Thursday, May 4, 2017

Miss Amy's Advice for Adult Dancers

I belong to a few different communities on Facebook for adult ballet dancers. Earlier this year, one of the ladies made a post asking for people’s input on “5 Things Every Ballet Dancer Should Know”. Her request really got me thinking. I wrote most of these with the adult dancer in mind, but here are some things I think every dancer young or old could do well to remember.

1. There's no such thing as a "ballet body". It is true that ballet will definitely come easier to some bodies than others, but if you want to dance, please just DO IT, whatever your size or shape! You may have tight hips or bad feet, but that has no bearing on whether or not you can dance. What is important is using what you have to the fullest extent that you’re able.

2. Corrections are important! Your teacher is giving them to you because they see potential and wish to cultivate it, or because you're making a technical error and are at risk of injury. Take them as a gift and do your best to implement them. If you don’t understand what your teacher means, ask for clarification; your teacher will try explaining things differently or use different visuals or give different hands-on corrections until you get it. If you're having an off day and can't handle too much criticism, don't be afraid to tell your teacher at the beginning of class and they'll go easier on you. It can also be helpful to let your teacher know your dance goals at the beginning of the year; they’ll likely push you harder if you’ve got aspirations of being a professional than if you’re just there to keep fit and have fun.

3. Technique is important, but don't forget to MOVE. Feel the music, feel the movement, and let your body just go with it. A technically perfect but mechanical dancer is almost never as captivating as the one who may not be perfect but dances with their heart and soul. It can be scary to bare so much of yourself, but that’s what gives dance its artistry. Even if you think you’re giving enough in a movement, give even more. Your teacher will tell you when it’s too much.

4. Respect your body. Injuries won't go away by pushing yourself through them. Know when to mark or modify and know when to take a break. Don't be afraid of disappointing your teacher - they will respect you more for knowing when you need to take it easy instead of pushing yourself beyond your limits and aggravating things further. Also, it is important to keep your teacher apprised of injuries or other ailments which could affect you in class. This way they can help you modify movements so as not to aggravate things further, or they may even be able to help pinpoint errors in technique that may be causing the pain and give you corrections to help alleviate it. One of my teachers can ALWAYS tell when a dancer is hurting and he won’t hesitate to call us on it, though he would much prefer for us to inform him at the beginning of class.

4. To get good at something, you must practice. Often. One or even two ballet classes a week is not enough to build strength and good habits. Practice balancing in coup de pied while you're brushing your teeth. Practice articulating through your feet in tendus in line at the grocery store. Practice pirouettes in your kitchen while you're waiting for the food to finish cooking. Mentally review choreography in the shower.

5. Remember that anything is possible, if you set your mind to it. I have heard so many people say "oh, I would love to do ballet but I'm too old now". I didn't begin dancing until I was 18, and now I dance en pointe, take Cecchetti exams, and I am a certified ballet teacher! I dance with women as old as 70. You're never too old to start!

(And a few bonus ones!)
6. Yes, we all love ballet, but don't be afraid to expose yourself to other kinds of dance. Try a drop-in salsa class. Take tap or modern for a year. Do a trial class in African. Attend a contemporary performance at your local theatre. Get out there and broaden your horizons - it will certainly not hurt.

7. Comparing yourself to other dancers can be both a blessing and a curse. It can help us immensely – making us push ourselves to finish a pirouette as gracefully as she does, or to get elevation in our jumps like he does. Teachers sometimes use it as a tool in class with our kids to see who can jump with the straightest legs or stretch their feet the most in gallops. But when comparing yourself to other dancers starts having the opposite effect and makes you feel discouraged and defeated, that’s when it becomes detrimental. Everyone’s body is different and when it comes down to structural things (foot flexibility, natural turnout allowance, etc), there is not a whole lot we can do to change things, except to making sure we’re using what we’ve been given to the fullest extent. Learn to compete with yourself to keep your focus and continually improve each class. Ballet is HARD. I always tell my dancers “if it were easy, it wouldn’t be called ‘ballet’.” But by focusing on the observable progress we’ve made, however small (like the first time you don’t mess up the batterie exercise, or when you first finish a pirouette because you want to and not because you’ve fallen out of it), we can keep ourselves motivated to keep pushing and improving.

8. The importance of strength should not be underestimated. Core strength is integral to most of what we do in any style of dance, be it balancing, turning, supporting our body in extensions… Supplementing our dance training with other activities to build this strength is not a bad idea. Additionally, we must be aware of the difference of actually ‘holding a position’ versus merely ‘making a shape’ with our body. For instance, I can make my foot look generally stretched, but if someone is able to easily wiggle it with their hands then it shows I’ve not been using the muscles under my foot to hold the stretch. These feet will not be fully stretched in allegro as I don’t use my strength to hold it. Or if I plant my feet in a turned out position and let friction with the floor keep them that way but there is no activation going on in my turnout muscles, I am neither gaining nor maintaining strength in this position and there is no way I will be able to maintain turnout on one leg (in adage or a pirouette, say) or in the air during allegro. Our muscles should never be ‘tense’, but they should always be ‘held’.

Furthermore, here is a blog post on the subject by Laurel Simon:

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