Getting Past Fear

Tags

, , , , , , ,

What stops you from getting to glory? 

I’ve been wanting to write about fear because it’s something that affects dancers all the time, but honestly, I’ve been too afraid. I wanted to have something wise to say. I wanted to master my fear before writing about it so that I could say THIS is how you do it, guys. I wanted to have it all figured out.

I was afraid recently because I had an audition for a play. I didn’t even know I was afraid until I looked through the house and found myself in my bed, on my phone, starting to write a blog about fear.

It was then that I recognized all the tell tale signs—the self sabotage, the self doubt, the self criticism, the avoidance. (See what I did there, avoid-dance?)

I know enough about fear to know telling myself not to be afraid is useless. I tell people to come to my ballet class all the time. I can see fear in their eyes, they’re afraid to look like an idiot. “It’ll be fun”, I tell them. I try focusing on the joy of dancing instead of the obvious fear. They don’t realize I’m afraid too. I know once we bridge the initial awkwardness, we’ll have a great time, but first we have to get past the fear.

I had to gently guide myself the other day, focusing on doing each next thing to prepare, keeping myself from daydreaming or getting distracted. Those were just fears’ ploys. As I worked on my roles, fear was at me non-stop, weaving fabulous fables of my faults. I redirected her with a firm “that’s not helpful”, made a cup of tea, and picked up my highlighter. I accepted the limited time I had, and put my energy into developing each character.

As I put on the outfit I chose, I let go of my plan of perfection, especially when I realized the humidity made my hair frizzy and I had no mascara. I cut my losses and let it go. I kept focusing on what I needed and what was most important.

It was time to go. I hoped not to be afraid as I left my house. Getting out often helps — once I leave my dwelling I no longer dwell. I looked at the sky and the changing November trees and smelled the damp leaves but fear came along too, laughing at me on the train.

As I arrived at the audition, it was raging loud in my ears, crashing like surf, so that my hearing seemed muted and I greeted my friends awkwardly. I was mortified we had to audition in front of others instead of privately. The room seemed unbearably hot. I began to judge myself again. Fear was winning.

My turn came – the moment of truth. I let go of myself and went into my characters. I allowed everything I’d prepared to come through. At that point I was too busy doing my work to notice the fear that still made my hands shake. When I made everyone in the room laugh, I had them. When I made them all blush, I was sure. Everyone looked at me, but they didn’t see fear at all. It had slunk off into a corner, waiting for the next time. Good try, fear.

~Sarah

I hope you can use my story to help you get past your own fears. If you like this blog, feel free to ‘like’ it, or leave a comment. And come to ballet class – Tuesdays 7-8pm and Saturdays 12-1:30pm, 380 Broadway, Buzzer #5. Leave your fear at home.

Giving Tuesday – Liberated Movement Kicks Off Campaign with Class

When I lost my day job at the height of the financial crisis and could not get a job, dancing was the only thing that kept me sane. It also broke the bank. Dance classes in the city add up fast at nearly $20 each. I eventually got a job and paid off the debt, but I remember the feeling of not being able to afford dance classes.

Six years ago I started teaching ballet at Liberated Movement, New York City’s only donation based dance studio. I have been really proud to help the studio grow and watch my students blossom. I’ve also made some wonderful friends.

As a donation based dance studio, (suggested donation is $10) we are supported solely by our student donations. We hold two fundraisers a year to help fund our mission to provide open level classes from a place of joy not judgement that are financially and socially accessible to students of all levels. We want to keep our classes donation based because we understand how expensive dance classes can be in the city. Dancers are the lowest paid of any art form, yet taking class can’t be sacrificed if dancers want to stay in working shape.

Giving Tuesday is the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and is an international day of giving to charities at the start of the holiday season as a response to the consumerism of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It’s a way for all of us to give back to charities in need.

This Saturday, November 11th, Liberated Movement will kick off our annual Giving Tuesday campaign with an amazing Contemporary Dance class taught by guest teacher Ryan Daniel Beck. The class will be held from 5-6:30pm at the Battery Dance studios, where we teach, at 380 Broadway, buzzer #5, in the front studio.

Ryan teaches at Broadway Dance Studio in New York and is a professional dancer, having done commercial dance work for ESPN, MTV, Fuse TV and many, many others. His class is a combination of guided organic flow and structured exploration and informed improvisation, working with a natural playful curiosity. His class is a fun exploration of movement and accessible to students at any level of training. Ryan’s class will be $20, and proceeds from his class will go towards operating costs of Liberated Movement. You aren’t just getting a fun class, you are also helping our studio survive. You can pay at the door or sign up for Ryan’s class this Saturday here. If you believe in our mission but are unable to attend the class, you can give directly to our Giving Tuesday campaign here.

I look forward to seeing you this Saturday at ballet class 12-1:30pm or at Ryan’s class from 5-6:30pm.

~Sarah

The Inspiration of Ballet West

Tags

, , , , , ,

I am on a date with myself to see Ballet West, a Dance company from Utah performing at the Joyce Theatre in Manhattan. As I settle into my seat I sense couples eyeing my solitude with pity and I suddenly doubt my exercise in self love. But that momentary discomfort changes when the curtain comes up on a bright stage of men in nude trunks.

As the dance begins, it is wonderful and energetic but with little emotion, all angular modern moves on classically trained bodies, technical and precise. They are perky and joyful to watch but will their performance move me? I am certainly impressed by their physiques. There is not a speck of fat, not a single warble on the women’s bare (no tights!) thighs of steel – I am in the second row! They are not emaciated, just athletes in peak form. I envy their taut abdomens.

I am drawn in by an exceptional pas de deux between two men exhibiting their equality in strength and masculinity. They match each other perfectly in timing and leg height and then flow over each other in fluid intertwined precision.

But it is the women who make me question my life choices. I long to be them, stretching my soul out across that stage, trusting my partner, my body.

A woman enters (Arolyn Williams) in a flowing dress, all legs and extensions, mysterious with elegant arched lines. Her partner, fearless and strong, makes their partnering feats look simple. It’s a joy to watch him sail her through the space in shapes I’ve never imagined. Meanwhile I am regretting my age, questioning my life path. I’m grateful my parents insisted on college, but I suddenly wish I’d danced professionally younger. I fantasize about roads not taken and recall a conversation with my mother. Why hadn’t she encouraged me? Maybe she did. I rewrite our dialogue in my head to a conversation long lost as dancers in white appear in a piece called Sweet and Bitter. Isn’t that just like life? A stunning African-American woman (Katlyn Addison) slices fiercely across the stage, her confidence as cutting as her sharp feet and fast spot. I am unable to look at anyone else. I watch these gorgeous dancers and wonder—do they have doubts? None that show.

“Maybe I wasn’t confident enough”, I muse. I was a good dancer, but I was young, I needed more training. I was scared. Was my mother to blame? Was it my fault? Did I not believe in myself enough?

The last dance begins, the women in grey shorts and flowing tunic tops, the men in smart dark vests and pants. The lead woman, (Arolyn Williams) small and expressive, reminds me of a ballet friend I performed with years ago, classical yet spunky with a depth of feeling. I begin to think of all the friends with whom I performed over the years, the laughs, the camaraderie. She dances away from the lead man (Chase O’Connell) to another male dancer. Chase in turn partners a tall flirt (Beckanne Sisk) with dark hair and flashing eyes, dangerous and gorgeous and reminiscent of another dancer friend from my past. She dances away from him too.

O’Connell comes back, walking through the others wearing no vest, no pants, just grey shorts. He has lost both of the women. Everyone leaves and it begins to snow. The women each appear but they don’t go to him this time. He is alone—but not sad alone— he dances slowly, naked, strong and I love this man, and his vulnerability as he crawls, as he reaches his long frame, as he turns and jumps. Throughout the night and my waves of joy and longing, wishing I had danced with a major company, wondering if I’d been good enough, envying their bodies, maybe the answer was love. Maybe I could simpy love all of me – even the parts that were scared and didn’t go for it in the past – and not lose hope this time, but instead do what I love to do to whatever extent I can. As the dancer kneels he raises his head up as the snow comes down and I thought, “and this is how it ends”.

~Sarah

If you missed seeing Ballet West at the Joyce Theatre, check out this rehearsal from world ballet day. Next time they come to the city, let’s all go! Come take Ballet Tuesday 7-8pm and Saturday 12-1:30pm. Only $10. 380 Broadway buzzer #5. Dance with me and love yourself.

Do You Have ‘Stretching Guilt’?

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Sarah Doudna

Do you have ‘Stretching Guilt, the guilt of not stretching regularly? Perhaps you wonder if a healthy dose of Stretching Guilt would motivate you to to stretch more? What if it just took five minutes? You can do that! I have been guilty of running off after class without stretching and this month I’m committing to five minutes of stretching after class or before bed. I may stretch longer, but five minutes minimum. Want to join me?

The Brain is in Control

Stretching means to reach beyond oneself, extending past perceived limits. Whether stretching the body, mind, or another aspect of yourself, when you want to reach past your limits, the key is what your mind thinks you can achieve. Stretching physically is no different — it is also controlled by your brain and your perceived limitations.

It is well documented that under anesthesia, the body relaxes such that even a man with rigid c-shaped back lay totally flat on the table under anesthesia. On waking up, his body returned to his former, rigid, hunched over position!

That doesn’t mean forcing anything. On the contrary, it means the way to achieve flexibility is through regular stretching and deeply relaxing. Maybe there’s a lesson in that persistence for the other areas of my life I wish to stretch.

Why Stretch?

Even if you’re running out after ballet class, a few quick stretches while your body is still warm can help lengthen your muscles and increase your range of motion, improving your flexibility and keep you dancing longer.  Plus, it won’t take long. I’m not a believer in sitting in stretches for long periods of time. You can overstretch your ligaments that way, and put yourself in danger of injury. After being in a stretch for longer than 60 seconds, a muscle shuts down and takes about thirty minutes to become fully functional again. That’s another reason to stretch after rather than before a class or workout, or at the end of the day before bed.

How to Stretch

With any kind of stretching, it’s important to listen to your body. If you feel a stretch, and it feels good, great. If you feel pain, back off, ease out, that’s too far. When you stretch, invite your muscles to release and relax, don’t demand. Getting injured will only set you back and slow your progress. It doesn’t help your body to inflict pain. Pain just makes muscles tense up to try to protect themselves.

I write this as a dancer and a ballet teacher, not a physical therapist. If you have injuries or pain, go to a doctor. Skip any of these stretches that aren’t for you. For each stretch, breathe in and out three to ten times fully and completely, imagining deep relaxation in the area where you feel the stretch, softening and releasing as you exhale. This is one of the things I learned from my yoga training. For all my years of ballet, it wasn’t until yoga taught me to breathe and release that I began to see more results in my flexibility. Be kind to your body – you only get the one – and

new parts are very expensive.

Stretches:

  • Butterfly stretch or Baddan konassana. Sit on the floor, bend  your knees out to the side and bring the soles of your feet to touch. If your knees are very high, sit on a blanket or pillow. Hold on to your ankles with your hands and sit up tall with your back straight. If that is difficult, try putting your hands on the floor behind you to help you sit up on your ‘sit bones’. If you feel a stretch already, stay there. Otherwise come forward with your back flat, lengthening out the top of your head, and lengthening the front of your body as well. You may find more openness in your hips by opening the soles of your feet as if they were a book on your lap. You can also round forward to feel a slightly different stretch. When you’ve breathed there for a minute or so, open your legs to:

  • A la seconde stretch. (Pictured above.) Open your legs wide, roll your inner thighs back and sit up tall. Don’t judge yourself. However wide you open your legs is fine. This isn’t a contest, it is just where you are today. Place your right arm across your lap and the left in fifth position and bend sideways to the right over your right leg. Try to keep the your left sit bone on the floor as you bend right. You may feel a stretch along the side of your body and along your inner thighs. Bend right and breathe, then do the left side, and then put your hands on the floor in front of you and crawl your hands forward bring your body forward between your legs. As you come forward, anchor your legs firmly to the floor and roll your inner thighs towards the ceiling. Imagine your legs are spiraling upwards and outwards from your hips as you breathe and release.

  • Ankle to Knee or Thread the Needle Lie down, bend your knees and put your feet flat on the floor. Put your right ankle across your left knee, flex your right foot to protect your knee and open your right knee to the side. (Don’t forget to flex your right foot!) You may feel a stretch along the outside of your right hip. One of the biggest areas of tension, stretching your hips is enormously helpful to the health of your knees and back. One muscle that gets a stretch in this position is your piriformis muscle, located on the outside of your hip and which acts as a stabilizer for the standing leg among other things. It can get very tight if you do a lot of walking or standing. If this is enough of a stretch, stay here. If you want to increase the stretch, reach your left hand on the outside of your left thigh, and your right hand through your legs (‘threading the needle’) to the inside of your left thigh and use your hands to bring your left thigh towards your chest. Lengthen your spine and try to keep your tailbone on the floor You can use your right elbow to open your right knee for an additional stretch. Once you have stretched there for a few breaths, it might feel nice to allow your legs to fall towards the left side so that your right foot is now flat on the floor. Roll your body open to the ceiling and press your right knee away from you to feel a stretch in the front of your hip.

  • Hip Flexor stretch lying down. Lie on your right side, bend your left leg and hold your left ankle or foot with your left hand. Gently pull your heel towards your butt to feel a release in the front of your hip and thigh. To increase the stretch, lengthen your knee away from you and lengthen your tailbone, knitting your ribs towards your hipbones.

  • Hamstring stretch Lie on your back and place both feet flat on the floor. Extend your right leg 45 degree away from the floor, towards the ceiling, lengthening behind your knee and opening the hamstring muscles along the back of your leg. If you cannot straighten your leg, lower your leg towards the floor until you can get your knee all the way straight. If that is too easy, work with the leg at 90 degrees if you can. If you want to use a belt or yoga strap, loop the belt around your foot and hold an end of the belt in each hand. The idea of the belt is to support the leg, allowing for relaxation. Using your hands as a support is fine too. A belt is not intended as a torture device! As your leg relaxes and opens you may move the leg slightly higher. But rather than focus on height, work on lengthening the leg as well as your torso. Square your hips, and enjoy a moderate stretch, while actively pushing into the strap or into your hands as you hold the leg steady. Whether you have a strap or can hold your leg with your hands or not, breathe deeply wherever your leg is, then switch sides. There may be a difference between your two legs, that is normal. Hold for a few breaths and let it go and you’re done!

Stretching is asking the muscles to lengthen. It is an invitation, a welcoming, a yawn, a request for some opening. It is an alluring overture, a gentle suggestion, an easy enticement. Listen to your body to know when to push and when to back off, and then let it all go and trust that the work is done. You may not reach your goal today. Change happens over time. But notice the small differences in your body right now, after just a little bit of stretching. You may breathe easier and deeper, feel less stressed, more relaxed, feel more attuned with your body, more focused. Whether you’re heading for bed or work or to the barre, there’s no guilt today.

~Sarah

Excited to dance? Me too! Fall is a beautiful time to dance. Saturday’s Ballet Workshop is 12-1:30pm at 380 Broadway, buzzer #5, $10 minimum donation. Tuesday’s Class is 7-8pm. See you at the barre! More information on our website at http://www.liberatedmovement.com

How to Spot in Ballet to Improve Your Turns

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

img_7275-1

Photo by Gabby Orcutt from Unsplash.com

When dancers turn, they keep their eyes focused on one location to avoid getting dizzy. As they rotate, their heads whip faster than their bodies, returning their eyes as quickly as possible to the same spot. This is what is called “spotting”.

If you’ve ever been sea-sick or car sick, you may understand how unpleasant being dizzy can be. In those situations staring at the horizon can help orient your brain and make you feel better. The reason we get dizzy when we spin around quickly is the fluid in our inner ears that controls balance continues to slosh around for a little while after we stop moving. This makes our brains think we’re still spinning, producing the feeling of dizziness. Spotting, keeping your eyes fixed when you turn, like staring at the horizon when you are motion sick, tricks the brain into thinking it isn’t moving. It may not keep you 100% dizzy free, but it will help, and the benefit is, spotting will help your turns immensely.

How to Spot

Stand and fix your eyes on a point in front of you. We usually practice this in the dance studio facing the mirror, and I tell dancers to spot their own eyes, but if you are at home, just look at something small that is at or a little above eye level, like a refrigerator magnet or the “12” of the clock hanging on a wall. Have your feet parallel a few inches apart, in “sixth position,” my teacher would have said. Start to march your feet so that your body is turning very slowly to the right but keep your head facing that magnet or clock (or whatever you’ve chosen as your spot point) with your eyes fixed on that point. When your body has turned so far around that your neck cannot keep your head looking over your left shoulder anymore, turn your head quickly to the right to look over your right shoulder and find that same spot point again with your eyes. Your body will not be facing forward yet – that is correct, your head will be quicker! Continue walking your feet and turning your body slowly until your body matches your head and all parts are facing your spot point. Did you do it? Don’t change your spot point midway through! If you don’t understand this, comment below and I will post a link to a video. Now that you’ve done it to the right, try it to the left.

As you practice spotting, it is helpful to keep your neck and head really loose so that your neck can turn. Spotting is not just in your eyeballs-your chin will be above one shoulder and then you have to turn your head so your chin is over the other shoulder.

Try keeping your chest open and even squeeze your shoulder blades together. You may find your neck is a bit easier to turn this way.

It’s also helpful to keep your head straight up and down and not let your head tilt side to side as you are turning. That way the fluid in your ears will only have one axis of dizziness with which to contend.

Pro-tip: If you are already quite good at spotting, try – during pirouettes – to spot yourself in the mirror using the eye of your standing leg. It’s a really powerful tip that can help your pirouettes.

Getting Un-Dizzy

If you get dizzy after crossing the floor in a series of turns like chaines or other turns, or even after one turn, even when you are spotting correctly, that is totally okay. This is a work is progress and so are you. You will get better at it, and your inner ears will also get better at adjusting to turning over time! In the meantime, here are some things you can do to quickly get un-dizzy so you can keep dancing:

  • Jump up and down three times staring at a stationary object. I imagine the fluid in my ears gets jolted out of it’s swooshing motion and gets settled back in place thanks to gravity, as a result of the three little hops. This method works best for me.
  • Another thing you can try is to place one hand, fingers together, vertically in between your eyes – splitting your face in half, from your forehead to your nose. I like this method too.
  • You can also put your hand horizontally underneath your eyes. I think this gives your eyes an imitation horizon with which to orient your brain, like staring at the horizon except in the dance studio.
  • Some people find that a few revolutions in the opposite direction works better for them. Try each one and see what works best for you – different methods may help you at different times.

Neck Range of Motion

Having good mobility and range of motion in your neck can also help your spotting. If you get tense in your neck like I sometimes do, you may not find that sweet, easy spot where you sail around and the whipping action of your head easily transfers down, giving your body a little added momentum each time you rotate. To increase the range of motion and reduce tension in your neck, try this:

First, turn your head to the right and left to test your range. One side may be more restricted depending on what shoulder you carry your purse, how you sleep and other factors. Place the heel of your right hand to the right side of your head. Turn your head to the right again, but this time use your hand to prevent your head from turning. You will be doing a lot of work with your neck and arm but don’t let your head move. After holding this for several seconds, release your head and try gently turning your head to the right again and see if your neck is a bit freer this time. Once you’ve done it to the right, do the left as well. You can also do this with lateral (ear to shoulder) and front any back movements of your head to release your neck. If you have neck issues or this hurts, just skip it or ask your doctor.

Like anything else, it takes a bit of practice and it takes reminding yourself to use your now-excellent spotting when it comes time to turn. When you relax your neck and focus your eyes, almost as if instead of serious dance business, it were more like playing in a grassy field on a summers day – that is when you’ll find the sweetest spot of all.

~ Sarah

Like this post? Be a subscriber! Why not? It’s free. Check out my older posts as well and let me know if you have any questions. I teach Tuesdays 7-8pm and Saturdays 12-1:30pm with Liberated Movement at Battery Dance Studios located at 380 Broadway, buzzer #5. Not ready to try it just yet, I understand. But read the post called All The Things I Meant to Say, and hopefully I’ll see you soon on the way to the barre.

Defying Gravity ~ How Dancers Get High

Tags

, , , , , ,

Dancers from left to right, Julie, Melissa, Madeleine, Nicole, Cayo, and Ilya (behind) doing ceccetti changements

When dancers jump they invoke a quality that tricks the eyes. It’s as if they hang in the air, suspended for a moment, defying gravity before returning to earth. In ballet, that is an actual ‘thing’ and in French, that virtue is called ‘ballon’, which means to bounce or literally “like a ball”.

If you’ve ever bounced a ball, you might recall that feeling when the ball rebounds back up into your hand, nestling there for a moment before you give it another push. That same element happens when dancers jump. To me it feels fun, like soaring or bounding while sailing through the air. Here are some tips to help you get that same feeling of ballon.

1. Technically speaking, achieving height and the maximum air-hovering time in a jump takes three things happening in quick succession. Your preparation is a demi plié. You must go down to go up–and yet you don’t necessarily need your deepest plié. Most importantly, be sure your heels stay on the ground and that you are descending straight down in your plié, not pitching forward. This can happen if your tailbone is not pointing towards the floor in your plié. Read more about pliés here. Bending forward in your preparation before a jump can cause your body to arch back at the top. If you can go straight down and jump straight up, you’ll get more height and maintain more control of your body while jumping. Doing sautés without pitching front or back involves using your legs to jump instead of your upper back.

One exercise to help this is to try doing changements with your arms crossed over your chest and your hands holding onto opposite shoulders. It’s much harder to splay your ribs in this position and you may feel it in your legs more when you take off. 

2. When you push off the ground, actively press your foot into the floor heel-ball-toe. That added flick of pushing off the floor with your feet and toes into a pointed foot position will give you an added boost. This is why you need to be sure you don’t lift your heels in your plié, so you have use of your full foot against the floor. It is also one reason to get your heels down in between jumps. If you don’t put your heels down when landing, you will shorten your Achilles’ tendon over time, which can lead to injury. Using your feet as you leave the floor has the added benefit of giving you lovely pointed feet in the air! 

One way to drill this action is to practice pushing one foot at a time into the floor without jumping. Start in first position, press the ball of one foot into the floor lifting your heel, then flick your toes pointed, launching your toes off the floor. Then “land” your foot gently back on the floor starting with the toe, then ball, and finally your heel, back to first position. Landing through your feet like this will soften your landing. Once you’ve done a few of these ball-flick-/-toe-ball-heels on one side, switch feet.

3. The third thing that needs to happen – at the same time really – is to push. Imagine for a second that you are in a swimming pool. If you were to push away from the side of the pool, the extension of your legs as you shoved off would propel your body through the water. The same thing happens in the air. Push against the floor and straighten your legs to help launch yourself skywards. Some cross training with squats and lunges may help build strength in your legs.

One move I learned recently at my gym is particularly effective at strengthening legs. It is called the split squat jump. You start in a lunge with your front leg and back leg bent at right angles. Like this:

As you can see, I could be bending both my front and back legs just a little more – I’m a work in progress!

Jump straight up and land back in the same bent knee position. Try a few of these with the right legs front and then with the left leg front. You can also jump and switch legs in the air landing with the opposite leg forward. These split squat jumps will burn but they’ll make your legs feel super powerful and make ballet jumps feel easy in comparison.

Jumps often require straight legs in the air, but in the photo above, the dancers are purposely bending their knees to execute a changement in the ceccheti style, where the knees are bent and the ankles are crossed in the air. Whether you straighten your legs in the air or not, you absolutely MUST plié when you land!

Finally, visualization is a tool that can really help all aspects of your ballet technique. When you jump, imagine one of those super bouncy rubber balls. Jump as high as you can, and try to stay up in the air as long as you can, rebounding off the floor. I always tell my students, it feels so amazing to jump that way – it really is the best way to get high.

~ Sarah

Next week, Tuesday September 12th – one time only – class will be held at at Manhattan Youth Ballet at 248 West 60th street, Studio 4. Class will be an hour and a half in length for a $10 suggested donation. Take the ABCD or 1 train to Columbus Circle or the NW train to 57th street. See you at the barre!

Getting the Point: How to Point Your Feet

Tags

, , , , , ,

Dancer Allison Bartella’s pointed foot.

Ballet is about lines of the body. A pointed foot completes the line of the leg and can give the illusion of a longer, higher leg line. A beautifully pointed arched foot is also the quintessential hallmark of an accomplished ballet dancer. Pointed feet don’t just look better, they also help you dance better. If your foot isn’t reaching, your leg will have no energy, which makes it a lot harder to hold your leg up. Pointing your feet also helps you jump higher. But what is the best way to point your feet? Can your point improve? Is it possible to point your feet in the wrong way? Pointing in the wrong way can distort the line of the leg, or worse, cause damage to the tendons in your ankles. Let’s explore how to do it correctly.

Sit on the floor and put your legs together out in front of you. Sit up tall–use your hands on the floor to help support you. (Might as well practice sitting up tall every chance you get!) Reach your toes long away from you, lengthening the top of your ankles. The goal is to reach your feet long on all sides, like this

img_7104

Allison Bartella points foot

If you have high arches and pointing comes naturally to you, great. If your feet barely look different between when you point them and when you flex them, don’t despair. It may take some time, and we can discuss some things to do to help. First, a couple of no-no’s.

1. No sickling – Sickling is when the inner edge of your foot bends inwards. Like this:

Allison Bartella demonstrates a sickled foot for the camera.

See that sickle shape on the inner edge of  Allison’s foot? It’s not only an unnatractive line to the foot and leg, it can create alignment issues, cause injuries and other difficulties. Stephanie’s foot, pictured here:

Dancer Stephanie Shellooe’s pointed foot.

does the opposite of sickling – her foot naturally pushes forward at the ankle, creating a lovely line. Some people call this “winging”. Not everyone has this flexibility in their ankles and I’m not advocating that you aspire to point your feet like Stephanie’s. However, if you have a tendency to sickle, it may help to imagine the front of your ankle yearning forward as you lengthen your toes. I don’t want you to sacrifice lengthened toes to get this shape though, ok? That’s not the goal.  Ideally, you want your foot evenly reaching on all sides for the optimum health of your feet and ankles. After all, they are your foundation, and will affect the alignment of your whole body.

2. No scrunching your toes. Lengthen them out. If your toes naturally bend when you point, this is something to work on at home. With Allison’s foot, (even through her shoe!) you can see her big toe is very straight between her bunion and the tip of her toe. The joint of her big toe reaches long. Instead of bending. Isn’t that cool?

I’ll tell you my story because this is one of the most common dancer injuries, and like many dance injuries, it is avoidable. When I was growing up, my big toe scrunched when I pointed my feet. By the time I was in my teens, pointing my feet made an audible crunching noise in the back of my ankle. It wasn’t painful, it just seemed like one of those ‘weird dancer things’.

A few years ago between ballet, going running and wearing three inch heels to my day job, my ankles started bothering me. The backs of my ankles were painful and swelling and despite icing my feet in ice baths after class, they got worse. Finally, I asked Google.

I found a terrific website called The Ballet Blog, written by a physiotherapist for dancers who is based in Australia. Lisa’s article about FHL tendinopahy was exactly what I needed. I took her advice, and went to a doctor who confirmed the diagnosis with an MRI. Luckily, I was able to get physical therapy at Harkness Center for Dance. (They are great if you ever need a physical therapist.)

What had happened to my foot was the Flexor Hallucis Longus (FHL) tendon, which runs from the big toe under the foot and up through the back of the ankle, had gotten overused over time because of my bending my big toe, causing the tendon to thicken. As it passed through a narrow channel at the back of my ankle, it created so much friction you could hear it! Over many years, the thickened tendon began to cause pain and swelling.

If your big toe bends when you point your feet, remember it took many years for my foot to start having difficulties. But you can also un-learn this bad habit just like I did. You just have to stop squeezing your toes and instead, imagine your feet lengthening. It may take a little concentration. It helped me to use my hands to lengthen my toes as I pointed my foot. Your feet will begin to understand as you mold them with your hands. It is really more challenging for your brain. As you relearn, there are lots of intrinsic little muscles in your feet and ankles that can help do the work of pointing the foot, and Lisa’s video talks more about that. 

How can you improve your point?

As you work on your foot and your point, please be kind to your yourself and to your feet. This isn’t chinese foot binding, it’s the lines of your body and your body is beautiful. I’ve shown pictures of a couple of dancers who have amazing feet so we can all enjoy them, but not because I’m saying if you don’t look like them you are doing it wrong. If energy is going out your feet, then my dear, you are doing it absolutely right. You don’t need perfectly arched feet to dance ballet. You just need need the joy and the desire to dance. That is all ballet or any other dance form requires of you – no matter what anyone tells you. If your feet sickle naturally and it causes problems for you, it may be something you can talk to your doctor or physical therapist about. But gently working with your feet and doing some of these exercises can stregthen and stretch them a lot.

1. Massage the bottoms of your feet with balls can help release tension there. Stepping on the balls with them under your arches can also be helpful releasing the feet.

2. Using your hands to point your feet, massage and manipulate your feet can help release tension along all sides of your foot.

3. My teacher growing up told us to pick up marbles or pencils with our toes to develop the little muscles in our toes and arches.

4. She also told us to do ‘doming’ with our feet. Sit in a chair and put your feet flat on the floor and press down with your toes and lift your arches up as if making a little mouse passageway under your feet.

5. Another exercise is to lift each toe one at a time starting with your big toe until they are all up, then place them down again one at a time starting with your pinky toe, like you are playing the piano with your toes. Or alternate lifting your big toe and putting it down and then lift the other four toes and put them down.

6. Our teacher also had us press the top of our foot on the floor to stretch the front of the ankle joint. Stand and bend your left leg so that you can place the top of the right foot on the floor — the area above your toe knuckles around your metatarsals.  Straighten your left leg and push the top of your foot against the floor with the top of your foot to open your front ankle joint. Don’t just bend your toes down, the idea is to use the top of the foot to help open the front of your ankle joint. If you already have very flexible feet, this one my not be for you. As with all stretches, respect and listen to your body. 

7.  If you get cramps from pointing your feet, be sure to eat a lot of bananas and bend your toes back to stretch your arches. As your feet get stronger, they will cramp less.

8.  Finally, during class, imagine the tops of your ankles opening as you reach your toes long as if you are pushing something away with the top of your pointed foot.

I hope these suggestions and ideas help you work with your feet. Your energy should radiate out your feet reaching them very long. If you are doing that and your toes are reaching long and your ankles are not sickling, you are doing the right thing, no matter how you may judge them, and that really is the whole point.

~ Sarah

If. you like this post or any post on this blog, feel free to let me know by likeing or commenting. (Naturally, if you don’t like them, don’t “like” them.)

Empowerment – Three Small Ways to Build Strength for Ballet

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

img_6921

Have you seen the Wonder Woman movie yet? What are you waiting for? Not only is it a great action film, terrific story, with great touches of humor, but it is overwhelmingly gratifying to watch a powerful, feminine character triumphing. It left me feeling stronger than I’ve felt in a very long time. 

You need to be strong to dance ballet as well as to save the world. Last month I talked about ankle strength, but core strength is also key to ballet. I’m not just talking about engaging deep abdominals, but core hip and back strength as well. 

One thing that makes Diana Prince a great superhero is how she discovers her powers in the moment, reflexively. Strength in ballet is like that too. It is strong without hardness, or gritting your teeth or holding your breath. It’s a solid standing leg when doing a degage or develope or engaging your core in a pirouette. 

There are small ways to improve strength that can make a big difference to your dancing. In rebuilding my strength from being sick for two months, I came across this quote by Dali Lama that seems apt especially this summer: “If you are feeling like small things don’t make much of a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” Here then are three small ways to condition your body to become stronger. 

1. One minute plank. We do planks at my gym, Mark Fisher Fitness. Planks work your arms, shoulders, legs, butt, and abdominals. My goal this month is to start each day with a one minute plank. I did my plank today! How to do a plank: 

  •  Spread and flatten your hands on the floor underneath your shoulders.  If you feel pain in your wrists, put your elbows on the floor under your shoulders instead.
  • Stretch your legs back so that your body is in a line from your head to your heels and come onto the balls of your feet and press your one minute timer. 
  • Press your heels back, Lift your hips and squeeze your butt, tuck your hips under, and hollow your belly into your spine. Imagine you are wearing a belt and you are pointing your belt buckle towards your chin. Open your chest and widen across your collar bones. Breathe! Squeeze your butt and hollow your belly again! 

2. Stand on one foot. Since nearly everything in ballet is done on one leg, practicing standing on one leg with good pelvic alignment (like I learned in physical therapy) can help prepare and strengthen your hips and legs and core, and will improve your balance. In doing this you may notice one leg is more wobbly (weaker) than the other. Doing this every day will help even that out. The beauty of it is you can do it while brushing your teeth or doing the dishes or any time you are standing and waiting!

  • Stand with your feet parallel. Check that your pelvis isn’t tucked under or tilted back. Zip up your lower abdomen, stand up tall and transfer your weight to one foot.
  • Make sure your hips are level right and left as well as front to back. I’m working towards three minutes on each leg. 
  • Try it with your eyes closed which makes balancing a lot harder. 

3. Baby Cobra  If you’ve been to a yoga class, you may know this one already. It’s an amazing way to strengthen your back and abdominals. Yes, a strong back will also help your pirouettes. 

  • Lie on your stomach with your legs together, turned parallel, so that you feel your toenails on the floor and stretch your legs back behind you. 
  • Lift and hollow your lower belly away from the floor. Keep that abdominal support, so that you bend in your upper, not lower back as you do this. 
  • Put your hands on the floor next to your ribcage and peel your shoulders and chest up off the floor. 
  • Drop your chin to keep your head in line with your spine and lengthen out the top of your head and out your legs and feet. 
  • Come down and rest and try it again. The second time after you come up, take your hands off the floor and hold the position using the muscles in your belly and upper back. 

    By strengthening your abs, hips and back, you create an intrinsic strength that will help you balance, work better on one leg, hold your alignment, and be more efficient when you move. Take that out into your daily life and pay attention to how you hold your body. How you sit, stand, walk, cross or uncross your legs, (keep them uncrossed!) and on which shoulder you hold your bag (alternate!) makes a big difference when you get into the studio. Your body will get stronger by consistent positive actions and exercises even if they seem small, making you stronger and more capable to do all that is required of you in ballet and in the world. 

    ~Sarah

    Join me for ballet class! This Saturday, August 5th, 2017 ONLY, class will be held from 1-2:30 in the front studio, not 12-1:30 because of a leak in the back studio. Class donations start st $10 on Saturdays–half the price of a regular ballet class!!  I also teach Tuesday 7-8pm. $10 suggested donation. We are located at 380 Broadway, 5th floor. See you there! 

    ‘Break a Leg’ ~  Why Dancers Say ‘Merde’

    Tags

    , , , , , ,

    Cast of Any Which Way Thou Wouldst Have It


    Tonight is opening night for a play I joined just over a week ago. It’s been a whirlwind last two weeks and I’m  excited for the opportunity to play onstage with my fellow actors.

    As you may know, performers are superstitious. I think it’s because so many things can go horribly wrong in a live performance with disastrous or hilarious results. Props that disappear, music that comes in wrong or late, costume malfunctions, dance steps missed, lines dropped, cues missed, the list is endless. A good show has to do with endless preparation, and a lot of collaboration with a LOT of different people. How it all comes together so beautifully is the magic of theatre, and perhaps a bit of luck. 

    When actors are going on stage to perform, it is considered bad luck to wish each other “Good Luck”, for fear of tempting fate, so the saying is “Break a Leg”. However for dancers, that prospect sounds too risky. I was always told that Ballet started in Paris and that was the reason for saying “merde”, which is French for ‘shit’. But its origin is more likely because in the vaudeville shows, the animals acts came before the dancers, and calling out “merde” to a fellow dancer was a warning not to step in it. 

    Please come see my show, and please wish me ‘merde’. 

    When Lord Harry Hackensack’s salacious afternoon diversions are interrupted by a visit from Madame Matriarch, a devious plot is put into play to quickly wed Young Thomas and Miss Gwendolyn so both will lose their inheritance and each other. To be sure the gossip gets out, Lord Harry invites the press “off the record”, along with a questionable “Captain” Roger to perform the ceremony. Roger and Gwendolyn’s “maid” of honor, Priscilla have instant chemistry and hilarity ensues. But once married and penniless, what will become of the idealistic couple? And who will end up with the inheritance? In a plot that whirls every character into a tangled intrigue of sex, gender, matrimony, and parentage, which way will it all end up?

    American Theatre for Actors at 314 West 54th Street, 2nd floor. Friday and Saturday and 8pm, Saturday and Sunday at 3pm. Shows run until July 23. 

    This weekend Only $9 on TDF: https://www.tdf.org/nyc/84/Available-Shows 

    Or for $20 (originally $50!) with the code SARAHD: http://anywhichwaythouwouldhaveit.com/ 

    Merde is french for poo, it’s true,
    The reason to say it is this:

    “Break a leg” is what actors say,
    For “Good luck!” will make it lacked.
    And though all dancers want good luck,
    They want their legs intact!


    If saying bad will make it good,
    And ballet began in France,
    Though what it means is not so clean,
    It’s what we say for dance.

    See you at the show!

    ~ Sarah

    Also hope to see you at the barre! I will be teaching Tuesdays 7-8pm (except for July 4th) and Saturdays 12-1:30pm 380 Broadway. Classes are $10. Just bring yourself. 



    Strengthening Ankles and Calves

    Tags

    , , , , , ,

    ss123116sd_132-ankle-12-e1497671218465.jpg

    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!