Category Archives: uggghhh…technique
Last week, or maybe the week before, I was watching Killer B do turns in class and had this revelation about her back.
I don’t quite know how to explain it: her back, like, goes straight up and down, like the proverbial elevator car that probably everyone’s ballet teacher has harped on about at some point when teaching relevés. Nothing changes. Everything just spins together, lovely and open, on an invisible axis (seriously, she spins like Baryshnikov).
I thought about how that would feel, physically—the back open and traveling straight up and down—and decided to try to work on achieving that feeling.
But what really made me get it, to be honest, was last night’s modern class.
We did and improv at the beginning that was all about different qualities of movement. We began frozen in concrete, wiggled first one part, then another free, then the concrete slowly transformed into thick, heavy, sucking mud. Eventually the mud gave way to buoyant ocean water, where we could swim and float. Then, slowly, we reversed the process.
Later, LWF gave us a visual that related (in a way) back to that: she asked us to imagine holding two heavy buckets of wet sand, and to feel them pulling our arms and shoulders down and open even as we allowed the back-tops of our heads to grow taller.
This made perfect sense to me, because it’s exactly the way I accomplish that kind of thing in real life. There’s something in my nature that refuses to look downtrodden—so when I’m asked to carry heavy buckets (or suitcases, or what have you), I engage through the lats and traps and so forth but let my chest and shoulders stay open, and I reach for the sky with the place where my occipital and parietal bones come together while keeping my head level.
Anyway, I did that last night (though for some reason, in my mind’s eye, the buckets morphed into suitcases?), and suddenly everything started to make sense.
This morning, Killer B said halfway through our Fondagio®, “Wow, your back is completely different today! What are you thinking about there? Keep doing it!”
I was able to tell her that it was, in fact, her back I was thinking about (and managed to do so without losing track of the combination too badly).
She then said, “You have so much more freedom in your eyes, too!”
And I said, “Oh, that’s Bruce!”
…Which got a chuckle from everyone who’s ever taken class from L’Ancien.
So, anyway: for me, the best answer for my back has been a combination of Killer B’s amazingly beautiful turns, the suitcases-full-of-sand image, and also Señor BeastMode’s instructions to pull up my suspenders (which counters my tendency to stick mah booty out) and to be strong.
I think the suitcases-full-of-sand thing might have a pretty universal utility. We’ve all carried heavy stuff at one point or another.
The weird part was how strangely observable the difference was.
Usually, you change something critical to your technique, and it’s so infinitesimal that your teacher will only catch if it she’s using that special eye on the back of her head* under the light of a super blue blood moon and walking widdershins around the Grave of Giselle or something. Usually, it’s clear that you’re dancing better, but not quite as clear exactly a how.
So, anyway, there you go. If, like me, you’re a Leaner, a kind of Overaged Teenage Sloper, you might give the suitcases-full-of-sand image a try.
In other news, K and I worked through a partnering thing after class, and since BG was there he gave us some pointers. By the time we got done, it was looking really great.
I also pulled off this beautiful, controlled, super-high developpé à la seconde en relevé completely at random while thinking out loud with my body about a note that BG gave. He looked at me and said, “Just like that!”
I don’t actually do that developpé there, but I think I use it later in the piece, so I’ll have to keep it in my back pocket … Or stuffed into the waistband of my dance belt (wouldn’t be the first thing I’ve kept there :P).
For whatever reason, I feel like I’m growing by leaps and bounds (gahhhhhh, sorry) as a dancer right now. It’s a good feeling, after working so long just to come back from the surgery and regain what I lost while I was on the bench.
*Speaking of this … I’m teaching a workshop at PlayThink this year. Do you just wake up one day with that extra eyeball? Because I might need it.
“The dance is in the stillness between the steps.”
I’ve been trying to think of a way to think about this ever since I returned to dance.
That’s it, guys. Right there ^^
Without the stillness, dance is just chaos. In modern, sometimes chaos is the goal—but even in the most chaotic moment in the most chaotic ballet, you’re always showing the audience a series of living stillnesses.
This is why, even at the barre, the moment of full extension in tendu is important, but so is the moment when you stand in fifth.
The stillness between the steps is where ballet lives and breathes.
Incidentally, this is why my group had to do the first grand allegro twice: we didn’t really show the arabesque in the air in our temps-levée arabesque.
We thought we were getting there, but we weren’t. We were still moving through from point A to point B instead of reaching through the stillness of the arabesque as we soared
We also got called out for not really jumping: I have begun to suspect that L’Ancien would rather see me really jump and be a little late than not really jump and be exactly on time. I’m built for big jumps. I should really use them.
Anyway, we fixed ourselves on the repeat. I have no idea what my TLA looked like because, for once, I was using my eyes correctly.
After class, L’Ancien said to us, “You’re completely different dancers than you were even two weeks ago.”
And then he said these three beautiful words:
“Very, very good.”
That is the best possible way to close out a ballet class on your birthday.
This afternoon and evening: trapeze class, audition, dinner, party.
I tried to write a post this morning.
In fact, I wrote a post this morning. Like, 1,500 words’ worth of post.
And it was, honestly, probably a little boring.
I mean, it was exciting to me. I wrote about the fact that I seem to be getting over this sinus thing now (huzzah!). I wrote about last night’s class (great correction for my arms: elbows in front of shoulders; fixes things a lot, w00t!). I wrote about last night’s rehearsal (BG set more of our dance! I get a cool solo bit!).
I wrote about this weird ballet dream I … actually, there’s no way I’m going to compress Post-Apocolyptic Warehouse Summer Intensive and the ensuing Dance Belt Crisis into a parenthetical phrase. I think that’s probably an entire post in and of itself, but I’m not writing that one right now.
See, I realized that I really wanted to get around to writing about some BOSU videos, and my earlier draft was just WAY TOO LONG, even for me. So it will very possibly languish in my Drafts box forever, and in its stead, here’s the post I promised you with some BOSU arabesques.
This video begins with a very slow rise at coupé.
It’s not terrible: my elbows could stand to be a little more lifted, and my chin is drawn back a little—in short, I’m drawing back into myself as I fight for my balance instead of drawing up and forward.
If you give it a pause at 0:16, you can see this. I’ve just started to sort of get with the program, press forward, and lift the back of my neck a little bit, but my my jaw is still drawn back.
I’m lifting my arms, here, in a way that draws my shoulders forward, which pushes my sternum back. There’s definitely room for this particular movement pathway—but it’s in modern dance, rather than in ballet, and you use it when you want to contract rather than lifting.
Because my weight is distributed in a kind of weird, snaky pattern, I can’t bring my free leg up slowly and with control.
This costs me when I begin to unfold around 0:22. Between 0:22 and 0:24 I’m forced to redistribute my weight rather abruptly. As such, this phase takes about half as long as it should: I kind of throw my leg and catch it, instead of carrying it smoothly. My arms can’t keep up without unbalancing me, so they’re late to the party, sweeping through to first arabesque when the free leg has, in effect, already arrived.
At 0:26 – 0:28, however, I sort myself out fairly substantially. My right arm is a bit far back and a bit high, but I manage to carry my sternum forward, untuck my chin, lift the crown of my head, and the free leg floats up just above 90 degrees.
The interesting thing about this recovery is how effectively it restores control. I’m able to recover my weight evenly and return to and hold a the first arabesque at 45 degrees on relevé. As I reach to allongé, though, I lift my gaze by lifting my head back, which unbalances me. It doesn’t exactly knock me off my leg, but I do think the close and dismount could have been better-controlled had I lifted my gaze up and forward instead.
This all illustrates one of the really important points L’Ancien frequently mentions: your head is one of the heaviest parts of your body. Its placement matters immensely to the success of your balances.
There’s more wiggle room, so to speak, in first arabesque at 90 degrees because of the way your weight is distributed. In fact, it can be helpful to pull the upper body back a bit when you’re working at 90 degrees en relevé. This particular arabesque is successful because I’m drawing my back and my leg towards one another, allowing the leg and body to pivot freely around the hip of the supporting leg.
This is the result:
Progress from here on arabesques will depend, for me, largely on figuring out how to engage my core and back in such a way as to allow more freedom to lift my sternum.
Progress on balances in general—especially those that aren’t counter-balanced—will require me to keep working on carriage of my head, arms, and chest.
This second video is shot from a slightly different angle and involves a different approach: I step into coupé derièrre, then immediately begin to rise to retiré.
My placement looks a little better here: if you watch my arms, you can see that I begin by rotating the humerus—in other words, lifting the elbow—without disengaging my lats. My neck, sternum, and back remain lifted and open. After 6 seconds floating in retiré, I begin to extend.
This is where things fall apart a bit. I start to carry my knee back, but then I lose control of my turnout and the knee briefly dips.
If you pause the video at 0:20, you can see part of the cause of the problem: my right shoulder is no longer connected to my left hip, so to speak. Instead, I’m extended along a long diagonal that begins to pull my weight towards the outside of my supporting leg. The free leg scoops downwards, then lifts again, in an attempt to compensate.
The resulting balance (though it’s really pretty) is really looks more like the middle of a reversé: I suspect that if I drew my knee in to attitude, the balance would be forced to pivot.
On the upside, I’ve done a much better job keeping my back up, here, Partly, that’s because I was “warmer” in this video; but it’s partly also the result of experience. I’d been experimenting with these for roughly half an hour when I shot this, as opposed to maybe five or ten minutes when I shot the first one.
Because of the angle of my back, the arabesque in this video looks a prettier than the one in the first video. That said, I’m not entirely sure it’s actually a better balance. I thought it was until I sat down and really looked at these in depth.
Now, I’ve concluded that the first one, though it’s more awkward at the outset and never quite matches this one in terms of beauty, is probably technically better: in short, my control is better through the latter half of the exercise.
So there you have it: my nitpicky examination of a couple of BOSU arabesque videos. What did I say I’d do next, fondus?
*Now with music!
When you’re a kid, you might experience adults as mostly functional, mostly giant walking disasters, or some combination of the two—but you probably don’t experience them as people quite the same way you experience yourself and your friends as people.
- There are some exceptions: my riding instructor was one of those rare adults who are phenomenal at connecting with kids on a very human level without being a total wishy-washy pushover, which you can’t be when you’re teaching 50-pound 7-year-olds how to handle half-ton beasties front-loaded for panic.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Nothing at all. It so happens that kids and adults in most of the Western world move in fairly separate spheres, and that the developmental worldview of childhood tends to be a bit solipsistic for entirely developmentally-appropriate reasons.
But, anyway, the upshot of this is that an awful lot of us reach adulthood without having the faintest idea how to, like, adult.
…Which is evidenced by the fact that “adult” is now a verb as well as a noun.
I think maybe this wasn’t always the case. Like, up until pretty recently, people were pretty explicit about training up a child in the way he (or she) should wash the ding-dang-darn dishes for crying out loud (and turn down that racket).
Then my generation came along, close on the heels of Gen X but a bit more computer-y, learning from day one that we were supposed to, like, Follow Our Dreams and self-actualize our unique snowflakitude, but also learn math and science a whole lot, and how to do things with technology, and also how to ballet or football/soccer or handegg or violin or speak seventeen languages or be a Mathlete and a representative in the Model UN or pwn all the Mock Trials.
In short, we were so busy getting a First-Class Education and becoming (in many cases, anyway) Well-Rounded that we never had time to absorb some of the critical secrets to Adulting.
Like, to be honest, COFFEE.
I’m just gonna admit up front that even my Mom will tell you she’s almost never sick. I think germs are just way too scared of her. I remember her being actually sick exactly once during my childhood, and it was totally miserable for about a week, and she confirms the same.
HOWEVER. Given that she worked a billion hours a week and sang in at least one choir at any given time and was (for several years) also working on a Master’s degree and somehow found time to design, plant, and maintain an absolutely lovely garden and did at least some of the carting around of a ridiculous kid who somehow thought it was a good idea to jam ballet and horses and gymnastics and choir and skiing and ice skating and the violin into any one week … anyway, what I’m trying to say is that my Mom was almost certainly crazy tired at least part of the time (though she also has the “can sleep any time, anywhere” super power).
And, somehow, I never quite grokked how spectacularly helpful coffee can be in those circumstances.
At least, not until now, when I’m definitely ill but probably on the mend, and I can’t stand the fact that there are three days worth of dishes piled up in the kitchen, but also not sure I can just plain stand long enough to wash them, because frankly one of the major symptoms of Whatever I Have (probably yet another sinus infection) is knock-you-on-your-keister fatigue.
I don’t usually drink COFFEE after noon, because frankly it’s a terrible idea if you’re already a night owl but you’re also a dancer and you regularly have to be able to function in class at 9 AM. In fact, I usually drink exactly one coffee per day, in the morning, less for the caffeine (though that helps when I’ve had to take a sleeping pill, because see above re: night owl) than for the ritual of it.
However, when one is definitely not well enough to go to class (blargh) but also not ill enough to remain in bed without going crazy, one cup of coffee will help one wash some dishes.
So there it is. COFFEE is tasty, but—used judiciously—also one of the secrets of adulting.
I feel like I really should’ve figured this out before.
It’s probably not a secret at all to vast legions of people my own age and younger than my own age who are simply less, like, insular. I am also the kind of idiot who insists on using a hand-cranked kitchen mixer partly because the electric ones are fecking loud, partly because my inner hipster finds it satisfying, and partly out of sheer cussedness, so draw your own conclusions.
But, anyway, I guess this is a thing I know, now. If you need just a little help adulting, a cup of coffee might do the job. So there you have it.
Anyway, if you came for teh balletz but you’ve had to sit through my long digression into the magic that is COFFEE, my apologies. Anyway, here comes the bit with teh balletz in.
A couple weekends back, I shot a bunch of video of balances on the BOSU balance trainer at Suspend. I posted a couple of them to the Instas, then promptly failed to get around to uploading them to the YouTubes so I could toss some music in and easily post them here and critique my own technique.
Belatedly, I have now uploaded a handful (which is to say, three) videos and slapped a little music on them. The actual soundtrack of gleeful cackling from people working on stuff nearby was pretty amusing, but also pretty distracting.
Now they’re running loose on the Tubes. Sort of. (Okay, so they’re currently unlisted, because people like to be mean—by which I do not mean ‘critical, but fair,’ but instead ‘douchy jerks’—in the comments, and I’m mean enough to myself for about five people, thanks).
Anyway, without further ado, here’s the first one:
…This one hasn’t been on the Instas yet.
Here, I’m working left, which is currently my stronger side balance-wise—which is to say that my right leg is better at the “supporting leg” role and my left leg is better at the “free leg” role.
- L’Ancien favors these translations from the Russian over the usual English “supporting leg/working leg” dichotomy: he points out that the supporting leg, really, is the one doing most of the work, and says things like, “And which leg do you imagine flamingos think about?”
If you watch closely, when I first step onto the BOSU trainer (and then promptly step off), you’ll notice one of my most constant and worst ballet habits: I lead with my freaking hips, like I think I’m on a catwalk in Milan or something.
Ballet is not a catwalk in Milan, you guys.
The shirt I’m wearing (half my costume from Death Defying Acts) makes it hard to see, but at the very beginning my sternum is behind the point of my hip. This is so problematic (and, on the BOSU trainer, so bleeding obvious) that, at 0:05, I step back down so I can basically fix my entire approach.
If you pause the player at 0:07, you’ll notice that I’ve corrected pretty reasonably. I haven’t really turned on my turnout yet (it’s easier to mount the BOSU trainer, then turn on the turnout), but I’m much more squarely balanced over my supporting leg.
At the same point in time, you can also see that my knee is roughly over the arch of my foot: I’m shifting my weight towards the ball of my foot on the supporting side by shifting through the entire leg as well as my body. This allows me to keep my hips level from side to side (at 0:10, I actually tap them with my hands to remind myself to stay level and pull up).
Given that I’m still working in kind of a half-baked turnout, the passé balance that follows is pretty decent. You can see me actively resisting the urge to pull up and back (one of the things that makes passé easier for me than coupé is that you typically bring your arms up to third/en haut, which—as long as you keep your elbows lifted—helps keep your weight forward).
I also correct the height of my passé in the midst of the balance—it still wouldn’t be high enough for BW, and neither would my relevé, but in this video I’m still getting used to the BOSU trainer, here, so I’ll give myself a pass on those. It’s high enough for just about any application, anyway, and lifted correctly from behind and beneath, allowing for increased height without a hip-hike.
It’s when I begin to extend that things go a bit pear-shaped.
The legs themselves are rather nice, I think: I carry the working knee up and out, as one should, and though I lose a couple of degrees and wind up at full extension just a little above ninety (for a split second), the overall mechanical process is fine.
I totally fail to adjust my upper body to counterbalance the weight of my leg, which is considerable (the average human leg apparently weighs 40 pounds, which is nearly 1/3 of my entire weight). This actually has a lot to do with the loss of elevation on my extension: any extension requires a fair bit of counter-balancing, and those above 90 degrees require quite a bit more counter-balancing than we tend to realize.
Usually, we effect the counter-balance by shifting the weight away form the free leg. Often, this means performing the complex ritual of simultaneously pulling towards the free leg (to engage the muscles that will help it stay up) and away from the free leg (to counter-balance its weight).
In this video, I do absolutely nothing to counter-balance my free leg. I’m thinking too hard about keeping my weight forward, and so I fail to shift it back just a little. As soon as my free leg begins to move through croisée, I am powerless to resist the pull of gravity, and it “knocks me off my leg,” as we say.
In this case, I should have allowed my shoulders to open slightly in opposition as my arms transitioned to allongé. This is accomplished, more or less, with the breath: you breathe in and allow the breath to lift your sternum until it can’t go any higher, so it has to go back a bit, and while this happens you stay engaged so you don’t turn into a sway-backed cow.
Instead, I kept them exactly as they were.
While, to be honest, I find that fairly impressive in and of itself (I’m forever doing crazy stuff with my upper body and actively, rather than passively, putting it where it shouldn’t be), it’s not very effective if you want to balance that extension.
So there you have it.
Also, rather a nice sustained passé balance (or, well, technically retiré, since I’m not really changing my leg from back to front; it seems that way, but really it’s an artifact of mounting the BOSU).
What works best, here, is the lower-body transition into the extension: I keep the hip open as I extend, rather than allowing it to turn in, then extending from parallel. Also, it blows my mind how flat-out steady I am through much of this. Placement: it works.
What doesn’t work is the failure to counter-balance the extension, which in turn costs me both the height of the extension (which I begin to lose immediately) and the duration of the extended balance. Also, my free-side hand:
I do finish my rather graceful emergency dismount with a nice, deep, turned-out, knee-over-toe plié, at least, though I immediately let go of my turnout as I swing my right leg around and step toward the camera.
Next time: a comparison of two first arabesques, followed by a comparison of two penchés (one that kinda works; one that kinda knocks me off the BOSU).
Yesterday, I posted this picture of my “Itty Bitty Cambré Committee” cambré derrière:
I shot it in our bathroom, and I wasn’t exactly attempting excellent technique, but I figured I’d go ahead and make an example of myself anyway.
- My usual cambré derrière is pretty deep—like, shoulderblades-parallel-to-floor deep, basically. This is, more techically, a really bad high release. My modern teacher would poke me in the ribs.
- To wit: it’s surprisingly hard, actually, to hold the mobi in one hand and execute cambré derrière with the other arm en bas, or wherever the hell my arm actually was (maybe I left it in the other room?). I should at least have gone for what BG calls the “Margot Fonteyn,” with the free arm in a nice, languid romantic fourth.
You can’t see much of my back, here, but I can tell you based on the fact that my ribs aren’t locked down that I’m doin’ it rong.
That said, I’m not going to focus on my back (in no small part because so little of it is visible): instead, I’m going to focus on One Weird Trick… erm, I mean, one key point about cambré back that I’m demonstrating all the way wrong, here, and that’s this:
Avoid The Dreaded Noodle Neck =:O
When you first start learning cambré back (formally: cambré derrière), your teacher will almost certainly tell you to bring your working arm to fifty-third … I mean third … I mean fifth … ah, feck it, en haut and to turn your face towards its elbow before you begin to bend your back.
This is not solely because it looks cool, though it does. In fact, turning the head towards the working arm serves a practical purpose—it’s mostly a preventive measure.
What, then, does it prevent?
Glad you asked. What it prevents, my gentle reader, is the dreaded Noodle Neck.
“Noodle neck” may or may not be a technical term I laboriously translated from the Russian (шея лапшой … okay, okay, so I just ran “noodle” and “neck” through Google Translate and swapped the order because Assumptions About Grammar). Regardless, it’s a kind of “indicator species” fault that suggests a whole litany of problems further down the chain.
Simply put, it refers to the habit of letting one’s neck arch (or “crunch”) when performing the cambré back.
As you can now easily see thanks to my use of Ultra-Modern Technology, in the photograph above, my neck is definitely arched (Even though my head is turned! I’m talented, y’all.).
- AKA MSPain(t)
Instead of continuing to pull up through the crown of my head, I’m flopping languidly about like the heroine of some outdated romance novel, presumably waiting for the nobell laird to decide he’s had enough of murdering the MacAuleys and come ravage me instead. Or, um. Something like that.
Not to say languidity doesn’t have a place in the art of ballet. It totally does. If you’re not sure, the next time the Bolshoi does La Dame aux Camélias in its HD broadcast series, you should really go see it. The Bolshoi really knows how to get its languid on, and there’s a lot of opportunity for “languiding” (as a friend of mine from CirqueLouis calls it) in that particular ballet.
However! In cambré derrière, one must languid judiciously. It’s poor form to let the head dangle, and besides, it usually means you’re not really engaged all the way down (QV my embarassingly-splayed ribs).
Noodle Neck is also often a sign that one is attempting to initiate or artificially deepen one’s cambré by crunching the neck rather than lifting up through the full range of motion—which, in my experience, usually results from not actually knowing how to execute cambré derrière in the first place.
If you’re wondering what cambré derrière should actually look like, here:
There may be some small measure of Noodle Neck happening, there, but overall it’s quite a good cambré derrière.
You’ll notice that our intrepid danseur‘s ribs aren’t sticking out like jocks at a fandom convention, and that you can draw a smooth arc from his hip through the top of his head with no precipitous drop-off near the top. There is no “crunching” at any point along the way—speaking of which, a “crunch” most often shows up in the lower back or the neck (or, distressingly, both at the same time). I, on the other hand, like to crunch at the point right where the ribs end, because I’m special.
Both BG and BW would, of course, yell at notre danseur mystérieux for letting his hips drift forward of his feet—but it’s better, in cambrés as a whole, to drift forward than backward.
Ultimately, although turning the head to look at the elbow is a useful shortcut when one is beginning to learn cambré derrière, only technique will prevent Noodle Neck.
What, then, is the technique in question?
Simple (HA! note that I did NOT say “easy”):
You should not, at any point, cease to lift through the very tippity-top of your head (or, if you will, your “cheetah eyes“). Sure, if you’re flexible, you can do a full-on back bend just by flopping over backwards—but a floppy backbend is a recipe for injury in the long run. It also isn’t ballet.
“Lift,” by the way, is really shorthand for “Engage All The Things!”
Cambré derrière looks like it happens from the top of the head, but the engagement involved runs all the way down to the floor.
The action of lifting comes primarily from the muscles of the core. (Sadly, though mine continue to try, the eyebrows have little to do with it.) There is not, in fact, an invisible hook in the top of your head; rather, you’re technically pushing up rather than pulling up. It just looks and feels like pulling up. As such, I find it helpful to think in terms of lifting rather than pulling.
LWF describes the action of high-releases and cambrés derrières in terms of roller-coaster cars on a climb: the are lifted smoothly, each car drawing the next in its wake. All the cars remain connected, and they move together smoothly up the track.
You definitely do not want the lead car (that is, your head) to fall off the track. That’s a good way to get sued.
How, exactly, you wrangle all of this mentally in order to achieve the right process may vary—but I’ll be happy to blether on about the mental image that works for me (the one that I patently did not execute in the picture above):
- Lift through the top of the skull whilst sending the weight down through the heels (or, if on demi-pointe, through the appropriate metatarsals and toes)
- Lift the sternum (without letting the shoulders creep up)
- Keep lifting THROUGH THE CORE until there is nowhere to go but back
- Convincing the sternum to act independently of the shoulders is one of the most difficult challenges for many new dancers. Unfortunately, I have yet to figure out an effective way to explain in words exactly how to achieve this feat of human dexterity.
Because the human body is shaped the way it is, if you try to lift UP as you send your weight down, you will eventually be forced to bend your back through a smooth curve.
It’s that or tear yourself into two pieces, which never actually happens in ballet classes. Or, well … hardly ever.
So, in review, here are some things to know about cambré derrière:
- Connect from the top of the head right down to the flooor
- Send the weight DOWN
- Lift the spine UP starting from the top of the head (NOT the back of the head)
- Allow the body to carry itself over an imaginary roller-coaster climb
- If you notice a point where you’re “crunched” in your spine, it usually reflects a point at which you’re disengaged in your core
One last note: a really deep cambré derrière demands both flexibility and strength. If you’re bendy by nature, but not particularly strong, do not be surprised if your cambré derrière is quite shallow at first.
This doesn’t mean you’ve lost your flexibility; just that you have a good teacher who allows you to take your cambré derrière only as far as you can support it correctly.
Don’t despair. Depth will come with time, as you develop the strength to support your inborn suppleness.
If, on the other hand, you’re strong but stiff, you will probably develop greater flexibility over time, but you probably won’t be surprised if your initial cambré derrière is nothing to write home about.
At Suspend, where I train in aerials, there’s a cute shorthand for differentiating one’s dominant side from one’s non-dominant side: we call the dominant (usually right) side the “business side” and the non-dominant (usually left) side the “party side.”
This means that if, for example, you start an exercise on your dominant side, when your instructor says, “…And, now let’s do the party side!” you’ll know what to do regardless of which side is which for you (or, if you’re a giant mess of cross-dominant feels like me, you’ll just do whichever one you didn’t already do).
I mention all this largely to apologize for the fact that I’m about to lamely use the same terminology to mean “something completely different,” as it were, all apologies to Cirque Volant du Monty Python.
Anyway, as you all know by now, I have what one might call a chequered past with regard to chaîné turns. I have been known to refer to them as “hell turns,” “devil turns,” and “Can’t we just leave that part out?”
In short, I used to hate chaîné turns avec le feu de mille soleils(1).
- That’s “with the fire of a thousand suns,” for those playing along in only one language, or at any rate in a pastiche of languages that doesn’t include French.
Then I learned, or possibly re-learned, to approach them from tombé and began to make peace with them (the fact that BW makes me do roughly a billion chaînés every class probably doesn’t hurt, either: that’s what happens when you have 90 minutes and only one student).
I’ve spent the last several months tweaking things: bringing the chest forward, doing away with the swayback bit, actually spotting at the same rate I’m turning, etc. All of this has greatly improved my relationship with the much-hated chaîné.
On this past Friday, BG added a really sound correction (given to the entire class) to the mix—one very similar, in fact, to that which Killer B gave me on my grand assemblé en tournant. BG said, in essence,
Don’t let the second side trail behind. Snap it around. Think about actively bringing the opposite shoulder and hip around.
It turns out that this helps immensely—but, as with almost everything in ballet, it requires that you’ve first laid down the groundwork.
In this case, the groundwork is cross-lateral activation. If you’ve got decent pirouettes and piqué turns, chances are good that you have the groundwork in place.
It just so happens, though, that we tend to forget to use it when doing chaînés, probably because we’re too busy grumbling to ourselves about how horrible they are.
Anyway, when you consciously think about bringing the trailing shoulder and hip along with you, which you do by activating the muscles that connect diagonally across your body, not only do you prevent the annoying swayback effect, but you also get faster turns with less effort.
So, really, while the term “chaîné” refers to the fact that you’re chaining together a series of turns, you can also think about it as if you’re chaining the trailing side of your body to the leading side, or perhaps better, activating the chains of muscles that connect across your body, as you turn.
I was actually quite surprised at how immediate and clear a difference this made for me: it got me a “Good, Asher!” from BG, which is always welcome (and, for once, did not immediately cause me to forget how to walk, let alone dance).
So, basically, if you think of your business side as the side that’s leading, make sure you intentionally bring the party side along with it: because all business and no party makes Jack terrible at chaînés. Or something like that.
One more semi-pro tip: I find it helpful to imagine that something is pushing my trailing side around from behind. For whatever reason, this helps me keep shoulders and hips (and, presumably, body and soul) together.
So, there you have it. My current bit of helpful advice for chaînés, which (as it turns out) are not beyond help after all.
I may not be quite as ridiculously fast at them as Rudolf Nureyev was, but dangit, I’m improving. So there.
PS: I am likely to be more or less incognito for a week or so. I have a Big Thing Happening, and I’m keeping my hecking mouth shut about it until it’s done, and might just kind of keep my big hecking mouth shut period for a bit and take a break from the written variety of Social Meteors.
Class was decent today.
My allergies were, as they have been, off the chain—but that’s par for the course, and no small part of the reason that I bother working on my cardio. The more fit my cardiovascular system is, the less it hates me when I can barely inhale because my nose and the back of my throat are full of goop but I dance anyway.
It wasn’t flat-out the best class I’ve had recently (that was Sunday, I think), but I still feel like every single day I make progress, which is something. Even last Thursday, when my allergies were so bad I thought my head would explode and I had to beg off of grand allegro (to my great and undying humiliation), I made progress.
After class, I reviewed Siegfried’s variation. I had meant to just mark it, but instead after the first phrase I found myself running it: contretemps-tombé-pas de bourrée-glissade-saut de chat, repeat. I was watching my port de bras and my turnout in the mirror and heading back to “stage left” suddenly I noticed that I was, as the song goes, “Way up in the middle of the air,” without actually trying, in this surprisingly nice saut de chat.
- The song in question being “Ezekiel Saw The Wheel,” a folk song which I’d never heard until I met my last roommate, who used to sing it: Ezekiel saw the wheel, way up, way up, Ezekiel saw the wheel, way up in the middle of the air.
Anyway, that saut de chat startled the heck out of me and I landed like a mammoth, but it’s really good to feel like I’ve regained the best of my “Terpsichorean powers,” so to speak.
- Why, yes, of course I’m referencing T.S. Elliot. Also, the musical Cats.
On the other hand, I don’t recommend landing like a mammoth even on good floors. I went back to marking, though with a little more vigor than your usual mark.
I also realized that I tend to fail to bring my second leg to the party when I do assemblés in the context of petit allegro.
I mean, it’s not that it doesn’t get there. It’s that I fail to really actively transport it. Like the first leg gets on the train, but the second one has to walk to the party.
I had somehow failed to notice that … no doubt in part because when I do grand allegro assemblés—especially porté—I really snap that puppy right the heck up there. But, in case you were wondering, petit allegro is not, in fact, “grand allegro, only smaller,” no matter what its name might imply. It requires its own approach (they do it like nobody’s business in Copenhagen).
But, anyway, I haven’t been really pushing the second foot through the plié and snapping it up there, and Killer B schooled me over it this morning.
So Killer B’s advice is to think of glissade-assemblé as a compound word; a hyphenated phrase like tombé-pas de bourée, (or, if you’re a guy, tombé-chaîné-chaîné-chaîné-chaîné-chaîné). You have to really push the trailing leg through the bottom of the plié that’s sort of the hyphen so the momentum doesn’t get lost.
- When you lose the momentum, you wind up with two separate words, one of them mumbled: “Glissade. Assemblah.”
So I tried it, and wouldn’t you know, it worked like a charm.
So that’s today’s bit of technical advice. Since glissade-assemblé is a petit-allegro stock phrase, think of it with a hyphen and pushpushpush the second leg through the plié in the middle, so when it leaves the ground again all the momentum is there.
And use your plié. And use your plié. And use your plié.
Which, coincidentally, will also stop you landing your saut de chat like a mammoth, which you will appreciate when you’re seventy and haven’t yet had to put in new knees, or so I’ve heard.
On Monday I found myself reading some old posts in the bath (because reading in the bath is what I would do basically 90% of the time that I’m not dancing, if I had my way … well, that and swimming in the ocean).
It was surprising to look back on where I was only three and a half years ago: to realize that, really, I had no idea I’d be doing what I’m doing now—or maybe just a glimmer of the idea; something that felt like the vaguest of pipe dreams, I suppose.
It was weird to read the words, “If I ever get a chance to perform,” or however I phrased it. At the time, it seemed like gift one distantly hopes to receive: perhaps if I’m really good, someone will give me–no, not a pony, but maybe a hobby horse?
Now the chance to perform is something I pursue and lay hold of with both hands and create for myself. It’s something I am beginning not to feel weird about getting paid to do, like, “Maybe if I keep my head down they won’t notice that they’re paying me money for this.”
And yet I realize, still, that in a way the chance to live the life that I’m living right now is a gift—a gift, I suppose, I’ve worked hard to be worthy of, and will continue to work hard to be worthy of, but still one that depends upon the goodwill of so many people other than myself.
Friday, early, we leave for the Playa again.
This year, a group is staging The Rite of Spring. I’ve never seen it live, so I’m looking forward to that. Perhaps I can find other dancers and do class with them.
As for me and my camp, we’re doing Open Barre, with Mimosas, twice. Contact improv, twice. And all the other things that my camp does, but that’s what I’m in charge of. My gift to the Playa, along with whatever I wind up feeding people, as so often I do.
My feelings are mixed about going this year. I’m working, so that’s a challenge—learning the choreography at a distance will be interesting—and I’m afraid of coming back with a respiratory infection again. I’ll have to be careful this year.
But there are always things to be learned, and what was it I was saying about learning not to constantly try to control the outcomes?
So there it is. This is the outcome right now. I’m strung between two loyalties, but perhaps it’s okay. If things work out as I hope they will in the coming months, I most likely won’t be able to go to the Burn in 2018.
Because, as D told me so many times, there is something in the world for which I will sacrifice all other things—even Burning Man, as much as I love it.
When all this is over, the desert will be there still (unless we blow up the world before then, in which case it’s all a moot point anyway).
I took class on Monday and found that, although my feet and Achilles’ tendons were still a little tight, I was mostly functional. I even got some nice turns in.
As such, I hit the studio again tonight (didn’t make morning class because D’s truck overheated, so he needed my car, and I was too late to catch the bus) feeling fairly confident about things.
My confidence was, in fact, well-placed. Class was good, all things considered—I’m still a tad wheezy, but with adequate oceans of medication that stayed under control.
Anyway, tonight’s class was essentially built around petit allegro—not that we didn’t do anything else, because we absolutely did, but the ultimate goal was to improve our petit allegro by improving our use of pliés.
When we finally did get around to petit allegro, BG gave us a very, very helpful note: if the music is fast, focus on getting down into the floor with the pliés.
It’s counter-intuitive as all heck, but it works a treat. I am one of those people who can milk a fair bit of elevation out of a jump by brushing hard and really springing through the feet, so I don’t always use my deepest demi-plié in preparation.
This is not at all helpful in fast petit allegro combinations—it just takes too freaking long, especially when you factor in hyperextended knees and really flexible feet.
Turns out that if I get deep into my demi-plié, I can actually get there faster. I suppose it comes down to employing the entire bottom of the foot—I suspect that when I’m struggling with petit allegro, my heels are probably just skimming the ground when they should be doing some actual work.
Anyway, this feels revelatory, as things do of late. I’m going to have to practice the hell out of it in order to overcome a lifetime of attempting to do petit allegro the way I do grand battement.
Anyway, that’s it for now. In short: never be afraid to get down when it’s time to boogie.
Tuesday, after a fairly hard conditioning class and a not-difficult-but-demanding technique class, we began learning variations.
Wednesday, after a very restorative conditioning class and a lovely technique class, we continued with them.
The girls are doing the Swans’ entrance scene. There are only four of them, so they have a lot of ground to cover, but they already looked pretty great at Tuesday night’s brief “show ‘n’ tell” session.
Meanwhile, my variation (one of the many versions of Seigfried’s) is a challenge in the small studio even though there’s only one of me—it’s packed with big leapy bits, all of which seem to land me precariously close to the walls when I do them full-speed. Thus, I wind up doing a lot of marking and semi-marking. There seem to be a lot of walls in that studio.
Still, I was quite happy with the sauté arabesque-balancé-tombé coupé jeté sequence last night (it varies from the video we’re using as a model, which involves a bunch of revoltades, which I still am not sure how to do on purpose). Also feeling better about Bournonville jeté, although I still tend to jump through my arms. We worked on that a lot last night.
I couldn’t remember about 20 seconds of the version that C taught me (which doesn’t have tours in it), and since I was working with J last night, we subbed in some tours just because. They feel a lot better this year—I’m figuring out how to use a relaxed plié in grand allegro instead of hanging onto tension, which makes a huge difference.
To be honest, though, just having another year under my belt also makes a huge difference. I don’t have to think about choreography anywhere near as much: I’m better at remembering chains of steps, instead of individual steps. That makes a huge difference.
Likewise, even though we don’t get to do grand allegro anywhere near as often as I would like at home (especially since BW is in Europe for the summer), there are a lot more steps I can do without having to think about them at this point.
The most invaluable corrections this far have been as follows:
- In saut de chat, focus on travel rather than on elevation (the elevation takes care of itself)
- In Bournonville jeté, imagine leaping over a hurdle. This imparts the graceful ballon that makes it such a nice leap.
- Also in Bournonville jeté, think about reaching forward with the arms, then opening them. This both looks better and prevents me from hyperextending my back and shoulders, which screws up the momentum of the jump and looks weird (though probably okay in modern contexts?).
The central thing I’m taking away from this intensive is that I need to focus on one idea:
I used to ride a horse with whom the same basic principle applied. You had to ride him forward, or he would just slope lazily around and pretend he didn’t know from dressage.
The highlight of last night was when I came in way too hot on the first tombé-coupé and instead of the standard jeté, it turned into something spinny and impressive whose name I don’t know. It’s definitely a thing—I’ve seen it in other variations—I’m just not sure which thing. I’ll have to see if I can find it in Tarasov when I get home.
Anyway, J said, “Ooh, that was fancy!” Sadly, since I’m not actually sure how to do that particular thing on purpose, I’ll just have to file it away for now (with revoltades) and save it for some future date.
Last year, I think I was a bit wary of speed and power. I was forever doing Albrecht’s variation as if I had a check-rein on: behind the motion, without abandon. I was too busy thinking about the steps and trying to be precise, and I was definitely a little afraid of running myself over.
This year, I feel like I’ve made friends with speed and power, and when I get out of my own way, I can harness them. Confidence goes a long way!
In other news, my adductors are pretty sore, which is okay, since they’re one of the bits that need to be stronger. My beats look better for it, though in class yesterday I kept doing jeté battu on the wrong foot (wtf?) and decided to just do plain jeté like everyone else. I should try breaking out the entrechats sixes today. Quatres were nice yesterday.
Anyway, I should go do my laundry. I’m not going to walk down there this time; it’s 3 miles round-trip.
Tonight we polish up the variations; tomorrow we get to show them off.
As you may know, petit allegro is not my forté.
As such, I ask all kinds of super-technical questions, like:
HOW DO POTEET ALLERGO ZIZZONES LESS BAD?
Fortunately, LAA’s class is small enough that she’s had a chance to really analyze my (admittedly-wack) petit allegro
calzone zizzone technique, and last night she gave me two incredibly helpful bits of advice:
- Tone down the UP!!!!
- In comparison with barre exercises, think of it as a jeté (accent in, if it helps you keep the adductors fully engaged) rather than as grand battement.
- Add some side (that is, lateral travel).
So let’s revisit a screencap of me doing
This is me landing a
pannetone sissone. Technically, this was a medium allegro combination, but it was still wildly unnecessary for me to put that much elevation into that jump (and every single other jump in that combination).
- If you need a quick refresher, a sissone is a jump from two legs to one leg. A pannetone is a delicious sweet bread (not sweetbread, that’s something else) from Milan.
You can see that my working leg is up there (and turned out and pointed and effing winged, holy hell).
What you can’t see is that I did this entire sissone with very little lateral travel relative to the height of the jump.
You can probably calculate the apex height of the jump with some degree of accuracy. That should give you an idea of why I’m always and forever behind when tasked with sissones in settings other than grand allegro (ideally at “men’s tempo,” which tends to be slow in order to allow for lots of elevation and ballon).
I’ve probably been doing petit allegro sissones this way for quite a while: I think, “Make it smaller,” and respond by making it not go anywhere but UP.
Technically speaking, sissones aren’t really traveling jumps (which is to say that they’re not leaps, basically). Laterally speaking, you shouldn’t go very far in a sissone—but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go anywhere at all.
If you tone down your elevation and allow for a little lateral travel, your petit allegro sissone tends to become the light, lovely little spring that it’s supposed to be, and you don’t get behind the music and find yourself receiving epic side-eye from the poor schmuck attempting to dance next to you.
When I approach them this way, I can make my petit allegro sissones small and light enough to practice them in my kitchen without fear of whacking my feet or shins on things (my kitchen is tiny; the struggle is real). Coincidentally, that also means they’re quick enough to use in those horrible, fast petit allegro combinations universally despised by those of us who are built for grand allegro.
- Or at least despaired over…
One more thing: if your hips are ridiculously flexible like mine are, you’ll also want to think about opening the working leg straight to the side or even a little ahead.
The flexibility of my hips lets me put my legs kind a quite far back in a turned-out second, which can make closing back to 5th to prepare for the next jump really slow and do weird things to the path of the sissone, which should be diagonal.
Coincidentally, I have to think about the same thing when doing grand pirouettes: keep the working leg engaged a few degrees forward of dead-to-the-side, or things become unwieldy because physics.