Our guest contributor for this posting is Janet Karin, OAM, currently on the faculty of the Australian Ballet School as Kinetic Educator. Janet is a former principal dancer with The Australian Ballet, and also directed a ballet school / youth dance company in Canberra, Australia. She has a distinguished career not only as a dancer, but also as a well-known dance educator, having developed dance studies courses for the Australian National University School of Music, and other educational institutions. She has worked in many dance-related capacities, such as cultural development, arts funding, safe dance practice (dance medicine) and other initiatives. She is currently Vice-President / President – Elect of IADMS (International Association for Dance Medicine and Science).
Her article “Ballet: How Hard Should It Be?”, provides some valuable perspectives for both dancers / teachers / school and company directors, and we are very pleased she has joined our Guest Contributor roster at 4dancers.org.
- Jan Dunn, MS, Dance Wellness Editor
“You are working hard” – students usually take this as a compliment. People may think you are working hard if your face is red and you are sweating a lot. You may think you are working hard if you are breathing heavily and feeling a lot of muscle tension, possibly even trembling with effort. After years of praise for these signs of “working hard”, students can begin to feel guilty if their work isn’t accompanied by effort and muscle tension. But, is this how you want to dance in the future, possibly as a professional dancer? In fact, really good ballet dancers make dancing appear completely natural and effortless, as if their movements grow out of the music and their emotions. There is no apparent tension or “work” in good dancing.
You get better at doing what you do. If you dance with tension, you’ll get better at dancing with tension, so it makes sense to dance with as little tension as you can. Tension is energy that is not achieving what it wants, rather like water building up in a garden hose with a bend in the middle. Efficient use of energy helps you achieve your goals more easily, making your work look professional, and much more enjoyable for you and for the audience. How do you achieve this?
Firstly, you need to breathe. It sounds so obvious, but most young dancers hold their breath in difficult movements. Focus on breathing out slowly at the back of your lower ribs, especially on bends and difficult movements. You don’t have to think about breathing in – your brain will take care of that because it wants to keep you alive.
Next, imagine all your movements radiating outwards from deep inside your pelvis – energy streaming out the top of your head, your fingers and your toes, like water streaming out of a hose. Let your movements trace enormous circles in space. Feel as if you are expanding from a secure centre.
Thirdly, remember that we are never really static, because there are always small micro-movements throughout your body as it responds your breathing and small changes in weight from limb movements. Dancers are never “still”; their tiny automatic response to changing balance makes them appear to be still. Make sure you don’t “lock” your body into position, especially your spine.
So, what do teachers really want when they ask you to “work hard”? They want you to use energy, not tension. They want you to focus on making your movements as pure and harmonious as possible. They want you to develop your body’s potential without forcing your muscles or distorting your bony alignment. They want you to breathe freely and move like the music, expressing the pleasure of movement in every part of yourself. And in the end, that’s what you want too!
BIO: Guest Contributor Janet Karin OAM
After an early career as a Principal Dancer of The Australian Ballet, Janet Karin directed a ballet school and youth dance company in Canberra, Australia. She devised her own teaching system, training many highly successful dancers and teachers. She wrote and delivered dance studies courses for secondary education and for the Australian National University’s School of Music and also worked in cultural development, arts funding, safe dance and other dance-related initiatives.
Janet Karin returned to The Australian Ballet as Assistant to the Artistic Director, then moved to The Australian Ballet School as Kinetic Educator. In this role she coaches students individually, applying somatic techniques to improve their neuromotor function. She also collaborates with scientists from various universities in dance science research. In 2009 she was awarded an Australian Centre of Clinical Research Excellence Grant to investigate dynamic pelvic stability.
Janet Karin has received the Medal of the Order of Australia and several awards for artistic direction and dance teaching. She is currently Vice-President of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science, and will become its President in October 2013.
We are pleased to welcome back guest contributor Gigi Berardi, dance author and critic, who has written over 150 articles and reviews that have appeared in Dance Magazine, Dance International, The Los Angeles Times, among others. She is also a natural and social scientist currently on the faculty of Western Washington University.
Her academic and background and performing experiences allow her to combine her passion for both dance and science. Her fifth book, “Finding Balance: Fitness and Training for a Lifetime in Dance” is in it’s second printing, and is one I highly recommend especially for younger dancers. Gigi’s master degree thesis in dance, from UCLA, focused on older dancers who were able to continue dancing and performing well past the age when most have to retire because of injuries – i.e, what were they doing differently that kept them actively performing into their 50′s, 60′s,70′s? Her current book project is called “A Cultivated Life” — look for it soon!
- Jan Dunn, MS, Dance Wellness Editor
by Gigi Berardi, MA
To be honest, I don’t like using the term, “older dancer” to describe dancers over 30 or 40 or 50. I’m not exactly sure why (it connotes “less than,” not as compelling?) – although I used it mightily in my Masters thesis at UCLA, developing “Case Studies of Older-aged Dancers and the Factors that Contribute to the Longevity of Their Performing Careers” (UCLA, 1989). But, the “older-aged” part now, for me, is about psychological and emotional staying power in dance, as I describe in “Bill Evans: “Changing the Body and the Geography of Modern Dance” (Dance Magazine, pages 38 – 43, October, 2003) and elsewhere, see: http://myweb.facstaff.wwu.edu/gberardi/performing_articles.shtml.
It seems to me that for most dancers in their 40s and older, the important questions for them are, “do they feel like they can still do what they want to do in a particular role?” and “do they want to?”
Few dancers are being taken off the stage, fighting and kicking, and screaming “Nooooooo…” I think that what happens, over time, is more subtle (and, if you will, nefarious). They begin to have fewer opportunities for lead roles (for whatever reason, but I must say that audience demand for younger, thinner, and those more capable of dizzying pyrotechnics may comprise a sensibility that artistic director are particularly aware of). Further, past injuries may be catching up with them, other conditions in the work place may be undesirable (re: physical space, etc.), and they may have other personal constraints (wanting to raise a family, spending more time with their children) or financial ones (wanting to be financially solvent at the advanced age of 45, say).
From my perspective as a dance critic and using a lens of physicality, as a career progresses, it is nimbleness and stamina that seem to be on the wane. Strength and flexibility, emotional prowess, commitment to conditioning (for me right now, as a “mature” dancer, Thai kick boxing is my passion) and a diet high in good fats and low in sugar – all seem to characterize dancers with staying power. Nimbleness and stamina are the more illusive traits.
What to do, then, for a “lifetime in dance” (the subtitle of both editions of my Finding Balance book)?
- feed that mind with good cholesterol and saturated fat (for more, see my forthcoming book, A Cultivated Life, 2014) that coat the myelin sheaths in and around and of all the parts of the central nervous system,
- get some sun, which helps in all of the above,
- find your passion in conditioning – martial arts or Franklin Method ©, or Pilates, or step aerobics, and above all,
- keep dancing, which is the best way to build character and flexibility and strength and stamina in all that dancers do.
Or, dancers might want to look for a job in Europe where all (above) seems easier. See: “From Dance to Danse: Why so many American Dancers are Heading to Europe” (Dance Magazine, 2009, at website mentioned in this article).
Gigi Berardi holds a MA in dance from UCLA. Her academic background and performing experience allow her to combine her interests in the natural and social sciences with her passion for dance, as both critic and writer. Over 150 articles and reviews by Ms. Berardi have appeared in Dance Magazine, Dance International, the Los Angeles Times, the Anchorage Daily News, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald, and scientific journals such as BioScience, Human Organization, and Ethics, Place, and Environment. Her total work numbers over 400 print and media pieces. Her public radio features (for KSKA, Anchorage) have been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Dance Critics Association, and is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, as well as Book Review editor for The Journal of Dance Medicine & Science. A professor at Western Washington University, she received the university’s Diversity Achievement Award in 2004. Her fifth book, Finding Balance: Fitness and Training for a Lifetime in Dance, is in its second printing. Her current book project is titled A Cultivated Life.
by Catherine L. Tully
Elegant and intense. That is how I’ll always remember her.
I can still recall the first time I ever saw Maria Tallchief in person. I had been dancing at her school, Chicago City Ballet, for a month or so, taking classes with her sister Marjorie and other instructors there. One day I arrived early as usual to get my spot at the barre and warm up. Students filed in one-by-one, taking their places.
I turned around to check the time and saw her sweep into the classroom. You see, she didn’t just walk in–she made an entrance. Dressed in black from head to toe, she had a cape-like wrap on and a few unique pieces of jewelry. She wore her thick hair down and held her chin high–every bit the prima ballerina.
The class was silent which was typical, but there was an electricity in the air. We were about to take a technique class from one of the most famous American ballet dancers of all time. Talk about pressure! I looked around the room and noticed that all eyes were completely focused on her with a sense of anticipation. Even the pianist seemed to be sitting up a little straighter than usual.
As she demonstrated the steps her voice matched her appearance–dramatic and strong. For the next hour and a half, I tried with all my might to memorize each detail she pointed out and every correction she gave. As she touched my hand to adjust it, I was keenly aware that this same hand had also touched Balanchine, Nureyev and countless others. It was hard to wrap your head around.
I was thirteen years old and I had never been more intimidated. Or more thrilled.
Over the next few years I would have the opportunity to learn much more from Ms. Tallchief, but the most valuable thing I ever received from her was garnered simply by watching her move. By studying the way she gestured with her hands and turned her head–just so. It’s something you just can’t capture in words, and it’s something that became part of me as a dancer from that moment forward.
She really made an impression.
To me, Maria Tallchief will always symbolize the grandeur and mystery that people are so fascinated with when it comes to ballerinas. It was difficult to be comfortable in her presence because she didn’t just act like a prima ballerina, she really was one to her very core.
And I am so lucky to have experienced that.0
by Emily Kate Long
Currently I’m in rehearsals for Cinderella, so the next few installments of Finding Balance will explore a range of topics relevant to that story. For this post, I’ll begin at the bottom with pointe shoes. They are a dancer’s glass slippers, and this is my own personal fairy tale: the search for my most appropriate shoe.
I’ve worn pointe shoes for twelve of my fifteen dancing years. In middle and high school I tried what seemed like almost every shoe out there, then performed surgeries major and minor on the shoes I chose to try to engineer the perfect pair. Darning of toes, slicing of vamps and shanks, re-threading of drawstrings, stitching of sides—so much fuss over footwear! It shouldn’t be that complicated, right?
Towards the end of January I found myself at my first pointe shoe fitting in nearly ten years. After flip-flopping between Freed and Chacott for all that time, I decided to try once again to explore some other options. I had one rule: I wanted to be able to put them on and dance. No fuss, no alterations. After trying on half a dozen or so different styles and brands, I decided to go right back to Chacott Veronese, the very first type of shoe I wore when I started pointe at age 12.
I was nervous! All those things I had been doing to my shoes to “enhance” them had become like security blankets or crutches. I felt like my feet were naked! The reality check was recognizing how much about my pointe work has changed over the past few years and trusting that I no longer need those crutches.
I spent much of my pre-professional training trying to compensate for what I believed were inadequate ballet feet. I wore “farches” (arch pads, like a padded bra for your feet). I stuck my feet under a dresser for twenty minutes each morning (a terrible idea, in case you were wondering). I wore my shoes really soft so I could push far over them and superficially achieve a more curved foot. Yikes!
Placing undue stress on the distal joints of the foot.
The result was that I never knew where my foot was going to be until it rammed into the floor. Slips and falls over the medial corners of my shoes were daily events. Bunions, bruised toenails, chronic ankle pain… I cringe to think of the gambles I took with the health of my feet, knees, and ankles. I believe that ballet is not inherently harmful to the human body. Distortions (even minor ones) cause injuries, and good equipment and good technique prevent them. I was due for an overhaul!
Re-learning pointe technique in my early twenties was confusing and frustrating at first, but patience and persistence have paid off. The changes have made it possible for my feet to be in control of and in harmony with my shoes instead of at their mercy! I learned how keep my toes vertical and allow the arch and instep to do the bending.
Examples of vertical toes with articulated arch
The ankle is designed to do this job because it is a weight-bearing joint. The metatarsals, phalanges, and the dorsal metatarsal and medial collateral ligaments are not. (Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy, 4th ed., plates 527-8)
Working on pointe in a more anatomically correct way has also had a positive effect on the overall muscular shape of my legs and the structure of my feet. Where I used to feel it necessary to fake a good arch, I now feel confident that the shape and articulation of my feet complement my overall line.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter: the importance of finding a shoe that a) fits and functions well and b) aesthetically matches one’s foot/body/leg line. Our style is partly dictated by our function, our function is partly dictated by our structure, and our shoes should complement both of those things.
To illustrate, here’s a bit about some of the shoes I’ve tried:
Chacott Veronese: My very first style of shoe. I loved them always and let myself be talked out of them time and time again. It feels good to be home! I can sew them and go, and their minimal shape complements my slight feet. They are made with a bouncy kind of glue instead of paste, and need some extra glue before wear because of the softness of the box relative to the shank.
Freed Classic and Classic Pro: I chose these partly for aesthetic, partly for the Pro’s 3/4 shank. I loved the minimal-ness of Classic and the U shape vamp but the paste consistently gave out after less than thirty minutes of rehearsal! Eating through pair after pair of shoes was not a good use of my time or my company’s money. They were loud because of the amount of extra glue it took to make them worth it, which was awfully distracting. My preferred makers were also not always available. Pro lasted much longer, but felt like too much stuff on my foot.
Ushi Nagar: These were professional hand me downs. I liked that they had the same bounciness as Chacott, and it felt glamorous to wear somebody else’s special order shoes. They were a shoe of convenience, suitable but not ideal.
For me, this Cinderella story is also has a moral: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! I was born with feet that go with my body—not the “ideal” ballet foot by any stretch, but aesthetically adequate and sufficiently functional. Optimizing their work has refined their appearance. I’ve learned to love and appreciate them for what they are and what they do for me. As good workers, they deserve equipment that helps them out and shows them off!
Assistant Editor Emily Kate Long began her dance education in South Bend, Indiana, with Kimmary Williams and Jacob Rice, and graduated in 2007 from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s Schenley Program. She has spent summers studying at Ballet Chicago, Pittsburgh Youth Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, Miami City Ballet, and Saratoga Summer Dance Intensive/Vail Valley Dance Intensive, where she served as Program Assistant. Ms Long attended Milwaukee Ballet School’s Summer Intensive on scholarship before being invited to join Milwaukee Ballet II in 2007.
Ms Long has been a member of Ballet Quad Cities since 2009. She has danced featured roles in Deanna Carter’s Ash to Glass and Dracula, participated in the company’s 2010 tour to New York City, and most recently performed principal roles in Courtney Lyon’s Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Cinderella. She is also on the faculty of Ballet Quad Cities School of Dance, where she teaches ballet, pointe, and repertoire classes.4