Monthly Archives: June 2013

What ballet has taught me about my faith

Ballet has been more than just a physical, mental activity for me.

It’s evolved into as much a spiritual journey for me as well. It’s really become a major part of my Christian faith. There are times when I dance when it truly becomes a form of worship, a celebration of thanks to the Creator for the mind, body and soul He gave me.

There are times in class when I feel He is the audience. When I do something amazing, I hope it is for His pleasure. I told a friend in class who is also a person of faith that when I stumble around (as I often do), I’m sure I made Jesus laugh.

Through the adagio partnering (pas de deux) classes I took a couple of years ago, I think I learned more about how I want my faith to be in God more than any activity I’ve ever tried.

Just a few things I learned and how they can be applied in my relationship with God.

1. I want a ballerina’s faith: I know that may seen like an odd thing for a guy to say. But when it comes to trust, a ballerina’s faith is fierce. Don’t let the tutu and tiara fool you. Think about this: You’re dancing full out on the stage. You are supposed to end it with a high leap into the arms of your partner … who is behind you … who you cannot see … and trust he will catch you.

Or letting someone pick you up by the thighs and lift you over their head while you try to maintain the perfect line … and having complete faith that your partner’s arms and shoulders won’t give way and sending you crashing to the ground and a serious injury.

Or let someone sling your body around, your head coming very close to the stage, and relying on your partner not to you slip through his fingers.

That’s a let go and let God kind of faith, putting your trust in the hands of a partner that is strong and steady.

I once had that kind of faith when it comes to my relationship with God. I can’t really say that now. But it is a fierce faith that I’d love to have.

2. There is no personal space: Not in a partnering class. Not in our relationship with God.

In a pas de deux class, you are holding, or being held, sometimes by complete strangers, in places that are normally only touched by a most intimate partner. Despite the sanitizer you might put on before class, you are going touch sweat. You’re so close you are going to know whether or not they used deodorant, or perfume

In ballet, you are a lot closer to your partner than you would ever come in just about any other form of dance. If you are taking a partnering class for the first time, your definitely out of your comfort zone.

As a Christian, I truly believe there is no personal space we can keep from God in much the same way. And there are times when I’m completely out of my comfort zone knowing that.

3. You must move in unison: In a pas de deux class or on stage, you’ve got to be in complete step with your partner. If you’re doing a ton be pas de bouree glissade combination that requires your partner to leap and you catch her, one split second off could leave her crashing to the ground.

That happened to me once, with my partner’s mother watching. Fortunately she didn’t get hurt, and I apologized over and over. You get the idea.

As a Christian, you accomplish little if you’re not moving in God’s direction. The same with working with others in a church. If you’re moving in opposite directions and not in unison, you are heading for disaster.

4. Keeping focus: In my one and only pas de deux, my partner (who is also one of my teachers) told me to keep my eyes focused on her, her eyes.

“It sells the audience to the fact that you are completely in love with me,” she said.

If we stay focused on our relationship with God, it sells others on the fact that we really do love Him and are sincere about our faith.

But also keeping focus on your partner makes sure you know where you need to be when you need to be there. If you take your eyes off of her, disaster can happen on stage.

It’s sort of like when Peter sees Jesus walking on water. It took a lot of faith for Peter to get out of the boat to join Him. When he had his eyes on Jesus, he did fine. When took his eyes off the Lord and saw the waves, he began to sink.

Just like you have to stay focused on your partner in class or on stage, as a Christian, you have to stay focused on God to be truly successful in your faith.

Sorry, didn’t mean to wax a little spiritual today.

A class with my ‘original teacher’

Have to admit, I was a little bit nervous heading into the open class this morning.

I knew my “original teacher” Vicki B. would be teaching.

What I mean by original is this: She was one of my teachers when I danced as a teenager. She was my main teacher when I returned to ballet as an adult for about three years.

But it’s been more than two years since I’ve been a regular in her class. The one class I had with her this year was right after eight performances of the Nutcracker, sickness and the Christmas break layoff. It was a “beginner” class, and quite frankly I wasn’t at my best.

She’ll be teaching the Wednesday open intermediate-advanced classes during the regular summer session, and since she used to be my main teacher, I really wanted to show how much progress I’ve made under Mr. O, Mrs. O and Susan K. Pressure, pressure.

Adding even more pressure? She’s a stickler for the fundamentals (even more so than Mrs. O). Her classes are usually pretty cerebral (brain teaser combinations) and she usually teaches to the level of the majority of students in her class.

Out of about 12 us, there were about 7-8 company girls, 1 ex-company girl home from college and two teachers who also dance as a adults.

And me.

So the barre was raised (pardon the pun) quite a bit today.

Her barre routines were as a remembered: Complicated. You really, really have to use your brain. From the get-go at barre, she is not the “OK, four tendus encroix” kind of teacher.

And to my amazement, I kept up pretty well, about as well as my much more talented comrades.

Center work was pretty complicated, especially during petite allegro. But I did OK.

I got reintroduced to Cecchetti arms and head today. Ditto for saute de basque turns and a few other steps I don’t normally do for my other teachers.

And somehow, not sure how it happened, but I danced better today with company crew in an advanced class than I did back in January in a “beginner” class with her and a couple of fellow adult recreational dancers.

I would say, “go figure?,” but seriously, it’s not the first time that I’ve danced better in the advanced class than in a beginner class. I think that’s one of the quirks of ballet.

She complimented me when I was done. 

Today, I felt like a dancer in her class. Today, she got to see the progress I’ve made.

Mission accomplished.

The sad thing now is that I’m now at the beginning of a two-week break from dance. Vacation is next week, I’m traveling to see family outside of Philadelphia (and entertained dropping in on open class at the Rock School, but thoughts of getting lost in Philly at night have pretty much done away with that notion).

A little more Balanchine

For your viewing pleasure

Young teachers can show no mercy

Usually, I don’t ask for mercy as an “old” recreational dancer (I am after all taking the last week of our summer intensive with the company crew in August).

Our teacher du jour today, a company member in her younger 20s, taught a pretty physically demanding class today as a substitute. I can’t remember being on releve’ so much at the barre during combinations in quite a while. And most of our barre routines, we had to keep going until the music completely stopped, which is not always the case with my regular group of teachers.

There were a few routines that could really be called brain teasers. Head and arms go one way, legs another.

And my personal favorite (hint of sarcasm): Yes my body can do grande plies after every developpe during adagio in the center, but it doesn’t necessarily want to do so. But it was able to accomplish the feat when prodded by the brain to do so.

And she had us to just about every kind of inside turn known to man today, including attitude and arabesque turns (yippe!). Seriously, there are times when my inside turns are cleaner than my outside turns, and that was the case today.

My experience with younger teachers is they like to amp things up when the class is made up of a majority of company dancers (which was the case today). Despite the deceptive title of “open class,” I was the only one of a recreational variety.

I really don’t mind the amped up classes, especially if there is an amped up grande allegro to go along with it (and there was!).

But after two weeks of technique building classes, the “boy I’m going to be sore after this” kind of class is somewhat of a shock.

I’d better get used to it, though. I imagine my body will be screaming for the Advil quite often during the intensive week.

A father’s influence

My father was no fan of ballet, or the notion of having a son taking ballet.

He would shout to the rooftops that his son played high school football (even though I was maybe a third-team defensive back and played mainly on special teams).

The notion of his 16-year-old son dancing in a row of seven or eight girls at a dance recital made him cringe.

His “no son of mine will take ballet” attitude kept me from taking ballet as early as I wanted to, around 11 or 12. And I’m pretty sure he was relieved when I gave up dancing after college.

The great irony is that it was partially because of him that I returned to ballet at the old age of 39. I may not have inherited his perspective on culture, but I did his body type, his eating habits and went into his profession.

He didn’t take care of himself. He was too work driven. He suffered his first massive heart attack at 41 and suffered through heart problems and dementia before passing away at 63.

My return to ballet was driven partially because I still loved it. But also because I wanted to live a healthier lifestyle, which ballet does for me in so many ways, from just keeping my body and mind active to helping me release stress from a pressure-filled job and being a single parent.

His physical ailments in part served as motivation for me to retake my position at the barre. I loved him, he was a good provider in so many ways, but he’s probably rolling in his grave with that very notion.

Tomorrow is Father’s Day for those of us in the U.S. and I can’t help but think about how important a father’s role is in the life of a dancer, especially a male dancer.

I’m reminded of a father on the tech crew of our productions who during dress rehearsal always shouted “that’s my daughter!” If my father were still around when I took the stage as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, he would have probably wanted to be as far away as possible, with a strong alcoholic drink and watching a “manly” sporting event (don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge sports fanatic).

I won’t pretend I would have gone far had my father supported my ballet dreams long ago, but I’ve seen how important fathers can be in supporting that goal from the kids I’ve danced with the last few years.

Financially, it’s no cheap thing to pay for classes every day of the week, for summer intensives and auditions, and other expenses. And many fathers do that. I’ve seen fathers go out of their way to help build sets, and “embarrass themselves” by playing minor roles in productions if they’re needed. They’re a very important part of a support group in a pursuit that can be very emotional.

I respect the jobs many of them do for their kids. It’s vital. But sadly, it’s somewhat of a double standard, even today.

“I’ll be honest, it’s so much easier for me to do this for my daughter,” a dance dad once told me.

There are a couple of dads I really admire who have gone all out to support their sons who have danced at our school. One of them has played a huge role in his son landing a dance-theater scholarship at a school in Florida this year.

Talk to his son, and he’ll tell you his father’s support made a big difference.

“I Feel Pretty”

When you’re a male dancer, sometimes it really helps to have a sense of humor.

Like when the tune of “I Feel Pretty” is the one you’re dancing to during petite allegro, which was the case for me today. I tried not to laugh, or sing along during the ton be pas de bouree, ton be pas de bouree, sissone (three times), pique, assemble’ combination.

Seriously, it was actually a tune that was easy for me to pick up the counts on, so go figure. I knew the song was coming. The CD used by our teacher du jour, Deb W., contained Broadway tunes other teachers have used before, so I and other male dancers at the school have danced to “I Feel Pretty” before.

It’s a fact of life, if you’re a guy, you’re either going to dance to songs, or do combinations or variations that guys don’t normally do (depending on the makeup of the class). Yes, I’ve done bourees (on flat) in a class where I was the only guy and the teacher didn’t want  me to stand around. I’ve also taken pointe classes on flat as a makeup. One of my prouder moments in class a few years ago? Schooling my female adult classmates during a female variation from Paquita (sans tambourine).

Of course today, other than “I Feel Pretty” it was just you’re basic class. I love the way Deb. W. teaches. We did pirouettes galore today, and she tried to get me to work on spotting a little more. She also did a lot of demonstrating, showing us what a difference a tilt with the head, raising a chin or arm will do for line. Deb. W. is very good at teaching about body alignment.

After sleeping in on Wednesday, it was a class worth getting up for.

I received praise for my chaine turns, that’s always a plus.

Who Cares?

One of my favorite ballets because it’s pure dancing. It also has a couple of pas de deuxs that rock.

Didn’t dance today …

I don’t know if it has to do with the heat outside (steamy, index near 100) or the fact that I work 11 of the next 12 days, but I couldn’t crawl out of bed to make the 9:30 open class.

It’s one of the struggles to dance in the morning when you have a body clock that’s used to working nights (and I was off yesterday and went to bed early for me).

I slept in, but once again, it’s blah, why didn’t I crawl out and go to ballet? The positive side of a morning class is that it always puts me in a better frame of mind once I begin a long stretch at work.

Oh well, there’s always Friday, although waiting two days for another class always seems like an eternity.

I know. I shouldn’t complain.

I’m blessed I can still dance during the summer. 

Some people don’t get that opportunity.

Pretty amazing at age 7

Although I am concerned that he has pointe shoes on at the end at his age

Watching your performance on DVD can be scary …

Picked up the DVD from our performance of Billy the Kid today.

As has been the case with my other performances on DVD, I was almost scared to watch.

Why? Dating back to watching my first performance in the Nutcracker a few years ago, the first time I popped in that DVD. all I saw were the flaws. It usually takes me two or three times of watching to actually catch the good things.

But I’ve tried not to be as much of a self-critic when I watch DVDs now from my performances (although there are still moments when I want to cringe a little). My assessment of my performance of Billy the Kid?

Actually, not as bad as I was expecting (I mean as in compared to professional dance bad, I felt good about each performance when it was over). My movements in the opening dance weren’t as pronounced as I’d prefer, my arabesque leg wasn’t as high on the piques, but overall, my line was good, I was on time with the music. So I was OK with what I saw.

Really, you can pick up a lot of useful things to use the next time you go on stage. One of the things I learned from the DVD of my first Nutcracker was to be more in character during the party scene, and that has helped me since.

In Billy the Kid, it showed me one thing I normally do during the first few Nutcracker performances during Nutcracker week. When I’m a little nervous, I tend to tone things down, play things a little safer … no screwups and I’m good. Of course, we have seven Nutcracker performances, so we’re just getting started when we’re doing No. 3. We only had three performances for Billy the Kid.

I need to dance with more confidence, be a little bolder. Those are things I intend to work on during summer classes.

And speaking of summer classes, the first week is in the books, and it was the usual, unpredictable week.

Today’s class was a bit like Monday’s. Susan K. taught. And there were few of us, maybe seven or eight. A lot of teaching moments, and I was a bit more sluggish than usual.

Wednesday, on the other hand, was a big surprise. There were maybe 15 of us, most either company or ex-company. And Mr. O. taught us (he leaves for Texas next week). It was an amazingly cardio, kick me in the arse kind of class (among my favorite kind of classes). In that short little studio, we did long petite allegro combinations that changed directions. I held my own, which was pretty cool (today, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired).

He issued a challenge to me. He told me he couldn’t retire until my double pirouettes become consistent. That’s something to work on.