I am a ballerina.
You may think you know me. You may think that I am a tutu, sparkly tiara, pink tights and pointe shoes; ethereal. You might think that I am fragile like a flower. I am not. I am strong.
When I decided to become a ballerina I had no idea what that actually meant. My passion for ballet burned brightly - I knew I would do whatever it would take to get those pointe shoes and tutu! But what I didn’t know was how hard it would be mentally and physically. The path to becoming a ballerina would build me and fill my heart more than I could have dreamed. Becoming a ballerina meant becoming me.
Ballet dancers must make everything they do look effortless despite the immense strength it takes to master the technique of ballet. I start talking to my students about strength in my Primary Ballet Class ages 5-7. Primary Ballet is a fast-paced 60 minute class, and we begin to teach them the foundational technique of ballet. This class requires more focus and more endurance than Pre-Primary Class. The dancers become aware they are using their muscles to dance and become more in-tune with their bodies. In this age group more than any other, the dancers express the sensations they are feeling in their bodies and how they change from one moment to the next. They will say: “Miss Amy I’m hot, I’m cold, I’m thirsty, I’m tired.” I acknowledge how they are feeling, but I also start talking to them about professionalism: how they will become aware of these feelings, but they can’t just go off stage to get a drink of water in the middle of the performance or leave a combination in class to grab a sweater. They have to be able to acknowledge the feeling but need to remain focused and dance their parts. To achieve artistry, they have to begin building strength mentally and physically to push through what their minds and bodies are telling them.
Mental strength is crucial. Mentally, there is a long checklist that runs through a dancer’s mind. They need to remember their choreography, time their steps with musicality, express their character to their audience, and continuously acknowledge what every part of their body is doing and feeling. It is underestimated how much strength it takes to be graceful and athletic.
Being a healthy dancer means you believe in yourself and your own unique gifts. For example, in ballet class, a dancer is surrounded by other beautiful dancers in front of large mirrors. It is so easy to go down the slippery path of comparison. This path is perilous because it can lead you to self-doubt and to undervalue your own unique gifts. I personally have overcome tough moments when that voice in my head made me think I was not good enough; that I was fooling myself into thinking I could be a real ballerina.
A quote that really helps me is:
“A flower does not think of competing to the flower next to it. It just blooms.”~ Zen Shin
I love this quote because it makes me think of a little flower seed, yet to blossom. How sad would it be if that seed didn’t realize its potential to grow into a flower? One flower joins others until a breathtaking field of beautiful flowers appears! That is how a ballet company should be. It is important for a dance teacher to create a healthy learning environment. The teacher must build support between dancers in an environment that nurtures healthy competition. Ballerinas must not compete against each other; the competition is within. Ballet dancers win when their personal evolution gains strength every day.
Our body is our instrument and requires care and tuning just like any other tool. Weekly ballet class is necessary to build a proper foundation of strength, stamina and technique. Professional dancers spend hours each day practicing, often doing repetitive movements to perfect a piece of choreography. While this is essential to creating the quality of movement, it is also repetitive working of specific muscles. This repetition can cause the muscles to become overused or worse, injured. Therefore, cross-training is equally important for dancer health and for overall strength and balancing of the body.
Pilates is a great complimentary option because it strengthens your core and helps train correct body alignment. Having core strength and alignment allows for the movement to come from the correct places which allows that movement to happen with ease. Pilates targets specific muscle groups so you can really determine which areas are weak and then hone in to strengthen them. Pilates can reach those deep, intricate muscles that a ballet dancer needs to access for proper technique.
I asked my fellow ballerina and Pilates instructor with Pilates in Kalamazoo, Briana Asmus to show us some basic exercises we can do to warm up our core. It really helped me to feel my areas of weakness and where I need to strengthen especially during the plank segment. I could feel the benefit of being able to hold the pose correctly. I love these exercises that Briana shows us, and we hope you will give them a try! If you have any questions or to sign up for Pilates classes, please contact Briana at: email@example.com
Please note: the plank movement should be done when you are properly warmed up mid-class or workout.
I read a very inspiring book "With Ballet in My Soul: Adventures of a Globetrotting Impresario", a Memoir by Eva Maze. Eva Maze is now in her nineties, and I love how she looked back to see how the decisions she made fit together like puzzle pieces to lead her to be who she was meant to be. Eva always dreamed of becoming a ballerina, but when she was young, she was diagnosed with Scarlet Fever. She recovered from her illness but was not able to continue her ballet training. Her mental and physical strength, along with a determined spirit, pushed her to become one of the most successful theatrical impresarios in war-torn Europe. “With Ballet in My Soul” is a memoir I know I will refer to when I need a reminder of my own path and strengths. Her photos in the book made me feel connected to her story, and I long to have my own experiences so well-lived and to share in her wisdom. I am so grateful Eva Maze shared her story with us. Eva Maze’s memoir "With Ballet in My Soul: Adventures of a Globetrotting Impresario" is set to be released in Spring 2017, published by Moonstone Press LLC. Purchase here.
One last thought: last April, I attended the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Teacher Training Intensive in Seattle. I was able to watch company class. One thing I found so beautiful about this company’s dancers was their strength bolstered by their individuality. I could see their strong muscles and their athleticism working together to drive their graceful movements. It was incredible and inspiring to watch.
They were healthy, they were strong. They were ballerinas.
Be one too.