Being an adult dancer

A couple of things happened to me recently that have made me realize how, at times, it can be difficult being an adult dancer. I’m not meaning professional dancers here, Ed covered some of those difficulties in his awesome guest post, I’m talking about us ‘recreational’ dancers.

The first thing happened when I was talking to the lovely lady who looks after the reception at the dance school I go to. This week was the last class before Christmas (*sadness*) and she was asking if I’d enjoyed the classes this term. Needless to say, I didn’t need to feign my enthusiasm for the class or teacher. She then told me how usually they don’t take people at such a high level (the intermediate class is the second highest one at the school) hinting, I think, as well that they don’t normally take adults either. But she added how glad they were they had “taken a chance” on me and how they loved having me at the school.

I was touched by these kind words but they also reminded me how lucky I was to have the opportunity. Finding a class can be the first stumbling block for adults wanting to take ballet, whether for the first time or as experienced dancers. Often there isn’t a local adult class, or at least one at an appropriate level. It may be that the only option is to join a ‘kids’ class, which can be seriously daunting. I was really nervous for my first class here and being surrounded by teenagers who are better than you does nothing for your ego!

The second stumbling block, and I feel this particularly applies to guys, is dance wear. First off, guys have to struggle with the idea of tights and a dance belt – who particularly wants to shove a thong up their butt?! As if that wasn’t enough, a guy might head to a dance store and be faced by this:

A terrifyingly pink shop window!

This is a dance store, which shall remain nameless, in London I walked past today and even as a guy who has been dancing for 18 months (and so used to a certain degree of ‘pinkness’) this terrified me. I did go into the store (finding not much in terms of guys stuff) but if I was new to ballet I think I would have run a mile!

The lack of choice of clothing for men is a big bone of contention for me. It seems whenever you go to a store to buy some ballet stuff for guys you’ve got a choice of white or black. And that’s it. You get a whole range of leotards, tights, leg-warmers and dance-bags for women in a choice of colours and styles. Why not a similar choice for the guys? Sure, the demand is probably a little less, but would it really take too much trouble to have grey tights or blue t-shirts?!

It’s not just the dance stores either; I picked up Dance Magazine a couple of times while in the States and both times there was a ‘fashion section’ – one time it was even specifically targeted at adult dancers. Great! Yet in the 10 or so outfits shown, not a single one was for a guy! Would it really have been so hard to pair some bike shorts and a cool v-neck tee for us guys?!

That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom! There are some great things going on helping promote dance for adults. For example studios like Pineapple Dance Studios have loads and loads of adult classes on offer. For you readers in the US, think of Steps or Broadway Dance Center in New York. In fact, when I took class at Pineapple last week there was a reader of my blog, Toby, who was taking his first ever class there! Woo!

As for clothing – there are some options out there, mainly online. For example, BalletBoyz has this really cool tee that I’m planning on getting when I see them here in Bath next month. In the US there is the absolutely amazing BoysDanceToo. Seriously, these guys are AMAZING! They need to open a UK site and really soon. They have an extensive range of cool dancewear for guys, it really is perfect. And if they could open a physical store then all my problems would be solved! In fact, I wore one of their tees to class last night!

My design for a DaveTriesBallet Tee - any thoughts?

(Speaking of T-shirts, have you checked out my design I posted on my Facebook Page? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. If all goes well I will start making them in the New Year – and there’ll even be a competition to win one!)

Then there’s the great image that dance is getting through social media and other outlets. It’s letting people see dancers as normal people (even post-Black Swan!). One of my primary aims when setting up this blog was to prove anyone can take a ballet class – I don’t know how successful I’ve been but there are definitely a range of sites out there that do exactly that (check out my blog roll for starters!). Then there are some awesome things appearing from ballet companies and individuals showing ballet as an athletic artform requiring strength, speed and agility.

I can’t think of a more perfect example than this video (which I’ve posted here before) by Royal Ballet’s first soloist Bennet Gartside: “The Royal Ballet. Not What You Think”

So if you’re someone thinking of starting dance or ballet then my message is this: don’t be discouraged if you can’t find a class immediately or if you find yourself surrounded by pink fluffiness! Persevere, I promise you that it’ll be worth it!

If you’re a dance store or website then I guess I want to urge you to think about us guys! Next time you’re putting stuff in your window stick a male mannequin in there. When you’re deciding your floor layout try not to ‘hide’ away the guys stuff in a corner or downstairs. And maybe think of expanding your menswear range – even just stocking plain coloured tees would be a start!

Finally, if you’re an adult dancer then keep up the good work! Every one of us is promoting dance as an awesome way to get fit and have fun at the same time.

I’d love to hear what you all think about this – are my comments fair or do you have a different view? As always, please share in the comments!

Until next time, keep dancing!

Dream Roles

Okay, so I was reading this really cool post on the awesome “Knit Two, Pointe Two” blog in which Nellie describes the top five roles she’d love to dance. It’s a really great post – she makes some really interesting choices. That got me thinking, what would be the top 5 male danseur roles I would love to dance? So I imagined an alternate universe where (a) I can actually dance well and (b) I have the opportunity to dance whatever roles I choose. This list changes pretty regularly, but here’s my current top 5:

1. Giselle: Albrecht

This just had to be number one. I can’t think of another role that requires such a blend of emotion and technique. Through the first act you have to be a bit of a jerk: I mean, sure, you are deeply in love with Giselle, but you also have to lie to her and the entire village about your identity. Then you have to watch Giselle die from a broken heart and deal with the grief and guilt of having killed your one true love. What does that do to a man? Then, to top it all off, you get to dance the most kick-ass variation I can think of in the second act. Here’s a video that I’ve already posted multiple times on this blog already: Baryshnikov dancing Albrecht’s Act II variation. This sums up for me what being a danseur is about – his grace, his technique, his jumps, his emotion, his turns… It’s just perfection.

2. Manon: Des Grieux

What isn’t there to love about dancing des Grieux? Well, apart from the love of your life betraying you and then dying in your arms after you’ve travelled around the world for her? Oh, right… I still think it’s an awesome part though – and one that relies heavily on acting, almost more so than the dancing. True, Manon is all about Manon (obviously), but I would argue that the real story is how her actions affect des Grieux. On top of the amazing depth of character you also have the most beautiful solo’s and Pas de Deuxs. Here’s Anthony Dowell performing des Grieux’s first solo. Stunning.

3. Swan Lake: Von Rothbart/The Swan

Well I had to include Swan Lake somewhere, didn’t I? Sure, Siegfried would be a great part to dance, but I think the coolest role in the classical ballet would be Von Rothbart. Who doesn’t like being evil every once in a while?! Not only do you get to be wicked and condemn Odette to Swan-dom but come Act III you get to strut around like you own the palace, flirt with the Queen and make all the Princesses fall in love (or rather ‘lust’) with you. Here, Marcelo Gomes shows us how it’s done…

When I was writing about Swan Lake I suddenly realised there was another role I would love to play: The Swan/Man in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. I think it is such a defining role for the male dancer and I was transfixed by Bourne’s choreography when I saw it in New York. So I’m cheating and including both Van Rothbart and The Swan, depending on what production I was in. Hey! It’s my list, so I can do what I like, okay? :P Anyway, here’s the official trailer for Bourne’s Swan Lake:

4. Stars & Stripes: El Capitan

Up until now I’ve kept things pretty serious and picked some reasonably serious roles (even Rothbart has to be serious [and die] at the end). Now for a bit of fun! I absolutely love Stars & Stripes. Sure it is completely over the top and has no real storyline other than bigging up the USA, but it’s also AMAZING! I saw it with New York City Ballet both from the stalls and the 4th Ring and it made me realise how much of a genius Balanchine is. The crisp steps, the formations, the energy – spectacular!

My favourite movement is a tie between Thunder & Gladiator and Liberty Bell & El Capitan. I think for my dream role though I would have to choose to be El Capitan. I was lucky enough to see Andrew Veyette perform this with Ashley Bouder at NYCB and they were absolutely brilliant. This is a technically impressive Pas de Deux but I also find it hilarious – mainly due to Liberty Bell flirting outrageously with El Capitan throughout with coquettish steps and cheekily jaunty salutes. Sublime. There’s no good clips of this on YouTube but here’s some extracts with Ethan Stiefel and Julie Kent from the cheesy 90’s film Center Stage:

5. Jewels: Emeralds/Diamonds

Okay, so I’m going to cheat here, because technically I could dance these two roles in Jewels in one performance (although I imagine I’d be properly knackered). The first is the Pas de Trois in Emeralds. I don’t know what it is about this part of Jewels that I love so much, but every time I watch it I see something new. Personally, I always find Pas de Trois’s fascinating, as soon as you have three dancers on stage you immediately have a story going on.

My second choice in Jewels (and probably my pick out of the two) is the Pas de Deux in Diamonds. Is there a piece that is even half as gorgeous as this? It is sheer perfection with such natural choreography between the two dancers. I was lucky enough to see Thiago Soares and Marianela Nuñez perform this with the Royal Ballet last month and they brought me to tears. Unfortunately there aren’t many clips of Diamonds around (although a search on YouTube may find you a few…) but here is an extract from Houston ballet.

…6. The Bright Stream: The Ballet Dancer

Only David Hallberg could make dressing like a ballerina look so bad-ass! Photo Credit; Rosalie O'Connor

Okay, I know I said I was only going to choose five roles (and I’ve already cheated twice), but I’m going to include this as a technicality. Because I can’t dance en pointe, so can’t dance this role. Not much of a technicality (especially as I can’t dance any of the other roles, pointe or not) but it’s my list so I’m making the rules up as I go along. I saw The Bright Stream twice with ABT and saw Daniil Simkin and David Hallberg both play this role – and cried with laughter both times. In case you don’t know the story of The Bright Stream, part of it involves a male ballet dancer dressing up as a Sylphide to trick a middle-aged man to fall in love with him/her. This requires the male dancer to go en pointe, and part of why Hallberg and Simkin were so hilarious was that they were pretty damn good in those pointe shoes! The Bright Stream is such a delightful ballet and I think it would just be awesome to dance in it :)

Okay, so that’s me done. Except there are so many roles/parts I missed off! Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Romeo, Apollo, Prodigal Son, all of Asphodel Meadows, Solor, Spartacus… I could go on forever! But I will try to restrain myself :)

So, what are your five (or eight in my case…oops!) dream roles? Let me know in the comments section.

Until next time, keep dancing!

EDIT: Okay… I’m going to allow myself one more because it’s not actually a ballet role. It’s Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) in Top Hat, pretty much just because of the most amazing tap sequence in the title song. This guy was such a consumate showman making it all look so easy! I really want to try tap at some point because of Astaire and Gene Kelly… maybe I’ll end up with a sub-blog DaveTriesTap?! Here’s the title number with Astaire, I swear I could watch this on endless repeat… Top Hat

Taking time to look back

Today I couldn’t remember which way round bravo, bravi and brava went in terms of saying it for guys, girls or groups (I’m currently doing #NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] in my spare time and my main character went to see a ballet…). I typed it into google and was searching results when I suddenly remembered that I had written about it in my guide to seeing a ballet! After finding the answer I started flicking through a few of my old blog posts.

I ended up on this post from last October. While reading through suddenly a huge smile crossed my face, specifically at this line:

And then, get this, I DID A PIROUETTE!

I took a moment and realised that I’ve come quite a way since then. That post was from just over a year ago and I can still remember that excitement I had when I first made it around a full 360?. Sure, it weren’t pretty but it seemed like such a huge achievement, and at the time it was. I then reflected on how annoyed I had been yesterday when practicing in the studio and my double pirouettes were being decidedly inconsistent. Thinking of how excited I had been at a single pirouette (let’s be honest, it was a pretty ugly pirouette too!) put things in perspective.

The RAD Intermediate Syllabus that I'm working on

As much as I don’t like doing it (I guess my British modesty makes me feel uncomfortable :P) sometimes I think it is important for us adult beginners (and indeed all dancers) to look back and be proud of how far we’ve progressed. I’m doing stuff now that I would never have guess I would be able to do a year ago.

Mind you, I’m nowhere near where I want to be, and it frustrates me at times when I can’t do things (I’m looking at you tours en l’air…). But at the same time I’m proud of how far I’ve come. I’m currently working towards my RAD Intermediate exam which I will hopefully take some time next year. I may be sharing a classroom with kids from 14-18 years old but I’m still proud of just making it to a level where I can take the class. Who knows how I will do when the exam comes around, but put it this way – I love a challenge!

So I want all of you readers who dance to take a moment and think back on how far you’ve come, I think you’ll be surprised at just how much you’ve achieved. And next time you get frustrated in class think about that!

Until next time, keep on dancing!

Ballet DIY: Sewing your shoes

I’ve had a couple of emails recently asking the same question: how do you sew the elastics on your ballet shoes? Well here’s my step-by-step guide… As with my Ballet DIY post on making shorts from tights  my disclaimer is that I’m absolutely useless at sewing! This is how I sew my ballet shoes but there’s probably a better way out there somewhere. In fact, I think Ed who guest-posted has the best idea: he told me he borrows his girlfriend’s sewing machine (or tries to convince her to do them for him!).

Step One

First off, get some shoes! If you haven’t bought ballet slippers before then you really should buy your first pair from a dance shop. It seems each brand has their own funky way of sizing their shoes and even as a mathematician I can’t work out how they all work… Once you have your shoes you’ll also need some strong thread (I’ve heard dental floss is also great – and minty fresh!), a needle, a permanent marker and some masking tape. You’ll also see a book in my photo here: this is the amazing Ballet Apparel for Men by David Hunter from BalletForMen. This covers everything you could ever need to know about what guys wear for ballet – and you can even get it free, that’s right FREE from the BalletForMen website as an e-book. If you love it (like I do) then you can also buy a hardcopy from Amazon and help support all the amazing work David does.

My shoes (Capezio, Cobra, 10.5M), thread, needle, permanent marker, masking tape and the amazing Ballet Apparel for Men book!

Step Two

Now pop one of your shoes on. You might wonder, like I did when I had my first pair, which shoe goes on which foot. The answer is, it doesn’t matter! The shoes are identical, however your feet might not be so make sure once you’ve decided you stick with the same foot with the same shoe. Now take one of the elastics and bring it over the top of your foot to around the middle of your arch. My Capezio Cobras have a seam in the middle of the arch so you can choose to bring the elastic in front or behind this seem. You want the elastic pulled snug but not tight (you don’t want to cut off your circulation!).

Mark with the marker on the elastic where the top of the shoe meets the elastic. Then take the shoe off, line up this mark again and start sewing! You want to sew below the pre-sewn edge – there’s an elastic running through here and you don’t want to sew through it. How you sew is up to you, I try and be neat but inevitably end up with a Frankenstein’s Monster effect. Make sure you sew over the elastic a few times though, one of my first pairs I sewed ended up nearly pulling out all the stitches because it wasn’t secure enough! Repeat with the other elastic (obviously crossing over to t’other side of your foot).

Work out where the elastic should go, mark it, then sew!

Step Three

Now they’re done (and it may take a while for your first few times) try on the shoe. Fits like a glove, right? As long as it still fits (not too tight to stop blood-flow nor too loose to fall off) you’ve probably done step two right. Now get those little bits of elastic that are the ends of the piece running around the top of your foot. Pull them reasonably tight and tie them into a bow. Again, the idea is not to be ridiculously tight, but certainly tight enough to secure the shoe on your foot. Once tied, neaten up the bow and chop off the excess (don’t be too eager here in case you need to readjust!). Flip your shoe inside out and use the masking tape to secure the bow on the inside of the shoe. This way your bow won’t escape mid-class – most teachers hate seeing the bows!

Check your shoe fits, then tie the elastics into a bow, neaten up and tape down.

Step Four

Nearly there! Try your shoe back on and flex your foot a few times. Does it fit okay? It’s okay if it feels a bit weird, the main thing is to check it’s not cramping your toes or about to fall off. All good? Then you can trim off the excess elastic from your thick bits crossing the top of your foot. Then all that’s left to do is pop your initials inside (you don’t want anyone nicking your shoes, do you?!) and mark which shoe is for which foot. Then try them on!

Trim your elastics, mark your initials and which foot is which, then try them on!

 That’s it!

So if all has gone well you will now be the proud owner of a pair of sewn ballet shoes. Congrats! Wear them with pride!

Woo! Finished shoes! Now just to do the other three pairs I've got waiting...

I hope that has helped. If you have any questions about sewing shoes then please leave them in the comments section or email me at info@davetriesballet.com (although my PhD might mean a slight delay replying to emails!).

Until next time, keep dancing!

P.S.

Be careful when using the permanent marker: if you’re anything like me you’ll be marking the elastics, get a little over-zealous and end up with these marks…

You wouldn't think this was about my tenth pair of shoes I've sewn!

Guest Post – Studio to Stage: The Life of a Dancer by Edward Urwin

Hi everyone! This is an awesome guest post by my one of my old teachers from Princeton Ballet School, Ed Urwin. It’s a real honour to have someone that inspires me so much writing here. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I did and please feel free to ask Ed any questions in the comments section! 

My name is Edward Urwin and I dance with the American Repertory Ballet, a professional ballet company based out of Princeton, NJ. Being able to call oneself a “professional dancer” after many years of hard work is a statement of pride and accomplishment. Ballet is what we have and will continue to devote our lives to, and most of us would be hard pressed to live without dance in our life. In this guest blog, I hope to give all of you loyal followers of Dave Tries Ballet an inside look into what our daily lives really look like.

I wake up every morning and make sure I have the adequate amount of T-shirts, tights, shoes, towels, and dance-belts to get me through a day’s work. I prepare my coffee and drive through the beautiful countryside of New Jersey from Lambertville, a charming little town to Princeton, NJ, an equally charming city that boasts being home to Princeton University. When I arrive at our studios (also home to our affiliate school, the Princeton Ballet School), I greet the ladies working at the front desk (one of whom is my Mother, coincidentally), and and get changed into class and rehearsal attire — typically M. Stevens tights of some varying length and color, and some attempt to find a matching T-Shirt. I then juggle my Fuzi technique shoes, towel, and water bottle down the hall where I double check the day’s rehearsal schedule before entering my office: also known as Studio A. Most typical office workers have a cubicle — I have a barre spot. At 9:00, our teacher comes in to give us warmup class. We are taught by either our director Douglas Martin or our ballet mistresses Kathleen Moore or Mary Barton. They give us an hour-and-a-half technique class similar to those that most of the readers of this blog have taken themselves. Special attention, however, is paid to establishing a uniform sense of style and port de bras so that over time, the company members will look even more together on stage. Oftentimes, steps from material we are learning are incorporated into class to give us a low stress chance to practice them.

Follia (Patrick Corbin), photo credit Leighton Chen

Next, we are given a fifteen minute break to recover from our class and prepare for rehearsals. For the next five hours (with breaks of course), we rehearse all of the ballets in our repertoire, and oftentimes some new ones. Sometimes professional ballet dancers rehearse up to four or five completely different ballets within the same day. It can be very challenging to to switch gears within a five minute break to prepare for the next ballet on the schedule. I try to always take a couple of minutes to try to remember corrections I have received from prior rehearsals. The worst feeling in the world is to accidentally revert to how you used to do a step or lift, and then immediately afterwards realize that you didn’t apply the correction you had been given the day before. It takes four to six weeks of this greuling process to prepare an evening of performances.

I don’t think the thrill of performing on stage in front of a live audience will ever fade. If it does, I can assure you I will be retiring. There is something about feeling the heat of the lights hitting you from all sides while being able to hear and feel even the smallest human reactions from the audience. Gasps, applause, even emotions such as sadness and happiness seem to be funneled directly to me and my fellow dancers on stage. I have experienced one strange phenomena on stage, and I honestly don’t know if others have experienced it as well: When I am performing on stage, for some reason I rarely notice applause. Perhaps I am so focused and in the moment that my body subconsciously tunes it out. As soon as I enter the wings, however, I can hear everything. Regardless, performing is what we do, and the rush is incredible. All the work you have put in at the studio manifests itself in one moment in front of the public. If you do well, the sense of joy and accomplishment is unparalleled; if you choke out there, the disappointment and self-criticism can really get you down. Perhaps it is this intense pressure that gives ballet dancers the reputation of being self-destructive (think Black Swan).

Our body is our instrument and our art, and our soul is our expression and narrative for the audience. Therefore, it is next to impossible to receive a correction or criticism that isn’t personal. We are brought up in our training to realize that perfection in ballet is unobtainable, as one can ALWAYS improve an even seemingly perfect performance, but as occupational perfectionists, we can’t help but wonder how to get to that final level of aptitude. Being hard on ourselves and never giving ourselves excuses is how we are able to succeed in this difficult art, but it also has to be closely checked so as not to career into some kind of psychological issue. I personally choose to be as realistic in my self-perception as possible so as to not build up any falsely higher or lower opinions of my abilities as a dancer. I know my strengths and my weaknesses, and I do my best to see both realistically everyday in the mirror as I dance. This approach seems to work for me, because then I know exactly in what areas to put forth efforts of vast improvements, and in which areas of my dancing to enjoy and take the most pride.

In rehearsal for Mary Barton's Ballet Straight Up With A Twist, photo credit Marc St. Pierre.

At the end of rehearsals, most of us head off to out next job — teaching. Many of my fellow dancers teach almost every day after rehearsal, often requiring an inter-job commute. On Wednesdays, at Princeton Ballet School, I teach a beginner boy’s class with students aged around ten years old. Not only does teaching make my life a little easier from a financial side, but it gives me a chance to give back to the next generation of dancers. I thoroughly enjoy teaching these boys their first ever ballet class, however rambunctious and crazy they might be from time to time (not to mention how cute they are). After the boy’s class, I teach an adult ballet class. This is how I became Dave’s teacher. Teaching adults is equally as enjoyable as my prior class, but for different reasons. Every single one of my students in this class genuinely wants to learn ballet and improve themselves. This affords plentiful opportunities to talk about not only what we are doing, but why and how we are doing it. I can speak more theoretically about the placement of the body and explain complex ideas regarding the steps and techniques to accomplish them successfully.

During the off-season (in the 20 or so weeks of the year that I am not employed by American Repertory Ballet), I do “guestings” or I choreograph to allow me to keep paying the bills. I will always prefer guesting, however. A guesting is when professional dancers are hired by schools or smaller companies to come and dance soloist or principal roles in their performances. It is fun because you get to travel and oftentimes get the red carpet treatment, but in reality you don’t receive the same high-caliber classes that you did with the company, which means being a full-time guest artist can allow your skills to eventually slip. I sometimes choreograph school productions of musicals, which is very fulfilling, but doesn’t allow me to dance. There is an old saying in ballet that goes something like this: “When you don’t take class for one day, you can tell. When you don’t take for two, your teacher can tell. When you don’t take for three days, the audience can tell.’ I therefore realize that the state that I have worked my body to in season is not permanent, and that I must make my best effort to stay in shape during the off-season so I can hit the ground running when I begin again.

Working these jobs outside of our main responsibilities is a reality in today’s world, due in part to a general lack of support for the arts from both the government and the public. Therefore, professional dancers are faced with the predicament of attempting to provide work and income for themselves that either plug the gaps of their layoffs with their main company, or to supplement their oftentimes meager salaries during season. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the outside jobs I take such as teaching are very fulfilling. We are aware that because (especially in the United States) government and other types of necessary sources of funding are scare, we will not be making anywhere near the amount of money typical professional athletes make (ie: Football, Basketball, etc.), but we do it because this is our passion, and what we love. It is my belief that a person who loves what they do doesn’t work a day in their life.

I hope this blog has given you all an inside look into the life of a professional dancer. Please feel free to post any questions as comments, and I will be happy to respond, perhaps by another guest blog. Thanks so much Dave for giving me this opportunity to write.