Ballet Diary week 2: best foot forward

Thoughts on slipper shopping, the "ballet body," and NWDP's big move.

Last week, an ArtsWatch writer ventured into a familiar space—The Northwest Dance Project studio—to try an utterly unfamiliar role: beginning ballet student. Here’s the second installment of our ongoing summer series.

Week 2, July 2:

The first step in truly committing to a sport is often going to the store to buy appropriate shoes. In a Catch 22 practically designed to make you feel foolish, you need the right shoes to properly try the sport, but you need to shoe-shop while you’re still unaccustomed to the sport you’ll be doing in said shoes. Sport shoe salespeople must be second only to porn store clerks at overlooking their customers’ self-consciousness and talking practically about their needs.


The Shoes

The guy at The Leotard was really nice about fitting me, even though it was the end of his day and I had to try a couple of sizes.

“When’s your class?” he asked. “Going straight there,” I replied.
“Okay…so…you won’t be able to sew these…”

Drat. That’s right! I knew from my ballerina friend (but had forgotten) that almost all dancers sew their slippers; it’s not really optional, it’s part of the process. “Sew the elastics PAST the drawstring,” the clerk cautioned, “or you won’t be able to tighten the drawstring and you’ll HATE yourself.”I know experienced advice when I hear it. I thanked him.

For a quick fix, he tied the elastics at their very tips and showed me how to crisscross them over my foot and outside the slipper and tuck the knot under my arch. (“Professional!” NWDP director Sarah Slipper would later remark.) My new practice shoes were snug but classic-looking. Seeing my feet in them gave me a burst of unearned confidence. This is why they sell you the shoes before you do the sport; they’re like a good luck charm. Air Jordans, golf cleats, ballet shoes…all are a form of Ruby Slippers. You put them on thinking they’ll imbue you with powers, but really they just give you the confidence to do whatever was in you all along.

The changing neighborhood

I got to Northwest Dance Project ridiculously early, having overestimated my shoe shopping time, so I wandered down Mississippi Avenue in my slightly-ridiculous-feeling ballet attire. I considered visiting Q Center to check in with my friend Logan Lynn and ask him for highlights from the still-recent slew of Pride shows—but it was just past normal business hours and it looked like people were leaving. Blocks away, I ran into him at an outdoor table with friends. I explained my clothes, which he thenceforth referred to as my “ballet look.” I was both proud and mortified. The Q folks were in an after-work meeting, so I left them to it.

I returned to the studio and stood lamely out front, hearing (as last week) the energetic shouts that prompt the contemporary jazz class. In the window, NWDP has placed a flat-screen monitor that plays segments of their performances—a “sizzle reel” of sorts—on a loop. Slo-mo close-ups of the dancers’ slippery sinews are a great source of inspiration…and intimidation. But just standing here got me thinking: NWDP has a pretty high profile in the Mississippi neighborhood. Both Logan and the Leotard clerk seemed not just familiar with the studio, but accustomed to and affectionate toward it. However, this was the last week NWDP would spend in the Mississippi/Shaver location. The next class and any subsequent summer events will take place on the PSU campus, after which NWDP will move into a new, larger studio in a to-be-announced location. I’m sure they’ll be missed on Mississippi.

Speaking of smooth moves: Last week, in the first post of this series, I intended to say that SOME arts writing seemed obtuse, and CERTAIN expressions of expertise could become pedantic, and OCCASIONALLY it was nice to read a first-hand narrative from a noob, just to remind us that any art form—including ballet—expounds from a foundation of practical fundamental skill-building. Apparently what I wrote came off more like South Park character Cartman: “Screw you guys.” Sorry. That was not my intended tone or message. I’ve clarified that a bit on the original post.

Now back to class.

Last week, our effervescent, warm, encouraging instructor Renée M. had (very gently) suggested, “…and you can practice these at home,” while showing us the six basic foot and arm positions in ballet. Did I take her advice? No. I spent all of my time laboring over my long article, doing nary a flick of footwork.

This week, my lack of practice would be punished.

The class started much like the last. We schlepped the barres onto the dance floor and performed a long sequence of drills. Dreading my reflection, I stood in a spot where two mirrors met, swallowing my torso completely into a crack. My disembodied legs kicked blithely along to the music like an art house element from an ’80s music video.

Renée M. caught on and offered me HER space, so now I was the reluctant center of the class’s attention as another student quietly rushed to fill the magic mirror hole, murmuring, “I don’t need to see myself anyway.”

The “ballet body”

The expectations most of us hold for the “ballet body” haunt even this no-pressure, non-professional class. My ballerina friend says it’s for good reason: you can’t stand on your toes and can’t be easily lifted unless you’re particularly lightweight. An actor friend and longtime Portlander, on the other hand, laments her mom taking her out of OBT classes as a child “as soon as they started weighing us.”

Last week, Renée M. explained that French King Louis XIV—”a great fan of ballet and the first to have it codified”—was an active dancer himself despite being fairly stout. The dancers of his court, knowing where their baguettes were buttered, fostered his efforts by creating simpler versions of their moves that he could do with lower jumps. The implication here is, of course, that heavier people have less “hops”…but that must depend on their musculature. As frequently proven by giant men in the NBA, you don’t have to be light to jump high. To be lifted…more likely. And for balance, it must help to be linearly slim, with most of your body aligning vertically above your toes rather than spilling out too far in any other direction…

Setting the weight question aside with the barres, we rejoined our teacher, who had us form a line facing the mirror and join hands to imitate the corps de ballet—which, topically enough, means “the body of the ballet,” aka the people who stand in a line around or behind the principals and do synchronized moves. “It’s one of the most beautiful things about the ballet,” Renée M. glowed.

Ahem. It is not (yet) beautiful when I do it. The movements she asked were clearly beyond my body’s current repertoire; just distributing my weight evenly on both sets of toes was a strain. As I mentioned last week, I have a semi-permanent ankle injury that flares, stiffens, and swells at whim. Last practice paradoxically seemed to loosen and invigorate the thing…but after a few days off it fought back, calcifying into a bloated boulder, leaving one leg shorter—or at least less stretchable—than the other.

In one move, we lifted one foot to meet the other knee while our standing legs leapt onto tiptoe. I hobbled clumsily through this one and filed it away for some strenuous home practice. Despite my generally half-deflated ballon during our flurries of dance, I did exhibit one natural corps skill: acting! Specifically, acting like someone who was about to ballet so hard, and it was going to be gorgeous!

Renée M. coached us how to pose before we began to dance, with our arms gracefully bowed and our heads gently aloft and off to one side. Frozen in the mirror during this moment, I really resembled a dancer enough to fool someone. Of course, immediately when we began to move again, the spell was broken as I Lucille-Balled my way through virtually all the steps.

This class definitely felt more strenuous than the first, leaving me with homework: Ankle swelling suppression. Slipper sewing. The angular, buoyant steps of the corps de ballet. Next week, I’ll warm up by walking to practice, and explore the PSU dance space.

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!

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