by Emily Kate Long
In narrative ballets, choreography exists to say something. There comes a point in the rehearsal process where it feels ineffective to think in terms of steps or counts. Knowing the what and when of the choreography is just the beginning! When the mechanical information—let’s call it the “rags”—begins to feel stale or imposed, it becomes necessary to work from the inside out. Each role, no matter how small, contains vast riches for the performer and audience. To realize them, the artists has to address the how and why of the movement.
Choreography is informed by a character’s self-perception, personality traits, general life attitudes, and relationship to the environment. These things govern a character’s interactions and reactions. When deciding what intent to use for movements, I ask myself some questions:
For internal motivation, is this a positive or negative emotion?
For external motivation, is this a positive or negative reaction/relationship?
What does my body naturally do when I feel hope? Disappointment? Frustration? Relief? Subtle changes in posture, stance, or carriage can drastically change the meaning of choreography. I have to be in tune with myself and the character to make sure my own body language in a given moment is not accidentally polluting my character’s actions.
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.
by Emily Kate Long
I’ve had a lot of opportunities to look back and reflect on the trajectory of my dance training over the past year. Revisiting old teachers, roles, journals, friends, and old habits with fresh eyes and new information has given me insight and ideas for my own future, and it’s informed how I pass on information to my students. This installment of “Finding Balance” is an examination of different thinking and learning styles and the roles they can play throughout our dance lives.
First, a bit about two thinking styles: linear and global. Put really simply, linear learners tend to prefer a step-by-step approach and global learners tend to zoom in and out of the “big picture” as they process information. (For a more through breakdown of thinking and learning styles, check out http://www.targetlearning.net/learningstyles.html and http://www.goodluckexams.com/linear-and-global-learners/.) Learning classical ballet technique involves both global and linear processes. Each step (literally, in a ballet class) must be well-executed before the next can be attempted, but all steps follow the same global rules of execution. The broad goal of good technique, likewise, serves the even broader purpose of communicating through performance. The ability to adapt one’s style and an understanding of how to bend rules for choreography’s sake are two essential skills for professional dancers. Those skills require both a global understanding of potential uses for movement and a reliable set of steps to ensure the integrity and safety of one’s technical habits. As dancers and teachers, how do we best go about filling in the gaps when one aspect or the other gets neglected?
Many young dancers initially fall in love with the end product not the process of dance. That is to say, they see the big picture first—they are introduced to dance globally. I was definitely one of those dancers; from age nine onward I had visions of Sugarplums (and swans, and peasant girls, and princesses) dancing in my head. That enchanting product, however, is largely an illusion designed to mask the work that goes into producing it. I’ve determined that my thinking style leans global. I tend to dive into things headfirst and work out the details later. I hypothesize that that personal quality, combined with a lack of continuity in my early ballet training, lead to a great deal of difficulty later in my dance education because I lacked a solid, linear foundation. I lacked an understanding of how steps fit together and progressed in order to achieve overall polish.3
by Emily Kate Long
It’s the most wonderful time of the year…Nutcracker season, of course! Nutcracker has never lost its magic for me. The fire was lit inside my nine-year-old soul as I hid under Mother Ginger’s skirt with eleven other curled, beribboned, lipsticked little girls, wanting more than anything to someday sit on the glittering throne upstage center. Fifteen years later, that throne is my domain for half an hour each Nutcracker night until a tiara and a tutu transform Clara into the Sugar Plum Fairy, bringing all her (and my) childhood dreams to life.
That’s the candy coating, anyway. Nutcracker is not a kind ballet, physically speaking. Classical pas de deux are lopsided as a rule, and it sure doesn’t feel great to sit still on foam-covered plywood for thirty minutes before dancing one. Many companies’ Nut runs are a dozen or fifty shows in duration, or involve extensive touring. Injuries are often rampant this time of year. In preparation for all things Nutty, this installment of Finding Balance is an early Christmas present to dancers in Nutcrackers everywhere: the Cross-Training Special (or, How to Survive Nut Without Cracking).
The first (and probably, the most important) step in developing an effective cross-training program is to identify what your general and specific weaknesses are, and to realize that they will (and should!) continually change as your technique and choreography do. For example, most ballet dancers are stronger/tighter on the left side and looser/weaker on the right, and overall our adductors and hamstrings tend to be weak. That’s a general and probably constant issue to address. Specifically, if choreography involves one-sided, one-directional, or very repetitive movement (many releves on the right foot, leg extensions mostly to the front, consecutive press lifts, etc.), building opposite or complementary actions into cross-training can prevent or alleviate symptoms of overuse.
Dancing alone can’t provide the strength to dance well, and it really pays off to be proactive. Time and money are two things most dancers need a little more of, and we can save both long-term (along with our sanity) if we take good care of ourselves to begin with. My routine is one I’ve developed and adapted to meet my particular needs, but it’s always evolving. I’m sharing it not because it’s a generic solution to everyone’s problems, but because of how much I’ve learned about my body and my dancing from developing tools to help myself.0
by Emily Kate Long
Last month I had the opportunity to return to the role of Mina Murray-Harker in Deanna Carter’s Dracula. It was the season opener for Ballet Quad Cities when I joined the company in 2009, and my experience then was radically different from now. The process of re-learning got me thinking about the dancer’s function in the existence of a role. To remember and pass on steps is one thing, but what about the aspect of characterization? We must preserve, but we must also advance. Interpretation and personalization are inherent in live art. How can we go about our work in a way respects the choreographer’s wishes?
Mina was the first real character role I ever danced, and Dracula was the first ballet I ever performed as a full member of a professional company. It was the beginning of my awareness of the huge clash between the academic, black-and-white (or, perhaps more appropriately, black-and-pink) framework I clung to as a student and the messy, splatter-colored, pick-your-own-adventure world of a professional career.
My professional performing experience up to that point had consisted largely of being the third-shortest girl in a line of umpteen in hundred-year-old tutu ballets. Conformity was the order of the day, and I quaked in my pointe shoes at the prospect of sticking out—being noticed usually meant you had done something wrong. We had a saying at Milwaukee Ballet among the trainees: “Know your role and shut your hole.” Great for staying out of trouble, not so great for artistic self-discovery.
I had anticipated that professional life would just be an extension of what I already knew: take class and do as I was told, learn choreography and do as I was told, perform choreography and hope I didn’t get reprimanded afterwards. Feedback or not, there was always the nagging question of whether my work had been good enough. Little did I know that being an artist has a lot more to do with being honest and generous and responsible than about being right by arbitrary standards.0