Ballet Diary 4: breathe like a pro

Four weeks into her crash course in dancing, our ballet aspirant's body demurs, but her lungs learn a lesson

Walking back on the Hawthorne Bridge after last week’s ballet lesson, I felt a sense of pure…expanse.

The weather was hot and balmy, sunlight still bright even at 9 pm. My bad ankle hurt in the sharp-pang, woken-up way, the halfway point between its dull-ache swell and those rare times it pretends it’s fine. The Willamette was blue, the bridge railing was red. The dragon boats were out. It was all popping.

I was flooded with ballet insights to share with you, the ArtsWatch readers who are following my mid-life efforts at beginner ballet training from Northwest Dance Project (really more a form of arts writer continuing education than an attempt to master the art—the words “college try” apply). But it’s only now, after another week has passed, that I’m finding the words and time.

ballet 4

As I left Lincoln Hall (NWDP’s summer home), I’d passed my teacher, Renée M., in the breezeway. “Good job today!” she beatifically lied. But I’ll take it. Because I do try.

The first thing I was going to tell you was to clarify a detail from a prior post. “I think when you describe corps de ballet, you really mean barre,” a fellow arts writer discreetly corrected me on Week 3. It would seem so, but no. I did say—and mean—the corps de ballet. Renée M. had arranged us in a tight row on Week 2 and had us hold hands, explaining the configuration of corps de ballet and letting us try a few steps in that arrangement. I revised my text to make that more apparent.

“Sounds more like a ‘ballet appreciation’ class,” sniped my friend, who, out of respect for the discipline and technique that ballet requires, balked at the idea that newbs would get to try advanced moves, just for fun, possibly too early in their learning curve.

Back when I was considering an education minor, this very debate was all the rage in language arts. Do we drill students on sentence structure, punctuation and parts of speech, preparing them for the privilege of expressing themselves later…or do we just let them tell their stories right now, and then try to help them refine their craft as they go?

“You’ll entitle sloppiness!” frets one side.
“You’ll crush expression!” worries the other.

Perhaps both fail to account for the different ways we learn. A chance to try the “fun stuff” first can inspire some amateurs, but it gives others a dangerously false sense of mastery, or a dangerously discouraging recognition of how far they are from competence. Meanwhile, dogged repetition of basics can provide comforting consistency and realistic goals for some new learners, but it can leave others bored and unstimulated. In any case—I found out which kind of learner I am.

This week, we pulled the barres parallel to the mirrors for quite a bit of barre (and I don’t mean corps de ballet) practice, particularly a sequence of battement degage, where one sweeps the toes of one’s foot along the floor outward from the body to the point where they disconnect from the floor, while the other foot stands firm. We did this move forward (devant) to the sides (a la seconde) and to the back (derriere…don’t snicker), and this part of class, for me, was powerful. We were all in sync and all equally capable, and I felt I could do this all day, possibly for weeks, my stance growing stronger and my extension getting gradually higher. I wished our whole class could charter a dragon-boat, and power it down the Willamette with only the strength of our synchronized degages.

Now, part of NWDP’s brand is authoritative, tasteful music selection—after all, managing director Scott Lewis used to run a record store, High Fidelity style. This effort seems to extend to classes. I’ve mentioned Renée M.’s yen for Magnetic Fields, and I think Franco Nieto’s lyrical jazz class has been spinning Neco Case and Kishi Bashi.
Today’s degages were brought to us by Purity Ring’s Fineshrine, a sparkly-spirited EDM track with cooing femme-vox that, just to maintain a shred of edge, seem to be describing intimacy as…open-heart surgery? Autopsy?

Get a little closer, let fold,
Cut open my sternum and pull
My little ribs around you…

Like a lot of electronica, it’s intentionally hyper-somatic, designed to heighten the physical sensations of a) dancing, or b) party drugs—and maybe a few of the latter would have numbed the sting of the humiliation that was soon to come.


Not just turning, but pique turning.

I was not prepared.

For a pique turn to happen, many smaller events have to occur: your forward leg must lift  ’til its foot touches your standing knee (picture your legs making the number “4”). Then that lifted foot must slip down and land behind the standing foot, which—on tiptoe this whole time—has rotated 180 degrees. Your arms, to assist this process, have gone from being evenly open in front of your chest, to an uneven one-more-open, one-more-closed pose, then evening out again. Your gaze must be fixed on one point for as long as possible while the rest of your body rotates, then at the last second, it must snap around and reaffix.

The more Renée M. explained all this, the less I could persuade my body to do it. This week, several women with very noble, natural, possibly life-long ballet bearing had joined the class. I was now a conspicuously remedial student. Like the one in algebra who asks, “What do you mean by ‘x’?” Like the one in English who can’t sort out the “theres” and the “twos.”

My arabesque a terre—another first-time move—was as bad, though a little more amusing to watch myself do in the mirror. I looked like a child who mimics a difficult task badly but declares, “I’m doing it!”

[running] “I’m flying!”

[scribbling] “I’m writing!”

[kicking back one foot, then the other, while lurching across the room] “I’m arabesquing!”

Of course, at my age (which I am not revealing), this delusion is less cute. For at least the second time in this course, I revisit the realm of physical comedy, and I may have transcended my prior Lucy Ricardo level to arrive at full-on Mr. Bean.

This level of amateurism was mildly disruptive and felt slightly disrespectful. “It’s probably good,” I thought, “that I’m not coming back next week.” A pre-existing, immovable appointment prevented me from attending the next class, which would’ve otherwise been Week 5, the halfway point in the 10-week course. After class, they would go out for frozen yogurt, Renée M. promised.

My effort to maintain critical distance and partial anonymity would certainly melt during a fro-yo hangout, and anyway I needed not one but two weeks to learn to turn, like, at all. Next week would be the perfect one to skip. Maybe my bouyant mood going home had something to do with this extended time and expanded goal…or maybe it was more physical than that.

Somewhere in the course of this class, Renée M. gave us a breathing tip: “Your lungs should feel like they’re pushing way out to the sides.” She did not say to suck in your gut, like so many fitness and dance instructors seem to suggest. (She also didn’t say to fill your gut up, as I’ve known band conductors to recommend to woodwind and brass players). If you inhale with the single goal of rib/lung/chest expansion, the other preferable things naturally happen. Your gut sucks in; your back goes straight. It’s actually fairly amazing.

I’m the kind of person who loves to learn a new, more effective way of doing something I do all the time. Why, within the last year I’ve changed the way I hold my pen from a nearly lifelong habit. But when it comes to lifelong habits, nothing beats breathing. You Guys, I’m constantly breathing…and apparently, all this time, to varying degrees, I’ve been doing it wrong. If I can spend the second half of my life becoming a flare-nostrilled, proud-chested über-human who respirates like a mighty centaur, any ballet embarrassments will have been worthwhile.

I sound like I’m kidding, but I’m serious. By the time I crossed the Hawthorne Bridge, I was breathing better. We’ll see if I can keep it up…until I die.

READ THE REST: Ballet Diary: An Artswatch Writer Tries NWDP’s beginner ballet


A. L. Adams also writes for Artslandia Magazine and The Portland Mercury.
She is the former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    I love this post, A.L. It’s written with elegance and precision and wit, the way some dancers execute a series of pique turns.

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