Strengthening Ankles and Calves

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Relevé means ‘to raise’. Photo © Sarah Schatz.

Weak ankles can be a problem for a lot of dancers, and particularly if you have very flexible feet, your ankles may lack stability. Ankle strength can help your balance, can help prevent injuries, and helps dancers enormously with take off and landing jumps and turns.

If you have weak ankles you may unconsciously hold yourself back because your foundation feels unsteady. I found this to be true of myself when I was recovering from an ankle injury. If my ankles felt wobbly, I didn’t feel confident going for multiple turns or relevés on one leg or even jumps sometimes. Maybe you’ve noticed for yourself that you hold back or dance tentatively or even overcompensate by tensing your shoulders or biting your lips. If you are insecure physically, it can affect you psychologically. The good news is, strengthening your ankles may help you become a better dancer overall.

Here are some excercises to strengthen your ankles and calves. (Disclaimer – I am not a doctor or a physical therapist, I am a dancer and teacher. If you feel pain doing these exercises besides just muscle soreness, do less, go easy, or if you are injured, seek the advice of a professional.)

1. Ankle Raises or Elevés  Hold on to a barre or a wall (or the kitchen counter) and put your feet together with the inside edges of your feet touching. Keeping your legs straight, press the balls of your feet down as you lift your heels off the floor as high as they will go (this is called an elevé-like an elevator) Then lower your heels evenly back down to the floor. Be sure to keep your feet and heels and legs together (if you can) as you do this. Think of your weight going right down between your first toe and second toes. This can help keep your ankles in alignment. Start with ten slow elevés. Going slowly and minfully is far more challenging than speeding.

2. Plié Over Lifted Arches  Rise to the balls of your feet and keeping your legs together, bend your knees in a shallow demi plié. As you bend your knees, keep the arches of your feet lifted and your heels extending as high as they will go. Keep your ankles and knees together as you straighten your legs. Be sure your toes are relaxing on the floor. Bend and straighten ten times.

Sarah Doudna

Lift your heels as high as they will go. Don’t worry, your toes won’t let your ankle go too far – they are like a natural kickstand! Photo © Sarah Shatz.

3. Heel Drop Bend your knees just like you did in the previous exercise but instead of straightening your legs, stay in that bent knee position, and lower your heels slowly and smoothly to the floor. Then lift your heels back up again as high as they will go with the same slow evenness. Try to control the movement of your heels as much as you can and move them smoothly without jerking. This exercise strengthens muscles particularly useful in petite allegro and other small fast footwork. Lower and lift your heels ten times.

4. “Walking” in Place  Rise to the balls of your feet then lower your left heel, bending the right leg and coming the the ball of the right foot with your heel lifted as high as it will go. Rise back to the balls of both feet and reverse, this time lowering the right heel and bending the left leg. Continue to rise and lower one heel – ‘walking’ back and forth. This can a nice warm up for your feet. Be sure your heels ‘kiss’ as they pass – don’t let them separate out to the sides.

Sarah Doudna

To help align your ankles, keep your weight centered down right between your first and second toes. Photo © Sarah Shatz.

5. Plie Releves  A relevé (which means ‘raised’) is like an eleve, but instead of with straight legs, releves start and end with a demi plie, but  it is also a rise up onto the balls of the feet or to the pointes of point shoes. Relevés are like the push-ups of ballet. They strengthen your legs, particularly your calves and ankles.

To do a releve, demi plié. Begin to straighten your legs, and as you do, press the balls of your feet down and lift your heels off the floor, until your legs are completely straight and your heels are lifted as high as they will go. Then lower your heels to the ground as you demi plié. Relevés are done in all positions of the feet and on two feet or one foot. After doing some releves with your feet parallel, open your toes to first position and  repeat the releves in first position.

Reminders:

  • Relax your toes and spread them  wide on the ground as you rise to the balls of your feet.
  • Make sure your weight is centered in between your first and second toes. If your weight is more in your pinky toes, you may be sickling your ankles. Line up your bones.
  • Remember that your turn out comes from your hips. In first position be sure to rotate your inner thighs forward and imagine your legs lengthing down out of your hips. At the same time, imagine your heels coming forward as your heels lift.
  • Alignment is key. Remember to lengthen your lower back towards the floor as you lift your lower belly in and up. Relax your front ribs and imagine a string pulling you up from the back of your head. Your upper body should stay lifted and not move around as your legs plié and relevé.
  • It may help to imagine you have a unicorn horn coming out of your forehead and imagine your energy going forward and up. This helps prevent your ribs from splaying and your weight from going backwards.
  • Be sure you are lifting your heels as high as they will go. Extend your ankles fully.
  • Relevés are like slow motion jumps, which also start and end in plié and have straight legs and fully extended ankles at the top of the movement. Releves are great preparation and training for jumps.

Doing these exercises and doing relevés at the barre on two feet and one foot will improve your strength and stability for when you move to center floor.

Now that you have worked them out, stretch your upper calves (gastrocnemius) and achilles – the tendon at the back of your ankle. Bring your feet parallel and slide you right foot back a foot or two and bend the front knee. Push into the wall or barre (or kitchen counter) to increase the stretch.

Sarah Doudna

Calf stretch – keep your legs parallel and keep your back heel on the floor. Photo © Sarah Shatz.

Then bring your back foot in a little bit and bend the back foot as well to stretch the lower portion of your calf (soleus) and achilles. You can also get a nice stretch in you calves by lowering your heels off a stair step.

Sarah Doudna

Stretch for achilles and lower calf. Sometimes I need to adjust my stance to feel a stretch or even stick my hip out a bit. Photo © Sarah Shatz.

Any question? Just ask in the comments below and let me know if any of this helps you over time. Stronger ankles makes stronger dancers. See you in class!

~Sarah

Want to join us? Check out our schedule at http://www.liberatedmovement.com – all classes for only ten dollars!



Don’t Freak Out, Just Dance!

Dancers Brendan McGlynn and Sarah Doudna caught in a candid shot while dancing at Shanghai Mermaid Old Hollywood New Year’s Eve 2015.

Have you ever been in a class or at an audition or out social dancing and you suddenly think all the other dancers are better than me!  You may be exaggerating, but yes, sometimes you may be (or feel like) the worst dancer in the room. What do you do? Don’t freak out.

1. Remember you have just as much right to be there as anyone else, yes, even if you are the very worst one! If you are here to take class, or social dance, you paid your money, you have just as much right as anyone else even if you’re having one of those days when you think you can’t dance. If you are at an audition, you have just as much right to be there as anyone else, no matter what your thoughts tell you.

2. Those people are all wearing the “right thing” and I just have this. Don’t leave the ball, Cinderella. Wear what you have, it’s going to be okay! If it’s totally inappropriate and possibly exposing, hopefully the teacher or a friend will let you know (or lend you a tank top or some safety shorts) before you embarrass yourself. If someone judges your garments, that is way more of a reflection of their own selves and their issues. (That’s true of everything other people do, incidentally.) Sometimes your favorite clothes are just in the laundry. Oh well! As you gain experience going to more classes, or auditions, or dances, you’ll get more comfortable and you’ll figure out what to wear, and what suits you best. Maybe you’ll invest in some ballet slippers or get an audition outfit that really shows you off, or find a red vintage dress with that perfect swingy flair. Too bad fairy godmothers don’t show up in real life with the exact right thing to wear. Imperfection suits you. Wear it proud!

2. That girl just blotted her lipstick with her grand battlement devant!  Fancy tricks, high legs, are fine and dandy, but just because you don’t have that flexibility, doesn’t mean you aren’t a good dancer. Nothing beats well placed, lengthened, turned out legs, even if your calves aren’t up around your earlobes. Yes, work on your placement and challenge yourself to get your legs higher, but don’t let ‘lipstick legs’ over there ruin your experience.

3. Screw that, they are typing us out by having everyone do triple turns and all I’ve got is a measly single!!! Stay proud, mama. You do you as strong as you can. Pull up like a rockstar, and knock that single turn out of the ball park. Smile like you have a secret. That secret may be “all I have is this lousy single turn, and this is ridiculous”. Yes, it’s totally silly to judge humans on their ability to do a stupid pirouette. But they’ll notice that girl with the stellar attitude, amazing smile, and terrific single turn and they’ll say, “Hey, maybe we can use her!” Auditions can be brutal to the self esteem.You never know. Don’t give up.

No matter how you feel inside, how intimidated or scared or frustrated, no matter what you are or aren’t wearing,or what other people are doing or saying, or how amazing they are dancing, or how bad the music is; if life gives you an opportunity, and if you get the chance, and someone asks you, don’t freak out, just dance! 

Starting Where You Are

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Ballet dancers at Liberated Movement’s Benefit Bash on April 22nd. Dancers from left to right: Brendan, Arielle, Regina, Calvin, Kayla, Ilya, Diondra, and Claire (behind Diondra).

April was an insanely busy month nailing down details for Liberated Movement’s Fundraiser, our Diversity in Dance Benefit-Bash. It went very well, and we had a great turn out (no pun intended). The three choreographed dances were very well received (Contemporary, Ballet and Hip Hop), they loved our unique Moving Statues piece that welcomed guests into the beautiful space. The swing lesson was a big hit as was the surprise flash mob at the end. Talk about diversity in dance! I was so proud of our dancers. We had a great crowd made up of new and old friends. It was an incredibly fun night.

In the aftermath of the weeks of preparation, late nights sending emails after working my day job communicating with silent auction donors, dancers, attendees, and my phenomenal fellow organizers, plus teaching and rehearsing, it finally caught up to me and I got really sick.

While I’ve been recuperating, I’ve been reflecting on getting better – how does one actually get better – at anything? Finally turning a corner towards getting better required me to fully accept the severity of my illness, take everything off my calendar, and put in some serious hours of sleeping. Perhaps getting better at anything requires that deep level of accepting where you are first. A full acknowledgment of your limitations without shame or guilt or judgement but with the full illumination of daylight and the acceptance and welcoming of a friend. “This is truly my turnout for good or bad,” without self incrimination, and without cheating or gripping. From this honest place, your improvement may be faster because you are starting where you truly are.

Finding Your Balance and Letting Go

Catching my balance for a moment has the easy satisfaction of catching a ball. It’s a suspension, a momentary win, an opportunity taken. It stems from a lengthened, fluid, effortful lift. It takes a quiet internal strength, but without tension or gripping. It also takes trust, letting go of control, and letting go of the barre! When my balance is on, it feels weightless, like a rising breath of air, and when it is off, it feels wobbly, uncertain, and totally frustrating.

I fight to maintain balance in the studio as well as in my busy New York life. Recently, I came home to Hawaii to visit a friend and help her welcome her new baby into the world. Letting go here is less about releasing my hand from the crutch of the barre, and more about melting into the landscape, life with a baby, and her milk-drunk cuddles. Yet in ballet class, I found my balance here in Hawaii was better than it has been. Maybe it was my friend Annie’s class, or maybe it helped to let go a little.
1. Set yourself up to succeed. While you are holding on to the barre, line everything up. Put your feet in sous-sus, in fifth position, in relevé, and start from the bottom up:
relax and lengthen your toes along the floor;

  • lift your heels in relevé as high as they will go;
  • make sure your legs are straight and long;
  • turn your legs out from deep in your hips, with your heels yearning forward,
  • pull your legs together like a baby snuggling, with no spaces between, or like a ziplock bag, zipping up all the way together with no holes;
  • relax your tailbone towards the floor, as you lift your lower belly up;
  • press your belly button to your spine as if wearing your skinny jeans;
  • calm your frontal ribcage, knit it together towards your hip bones and make space in your back ribs;
  • relax your shoulders down away from your ears and widen your collar bones;
  • lengthen your head toward the ceiling;
  • reach your arms up into fifth position – notice I didn’t say “place” – your arms also have a dynamic lifted energy. In a balance everything reaches up and out!

2. Before you let go of the barre lift more out of your hips by pushing down, reaching up and thinking happy thoughts of seeing friends, eating delicious pineapple or ahi poke, and Hawaiian trade winds. A balance is not total stillness, it has energy. Happy thoughts!

3. About wobbling – sometimes in letting go of the barre, there is some wobbling. A little wobbling is okay, focus on lifting and breathing. If I am wobbling badly, either I’m not fully lined up properly, not lifting in my core, or I’m hardening and gripping somewhere. I breathe and try again. Sometimes wobbling can be because of lack of sleep lack of food, or emotional distress. I refocus on pushing down, lifting up, and try again.

4. Breathing is not holding your breath-don’t forget to exhale too!

5. Your mind can play tricks on you with respect to other dancers in the room. Don’t be fooled. You are just as glorious and wonderful and have all the capacity they have. Yes, you can balance. Fight for it! Yes it is possible. Believing anything else is a cop out. Let others challenge and motivate you, and make you work harder, that is what dance friends are for! But your ultimate competition is you, your body and perhaps more importantly, your mind. Don’t give up on yourself, and don’t let yourself off the hook either. Go for it!

Now that I’m back in New York, mornings are no longer about burping the baby and her falling asleep on me to the music of mourning doves, a rustling brook, and the neighbors chickens. Letting go is about saying goodby to dear friends even as new exciting projects lure me back to the big city. But then again, it’s all about balance.

~Sarah
One of my projects is a fundraiser to raise money for Liberated Movement, the studio where I teach. You should come! It is going to be held on April 22, 5-8pm at Blender, located at 27 West 31st street at Madison Ave. Get your tickets here! 

Coming to New York? Come to my class! Tuesdays 7-8pm and Saturdays 12-1:30! 380 Broadway two blocks south of Canal street, buzzer #5. Only $10, yo!

Falling in Love with Waltzing

Photo by Natasha D’Souza via Flickr Creative Commons

I’ve always loved to waltz. It is one of those moves that feels really good, like swimming in the ocean or falling in love. A waltz sways and moves, has grace and elegance, it always feels pretty. It’s so intimately connected to the music that when it’s right, it’s less about you dancing to the music than going inside the music, allowing it to dance you.

Waltzing originated as an Austrian and Bavarian folk dance from the eighteenth century, and like all good things, was quite shocking to the upper classes in its day. Naturally the close embrace in particular was frowned upon. It subsequently became popular in Vienna, leading to the birth of ballroom dance. 

While the step itself is simple, the necessary fluidity and ease of a waltz is what makes it difficult to master. (Why are things that require ease so challenging? Perhaps letting go is actually harder than holding on!) 

A waltz is also one of the most creative moves in ballet, done in many different ways and directions and combined with a variety of other steps. It can be done side to side, front to back, turning, with legs brushing through. Who knew ballet could be so…sexy?

How to waltz:

  • Start with music written in 3/4 time. Use Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker if you’re feeling traditional, or Prince’s Sometimes it Snows in April if you’re feeling oldschool (or you read this blog). Other good waltz songs are Nora Jones’s Come Away With Me or Edwin McCain’s I’ll Be. Recently one of my dancers introduced me to a beautiful Spanish song called Mi Ancla by Mindy Gledhill. In the song, she talks about being carried away by a red balloon but her lover is her anchor, mi ancla. This sweet little song captures the intoxication of being carried away by the wind or a waltz. 
  • Whatever waltz music you choose, you should hear a strong 1 count downbeat, followed by lighter 2, 3 counts. Take a moment to listen for these counts before you start to move.
  • Now stand up (no turn out, no pointed feet) and just sway to the music. Change your weight from your right foot to your left foot on each strong  1 count. Notice counts 2 & 3, but at first only move on the 1 counts. (I’m trying to get you to feel the music.)
  • Now add two smaller steps on counts 2 and 3. March in place for now. It is helpful to say to yourself BIG, little, little; BIG, little little as you are stepping. 
  • Now that you are easily stepping on each count, make your BIG step less about taking a venti sized step and more about stepping into plié. The emphasis should go downward. And then make your two little steps up on relevé, so now instead of just stepping on the beats, you are adding levels. Be sure your first step is flat on the floor, with your whole foot down on the ground, including the heel – just like a pedestrian taking a regular step – and bend your knee. The second two steps are up on the balls of your feet, in relevé. It is helpful to say to yourself DOWN, up, up; DOWN, up, up. If you get confused, take out the relevé and go back to BIG, little, little. Don’t turn out or point your feet or or think ‘ballet’ right now. Even if you get mixed up, keep going. 
  • Start to move around the room with your BIG, little, little, or your DOWN, up, up. Listen to the music. Be sure you are exactly in sync with each beat. Feel the music taking you with it. Play with expressive qualities as you move such as direction and gesture. (Extra credit for laughing at yourself, or at least smiling!)

In ballet, we call waltzing doing a balancé. But the idea is the same, the point is to be smooth and effortless. Even if you’re an advanced dancer, sometimes a balancé can look awkward or can pop up. Do less. Stop pointing your feet for a minute and go back to the music, feel the wind in your hair and imagine sunshine and mountains. This dance was originated by Bavarian peasants in a gorgeous place on earth. Dance is about expressing life.

Once you are feeling confident, try these patterns:

1. Balancé Side to side: Step on your right foot to the right side, step behind your right foot with a small second step on your left and then step in place with the right foot for the third small step. It’s more like SIDE, back, front; or DOWN, up, down. As you take your first step to the right, sweep your left arm forward and across at rib cage height towards the right, with the palm facing down as the right arm opens to second position. Then as you finish the third step on the right side, your hands will switch so that as you step to your left the right arm sweeps across to the left side as you step to the left, SIDE, back, and front. Your upper body and head should also follow the swaying movement towards the right when you are stepping right, and towards the left as you are stepping left. 

2. Balancé front to back: Stand croisé, on your left foot on a diagonal with your right foot free behind you in “B+”. Step a big step forward on your right foot, along the diagonal, bring your left foot behind your right, step up on relevé on it, and then step down in place on your right foot (FRONT, up, down); then step backwards along that same diagonal with your left foot, and bring your right foot behind your left and step into relevé on your right foot and then step back down on your left (BACK, up, down.) Your right arm will sweep up as you go forward into a high arabesque line, eyes and head looking up, following the line of the hand, and then as you go back, your right arm will sweep towards the floor, as you balancé backwards. My teacher used to say it was like picking an apple off the tree way up high and almost leaning back a wee bit as you balancé forward, and then bend forward from the waist as you balancé back, as if you are placing that apple into a basket on the floor. 

3. Straight leg Waltz: This Waltz step turns in one complete rotation – half way around when doing the right side, and completing the turn when doing the left side. You travel along a diagonal towards the down right corner of the room. (I tried explaining this in detail but it didn’t work. I will find a video to show this and include a link.)

Try this combination: 

Start near the upper left corner of the room, two steps towards the center. Balance forward towards the down right corner of the room on a diagonal, balance backwards, turning towards your right, ending facing the down left corner of the room. It’s like a balancé front and back except the balancé to the back turns. Step into piqué back attitude on your right foot towards the downstage left corner of the room, arms in third position with the left arm high. Piqué passé along your original diagonal, toward the corner, followed by two piqué turns towards the corner and ending with a straight leg waltz. 

Enjoy waltzing and let me know how it goes – hopefully up, up and away! 

~ Sarah


I hope this helps, Malcolm! 

Join me for ballet on Tuesdays 7-8pm and Saturdays 12-1:30. Only $10. I will be away in Honolulu from March 2-17 and returning the 18th. See you at the barre! 

Plié … and the life lessons of bending

Grand plié in first position. Photo © Sarah Shatz

Bending is the fundamental start of all dance – perhaps of all movement. In ballet, we bend or plié to jump, to turn, to move. It is this action of the legs to recoil like a spring before a jump, or soften the landing out of one, that also prepares our bodies for every other more advanced movement in the entire ballet canon. Pliés are often the first excercise done at the barre.

One could say bending or accepting is a fundamental principle of life, an ability that isn’t always easy. In life the challenges we face force us to confront the inflexibility of the mind (our minds, others minds). As difficult as the physical can be to change, our bodies are often far easier to lengthen, soften, and mold than the rigidity of the beliefs to which we (or others) stubbornly cling. Sometimes it is even the mind that keeps the body from bending! The body, however, can influence the mind; and by bending and opening the body, the mind will often follow. Staying open will help you in life as well as in ballet. A plié is not just a bend, it is an opening too –  the opening of your hips as your knees bend over your toes. Suitably then, it is done at the opening of class.

Demi Plié (Half or small bend) 

Put your feet in first position. Keep your head and shoulders aligned vertically over your hips and heels. Gently lift your belly in and up towards your spine as you bend your knees open over your toes, making a diamond shape in between your legs. Keep your heels on the floor.

You will have reached the bottom or deepest part of your plié at the point where your heels can no longer remain on the floor. Push down into your feet to straighten your knees fully and you will have done one demi plié.

Hint 1: Open your knees over your toes in your plié. If you can’t keep your upper body straight up and down and open your knees wide enough to align over your toes, you may need to bring your toes in a little bit for now. This just means you have more flexibility in your ankles than in your hips. Don’t try to do a 180 degrees first position with your feet at first. Turnout and openness in your hips will come. Having correct alignment is key.

Hint 2: Keep your spine straight and don’t stick out your butt to get more turn out or a deeper demi plié. As your calves and achilles lengthen over time, your demi plié will naturally deepen.

Port de bras: Teachers differ of course, but it is often customary to do a combination with two demi pliés in a row. Your arm starts in second, lifting slightly as you demi, eyes looking out over your fingertips, lowering to preparation or low fifth as you straighten. On the second demi plié, bring your arm up to first position as your head tilts away from your hand, inclined to look into your palm. As you straighten your arm floats back to second position. Alternatively, some teachers will have your arm start in preparation, float out to low second as you bend into plié, and return to preparation as you straighten.

Grand plié (big bend)

To do a grand plié (pictured above) in first or fifth (or fourth), start with a demi plié, then descend towards the floor allowing your heels to lift, until your hips and knees are level. (Your heels will naturally come off the floor, do not lift them more off the floor.) Continue to lift your lower belly in and push your heels down into the ground to recover back through demi plié and then fully straighten your legs.

Grand plié in first and fifth positions are similar. Except in fifth position your feet should remain touching in a grand plié, with the heel of the back foot moving forward, gently encouraging the heel of the front foot to turn out.

Timing: A typical grand plié will take four counts. Keep moving continuously though the movement and avoid sitting at the bottom of your grand plié.

Second position is a little different because in second, your feet are wide enough on the floor that you will not lift your heels at all. In second position descend only until your hips and knees are on the same level (see below).

Grand plié in second position. Photo © Sarah Shatz.

 

Hint: In second as in the other positions, descend as if you have a wall behind you so that you cannot stick your butt out.

Grand plié in fourth position is controversial – some believe it is bad for your hips. I did grand pliés in fourth for years with no seeming adverse reactions but recent tightness in the front of my hip flexors is exacerbated by grand pliés  in fourth and I’ve decided there may be some truth to that belief after all. I’m only doing demi pliés in fourth right now, but you do you. If you are doing a grand plié in fourth, be sure to keep your weight even on both feet.

Port de bras: First port de bras with one arm: Your arm starts in second position. As you lower to demi plié, your arm lifts slightly, then lowers to preparation at the lowest point of your grand plié. As you rise out of your grand plié, your arm lifts to first position in the demi, and then opens to second as you straighten your legs. Sometimes teachers will have you reverse the port de bras. In this case, you will demi plié and your arm will lift to fifth position as you lower into your grand plié, then as you return to demi plié, your arm will lower through first position to preparation and as you straighten your legs, your arm will float back up to second position.

I hope this helps your exploration of pliés. It’s a strange thing to try to describe in words a physical movement that is so engrained, so if you have questions, please ask. Stay open and keep dancing. Encourage others to dance too, that may we all learn to accept each other, accept ourselves, and to bend a little more.

~ Sarah

Believe in the Possibilities

Every dancer has an angel hovering overhead whispering ‘believe’!

Here we are at that magical time of year when gifts are exchanged with wishes of peace on earth and the hope of a better new year to come. What a difficult year it’s been and not just politically. I have geared too many ballet classes around the music of singers who have passed on – an adagio to Prince’s Sometimes in Snows in April stands out, one among several great musicians who are gone (David Bowie, George Michael). We’ve lost several amazing actors too – just on Monday I was watching Singing in the Rain with my mother and marveling at the lovely Debbie Reynolds. This year has also been a very difficult year for many of us personally as well.

Then recently at a friend’s suggestion, I read an amazing book called Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl in which he talks about his experiences surviving brutal Nazi concentration camps, how he survived, and why others did not. He explains how the torturous conditions became bearable only when one found meaning outside of oneself – when he could focus on his love for his wife, or work to recreate his manuscript that had been confiscated. Only then, by focusing on and reaching for something beyond himself, could he bear his own suffering. If you have never read this book, give yourself this gift! 

I found great solace and hope in his book, not just for my life, but for ballet as well. (Dance is life after all). As much as Ballet is about the body and the physical, and can be very difficult, it is also very much about the mind – what we perceive to be our limitations, versus what we imagine is possible. 

What I wish for us all in the new year is that we Believe. That we leave in 2016 the doubts, the “I’ll never get my leg high”, the “I’m not a jumper”, the “I’ll never be flexible”, letting all of that go. Instead, I wish for us to take hold of our dreams, like grasping the string of a giant magic red balloon. At first dangling, then embracing, and finally steering our dreams like we own them, and that they may be realized. That we greet each pirouette or pas de chat with a deep knowing that we are fully capable of the execution always focusing on the bigger picture even while we hone our skills more finely one at a time. It scares me to do this too – it feels safer to hang on to the familiar crutches of self-deprecation. But the adventures of 2017 are as yet unchartered territory. Dare yourself to believe it is all possible, and have a very Happy New Year. 

~Sarah

Feel free to ‘like’ or comment or share this post if you liked it. Join me for ballet on Tuesday, 7-8 pm. 380 Broadway, buzzer #5. $10. 

Let’s Talk About Balls

These are my balls

I want to talk about balls. Not the kind you can get away with grabbing when you’re a celebrity. Not the kind of balls it takes to call your political opponent ‘nasty’ or the kind you want to hurl at your television on occasion – or three occasions, or lately every time it’s on. I’m talking about the antidote to all the stress of life, dancing, and this political season – massage balls! (Only 3 more days, world, we can do this!)

Seriously though, self-massage using massage balls is great at releasing tight areas. Balls are inexpensive, portable, and easy to work with. You probably already know that massage increases circulation, and brings blood and oxygen to muscles allowing them to relax. What you may not know is that releasing muscles and ligaments that are gripping can also help them perform better, allow the correct muscles to engage, and enable your body to function better! While getting a massage is a wonderful treat, using balls whenever and wherever you need is easy on your wallet and your schedule.

Where to get Balls:

You can use tennis balls, though I prefer a slightly harder ball like the Pinky Hi Bounce balls pictured above that I got in the toy aisle at my local drug store. (In Harlem the balls even come in iridescent shades!) Google says you can buy them on eBay for $4.78. They are three inches in diameter, slightly smaller and firmer than tennis balls. Some people prefer the harder lacrosse balls which are the same size but I find those balls are a bit too hard for me.
A word of caution: if you are experiencing serious pain that is not going away, please go to a doctor! Also, for my type A friends, go easy with the balls, and don’t roll over bones, or any sensitive areas. Don’t confuse sensation or tenderness with out and out pain, and stop if you feel any weird (bad) zinging sensations indicating you may be irritating a nerve. Be gentle with yourself, always. 
Here are five ways you can use balls for massage:

  1. Back Massage: (For those of us with long hair, tie your hair up before doing this one so you don’t get your hair caught under your balls). Lie on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Press your feet down and lift your hips high and put the balls together in the middle of your back so the balls are on either side of (not ON) your spine. If your balls want to roll away from each other you can put them in a little ball sack. Heh. But, yes, I’m being serious. Press your feet into floor to roll yourself down (and the balls roll up) until the balls are near where your shoulder blades are. This area carries a lot of tension and may feel tender at first. Breathe into the sensation and allow yourself to relax and sink into the balls. If you want more pressure, press your feet into the floor and lift your hips. If you need less pressure, you can do this same thing with the balls against a wall instead of the floor, bringing your feet close to the wall for the least amount of pressure. Once the initial area of tension has dissipated, roll the balls slowly up towards your neck or down your back, stopping to breath and relax into each new area of tenderness. 
  2. Hips: Stay on your back but open one knee to the side so you’re halfway rolling to your side. Put one ball under the fleshy area of your butt. You may find some tender areas in there to release especially as you roll towards the side. Prop yourself up on your elbow for more pressure. You are releasing your gluteal muscles and as you get more on your side, your piriformis, a muscles that runs between your outer hip bone and your frontal hip point. This muscle gets sore with a lot of walking or when you do a lot of frappes – your standing leg, that is. When you find a good spot, you can get deeper into the muscle by slowly straightening and bending the leg you tilted to the side, or moving the leg in any way that feels good. Recently I was having some pain in the front of my hip and when I used the balls to release this area in the back of my hip that was gripping, the pain in the front of the hip lessened remarkably. Don’t forget to breathe as you are doing this. When you finish rolling out one side, switch to the other hip.
  3. Hamstring massage: Sit on the floor with your legs bent. Straighten your legs out in front of you as you place one ball under each thigh. Press down into the ball and turn your leg in and out from the hip to roll across the muscles of the hamstring as opposed to up and down. Move the  ball up or down your leg to the next area and then go back and forth across the muscle fibers.
  4. Shoulder blade: Lie on your back and and put the ball under your shoulder blade. Move your arm straight up and shug your shoulder up and down to get into the muscles there. Gently open your arm to the side to ‘cactus position’ and you may feel a stretch across the front of your shoulder.
  5. Foot Massage: Step on your balls to massage the arches of your feet. Place one ball under your foot in the arch near your heel. Add some pressure and then release and move to a different spot and repeat. This maybe particularly beneficial if you have plantar fasciitis. You may find it helpful to roll gently adding pressure as you can tolerate it. Or roll the ball lightly underfoot with less pressure. 

I hope this helps ease the tensions in your body if not in the political scene. Those tensions can only be solved one way. Vote. See you on the other side, and see you at the barre. 

~ Sarah

An Adagio for September

Inspiration for dancing: My great grand-mother Blanche, center, with her two sisters, Corinne and Celestine wearing fabulous hats!

I was inspired to choreograph an adagio to the song Luray Women sung by female duo Clishmaclaver because of a conversation I had with my mother recently about the people who are still around and those who live on in our hearts and memories. I was making her laugh, telling her the story of my Dad’s first pun when he was a little boy. She laughed, but then she said, “Is he still around?” Not wanting to hurt her, I answered, “Well, he’s around in our hearts and memories.” She sighed, “So he’s not still around”. I had to admit she was correct. Then she asked, “Which of my people are no longer around?”

I was thinking of this conversation and all the people who are no longer around and I thought of this song. The lyrics make me think of my great grandmother, (center), and her two sisters. My mother loved telling me her grandmother’s stories. Their parents only had enough money to send three of their six children to college. They figured the three boys could always get work on a farm, so in the 1890s they sent their three daughters to college. My great grandmother became a teacher, got married and had one son. Her middle sister became a lawyer and her youngest sister was a drama teacher who came to New York. This dance is for all those who came before, and for sisters everywhere.

*                       *                     *

About the dance: I wanted to include walking in the adagio because walking can be so difficult to do naturally. Walk to the music, not a ballet walk with pointed feet, but a regular walk to the slow tempo of the music. Keep your walk fluid even though the tempo is slow. Make eye contact with the other dancers in the room, connecting to your center, to the floor, to the music, and to each other.

The choreography for the first verse and chorus are written out below. For the second verse and chorus, reverse the dance to the other side. For the third verse, repeat the first side to the end of the verse, so the last thing is the soutenou turn on “roots entwined”.

About the Music: I love the song sung by female duo Clishmaclaver (Jennifer Culley and Brooke Parkhurst) on their album Roots Entwined. But I couldn’t find a sample of it or a link for where to buy it online. All I could find was this youtube of the song, which is also lovely, but just not the same. If any of you who are more internet savvvy than I find it, can you let me know in the comments below?

LURAY WOMEN Sung by Clishmaclaver, on their album Roots Entwined.

Tall as timber, Great Aunt Lizzie Wrapped in rugs against the cold Counts 1-8, walk 8 steps, ending in 5th position, Left foot front, croisé.

Looking out across the mountains Counts 1-2, plié pas de cheval front (L) foot; counts 3-4, posé up to sous-sus, legs together in fifth, 2nd arabesque arms, right arm forward.

To the valleys of my soul  Counts 5-6, balance as you bring arms to 5th, then towards the left, counts 7-8, step your front foot out to the left and tombé, arms continue the circle towards the floor, and you contract your upper body, head down, standing on your left, in plié facing front, en face, with your right foot tendu à la seconde, arms in a low second.

On the porch where Lizzie’s rocking  Counts 1-4, lift your right leg slowly to à la seconde. Don’t rush this, you have plenty of time. Lift your body, head and arms lift to a “v” towards the ceiling.

Great Grandma Nannie comes and stands  Count 5 Passé, arms to 5th. Counts 6-7  back attitude croisé, arms open to third position. Right arm is high (arm away from the audience, same arm high as leg that is back) Count 8, start the promenade to the right. (See below)

Underneath her plain white apron  Counts 1-4 promenade to rights. As you promenade, the back leg goes from back attitude through passé to front attitude. Arms go to fifth position.

Holds my future in her hands Counts 5-6 extend right foot to dévelopé croisé front in plié. Arms bend in towards stomach and extend to third arabesque. Count 7 Posé forward, arms stay in third arabesque, Count 8 Plié in fifth, back soutenou turn, arms do an inside port de bras.

Refrain:

Luray women, how you’re with me  Counts 1-2 step to the right (remember step to the back foot)  into plié, left foot tendu side, right arm stay extended side. It’s slow, continue stretching your arms out to the music, Counts 3-4 ronde de jambe your left foot to croisé front straightening standing leg. Right arm comes to fifth.

Soft as memory, strong as wood Counts 5-8. Plié and Port de bras forward and up over pointed (left) foot

In my face you are returning Counts 1-4 Brush left foot through first position to arabesque. Right arm comes to chest, palm facing out. Left arm extends out to back as if in arabesque, as if someone behind you is holding your hand, palm facing down, and begin to penché.

I hear you singing in my blood Counts 5-8 Penché down and up. Counts 7-8 Plié standing leg and touch left foot to the floor, arch back. Hand at chest sweeps up to a high arabesque arm, palm out (not in fifth). Pull up to sous-sus, pas de bourré fourth position, left foot front.

There are four extra counts here Inside pirouette to the left. Land in fifth position right foot front, arms open to second and float down to preparation.

Reverse all on the other side.

Verse 2
Now the years and all my memories
Flow like water by the bridge
I can see them in my mirror
Tall as trees along the ridge
Just like trees along the mountain
Through the years grown straight and tall
Till the place where they’ve been standing
Seems deserted when they fall

Refrain
Luray women, how you’re with me
Soft as memory, strong as wood
In my face you are returning
Hear you singing in my blood

Verse 3
If you lose the one that loves you
Make a life that’s all your own
Find a place no one can reach you
Turn your back and go back home
But if you find the one that loves you
If you love the one you find
Be like sisters on the mountain
Branches touching, roots entwined

-Sarah

Want to learn this dance? We’ll do it one last time in class this coming Tuesday. Ballet class 7-8pm on Tuesdays, 12-1:30 on Saturdays. 380 Broadway, Buzzer #5, Only  $10. Don’t be shy, anyone can dance. 

Asking How to Get Better at Ballet (or anything) vs. Asking Why 

Comic genius Lucille Ball at the barre

When I’m not doing well at something in life or dance, I inevitably ask myself ‘why’. Why am I not getting this?, Why does everyone seem to get this but me? Or in ballet: Why can’t I get my leg higher?, Why do I always fall out of my pirouettes?, What is wrong with me? It feels so frustrating and self-defeating. 

In a gym class the other day at Mark Fisher Fitness, Michael Littig, Fitness expert, encouraged us to instead ask ourselves ‘how’. We went around the room, each saying how we wanted to feel – accomplished, motivated, energized, successful, strong. Each of our desired outcomes could be ours, he said, if we asked ourselves how do I get there instead of why can’t I get there. Asking “why” keeps you stuck, spinning your wheels and not moving forward, while asking “how” allows you to see the possibilities, encourages you to problem solve, and allows your mind (and body) to start changing. I told a friend about ‘how vs. why’, and we applied the concept to an idea she had, and pretty soon we had talked out an exciting plan to make her idea a reality! 

With this concept in mind, I decided to apply it to ballet. How can I get better at ballet? Let’s make it more manageable. How can I get 1% better at ballet? (We’re not talking ABT, just 1% better!)*

1. First it might help if I show up regularly to ballet class. I can work on that by looking ahead at my calendar, and blocking off the time. I can help myself stay on course by letting friends know I have a previous engagement at that time but I’d be available afterwards or on another night. I don’t have to tell them what the commitment is! Don’t feel bad for your friend, like that person is less important than ballet. No, you are doing this for you, and aren’t you just as important as your friend? Yes you are! 

This also applies to work. If you had tickets to a show for which you already paid money, and your boss asked you to stay late, you’d say, “I won’t be able to stay late tonight, I have plans.” Why should ballet be any less important than Hamilton tickets? 🙂  You don’t have to explain your personal commitments. 

2. Next I make sure I have something clean to wear and I pack my bag the night before so in the morning rush I don’t forget my shoes or pants or something. 

3. During class, I stay present, and focused, continually bringing my mind back into the room and not worrying about work or something outside  of class. 

4. I listen to all of the corrections given in class, and apply them to myself even if they aren’t specifically given to me. Any correction in ballet class can potentially help, so I pay attention.

5. I scan my body during class. Is my head held high, extending the back of my neck? Is my chin parallel to the floor? Are my shoulders down and back and is my back wide? Are my elbows lefted and my fingers reaching out as if they had LED lights radiating from my fingertips? Is my tailbone lengthening toward the floor as my belly lifts in and up? Can I maintain this tall, wide, expanded posture with grace and without tension? Are my legs extending out and away from my body, are my feet reaching long with all the toes reaching and stretching long when I point my feet instead of scrunching up my toes? 

6. I watch the other dancers in class. Everyone has their gifts and abilities, no matter what their level and watching the other dancers can allow me to learn more than if I only focus on myself. There is also some research that suggests watching others dance creates a kinesthetic response. It’s as if neurologically you are doing the movement when you watch others do a movement, particularly one with which you are familiar. Pretty cool!

7. Finally, after ballet class is over and while you’re still warm, commit to doing 5 minutes of simple stretching to take care of your  body before changing your clothes. 

8. What about homework?  Dancers ask me this all the time. The thing is, you can’t cram for ballet class. If you overstretch, you risk injury. Ballet is something at which you will improve slowly over time. When you are first learning, it’s better not to practice at home anyway because you don’t want to practice it wrong. The good news is that means you don’t need to do anything extra! You went to class, so give yourself a hug. No guilt for today! 

Keep asking yourself ‘how’. I’m going to see what other areas of my life I can improve using ‘how’. Until then, I’ll see you at the barre. 
~Sarah
Looking for a ballet class? Come join mine! Tuesdays 7-8, and Saturdays 12-1:30. 380 Broadway, Buzzer #5, two blocks south of Canal street. Classes are only $10.

*Getting 1% better at anything is also a Mark Fisher Fitness ism.