Change -a Ballerina’s[1] Perspective and Metaphor

I’m not much of a balletophile per se, that is, I don’t love watching people dance usually, but I love to be doing it. Or did, even though it can be distracting, if not a bit painful to do every movement with “rice crispies” crackling in joints! But then, I’ve had creaking and cracking since I was 16. Fortunately my joints can still limber up with a nice slow, but thorough ballet class.

Drawing attention to these movements in our body helps one to visualize. The more one wants to improve, the more one must practice[2]. For then we are “bound to be successful” so says the venerable guru Goenka, (may he RIP).

The music, class movement synchronicity, ideas of extension in all directions, akin to stretching ones limits and time but felt from within, are a treat combined with workout. Even on-line is great, but an in-person class is much better. Ballet leaves me with a multidimensional high – each facet of giving pleasure in the moment, receiving not just endorphin, but metaphors too.

In ballet, we start with the left hand fingers lightly holding onto the barre. We use your supports but don’t grasp onto them as if we are drowning!  This leaves the right side, usually dominant, to lead as gesture leg; the left side stabilizes. One turns out at the hips and then points with their toes, at the same time reaching arms wide from one’s center all to maximally lengthen the line of it. As muscles lengthen, they define, and look elegant when static. When your shoulders drop, your can look swan-like.

Everything you do at the barre prepares you for center work, and functioning on the stage of life. Don’t rush the music! Use all of it, even the 1/2 counts and intros.

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Since this essay is on change, I’m going to focus on two main movements, going up, versus going across to another position. But, because I can write any old way, I may be peripatetic to broaden perception of a process that is justly inevitable.

It is easier to do any change in position of the feet, when the hips square to the direction you wish to move in, and torso well lifted over the standing leg.

Leading with your hips in any direction reflects your surety of focus. When your hip flexors are lengthened instead of tight from chronic sitting; you are not holding back; your balanced will leads you.

When you lift up in your hip on the standing leg, your working or gesture leg, has more freedom to move and extend in the joint without lifting that hip (too much) too. Sometimes you gain ½ inch by the end of class, though the teacher will tell you it is two, you can always get a little taller, as you listen to her words. When you are really pulled up, a little hollow forms on the standing side just behind your hipbone in your butt, which looks nice. When this hollow is present, your dancing looks lighter because your front is in alignment – smooth from top to bottom, rather than creased at the hip.

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With changes in position, your feet can stay in their relation, meaning we can keep making the same step and the same decisions, or they can switch- letting the other side work too. That is hard to do well, let alone gracefully! Each side is different, reflecting our brains. It takes a lot of strength – more than meets the eye[3] 

To switch directions or feet, from where you are standing feet flat on the floor, you have two options[4], lift your heel to relevé[5]before your step, or bend a knee and spring. 

Relevé starts from a flat foot and heel rises; you spring up in point using only your foot strength. The gesture, reaching, leg is straight and knee pulled up. Your alignment of kneecap, gets trained in the process. The dancer appears to lift effortlessly as she lifts up with her chest, all the while keeping her lower ribs in (we need to have reservoir for breathing even while exerting!). 

Stepping into pique, and turning straight from your leg, is lovely to watch as the dancer lifts and turns without lowering first. Turns are lead by head and shoulders.

It is fun to watch and do chainez (pronounced chen’ ay) turns all the way across the floor- a series of side-to-side turning steps which turn at the same time. It’s all done on relevé with no bend in the knees.

It’s nice to think of a life like that all relevé, no plié– 100% smooth sailing! For a moment you get to feel it! 

It is fun to watch the dancer- now spiraling pinwheel as she moves surely. Relevé shortens your Achilles and is hard on the toes. This dancing is difficult to sustain.  Eventually your heels must release and return. 

Turning with your head and shoulders is like leading in life with your heart that sees something and goes for it.

With relevé, one is lifted by hopes; you might not need much support to do this, though the foot is planted firmly against the floor. This is good, but you can go only go so far without a plié first.

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Consider your left and right sides as metaphor for giving or receiving, yin versus yang; rest and digest. The stability in your hips and legs is your grounding to the earth. The relation between your shoulders as hips is a solid connection, picture a close fitting, but comfortable, abdominal and thoracic corset. With your shoulders over hips, your actions are true to foundational self; don’t forget your roots they gave you your gifts! 

In this we acknowledge our ancestors, with their lives of sacrifice, while it’s OK -we get to try new things with our gestures. It is fruitful to cultivate from the surroundings you’ve received already.

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 Lifting up from the crown of your head reconnects your dedication to your highest self. The balls of your feet feed by strong healthy roots connecting. This further elongates you from head to toe. 

All exercises are repeated on both sides. This encourages and creates symmetrical body development- and opportunity to find strengths and weaknesses. One side is always stronger than the other, at first. One finds that with age, the strong side fails first, so keep this in mind.

When working in pointe shoes, the energies are that much more focused and, you’re 6” taller. Too painful for me, I never did much with it though it was fun for a while after I quit running. Even doing the basic exercises though are quite exhilarating.

In those shoes, working “lightly” is that much more challenging! There’s less contact to push off. Yes, and it is farther to fall when you overdo it or slip- which is why it’s wise to darn your satin toe shoes, the cotton threads don’t slip so easily. There is beauty in the function of the plain.

Working this way creates a graceful line and focus. Even a simple port-de-bra, a movement of the arms alone, has undeniable beauty done well, as many will attest watching an older but accomplished dancer. She can still use her heart in the work, even as she is less mobile. At this point, it is all about intention, even as it appears different from our inner mirrors and expectation.

I did find it interesting that my conservative Roman Catholic ‘friend’ gave me a scoffing when I invited her to my Nutcracker performance. Dancing wasn’t part of her family’s vocabulary.  I grieved for her.

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Most static images of ballet have the dancer in an arabesque. Literally meaning, “Arab-like”. An arabesque is the body formed into sinuous, spiraling, undulating or serpentine line or linear motif created by an extended arm and leg in opposite directions. Most people associate ballet with these iconic images.

Focusing one’s mirror neurons on creating a beautiful arabesque posture, fools the brain for a moment.  It physically experiences the freedom suggested by the shape.[6]

In an arabesque, the dancer stands balancing on one leg. The other is lifted high from the hip in extension, her toes are even pointing up with extra winging-usually a no-no, because ankle and toe aren’t aligned to bear weight safely when the foot is pronated[7]. Her gaze focused just over her extended hand, as she looks out to face her audience.

Her success in this pose is not what you notice. The standing leg supports all her core’s focus.

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When you need to move, to get to another place, you first must plié[8]first. That is, bend your knees, be humble. A juicy plié keeps your knees flexible too. 

[One time I was having constant pain in my knees with plié. I was dancing in a studio that felt steeped in misery. The owner and dancer was having hip pain that he couldn’t afford surgery. Once in a while, he’d let loose with bitter tirade about his pain, with blaming, once he heard I was a doctor.  But I didn’t take it personally. I loved his combinations, which were particularly complex. Usually I wouldn’t persist in a class so above me, but we got to repeat them until we got it. I’ve never been in a studio like that before and enjoyed the challenge[9].

One day I went skiing with the family. Usually I wouldn’t ski downhill – it’s not a sport for dancers, it is even in their contracts. This day I did want to ski down, so took a full lesson. It felt risky to leaning into and down the hill, rather than back, as I prefer. (Like life, I wasn’t attacking it, but sliding on my butt.) The amazing thing, sure I was sore, but remarkably, my knee pain was gone!]

With a bent knee, coming from a place of falling, in appearance anyway, you can spring quite distance, both further and higher, from where you started.  When you land in plié, your skeleton doesn’t get so jarred either.

From plié, you can now choose to stay in one place and, like a well-coiled spring, pirouette. The number of turns, and how many times you fall out of it, depends on your balance and spotting. Spotting is when you turn your head around but only briefly remove your eyes from the goal as you turn around.

Turning many fouettés, a special pirouette, is an incredible feat of strength and stamina:  from your highest releve passé, one extends the gesture leg out in front at hip level and simultaneously bends the standing leg, winding her spring. She then swings her gesture leg out and away from her midline, all the way to second position- (one of the few times we “ladies” can open our leg in public). At the last moment she brings her leg back to passé using the motion, her spring change in momentum direction, and her arms to spin.

32, then 64, fouettés (2 x 32, or the twice the number of Kabbalah pathways) was a last count for me, though a quick Google search yesterday, revealed a Youtube video of 7 year old doing 200[10]!

AS she turns, the ballerina resembles a flame. Poised in one place, she is spirit centered.

Often the novice has her mid-section loose, her shoulders are back, and there is a crease at the hips from tight flexors. (The last part is most common in the nonprofessional dancer as sitting is a national occupation for most of us.) Turning with her tummy out usually results in a turn she falls out of backwards.

Teachers find these problems more resistant to correction than falling forwards. It is very hard to trust our hearts, at least for some of us (maybe I’m projecting).

My take, this is akin to not trusting that G-d has given you exactly the right gifts to stay upright- that is without using your own will too much. Having then to try again. Maybe from a worse position than before, she falls backwards, but with the benefit of experience. Offering another facet – that it’s OK to trust yourself and intuition even more, suck your will in, and stand taller. Do less worrying about the “what-if’s”. This is easier said than done.

We revisit a challenge until we can move on – when it is no longer a trigger to be learned from. There is no shame inherent in repetition, making the same mistakes over; one ultimately seeks to conquer their own challenges- as must do every other hero on their journey.

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Mastery is seen in her transitions from the turn to her landing; she must come out of it, eventually to change once again her position and perspective and resume her dancing otherwise.

So save your final energy to end with breath-like lift at the finish of your turning, and each chapter of your life.

Finishing well is pleasing for the eye to see and feels good.  So savor your moment of pure control even if it’s standing at the end of your turn. Make it look effortless. One must always fool the crowd and keep it looking easy. Too much efforting shows, and audiences inwardly wince.

 I’ve seen many turn, and I’m no exception, not quite centered, rushing a little to start a turn or jump with minimal plie. While you can get ahead with this stiff-kneed approach, when you bend them even more, you can go that much further, never mind when you have a partner to help lift you! 

No one really wants to move anywhere, if everything feels great and life is going well.  But when you lift your heart (to your higher power) while you sink lower in your humbling plié, your spring will be higher and go farther, because you are already longer and taller than if you were slumped! 

I know that’s lot to process, which is why I’m still going to class in person. (Inshallah!)

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Here’s a cute (showoff) story that happened to me a few years ago. A male patient in his 50s came to see me the allergist. Despite his ponytail and laid back surfer ‘dude’ look, he was retired E8 or so, pretty high ranking. He was pleasant, not noticeably interesting or intense; we had a nice visit, though the details elude me.

As he was leaving he asked me, “Are you still doing ballet”. I was a little taken aback, I’d been dancing forever and wearing skirts and tights…no one had ever commented. But I laughed and said, “yes”…“It’s something I love”, and “how’d you know it”?

He laughed and said, “From your legs’ shape I guessed either ballet or clogging, but you don’t seem to be the type to two-step.” (I don’t actually believe him-that you can get ballet legs from two-stepping, but maybe I need to look into this.)

I thanked him for his compliment; it did make my day, though he really hadn’t given one directly. Maybe it was super-obvious – that is, my leg definition. I have had other dancers encourage me to flaunt them, but that’s not me. There are plenty of ballerinas among us, after all, and I don’t want to waste time bringing unnecessary attention to myself.

Naturally suspicious (from my Scorpio rising and reigning Pluto) myself, I ‘m guessing he was an Intelligence officer with a very trained eye! You see, I was working at Madigan at the time and that’s near a center for all kinds of special ops. It’s a plausible story.

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Now, back to our analogy,

Your core muscles support you.  They rise on either side from the girdle of your pelvis to connect to your ribs and spine. These turn you right or left, let you curl into a coil, or squeeze you around like a toothpaste tube, to lengthen you in your middle and spine. This is similar to the earthworm squeezing and lengthening, contracting to shorten and is just like the way our intestines move stool- but that’s not voluntary. (Not unlike the body which can form a shape from ones mind when relaxed, the intestines must have their somatostatin (body stopping), in order to do these same movements smoothly.)

Engagement of these muscles in the front and back of your ribs, stabilize your shoulders over your hips. That is like knitting your backbone from neck to pelvis.

Those muscles are my archangels of sorts. It helps to visualize them as beams of energy on all four sides of my body. AS I bend, first I elongate up and with a lift as I seek to change vantage and stretch.

Sure, that image started from my Love Demon’s presence, so I took him to ballet class and made him help me! He stands just along me, reminding me to lift my back from underneath my ribs, or lift my chest up, or helps me lift out of my hip on either side as I work.  It’s pretty great to have an etheric partner – definitely better than none!

The direction which is easiest for you, tends to show your most beautiful lines.

No one individual is the master of all dances- only a g-d[11], maybe. 

Well, maybe almost Jonathon Porretta, who danced alone with no props for 30 minutes! His flawless grace and energy was riveting as he filled the stage- and he is 5’2”! Still, his leaps can never compare to Baryshnikov’s! I did notice by the end of it, my husband was sleeping (was his ego threatened?).

Beginners especially but all with all dancers particularly, one aspect of core works better than another. Another role of a good ballet teacher is to correct any central kink, that spot where the student chronically holds.

She can see that in you, while you are focusing on your dancing. Working around that area to soften, as it were, in order to guide and preserve one’s blossoming integrity- at least in one’s movements.

 It would seem most of us lead with our will, forcing our plans on the world as we aim to go “get whatever we want”, rather than wait for it. 

That is, sticking out in the stomach, but leaving the shoulders (and heart) back; usually their butt sticks out too. These dancers tend to fall backwards while turning. Others (like me) crumple their shoulders in or look down, which leads to buckling, rounding and wobbling- hallmarks of contraction and fears. These are symptoms of a core’s imbalance.

With consistent dedication, these traits can be remedied.

Working with the natural dancer’s tendency to be flexible with elongated muscles, or strong with shorter ones, good teachers draw out the dancer’s natural strengths and teach her what she must work on.  

Physically demonstrating this on my leg, with a tactile cue, was always the most effective. Though now, I’m a bit chronically challenged with pain, so it’s harder to focus on an improvement she might give me (boo-hoo).

Sometimes a teacher will even choreographing a combination that work especially to the dancer’s peculiarities, rather than for her personal favorites. At the same time keeping the rest of that students’ training balanced, so as to prevent injury from overuse and strain.  While we do our best at what we are good at, we must also cultivate and strengthen our weaknesses –or at least be willing.

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Overall, dancer’s life is about 40 years, not much more. Maybe that’s what most of us get for full on trying to work your physically hardest[12].

To physically perform in her optimum capacity [13]She knows there’s always a dancer behind her, waiting to take her place on stage; the understudy who gives you flattery. There is always another one standing in the wings, waiting for their “fifteen minutes of fame” to heighten them.

The end of her career- her turn at receiving applause, takes place too soon for many. It is a great life challenge to find a new living that satisfies.

And yet, there is nothing quite so exhilarating as performing successfully! Dancing feels great and is for you. There are numerous cardiovascular benefits. Moving freely tells the body it’s OK, you are not under attack.

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Great dancers don’t often make great teachers- it requires another way of seeing students for themselves, and not according to one’s own image of perfection.. Those teachers are rare. They probably don’t make the most exciting choreographer’s either – they know what limits feel like when being too stretched. Choreographers like Bob Fosse see the dancer as ‘meat with feet’ and let them know it -at least did in the past. [14]

So professional dancers know that voice too, and some teach with it.[15]It’s painful to be their student. Many can be bitchy too, especially if they’ve been injured forcing them to give up the stage, which they loved becoming emotional cripples. Otherwise why quit, if you really love it!?

It must be hard to be a principle dancer in the real world, when no one really notices you. Ouch. When everyone else is partying at Christmas, and you must stay reasonably disciplined in order to meet weigh-in-and if you want to perform. Not being one, I can’t attest really, though I am held to another standard for fitness.

A chiropractor once told me to start going 75%, for effort, as I got over 50- so as not to keep hurting my back. In fact this chiropractor wanted to make me his case- or so he told me later[16]. He gave me a single adjustment. The next week I still was alignment. He was astonished. That’s when he told me I ‘just’ needed massage therapy – even though I’ve had a back fusion! 

Still it was a bitter pill of advice to swallow- cutting back…yet he said it just right, to me at the time. It gave me permission to calm my expectations. Lol, now, I have fully embodied that condition, with some further depreciation (?) of fitness – but still, compared to most of those around me, I’m still dancing which is what counts..

As my body stiffens, I try to think of having balloons of spacious light in that stiffened part, which reminds me to give ease to the movement. Warm bathes help too. I hope someday to have a submersive tub, the one I do have, is short and shallow. But I feel lucky to have one. Tubs are being foolishly removed; with Covid-19 the public bathes are closed. it is not so sure a thing to use hot tubs unless you own one .

With 2 cups of Epson salts though, I almost float – a blessing of the smaller tub.

I don’t know where I would be in life, really the dance is such a blessing- with its metaphorical reminders, that enhance my art of living!

The end


[1]Using the term archaically – I am, like any ‘serious’ and dedicated ballet dancer, a ballerina. Ballet is the activity I have done the most in my life, besides attending physician and mom. 

[2]hmmm, maybe I should contact my LD again, see what I mean, take my own advice literally as I’ve defined it!

[3]After sitting for a couple of weeks on a tour bus I really noticed my weakness. Did you know that being inactive for even one week is significant? Luckily, with practice, it is easy to get into shape again.

[4]I apologize now to any ‘ballet-ophile’ with their exquisite sense of correctness, and your cultivated eyes; please forgive my liberties with my analogy, if you will.

[5]a French word pronounced “re-luh-vey” with an accent lifting the word on its end, say it and it sounds like reloving.

[6]This, too, the mirror neurons sense as they are sensory organs stimulated by images from the visual cortex. What they perceive, the body feels as happening. To it, there is no difference- the images create enact on the cortices symbolically creating potential pathways that one then can focus on perfecting

[7]It was nearly unbearable for me to watch boys hockey, so many ankles collapsed towards their middle. They relied too much on self.

[8]Bend both knees at the same time, with hips open (and vulnerable).

[9]Though in the end I left because he abused me and was callous after my Aussie Matisse died..

[10]This makes me sad, it is very hard on the body to work so diligently in one direction only. It is hard enough for the professional dancer to keep her left-right strengths symmetries. Usually you only learn your own role, unless you’re the understudy when you might learn both sides of a dance. The adults who egged the child to do this, were thoughtless of her body which at seven is too soft for such focused work and will affect her dancing longevity.

[11]I just finished reading The Odyssey and loved all the interfering gods and goddesses, but even those I wouldn’t slight, so I’ll keep the hyphen!

[12]Really the professional dancer’s life is grueling in many ways. Maybe it’s even more intense than that of a star quarterback – they often have several performances going back-to-back throughout their season- not just at finals.

[13]Since I wanted to live to be 100, or at least thought it was a reasonable goal, that for me was too short of career. Never mind there were girls at twelve doing triplets already when I was 15. I knew then I’d never make it to be the best; there was just no logical way. (I hoped to work at least until my 70s, though my grandfather stopped at 90!)

[14]Maybe less today, but arrogance is so easy to slide into- and from there stretches the boundary to impropriety and has lead to abuses in the so-called, “professional world”. 

[15]I quit dancing in med school. A teacher in Worcester was so evil; I couldn’t deal with both intensities.

[16]

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