Same feet, but different shoes... Josephine Lee of the California-based ThePointeShop interviews Milwaukee Ballet dancers and identical twin sisters Elizabeth Harrison and Marie Harrison-Collins to find out all of their pointe shoe hacks, proving once and for all just how individual each dancer's pointe shoe preferences are.
After a year (or more) of virtual classes, it's finally time to unplug and head back to the studio.
Exciting? Absolutely. A little scary? Definitely.
For Valerie Diamond, a 62-year-old dancer in San Francisco, California, the nervousness wasn't something she could easily shake. Even though Marin Ballet, where she takes class, resumed its in-person classes for adults in early May, Diamond had reservations about taking the big leap back, especially after dancing in a 4-by-4–foot space for 15 months.
"I survived my first class back without injury," she says, "but I felt like I had no stamina and jumping was really an effort."
In the last few months, Diamond's read a lot about how professionals and pre-professional students are getting back into shape, but she feels adult recreational dancers don't have the same guidance on what to do—and what not to do—before stepping onto that marley floor in what seems like forever.
"No one is really watching out for you the way they would be if you were a professional dancer," she says. "It really is scary. I want to do it in an intelligent way where I can make sure that I don't get injured, particularly with the jumps."
Haruka Tamura, an adult ballet teacher at Brookline Ballet in Massachusetts, says starting out slowly is key.
"You will be very excited and probably want to do a lot of things full-out, but your body might not be able to adjust. Just take it easy," she advises.
Tamura says those first few weeks back are not the time to challenge yourself (such as by jumping into an advanced class when you've only taken the intermediate level). Everything will seem different—your stamina, the space and even the floors. It's critical to give yourself time to adjust.
"Just do whatever you're familiar with," says Tamura. That familiarity will give your body the chance to keep up.
Kester Cotton, a physical therapist and the dance program coordinator at Spaulding Outpatient Center in Wellesley, Massachusetts, suggests dance-specific floor exercises to ease yourself back to a traditional class.
"Do floor alignment-type exercises where you work your turnout," he says. "Lying on your back, lying on your side, and lying on your stomach." He suggests trying these exercises demonstrated by Dutch National Ballet soloist YuanYuan Zhang, or these shown by Jurgita Dronina, lead principal at The National Ballet of Canada.
Cotton explains that the ability to balance well on one foot with your eyes first open and then closed and on an unstable surface like a stack of pillows are great for gauging your balance.
He suggests trying this series of exercises:
- Single-leg balance (30 seconds to one minute, eyes open and eyes closed)
- Single-leg calf raise (25 to 30 reps)
- Single-leg squat (15 reps)
- Single-leg hop (15 reps)
"If any of these skills on one leg are really deficient, chances are you're going to have a problem when you start jumping in the studio," he says.
Increased cardiovascular exercise can also help. Cotton recommends heart-rate boosters such as elliptical training, spinning/cycling, using a rowing machine and, if you're up for it, running. However, he warns, "running can be high impact and requires good technique to reap the cardio benefits without causing other musculoskeletal problems."
If you're new to cardio (or just getting back into it), start with 10 to 15 minutes, three times a week, for six weeks. After a couple of months, you can gradually increase the duration of workouts to 30 to 45 minutes, three to five times a week with a steady training goal for about 150 minutes per week.
Haruka Tamura leads an adult class at Brookline Ballet.
Shahrzad Sajadi, Courtesy Brookline Ballet
Easing Into Class
For students like Diamond, who haven't done grand allégro (her favorite), pirouettes or piqué and chaîné turns in months, moving across the floor again can be daunting. She recalls one virtual class that ended, well, not like she would have liked: "We did try something with fouetté turns one day and I literally fell on the floor. And the teacher was like, 'Okay, maybe we shouldn't be doing that.'"
She's considering just marking allégro exercises two days a week, and jumping on the other days. Teachers and therapists say do what feels right, but just go slowly.
Alonzo King LINES Dance Center's Kathy Mata is still strictly teaching online classes (LINES plans to resume in-studio and hybrid classes in July). She's working remotely with students on how to best prep for returning to the studio, especially when it comes to big movements across the floor.
Alonzo King LINES Ballet Center faculty member Kathy Mata (right) with an adult student
Stephen Texeira, Courtesy LINES Ballet
"Grand allégro should be approached slowly," she says, progressing from small jumps and single petit allégro. "Steps like temps levé in arabesque and balancé en tournant are a very good place to start, then working up to faille assemblé to learn to drive your body forward."
As for what to steer clear of, Mata says movements like grand jeté and tour jeté should be avoided, since the landing has to be precise and well-placed.
Staying safe by starting slow is the best way to ensure an injury-free return to class. It's also important to get out of your head a bit.
"Be kind to yourself as you're easing back into the studio," Cotton says. "It can be easy to be too analytical about it. Be grateful for being able to be back in the studio, and just go dance."
Diamond is thrilled to do exactly that—and to see her ballet buddies again.
"Just the experience of dancing together is really important. And it's what movement is all about."
Chisako Oga has already experienced so much in her short career. In one year, she went from being a San Francisco Ballet apprentice to a principal dancer at Cincinnati Ballet. Now, she's spreading her wings at Boston Ballet, where she's currently a soloist. In our May/June digital cover story, Oga talks about handling high-stakes pressure, from international ballet competitions to leading roles, as well as career disappointments. Through it all, she's managed to stay laser-focused on her goals while maintaining a healthy attitude and work–life balance. "The pandemic put things in perspective," she says. "Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life."
Now you can have a chance to hear more about Oga's training and career path, ask for her advice, and much more in our exclusive virtual conversation. Click here to register for free with your questions. Then join us for a Zoom Q&A with Oga on Tuesday, June 29, at 4 pm EDT!
"Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life" Gives a Vivid Portrayal of the Working Dancer
Before reading her excellent memoir, Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life (University Press of Florida, $26.95), I'd never heard of Gavin Larsen. She isn't a famous superstar ballerina with a first-tier company promising revelations of juicy celebrity gossip and salacious liaisons. She has no rags-to-riches history, no heartbreaking backstory of overcoming great odds. She was, in fact, a hard-working, successful, very skilled professional ballerina for 18 years, retiring in 2010 as principal of Oregon Ballet Theatre, with previous stints including Pacific Northwest Ballet, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet and Alberta Ballet.
And her story is all the more engrossing for its vivid portrayal of the "everyday" ballerina, making it relevant and resonant for a multitude of dancers who aspire to a professional dancing life. As she documents the discipline, dedication and sheer stamina that life in the ballet world requires, she traces a journey of transforming craft into art.
Courtesy University Press of Florida
Larsen lays the groundwork of her early years in third person, giving the narrative an appealing novelistic quality. (Since retiring from dance Larsen has embarked on a writing career, and is a frequent contributor to Pointe.) We see her transform from a shy 8-year-old faking her way through her first ballet class at New York School of Ballet, through her audition for and acceptance into the School of American Ballet, to her first Nutcracker performance and her determination at 16 to "unleash the dancer beast within…bursting out of her skin with furiously red-hot technical prowess."
As she enters professional life, Larsen throws light on the business of ballet, "the show must go on" ethos, dancing through fatigue and injury. She illuminates the reality of the day-to-day, from the morning stretching regimen, to the grind of living in pointe shoes eight hours a day during back-to-back classes and rehearsals, to the magic of performance. Her deft writing portrays a sly wit and a refreshing lack of self-importance, describing treacherous "puddles of sweat on the stage" in performance. "Like slugs, dancers leave paths of slime behind them."
She delves into overcoming the mental challenges of self-imposed doubt, the worry of not living up to one's own standards, and the fear of physical failure, capturing the frailty of the aging body in a field in which one misstep can be career-ending. "We balance ourselves on the brink of disaster and taunt the rules of physics because that is the only way to truly dance. Our only safety nets are our bodies, training and courage."
Larsen met those challenges with a laserlike single-mindedness and focus, largely forgoing a rich social life for a more self-described monastic lifestyle of routine and regularity. Yet she also describes an incredibly rich network of support, from her fellow dancers to the dedicated crew of people who enable the magic of performance.
Larsen with Artur Sultanov in Balanchine's Duo Concertant at Oregon Ballet Theatre.
Blaine Covert, Courtesy University Press of Florida
Throughout, Larsen never loses sight of the exhilaration of dance. She describes how the power of music could turn an exercise into a moment of "pure, ecstatic joy." She expresses deep appreciation for a skilled, attentive partner during the intimacy and intricacy of a pas de deux. She captures one memorable performance with movingly heartfelt sincerity: "…suddenly, at the height of the lift and on that one magnificent note, everything was crystal clear: this is the apex of life. This is the happiest a person on earth can be. This is perfection."