The fun, the challenge of teaching ballet

I know I don’t look like a ballet dancer.

I borrowed that line from my old artistic director who gave a presentation during intermission of our school-show performances of the Nutcracker.

I borrowed a few things from him and a few other teachers when I taught a few kids in the local university’s music outreach program this week.

I taught two music and movement classes with the director of the university’s music program.

It wasn’t your traditional 90-minute barre-centre class.

My part of the classes consisted of about 30 minutes each.

What can you do in 30 minutes?

I taught the positions of the feet, and of the arms. I also talked a little about ballet etiquette.

And then I showed them a few simple steps during Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the Feeling.

And let me tell you, making it up as you go along is probably not entirely the best method of teaching choreography. If I ever get a chance to do it again, I’ll do a much better job studying the music.

George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins I am not.

I threw in tendues, degages, glissades (simple, broken down) and simple jumps.

What can you teach when you are working with kids aged 3 to 11 (and most closer to 3 than 11)?

I now have a lot more appreciation of my former teachers. It was not easy. But it was fun.

And the kids were enthusiastic. That included some of the boys, a couple in particular who seemed to take an interest in what you were trying to teach.

I’m glad to see maybe we are advancing a little more when it comes to attitudes toward dance … ballet in particular.

The music director indicated she might invite me back.

I wouldn’t mind that at all.

And even though I’m about 70 miles away from legitimate adult classes, I’m considering plunging back in even though I’m now 52 years-old and have put on a few pounds.

I was recently diagnosed as a Type 2 diabetic, and the doc says I need to exercise more.

Might as well do the form of exercise you enjoy the most.

teaching

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Teach ballet? You must be joking

A few months ago, I judged an American Idol-like singing contest in the small New Mexico town where I now live.

I was one of three judges. The others were the music program director at the local university and a Grammy-winning Irish tenor.

I confessed that I had no singing ability whatsoever.

But I told the music program director that I had performance experience. I told her I once performed minor roles with a ballet company.

Famous last words, I guess.

A few weeks ago, she asked me to help her with a master class she teaches for outreach kids.

It’s a music and movement class.

She asked me if I would teach ballet steps to the kids to a Justin Timberlake song.

I told her I didn’t have any experience with choreography, but yeah, I would give it a try.

It’s now been broken up into two days. And college students will be participating.

“Everybody will be dancing,” she said.

The song: “I can’t stop this feeling.”

I told my old artistic director. I’m sure he got a good laugh out of it.

Fortunately for me, it’s only going to go about a half-hour each time.

We’ll go over the different positions.

And I’m sure the rest will involve plenty of tendues, degages, plies and maybe a few simple jumps thrown in.

Should be quite an experience.


The Only Boy in the Room

He felt the stares as he walked into the room.

This wasn’t the first time. He still felt a little nervous each time class was about to begin.

He observed the girls as they put on their shoes and checked their hair.

They were nice to him. He didn’t complain.

He took his place at the barre, hoping he didn’t seem like an intruder in their space.

He was new at this studio, but not new to ballet.

But still, he didn’t quite feel at home.

He knew he wasn’t one of them. He wondered what they thought.

He’d heard snickers before when he had the audacity to know what few boys in the South ever did.

Take ballet? Are you serious?

Wouldn’t you rather play football, basketball or baseball?

Aren’t you afraid people are going to think you’re gay?

He’d heard those questions before from family members and friends.

Or at least he considered them friends.

He had been called a sissy at school.

And sometimes he didn’t want people to know that he took ballet, that he wore tights, that he loved dance.

Having moved to this small town, he still had thoughts that he didn’t quite belong.

Boys don’t dance. At least not in the South.

Especially in a town as small as this.

The nerves went away it seemed when his teacher entered the room.

She was strict. But she was kind. And very encouraging.

“Ladies and gentleman,” she would say, with an emphasis gentleman, as they began their combinations at the barre.

He lost himself when the music began to play.

Tendues, degages, frappes.

“Point your foot, Michael,” Madame Sherri would say. “Susan, use your head.”

The corrections, they came.

Trying to stay on demi-pointe was a challenge for a boy of 12 and he tried to stay in time with nine girls.

Fondue, grande battement.

Stretching in the middle of the combinations.

Aren’t you afraid you’re missing out not playing baseball, his mother asked him once.

He didn’t mind playing sports. But he wasn’t that great at them.

People didn’t understand the challenge of ballet.

If only they knew the challenge of keeping your balance during adagio.

It took more stamina than football, he once thought.

Glissade, jete, glissade jete, glissade jete right.

Glissade jete, glissade jete, glissade jete left.

He tried keeping up with the petite allegro combination.

Glissade assemble, glissade assemble.

“Very good Micheal, now use your arms,” Madame Sherri commanded.

Did he really belong here.

Yeah, he still thought that at time.

“Ballet is woman,” is a phrase the great George Balanchine once said.

Too many in the culture he lived, that was an attitude, but not in the sense the great ballet master meant.

He felt a sense of accomplishment when he finally consistently started doing triple pirouettes consistently.

He smiled as even the best of his female peers struggled to do that very thing.

His favorite part of class was grande allegro.

If petite allegro was his weakness, grande allegro was his strength.

The girls in the class took notice as he soared higher and farther than they during combinations.

Any combinations with tour jetes were his favorite.

He felt as if he was flying.

Ballet gave him a feeling he never felt playing sports.

It usually took him to the end of class, but he realized he was at home.

He didn’t mind feeling different afterall.

As his classmates curtsied and he did his princely bow, he couldn’t believe how fast class went.

He couldn’t believe how good he felt.

Editor’s note: This is a short story. It may eventually be part of a book. It is to a degree autobiographal, if there is such a word.

 

 


Against the wind

You looked out of sorts when I saw you at the Walmart entrance yesterday.

Your hair was a mess, your dress flapping against the stiff New Mexico breeze.

You looked cold wearing only the small jacket and the black stockings.

You looked lonely, like you have the other times I’ve seen you when I’ve gone to shop.

I thought about saying hello. I thought about telling you that maybe we had some of the same struggles.

You always seem out of place.

I’ve felt that way.

Like being the only boy in a ballet class long ago.

But my struggle with being out of place runs deeper.

Being out of place in your own body. Being out of place in society.

I do wonder if you’ve felt the same way I do.

And how you had the courage to deal with it.


Here’s to the dance moms who support their sons

It couldn’t have been easy for her watching her son dance in a purple unitard that matched the girls he was dancing with on stage.

That was probably the worst costume ever for a teenage boy performing with his jazz class back in the 1980s, especially in the South, where boys play football.

They don’t dance.

But to be honest, I was in pure bliss dancing the choreography to the song “Shout” by Tears for Fears.

I don’t know if I truly believed my mother when she told me she liked the dance.

She was at best a reluctant dance mom. My sister dancing, that was no big deal.

But I think me asking to take dance classes, don’t think she was really all that thrilled.

I played baseball, and sucked at it. I also played high school football.

But the notion of her son asking to take ballet and jazz, well I know it through her.

My father wasn’t thrilled, that’s for sure.

But to her credit, she let me do it.

I know she was worried about what other people thought.

No one question’s a boy’s masculinity or sexual orientation when you play football.

But back then, taking ballet or any other form of dance. That’s another story.

My mom’s a great mom, don’t get me wrong.

When I returned to ballet as an adult, she seemed excited when I invited her to whatever performance I was in, whether it was the Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet or Billy the Kid.

 

I do wonder, though, what it would have been like to have had a mother who fully supported me earlier. But I’m not complaining.

I’ve know other guys whose mothers flat out did not let them dance.

That’s why I truly admire the moms of the few boys at the schools where I’ve taken class.

While I think its more culturally acceptable nowadays, the stigma still exists and is a reason parents don’t encourage their boys to dance.

It takes a truly courageous mother as well as son to embark on a dance journey.

I’ve heard some say they’ve had to put up with snide comments. Others fear, and legitimately so, that their sons will be bullied.

But still, I’ve observed mothers and parents in general, who have given their support through hours of classes, rehearsals and performances, with words, money and even put in hours helping with costumes, props and other things backstage throughout their career.

I am thankful with Mother’s Day tomorrow for the moms who have encouraged their sons when their sons have wanted to dance.

They play a vital role in the dance world.


The night my double came back

I have always had a love-hate relationship with my pirouettes.

Some days they’re spot on. Other days, I couldn’t buy a double to save my life.

It’s been that way since I returned to dance as an adult.

And after a year away, my expectations haven’t been that great. But that’s OK. How many people are still dancing when they’re 50?

But Monday night was one of those nights when I just felt it. I was staying up long enough, I felt, what the heck, why not go for it.

I nailed doubles on both sides.

I know, it’s a modest goal.

And for once since I started back I felt reasonably well with how I did at the barre. My mind didn’t drift nearly as much. And I kept on pace with the footwork … frappes, pas de chevals, the whole works.

And centre was OK. I zigged a couple of times when I should have zagged. But my transition from pique turns to pique arabesques were OK. As were my chaine turns.

But there are steps I haven’t done in a while that I’m trying to reprocess after such a long layoff.

I want to step up my game and show these folks I can still dance, especially by the time they hold auditions in the fall for Nutcracker and the other shows they have.

Rumor has it, they might be doing Firebird.

I love the ballet. And I’d like to have more than the bit part I used to have in it back at the old studio back home.


You want me to do a “bluebird lift?” Seriously?

The first thing that came across my mind during today’s partnering class was: You’ve got to be kidding me.

I mentioned last week that it had been years since I’ve been in a partnering class. And even then, my experience is limited.

I’ve done one pas de deux in my life. And messed up.

And one to have one more shot at it.

Today, well, was a master class taught by one of the former teachers from the school who was back in town.

It was also led by a dancer with State Ballet, fresh off the Nutcracker.

The teacher from out of town, who was really good, had the pro dancer lead us through the Snow Pas de Deux from Nutcracker.

Did I mention this was only my second partnering class in eons?

We went through it in part. Boy, my promenades with my partner need work.

Near the end of the pas, there is a thing called the “Bluebird lift.”

At least in this pas.

I mentioned last week about my lack of confidence with lifts, and my lack of upper body strength in general.

I thought I would sit this part out.

“Scott, are you doing the bluebird lift?” the teacher who led the class asked.

Evidently, no was the wrong answer.

Thanks to a couple of spotters and a very trusting partner, an ancient soon to be 51-year-old not only caught a 100-pound woman, but lifted her in the air.

Much to my surprise.

“You’re really brave,” I told my partner when I lifted her back down to the ground.

“I trust you guys,” she said.

Did I mention ballerinas are fearless?

The get a bad rap. But try jumping into an aging guys arms and have him lift you above his shoulders.

I still amazed by their complete trust in their partners.

As for the regular class before, yeah, I struggled with barre again. It would help if my mind wouldn’t wander when the teacher explains the combination. Most were doable, but there are times when I wish my mind would move a little faster when remembering what step comes next.

I thought I fared well during the adagio combination. Maybe I can dance after all.

And petite allegro went OK for me. Sisonnes, how I’ve missed you.

And sense there were enough guys, we actually did a couple of men’s variations. It’s been a while since I’ve been in classes where that’s happened.

A tour-enlair? Now that’s a challenge for an old dude who hasn’t done it in a while.

But I think I did OK.

On the health front: My sugar count has dropped to its lowest level since I found out I was a type 2 diabetic.

Weighed in today after the back-to-back classes at 210.

That’s down 8 pounds since that dreaded checkup when the doctor informed me I was a diabetic, need to change my diet and exercise almost daily.

Which I do. I walk at least two miles a day on days that I don’t dance. Except Sunday. That’s the day between dance days.

My body does need a break now and then.

Thank you for putting up with the ramblings of an old dance dude few readers there are out there.

Till next time.