ballet

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Learning from dancers

You might not be surprised either that I spend a lot of time driving back and forth between two dance schools or that a lot of the conversation en route is about dance. LoLo came up with something recently which made me stop and think. It was about the value of correction, and we thought there was a lesson in there from the way dancers approach being corrected. 

‘Correction is the teacher giving you some of their time just to you to help you improve and it’s better than just being ignored. In some schools, if you’re being ignored, they don’t think you’re good enough so they don’t bother to say anything. Instead of saying, You’re good but this is how you could be even better, you get nothing.’ (LoLo)

Dancers view correction not as something to be feared, but as something they crave because it is how they get better, and because they know that although nothing they ever do will be perfect, they can always improve.

Not all correction is equally valuable, however. What we really want is specific correction.

‘Lift your leg higher’ is not wildly helpful. Breaking down the movement into all its constituent parts and going through them slowly, possibly also helping to move your leg as you step through it so you can feel what you should be experiencing – that is helpful.

Correction is different from criticism. 

‘With correction, they want you to be better and they’re helping you to do that. In some schools they will just criticise you, like say you’re never going to get anywhere.’ (LoLo)

And nobody likes or benefits from that.

There is also something about the way in which correction is received.

‘Some choreographers are open to other ideas but you can’t just say “I don’t accept that” or be rude in any way to them. Dancers are some of the most polite people on the planet.’ (LoLo)

An example of the way dancers approach their classes is the ritual at the end of each class called the révérence (French pronunciation, please). This is a simple or elaborate set of steps ‘which exemplifies ballet’s traditions of courtesy, dignity, elegance and respect’ (Eliza Gaynor Minden – LoLo quote from her Ballet Bible aka The Ballet Companion).

This révérence is a thank you to your teacher or the ballet master and to the accompanist, your partner if it was a performance, and the conductor for the music. And all those curtseys or bows at the end of a performance are a simple révérence – the dancers are saying thank you to the audience.

We think those traditions would go a long way to making life more harmonious, and that seems like something we could do with a lot more of at the moment.

Back to that ‘I don’t accept that’ concept we mentioned earlier. Have you noticed how it seems to be becoming the standard government response to any suggestion that something might be amiss? That attitude would not get them past their first dance lesson, and more widely it struck us that there might be something we can all learn from dancers. Correction given and received in the right way can only make us better.

The ballet blog

I really have no business writing a blog about ballet, not after two weeks. But I’m going to anyway, because these are just my first observations, the ones I made before I (hopefully) start to get at least one thing right. And I’m going to start with my comparison with what I know a bit better – running.

Most people, barring medical issues, are able to run. Maybe slowly, maybe a bit faster. And it can be as simple as getting the right basic clothing and something for your feet (or not), going outside and putting one foot in front of the other and repeating. Put that way, it might sound repetitive and boring, but when you start to look around and notice the world you are running by, every run is different and some runs can be close to meditative. On the technique front, there is a lot we can improve, and probably a lot we should improve, to help us go faster without more effort, to keep us injury free, and sometimes just to get us to  a place where we are enjoying running again, but we can also just happily carry on running as we were and nobody is going to mind (or probably even notice).

Not so ballet. It only works properly when you are doing it all correctly. And doing it correctly involves pretty much every muscle in your body, including ones I didn’t even know existed two weeks ago, all working together at the same time and in the right way. When you see a ballet dancer standing there on the stage, that is not relaxed. They have more muscles engaged just to stand properly than you or I probably use in the course of a full day.

Here’s an example of the difference, as measured in my entirely unscientific way:

Time needed to notice sweat building up. Running – 20+ minutes or so. Doing plié (think knee bends) exercises – 2 minutes. Tops. Let me see if I can get this right – shoulders over hips, hips over ankles, legs turned out (from the hip, never the knee), weight on the balls of your feet, neck extended, arms extended, core engaged, head up – and don’t forget to smile. Help! And now you can start to do a plié. Knees need to move in line with the direction of your feet, no leaning back or forward, your body should be going straight up and down. And that’s just how to bend your knees properly. Give me a 15 mile run any day.

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The closest you will get to seeing me in tights…

What I’ve noticed immediately is that to perform any individual movement in ballet, so many part of your body have to be working in synch, certainly more than I can keep in my head at one time. And that is before we even start putting anything together in just the most basic of combinations (believe me, they do not feel that basic!) If you watch Strictly Come Dancing/Dance with the Stars, you might remember the judges’ comments on some of the couples (well, the celebrities) who are clearly thinking through the steps still. I have a lot more sympathy now. Just remembering to do a single movement to the front, side and back, with the correct turn-out, in time to the music, and moving only the correct parts of my body… it’s not a pretty sight. And then you have to turn and do it all on the opposite side, by which time I am still trying to work out at what point I lost the plot in the original sequence.

There is a reason that most of the professional ballet dancers you see started young. Dancing is like driving a car. To begin with, that clutch/acceleration combination is close to impossible, then suddenly it starts to work, then you wonder what the problem ever was. Learning to perform all these steps and positions and co-ordinate them is something they learn to do when they are little sponges and don’t care about getting it wrong. And by the time they hit their teenage years, some of them have been doing it for a decade. That is a lot of practice, but not as much as the amount a few will end up doing every day as professionals, in addition to the performances you and I might go to see. The morning after that performance, while we are still talking about what we saw, they will be back practicing their pliés, tendus and battements (see, you get to learn French while learning ballet). It is relentless, but that is what it takes to get to that level. We got to see that earlier in the year when we went on a behind the scenes look at Northern Ballet’s 1984 and at the end were asked if we wanted to watch their morning class. Needless to say we stayed until the last of them had left the stage over an hour later.

And then there is the performance element, the bit that makes one dancer stand out from the rest. They have to have that just to get into the company, never mind progress through the ranks.

The good news is that you will never have to watch me trying to do any of this. However, you might want to watch a few minutes of the Royal Ballet’s daily class instead. Obviously they do more than I do in my class, and they know what they are doing, but at least now I can watch it and think, I know what they are doing, and I can sometimes even see how they are doing it. This is what they do every day. It’s what I’m learning to do (a bit).

In case it wasn’t already obvious, my real reason for taking these classes is to understand a little better what a dancer is doing when we see him or her on the stage so I am able to write (at some future stage, but this is the year I have time for the classes) from the perspective of a dancer, because I realised that this was something which you cannot understand by watching or having it explained to you. You have to experience it, even just a few weeks, and then see the professionals doing it. Only then can you start to see what is really going on, and just how remarkable ballet really is.

Meantime, I have my running to remind me that there are some things I have learned to do better, even if ballet is not (yet) one of them. And it’s fun to be an absolute beginner at something and remember what it’s like to start from nowhere! I am also running differently (yes, including practicing my hand positions on empty country roads – another thing you will never see) because my body is learning to move differently. Anyone for the splits? Ouch.

Dedication

I have now been to Mecca. Or at least the one of ballet in Scotland, imaginatively called Scottish Ballet. This was for LoLo’s audition, which we didn’t get to see (this is a good thing, it’s not fair to put parents through that kind of experience).

Associate-programme

Thanks to Google maps, we knew where we were going but the reality is always different from how you imagine it, just as everyone imagines the characters and scenes in a book differently, no matter how painstakingly the author has given details of everything. We knew we had to turn right at a church and spotted that straight away, but what we hadn’t seen on Streetview was the incredibly obvious Scottish Ballet building beside it (you’ll see from the picture at the end that it’s hard to miss!). It’s part of a building which was used to build over 1,200 trams from the 1900s and later aircraft wings during the Second World War. And of course, having never been anywhere near that part of Glasgow, we knew nothing of the history of the building.

The sole purpose of being there was dance, but as well as partly housing and partly hiding Scottish ballet, depending on which side of the building you enter from, there was a beautiful garden looking out onto a large mosque next door,

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as well as rolling exhibitions of various forms of artwork inside and a huge brick chimney outside (aka photo op):

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The auditions were in groups of 20-25 and it’s always impressive to see the dedication and determination of these youngsters, for some of whom dance is the most important thing in their lives. There was lots of swapping of favourite steps, plans for the future (dance only of course) and e-mail addresses. And we found out about other dance programmes from other parents, which we’ve since been investigating further. The bottom line is that there is no short way to success in dance – it takes time, effort and a lot of resilience. Much like anything else worth doing. And you could see on their faces how much they enjoyed what they do, no matter how far it takes them.

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