Balletbones Bag!

“Do you have a favourite font?”

“Whuuut??” was my mental reply to a rather strange text from one of my best friends. I started throwing sans serif font names out there before asking why. Turns out, one of her cousins, who also happens to be a good friend of mine from college, recently started a bag project with her sister. They’re simple yet lovely canvas tote bags with personalised statements. Straps are genuine leather. The best part – they’re handcrafted by persons with disabilities.

My friend thought she’d get me one as a belated birthday gift and suggested my blog name to put on it. How absolutely sweet and thoughtful of her! So I gave her my blog’s font (which I actually like) and lookie……

photo

…My new ballet bag! One of a kind and can ONLY be mine! Ok, so I don’t have it yet, but I do hope to get it soon. I can’t wait to start using it, it’s perfect!

Teacher Throwback

As I took my place at the barre for the first time in decades, I remembered my teacher’s words when I was a kid, “Popo’s in, girls!” she would remind us. I adjusted my body according to memory, her instructions echoing within. “Heel, ball, toe. Toe, ball, heel,” I could clearly hear her voice as I attempted my first tendu exercise many years later. Pliés were next, and I vividly recalled how she would slap the sides of her thighs open to demonstrate how to properly do it. “Knees over your toes, girls!” It was like having two teachers at the same time – the one physically present, and the one in my head. Years of absence aside, I think I fared quite well that first class as an adult. At least I got the basics right, which my teacher complimented me on for still having ‘good form’. What a taste of ballet heaven that was!

Yesterday after class, my teacher and I had our usual post-class smokes. It’s been a ritual since day 1 (us being the only smokers in this studio). We usually go over how the class went, how I did well on that, how I need to improve on this, etc. He also sometimes tells me about common bad habits and how much more difficult those are to correct. And he’s seen quite a few of them. That got me thinking then about any bad habits I may have. We both agreed that the things I do wrong are only because I either never learned to do them (I did quit at a young age), or have forgotten how to do them properly – but that I didn’t really have any bad habits per se, thank God.

That led me back to thinking about my first ballet teacher. I wondered if he knew her. The ballet world here in Manila is very small. So small that most, if not all, of the pioneer dancers know each other one way or another. They were either contemporaries at some point, or trained under the same people. Anyway, I gave her name, and his eyes grew big and bright. “Oooooh, she’s verrry good! No wonder you’re that way, she was your teacher!” He then went on to tell me that she’d moved to the US and put up her own school there.

So I got curious. I looked her up and just as he said, she was in San Francisco, the Artistic Director of her own (and internationally recognised) dance school. Not only is she churning out top class dancers, but has successfully made YAGP’s Most Outstanding for several years! Like, WOW, man!

I’m only now realising how lucky I was to have been under the tutelage of one so talented to have given me the proper foundations in dance. I know I still have a long way to go but I’m glad I didn’t end up being one of those students with all these bad habits. I was trained well, and I was trained right. She wasn’t just another ballet teacher. I felt compelled to reach out and thank her and express my appreciation. And what a surprise to get a reply in a couple of hours! I’m not sure if she remembers me (hell, this was in the 80s, she’s had hundreds of students since!), but was very touched by my message. Dance must really be in her blood as her daughter, she tells me, is about to start a two year pre-professional ballet program, while her son is currently part of a competition (hip hop) for America’s Best Dance Crew (please vote for Kinjaz at abdcvote.mtv.com. You can vote multiple times until August 29). I’m not at all into hip hop, but the dancing is very well worth the award, I hope they win!

Elated as I am to have been under her, I also couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of remorse as I went through her website, reading about her and her school’s achievements, and watching her students’ videos. It makes me wonder how I would’ve turned out as a dancer had I not been that stupid child foolish enough to quit. How good would I have been? How far could I have gone?

These questions are all for naught I know, and there really is no sense in regretting. I still consider myself really fortunate – to have lucked out on my first try as an adult with an equally brilliant teacher. I’m sure I can go a long way with this one, and I won’t waste the opportunity this time around.

The Search for New Shoes

So I spent some time over the weekend looking for a replacement pair for my crappy Blochs, because what I thought was annoying yet tolerable was actually affecting my performance (ok, that has yet to be proven, but I’m pretty certain the shoes play a big part here). I went to the two dance shops near my area in search of leather split soles (I know many people use canvas ones but I’m partial to leather only because I got accustomed to them as a kid; and canvas, I hear, tend to wear out more quickly).

The first store carried Sanchas and Blochs. Noooooooo freaking way! Given that my first and rather troublesome adult pair are by the Aussie manufacturers, I developed an allergic reaction to them. Not only do I have to get a new pair after only less than 8 months (what a waste!), even worse is that I now need to re-train myself to relevé.

Needless to say, I tried the Sanchas on first. Major fail, man. They didn’t have my size. So fine, I had no choice but to reluctantly try on the Blochs. But heeeeeeey, wait a minute! They actually fit quite nicely! And look even better than what I currently have. With a gaping smile and a renewed fervour, I immediately checked the footbed and felt around to make sure that they were attached more securely to avoid having the same problem over again. They seemed pretty well attached so I asked to have them reserved for a few days while I scout around for other options. Even though I found myself quite satisfied with this one, I still felt the need to see what else was out there.

The second store on the other hand, had Capezios, which was what I was really gunning for since I grew up with them. I was once again disappointed though, as that the kind I wanted only came in a very displeasing beige colour. Umm, no.  Also, the footbed, which I am now so sensitive of, was definitely trouble. Forget that. The last option now was the SoDanca. Third out of four fails. Tried a couple of sizes and they were all loose around the toes.

Guess that leaves me going back to Bloch, haha. Prolite II with elastics now pre-sewn this time. I picked them up this evening and so far they’ve been pretty obedient here at home. Let’s see how they perform in class tomorrow!

I’m a Dance Leftie…or Am I?

We all know about anatomical asymmetries. At some point, we’ve put our hands together and measured them slowly against each other to validate the biological dictate that one hand is slightly shorter than the other. We’ve looked in the mirror and noticed how one eye is a little different than the other; bought shoes and felt one side a tad bit tighter than the other, etc. But no biggie, nobody really gives two hoots about this stuff since it bears no significant or consequential impact on our daily routines. That is, until ballet.

It was only when I started doing ballet again that I discovered just how much this physical imbalance rears its fugly head when you’re dancing. Ok, not quite about the size of your hands and so on, but how  your dominant side will strongly manifest itself and impact your performance. In my case, it’s the left.

A few months in and it’s clear that my left leg is way stronger than my right. I learned to balance en relevé quicker on my left (I’m still working on my right!), pirouettes en dehors are much easier on the left (let’s not even go to en dedans), and my hip is somewhat more loose on the left as well. It’s pretty frustrating when you can do all these fairly well on one side but not the other.

I used to be convinced that my right leg just needed more work, practice and strengthening, and I’ll admit that work has kept me from practicing as much at home, but hey, it’s been almost 8 months since I started again, and I still can’t get it right for the most part. So what gives?

At this point I’m pretty sure it must be something else apart from the right being the weaker side. So the other night, I once again tried a retiré en relevé first on my left leg. As soon as I got up, I already knew I was going to nail it. I felt light, and it felt right. I let go of the wall which I was holding on to for support, and viola! There I was, a little wobbly at first, but stabilised and completely in control. I found my centre, my body aligned correctly, and my toes were firmly on the ground.

The other side was the total opposite. I felt heavy, and could barely let go of the wall. I was just all over the place. Trying to analyse the cause to this disgraceful attempt, I noticed that I was partly balancing on the ball of my foot, instead of on my toes, resulting an eventual sickling and getting thrown off balance. My knee wasn’t as strong either. For some reason, I just couldn’t lock it in the way I do on the left side.

So why am I balancing incorrectly? Why am I doing it wrong on one side but not on the other? This can’t just be a matter of the dominant side being, well, dominant. There has to be something else that’s causing it and It’s really pissing me off.

In trying to isolate the problem, I think of my slippers (Bloch Prolite II Hybrid), and how the footbed – that doesn’t extend the length of the shoe and aren’t stitched at the edges, but about a centimetre away from it – tend to curl up and fold down at the ball area. They’re bothersome, and I find myself trying to flatten them out in vain with my toes every now and then. My teacher told me to  whack it flat with a hammer, the way he and his fellow dancers used to. So I tried that trick, and it does work – for all of 5 seconds until I tendu, and it curls up again. Argh! He then suggested I rip them out if they’re just glued, but they’re stitched and they’re the only pair I have; I don’t want to risk ruining them completely until I have a second pair.

While I’ve learned to ignore and tolerate it for some time, it’s now driving me mad. To think that that could be what’s caused me all this time to train myself incorrectly by balancing on the ball of my foot rather than my toes. And if so, then it has definitely worked its curse up the rest of my leg and possibly up my hip (I find myself sitting on it when on relevé).

My teacher caught me banging my water bottle down on my slippers the other day. Partly in shock and partly amused, he told me to just go get a new pair already (and keep my first pair in a jar for posterity). Ballet slippers – as with any shoe – should be comfortable, but I guess I didn’t quite realise how detrimental even an ill-fitting  soft shoe can be to one’s performance. Pfffft.

Guess I’ll be shoe shopping this week. I’ll find out soon after if I’m really a dance leftie or not.

Ballet’s Enemy

I was going to include this in my previous post about my initial insights on ballet, but I felt it deserved its own entry. Just because.

It must’ve been sometime during my first couple of weeks in class and I was still feeling rather inferior and insecure. We were given a combination that involved a pirouette. It’s apparently one of the hardest things to master in ballet (I certainly never thought so, given that I could turn and spot pretty well as a child) so we were given exercises deconstructing the steps to allow for a cleaner execution.

Some got through correctly while others were rather wobbly. Nonetheless, they were able to complete their pirouettes. I, on the other hand, was the only complete disaster. I’m not going to go into detail of just how dismal my turns were but let’s just say that even though I didn’t fall on my ass, my self confidence was utterly shattered. And because I can be pretty transparent, my teacher noticed my disappointment immediately. He looked directly at me, and as he opened his mouth, I thought, “Uh-oh, here it comes, he’s going to call me out and I’m going to be totally embarrassed in front of everyone.”

Receiving corrections in ballet is a good thing, but for some reason this time, I was just about ready to cry. Then I noticed how his eyes had softened as he turned to speak to me. “You know,” he started, and instead of wanting to dart out of the studio, I actually wanted to listen. I wanted to hear what he had to say. “The enemy of ballet is frustration. If you allow yourself to be frustrated, you’ll never be able to master a step. These things take a lot of time. No one gets it right away. You just need to keep practicing, and one day, you’ll see. Just don’t ever let frustration get in the way.”

Cue the choir of angels and butterflies and flowers and rainbows and a spritz of spring breeze. All of a sudden I felt like I was in one of those asinine laundry commercials after a test wash and everything in the world was clean and white and bright and right again.

Maybe not exactly words of wisdom as it applies to many aspects of life, but hearing it verbalised awakened an unrealised or forgotten yet powerful truth, and it was the very thing I needed to hear right at that moment. And just like in the laundry commercial in my retarded little mind, his words washed away not just my frustrations, but all feelings of insecurity and trepidation from being the awkward newcomer. It’s been a few months since that day, and I have never stepped back into that studio feeling unconfident again.

Thank you, Teacher S, you are love. Ballet love.

Changements

1258908431_petit-changement-de-pieds


I remember being all of 7 or 8 years old and being able to nail about 50 to 100 of those in one go, just bouncing around the house like a pogo stick possessed. Yeah well, that pogo stick’s long rusted and gone. Just 16 of those bloody changements now have me in a heaving, panting, wasted mess. I’ve got my knees buckling, tongue hanging down to the floor, and hand clutching the side of my lower back for dear life.

How did those things get so difficult to execute?! Damn these grandma pills 😦

Sixth Month Mark

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.

The Big Epiphany

The decision to go back to ballet wasn’t a spontaneous one. It wasn’t like, “Ah crap, a couple more months until the next season of Game of Thrones…let’s do ballet in the meantime!” It had more to do with health concerns, with me being 41 and never really having been a gym enthusiast. In fact, you’d never find my name and the words ‘exercise’, ‘fitness’, and ‘work-out’ in the same sentence before.

I’ve always been skinny. Scrawny, even. Because of this, I never felt the need to diet or watch my weight. Diet Coke-Schmiet Coke. Gimme the real thing! I want my cola in all its blissful, saccharine and refreshing goodness. If anything, gaining weight was more of a challenge than actually losing it. That was just so much easier somehow. Skinny girl problems, I know, I’m sorry. I’m not bragging or anything, I was never even vain. It’s just how it had always been for me. But being middle-aged has a way of creeping up on you. I would find myself out of breath just climbing a flight of stairs (ok, it’s the smoking, too). My metabolism slowed down in the last few years, resulting in an ever so repulsive gut. I even gave up soda to further prevent the bloating. It was easy to hide at first, but nonetheless upsetting. Still, it grew and grew and grew, and then boom! All of a sudden there was this monster ass flab that was clutching on to my middle section for dear life. And because somebody up there forgot about me when when distributing breasts, I ended up resembling a fucking tadpole. Seriously.

It was then that vanity kicked in and I knew it was time to let go of my exercise-free life history and do something if I wanted to deflate back into shape. So I started walking. For an hour. At least. Everyday. In the middle of winter. In the midwest where I was visiting my mother for the holidays. I come from Southeast Asia – we do not do winter. We love our summers and our beaches and our oceans. But I forged on in subzero temperatures. And eagerly so, every morning after my coffee and before my brunch. After a while the gloves would come off and I would break into a sprint. My endurance improved. I could run for longer periods before slowing down to a jog. I finally understood the feeling of endorphins working their magic. They worked even better having an empty golf course for a trail all to myself.

Don’t let that December sun deceive you. It was -3ºC / 26ºF that day.

Those peaceful daily walks then got me thinking. I was only going to be in the US for about another month before flying back home. There’s nowhere near where I live where you can have a green, quiet, and obstacle-free walk. Nowhere. So how was I supposed to sustain this then? Going to the gym was out of the question, I simply find it too much of a chore, and way too boring. I did one yoga session and absolutely hated it. Same with Pilates. 45 minutes in and I was done with it. So what then?

I suddenly remembered reading about some barre workouts, and somewhere from the inner depths of my head, a rather vague memory of women taking adult ballet started to emerge. Did I remember that right? Adult ballet?? So I did a bit of research and sure enough, this wonderful phenomena does exist! And there are studios near my area back home!

And there was my big epiphany. The first thing I was going to do when I get back home was to enrol. I couldn’t wait. I was going to go back to ballet.

I’m Back

When I was three years old I wanted to be like Nadia Comaneci. I didn’t quite understand what the Olympics was back then, nor what the hell this girl was doing on those bars. But I was entranced by her every movement and what she could do with her body. Every somersault, every twirl, every split, leap and landing – even to a mere 3-year-old was the image of beauty and perfection. And I told my mother I wanted to be just like that. I wanted to be a gymnast!

Of course she had other ideas and enrolled me in ballet instead. I can’t recall what my first classes were like, but I must’ve enjoyed them quite a bit as I slowly forgot about my girl crush on Nadia and her kick-ass swings on the parallel bars. The fascination I once had in seeing such exquisite form on a pommel horse was replaced by the sheer excitement in simply slipping my small ugly dance feet into a new pair of Capezio’s. With the ribbons. Oh, those lovely pink satin ribbons. The smoothness of the pale rose-coloured strips of heavenly fabric was what made the slippers. All of a sudden, my quasi arch-less feet didn’t look as bad anymore. At the very least, they came close to looking a bit more like a real ballerina’s. And made me feel like one too. I became pretty engrossed in ballet that I had forgotten I was even interested in gymnastics in the first place.

But unfortunately, my love for ballet started to wane as I got a little older. I became a bit more tomboyish, spending a lot of time with two guy cousins my age. I wanted to do judo like they did. I played with their Tonkas and action figures, and built robots with Lego. Soon, I was feeling pressured to be going to ballet class when I could be roughing it up with the boys on a Saturday afternoon. I didn’t care about scraping my knees gliding down their driveway on a skateboard. I also started to care less for pink, and would later be nauseated at the fact that my whole room and almost everything in it was bloody pink. I started to puke pink and for the next 30 or so years never even wore the damn colour.

I must’ve been around 11 or 12 when I eventually quit ballet shortly after a Christmas recital. I was so happy to not have to give up my weekday afternoons and Saturdays to dance that I’ve never looked back on it since. Until now.

And this is where my new journey as a returning ballet dancer begins.