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.