Ballet Workout Number Four

I’m already on number four? Unbelievable!

I forgot my towel, but hey, this isn’t a sweaty workout, so I’m sure I’ll be fine. It’s about stretching and poise, right?

Within 10 minutes I’m eating my words. The leg raising exercises seem more complicated this time around, especially when I’m on my knees, trying to maintain elegant positions of everything that’s not in the air while coordinating that which is. The angles to which our trainer can bend herself are mind-blowing. And she talks at the same time, while I try, again, to breathe in and out correctly, and not giggle from slight nerves.

“Other way,” she says suddenly. I would have jumped, being startled, but I can’t, because I’m on my back. One leg is bent at the knee, the other is stretched out behind me, and I’m supposed to reach around my side with one arm and try to touch the (almost) straight leg. “The other way,” our trainer repeats. I start awkwardly rearranging my legs, trying to look like I do this on a daily basis. “No, no, your legs are in the correct position, it’s your head, your head, look the other way!” OH.

Just the evening before, my friend and I had been talking about how nice it was that you could get used to things in the class without being watched or called out (I have no problem with instructions, I’m just attached to my own headspace for a while before I can process them properly). But since we are markedly fewer participants today, we are there to see and be seen.

And seen we are. Details emerge, like how to hold your elbows during the warm-up arm wavy arm movements I like to do so much. It’s easier to distinguish ourselves in the mirror and therefore we’re more in sync as Tchaikovsky plays in the background. We’re our own little ballet company.

My abs, or what currently passes for them, are groaning in protest, but I do my best, sweat trickling down my face, managing not to pant. This time my choreography bit in the end is not half bad and I feel nicely ironed out when class ends.


Ballet Workout Number Three

Today’s ballet workout was, simply put, so good.

I had made some improvements after my last class. It turns out the bun you twist your long hair into either needs to be high up on your head or it needs to be flatter, coiled elegantly against the back, most likely secured with pins (not too skilled in this area and might get overwhelmed by a YouTube tutorial).

I made these logical conclusions all on my own after not being able to lay my head down properly when we did exercises from the back. As a result you end up feverishly sticking your hair up in a sloppy scramble, while trying to stretch your legs up in the air and pay attention to when you’re supposed to be breathing in and out. Today I came with a side braid! Problem solved! So what if some of it comes out behind my ears. I’m a primadonna and there’s no stopping me.

I also ordered a pair of ballet slip-ons on Amazon, after seeing them on other women in the group. The product info lists a tip suggesting I order a size larger, so I do. As soon as they arrive, nude-colored and with extra leather pads sewn on the soles, and I put them on, I understand. While stretchy and bendy, they sit snugly on the foot and my own size would definitely have been too tight a fit. As I walk out of the changing rooms to wait until the gym opens, I see some of the participants in socks glancing at my footwear the way I did during my first ballet workout. Look and learn!

The shoes are a better solution for me than socks and, to me, my stretched out feet look better in the mirror, further inflaming my romanticized ballerina fantasies, which is, of course, why I picked a ballet workout in the first place.

The trainer from my first class appears, red lipstick, bright smile, neatly coiled hair and black exercise clothes. SHE does everything in socks, but then she also bends forward from a sitting position three times further than I do, while giving us instructions on how to breathe and what to do. The by now more familiar French terms sprinkle the workout session and it feels good to stretch properls. Bits from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty play, the sparkling beauty of the music mixing with the sound of all of us breathing in and blowing out.

Slight crunching sounds accompany our almost in-sync pliés and we are told to not go deeper than we can. There are more participants this time and I can’t quite see our instructor, so I end up copying the movements of a girl I recognize from my first ballet workout, the one in serious-looking rehearsing-dancer-inspired gear. She’s clearly good at this, and it also turns out she has a friendly face.

I mess up the minor choreography in the end again – how do you switch between the tendus properly? But I love all the arm movements accompanying the sequence. I am a star, I AM the ballet, I’m… Oh, class is over. We clap. Just like at the end of any good performance.

Ballet Workout Number Two

Today’s workout is kicking my butt… Actually, no, my butt is fine, but other parts of my body, like what I thought were my non-existent abs (surprise!) or my arms are feeling the burn. Welcome to ballet workout number two. I’m doing this thing!

Once again, I’m not doing actual ballet, I’m doing a ballet workout, which incorporates elements of ballet training (on a very minor scale for us beginners with possibly no previous physical ballet experience). But it’s fun to see family and friends’ eyes light up when I mention this type of exercise, and whenever I raise my arms above my head, “I feel pretty, oh so pretty”. Bring it on!

The trainer is different this time and there is no classical music. The routine also varies a little, but that’s fine, because all the magazines tell you it’s good to “switch it up” and “go for variety” as far as your workout is concerned. We start with standing warm-ups and exercises. That childhood question, “How long can you stand on your tippy-toes?” is quickly answered as we’re instructed to do so. Can I? Yes. Can I raise one leg while doing so? Hell no.

But I’m not to be deterred. In my blissful headspace, I look like this:

In reality the trainer notices me discreetly lower my outstretched arms to my hips when we do various combinations of tendu and plie (quick French lessons included in workout!). “Yes, yes, do that to control yourselves, to see where your back is!” she calls out encouragingly. I hope my back is where it’s supposed to be, though I need a few seconds to decipher what “Bellybutton towards your spine!” means. Additional interesting statements include “You have an apple between your chin and your chest!” and “There is a glass of water standing on your back that you need to keep upright!” Well, then, I would be soaked, because my butt is sticking up in the air like someone is pulling it up by a wire. I think I’m just too tall for anything nearing push-up status.

We lie on our backs and are asked to stretch one leg upwards, then grab the back of our calves with our hands and stretch. I just manage to get past my knee and know that there is no way I will make the rest of the distance. I turn my head to look at the floor-length mirrors covering the opposite wall, and spot one bent leg, like a grasshopper, sticking out among a sea of straight ones. Yep, me again, blazing my own trail. What do these women do? Is it because most of them are shorter than me? Do they have decades of yoga behind them?

And another thing. Trainers might look just like you when they enter the gym, but then they start doing exercises, all while talking and explaining them, and you realize they are either aliens or unicorns.

The stretching takes care of the kinks I brought along from a week at my day job and I order some ballet slippers (not shoes) for the next class. Because that’s what I do now, this workout thing and this workout gear stuff.

Swan Lake

The swan is dying. I know she is, and so does everyone else! Carefully, daintily she skitters across the stage en pointe. I don’t know where the ballerina ends and the swan begins. Her arms rise and fall, and I almost see white wings fluttering, perhaps in a futile attempt to fly again. Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s music, both tragic and releasing at the same time, glides around her movements, then folds, just as gently as she finally does on the ground.
This past holiday season has breathed new life in to a long-standing interest of mine: classical Russian ballet. Childhood memories have sustained me all these years, memories of fairytale images, breath-taking performances, bordering on the impossible in their light-limbed, dashing perfection. Memories of sweeping, encompassing tragedy, romance, joy, and oh so much drama. Sometimes over the years I saw parts of well-known classics integrated in to other modern ballets. Other times I would listen to that Tchaikovsky score from The Nutcracker on repeat. And then, by chance, I went to see a performance of Swan Lake by the St. Petersburg Festival Ballet, on tour in Hamburg.
There seems to be only one school of such almost mythical ballet excellence, and it was established in the 19th century with a Russian-French fusion that included the enduring choreography of Marius Petipa. His work extended to Swan Lake, among other ballets. It’s amazing to think how long this foundation has lasted, even if individual companies bring their own touch and spin on the story, performance length and costumes. Paired with Tchaikovsky’s soaring score, in each scene the music makes you think that this soundtrack could not have sounded differently, but only like the notes that are seeping in to your mind as you are drawn to the shore of the swan lake.
Some of the most magical parts of Swan Lake are when Odette makes a solo entrance. To me this character has always conveyed strength and a certain resolve within the confines of the swan curse. The expected physical endurance of the dancer for this role has to be carefully combined with so many other characteristics – poise, grace, fragility that doesn’t seem breakable. She has to be able to express fear, curiousity, hope, despair. As in the performances I remember from long ago, that night in Hamburg a true prima ballerina carried Odette along the water. An example of a dance (from a different version):
 The music, of course, has accompanied my cultural experience in different ways, considering its enormous influence all over the world, from what I heard on the radio to an animated version based on the story, with a lot of quotable quotes. Anybody remember? (Don’t watch the sequel, it will tarnish the blissful experience if you enjoyed the first one as a kid.)
 Back from the brief humorous reminiscence. It is nice to begin experiencing Russian ballet again as an adult. It’s also interesting – you notice things you may not have noticed before. For instance, I remember the story going along until it finished, even if the audience couldn’t keep from clapping explosively after practically every dance. The ensemble from St. Petersburg, on the other hand, paused after every famous scene and seemed to almost expect applause. Which they fully deserved, but it did break up the experience somewhat. The magical feeling I remember is still attached to the ensemble I have seen as a child. Maybe it’s because they had that one absolutely amazing dancer, and so far she has been the only one I’ve seen who got close to reenacting legendary Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova’s wavy, rippling arm movements as Odette dances her swan song before death claims her:
 There is only one Ulanova, true, but there are also, luckily, others who take on the role of Odette and bring their own uniqueness to it, within the traditional dance framework that keeps attracting audiences decade after decade.
I hold my breath. Every eye is glued to the stage. The swan lies motionless. And then…well. Let’s leave it at that.
The curtain drops on the swan lake.
Until next time.