It’s been almost six months since I returned to ballet. I should’ve started documenting back then in order to capture everything when they were still fresh in my mind. But I can be rather lazy when it comes to writing, so it’s taken me this long to finally jot down the bits and pieces of note to help me track my progress.
As a quick back-track, here are my insights from those first few months, in case anyone tinkering with the idea of returning to the barre comes across this:
You might be greeted by intimidation. It was exhilarating to be doing ballet again. Putting on those ballet slippers was like reawakening the child and an old forgotten dream. I was so giddy inside, I couldn’t wait to get to the barre and do my first plié, confident that I could still do it properly and not look or feel like an idiot. But a few minutes into the first barre exercise, the intimidation set in. I noticed how some women in my class had really high extensions (and turned a slight tinge of green), knew the proper port de bras and the epaulements to match (coordination was not weaved into my DNA), had much lower back bends (grrr…), and even do a split (damn!). It didn’t help either that another teacher or two would join the class to warm up or just for the hell of it (thank you for making us mere mortals feel even more inferior – I say that with love, if you guilty ones ever end up reading this. Teehee). And because I was watching them – and how beautifully most of them were performing at the barre, I felt that I, too, was being watched as the newbie class clown. And all these factors can totally throw you off your game.
But don’t let it. The feeling of intimidation will soon disappear. At least it should. Remember that many of these women have either been at it longer than you, or have had a shorter break in dance lessons, and therefore more flexible and proficient by now. Everybody starts from the beginning, right? So at some point, they, too, were just as awkward as you. Don’t sweat it, just go on your own pace and keep on dancing.
Nobody is watching you. It’s easy to feel self-conscious when you’re facing a wall of mirrors and surrounded by beautiful and more experienced dancers. You can’t help but sneak a peek at their perfect arches, their high developpés, and what not. Maybe they’re stealing a glance at you, too, but chances are they’re not. On top of the brain power needed for each combination, there’s also a whole litany of everything you need to keep in check from start to finish while doing the exercises, and every dancer knows just how long and tricky that list is. Completing them as correctly and perfectly as possible requires a lot of effort, focus, and concentration. So in all likelihood, your classmates are too busy watching themselves. As you should be doing so as well.
Ask questions and tell your teacher your goals. Different people have different reasons for taking adult ballet. For some it might be plain recreational, while for others, as a fun fitness regimen. Then there are those who aspire to dance like a professional (or at least come close to it). If you fall under the third category, it’s especially important to talk to your teacher and tell her/him what you want to get out of your lessons. Because adult ballet dancers have almost no hope of going pro, the tendency for many teachers is to not be as attentive or not give as many corrections to their adult students as they would to a younger dancer with more pro potential. So ask a lot of questions. Expressly discuss your goals with them. Doing so will not only show your genuine interest, but it will also make your teacher pay closer attention to you. You’ll receive more corrections (and that’s always a good thing isn’t it?) and compliments as you improve your technique. But more importantly, it will help your teacher train you to be the dancer you want to become.
You need to ‘feel’ the position. Sometimes it’s not enough to follow what the teacher or a fellow student is doing. The position you’re holding may look right, but being new or absent for x number of years most likely means you’re seeing things from an untrained eye, and thereby not doing it properly.
Take your basic tendu, for instance. Just extend your leg to the front, point your toes, and there you go. Simple enough, right? How can I – or anyone for that matter, possibly get that wrong? But the teacher comes over, squats and manoeuvres my leg. “Ouch! Dude, that kinda hurts. Ok, really. Fuck. That’s enough, my leg can only turn out so far! Stop it. Stoppittt!!!” But he holds it in place, long enough for my muscle memory to take it in and remember the pain, remember the placement. Sometimes all it takes is one time. “You’ve got a really good turn out,” he smiles at me. “Don’t you realise you’re actually gifted? Your turn out’s better than most. Not all people have that, you know? Even I don’t! You’re lucky!” I have a good what? Really? ME? Who knew?
So ok, apparently I’ve got a natural turn out that a lot of dancers need to work for, and I didn’t even know it. But because I was never made to feel how the right placement was supposed to be, I wasn’t reaching my maximum potential in executing a position – I needed to feel it right to get it right. Upon the next exercise, I was able to turn out my legs the way I was supposed to because those babies learned where to go. And it wasn’t just muscle memory. It felt right. And I’m not just talking about turn-outs. This goes for everything. The first time I did a perfect pirouette, I was practicing at home. I wasn’t standing in front of a mirror or anything, I just randomly decided to give it a go. And whoosh! A perfect landing in fourth! I may not have seen it, but it felt right. My knees were locked in position, my arms in the right port de bras, and I ended with my eyes back on the same spot. It was one of the best feelings. It was perfect and I knew it. The only sucky part was that nobody was around to see it. But alas, such as ballet!
The next time you’re uncertain about what you’re doing and your teacher doesn’t call you out, you’re either doing it correctly (so yay!) or it’s been overlooked. When in doubt, just ask. Always ask. Your teacher will appreciate that, and will only be happy to help.
There are good days and there are bad days. Just because you’ve nailed that pirouette once, doesn’t mean you’ll perform it as cleanly on the next try. You can do a all your combinations perfectly on one day, and be struggling on another. Progress takes time. Build strength and work on your endurance. Stretch to improve your flexibility. But sometimes, yes, we know. It. Just. Ain’t. Happening. And it’s alright. We’ve all been there before, and we still go through that today. Pirouettes and arabesques and piqué turns and such take time to master. No one’s an overnight sensation here. Maybe it’s because we didn’t eat right before class, or our muscles are just out of sorts that day, or we’re stressed out about something at work. Whatever the reason for our malfunction, it happens and it’s cool. Just don’t be a cop out and keep coming up with excuse for poor performance. Address the situation, practice constantly, and never give up. And one fine day…
…You’ll be surprised at your progress. As with any skill you’re trying to learn, again, it doesn’t happen overnight. A lot of time and effort are required. You’ll need to keep practicing, much like when you were back in school – you’d come home and review your lessons, do homework. It’s the same with ballet. It’s not over just because you’ve left the studio. You take it home with you and you practice everyday. You warm up and do your stretches, go through your ballet syllabus (if have have one), or practice the combinations learned in class (it’s always helpful to keep a notebook or use your smartphone to log the day’s exercises). Keep at it long and hard enough and you’ll be shocked to find yourself holding that retiré en relevé for a good 5 seconds – achievement unlocked!
Ballet is simply beautiful. It is transcendence, it is expression, it is music, it is movement. It is art. But it is also a hundred million miles from Easy Street. It’s one big chain of challenges looped into infinity and never ends. There are times when you think it’s easier to fail at it than it is to succeed. But that intoxicatingly indescribable feeling you get after that one, single, perfect but fleeting pirouette after so many hours put in and so much pain endured will be so worth it, it will be memorable, and it will make you want to keep coming back to the studio for more.