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DOES BALLET CLASS HAVE AN AGE LIMIT?

24 Feb

I take ballet class with a woman who is turning 90-years-old at the end of April. (And she’s not the teacher — she’s a student, like me!)

Clearly, my Saturday morning adult ballet class is host to a diverse group. Some students are local dance teachers; some are yoga or Pilates instructors. Some are former company ballerinas and some are students in their teens. Then there is Nancy, an 89-year-old great-grandmother, in class to take the barre. I guess she’s there for the same reason I am — love for ballet’s discipline and musicality, and, of course, for the great way it helps you stay fit.

Wearing her leotard and nylon warm-up pants, leg warmers and ballet slippers, Nancy begins the barre by facing the mirror and holding on with both hands. Though she needs both hands for support, she is quite competent as she goes through the plié combinations, tendu, rond de jambe and battement.

Nancy’s leg may be low, and she might not bend all the way to the floor, but she works hard, is graceful and is really quite remarkable. (We all adjust our movements for age and capability.)

The master - Antony Tudor at 53 years old, teaching class at the Old Met, 1961

The master – Antony Tudor at 53 years old, teaching class at the Old Met, 1961

I was reminded of prima ballerina Natalia Makarova, who I watched teach class at American Ballet Theatre studios back when I was Event Coordinator for the 2007 ABT Dancer Reunion. (Read Jumping at the Chance on adriaballetbeat.com). I first noticed Makarova while walking past the studio hosting company class – who was that teacher with the gorgeous figure, demonstrating a magnificent grand battement with perfect extension? At first I wasn’t sure, so I asked. It was indeed Makarova, who was 67 at the time.

Well, Nancy is no Makarova, but she does make us realize that continuing to take ballet class, at any level or any age, can be wonderful both mentally and physically.

Nancy's 90th Birthday (Photo added April 22, 2014)

Nancy’s 90th Birthday (Photo: April 22, 2014)

Do we really have to stop dancing when we get older? Does a ballet class have an age limit? I hope not. Nancy makes us realize that at any age or any level, continuing to take class offers the benefit of maintaining flexibility, strength and endurance. Add in the ballet mind-game of combinations and patterns, and there you have it — the full mind/body workout.

Age is just a number, right? On Saturday mornings we take class, and are the better for it.

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THE BALLET CLASS GRUMP

23 Sep

I’m dressed in my leotard and tights, bending and stretching at the barre, getting ready for 10 am class to begin. The piano player takes her seat; the teacher enters the studio and gives the opening plié combination.

I start class, but during the first port de bras my mind begins to wander. Instead of focusing on the music and movement, I instead begin to make a mental list of things that make me “buggy” in ballet class. lucy ballet[1]

Ballet is my most favorite of art forms, and class is something I always look forward to – for me it’s like breathing! I feel compelled to be there – it’s a big part of my life. Why can’t I just relax and enjoy myself? Why do I always let things bother me? Is it age? Exhaustion? The weather?

Maybe I’m just a ballet class grump!

Here’s my top ten list of ballet class bug-a-boos:

  1. Teachers who rush the barre – please go slowly until my muscles loosen up.
  2. Dancers who don’t towel off – please don’t fling your sweat at me!
  3. Dancers who don’t move backward or forward – can’t they make room for everyone around them?
  4. Stagnant air – please turn on a fan!
  5. Pianists who never change their music – ever.
  6. Teachers who talk too much – let’s get moving.
  7. Dancers who don’t angle at the barre – don’t put me in mortal danger with your battement!
  8. Show offs – do you really need to do eight pirouettes between combinations?
  9. Classes that start late – and end on time!
  10. Dancers who believe they “own” their spot – read “Whose Spot is it Anyway” on adriaballetbeat.com.

battement-tendu-2[1]There – now I feel better. Sometimes it feels so good to vent. Now I can concentrate, and enjoy my first tendu.

Are there things that makes you “buggy” in ballet class?

DANCING TO THE RIGHT

13 Nov

Sometimes I feel like I’m crumbling… one day my knees are the problem, another day my back, some days my hips or feet.  Sometimes I feel like I can conquer the world, so bendy and free, and other days just taking the barre feels like a challenge.  As an adult dancer who takes two to three ballet classes a week, I get sick and tired of my never-ending aches and pains, but unfortunately, that’s  the reality when you’re still taking class over the age of 50(!).

Sadly, as a person ages, their body just doesn’t perform the way it used to. In the old days, I would take class and focus on technique; now, my focus often turns to a stiff back, knees that don’t bend deeply enough or shoulders that ache when I move this way or that.

In the “old” days, all “bendy and free…”

Of course, injuries to dancers are common – ligament tears, overuse injuries, ankle sprains and knee pains… it goes with the territory.  (And dancers should always see a doctor if they’re dancing through pain and no one should ever come back to class without clearance. Waiting without treating an injury surely does more harm than good)!

But this musing is not about handling serious dance injuries – it’s about facing the inevitable stiffness and loss of flexibility that comes with age. When a dancer matures, so does the technical difficulty of the dance class.

So, why do we continue to go? Because we take pleasure in ballet’s discipline and enjoy interpreting the beautiful music. We like to work hard and bend our bodies in ways that are unlike any other type of exercise. We feel joy in artistic movement and find satisfaction in that, despite the physical obstacles.

We manage by substituting less flexibility for increased artistry; we use the music differently and phrase our dancing, perhaps, more eloquently; we re-focus on grace and posture. We “mark” when we need to and sometimes alter the combinations to suit.  Regardless of our age, we receive gratification from striving to be our personal best.

If a bad left knee means a grand jeté only to the right, that’s OK. If, because of that knee, you relevé only on the right foot, that’s OK too. So what if your petit allegro isn’t what it used to be?

The important thing is that we’re there, in ballet class, doing what we love and striving to be our best. That’s what I do, and I feel like I still belong.

VISUALS MAKE THE DIFFERENCE

4 Apr

When did my posture at the barre really change? After all the years of shoulders back and down, pulling up, sucking in that gut , nose in the air, weight forward, nothing made me reconfigure my stance at the barre better than this visual:

Thank you to my teacher Claudia Guimaraes, who said, “picture a dot under each of your shoulder blades, then a dot under each of them at your waist. Now connect them in a crisscross, and pull your stomach up and in.” Wow – that changed everything! By utilizing that visual, my posture changed – I’m now raising my leg higher, my balance is improved, I’m doing better pirouettes and ponches and have an easier time at the center. It was Claudia’s visual that made the difference.

I’ve had many teachers who use visual cues to improve technique, but some images resonate. Take my teacher Luba Gulyaeva,  for example – “when you ponche, you are balancing a crown on your head, not bending over to scrub the floor!” Oh my! Or another gem: “melt like ice cream” in describing the perfect plié.

A recent story in the New York Times science section titled, “Ballet Fans Truly Know How to Feel the Moves”  reported ballet lovers  “truly feel they are dancing” when they watch a performance. According to Corinne Jola, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Surrey in England, “Scientists report ( ballet) spectators showed muscle-specific responses in their brain as if they were expert dancers – even though ‘they were clearly not capable of doing the actual movements.’” Even for a non-dancer, visual cues affect their sense of movement. The spectator’s observation of dance helps them visualize their own dancing!

Stephanie Madec and Ramy Tadrous in "Lilac Garden," 2012, Ballet du Rhin. Photo: Jean Luc Tanghe

One of the reasons The Antony Tudor Ballet Trust sends a “répétiteur” to set a ballet is because it’s not just about dance notation and the steps – it’s also about nuance, feeling, interpretation. (Read Trust répétiteur Donald Mahler’s WordPress blog on setting Tudor’s Lilac Garden in France, and you will see what I mean)! The répétiteur must fine tune the dancers in their interpretation of the ballet. It’s not just the steps, it’s how you feel them.

“Melt like ice cream…”.

What makes a better history teacher? A better yoga teacher? A better dance instructor? The ability to communicate and make an idea come alive is what makes the message resonate.

What visuals have helped you improve your dance technique?

MIRROR MIRROR

5 Mar

I took my usual ballet class this morning, but today, every time I looked in the mirror, I was aghast. What in heaven’s name was I wearing? My ballet skirt was too short, my tights ill fitting; I hated my leotard, those leggings! How did I come up with that outfit? I felt ridiculous.

Natalie Portman in "Black Swan" - that mirror!

During the break between the barre and the adagio I switched my leggings, switched my skirt, hoping that might help.  When I came back in the studio I thought I looked a little better – but did I really? I thought to myself, maybe its best when a dance school requires a uniform. Children at ballet schools most often have to wear specific attire – girls in pink tights, their hair in a bun and a red, blue, green, black leotard depending on their age group… maybe that is the best bet – then there are no mirror/reflection clothing issues and you can focus on what’s important – dance.

I ran these thoughts by my daughter who understood my angst. “I feel the same way,” she said. “If I feel ugly at work, I feel gross the whole day and completely out of it. But, when I’m dressed well and look good, I feel I can do no wrong.”

Truth is, the ballet studio mirror should be used for corrections to technique and alignment, not for self admiration or self esteem issues.

Fox Business had a report last month, “Look Good, Feel Good, Get Hired.” The story, by Cheryl Casone, said “A study by Duke University researchers found that CEOs are more likely to be rated as ‘competent’, and actually make more money, based just on appearance. A September article in Psychology Today was more blunt stating ‘despite the sophisticated HR advancement in hiring and compensation practices, it appears your appearance, and particularly good looks, still matter.’”

NBC's "Smash"

In the February 27 episode of the new NBC hit series Smash, Katherine McPhee’s character is taken by her fellow ensemble members for a “Broadway makeover” – they trash her closet, buy her new dance clothes and a new wardrobe, change her “look” – all in the hopes of her getting the attention, and the lead, in the Broadway musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe. Will her appearance make a difference?

For the dancer, the studio mirror tells all. Looking your best in that mirror is definitely a confidence booster, and one needs confidence to dance, particularly at my age.

I think Martha Graham had the right idea when she said, “The next time you look into the mirror, just look at the way the ears rest next to the head; look at the way the hairline grows; think of all the little bones in your wrist. It is a miracle. And the dance is a celebration of that miracle.”

She was right. Next time I look in the mirror, I hope to look at myself differently. The new reflection? Our humanity, the body and it’s miracles, and most importantly, the extraordinary miracle of dance.

A POINTED TOAST FOR THE NEW YEAR

3 Jan

It felt good to plié today.  After all the travel and mayhem of the busy holiday season it  felt good to finally adjust my posture, pull up, move my shoulders back and down, turn out and enjoy that first plié in my first ballet class of 2012. (Sure, you can stretch and plié and tendu without class, but it’s just not the same, you know that)!

As I went through my first  barre of the New Year,  I started thinking how grateful I am to New Jersey Ballet where I take class, for being there with a professional class and pianist so close to home. In fact, I am grateful to all of the local schools and institutions who offer quality dance training – those regional ballet companies, university dance programs and dancing schools who nurture and  inspire so many, all over this country.

New Jersey Ballet

Hey – we all start local – even the luminaries. Wendy Whelan, NYC Ballet principal, began taking dance class with a local teacher in Louisville, KY and as a child performed as a mouse with the Louisville Ballet in its annual production of The Nutcracker.

Charles Askegard,  recently retired principal dancer with NYC Ballet, began his dance training with  Minnesota Dance Theatre. David Hallberg, principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, began his formal ballet training at the Arizona Ballet School in Phoenix. And Amanda McKerrow, Répétiteur for the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust and former ABT principal dancer, began her training at the Twinbrook School of Ballet in Rockville, Maryland and later studied at the Washington School of Ballet. And those are just a few.

I love American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, San Francisco and Miami City Ballet. But let’s not forget all of the smaller  companies in the smaller towns; the universities and even the small ballet schools who train and develop our young people, provide quality performance, and of course, offer class to all those who wish to continue dancing throughout their lives.

Please support your local ballet company in 2012 – their role is ever more important. As they say at NJ Ballet, “dance training develops discipline, concentration, alertness and body control, which aids in scholastic endeavors and personal growth. Carriage, body lines, coordination, grace, style, technique, artistry – the benefits that a dance education can bring are unlimited.”

Well said! We would be way less fortunate without our local schools and companies – here’s to them!

BALLET NORMAL

15 Nov

Today is one month since I moved, after being in the same home for 22 years. Although not a far move by any means, it was nevertheless a major upheaval – packing up your belongings after 22 years in the same place! What to take, what to throw, how much memorabilia do you really need to save? What is worth bringing, what you will use, how it will fit, where will you put it, should it be tossed? And then, arrival in the new digs – where do you place things, how can you get organized, what to do with this, that and the other? (Forget Internet, phones, TV, computers….).

Maybe you just can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Moving is HARD.  Now I know why some people never move – it’s just too difficult, too must work, expensive and filled with anxiety –  for many it’s easier to just stay put!

With this in mind – when nothing is normal and you can’t find your proverbial ass from your elbow – there is one thing that stays incredibly normal and blessedly diverting.  Yes, you guessed it – it’s ballet class!

So there you go – no matter what life brings – where you live, what your relationships, life’s difficulties, distractions, ups and downs – the ballet barre, at least, remains happily reliable – plié, tendu, dégagé, rond de jambe, developpé, frappé, grand battement.. class has order. When life is out-of-order, taking ballet class makes things feel incredibly normal.

Normal is good.

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