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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?

IT’S MY THERAPY

22 Jun

When I was a little girl growing up in Brooklyn, I was very close with my grandmother’s sisters.  I loved my great aunts – they were a colorful group, all with larger than life personalities. They were great cooks, would talk up a storm (mostly gossiping  about the relatives), were always fun but unfortunately, were also big gamblers. GamblingDespite a tight budget, they managed to spend most of their spare time playing  Poker, Canasta, Gin Rummy,  “the horses,” “the numbers” (pre-lottery days), and more. You name it, they were in it. Of course they were always losing, but still, they went back again for more and more. The gambling bug never quit.

My mother, asking why they couldn’t get the habit under control, would always be given the same answer – “it’s my therapy.” The card playing was their therapy, the racetrack, their therapy, Bingo, their therapy. What the heck were they talking about?

Years later, I learned. Life is filled with curves, with lots of bumps in the road. How do you cope with life’s highs and lows? Most people find balance in “a therapy.” pointe shoesWhether it’s yoga, running, reading or a favorite hobby, having “a therapy” helps calm the soul. (Hopefully, that therapy is not gambling)!

So, what’s my therapy? Mmm.. off to ballet class….

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: “SUMMER DANCE”

2 Mar

Imagine – a sleep away camp where you dance, morning, noon and night. Where you stage performances, learn from the masters, excerpt the great ballets and learn folk and modern dance too. Ah, to live in the mountains during the hot summer months, on a lake with an outdoor stage, with piles of pointe shoes, costumes, and new friends and cool mountain air. What I wouldn’t have given to go to a dance camp like the one in Summer Dance. The pre-teen novel struck a chord.

"Summer Dance" by Lynn Swanson

“Summer Dance” by Lynn Swanson

All at dance camp was not perfect for 13-year old Sara – finances were tight at home and a scholarship was needed to come back next year.  Dance was Sara’s passion, and her dream was to dance professionally some day. Could the training at “Lakewood Dance Camp” hold the key?

“Young dancers should be easily drawn into the passions and frustrations of Sara and her friends and the nicely evoked upper Michigan setting,” says Publishers Weekly.  I agree.

If you have a daughter who loves to dance, Summer Dance is a perfect choice for the young reader.  The challenges of learning and perfecting your craft, the motivation for scholarship, and changing relationships with friends over a memorable summer in the northern Michigan woods create a passionate story filled with surprises.

Lynn Swanson, author of Summer Dance, is a dance educator and member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She holds a BFA in dance from the University of Michigan and an MA in Creative Writing from Michigan State University.  Here are some excerpts from a recent conversation:

Author Lynn Swanson

Author Lynn Swanson

They always say, “Write what you know” – why do I have a feeling you spent summers at dance camp?

Yes, it’s true! Two summers in Michigan at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp as a student, and two summers there assisting in the prestigious ballet department.

Summer intensives are commonplace for dance students on the professional track. Do you think a dance camp is an effective alternative?

It depends on what the dancer’s technical and emotional needs are at the time.  A camp environment is ideal as long as the instructors are top-notch.  No sense wasting a summer or developing bad dance habits if you are a serious dancer.

I love that you introduce the reader to some of the great classical ballets – Swan Lake, Les Sylphides, Romeo & Juliet… what made you choose those ballets for the story?

I danced in Les Sylphides and in Les Patineurs, which is also in the book, so I knew the choreography in detail and the artistic expression required to dance them. I love the music from both ballets.  I chose Swan Lake and Romeo & Juliet for their romantic appeal.

How does a young girl become passionate about dance? Do you think it’s learned or innate?

Lynn Swanson presenting Summer Dance to students last summer at Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan.

Author Lynn Swanson presenting “Summer Dance” to students last summer at Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan.

I think all little girls are passionate about some form of movement and do it very naturally if you watch them. Not all sustain the commitment needed to move through every stage of training to become a professional dancer.  It’s the passion that fuels a dancer to keep going.

A scholarship is necessary for Sara to continue her studies. Financing for arts education is always a struggle. Can you tell me something about the importance of scholarship for young dancers with potential, like Sara?

It is highly important that we financially support our dancers through scholarships, especially in this country where there are no government supported boarding schools for dance. It is sometimes up to individual dance teachers at private studios or at the local community center or YMCA to not only identify gifted and passionate dancers, but to help them find a way to get the financial support they need to pursue their dance training. I honor and praise all those who continue to find ways to keep talented dancers moving!

Find Summer Dance on Amazon.com.

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.

PRESERVING THE WORK

5 May

The events of this week made me realize there is so much more to a ballet archive than the simple collection of photos, film, dance notation and personal remembrances. It’s not just about the collection of materials, it’s ultimately about the preservation of the ballets within that archive.

The ongoing mission of The Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, in addition to the licensing and production of Antony Tudor’s ballets, has been to preserve Mr. Tudor’s work – his ballets, his teachings and his creative process – for future generations so they are never lost.

Antony Tudor teaching at the “old” Met – NYC, 1961

This week the National Endowment for the Arts announced an award in support of the development of The Antony Tudor Dance Studies Curriculum.  Their award, along with funding from the Jerome Robbins Foundation, the CORPS de Ballet and the Cornelius N. Bliss Memorial Fund, will allow the Trust’s “Curriculum Committee” to complete lesson plans for a dance curriculum which will offer a multifaceted, comprehensive approach to learning the work of Antony Tudor. The curriculum, intended for university dance programs, will include Tudor’s method of choreographic composition; his unique use of gesture and movement; the application of choreographic phrases in partnering, pointe and men’s classes; and, of course, Tudor’s unique musicality. Archival images, performance video, and studio exercises will be part of the package.

According to Sally Brayley Bliss, Trustee of the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, “engaging the student-dancer on a level where significant learning takes place is the most effective means for preserving Tudor’s work. A fully developed Tudor Curriculum will best serve to assist dance teachers and students in the interpretation, presentation, and performance of Antony Tudor’s choreography…. it is vitally important this be done now while those who worked directly with Antony Tudor are here and ready to share their knowledge.”

Tudor at “old” Met, including left to right Pina Bausch, Jennifer Masley, James Waring, Bruce Marks – June 1961. Photo: Liz Sawyer

According to Mikhail Baryshnikov, former Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre, performing in even one Tudor ballet amounted to “a passport to become mature, to be an adult dancer, a dancer in-depth…”.

This week the NEA endorsed The Trust’s mission to insure Antony Tudor’s legacy – the development of an education program that engages young dancers in the choreographic complexities and creative process of his unique style.  Tudor was one of the great masters of 20th century choreography. The Tudor Curriculum will ensure his legacy will live on through learning. I’m excited!

ABOUT ANTONY TUDOR:

Antony Tudor was one of the giants of twentieth century choreography. He presented his works at American Ballet Theatre’s first season, and continued to choreograph works for companies throughout the world. His ballets have been performed by the world’s leading ballet companies including Paris Opera Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and the Royal Ballet. Tudor was Choreographer Emeritus at American Ballet Theatre, and also was a renowned teacher at The Juilliard School, where he was a founding faculty member of the School’s Dance Division.

Tudor rehearsing “Little Improvisations” with Lance Westergard and Lee Wagner at Juilliard – 1964. Photo: Liz Sawyer

Licensing for performances of Antony Tudor’s ballets has been more or less consistent since Mr. Tudor’s death in 1987, with the exception of a spike in performances during Mr. Tudor’s Centennial year in 2008. Almost every major ballet company, regional dance company, university dance program, and international ballet school desires to have Tudor ballets in its repertoire.

Adria Rolnik, author of Adriaballetbeat, is Web Coordinator and Archivist  (Photos, Materials, Memorabilia) for the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust.

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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