Thursday, August 15, 2013

What Sends Grown-Ups to the Barre?

By Terez Mertes


The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer, is a compulsively readable new novel that chronicles the lives of six precocious young people who meet as teens at a summer camp for the arts, back in the 1970’s. They dub themselves “The Interestings,” because that’s how they see themselves: bright, clever, full of artistic talent and urgency. The assumption between them, as well, is that with enough hard work and determination, professional artistic success will be theirs in adulthood.

But we adults all know what comes next. Wolitzer chronicles the characters’ lives through the next four decades, as the characters learn first-hand, some more than others, that what sets you on fire during adolescence and young adulthood often isn’t enough to sustain you beyond your twenties, much less your thirties and forties, no matter how compelling and special it—and you—seemed in earlier years. Only a few of the friends are allowed the luxury of actualizing their youthful vision, while the others are forced to adjust and re-define goals, ever haunted by “what once was,” and what will never be.

It’s a great read. I’ve long been fan of Meg Wolitzer’s writing, but this story resonated particularly with me, partly because that, too, defined my feelings throughout adolescence, through middle age. My own solution has been to write about the performing arts, and take ballet classes as an adult. And now I wonder about my comrades in ballet class, those other middle-aged adults I share a barre with. Do they share this, too—a sense that they once had an extraordinary streak in them, an artistic impulse, that might have gotten thwarted? A dream, perhaps, once-crushed and now renewed?

Here’s my own “thwarted” story: in my late teens, the fiery infatuation with ballet and the performing arts kicked into full throttle. During my university years I performed with a local dance company, an unforgettable experience with a wonderful group of like-minded people. We were a Tribe. We, too, were The Interestings. When I graduated from college, leaving behind company and country for a job with the Peace Corps in Africa, I fiercely told myself ballet wasn’t over. It couldn’t be. I harbored no further illusions about being a performing arts professional, but, at the least, I felt assured of a lifelong nourishing relationship with ballet. There in provincial Africa, I still clung to my ballet practice, stretching and giving myself a comprehensive barre twice a week. I did so without fail throughout those two years. Back home, in the Midwest, I eventually took on a salaried job, unrelated to the arts. I lived too far away to return to my former company and dance companions, but found, instead, a well-regarded local studio with strong ballet classes and a solid following. But the magic, unfathomably, began to slip away. Even during class, I started to feel hollow, bereft. I remained an outsider in this studio, a stranger, even after a year. Class became something to dread at the end of a long, hard day of work. Yes, I could have found yet another studio. But something else was dying, that little frisson of well-being, the voice that whispered to me that ballet would always be there for me, nourishing my soul. One day it left and never came back. When, a few months later, I was promoted and relocated to California, I said goodbye to family and ballet alike. Out with the childish dreams and illusions. Moving on. I had a real job now, responsibility, I told myself. A real life; an adult’s life.

Over the next several years I grieved losing ballet, even as I scorned it. It was like mourning a true love who went on to be more faithful to someone else. For a long spell, I couldn’t watch a ballet performance, even though now I could well afford the tickets. It hurt too much. Besides, I told myself, that was the past. Like the characters in The Interestings who’d been forced to move on, I’d done just that.

And yet, if the urge is inherent in you, you can’t just push it away. It will return, again and again. And for me, it did. For a while, I ignored it. But a few years later, when parenting clogged up my life, pushed me even further from a nourishing, self-absorbing artistic place, I finally understood that it was time to take back what I could. Anything I could. Without it, without art in my life, the flickering candle flame inside my soul would go out.

And so I went back to ballet.

And I found a home again.

We grown-ups at the barre all fall into one of a few categories. There are those like myself, who danced when we were younger, stopped for a while, and understood, only later, that we needed to return. Others of us are there because we didn’t do it when we were younger, due to circumstances beyond our control, even though we’d longed to. Then there is a third category, those who never even considered doing it in their youth, due to other obligations, or body type, or gender, and now, in this more evolved, actualized adult state, we realize that no one is going to stop us, or harshly judge us, or point and snicker. A powerful understanding kicks in: as an adult in a recreational ballet class, anything goes. Anything. How liberating.

When I admit to people that, not only do I take a ballet class, but I take violin lessons as well, as an adult beginner, many of them share a common reaction. Their eyes will widen, they’ll cock their heads at me and say, “Omigosh. How interesting.” They sound both confused and impressed. Because, of course, this is the kind of thing a kid does. Not the mother of a kid. Not a middle aged adult who should be beyond that.

Oh, thank goodness for the impulse we adult recreational dancers have, to keep life interesting and dynamic through and beyond middle age. I do believe it would make the perfect epilogue to Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings. And truly, nothing, to me, is more interesting than an adult who has wised up, suffered setbacks, battled loss and disillusionment, and has returned to address and conquer a dream, be it a long-held one, a brand new one, or even an unnamed one. We grown-ups at the barre are The Interestings, indeed.



Terez Mertes blogs at Classical Girl.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Recording your progress and your journey: Keeping a dance journal

Ballet is a journey of incremental advances and long plateaus.  We work and advance, but how do we know that we're making progress in the absence of levels, grades, exams, or other concrete assessments?  Some adults do take RAD or Cecchetti or other prescribed ballet exams, but for most adult dancers, taking the measure of one's dancing is not so obvious.

I was inspired to write this after reading a blog post by adult dancer Reece at Dancing Over The Hill (a regular read on my internet wanderings),  who touched on the very valid question of what are the "performance metrics" for adult dancers:

How do you measure improvement? Shouldn't there be some sort of performance metrics, for without them how am I to know if I'm improving?

In pilot training, all a student has to do is look at his (or her) older logbook entries to recall what he was working on, and how those things that used to cause such trouble no longer seem challenging. What do we have in dance?

A couple of things in Reece's post resonated with me, including seeing my own improvement when I went back to a class I hadn't been to in a long time and found that the previously baffling combinations made sense.  But what really struck me was the mention of a pilot's log book as a record of work and improvement, which has a parallel known as the dance journal/notebook. :)

I always keep a small spiral notebook with me, usually one with a fun cover, lined pages, and a spiral binding that I found at a bookstore, discount mart, or sidewalk sale.  I use this notebook to jot down my observations and impressions of each dance class as well as note particular combinations I want to remember or work on, steps or jumps that I want to look up in my technique books or find on the internet, and personal or group corrections that I want to put in the front of my mind.  One of my weekly classes is an adult syllabus class in a program that consists of progressive levels.  Each of the discrete terms in a given level builds on the terms and levels that precede it, and I have found it is quite helpful to note what we're working on from week to week to be able to see the links and small improvements.

For example, in this class, we do a new barre every three weeks or so, which means that the first week is spent getting a feel for the new exercises, which often have a theme (weight transfers, changing accents, port de bras, foot articulation, etc) that supports a particular quality or skill that our instructor wants us to concentrate on.  The second week we try to improve and brush up the same exercises, and then in the third week, we really polish them and put forth our new and improved effort.  I find that if I make notes of each 3-week theme, particular exercises I found challenging, imagery or explanations that clicked, or places where I noticed a significant difference on one side vs. another, I remember more from week to week, and if I review my notes before the next class, I'm primed to focus on my areas for improvement.  We also work on a particular set of centre exercises for 3-week periods: centre practice (port de bras, tendus/degages, positions of the body, weight transfers, etc), an adage sequence, an en diagonale waltz/pirouette sequence, petit allegro, and grand allegro.  I write down as much of these exercises as I can remember after the first class and jot them down with question marks or spaces indicating where I realize I need to fill in the gaps.  By the second week, I know exactly where the blank spots are, and I can work on filling them in/writing them down in my dance notebook so that by the third and final week, I have them fairly well internalized.  My ability to absorb and remember longer sequences of choreography has improved since I began taking notes/reviewing notes/revising notes in my dance notebook.

It is also very helpful to see the patterns of mood, energy, and motivation that I see recorded over time in my dance journal.  Some days are magical, and when I have a good class, it's clearly evident in my notes.  The bad days I see now as just part of the journey; they happen, but they are part of the learning process. Sometimes there's a reason, sometimes it's just random, but a good day will eventually come along if I keep going to class!  I've also noticed that what started out as strictly a "dance journal" has morphed into my "everything journal" where I jot down many other things as they happen, like workouts, observations about how I feel that day, a stretch I saw someone doing after class that I want to try, things that affect my mood, things I'm thinking about on a given day…dance helps me express myself in a myriad of ways.  Looking back over a month or a couple of months or even a year of notes, I'm shocked at how many classes I did, how many improvements I've made, how my corrections have evolved, and just the arc of my progress in ballet and my experience of myself.

The pursuit of adult ballet is truly a journey and not a destination.  If you haven't tried it, consider starting a dance journal. Don't stress about what you should write down or why or how you should say, just DO IT: get a notebook and start making any type of notes about your dancing…I predict you'll be hooked and discover a new avenue of self-expression and a way of tracking your progress.

Happy dancing and consider taking time to record YOUR personal journey :)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Another wonderful thing about ballet: Comfortable silence

One side of my family is of Finnish origin (a heritage I share with Johanna of Pointe Till You Drop).  My grandparents emigrated to North America (Canada and the U.S.), and I grew up immersed with many transplanted aspects of Finnish culture.  One is an appreciation for a good Finnish sauna, the kind with a wood-burning stove that produces sizzling steam when you throw water on the lake stones piled on top (a dry and stuffy hot room at the gym is NOT a real sauna!).  Another is a love of good strong coffee (the Finns drink more coffee per capita than any other nation).  And one of my very favourites that I have come to cherish more and more as a busy adult is the concept of comfortable silence.  For Finns, "silence is cozy, restful---even fun*", and periods of silence are not awkward pauses to be filled with idle chatter and small talk.  In North America, it seems that silence is something suspicious to be banished or avoided, and I will never get used to the tendency to fill every gap with some noise. 

Yes, there IS such a thing as awkward silence, such as the kind that occurs at business dinners with strangers, contentious family events, or other situations with a tense vibe where everyone is painfully attempting to keep the mood light or desperately reaching to find common things to keep the conversation going, but "comfortable silence" is something that you share with close friends and loved ones, where you can be in the same room, sitting on the same couch, engaged in separate activities but feel no need to speak or fill the silence because you just appreciate the cozy company and the peace.  I experience this with my immediate family members, a few close friends, and my partner…and also, in ballet class! 

I love the fact that ballet is mercifully nonverbal.  After a day filled with words, including presentations, work meetings, status reports, emails, phone calls, manuscripts, memos, and so on, I love the absence of words in the studio where the teacher's instructions, the pianist's music, and the quiet brush and soft landings of ballet slippers are the only sounds.  Sometimes I feel like walking into the studio is like entering a church or a monastery, where actions truly speak and words are insufficient.  It's a contemplative time where my thoughts, energies, and emotions can turn inward, and I can enjoy the presence of my classmates doing the same in comfortable silence. :)

I thought about this today while I basked in the peaceful work and comfortable silence in the ballet studio.  I hope you feel it too and incorporate a little comfortable silence in your own lives :)






*Quoted from a book on how to do business in Finland, called "Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf", by Richard D. Lewis.



Sunday, January 27, 2013

100 Reasons to Study Ballet: Part III

(It's time for another installment of our series on 100 Reasons To Study Ballet.  For a recap, see the previous posts and the brainstorming tool behind it, The List of 100, as described at this website.)



41. Childhood spirit:  Most of us were fairly open-minded, fearless, and less self-conscious as children.  We ran, jumped, spun, leaped and moved without judging ourselves, simply because it was fun or because we were imagining ourselves as a super hero, a wild animal, or even a dancer on stage.  There are moments in ballet class when you can recapture that feeling, run and leap across the floor, and remember how it feels to simply move your body and imagine your best self.

42. Pointe:  Many young girls dreamed of pointe shoes and tutus (and some boys too!), although many did not; I was one of the latter.  I was a tomboy and shied away from girly things like ballet and ballerinas, which I associated with pink and frilly things and adults telling me to "behave like a lady".  However, as an adult ballet student in pre-pointe and beginner pointe classes, I have come to appreciate not only the beauty of dancing on pointe but even more, how much strength, control, discipline, and hours and years of practice it takes!

43. Discipline: Ballet requires enormous discipline, no doubt about it.  You have to show up for class, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year and perform the basic barre exercises with the aim of incrementally improving your technique, coordination, strength and aesthetic.  It takes many, many classes before you feel less clumsy and exposed in centre exercises, and there are no shortcuts. However, one significant advantage that adult ballet students have is that we have learned discipline in other parts of our lives and can apply that skill more easily than a child or teen who is still developing.

44. Patience: Patience goes hand in hand with discipline.  There is no fast track to ballet proficiency, and the best way to ensure that you feel discouraged and disheartened is to be constantly expecting overnight improvement.  Ballet is an opportunity to develop patience, to put in the work and trust that the outcomes ARE happening, just not as visibly or as quickly as we may like.  Notice the complete lack of "Become a ballerina in 30 days with our new revolutionary secret training program!" advertisements in the back pages of dance magazines :)

45. "Slow-boil" improvements: Adult ballet seems to be the antithesis of 21st century life and expectations.  Ballet is ancient, not a new and cutting edge pursuit.  Ballet is traditional, codified, and regimented; ballet does not adapt to you, YOU adapt yourself to ballet.  Ballet doesn't promise body reshaping in 30 days or guaranteed money-back results.  No, ballet demands a surrender to incremental improvement and slow adaptation to physical and mental learning.  There is no instant gratification, but there is much reward for those who can stick with it over the long-term.

46. Exposure to new ideas:  Beginning a new activity such as ballet will expose you not only to dance but also to classical music, played by a wonderful live pianist (if you're lucky) or chosen carefully from your teacher's iPod or CD player.  You will also learn bits of ballet and French and art/music/world history as you listen to the explanation of steps and movements and where they came from. You'll also learn to appreciate a wider range of bodies and ages and types of motion as you watch your classmates go through their learning processes, which will be similar but different from yours.

47. Live music: If you are lucky enough to have a live pianist for your classes, you are in for a treat!  Many of the accompanists who play for ballet class are wonderful musicians who, in collaboration with your teacher, will provide the score for your dancing endeavours.  Dancing to live music helps you to develop your musicality because the tempo, time signature (e.g., 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, etc), phrasing, and style of your music will be constantly changing, which teaches you how to adjust, anticipate, and react to the music, a very important part of what makes dance a performing art and not just another exercise class with background music. 

48. Camaraderie:  If you are afraid that adult ballet will be like high school/dance movies with snooty mean girls and cutthroat competition and body snark, fear not--adult ballet is generally very warm and welcoming and your fellow students will be down to earth, friendly, of all shapes/sizes/ages/backgrounds.  What you'll have in common is that you all had the courage to come to class, try ballet, and enjoy this journey together.  After a while, you'll make friends and chat with your barre-mates, who will ask about you if you miss class and welcome you when you return.  Sharing the sweat and the work is empowering.

49. Satin:  Satin trim is gorgeous, on leotards, on the waistband of a ballet skirt, on the outer covering of point shoes, or maybe even a satin ribbon in your hair.  It's nearly synonymous with "ballet." 

50. Ribbons:  Of course there are the ribbons on pointe shoes (which hit the engineering/design home run of being both functional and decorative) but ribbons are part of ballet costumes, hair ties, and even show up as props in major ballets (the maypole dance in La Fille Mal Gardee or The Ribbon Dance by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo).

51. Overcome fear: It takes courage to set foot in your first ballet class, and to keep showing up and striving to improve.  It's daunting to approach learning a new skill in front of a room full of other people, much less whilst dressed in very form-fitting clothing in a room full of floor-to-ceiling mirrors.  Those exercises en diagonale in centre are absolutely terrifying when you are new, but the good news is that the more you face your fear and accept its presence without letting it keep you from trying (THAT is the secret!) and try anyways, the fear loses its grip and fades away.  This lesson carries through to other parts of your life as well.

52. Pale skin:  We all know by now that tanning and sun exposure are not good for our skin or long-term health.  In that case, the paleness that comes from spending many hours indoors under the lights of the studio or rehearsal hall will be the next "in" thing.  We will channel the ghostly pallor of the Willis and the Sylphides...even those of us who who do not have naturally pale/pink skin.  :)

53. Learn to do the work:
  And once you have shown up to class, you might as well give it 100% effort and attention and work at it.  Even if you only have 70% to give that day due to other circumstances, that 70% is so much better than nothing.  Ballet develops a good work ethic and the positive peer pressure of the dancers working around you will lift you up!

54. Eat better: 
If you want to train like an athlete/dancer, you need to eat like an athlete/dancer.  You are asking a lot of your body (and your brain, which runs on lot and lots of glucose).  Forget the TV/movie version of the starving dancer who subsists on coffee and cigarettes!  You need to eat food, real unprocessed food with variety and good nutritional value, including a good mix of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats.  Vegetables and fruits are your friends, as are dairy products and the occasional treat.  Fad diets, fasts, and eliminating entire categories of food (unless you have an allergy) are not for you, dancer. Think of your body as a finely tuned race car that requires high-quality fuel to perform.

55. Rest/sleep more:  Together with good nutrition, your body needs good rest to recover from the mental and physical demands,  and to build those muscle and brain connections necessary for progress with your ballet.  You will feel more alert, stronger, and more mentally on in class after a good night's sleep. Turn the TV/internet off at a decent time and go to bed :)

56. Set priorities:  Having the structure of your ballet classes in your weekly schedule will help you set priorities and manage your time.  When I was a student, I found that I was most productive and efficient when I had a fairly busy set schedule in which I had enough time and energy to do everything but not too much extra to waste.  With an empty schedule, I got less done because I could always put it off.  The same with ballet: I schedule my classes and make sure I am well rested the night before.  I book appointments or late meetings on non-ballet days or earlier in the day so if they run late, I won't miss my class.  Taking the time to do an activity just for YOU is not selfish, it's taking good care of yourself so that you can take better care of the other things in life. 

57. Avoid late nights:  Ballet is a priority for me, so if one of my favourite classes is at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning, I rarely go out on Friday night and if I do, I'm home in bed by 11.  I know that sleep and rest will keep me healthy and dancing at my best.

58. Take care of the body:  We've touched on good nutrition and good rest, but asking your body to extend itself for you in a strenuous activity such as ballet means that you need to pamper you body between classes.  Soaking in a warm tub with Epsom salts (and maybe a cold drink and a good book!) feels heavenly to body, mind, and soul.  Getting occasional or regular massages, seeing a physiotherapist for aches and pains and injuries, listening to your body and adjusting your exertion based on how well you recover between classes will tune you up for the long term.

59. Take care of the feet:  A dancer literally depends on his or her feet.  Together with learning much more about your foot anatomy and function, you'll learn to take care of your feet by wearing well fit and comfortable shoes, doing your foot exercises, keeping your toenails trimmed (especially important for pointe shoes!), soaking your feet in warm or cold water, doing self-massage with a golf ball or roller will all pay off in your comfort and ability to articulate your feet during tendus :)

60. Learn to show up:  On most days, ballet class is the event you look forward to all day or all week, but then there ARE those days when you feel tired, frustrated, worn out from a stressful day, and may consider skipping class "just this once".  My advice is GO ANYWAYS.  I have never regretted convincing myself to go to class, and once I am there, I get caught up in the barre exercises, I work up a sweat, I concentrate on the music and the steps, and leave with a lighter heart.  However, I HAVE regretted the times I let myself slack (there are exceptions for made for being sick or injured, of course).  The secret to progress is to just keep showing up to class.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Core Activation: The Dancer's Powerhouse

If you've taken any ballet at all, you've probably heard your instructor reminding the class to "tighten the core" or "pull up the abdominals/pelvic floor". This correction is so common that this internet list has collected some of the most creative (and hilarious) phrasings for this advice.

In all seriousness, there IS a reason why the lower abdominal muscles or transverse abdominis muscles are also known as "the dancer abs", but many dancers (especially adult or recreational students) are somewhat confused by what is meant by "engaging the core". What exactly IS this core we speak of and how do we use it? This post is intended to give a brief and general overview of the core from a recreational dancer's point of view as well as to provide a few useful resources for finding and working your own ballet core. Developing a strong core and the body awareness of how to effectively activate and use these muscles will greatly assist in your progress in ballet technique.  Although we tend to  concentrate on what the arms and legs (and heads and shoulders) are doing while dancing, it's the core activation that holds it all together!

For ballet purposes, "the core" refers to the cylindrical support of the pelvic region via the interplay of several groups of deep muscles that stabilize this area. The transverse abdominis muscles are located in the lower front of the abdomen, below than the navel and between the hip bones (i.e., not the "six-pack" upper abs or rectus abdominis muscles found higher on the torso). The pelvic floor literally forms the muscular "floor" of your inner abdominal cavity; it runs from the pelvic bone in your genital area to between the sitz bones, and back to the tailbone area (the pelvic floor muscles are those that you use in Kegel exercises or tighten to stop the flow of urine). Around the lower back of the abdomen are a couple of small deep muscle groups known as the multifidus and the quadratus lumborum that provide support in and around the spine and sacrum area.  Because these muscles tend to be smaller and located more deeply inside the body (they are usually located underneath other muscles), identifying these muscles and learning how to properly activate them may require a little practice.

Classical Pilates instruction is one of the most effective ways to learn core activation and strengthening of these muscles, and a personal Pilates routine is an important part of many professional dancers' routine maintenance. It is true that quality Pilates classes/instruction can be difficult to find and/or tend to be quite  expensive. However, books, videos, and the internet can provide helpful insights. As with ballet, there is simply no substitute for the well-trained eye and corrections of a well trained professional instructor, but here in the real world of adults with full schedules and limited resources, self-education can get you started.

The website DoYogaWithMe.com offers a wide range of free yoga, stretching, and Pilates videos that you can use for home workouts, but one of the most valuable areas on this site is a resource section titled "Yoga Anatomy" that includes a series of eight short videos that explain the location and activation of the core muscles and lead you through step-by-step exercises that will help you find and learn to use these muscles together with proper alignment and breathing. The info video on the five Pilates principles is a good "next step" in putting that new core awareness into practice. Classic Pilates mat exercises are a highly effective way to learn how to engage, strengthen, and use the core and to control pelvic alignment, which is so crucial for ballet and dance in general.  Also, performing these exercises while lying on the floor removes the extra forces and work involved due to gravity and the muscle engagement needed to remain upright so that it is easier to concentrate on correct muscle patterning.

With Pilates and other core work, it is important to understand that these exercises are all about the little muscles and very fine degrees of activation and control. It is easy to let the larger muscles take over or to mimic the movements using the wrong muscles. Small and controlled movements of this type are actually harder (at first) but the payoff is worth the effort. A strong core will help you find your "liftoff" and balance and be able to hold that quiet midsection during your barre and centre work. Additionally, strengthening your core will aid your posture, stamina, and overall strength for everyday activities and daily life.

If core work is part of your 2013 resolutions or just something you know you should pay more attention to in your dancing, I hope these resources will help you get started. Happy new year and happy dancing!  :)


Friday, January 4, 2013

100 Reasons To Study Ballet: Part II

My sincere apologies for the long lag between Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. What can I say?  Life happened.  Jobs came and went, work visas were applied for (and need to be applied for again), dual career decisions and international moves were talked over, adjustments were necessary...and time has flown by. This past year has been quite a roller coaster both mentally and emotionally and I've also been physically working through a couple of chronic or old injuries that I've managed to re-aggravate, which has meant adjusting my effort, listening to my body, taking some time off to rest and recover, and learning patience while missing my favorite activities.  Still, ballet class and the predicable routine of barre and centre have been a solid touchstone throughout a rather rocky period.  Whatever else is going on in my life and in my head, I can count on 1.5 hours of pure relief and sweat each day that I'm able go to class.  Thanks to all my ballet friends near and far, virtual and real, for the solidarity and support!

And now, back to the series on 100 Reasons To Study Ballet.  For a recap, see the previous post and the brainstorming tool behind it, The List of 100, as described at this website.  I value this list more every time I look it, and furthermore, I hope that some of these reasons resonate with you and that you'll share your thoughts in the comments! 

21. Body image:  Like many women, I've struggling with body image since puberty, going through phases and cycles of love/hate/acceptance, but I did not learn to fully appreciate and enjoy my body until I became a serious ballet student.  The physical discipline, self-knowledge of my capabilities and my personal anatomy, tuning into my emotional state, and just plain being in awe of what my body can DO have all made me really reframe the way it looks.  Ballet has remodelled the look of my body for sure, but it's also remodelled the way I THINK about my body.
22. New hairstyles: I've always had long hair, and almost always wear it pulled up and away from my face, in a casual ponytail or updo, but taking ballet class has introduced me to the insider's scoop on how to make a proper ballet bun that will stay in place through turns and jumps and look pretty as well.  I admire my classmates' creative ballet hairstyles and always ask for pointers or just plain "That looks great…how do you do that?!?" 

23. Wear tights: I've always liked tights ever since I wore them under my uniform skirts in grade school on fall and winter days.  They make me feel sleek and covered up enough to move without self-consciousness whether I'm swinging on the monkey bars at school, swinging my leg over to get on/off my bike or throwing my leg up in a grande battement at the end of barre. Wearing tights is like feeling naked without being naked (and now I get irritated when I have to wear uncomfortable clothes that won't let me move freely…I have gotten spoiled!).

24. Core work: Forget crunches and sit-ups…having to use your core to keep the middle of the body still and stabilized while the arms and legs do crazy and unnatural movements tends works the core muscles of the midsection like nothing else.  Taking up Pilates to help my ballet also helped me learn how to find and control those little core muscles that stabilize the pelvis and the spine and let me improve my extensions and my ability to hold turnout. 

25. Stage presence: I've never been one to long for the spotlight, and in fact, I've always been overly self-conscious, but thanks to ballet, I have learned how to project an image, an energy, a presence that says something to an audience, even if it's only my teacher or my reflection in the mirror.  However, that ability to be "on" and "in character" also comes in handy in presentations at work, when making toasts at weddings, or being in the public eye at any function.  I may never be 100% comfortable in the spotlight, but I can get close :)

26. Performing ability: As stated above, I'm not a natural performer.  However, I have gained a new appreciation of being aware of how to present myself as a dancer as well as how to project confidence, serenity, and ease on the outside even when I'm not feeling it on the inside.  A year or so ago, I had to give presentation at work on a topic I was not fond of to an audience that was unfriendly to apathetic and I was dreading it.  Five minutes before it started, I gave myself a version of the ballet pep talk, something to the effect of "Put your performance face on, pull it up/project it out, and do a good job…because you are a professional and this is what professionals DO."  Thanks, ballet! 

27. Desensitization: It's true that the scary thing becomes less scary the more you demystify it, examine it, expose it to the light, and just plain get used to it!  I learned to be extremely comfortable with public speaking when I was giving 10 math lectures to university students each week for a period of several years, and I learned to get comfortable with dancing in front of people in form-fitting clothes by going to class 4-6 times a week for a couple of years.  Just do it…and the butterflies will soften. 

28. "Fake it till you make it": This is the middle step between desensitization and real confidence; at first, ballet is so new and overwhelming that every class feels like trying to drink from a fire hose and every centre combination is cause for anxiety, stress, and self-consciousness.  But eventually, the desensitization leads to a waning of anxiety and a calmness where you learn to ignore everything external, tune into your internal dancer.  You just do the work, mark the combination, take apart the movement, do your best with aplomb and presence and trust that it'll come together eventually.  Before confidence sets in, the "faking it" stage gets you prepared, like training wheels for your inner dancer…and believe it or not, many people can't tell the difference from the outside.

29. Confidence:  Trying a new activity can be intimidating, as can facing your physical limitations, navigating a new group of people and new instructors, trying/learning/mastering new movements and enchainments, working on turns and positions of the body and new vocabulary, and squeezing in class between work and other obligations, but every little victory, every incremental improvement, each progression all add up to a growing sense of confidence in myself and my ability to eventually learn it and get it right.
 
30. Anatomy lesson: By taking on ballet, you learn that you have muscles in all kinds of interesting places and that ballet will target them and make you feel them like never before.  In order to train your body to do ballet movements correctly, you have to understand what parts of the body to use and how to conserve your best energy for the most tasking movements.  You'll learn about your deep outer rotator muscles, your psoas, your gastrocnemius and your soleus, your traverse abdominus and pelvic floor, not to mention all of those little intrinsic muscles in your feet that allow you move each toe separately from the others.  You were born in your body, but you'll meet some new anatomical regions for the first time in ballet class.

31. Joint mobility: Ballet truly makes you use your joints to their fullest potential, challenging you to find your full range of motion and then some!  Fortunately, increased joint mobility not only makes for a nicer line but it also helps to combat the general decrease in joint mobility that comes with age and inactivity.  You will learn LOTS about your hip joints, your knees, your shoulders, wrists and more in ballet class including how to push them and how to be kind to them after the work is done.

32. Learn about feet:  I used to think of feet as those things at the end of my legs.  Learning how to use my feet properly for ballet with full articulation at the metatarsals and ankles, to present them with turnout, and to place my centre properly over my toes was only the start.  When I started pre-pointe and then pointe classes, the importance of foot structure, strength, and being able to control the intrinsic muscles in the feet has ensured that I will never ever overlook the foot again :)

33. Improve balance: Ballet requires you to balance in all sorts of positions that are unnatural and you might say, impossible.  First, you learn how to stand with proper ballet posture, then rise to demi-pointe on two feet, then on to one-leg balances, balances in sous-sus, in attitude, in retire, in arabesque and attitude and during turns and pirouettes.  As body awareness, control, proprioception, and core strength improves, balances magically improve as well.  Or as Johanna has put it, the impossible gradually becomes possible.

34. Epaulement: Epaulement or "shouldering" is essential to the aesthetic of ballet.  Use of this upper body positioning gives the ballet body it's classical spiralling energy and look of movement even when still.  Outside of ballet, you will see use of epaulement in fashion and celebrity photography, where an actress will stand in croise with her hips facing to the corner instead of straight on to the camera, but her upper body is turned to camera and her front/devant leg extended. Ballet students know why: this position lengthens the line of the leg and is most flattering to the body.

35. Eye line:  Dance genres of all kinds use the eye line to emphasis the movement and emotion of performance.  The audience will automatically follow the eye line of the dancer, so use of the proper head and gaze is important to communication and expression. 

36. New body work:  When I started ballet, I also learned the importance of taking care of my body in new ways, to compensate for and enhance the new demands I was putting on myself.  Epsom salts baths, deep tissue massage therapy, chiropractic treatments, physiotherapy, Pilates, foam rolling, active release technique with a variety of rubber balls…I have learned how to effectively ease the strains and soreness to keep myself working at my best.  Although we dancers practice our technique in class, it's important to practice self-care and proper recovery outside of class.

37. Comfortable shoes
: Ballet slippers and sneakers can be pretty darn comfortable; pointe shoes and stilettos can be akin to torture.  After working your feet and legs during ballet class, those fuzzy slippers or soft shoes can feel like heaven.  I also have a pair of gel-padded sports sandals that feel like soft pillows on the bottom of my feet, something I am grateful for after lots of saut├ęs and releves.

38. Uncomfortable shoes:  Pointe shoes are not comfortable. Period.  They don't have to be agonizing either if they are fit properly and the dancer is correctly using her feet and pulling up, but there's a certain discomfort that comes with the territory.  Taking off the pointe shoes at the end of class and walking around barefoot for few minutes feels like heaven.  Also, because I subject myself to pointe shoes during my dancing hours, I absolutely refuse to wear uncomfortable shoes during my non-dancing hours!

39. Serene facial expressions: 
Ballet requires the dancer to perform complex, difficult, and unnatural movements with strength, power, grace, and a serene and happy face.  No gritting your teeth, narrowing your eyes, grimacing with effort…it all has to look like an pleasant walk in the park.  This is HARD and takes practice, no doubt, but it also comes in handy in that boring meeting, at an awkward dinner party, or when giving a presentation or any situation in which being able to project an outside ease that masks an inner effort is required.

40. Flexibility: Overall flexibility is a combination of joint mobility, connective tissue elasticity, and muscle tension and release.  To a certain degree, your flexibility is determined by your biomechanics and your genetics, but each one of us can strive to maximize our given potential with stretching, barre exercises, yoga, Pilates, and other physical activities.  In addition to body flexibility, a dancer learns the type of inner flexibility that lets you adjust to the preferences or demands of different teachers, choreographers, styles, and rhythms.  I've learned to value and pursue this literal and figurative flexibility during my ballet studies, particularly during this challenging last year.

(Note: I realize that this list is very female-centric because it's based on my personal list of 100 reasons but I think much of could apply broadly to dancers of any gender and I welcome insights and inputs from other perspectives).