Tag Archives: recovering from ballet injuries

Perfectly Unnatural

PicklesThe following is an excerpt from an imaginary conversation between a student and master teacher. It explores the relationship between work and play in the dance classroom.

Student: I was wondering about something. When I dance outside of ballet class, I usually have more fun than when I am in class. Sometimes class seems like too much work. Should it be so difficult?

Master: Only if you make it so. You see when you’re outside of class you are involved with the perfection inherent within the sweep of your movement. In class there is this presumed demand for perfection before you know what it is you’re trying to perfect. What you should really be looking for in class is the perfection found inherent in the movement, what we spoke of before when you were dancing for fun. Finding the perfection inherent in the sweep is like a dimension – you cannot invent a dimension, it already exists and it is simply your job to find it and identify with it, creating an emotional relationship with it as you do when you are dancing outside of class. There is a sense of exhilaration, an emotional connection with this dimension of movements. It stands right next to you. For example, have you ever played on a teeter-totter?

Student: Well, sure.

Master: Well, what got you on the teeter-totter was curiosity about the up and down movement. It looked fun. But at first it’s clumsy when you jump on the teeter-totter and you feel like you’re going to fly off. Unsteady. But as you continue to play you get more comfortable with the swing, the to and fro, and you learn the other person’s rhythm instinctively. With the inspiration of wanting to have more fun and exhilaration, your nervous system inherently starts pushing with more force and effectiveness. You find the inherent technique of the teeter-totter. You then get really good at the movements, you feel more confident, even feeling able to put your hands in the air. And someone watching would experience your confidence and clarity of intent. They would sense a perfect kind of relationship with your partner and the mechanics of the teeter-totter. Thus making you appear perfect.

Student: But that doesn’t seem like ballet class at all.

Master: That’s exactly what ballet class is. It’s the spirit of the movement. Being perfect is like copying a master artwork. There is no inspiration behind it, or ultimate expression. You may possibly learn about the nuts and bolts of painting but very little of self-expression.

Student: You talk as if ballet should be fun.

Master: Of course it should be. If you’re going to sweat that much it better be fun. If not it’s a kind of torture.

Student: But what about finding that perfection you talk about? Shouldn’t that take work?

Master: Well, lets go back to the teeter-totter. How did the two get so good at working together? Playing with the to and fro, to the point where you were taking great risks to feel more exhilaration and freedom. You moved with sheer abandon, not constrained by a perfect imposed technique. When something is imposed it introduces limitations. And from that perspective to be perfect alasecodenlairwould be a prison.

Student: Then what is the perfection you’re talking about?

Master: To be “perfect” contrives your ability to understand by creating those limitations. To be “perfect” is to be done. What you are seeking is to perfect your awareness, to understand your relationship with the concept of the movement; to detail your sensation with it and articulate your experience.

Student: Then you’re not really talking about perfection at all. You’re saying that perfection is undesirable – perhaps even impossible. Then why take class at all?

Master: To refine your awareness. To get to a very keen approximation of a kind of total physical consciousness, and your emotional relationship with it. Let’s put it this way: could you be perfectly angry at any time?

Student: How could you be? That doesn’t even mean anything – “perfectly angry?”

Master: Exactly. But when you’re willing to fall for what you stand for then your anger is riddled with passion, love, and purpose. That is the closest thing to perfect expression. But it has one key element that “perfect” does not – the element of spontaneity, inspired by purpose. It doesn’t have to be right or wrong, but sublime in its appropriateness.

Student: But we’re talking about dancing, about physicality. How can you have that much purpose in a rond de jambe or a plié?

Master: All those things exist in those movements. The possibilities and dimension of those movements are infinite. There is no perfect plié or perfect rond de jambe.

Student: That sounds so intense. How can you take class that way?

Master: Art, like life, only has limitations if you seek them.

Student: But I’m not seeking limitations.

Master: To be perfect is to be done – there is no place to go. Let’s put it this way: the closest thing to perfection would be God, and as far as I know God is never done, but constantly expanding the heavens with infinite diversity. And diversity is a singular theme.

Student: How so?

Master: Diversity is a theme, an idea. How diverse you choose to be is up to you. Do you have two ways of doing a rond de jambe? Three? Ten? Is there a perfect way to say a word? Is there a perfect singular definition? If there is, there’s not much chance for poetry or expression. You can take a word and actually change its meaning with the emotional inflections in your voice. In other words, I could say, “I love you,” in such a way that anyone hearing would know that I was actually saying I hated you. So the dimension I talk about that is standing next to you is the element of your intent.

Student: So that is what class is about? Your intent? The possibilities of your movement?

Master: Yes. Because being perfect is trying to be something you’re not, which makes you uptight and tense. But when you’re working to cultivate your awareness and relationship with the movement therein lies actual purpose, which then frees you from the bondage of perfection.

Student: And then you can have fun?

Master: Yes.

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Cinderella Approach

ohmmWhen a person decides to study dance, in particular ballet, what is the real point of class?

Well, hopefully to elicit dancer-like qualities that resemble the classical form of ballet. ”Hopefully” is stressed here due to the meager success rate in the world of dance.  There are many variables outside the classroom that contribute to whether a student becomes successful or not in the dance world.  So this discussion limits itself to certain aspects of the classroom that threaten a dancer’s dream of one day being a professional (and healthy) dancer.

Many teachers walk into the studio and assume that all problems can be fixed by calling out the long standing platitudes of “pull up,” “turn out,” and “find your center.”  They then proceed to place their hands under the dancer’s diaphragm to encourage the dancer’s ribs farther away from their hips (pulling up).  This follows with desperate enforcement of rotating the quadriceps away from the mid-line of body (turning out), and finally to find that mythical center all dancers hear about (find your center).

If a student were to push for an explanation as to what these instructions mean as they relate to an individual dancer, they would find their teachers unable to deliver an honest kinesthetic understanding of how these long standing gems of tradition compel the dancer to dance.

I know this to be true because I was one of those annoying students who dared to be curious. I questioned tradition, not to be rebellious, but in an attempt to fully understand the real intent behind the instructions my teachers were giving me.

In short, I found the experts’ explanations greatly lacking.

Let’s take the first of our trio of platitudes:  “pull up.”  In the simplest terms this refers to a military-like posture of the upper body, which creates a commanding effect.  It should also give the dancer a greater sense of physical presence, as well summarizcropped-cropped-pic3-2.gifing the upper body to make some classical movements easier to physically comprehend and execute.

Unfortunately it is only the cosmetic aspect that is emphasized for the sake of uniformity, which has very little to do with the true art of dance.  Nor does it recognize the individual anatomical nuances of each dancer.   Instead a singular and often misunderstood concept is given to everyone – giving only the fittest a fighting chance of surviving.

I call it the Cinderella approach.  You know, everyone attempting to force on a shoe that doesn’t fit.  To my dismay most in the dance world still insist on passing Cindy’s slipper around.  Some students seem to magically fit into the slipper.  They’re called “natural” dancers.  Well, they might slip into the slipper easily enough but this has nothing to do with the actual ability or talent to dance.  Some who are slightly out of sorts with the slipper but have this burning drive to dance will wince their way through the process to defeat the odds. This type will suffer great anxiety, obsessive behavior, pain, and injury only to lead to the inevitable syndrome of dancer burnout.

So how does “pulling up” and the many other classroom platitudes relate to individual variations of body type and temperament?  In most cases not well over time.  It depends on the severity of the malady.  Forcing a person into what is, for them, an unnatural posture is quite strenuous to the bodies’ structure as well as to the mind attached to it.

Most often the Cinderella approach culminates in a shorter career or none at all, due to not dealing honestly with the physiological, psychological, and neurological self.  The only answer is to address all the nuances of the individual, instead of continuing to use the “one-size fits all” philosophy that most teachers and schools employ.

Best Ballet Training

I have over twenty years of experience as a Ballet Master, private coach, and choreographer, and am available for private lessons and master classes.  I provide a innovative, unprejudiced approach that you won’t find anywhere else. 

I believe that anyone can learn to be a great dancer, regardless of body type or “natural talent.” I welcome students and professionals of all levels who have a serious attitude toward the art. I specialize in working with injured dancers, so if you have been told you should stop dancing, or if you have chronic pain, give yourself another chance and contact me.

My methods challenge the boundaries of traditional ballet by providing an intense, holistic approach to training. Small class size and individual attention guarantee an experience that reveals untapped potential and removes mental blocks that can keep the serious dancer from progressing. You will learn skills to take with you for the rest of your dance career.

Through classwork and body awareness exercises, you will learn how to work easily within your own body structure for prolonged life as a dancer, as well as increased joy and fluidity in movement.

My approach works organically within each dancer’s body type and promotes a longer career dancing to your full potential.

Forum on Dance

A primary purpose of my blog is to serve as a sounding board for all those interested in a more in-depth exploration of the inner workings of dance. Are you having problems with your dance? Frequent injuries? Experiencing difficulties advancing? Discovered a trouble spot that won’t seem to go away?

Send me a question in the comments and I will respond in a new blog post!

I have over 20 years experience working as a master teacher and my specialities are helping injured dancers recover; teaching those who struggle with traditional methods; and inspiring dancers who have been dissuaded from pursuing dance as a career.

A brief summary of my history: after starting at the age of 22, and with only 3 years of intense training, I was accepted, without even auditioning, to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, one of the most well respected companies in the world. Now I want to share the secrets that made me progress so quickly.

Visit my company’s website http://www.johncartballet.org, for more information and to view my current work.  Be sure to leave your questions in the comments!