New York Diary (Entry the Fifth, in which Deb fulfills her mission and also brings bad karma on her classmates)

Dear Diary,

I went to New York to learn, plain and simple.

I was not sure where I would fall along the continuum of teachers attending the National Training Curriculum intensives at ABT, although I feared it would be dangerously close to zero.  In fact, I think I barely squeaked past the admissions committee because of my training credentials, which are respectable at least.  Some of my classmates, though, had danced as principals and soloists with top-five companies.  Yet each of us stood to gain something from the training, not least of all the official stamp of approval ABT would grant us on successful completion of the examinations at the end of our week-long session.  Even the celebrities among us were chewing their nails in anticipation of exam day.  Certification notwithstanding, my primary mission was to soak up as much wisdom as I could from the sterling faculty during my brief tenure there.

I told you last time about Raymond Lukens, our main instructor (at left).  Joining him were Harriet Clark, Kate Lydon, and Julie Daugherty, who is ABT’s physical therapist.  On most days we sat in rows of metal folding chairs in ABT’s Studio 9 while Raymond explained the curriculum, his lectures seasoned by his trademark humor, a tiny mic (or as he called it, the Voice of God) fastened to his shirt collar and copious notes laid out on a music stand in front of him.  He often stood to demonstrate for us, and on occasion  implored us to stand and try something along with him.  Sometimes Harriet and Kate also demonstrated and helped answer the questions that were lobbed at the front of the room relentlessly.

After a couple of hours of lecture we had the opportunity to take ballet class in the very level we had just learned, so that we could get some of the technique into our muscles.  Some trainees particpated actively, others observed and took notes.  Harriet and Kate variously taught these classes.  We were also divided into much smaller groups and assigned classes to observe.  This was a useful exercise, as we could watch others who had completed the training actively teach the curriculum to the lucky children who had been accepted into the ABT summer intensives.  Each summer intensives teacher delivered the material with a distinct style; I began to comprehend the built-in flexibility in ABT’s guidelines.  In short, I saw myself standing at the front of my own classroom, teaching ABT’s National Training Curriculum to Knoxville’s young students.

Our final session of the day was typically a review of what had transpired, a question and answer session, or a lecture on the progression from one level to the next.  The progressions lectures proved indispensible, as the material therein was to figure prominently on our examinations.  More importantly, it was in the progressions that we began to see how a particular movement evolved in the life of a young student—how something that felt more like a game in Primary Level, for example, was in reality helping to establish important lines in the upper body and arms that would be necessary later.

So I considered my mission accomplished within a very short while.  It was fun and enriching to meet others of my ilk, and a real treat to hear Raymond’s hilarious anecdotal stories day in and day out, but mainly I learned.

We were about halfway through our training when it was announced that we would be invited to observe an unscheduled demonstration class for Level 5 students enrolled in ABT’s prestigious Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.  This class was prepared especially for a visitor to the school, none other than Nigel Lythgoe—the executive producer and judge for the popular television show, “So You Think You Can Dance.”  This news was met by equal parts enthusiasm and silence.

I have blogged about Nigel and SYTYCD in the past.  And if you happen to follow the link, you will see that what I had to say about him and his show was unflattering, bordering on unkind.  Now the cheeky Englishman had resurfaced in the flesh at American Ballet Theatre to observe a class arranged especially for him, and then to speak to the rest of us after class ended.  I will say that the class itself was amazing, pure and simple.  I wanted it to go on and on; the JKO children have obviously learned from the finest, and have impeccable technique underlying burgeoning artistry; what a treat to watch them dance.

But Nigel’s presentation (a thinly-veiled pitch for his new Dizzy Feet Foundation) overran the time allotted; I began looking at my watch nervously, as the minutes ticked on well into our Level 3 technique class scheduled for that afternoon.  Edginess grew to irritation as I listened to Nigel tell us—the hundred or so ballet teachers gathered there to listen to his spiel—that we in the ballet world were elitist, and if we did not change, our art form was in danger of dying.  He went so far, in fact, as to poke fun at the way dancers walk, by way of a ridiculous pantomime:  he stood up with his spine stick-straight, and proceeded to waddle across the floor, his feet splayed open 180 degrees.  Thanks, Nigel, for that pointless (so to speak) demonstration.  Interesting approach to fundraising, too:  gather 100 ballet teachers in a room, insult them, and then ask for money.  Good luck with that.

With my mom’s voice ringing in my ears (If you can’t say anything nice…), I figured it was my fault that we were being subjected to an afternoon dose of Nigel Lythgoe.  I would dismiss it all as pure silliness, but I can’t escape the notion that he is not actually helping the dance world.  He may, in fact, be hurting it.

I recently came across a Times article about a dance film that has been in production for the last couple of years, documenting and resurrecting Jerome Robbins’ Opus Jazz; it is being shot at various locations in NYC, and features dancers from New York City Ballet.  The film’s producers hope to bring high-quality ballet to a broader audience; the key phrase here is high-quality.  City Ballet soloist Adam Hendrickson, who appears in the film, thinks it might serve as “a more sophisticated alternative to television shows like ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’”  He goes on to say, “All of those TV shows glorify bad dance and bad choreography:  it’s artless, but that’s the pinnacle of dance now, and it bothers me as a stage performer who has worked on a craft.”

Nicely put, Mr. Hendrickson.

Until next time, I remain yours truly,

Princess (Go-To-Your-Room) Deb

New York Diary; (Entry the Fourth, in which Deb learns about butt kabobs and accidentally has lunch with a famous guy, but not at the same time)

Dear Diary,

Before I left for New York, lots of people asked me where I was planning to eat and shop, what shows I was going to see, which museums—that sort of thing.  My answer was simply, I don’t know.  This was mainly because I had no idea how much free time I would have, if any, or whether I would be swept up with others in the training who were all headed to one of those shows or museums at the end of the day.

I learned two things in short order:  first, after eight consecutive hours of training, I wanted desperately to go home and pass out (but had to prop my eyelids open and study instead), and second, while I made some new friends and met many very nice people at American Ballet Theatre, the demeanor there is just not like it is here in the South.  I am a friendly and effusive kind of girl.  I think non-Southerners sometimes just don’t know what to do with that.  It’s not that they are unfriendly, they just express friendliness differently—it’s cultural.  There was no being swept up to go out with classmates after long days of training, but chiefly because we were all dog-tired.

My mouth hung open, I think, for the first few days I was at ABT.  I made a futile effort not to appear like a fish out of water, but that is precisely what I was.  (As one of my NYC colleagues so bluntly and correctly observed:  You are working in complete isolation at Knoxville Ballet School.)  Some environments exude an awe-inspiring sense of place.  I felt reverence for the corridors I walked, for the studios where I took ballet classes and observed ballet classes, and for the people who were teaching me.  To think of all the ballet legends—past and present—who had occupied the same space!  Most of my classmates seemed not to notice.  But my mantra for training at ABT was this:  You are in the presence of greatness.  Shut up and listen.

The “shut up” part was harder than I thought it might be, owing to Mr. Raymond Lukens, our primary instructor and a very funny man (that’s me in the picture with him, up there).  So while we were learning valuable lessons in commuting the art of classical ballet to a new generation of children, we were kept in stitches.  No LOL here, but eye-watering, wet-your-pants, thigh-slapping guffawing.  At least I think that’s how you would describe it in the South.

Which brings me to butt kabobs.  Early in our training Raymond underscored the need, time and again, to engage particular muscle groups to develop the outward rotation of the leg at the hip joint—in ballet parlance, to work the turnout.  So we learned all kinds of exercises to develop this in young children.  At one point Raymond asked us, Do you know what kabobs are?  Skewered vegetables and meat?  (What the hell?)  He asked us to suck in our cheeks and imagine a skewer being passed through each of them.  Then he asked where else we have cheeks.  (Tittering and giggling.)  Ergo, butt kabobs.  So if you want your young students to engage those muscles, ask them to make butt kabobs.  Can’t wait to see how that bit of imagery goes over at Knoxville Ballet School.  My kids won’t likely forget it, and that is after all the point.  (In the picture, a classroom full of butt kabobs, taught by the amazing and wonderful Johanna Butow.)

While Raymond inspired plenty of tittering and giggling from the front of the room, there was also a fair amount instigated by someone in the back.  Time and again this particular man would stand up and contribute valuable morsels to the discussion; he was smart and also very funny.  Raymond enjoyed quizzing us every day, “What is the single most important movement in classical ballet?”  As a chorus, we answered, every day, “Demi-plie!”  And every day, the cheeky mystery man would utter, sotto voce, Mr. Balanchine would say battement tendu. Giggle, giggle.

After a couple of days I decided to plop down next to this wise acre and eat my sack lunch, because I am a friendly and effusive Southerner.  Also, this man reminded me just a tad of my irreverent sixteen-year-old, so I naturally found that appealing about him.  I gathered that he once danced for American Ballet Theatre, and later New York City Ballet.  Yes, he said, supplying the time line.  He went on to explain that he is currently on faculty at Barnard College.  Did he ever teach young children, I wondered?  No, he explained, because he would just spoil them and let them get away with murder.  We went on to talk about Mazurka step, which had come up earlier in the day’s lectures.  I told him I liked his “Step, Kick-The-Ball” method of teaching it, and we continued about whether Mazurka can be broken down (yes, he said), or whether you should just go for it in a Zen kind of way (my thought).  He never wore his name tag, like the rest of us, and it somehow never dawned on me to ask his name.  We spoke about the upcoming exams and general anxiety, which he confessed to feeling himself.  Hard to believe, I said.

On the final day of training, I asked the mystery man for his business card, as he explained that he would consider guesting in Tennessee some day.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that he was Robert LaFosse.

Yep.  I have just officially fallen off the back of a turnip truck.

Next up:  how Deb brings Bad Karma on her classmates at American Ballet Theatre.

‘Til then, I remain yours truly,

Princess Hayseed Deb

New York Diary; (Entry the Third, in which Deb buys groceries on Park Avenue during an electric storm)

Dear Diary,

On seeing the Park Avenue loft I rented for my ten-day NYC tenure, one of my New York pals told me I had scored big.  Okey doke, well that is fine and dandy, and as you know, I am a princess.  But I discovered in short order that the kitchen was missing a few essentials.  Like a microwave.  And a tea kettle.  And a toaster.  (Who doesn’t have a toaster?)  There was also no pitcher for the gallons of iced tea I consume on a daily basis.  So a few improvisations were in order.  Of course, no microwave means no microwave; not much to be done there.  Thankfully, though, any old pot will boil water.  Iced tea, check.  And the blender made a handy pitcher.  (I ask you, would you rather have a blender or a toaster?)  Insofar as the toast, I had to make it the old-fashioned way under the broiler, and on aluminum foil, I might add, as there were no baking sheets to be found anywhere.  But it really did not take me long to settle into my new digs, and a new routine, minus husband and family.

Since I arrived a full day and a half ahead of my teachers’ intensives at American Ballet Theatre, I spent several hours exploring the ‘hood and taking care of essentials: 1) groceries, and 2) wine.  My building appeared to be rented chiefly by well-off NYU students whose folks could afford a Park Avenue loft, and a few young professionals thrown in the mix; I felt a bit like a dorm mother.  I must say that every single one of them I encountered was friendly and helpful, like the young man who pointed me towards groceries on my first day.

The grocery store was fine and convenient, just a few blocks north of my building and across the street.  But I realized only moments into my first jaunt that I did not have my big, gas-guzzling SUV to help me get the groceries home.  Oh, dear.  This made for some very, very careful selections that included a variety of Lean Cuisines and not much else.  Once I finished there, I set out to find a wines and spirits store, which happened to be only one more block north, and then around the corner.  I was feeling positively urban as I headed back to the loft, my bag slung over a shoulder, groceries in one hand, bag-o-wine in the other.  By then I had learned, kinda, how to navigate a crowded sidewalk and avoid being squished like a bug by kamikaze delivery bikes.  (I also learned that Southern manners really do not work on New York City sidewalks.  You can only say, Excuse me, Pardon me, Oops, Sorry, so many times before you realize it’s best to just throw in the towel and realize that bumping is inevitable.  And anyway, nobody appears to care whether you bump them, or they you.  But it is definitely fun to say “y’all” and “dang!”)

Then the bottom fell out of the sky.  It was not a gentle summer rain, mind you, but a bonafide gullywasher, right there in the middle of New York City, complete with gigantic bolts of lightning.  I fished out the compact umbrella I had cleverly stowed in my bag and popped it open, whereupon it immediately fell apart.  Those few blocks may as well have been a few miles.  When I finally made it home, my bags and clothing were drenched; the rain had, er, revealed some of my body parts that I generally prefer to keep private.  But I was genuinely happy to have accomplished my first actual foray into urban life.  I was a real New Yorker, if only for a few days.

The next day, armed with new and improved shopping habits, I struck out in a different direction and discovered a fabulous organic and whole foods supermarket with a very appealing variety of groceries.  It also had perhaps the world’s most Byzantine check-out system, which involved standing in one of many short lines while watching a color-coded screen light up and listening to your number being announced over the PA system; this was essential information, as this color/number combination was your key to the correct cashier.  You snooze, you lose.  Happily, I was not the only customer standing there with furrowed brow, trying to figure it all out.

I also found my way around the corner to the world-famous Strand bookstore (boasting “18 miles of books”), where I spent a long, happy time fingering new and used books; I found a dirt-cheap used Peter Mayle novel for bedtime reading, a messenger bag which would serve handily as a dance bag in the coming days, and a great little history book for husband.

Over the next week, my new life in New York took on this daily rhythm:  up early; toast, tea, news and WEATHER for breakfast; make sack lunch; shower; go to ballet school at 9:00 to learn from iconic ballet teachers at an iconic institution; come home from ballet school at 5:30; Lean Cuisine in oven; another shower; dinner; re-copy hastily made notes and study; sleep.  Maybe I was not so unlike those NYC students in my building.

Some dear friends in the city were kind enough to syncopate that rhythm a few times.

But that is a story for another day.

Until then I remain yours truly,

Urban Princess Deb

New York Diary; (Entry the Second, in which Deb searches for her lost tiara)

Dear Diary,

Were it not for some pretty convincing physical evidence that I did in fact spring from my parents’ combined DNA, I would swear I had been switched at birth.  I am almost certain that I am a princess, but on occasion I have great difficulty convincing others of this likelihood.  Take husband, for example, who writes software for a living.  For the loooongest time, he tried to convince me that I could somehow move ALL of my files—EVERYTHING—from my clunky, old Dell PC onto my sexy, new Sony laptop, purchased for this upcoming trip to New York, completely unassisted.  The last time my computer life underwent this kind of huge transition, husband took care of it for me.  The old computer disappeared, and a new one appeared in its place, as if by magic—with all my files intact.  This is as it should be.  I pointed out this little truth to him, one recent day, as I was gnashing my teeth over what has been a rather more painful transition.  With VERY little sympathy, he replied, “You should know how to do this stuff.”

Well.  That is COMPLETELY beside the point, don’t you think?  He—my very own husband—has clearly forgotten that he is married to a princess, obviously.  But I will say he is a prince for getting me the laptop in the first place, and for helping make this very ambitious trip happen.  (My files are still not all moved over to the new laptop.  Did I mention that?)

I am very nervous about going to New York.  At one time I was a big city girl with big city sensibilities, but that was many years ago, and I am not exactly certain how I will pull this off now.  A couple of days ago I started worrying (for the eleventy-seventieth time) about getting a cab from La Guardia to my apartment.  People do this every day, I know, but do princesses? Then I picked up this silly book, New York City for Dummies, that was full of warnings about being swindled, or worse.  You will be confronted by unauthorized cabbies, says the author, on your way to the taxi stand.  Ignore them and keep walking!  Get a Yellow Cab!  At the taxi stand!  (And of course, that is assuming that my plane does not crash first.)

I started chewing my nails, thinking about having a tough resolve while walking to the cab stand.  Being a princess, and all, I’m not sure how tough my own resolve is.  As Eloise would say, You can imagine…. So I did what any self-respecting princess would do, and hired a private car.  (The best thing about that experience was my conversation with the very friendly woman at the agency, whose thick Brooklyn accent made me smile, as I am certain my thick Southern accent did the same.  That, and the cost of hiring the car, which is pretty much exactly the same price as a cab.)

If husband has forgotten I am a princess, evidently the people at American Ballet Theatre have not.  Only a couple of days ago they emailed me to make sure I understood to use the elevator to the fourth floor, and not the stairs.  See?  Proof positive of my royal status.  Well, okay, and also evidence that the place is going to be packed with people; the stairs are for the 187 young dancers who are currently enrolled in summer term at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.  How exciting.

But I can’t deny the butterflies that started about three days ago and have not left me.  My cyber-pal, Laurie, had this to say yesterday:  You’ll be fine and you will get so much out of it!  And you will be so proud of “feeling your fear and doing it anyway!” Thanks, Laurie—I think that’s exactly what I needed to hear. Oh, and by the way, do you happen to have a tiara I could borrow?

Until I arrive in New York, I remain yours truly,

Princess Deb

Lest We Take Ourselves Too Seriously…

Following delightful conversation among friends over a lovely high tea earlier today (thanks, Elizabeth!), I could not resist posting an excerpt of the hilarious all-male ballet ensemble, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, dancing Pas de Quatre, or as the Trocks call it, Le Grand Pas de Quatre 1/2.  This is my favorite of their works, satirizing everything about Romantic-era ballet that it so deserves.  Have a fun few minutes.  And do click on the link to their website.

New York Diary; (Entry the First, in which Deb worries about underpants)

Dear Diary,

Well, it would appear that I will actually be boarding a plane for the Big Apple in just thirty-nine days.  Me—the Big Fraidy Cat, all by myself.  Alone in the city.  Navigating La Guardia, hailing cabs, finding my leased apartment, grocery shopping (do they have grocery stores in New York?), cooking, and going to classes at American Ballet Theatre.

Anxiety is a mere euphemism for what I’m feeling, gathering intensity every single day, with a healthy dose of irrationality thrown in for good measure.  Let me give you an example.  This terrifying thought jolted me out of my sleep one recent night:  What if I run out of clean underpants???  What then??? I mean, God knows there is no place in New York to buy underpants, right?  Or wash them, either, I am sure.

I decided the best plan for dealing with this crisis was to go to my neighborhood Target and buy up as many pairs of underpants as I could reasonably cram into my luggage, and so I did just that.  Which in turn got me thinking, how can I pack for ten days?  I am an expert at the long weekend, but ten days-worth of clothing?   Hmmmm—that’s a lot of threads, especially considering I will need both work clothes and leisure clothes.  And what of pajamas?  I need nice pajamas, in case, you know, the apartment building catches fire in the middle of the night and I am forced to run out into the street to escape the flames.

So today I addressed the pajama issue, along with the clothing issue, at least in part.  I figured, shorts don’t take up much space and I could use some new ones.  That mission was easily accomplished.  But as I headed across the parking lot from the department store back to my car, the Bed, Bath, and Beyond caught my eye and I remembered a friend had advised me that they carry TSA-approved bottles and zippered bags there.  I had totally forgotten.  I’ve got to put some shampoo in my carry-on, in case, you know, the airline loses my luggage that has the big bottle of shampoo in it.  (Because I am pretty sure you can’t buy shampoo in New York.)

I am feeling a teeny bit better now that I have underpants, pajamas (nice ones), shorts, and TSA-approved tiny plastic bottles in a zippered bag.

Until the next crisis occurs to me, I remain yours truly,


Morning Run 6.25.09 (or, Albuterol: My New Best Friend)

Okey-doke.  So I had my annual allergy check-up last week and complained almost as an aside that the air quality this spring has been horrid—more horrider than usual, even.  I told my doctor that for the first time in about a decade of running I’ve had to stop on occasion and prop myself against whatever tree trunk is handy so that I can cough up a lung.  Pollen, right?  Nope.  How about, exercise-induced asthma.  He prescribed an Albuterol inhaler that I am to use five to ten minutes before vigorous exercise (including ballet, of course).  I must say that the first time I used the thing, I could actually breathe.  In the intervening days my mileage has increased, as has the quality of my running.

So—when you run, lots of air is supposed to come into and go out of your lungs.  Who knew?

Do You Have A Fairy Godmother?

I do.  Her name is Jane Shelton, and she teaches ballet in Memphis, Tennessee.  I have known her since I was four, when she was a young psychology student at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) and I was a rising kindergartner at Church of the Good Shepherd.  She danced at Memphis Ballet back in the day when mom was new to the company, which is how my family came to know her.  Jane had hypermobile knees and wacky-gorgeous feet, but tragically ruined them for pointe early in her erstwhile career as a ballerina after she took multiple cortisone injections to allow her to continue dancing on injuries.  (Jane would not recommend this practice.)            Photo:  Mark Weber for The Commercial Appeal

To me, Jane always had an aura of coolness about her.  First, she was a dancer.  Second, she was several years my mom’s junior and therefore a bit more accessible to me.  And third, as if that were not enough, she was a free spirit—you could rightly have called her liberated, or at times maybe even a flower child.  How exotic.  At least it seemed that way from my middle-class, Donny Osmond-loving, white-bread-American-suburban-girl point of view.

In the 1970s Jane had impossibly long, wavy hair and glasses whose lenses made her eyes twinkle in a pleasing way, but also broadcast this message:  I am smart and have little tolerance for bull.  You can even see that in this picture of her, taken just before a Ballet Workshop demonstration in about 1975 at St. Dominic School in Memphis.  When I was in junior high she was still driving a Volkswagen Beetle and had a wonderful, muscular dog named Al, a boxer who seemed to go everywhere with her.  In the winter months Al wore a turtleneck for warmth and sat bolt-upright in the driver’s seat of the VW waiting on Jane, as if he were her chauffeur dog; people would walk by the parked bug and give him a double-take.

Through the years Jane lived in various groovy midtown Memphis digs, always with at least one badly behaved cat lurking about, and lots of appealing artwork, books, and plants.  On some Saturdays she did her laundry at our house; my younger brother and I variously insinuated ourselves into Jane and mom’s kitchen table conversations, trying to steal her attention.  On one of these occasions my brother actually played an original “happy birthday” composition for her on his tiny, Suzuki violin while singing to her.  It was really very sweet, but we could not help exploding in laughter at his six-year-old’s rendition of a classic, complete with exactly eight notes and a minimalist libretto:  HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU.  Jane held her ribs, tears rolling down her cheeks.  Laundry took on a higher meaning on those Saturdays.

Jane’s appeal was also in part derivative of her mom, Dorothy, a Boston transplant who possessed the most fascinating blending of deep-South and Boston Brahman accents.  In my view, Dorothy was simply exquisite.  She lived in a stately, old pink stucco home in one of Memphis’ most genteel neighborhoods.  My family spent lazy holiday evenings at Dorothy’s, gathered around her elegant dining table for Thanksgiving dinner, or sitting in her living room in front of a Christmas tree set before a large window, festooned with glamorous decorations the likes of which I had never seen before.  I lingered in front of Dorothy’s built-in bookcases when the adult conversation grew tiresome, fingering her crystal and glass chotchkees and looking at Jane’s school yearbooks and ballet books—especially one about Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova, with shocking pictures of little Soviet children auditioning for the Kirov Academy in their underpants.  I loved watching Dorothy gingerly remove the tea bag from her china cup, carefully wrapping the string around it to squeeze out a few more drops of brew.  And I loved listening to her tell me which Erno Laszlo product—a line she proudly represented—would best suit me, though I never actually had any of my own.  A trip to her bathroom was like visiting an exclusive department store, with all manner of creams, facials, and various other beauty liquids in signature Laszlo jars all over the place.  It was magical.  Dorothy had impeccable taste, and I loved her for it.  She still lives in her pink stucco house.

When I was about twelve (in the picture, there, warming up before a year-end demonstration), Jane started teaching ballet at my mom’s newly-acquired school, Ballet Workshop.  Formerly Memphis Ballet School East, Memphis Ballet had been eager to dispose of the failing suburban branch of its school, which came into my family’s possession with its enrollment at a low ebb.  Leaving the school’s central city branch, I joined the classes at Ballet Workshop, but dreaded instruction from my own mom, credentials notwithstanding.  So the opportunity to take class from somebody else on Saturday mornings—my “Auntie Jane,” no less—was a welcome one.  In short order my classmates and I discovered that Jane would not hesitate to unleash all kinds of torturous strength-building work on us.  We started class sitting in a huge circle on the floor; Jane would put a record of orchestrated ballet music on the school’s old phonograph and let it play all the way through one side, while taking us through an impossible regimen of abdominal work, among other things.  Working right along with us, she made it look so easy.  But she was unmoved by our groaning and wincing against the strains of Tchaikovsky, and simply quipped, “Smile!”  Jane had a habit of sneaking up behind you during barre, digging her fingernails into your backbone, working her way outward, forcing scapulae to open and flatten.  And you would occasionally feel her poke a bony finger just under the occipital at the base of the skull to make you pull up correctly through the spine, without lifting your chin.

Strangely, I have not actually seen Jane in maybe as long as twenty years.  Life’s pace has not allowed me to travel to Memphis, nor Jane here.  We have instead kept up with each other through epic phone conversations that sometimes stretch as long as two hours and beyond.  Jane has watched my child grow up through sporadic Christmas photos and detailed ramblings from me, though she has not yet met him in person.  She has kept up with the founding of my young ballet school and offered many words of advice over the last few years.  She has willingly shared trade secrets, resources, and ideas for all kinds of classroom exercises and combinations with me; my own students are now the beneficiaries of her wisdom.  Jane has been relentlessly supportive of my aspirations.  For all that and more, Auntie Jane, I am truly grateful.  Photo:  Mark Weber for The Commercial Appeal; that’s Jane in the center doing a cambre to the back with some of her adult students.

Oh, yes:  One of these days, I will show up in your ballet class, Jane.  One of these days.

Four And A Half Beautiful Minutes

American Ballet Theatre superstar Angel Corella announced last year his plans to found a new ballet company in his native Spain, Corella Ballet.  It was his hope that—given the absence of a professional classical ballet company in Spain—his new company would afford professional opportunities for Spanish nationals, who until now have had to seek work outside of Spain.  (There is also a new school whose purpose is to train dancers for the company.)  Filmmakers documented the company’s journey through its inaugural season, and the trailer for the documentary is breathtaking; go here and enjoy yourself for the next four minutes and twenty-one seconds; Corella Ballet company class, photo by Gran Angular.

Teaching An Old Dog, Er, Old Tricks


Dancers are obsessed with bodies, especially their own.  And even though I have not been a dancer dancer for some time now, I still dance in front of my young students in their ballet classes (and wall-to-wall mirrors) five and sometimes six days a week; I am keenly aware of my own physical shortcomings.

About six years ago the director at the local ice rink approached me with the idea that I might give some of his skaters a short ballet class on Saturday mornings.  At the time he suggested this I had not so much as taken a maintenance technique class myself for roughly a decade.  After briefly questioning my sanity, I relented and began teaching a forty-five-minute barre in a smelly back room with a rubber floor, intended as a suiting-up room for the hockey team.  (A few years later this Just-Add-Water approach to ballet would become the inspiration for my fledgling ballet school.)  I begged some Marley scraps from a ballet pal and asked the rink director to build me a portable barre from plans I snatched off the Internet.  It was not the best of circumstances, but the kids actually learned a few things that perhaps ultimately helped them on the ice.

I prepared myself at home, using the rim of the kitchen sink as my own barre, slowly warming up, and then going on to plan classes.  Trying to coax my old ballerina frame (by now past forty) into dancing again was tricky.  It was not so much that I was out of shape—I had spent the intervening decade variously running cross country, swimming, cycling, and attending aerobics and Pilates classes, to say nothing of parenting a very active little boy—but that I was no longer a dancer; that meter had long expired.  Standing in fifth position (at least fifth position that looked like fifth position) now required that I stick out my butt.  I never had to do THAT before to get into a decent fifth.  And because of my running habit, my hamstrings were painfully shortened so that I was lucky to get an extension of ninety degrees in any direction.  And I had regrettably lost some of that characteristically stick-straight spine that makes a dancer stand out in a crowd.  Oh, yes:  one of my feet would no longer actually stretch.  Hmmmmm.  I felt betrayed.

I soldiered on, though, and managed to demonstrate pretty much “full out” all the exercises I wanted my skaters to do.  Their ability to parrot my movements with gathering competence was evidence enough for me that I was dancing sufficiently to get the point across to them.

That spring I went to Chicago with my family to catch American Ballet Theatre on tour, and decided I might try to observe ballet classes while I was in town.  First, I asked ABT if I could sit in on the audition class they were giving while they were there (an inquiry couldn’t hurt, could it?).  They suggested that I grand jete into Lake Michigan.

But the Ruth Page Center for the Arts was a scant two- or three-block walk from our hotel.  I called and asked the very polite young man who answered whether any of the instructors would allow me to observe classes.  No, he said, but you can take class while you’re here. Take class?  Me? I thanked him and hung up.  But then I wondered, Why not?  I trained to be a ballerina for years and years, after all, even if my fifth position leaves something to be desired now.  I called him back and asked about an open class on Saturday morning; what did I need to do to enroll?  He said, Show up at 10:00 and bring eleven dollars.

So on a snowy, windy springtime Saturday in Chicago, my palms sweating, I walked a few blocks to Ruth Page Center and took an open class taught by a nice older man (Rodney Irwin, now sadly deceased) who seemed genuinely pleased for me to join the group; the other dancers in the class were friendly and welcoming, and I felt somehow at home almost right away.  I was euphoric all day long and well into the evening, as I sat in the Civic Opera House and watched Amanda McKerrow give what was to be one of her final performances as Giselle.

Funny thing about that class, though.  Even though I discovered—in a very public way—that there were some movements I should no longer attempt in centre floor (read:  grand allegro), the classroom dynamic had not changed one jot.  I came into the studio early, with a few others, and started warming up slowly and stretching some.  Then I staked out a place at the barre, taking care not to grab someone else’s cherished spot.  That done, I sized up the other dancers in the class and settled on one in particular who seemed like she was more or less of my ilk—and then the two of us proceeded to compete off each other fiercely for the next hour and a half!  Some things, it seems, never change.

Six years later I still struggle with the former ballerina trapped inside a body that occasionally feels like a fossil.  What has come to pass during those intervening years, though, is a glimpse here and there—if only a glimpse—of the hidden ballerina.  I can once again get into a decent fifth position.  My spine is straighter than it was six years ago, though still not what it was when I was nineteen.  My bum foot stretches better than it did.  To be fair, I also have new problems that are associated with ballet in particular:  the first and second metatarsals on my right foot are very painful in releve—an old problem that had vanished when I stopped dancing; my hips hurt like the dickens when I sit for more than a little while; my crazy, hypermobile knees give me fits, as they once did, in rond de jambe en l’air, with a loud and painful popping sensation.

I still run, and so I still have tight hamstrings and poor extension, even after a slow, careful warm-up followed by deep stretching.  (Note:  I will NEVER give up running.  NEVER.)  But, after all, Who cares? This old dog is plenty happy to be learning old tricks again.  I can even demonstrate pointe work wearing (drum roll please) Pointe Shoes!  Ta-dah! My advice to anybody who is experiencing aches and pains that come with moving a slightly older self?  Use your body—that’s what it’s for!