expressive, which means she has awesome stage presence; that she’s naturally a great mover for the kind of dance we’re working on.

Maybe I should’ve just asked, “What makes you say that?” and tried to listen, but on the other hand, we were trying to get a lot of choreography tightened up in not very much time.

On the other hand, it’s cool that some of the kids feel like they can say stuff like that around me, given that they really haven’t known me very long. It makes me feel like, against all odds, I’m doing okay making connections and putting them at ease (2).

  1. Probably the smartest thing I’ve done so far was to admit that I don’t know from Hip-Hop; that they get to teach me there.

Anyway, I’m going to have to think about this: how not to be caught off my guard the next time something like that comes up, and what to say that will be both concise and, in the long run, helpful. I’ll also check in with AS about that, since she (as an actual middle-school teacher) might have some insight.

So that’s it for now. I have to run off and suffer … erm, I mean, go back to Trapeze 3 after a not-really-intentional two-week break. Eeeeeeeek.

Finally, A Thing 

So DanceTeam is going well (though I am still convinced that at any moment our dancers are going to realize that I have no idea what I’m doing and revolt/go rogue/possibly eat me). 

Ballet and modern were less than awesome last week, but the Pilobolus workshop made up for a lot of that, especially the part when one of the instructors tracked me down afterwards and told me I was a beautiful mover with a lot of presence. Definitely one of those “I can die happy now”  moments.

Likewise, today’s Open Fly, during which I started formally building a dance to Hozier’s “Work Song” that’s actually going to happen (Finally!), felt like a leap forward.
Including myself, I have four dancers lined up. Aerial A, who went to the Pilobolus workshop with me, is also in, as are my DanceTeam partner-in-crime and a fellow I know from acro (upon whose very high shoulders I have literally stood). We’ve got a tentative performance date early next year (the performance is a definite; it’s just the date that’s undecided). Aerial A happened along while I was working on choreography this afternoon and we stepped through the first 41 seconds of the dance — at least, as much as we could, since there’s some partnering stuff that requires our compatriots.

Aerial A likes what I’ve got, and I think it’s going to really work.

Needless to say, the explosion of dance stuff in my life is both exciting and a bit overwhelming. I’m still in that phase during which you just kind of white-knuckle it whilst you adjust to your new schedule. Hence less posting. I’m somehow managing to scrape paint off the trim in the midst of all this, also, because miracles evidently do occur. 

This week, we’ve got a dance event on Monday evening (a sort of “live interview” with Wendy Whelan), then I think a “normal” schedule again — wait, no, DanceTeam performs on Friday! 

Anyway, here’s hoping that in class this week I won’t do dumb things like choosing too shallow a line in a bidirectional combination and almost colliding with someone in the next group.

Intensive plans for next summer are also in the works. Aerial A and I are hoping to hit at least one of Pilobolus’ week-long workshops. In addition, I’ll probably go to Cinci and Lexington again. There’s a remote chance of doing Sun King if our finances are okay, but in the current economic climate it’s really hard to predict.

No worries there, though. If I don’t get to go til 2018, I’ll be even better prepared than I will next year.

There are also a few audition-y things on the radar, but let’s file those under, “To Know, To Will, To Dare, To Keep Silent.” At least for now.

So that’s where I am at the moment. Still percolating other choreo projects, especially Simon Crane — but one of them is finally taking off. 

Modern Monday: Amazingly, Modern Is Not Ballet (Go Figure, Eh?)

So I’ve decided to stick with modern for the time being. I’ll try to add a second class in somewhere, though it may mean taking class somewhere else, with someone else, maybe, if Friday mornings just prove to be impossible.

I’m still flailing my way back into it. I felt a little better today (even though I started out with a knee I somehow tweaked whilst watching ballet, rather than whilst doing ballet) — a bit less like a cartoon character broadly approximating modern dance; a bit more like, you know, a dancer who’s adapting from one discipline to another.

There were only two of us today, so Modern T gave us both some really, really specific guidance. For me, a big part of it was a question of how I’ve been using my back, shoulders, and head. This was, in every sense, a MOAR MODERN, LESS BALLET kind of day.

I think this is particularly hard for me at this particular moment in time because, right now, I’m all about the back, shoulders, and head in ballet as well. My legs more or less know what to do with themselves most of the time, so now I’m really working on bringing the rest of like, basically everything up to speed.

As such, I spend a lot of time thinking about port de bras, epaulement, placing my back and pelvis, and all that jazz (or, well, all that ballet, since I don’t actually do jazz).

This morning I had to basically force myself to shove all of that onto the back burner and do something else entirely — or, well, all the same things, but in a completely different way. Grounding the spine, in particular, does not come easily to me (because hypermobility).

On the other hand, all of this made several of the things we did in our floorwork make a lot more physical sense, so there’s that.

This was definitely a “struggling to remember the combination” kind of day. I feel less frustrated about it than I used to, though. My experiences in ballet — in which I’ve now developed a pretty strong ability to pick up choreography on the fly — have taught me that it’ll come. I just need to get the vocabulary into my body so I can start thinking about phrases instead of just individual “words.” I was starting to get there at the end of last semester and during the Mam-Luft intensive, so I know I’ll get there again.

All in good time.

Anyway, today I’m going to go help my friend AM (whose modern:ballet ratio is the opposite of mine) with dance team auditions. She teaches and coaches at a middle school. 

Should be interesting — I haven’t been inside a middle school … well, more or less since I graduated from middle school. It’s a tough age for kids, and I think dancing is a good way to get through it.

Depending on how things shake out, I may be jumping in as assistant coach for the rest of the year. I told AM I have no idea what I’m doing, and she said, “That’s okay; even though I was on a dance team and earned 6 national titles, I don’t have any idea what I’m doing either!”

So, basically, we can be clueless idiots together, the blind leading the blind leading the … well, hormonally-challenged, socially strained, and probably also blind. Fortunately, AM is a qualified English teacher, so she at least has prior experience working with kids in this age bracket.

As for me, I have discovered that kids often like me reasonably well because I take them seriously and don’t talk down to them (in part, I suspect, because I was raised by adults who didn’t believe in treating kids as if our thoughts and dreams and so forth were less important than those of adults). I hope that’s still the case, and that I haven’t become the annoying kind of adult in the interim between the last time I interacted with kids on a regular basis and now.

Anyway, this could be interesting.

After Dance Team it’s dinner, scrape the trim on the house, and then … honestly, I can’t even remember. I should probably check the online calendar and see if I’m supposed to be dangling from the ceiling in one way or another tonight.

Tomorrow, my goal is to finish scraping and get painting, and then I’ll be going to a Flexibility & Mobility class and to Acro 2.

In other news, I’ve invented a new word (if only in my head). Linguistically, it’s a terrible one — but it’s a useful one.

The word is eyerollment. Think of epaulement, and just replace epaule- with eyeroll.

Eyerollment is, for the most part, the wrong way to use your head in ballet.

Perhaps because we’re frequently reminded that the eyes follow the hands, when we’re learning to use epaulement, often we lead the movement with our eyes — literally rolling the eyes first, and then turning the head only when the eyes can go no further.

That, my friends, is eyerollment at its worst(1).

  1. At its best, it’s something that can add a touch of character — this weekend’s Swan Lake included at least one imperious “Guardian Swan” who somehow managed to use a small degree of eyerollment to convey grace, gravity, and superiority).

The best fix I’ve found for eyerollment is to think of the eyes pushing the hand instead of the hand pulling the eyes. 

If the eyes roll  around in their sockets, they’ll lose contact with the hand and won’t be able to push it. So you keep the eyes mostly fixed and turn the head to use them to push the hand.

I wish I could remember who suggested the idea of pushing the hand instead of pulling the eyes. It works really well for me and largely prevents the host of stupid things I routinely do with my head when I forget to think about it that way.

Coincidentally, nixing the eyerollment also prevents that ridiculous thing where you go into, say, first arabesque and then just roll your eyes to look out over the extended hand. If your eyes are more or less fixed, you are forced to use your head — and, in my experience, you’re less likely to do something crazy with your head, since your eyes aren’t all over the place.

So, basically, in short, ballet is a good reason to be glad we don’t actually have eyestalks, no matter how useful they might seem.

I’m off to middle school in a few. Wish me luck!

Teachable 

Another moment from yesterday’s class with JP:

“In sus-sous … You know what a mullet is? The hairstyle — short in the front and long in the back. That’s how you want your body to be; it helps you balance.”

I borrowed this and used it with my class today (properly credited, of course). They’re just starting to learn sus-sous.

It works — they did a great job even though sus-sous felt weird and new.

After class, Aerial A said I’ve come a long way as a teacher, and that my explanations work now.

That means the world to me.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It certainly is in this case. I crib constantly from the lessons my teachers give us, and i do that because their teaching works.

Anyway, it turns out that I can be taught — and not just taught to dance, but taught how to teach effectively.

Teaching Adult Beginners: They Grow Up So Fast!

My Sunday class is making amazing strides — their tendus, dégages, and even ronds de jambe looked so great this week.

I also experienced one of those great moments in which I grabbed a student’s leg and demonstrated how rotation and placement could help her A) keep her RdJs smooth and B) balance her arabesque, and then got to see that amazing thing where the light-bulb inside just clicks on.

And then she did it again, completely on her own, without my meddlesome, grabby hands 😀

That was the best part, and really the highlight of the day. Such a cool moment!

I also guided her into a first arabesque (really, I just offered her my hand so she’d extend her arm to the right spot) so she could feel how the working leg and opposite arm connect through the back and counter-balance each-other, and she totally got it.

(Also, her arabesque looked awesome! Her back is really strong and flexible, which really helps — thanks, aerials! Likewise, because she wasn’t fighting to try to get a super-high extension, she was rock-solid.)

Something I’ve learned through my own experiences returning to ballet and teaching:

New dancers don’t just find it hard to locate the center-line of their bodies when the working leg is to the rear.

They also (and perhaps more importantly) often find that working to the center-line seems a little weird, unnatural, and sometimes even scary … until they try it and it clicks!

For me, that light-bulb moment came when I realized that I could keep my turnout more easily and effectively in RdJs if I really got the working leg all the way back to the center-line, and then that the same applied to tendus. This happened more recently than it should have, if I were better at A) listening and B) applying corrections :/

Prior to that moment, I guess I kind of felt like I’d lose my turnout that way. Sometimes, ballet can be pretty counter-intuitive.

If you’re engaging all the (right) things, though, drawing the arc of the RdJ or the line of the tendu right freaking back from the tailbone lets you stay turned-out without lifting (or dropping) a hip.

(That, by the way, is the other part that’s hard for people: they feel like they need to lift that hip even when they don’t. Which, if they’re using correct technique and working within the ever-evolving limits of their own bodies, they shouldn’t at this level, or almost ever.)

This is still one of the best ways I know to gauge my own placement: if my working leg is taking too much weight in a tendu to the rear, or I’m hiking a hip in a RdJ en dedans, usually the problem is that I’m not getting my working leg behind myself.

Exception: if my pelvis is jammed — which happens with ridiculous frequency at the moment because Bodies Are Weird™ — I can’t RdJ without lifting the hip on the jammed side (very nearly always the right).

Instead, my working leg is usually kind of camping out in … I don’t know, 2.5-ième position? Working back to the center line by rotating and reaching generally resolves the related problems.

In some ways, and as much as part of me really hates to admit it (in part because I feel weird in third because I use it so rarely), I feel like this is a really good reason to teach adult beginners to work in third position before introducing fifth.

Then, when they come to tendu derrière  or RdJ derrière, they have to think about moving the working leg in towards the center line (by rotating the heel forward and adducting, of course, rather than just by unraveling the working hip, letting the knee point to the floor, and shoving the toes over), which creates the opportunity to feel the difference that it makes when that happens.

Working from fifth, new dancers often tend to let their legs turn in when they extend back (see above re: unraveling, etc.).

Likewise, they often finish an RdJ or point a tendu a little to the side when working from fifth with the working foot closed in back — possibly because early on that seems like the only logical way to get your foot out there.

Later, of course, we get better at pulling up through the pelvic floor and lower core (also known as “pulling up through the hips” :D) and placing our weight to keep the working foot free when it’s in back — but early on, really subtle core cues and weight shifts are anything but intuitive.

With a little hands-on guidance, the sensation of bringing the leg back to the center line through (for example) a rond, on the other hand, can become a powerful physical illustration.

I doubt my student, C, will soon forget what it felt like to “get it” any more than I’ve forgotten.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that she’ll be perfect all the time — but it does mean she’ll be more perfect a lot more of the time, because now she has a memory that connects body and brain through the awesome feeling of an “Ah-hah!” moment.

In other news, the class as a whole is coming on like a house on fire.

Today we worked piqué balances at retiré going across the floor, and so many of them were bang on. It’s really cool to see a group of new dancers experience the thrill of springing on to the supporting leg and being able to just hover there, perfectly balanced, then come down.

We gave them a simple combination: piqué balances at retiré along the diagonal, to the count of:

Brush up – stay – stay – stay – down up – stay – stay – stay – down up – stay – stay – stay 

(..etc. The number of piqué balances varied based both on the length of any individual dancer’s legs and how willing she was to really step out beyond herself.)

On the first run, we let them try it on their own. A few really nailed it, but several were shaky because, as is often the case, they felt unsure and tried to bring the supporting leg under themselves instead of launching themselves onto the supporting leg.

(Really, it’s kind of like throwing a BBQ skewer into the lawn — I’m not old enough to have experienced proper lawn darts, so I can’t say that’s exactly spot-on. Either way, that’s the image I should give them: your leg is a lance, and you’re spearing a reclining mammoth … or maybe something flatter, like a giant crocodile.)

1024px-Lawndarts

What could possibly go wrong? (1)

On the second run, we simply rolled out the very-most-basic partnering, offering them a hand on which to steady themselves. Most of them literally put no weight on the hand in question, but knowing it was there made them feel safe, and the piqued more boldly.

So, lesson of the day for me: hesitant piqué balances might be the result of a little bit of fear. With new dancers, a little hand-holding (or, well, hand-offering) can really help.

(With more experienced dancers, though, yelling works just fine :D)

Anyway, that’s it for now. Sadly, I won’t be checking in with my students next week, as I’ll be off in the desert, doing tendus in the pool (and then building a freaking enormous theme camp at Burning Man).

~

Edit: fixed a thing. I don’t know why I was thinking these piqué balances were at coupé. They were at retiré. We’re planning on teaching these guys piqué turns sometime soon.

Further edit: just so you don’t think my Sunday class is really, really perfect, we still have to remind them about thinking of plié as a continuous movement. Today I explained this as:

Don’t drop and pop — melt and … um … smelt. Yeah, we’ll go with “smelt.”

Thank dog that Aerial A backed me up on that mnemonic 😀

Further, further edit: They have definitely turned into a dance class. Before class today, several them were attempting to figure out pirouettes (and kinda-sorta succeeding: they were upright, weren’t falling over, and were getting around, but they weren’t turned out or spotting).

Kinda warms my heart a little 😀

~


  1. By Mushy [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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