Ballet @ Home: First Finis Jhung DVD Review!

Argh, slacking again!

I have so many topics I’ve been meaning to blog about: our studio’s annual show, an open adult ballet class I took in Cambridge, my review of a new pair of ballet slippers, and news of an upcoming giveaway (yayyyyy, free stuff!).

Hopefully I’ll get around to all of that.

But today I’m going to do a DVD review for all you living room ballerinas and danceurs out there!

I had heard of Finis Jhung from one of my dance teachers who has taken his workshops in the past. She enjoys using some of his music in class (which I affectionately refer to as “the creepy circus music,” but that’s another story!) and spoke very highly of his teaching methods. I’d love to go to NYC and take one of his classes in person, but since I haven’t been able to do that I figured putting a couple of his DVDs into my Netflix queue was the next best thing.

Coincidentally the first one, “Level 1: Barrework for Beginners,” arrived just as summer session at the studio was starting. Yesterday was day 3 of said session. The 4.5 hours of dance over the two days prior following a good three weeks off was telling on me! So… I wasn’t TOO disappointed when my commute got me home a tiny bit too late to make it to ballet. But… since I had this DVD at home I figured I’d give it a try to make up for my missing class.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of DIY ballet. I think the best place to learn is in a studio with a proper floor, mirrors, space, etc., with a qualified teacher. But I understand that’s not always available to everyone and that not all “beginner” classes cater to true beginners and that some people just want to have an adjunct way to practice at home. If any of those categories include you, I highly recommend this DVD.

It’s 90 minutes long, so about the length of a regular ballet class, but it is, essentially, all-barre. If you’re new to ballet or just looking to get back to basics (or, like me, have very limited non-carpeted space in which to practice) this fits the bill perfectly.

It’s divided into 16 (?) exercises. Each exercise is named so you can see the words written out. Finis introduces each exercise and explains not only what the combination is, but why it’s important to dancers, and mistakes to watch out for. Then his assistant, Jennifer, joins him to demonstrate the exercise full-out while he talks her through it and makes corrections.

Jennifer clearly knows her way around a dance studio, but I found her to be a lovely demonstrator. She’s good, but not pro-perfect. Strong, but not a twig. Okay, I actually just Googled her and it looks like she is a professional modern dancer. Obviously has a ballet background, but it’s not her main thing.

The exercises start at the very basic-basic level with what he calls “Number One” which is basically learning proper posture. He references it throughout the DVD to remind the home dancer to maintain that posture through all the exercises. He then introduces turn-out with an exercise that teaches the dancer how to find his/her own natural turn-out and does a basic exercise incorporating that movement with some pliés and rélevés. Then he gets more into the plié concept in kind of a non-traditional way by using a super-wide second. From there it moves into more traditional barre elements of battements tendus, dégagés, port de bras, fondus, and grand battements.

Everything is very slow and methodical, but if you’re an absolute beginner the speed is just right. Don’t worry, if you’re doing everything properly you will work up a bit of a sweat. Finis emphasizes good technique throughout, reminding you to test your balance by letting go of your barre, seeing if you can lift your heel a bit to make sure your weight is placed properly, checking in a mirror to make sure you are maintaining a square center, keeping abs engaged, breathing, shoulders down, etc. He offers tips for correction that are pretty universal and understandable.

Now, of course, I’m not a beginner, so I guess I’m not the best person to tell you whether this is truly accessible to an absolute beginner. But having taught an absolute beginner class I felt that the elements were just about right. If I were still teaching I’d definitely incorporate many of his ideas. If you happen to be a teacher this would be a helpful DVD to have in your library!

As a more advanced dancer, I still felt like I still got a lot out of this. It gave me new ways to think about certain concepts and ideas to take into the studio to correct some bad habits or fix some of the things I find challenging.

So overall, while nothing beats a real class, this DVD comes remarkably close.

Pros: Clear instruction, good demonstration, nice explanations, and helpful corrections. Introduces steps in a way that isn’t overwhelming, but still gets an absolute beginner through most of what would be included in a basic barre.

Cons: The “scenery” isn’t terribly attractive and it kind of looks like it was filmed on a ’90s era camcorder (I think the copyright date is 2002, so it is a teensy bit dated). Depending on your “home studio” set-up, it may be difficult to find a space where you can set up a “barre” and see yourself in the mirror. And speaking of the barre, it would be really helpful if you had a real barre, which most people don’t.

Stay tuned for a review of Level 2: Barrework for Advanced Beginners!

You’re never too old to stop learning about dance

Even if you’re an icon in the business!

This video of Carmen de Lavallade has been making the rounds lately:

I love where she talks about struggling with not being able to do part of a dance the way she wanted to because her legs just didn’t work the same way anymore… both how she realized that, hey, it’s a solo, so no one is going to know if you change it, but also that by changing it she learned something more about the piece.

Just goes to show that no matter the challenges we encounter in the dance studio, whether 3 or 83, there’s always something to learn and a new way to grow.

If you find this interesting you should seek out the DVD “Carmen & Geoffrey,” a documentary about de Lavallade and her husband. They are both tremendous artists and a very cool couple!

TED Ed talks ballet

A coworker sent me the link to this video and then about 5 minutes later I saw the BB posted the link on their FB page.

It’s about to go viral, people!

But, seriously, if you haven’t seen this yet, take a look as Kathleen Breen Combes gives a great discussion on the evolution of ballet.

I particularly love when she talks about the uncomfortable laughter that certain pieces can generate. I’ve been in audiences when that’s happened. I could be annoyed by the laughter (okay, sometimes I am), but at the same time, that laughter says that a person has been touched. Sometimes we are confronted with emotions that don’t have a tidy name like “happiness” or “sorrow” or “embarrassment.” And sometimes we laugh (or cry) in the face of these feelings. But that outward expression belies the depth of what’s going on internally. To be able to evoke those reactions from an audience when you’re not telling a neatly outlined story almost means more than the applause or standing ovation at the conclusion of the piece. At least in my mind.

People have been trained to try to find a story in ballet. And sometimes… there is no story. There may be a thread. Or there might just be emotion set to music and told through movement. And how weird is it to feel an emotion without being able to rationalize WHY you’re feeling that feeling? I mean, really! We’re humans; we look to rationalize things. Baseless emotions make no sense.

I’ve felt similarly about pieces of music. Some songs have lyrics to explain a story. But others… I still remember hearing Gabriel Fauré’s “Pavane” for the first time. I sat, absolutely transfixed, wanting to cry (happy tears, though!). It has the same effect on me, no matter how many times I hear it.

Balanchine’s “Serenade” might fall into the same category. Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” too.

Life-changing stuff, even if we can’t put our finger on the why!

Fun with Physics

Did I mention yet that I’m taking a physics class right now?

Well, I am.

Don’t ask… it’s a long story. Maybe I’ll post about it later.

Anyway.

So I was sitting in physics lecture today listening to my professor discussing how we can determine the center of an object’s mass — stimulating stuff, of course — when he flips to a slide with a drawing of a grand jété!

I thought to myself, “Hey, wasn’t there some physicist who wrote about dance?”

And then the next slide was a video clip of Kenneth Laws (aka, “some physicist”) and Cynthia Harvey discussing the physics of a grand jété while Julie Kent and Benjamin Pierce demonstrated!

I actually do own Mr. Laws’s book… I’m thinking maybe I should read it instead of using it as coffee table decoration! Maybe this crazy classroom venture of mine will pay off in the dance studio!

Edited to add: It was all I could do to not voice my indignation in class that the dancer was actually demonstrating a saut de chat and NOT a grand jété. Okay, I know it’s just semantics, but still… ;)

Ballet – Frivolous or functional?

While I was scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day I stumbled across a link to an article entitled: 6 Reasons Why Ballet Dancers Make Awesome Employees.

I think I had read it previously, but was good to read it again.

And it got me thinking about a scene I’ve seen played out far too often.

I did not major in dance in college (still kicking myself over that one), but I did take four semesters of dance technique, for credit, during my time there. More than once a fellow student at the college would say to me, “Oh, I wish I could take dance, but my parents won’t let me.”

First off, I was kind of surprised by the idea of my parents “letting me” take anything. They didn’t ask to approve my schedule and I never offered them the opportunity. I guess it’s a philosophical difference in parenting, but I for one was very appreciative (if not then, for sure now!) of the respect they had for their kid, her academic goals, and the college she chose to attend. I’m sure if they had any major concerns they would have voiced them, but luckily we all seemed to be on the same page.

So there was that.

But beyond that… what’s wrong with taking dance?

The overarching theme seemed to be that dance was frivolous. Silly. Extracurricular.

Or, more bluntly. Dance is an “easy A” (it was not… I got B-minuses two semesters… nothing at my school was easy). It’s not a “real” course. It has no practical application.

Basically: It won’t help you get a job and that’s why we sent you to college… to get a good job.

I wish this was something I had only encountered during my own college experience, but I see it with kids I know from the studio who are graduating from high school and going on to college. The parents who were ever-present and supportive of long hours at the studio suddenly want to push the kill switch and put the kaibosh on dance forever after.

It’s like they’re saying, “Well, you’re an adult now, so you must be Serious and Focused.”

It’s true that our studio is not likely to turn out any pro dancers, so pursuing dance as one’s sole academic focus might not be a great option. But dance can fit into adult life in so many ways.

I don’t think any of the dance majors I knew in college were exclusively dance majors. They all double-majored in something else: English or biology or whatever. They have gone on to become a variety of things… some related to dance, some not. But I doubt that any of them regret their decision to study it at the collegiate level and I’m willing to bet that most of them can credit dance with helping them get where they are in the ways the linked post mentions, and probably others not mentioned.

Also… academics are important, but it’s not the sole purpose of a college education. A big part of college is learning how to live independently (assuming you go away to college, anyway). My parents were no longer there to poke a head in my door late at night and tell me I needed my sleep. While they were just a phone call away, they were no longer able to just look at me and tell when I was getting stressed. I had to learn to balance these things out for myself. I learned that I could not just studystudystudy all the time or I would be not only burnt out, but a bore to be around. (I also learned that I could not just playplayplay all the time, but that’s not quite relevant to this post!) Learning to respect the role that my widely varied interests played in my life allowed me to accept that I didn’t have to, nor should I, be 100% committed to any one thing in my life. I discovered that there were, in fact, many intersections among my interests and that they often had a symbiotic relationship.

It helped that I went to a liberal arts college… but even so, I think this is a valuable lesson one could pick up at any school.

As an adult I have a whole new appreciation for the role dance plays in my life. Maybe it is weird that I occasionally need to bust out of work early for a rehearsal or take a day off for a show. But for me, dance is one more piece of keeping my life balanced, and that is as great a life lesson as anything I ever gained from a lecture or a textbook.

Maybe I’m biased because I regret (somewhat) the time I took off from dance. I can’t get those years back and I hate to see a child with existing technique and artistry and potential for so much more be forced to quit simply because they walked across a stage on their high school football field wearing a cap and gown. But even so…

Parents, please don’t close the doors on your children’s passions. Have faith in the values you have imparted. Studying dance (or music or studio art or underwater basketweaving) does not have to be at the exclusion of everything else you deem important. Just as your child balanced it all previously, they will learn to do so without you there. Encourage them… and prepare to be proud of that successful adult they will become.

NYCB Workout Review

I’m totally late to this party, but finally got the two discs of the New York City Ballet Workout from Netflix. I had been tempted to buy these from Amazon before, but I’ve gotten a fair number of “ballet-inspired” workouts in the past that left me anything but inspired, so I figured I’d rather give it a test run before I committed to buying it.

I’m still not sure whether I’ll add this to my collection, but the dancer in me likes these slightly more than the Bar Method, Tracy Anderson, or Ballet Beautiful. Maybe simply because these aren’t workouts to just make you look dancer-ish, but are supposedly based on real exercises that NYCBers do (or did… these were filmed over 10 years ago now!).

The two workouts are pretty similar: some warmups (think port de bras, pliés, slow balancés, etc.), core strengthening (abs, back, and push-ups), some floor barre, a bit of center barre (tendus, dégagés, grand battements, etc.), a bit of jumping.

I wouldn’t call it hard-core. I did work up a minor sweat, but I’ve got some kundalini yoga DVDs that leave me feeling far more drenched. However, I think it might be a worthwhile home DVD set for us dancers who might want to add a little something in on our days outside the studio. I especially liked the core strengthening and floor barre stuff. I’ve always wished I could take a floor barre class… the little bit I’ve experienced has given me a lot to think about in terms of how I approach exercises and which muscles I’m engaging. So I appreciated that. And it seemed to offer good cross-training to enhance what we do in class. Not a total substitute for ballet class and not a total substitute for a stretch and strengthen class, but close.

For the non-dancer, I don’t think the exercises here are so far out there that someone unfamiliar with ballet couldn’t pick it up after going through it a few times. There are some unfamiliar terms and they don’t go over the mechanics, but if someone was thinking of wanting to try ballet this might be a good way to practice a few things in the safety of the home before venturing into a studio. Nothing is too technically complex and a lot is done in parallel position. It might be frustrating the first couple times through, though. The filming, especially in the core and floor barre, used a lot of dark lighting so you couldn’t always see clearly what the dancers were demonstrating. And Peter Martins, though I love listening to his voice, does not explain things exactly as they’re happening.

The bonus materials were kind of fun on these… there were behind-the-scenes segments and interviews with the dancers featured in the workouts. If you’re a balletophile like me, you’re always curious to see what a day in the life is like. They are getting a bit dated now, though. The first one is copyrighted 2001, the second 2003, but still fun. Most of the dancers featured were in the corps de ballet at the time, so I’m curious to see how their careers ended up.

I wish there were more ballet workouts like this. It was more lively than some I’ve tried and definitely gave me the chance to work on some ballet-specific stuff in a space where I had time to really think about my turnout, abs, etc. I may add this to my collection, but even if I don’t it’s given me some ideas for things I can work on outside the studio.

Ballerina

Okay, so I kick it old-school when it comes to Netflix. Because of my refusal to deal with the cable company for anything (I haven’t had cable for almost 9 years now) I get my internet from my wireless service provider which means I have a data usage limit and can’t take advantage of as much streaming video as I’d like to. So I’m still in DVD-land when it comes to Netflix.

I’m also horrible about watching the DVDs sent to me. Sometimes I’ll be good about watching them promptly and sending them back. But then a few weeks will go by and they just sit. This means that the DVDs I’m getting currently are ones I added to my queue approximately two years ago. I’m not kidding.

It would seem that approximately two years ago I added a ton of ballet-related DVDs to the queue. Which makes sense… that was about the time I started getting involved in the dance blog-o-sphere and finding out about some of these gems. So now I’m finally watching them.

The first one I got was Ballerina (2006) which was a documentary profiling five female dancers from the Mariinsky (Kirov) ballet. The five dancers they chose were all at different levels.

The first, Alina Somova, was in her final year at the Vaganova Ballet Academy and preparing for the graduation performance which served as her audition for the Mariinsky. She was accepted into the company and you get to see her transition from student to professional.

The second, Evgenia Obraztsova, was a graduate of Vaganova, but had already completed her first year in the company and so it showed her as a professional who was starting her ascent through the ranks.

Then there were two dancers who were already established prima ballerinas in the company, Svetlana Zakharova and Diana Vishneva. The focus on them was really on how they rehearse their roles and bring their characters to life and their attempts to perform outside of the Mariinsky (it showed Vishneva travelling to Paris to work with the Paris Opera Ballet and Manuel Legris).

The fifth dancer was Ulyana Lopatkina who was coming back from two years away from ballet. She had endured an injury that required her to step back and took advantage of that time to get married and have a baby. She was now working back towards performance shape.

With covering five dancers they really couldn’t get into as much detail as I would have liked on the progression of each of the dancers, but I loved that they showed people at various levels of their profession and the challenges they face at each point.

Since the beginning of the film highlighted Somova it also showed the training at Vaganova and was really interesting to see. They showed the 10-year-old girls auditioning and it was quite eye-opening. There was little in the way of dancing from what they showed of the audition process. Instead they showed a group of girls in their underwear in front of a panel. One of the teachers (I assume) tested their flexibility in their legs and back by putting them into various positions (side extension, arabesque, cambré back). The student didn’t really do much herself. It seemed a bit demeaning in some ways. I mean, aside from the audition in one’s underwear, I saw no part where the child demonstrated her dancing ability. It was really all about their physique. On the other hand it highlighted the whole hand-picked aspect of Vaganova training. There is a lot of controversy about the demands of the Vaganova technique in terms of flat turn-out, etc. But you could see how they really were picking kids that had the physical capacity to meet the demands of training. So… I guess reassuring in some ways and a bummer in others.

What showed the flip side of all of this, at least in my opinion, was an interview conducted with Manuel Legris later in the film. He discussed how every Russian ballerina has a unique quality to her dancing, that no two dance the same. Which I found interesting because of how exacting Vaganova is known to be. I mean, all those pictures of the Vaganova kids in class where they look like they’re all cut from a mold. You’d think they would all dance similarly as professionals. But no.

And you could see that in the rehearsal footage. It was amazing to me to see how hard these ballerinas would work on maybe an 8-count snippet of choreography to get the expression just right. It wasn’t simply a matter of memorizing the choreography and executing it cleanly, it was about which way the head was tilted, how the hand was moved, etc. So fascinating to see the focus on even the most minute detail. And the work that the ballerina would do with a teacher, the back and forth discussion of what the character should be, how to best express that. The amount of real, true work went into the rehearsals was staggering to me. It wasn’t all about physicality, it was a lot of give and take, feedback, tweaking, etc. Truly impressive.

As an adult re-beginner I also particularly enjoyed the section about Lopatkina because I could relate in some way to her struggle. Obviously she dances at a much higher level than we amateurs can ever aspire to, but she was completely out of the dance studio for two years dealing with her injury and becoming a mom. To watch her come back and say the same things that so many of us have… working to get back to where we were previously, building strength that has been lost, etc. Truly inspiring. And what I loved was how gentle she was with herself in the process. She had realistic goals of building herself back up to her previous level. It was coming back all guns blazing. It was working back up to classes and and then some small roles, hoping to get some solos and duos. But what I also loved was the interview with the artistic director who was saying that Lopatkina’s best years were still to come. I mean, she had stepped back from the company when she was at a very high level and then had to make up for lost time. But her higher-ups still felt that this hadn’t been a detriment to her and that she was going to do great things. I think all of us adults can take that into consideration… we may have lost time, but that doesn’t mean that our best years are behind us!

Overall, a nicely-done documentary that managed to put a lot into a brief 80-minute span. I found it wholly engrossing and inspiring! Oh, and I loved seeing the images of the theatre having visited there in 1995! Such a beautiful building.

From barre to Bar and back again

Was surprised to see this article posted on DanceAdvantage today: The Skinny on the Bar Method for Ballet Fitness

I have a stack of Bar Method DVDs at home that are gathering dust as we speak. I bought the original DVDs back during my dance hiatus in, oh, 2004 or so. It used ballet, yoga, and pilates concepts to create a workout program? I like all those things! It’ll give me a dancer body? Well, I miss my dancer body! Don’t need any fancy equipment, just a chair and some weights and a belt? That’s my kind of workout program!

And I was a pretty big Bar Method fan in my day. When Burr says, “Do this 3-4 times a week and after 10 times you’ll start to see a change in your body,” man, she’s not kidding! This was one of the few exercise programs that I’ve been able to use and see visible results fast. And I felt good. When she put out new DVDs a couple years ago I eagerly snatched them up. And I was a bit evangelical about them. I got my mom to do the Bar Method, I got one of my coworkers doing it, I gave DVDs to a friend who wanted to tone up for her wedding! I mean, it works!

But, as I said, they are now gathering dust. In fact, last fall I bought two new DVDs and I haven’t done either workout even once! What?! Not only did I not use them, but I ceased to speak of them. I almost felt as though it was sacrilegious for someone who used a barre for actual ballet to speak of “bar-based” workouts, though I had no rational reason for this mentality.

So when I saw that Nichelle had posted an article about ballet and the Bar Method I immediately had to click on over! Burr (the founder of the Bar Method) herself stated that there are very few current dancers in the classes, that it seems to appeal more to former dancers. Back when I was a “former dancer” I did find the whole thing very appealing. Now, as an active dancer? Well, I think Burr is on to something when she states that dancers may fear the Bar Method will change their bodies away from the ideal they are striving for. While I’m not so much concerned about the appearance of my body, I do want it to function at its optimal level (even as a recreational dancer). When I was just doing the hip-hop/contemporary hodge-podge of the dance company I’m in I found value in doing the Bar Method to improve my strength and flexibility. But now that I’m also taking and teaching ballet regularly I am loath to do anything that might throw off the strength & flexibility that I’ve gained in those classes. This isn’t to say that I think the Bar Method is at all dangerous, just that I don’t feel that it’s what I need at this point to improve my technique. If I am going to exercise outside of my dance classes I want to be doing something that I know will help improve my technique.

Lauren Warnecke shared her impressions of the class in the article. She noted that a lot of the ballet-based exercises are done in parallel and with a tucked pelvis, things that we don’t do in ballet. And that may be part of the reason I unconsciously found myself shying away from the Bar Method. I don’t want to be overworking the muscles used when working in parallel, nor do I want to create a bad habit of tucking that I’ll have to work to correct when I’m in ballet.

I pretty much concur with Lauren’s impressions. I would definitely continue to recommend the Bar Method for people (women, especially) who are looking to tone up, increase flexibility, and improve posture. It’s great for those things. But I think for the time being I will be keeping my DVDs in their cases. Maybe I’ll bring them back out during off months to help me keep up some level of fitness. But as a substitute for dance… it worked at one point, but now that I’m no longer a “former dancer”… not so much anymore.