Writer tries ballet: Dance diary, week one

ArtsWatch's A.L. Adams starts a summer in beginner's slippers

Brunch was winding down and I was closing my notebook. “I think I have what I need,” I told the directors of Northwest Dance Project, meaning enough notes and quotes for an article in a dance magazine. Suddenly, NWDP’s artistic director Sarah Slipper and executive director Scott Lewis got a mutual gleam in their eyes:

“Our beginner ballet class starts this week,” Slipper said. “Want to take it?”

In the course of arts reporting, I’m often called upon to cover types of art I haven’t personally mastered, and ballet is probably the farthest-flung discipline from my own experience that I’ve ever editorially broached. Though I try to do my due diligence, learn the lingo, and ask the right questions when I write about ballet…attending actual ballet classes would definitely put me on my toes.

Here on ArtsWatch, we sometimes run experience journals, from Sabina Samiee’s Year In Tango in 2013 to actor Phillip J. Berns’ current Acting in Yosemite camp diary. These firsthand accounts of trying new things are some of my favorite stories. They’re invigorating, inspiring and unpredictable.

When it’s only bandied between experts, art dialogue can stagnate…or worse, it can spiral further and further out from its source into an abstract intellectual ether that only experts—not audience or artists—understand. Firsthand accounts help reconnect us to an art form’s rudiments and roots, reminding us that always, while someone’s mastering, someone else is just beginning…

[Writer’s note: In the above passage, which has received some pushback, I’m attempting to explain that sometimes I feel (and ArtsWatch feels) a need to balance educated theory with immediate, fresh experience in all art forms, not just dance, because insights are found all along the continuum. I’m not, however, suggesting we throw over theory entirely in favor of practice. Both need to converse with each other.]

I told the Dance Project directors I would take the classes…and journal them. They said “hooray,” congratulating me for being that relatively rare ballet naif who’s nonetheless willing to try. And I’m sure they gleefully anticipated my come-uppance:

Hello Muddah, Hello, Faddah,
Ballet’s hard-ah than I thought-ah,
who knew dancing
was so wearing
dogs are barking, calves are mooing, tarsals tearing…

As I write this intro, it’s 5 p.m. The first Beginner Ballet class starts at 7:30. But before I go, let the record reflect: I’m already aware of ballet’s physical difficulty. A dear ballerina friend hips me frequently to her injuries, aches, and pains. I’ve also dallied just enough with Ballet’s mall-rat cousin Pilates to know that pliés are no picnic.

Furthermore, I know my own limitations, and I don’t expect to emerge from these 10 weeks a ballerina. In fact, I’ll be happy with slightly better posture, and ecstatic if I master one non-wobbly turn.

I’m wondering, then, since I’m so marvelously mentally prepared…what will still surprise me?

Northwest Dance Project's space...but not for long. The company will work from PSU for the rest of the summer, then open a brand-new HQ in the fall.

Northwest Dance Project’s space…but not for long. The company will work from PSU for the rest of the summer, then open a brand-new HQ in the fall.

Surprise! I’m too much of a pessimist. Beginner ballet shocked me by showing me a good time.

First off, I mistook class instructor Renée M. for a fellow student as she peacefully settled into a warmup hip-stretch so deeply contorted it seemed super-human. “It’s driving school all over again,” I fretted, “where all the other ‘beginners’ have totally done this tons of times before.” As the other ballet “beginners” began to arrive, I spied more telltale signs of dance competence: abnormally pointed toes; preternaturally rounded butts. I had yet to pick up a pair of the suggested canvas ballet slippers the others wore, and was sheepishly sporting striped socks. Meanwhile on the dance floor, NWDP’s Franco Nieto was winding his contemporary jazz class up to a big finish, yelling “Push!” and other prompts over bouncy polyrhythmic, pop music. “I can’t even…” I murmured to myself.

Renée M., in floaty black overalls, waved us onto the dance floor like a smiling pixie spirit guide. “Ballet has been the joy of my life,” the much-acclaimed ballerina gushed as we took our places. “I’m so pleased that I’m able to share it with you!”

For those of us who don’t exercise every day, floor-to-ceiling mirrors are merciless…but the rest of the experience was…I daresay, approachable? Renée M.’s teaching style was friendly. Wholesome. Gracious.

“In ballet, this foot position is considered beautiful,” she demonstrated. “This one,” she shifted position, “is considered gross.”

Beautiful, gross. Simple. We practiced at the barre for a long but reasonably pleasant interlude. Balancing was easier than I expected, but spatial relationships felt slightly awkward. I faced two other students, trying (to? not to?) look them in the eye. The stereo played Magnetic Fields’ chamber folk number Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing — which, like most of Stephen Merritt’s songs, reveals the narrator’s quiet battle between romance and cynicism. I felt that, almost as deeply as my right ankle felt the neverending pliés.

There’s nothing like supposedly symmetrical exercise to raise your awareness of any prior injuries, especially those that make you favor one side of your body, that unsquare your shoulders or hips. My problem is an eight-year-old ankle sprain that I don’t pay attention to often, but that still swells and tightens sometimes. Pain in my right ankle has basically become so normal that when I don’t feel it, I worry that I’ve lost a foot.

Now here’s the weird thing: these exercises weren’t killing me. In fact, they were taking my bad ankle to that rare state of tingly non-pain. Perhaps the wide-set demi-pliés that Meiffer informally called (sic?) “dip-da-doos” did the trick, stretching the top of my foot farther forward than the toes? In any case…could ballet moves actually improve my bad ankle? That would qualify as a huge surprise.

We moved the barres off the floor, stood in a circle, held hands, and sautéed. (Yes, Meiffer told us, it’s the same word as when you fry things. You cause things to jump in the pan, and similarly these are little jumps.) Lift and alignment do something for the spirit. Holding hands and jumping inspires mutual trust. But just because I saw what was happening, didn’t mean it wasn’t working.

“One of the things I love about ballet is the feeling of the wind in your hair, of leaping freely.”

In groups of threes, we were asked to run and jump, any old jump. For some of my classmates, this meant enviable gazelle-ish split-leg leaps; others mirrorred my awkward kick-bounce. But this was the point in the class where you were supposed to get over yourself, once and for all.

Now that we were accustomed to mimicking moves, and had gotten re-acquainted with our own amateur enthusiasm, we were primed for Meiffer’s next trick: “Do whatever you think I’m doing!” she called, launching into a sprightly routine that she hadn’t taught us, with naturally progressing combinations of moves we had and hadn’t tried. Some students balked, but she encouraged: “Whatever you think I’m doing!” We turned off our internal editors and copied her moves. Some of us looked practically pro, others childlike, but we were all dancing a routine together, doing what she was doing—which is to say, ballet.

I’d count this as another surprise. I didn’t think we’d be allowed, let alone encouraged, to mess around like this for at least a few weeks. But I guess teaching ballet is like training a dog: you have to give little treats. Getting to leap, to run, and to really “play ballerina” really felt like incentive to return and to improve. I can do the former…but the latter? We’ll see.


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!

3 Responses.

  1. Allie says:

    Hello. My name is Allie and I’m a dancer/choreographer in Portland/Seattle. When I read “See, when it’s only bandied between experts, art dialogue can stagnate…or worse, it can spiral further and further out from its source into an abstract intellectual ether that only experts—not audience or artists—understand.” I thought: what is expertise? Why isn’t an artist an expert? Aren’t I an expert? Where is all this amazing abstract intellectual dialogue about (Portland) dance? Would I actually not understand it? Why do I only ever get to read reviews that say “This is bad dance.” “This is good dance.” “Is this dance?” “This is pure dance” without much conversation around the “bigger questions” surrounding dance and what it means for bodies to be moving/be questioning (and questioned)/be political? Do I not get to read it because it’s assumed that I wouldn’t get it? Is that conversation only happening in an isolated zone of “experts” who keep all that valuable information to themselves? It just feels like a slightly antiquated way of considering an artist–particularly a dance artist who is often seen as a highly intelligent *physical* body without much credit being given for the other intelligences contained inside of that body. But this is all just my interpretation, and I have been a little sensitive to things like this of late. The way writing about dance AT LARGE exists (or doesn’t exist) in the world. So please excuse me if I misunderstood. Either way, I think it’s an important conversation to have. Thank you.

  2. A.L. Adams says:

    You raise a very good point, and perhaps “experts” should be in quotes. I guess the dialogue that springs to mind (not limited to Portland) is in two veins: 1) densely technical, lingo-laden assessment of dancers’ performance, and 2) the language of the dance project proposal or press release, which hesitates to describe movement OR narrative OR politics very specifically, but often doles out intangible nouns like “the self” and “the other,” and misapplied science verbs like “investigate” and “explore the relationship.”

    I’ll happily extend benefit of doubt that many practitioners and patrons are gleaning all they need from either or both of these types of coded language…but I know that not everyone is. And basically that paragraph was fair warning that this wouldn’t be either kind of story.

    What do you see as the bigger questions? I defer to your expertise as a dancer.

  3. Martha Ullman West says:

    I don’t think the words “investigate” and “explore” are misapplied in regard to modern and contemporary dance in particular. Post modern choreographer Trisha Brown was an investigative choreographer; arguably, Marius Petipa and Ivanov explored the many ways of performing an arabesque in their choreography for Swan Lake. And there is a third alternative to theoretical screeds packed with acababble and the marketingspeak of press releases and grant proposals: an informed, clearly written review of a performance that god willing makes a thoughtful judgement about it, and puts the reader in the theater with the reviewer. I’ll give you an example: just about anything Deborah Jowitt puts up on ArtsJournal.com!

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