Disclaimer 1: This post is pretty long (around 2500 words) so if you don’t want to trawl through it all just scroll down to the last three words. I think they sum up my entire experience perfectly.
Disclaimer 2: This is my first class so don’t expect perfect terminology or for me even to spell them right (my French is pretty poor)
I can’t really remember my first day of school clearly. I’m pretty sure my mum probably fussed over me making sure I was ready in time and my uniform was correct. My brother probably moaned about having to take his little brother with him to school. My dad probably made me a bowl of porridge to make sure I had enough energy for the day. What I am definitely sure about though, is that I was probably a bundle of nerves and excitement – What would it be like? What would we do? Who would be there? Would they be nice? All these questions would have been running through my head, even at age four.
Now fast forward about twenty years and those same questions were running through my head along with some new ones. This was because I was headed to my first ever Ballet lesson – and was more than just a little nervous! Some of the new questions were things like – Would I fall over? Would I kick someone? Would I somehow pull the Barre off the wall and injure everyone in the class? All slightly pointless questions it turns out (and all are answered ‘No’), but that didn’t stop me worrying.
Then yesterday afternoon, around 6 hours before my lesson was going to start I had a minor panic – when should I turn up? My class was scheduled for 6:45-8:00 and I knew that the class would start promptly. Before the class I had to make sure all my paperwork was in order and get changed – and who knows how long it would take for me to get into my tights! I guessed 30 minutes would be about right but didn’t want to make a huge faux pas on my first day so I headed to Twitter to ask for some help. My followers were quick to assure me that 30 minutes was about right, and indeed it was!
As a side note here, I had a lot of people wishing me “Merde” for my first lesson. I gathered that this was probably a good thing, but having lived with a French housemate I also knew that merde translated into something you might find in a toilet so was slightly confused. Luckily one of my followers pointed out that although that is the literal translation, it is simply a way of wishing someone good luck in the Ballet world – after all, saying “Break a leg” is a little inappropriate!
After this minor panic I headed down to Princeton and arrived at the ARB Ballet School around half an hour before class. I checked in at reception, my paperwork was in order and was directed to the men’s changing room – which was tiny! I guess most of the school’s male students must be boys who don’t take up much room… I then started getting changed, putting on the dance belt, then my tights (with elastic belt) and my T-shirt. I had noticed that people didn’t wear their ballet shoes outside of the studios so simply carried them (with my bag, which I was told I could leave in the studio) and walked around in my tights to wait outside the studio. Needless to say I was little self-conscious, but then again I have competed in Crew and Cycling which involves a lot more flesh!
Unsurprisingly, most of the people waiting outside the studios were parents and it turned out that the studio I was going to be in had a boy’s class in before mine. I didn’t know whether it was okay to have a look at the class through the windows so I just sat down and waited for the time to tick by. I did some light stretching and I think I probably looked a bit nervous as soon enough a few other Ballet 101-ers came over to introduce themselves. They all commented how good the teacher was and we quickly headed into the studio.
My instructor for this term is Douglas Martin, who also happens to be the ARB company director. Having a male teacher was one of the factors of choosing this particular session and I’m certainly glad I did. Although I am sure I would get just as much out of the course if I had a female instructor, having a male teacher immediately made me feel a little more at ease and less out of place in a predominantly female room. As it turned out, out of around 20 students there was four guys – myself, a teenager and two men in their 50s. On the whole the class was a bit older than I expected. There was a young girl (around 10), a couple of teenagers, maybe two other people in their twenties (including a dancer for the company who was coming back from injury) and the rest were all 40+.
After Douglas had introduced himself he checked who were complete beginners – and there were only two of us! This was a little scary but he simply moved us both between more experienced dancers so we could follow someone if we got lost. He then explained that his method of teaching beginners was to throw us right into it, and just have fun. Then, suddenly, the class started.
We started with Barre work – that is working along the long wooden bars to help support our balance. He quickly showed us the five feet positions and showed us our “natural turnout”, by flicking both feet out at once and avoiding over rotation. He also pointed out that when in these positions we should think of drawing the front of our legs up, so as to avoid using our knees to achieve rotation. We then did some work on Plies along to music provided by a live accompanist. After following along without the music it was amazing how different trying to do it with music was. All of a sudden, I felt pretty lost and like I was chasing to keep up with the beat.
A few beats into the music though, I realised that if I half-followed the person in front of me and half-anticipated what was coming next things were much easier. The advantage was that these combinations were very logical and it was reasonably easy to guess what would follow. After plies in first, second and fifth we Releved (if that is the word!) onto the balls of our feet and held it for 8 counts. If you had asked me beforehand I would have told you that balancing like that would be easy, but I quickly realised it wasn’t that simple! Douglas pointed out the fact we need to keep our weight almost a little forward (for if we start to fall back it is very hard to recover) and it certainly helped and soon enough I could hold without quivering and feeling like I was about to fall flat on my face.
Next up were Tendus, Ronde de Jambes and Degages which I didn’t have too much difficulty with, but we moved onto Frappes which were an entirely different kettle of fish! Frappes involve striking the floor to the front, side and back to make a sound, which is certainly harder than it sounds. Douglas demonstrated making a nice resonating sound, which obviously came from years of practice and being a Principal Dancer at the Joffrey Ballet. When I tried however I could barely tell my foot even hit the floor, or I would hit it at too sharp an angle and just bounce my foot off (hurting the ball of my foot in the process). Needless to say, Frappe’s will take some practice!
Douglas had told us to pretty much ignore our arms for the first section, but he then explained to us the different Port de Bras positioins and the need to turn out our elbows in all positions. I had thought that the arms would be the easiest part of the lesson, but every time I glanced in the mirror, my arms were either completely in the wrong position or horrifically limp and unsupported – or both. I suppose that’s another thing to work on!
We then stretched our legs (both static and active stretches) before taking a quick water break before leaving the Barre for some Centre work. The water was certainly needed and it gave me a chance to chat with the other students for a few minutes. They were all intrigued to see how I had found it and I assured that I was enjoying it so far, although feeling a little out of my depth. One of the ladies turned to me and said “Well you certainly look like a dancer” – I don’t know if she was referring to my apparel or my movements in the first half of the lesson, but it was nice to get a compliment and it gave me a little boost heading into the Centre work.
Centre work is certainly a lot different to Barre work – and I immediately got completely lost in the first combination. It was a series of Tendus walking back and forward followed by a Glissande (?) to the front with a couple of jump-skip steps ending in fifth before being repeated 3 more times. I could manage the Tendus (although I occasionally had the wrong foot in front) but each time we had to do the Glissande-thing I messed up, ending in something that didn’t even resemble fifth position. Other people were having difficulty too, so Douglas took us through the Glissande bit slowly which helped, but it was still frustrating not to have it nailed by the end of the combinations.
Next up were something I was dreading, but hoped I would have a few weeks before having to tackle them – pirouettes! Douglas explained he likes to start pirouettes early, but this week we would only be doing quarter turns. Pirouettes are the stereotypical Ballet move and all I knew about them was that dancers whipped their heads round with seemingly whiplash-inducing speeds whilst performing them. But then again, doing a quarter turn shouldn’t be too difficult, right? Wrong.
First off were the feet and legs. With my right foot forward in fifth I felt like I should be turning to my left, not my right, and while turning I also needed to lift my foot up my left shin before lowering it behind my left leg after the turn to fifth. Next up, I had to concentrate on keeping my right arm forward and left to the side, before bringing the left to the front during the turn, and then separating again afterward. Finally, there was the head whip. And I needed to do all those things simultaneously, while trying not to lose my centre of balance. Not the easiest thing in the world!
We separated into two groups (named, for some reason, ‘lemon & lime’ and ‘strawberry’), and my group was the first to attempt the quarter pirouettes. My first couple were pretty disastrous, but I started to get to grips with it after a few more. It didn’t help that I would get confused on the Tendus before the actual spin. What did help though, was watching the other group attempt the pirouettes. First off I realised that I was certainly not alone in finding the pirouettes difficult, and secondly I could see how people were combating some of the mistakes I was making myself.
I headed back out to the Centre ready to tackle some more quarter turns, when the teacher decided to challenge us with half turns instead. There was nothing for it but to simply go ahead and attempt the turns, and I had a varying degree of success. It seemed when I concentrated on one of the three key points (feet, arms, head), the other two would go to pot.
Not feeling too proud about them I headed off to the side again to watch the other group have a go. However, just as they started, the teacher came over beside me to have a word. I expected some critique or tips about my pirouettes but he surprised me by telling me that I looked like a natural and that I had great musicality, physicality, flexibility and feet awareness! He then asked me how old I was, and when I told him I was 23 he said how many male dancers start in their 20’s and he hoped I was enjoying it and would keep it up. I assured him I was and he went to talk to the other group leaving me slightly taken aback. I don’t know if he was saying those things just to encourage me to come back but they certainly made me smile and I did the next few exercises standing a little bit taller and prouder.
It was probably a little fitting then that the next thing on the agenda were jumps. As one of the older men described it, this was where the guys can shine. We started with Sautes (I think) jumping from first position to “kicking our arches out” before landing in a demi-plie and leaving our heels up until the last moment (as to not ‘clunk’ down). It was certainly fun to put my cycling legs to good use, really springing up, and although I lost the beat in the first set, I felt I understood the rhythm better second time round.
Next were Jetes (again, I think that’s what they were at least!) across the diagonal with the other foot in coupe behind the landing leg. We were paired up, with the guys leading, and made our way across both diagonals. Again, this was an awful lot of fun, and I can certainly say the jumping was a highlight of the lesson.
Finally we all grouped in the Centre for a Reverent (?) which was Douglas leading a very slow, controlled combination which was a lovely change of pace to the jumps beforehand.
And all of a sudden the class was over. I couldn’t believe 75 minutes had flown by so fast, and as cheesy as it sounds, I didn’t want it to end! Not to say I wasn’t sweaty and a bit tired, but I had so much fun during the lesson. A few of my fellow students asked me how I had found it and after assuring them of how much I had enjoyed it I had time to ask Douglas a quick question. I had found during the pirouettes that the front pad on my slippers had been sticking slightly, resulting in the front of the shoe slightly twisting around my foot. I asked him if this was normal and he assured me that most people had been slightly sticking due to a slightly sticky floor. He then gave me a tip that next time I buy shoes I may want to buy a canvas slipper rather than leather because of the humidity in New Jersey most of the year round. He said that the humidity affected the leather shoes a little more than the canvas ones, resulting in them being a little more sticky. Definitely something to consider and next time I’m in New York I might have a look at some canvas shoes so I have the option of either.
And after thanking Douglas once again for a great lesson (and assuring him I would be back next week) I headed out of the studio and back to the changing room. I was slightly surprised how sweaty my T-shirt was after the lesson and I then finally got the chance to take off the dance belt! That being said, during the lesson I was so concentrated on making the steps that I barely noticed I had the dance belt on so I wasn’t desperate to take it off (though I certainly didn’t complain). Then it was back into regular clothes and time for dinner. I was certainly hungry and so headed to get a very tasty chicken Caesar salad from the restaurant next door to the studio.
While eating I started to fill out my dance journal. After reading about it on Ballet For Men and Tights and Tiaras I had realised how useful a tool this would be while learning Ballet and so got to work documenting the class. That being said, I couldn’t remember all the combinations or names so wrote down the things that had stuck in my head (like making sure in moves my heel is trying to go forward) and soon enough I had filled three pages!
I think I’m going to finish this post with the three words that I finished my dance journal entry with, and I think they sum up my entire experience of the lesson:
So. Much. Fun.
Until next time, keep dancing!