Friday, July 4, 2014

Friday turn tips - embiggen yourself!

Happy Independence Day, beautiful dancers!

Here's a pirouette thought as you head into your holiday weekend (starting today! and by the way, I am teaching an Intermediate level ballet class this morning at Le Studio in Pasadena, 10-11:30AM):


As I often remind people, there are a zillion ways to approach turns and I am never going to tell you my way of turning is better than anyone else's but I will say this...I am fascinated by the mechanics of turns (and pointe work, but that's another subject) so I am always looking for tips and techniques I can pass on to my students because pirouettes can make people so anxious - I know because I am one of them.

So you may have been taught to fold your arms across your chest, a la Balanchine, or to carry them at your waist but no matter how you do it, you want to be as aerodynamic as possible.  I suggest you approach this by thinking BIG.

It feels counter-intuitive to be big, especially when you think about ballet dancers as delicate or dainty and when you want to go around many, many times. But watch an ice skater when she turns on her blades: she spins - she wants to spin - so she pulls herself in, arms tucked closely to her body, and she makes herself very small.  This is the opposite of a pirouette. A spin is not a turn.

How to be big:

--Keep your arms VERY wide, as wide and as round as you can and try to match your fingertips together at the center of your chest, at breastbone level, not waist.
--Feel your back expand, breathe through your whole ribcage.
--Open your leg in the retire position very flat and wide and press your knee back as far and as flat as it can but do not let it turn in or get tucked close to your standing leg.
--Keep your shoulders down but not rounded; think of them pressing back in opposition to your knees and hips.
--Imagine yourself taking up more space in the room, not less.

This is one of those times I can absolutely promise you that your turns will improve. I promise!  Get those arms up and round and think big and open, not tight and closed, and your pirouettes will much cleaner and more controllable.

Happy Fourth and happy dancing~

Friday, June 27, 2014

Friday turn tips: en dedans pirouettes

Most often, when students ask for help with their pirouettes, they are asking about en dehors or "outside" turns. But there are so many other types of turns to work on!  Like one of my favorites, the pirouette en dedans or "inside" turn.

An en dedans pirouette refers to a turn in which the movement of the body is toward the standing leg, rather than away from it, as in an outside turn. As always, there are different schools of thought when it comes to turn preparation. Some instructors teach an inside turn with a fondu a la seconde before the snap to retire. Others, like me, teach a straight snap up to retire from the fourth position.

Here are my general guidelines when teaching en dedans pirouettes:

1. Start in a long lunged fourth position.  Most of the weight is on the front leg which is bent into a deep demi-plie. The back leg is very straight and the heel is pressed into the floor.

2. The arm preparation is "same arm same leg." In other words, if the left leg is in front in fondu, then the left arm is curled into 3rd position. The right arm is held to second position.

3. Some teachers ask students to open their front arm, to lead with it, but I prefer that you keep the arm curled in front of you and then snap the second-position arm in to meet it at the moment that you snap the leg into retire.

4. Take an extra deep demi on the front leg as you push off the floor with the back foot. Try to avoid hiking the hip in an effort to bring the leg under you. Remember: the deeper the demi, the more time you have to bring the back foot up to your knee.

5. Simultaneously snap the open arm in to the closed arm as you bring the back foot to the front of the knee of the standing leg and push up into releve. Toes at the front of the knee always. Always. It is very rare that you will bring the toe to the back of the knee, although it may be choreographed that way.

6. Most often your pirouette en dedans will be a 1.5 turn. In other words, you will likely be turning from one croise position to another croise rather than en face or efface. Keeping this in mind, be sure to spot 1.5 turns from where you start, not just one.

7. Try to keep the toe at the front of the knee and slide it down through sousous before finishing in 5th position. Very rarely you will finish in a 4th position although that is possible (see below).

Happy dancing and turning!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

How to use a mirror

You know how to use a mirror, right? You press your face up to the glass and look at your reflection, put on some lipstick and brush your hair and voila, you're done.

But in a dance studio, you are surrounded by mirrors, by your image reflected all over the place. It can be overwhelming for a lot of people who are new to dance. After all, how many people are in front of mirrors (in skimpy clothing, nonetheless) for hours at a time?

Dance teachers, by the way, have perfected the art of standing in front of a mirror and not actually seeing themselves. I can't tell you how many times I forget what I'm wearing or don't know if I have matching earrings on!

Mirrors in a studio are used for two purposes:

1. For you to observe your alignment.

2. For you to observe others.

Let's take the first one: yourself. This does not mean you stare at yourself (or your feet) while you're dancing. When you are at the barre, you use it to critically observe your form: are your hips lifted or tucked? Is your spine long and straight? Are your knees over your toes when you plie? Taking a quick look to the side of yourself will tell you what you need to know. But then it is up to you to feel it in your body. It does you no good to check out your alignment and then forget it. See that it's right - and then feel that it's right. Know what it means within your body to be properly aligned so you can do it without looking, just feeling and adjusting.

In the center, you may observe yourself insofar as you need to - again - see where you are in the space. Is your arm in the right place on a turn? Are you hiking your hip on the developpe a la seconde? Be careful of looking at yourself directly en face, as you run the risk of being too open and not working the proper lines (e.g. being in ecarte instead of arabesque). You can also splay the ribcage if you're staring directly at yourself.
It's kind of like the sun - only take a quick peek and be satisfied that you've seen it shine.
(photo Marco Ciofalo)

Now, #2 - watching others. If you are new to class, do not stand in the front. Unless the teacher has instructed you to stand behind her and follow her exactly, you will not get a sense of movement if you cannot observe the rest of the students. You may think, "Oh I'm new so I need to be close to the front and look in the mirror and..." No. Do not do it. There is an art to standing in the front of the room and looking in the mirror to see you behind you and it takes years to master. What usually ends up happening is that brand newbies stand in front and then actually turn their heads to stare behind them.

A better solution: stand in the back behind students who are more experienced and look in the mirror to see the front of them. You can observe them and follow them from the back by looking at them directly and then use the mirror to see their front.

Mirrors are intended for quick visual cues, not long stares. Traveling across the floor requires proper spacing and a glance at the mirror will show you if someone is too close to you, if you are too close to someone else, or if you are about to run into a barre or wall. The mirror will also tell you if you are not in sync with the others too which is important if you are rehearsing.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book review: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Full disclosure: Random House provided a free advance copy of the novel for review.

Fuller disclosure: I am a published novelist and filmmaker as well as a ballet instructor.

Fullest disclosure: I have always wanted to write a novel set in the world of ballet.

There are so many movies and television shows that appeal to lovers of dance. You might be a fan of the ballroom competition in “Dancing With the Stars” or the more contemporary “So You Think You Can Dance.” Perhaps you enjoyed the “Step Up” series of movies or the classic musicals starring Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. These are all wonderful showcases for dance and the dancers in them are terrific and talented.

But for lovers of ballet, there really is only one definitive movie: “The Turning Point,” a 1977 film starring Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft and introducing the inimitable Mikhail Baryshnikov to the wider world. It was brilliant and beautiful and heartbreaking, soapy and sappy and sentimental, and it felt genuine and honest to the world of ballet.

Maggie Shipstead’s novel, “Astonish Me,” is the literary equivalent of that movie. And just as the right cast can multi-dimensionalize characters which might be considered stereotypical (as in “The Turning Point” with the Academy Award winning actors Bancroft and MacLaine), so too does exceptional prose bring to life a story that might be too well-known to be exciting.

That story, of course, is Mikhail Baryshnikov’s defection from the Soviet Union and his establishment in the United States as one of the best male dancers in ballet history. In this case, it is Arslan Rusakov who defects in 1975 with the help of a very young corps de ballet member, Joan Joyce. She falls in love with him, as most women would, but is quickly disillusioned by his unwillingness to be faithful to her. When she realizes her talent as a dancer isn’t nearly what it needs to be in order to be a prima or even a soloist, she chooses to marry and have a family, moving far away from the bright lights of New York City to raise her son, Harry and teach others.

Meanwhile, her former roommate Elaine Costas is a rising star in the company, as well as the secret muse and lover of Mr. K, a thinly-disguised Mr. B (Balanchine). She gives up the possibility of family and children to stay with him as he grows older and to dedicate her life to the company.

Through the years, we watch Joan’s son Harry blossom into a stunning dancer, one who initially took up ballet only to impress Chloe, a neighbor he has a crush on and whom Joan has taken under her wing. Joan recognizes herself in Chloe, a girl who isn’t perfect but has many gifts (like so many real-life dancers). We also see Arslan through his marriage to Ludmilla, another defector from the Soviet Union, and his continued rise in the American dance world.

All the storylines come to a startling conclusion in a dark theater in New York City nearly 30 years after Joan and Arslan’s story began. No spoilers from me, but the ending is not a perfectly happy one.  It is, however, a realistic one.

One of the most challenging aspects of a novel that deals with a very specific dance idiom like ballet is that it runs the risk of appearing rarefied and incomprehensible to others who are not privy to its inner workings. In some books, if you don’t know dance terminology or the details of the environment in which these characters live, you will feel lost. Not so with Shipstead’s novel.  For the balletomane, it is filled with thinly-veiled yet recognizable characters from the real dance world. For the technician and student, it is filled with correct dance vocabulary and believable studio and stage situations. For the romantic, it is filled with love stories and heartbreak. But you need not know anything about dance to enjoy this book. Shipstead has crafted such a beautiful story – a page-turning, fast-paced read – that will appeal to a broad variety of readers.

A few of my favorite lines:

Elaine, on ballet’s place in her life: “Love for ballet is necessary to survive it, but she doesn’t know if she survives because she loves to dance or if the love comes from a need to survive.” (p. 72)

Campbell Hodges, the company manager, to Joan: “You can’t be weak in the ballet or it’ll crush you.” (p. 129)

Young Harry, frustrated by his unrequited love for Chloe: “Girls always seem to be straining and crying for some invisible thing they recognize and want but that seems completely obscure to him. They seem to want to have something to want, as though wanting was an end in itself.” (p. 162)

(This review was cross-posted at Dance Advantage.  Check out the site here for more dance resources.)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Everybody (Zombie) dance now!

Are you all sick and tired of hearing about Zombie Ballet? Then turn away because this post is going to be a whole lot of linkage to my 2 new videos.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had 2 purposes in shooting my zombie ballet in a controlled environment and with good cameras, lighting, etc.

1. To have a good clean version of the dance thus far, both in its short form and its extended 5 minute form.

2. To incorporate the dance as an organic part of a story with a narrative that would make the dance more meaningful and less abstract.

I have accomplished the first goal! Here are the 2 different versions, short and long.  Enjoy!