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Debunking Ballet Myths

 

While many people admire ballet as art form, it’s also often criticized. Unhealthy body image is one of the most common complaints. But are these criticisms based on reality or myth? Let’s examine some of the most common ballet myths and see what’s real:

1. All ballet dancers are anorexic.

The average professional ballet dancer spends anywhere from five to eight hours each day dancing their butts off; imagine how slim you would be if you exercised that much! Ballet also naturally creates longer, leaner lines in the body, unlike other athletic pursuits such as running, which create bulkier muscles. Although they are slender, most dancers are health-conscious—they have to be in order to have enough energy to get through their long, active days…although their busy schedules mean they snack throughout the day as opposed to eating huge meals (it’s hard to be light on your feet with a full belly!).

2. If you want to be a professional ballet dancer you have to start taking ballet classes early, like when you are still in the womb.

Just look at ballet superstar Misty Copeland; her story will burn that myth right out of your head. Copeland didn’t begin taking ballet classes until she was thirteen, yet in 2007 she made dance history when she became the third African American female soloist (and the first in two decades) at American Ballet Theater. Another classmate of mine at the School of American Ballet didn’t begin ballet until she was twelve but later went on to dance with New York City Ballet.

3. All male ballet dancers are gay. There are certainly a lot of good-looking men in ballet but just because they put on tights doesn’t mean there aren’t some hot-blooded heterosexuals in the mix. The real-life partnership between New York City Ballet principal dancers Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck is not just one of the most romantic love stories in ballet history (teen sweethearts, drama, breakup(s) and a happy ending when Fairchild proposed in Paris), it is one of the most prominent ballet marriages today. Other well-known ballet couples include San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancers Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan, Boston Ballet principals Carlos Molina and Erica Cornejo and Nelson Madrigal and Lorna Feijoo, Ballet West soloists Easton Smith and Haley Henderson. Still not convinced? Rent “The Turning Point” (a classic ballet film) and watch Baryshnikov make his moves.

4. You have to be a twig if you want to be a ballet dancer. While this was true during the Balanchine era, perspectives on dancers’ bodies is changing dramatically and today’s dancers are more muscular and feminine. Take a look at the lineup of dancers from companies like LINES Ballet, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Ballet Black. English National Ballet Artistic Director Tamara Rojo recently made it known that she’s not interested in employing underweight ballerinas. Ballet dancers such as Kathryn Morgan, a former New York City Ballet soloist, St. Paul Ballet dancer Brittany Adams and New York City Ballet veteran Jennifer Ringer are becoming more vocal about promoting a healthy body image. If you want to delve deeper on the issue, check outStrength and Beauty,” a documentary about ballerinas’ personal accounts of dealing with issues like weight.

 

5. Ballet dancers are weak, timid girlie girls who love anything pink. If that were true, why are droves of football players signing up for ballet? Headliner Steve McLendon of the Pittsburgh Steelers says, “ballet is harder than anything else I do”. Ballet dancers are not delicate little flowers, nor is ballet easy. It’s actually enormously difficult both physically AND mentally. A dancer has to remember several ballets’ worth of choreography at any given time PLUS be strong enough to leap, turn, grande battement, and relevé for (sometimes) HOURS on end.

balletGirls

6. Pointe hurts. Stretching hurts.

It doesn’t hurt if you’re doing it right! Well, okay, pointe shoes sometimes hurt when you wear them day after day for hours at a time. But dancers build up their flexibility and foot strength over time. It’s a process where things progress slowly. Beginning pointe classes, for instance, are very brief. If things hurt, it’s time to slow down or back off and if you experience pain when you’re stretching it’s actually a clear indication that you’re pushing things too far.

7. Ballet dancers naturally dance well at parties and nightclubs. Just because someone is a ballet dancer does not mean they’ll be a hit on the dance floor at your next party. Trust me; these are two very different types of dancing. In fact, ballet is so regimented and precise that it’s difficult for ballet dancers to cut loose. It’s much more likely they’ll resemble a spastic electrocuted chicken on the dance floor.

8.All female ballet dancers are ballerinas. Typical cocktail party conversation: “Oh, I didn’t know that you were a ballerina!” Um, I’m not. I’m a ballet dancer. Only the highest-ranking female dancers in a ballet company are ranked as ballerinas. The corps and soloist dancers in the company are not ranked as ballerinas yet.

9. Since ballet terms are French all ballet dancers speak fluent French. Sadly, no ( je suis desolée). Just because ballet terms are in French does not mean that we speak French fluently, nor is there any guarantee that our pronunciation incredible…or even correct.

10. Ballet dancers are not the brightest bulbs in the pack. Refer to item number 5 above, for how much dancers have to remember (A LOT). This skill also serves dancers well in school, since more dancers are choosing take college courses in the midst of their dance careers, with the blessings of top ballet companies including American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet (who offer scholarship money to their dancers). Boston Ballet recently teamed up with Northeastern University to offer a program to help dancers earn their degrees while they are dancing. The university’s flexible schedule accommodates dancers’ routines and the company’s scholarship fund covers up to 80% of tuition…which means there are a lot of brainiacs on pointe out there.

As you can see, most myths don’t stand up to investigation. Whether your attitude towards ballet is “love it” or “leave it”, you can now make an educated choice.

Bunheads 101: How to be a ballet dancer…or just look like one

It’s easy to pick a dancer out of a crowd. You know what I mean: dancers have that certain je ne sais crois, key traits like grace and poise that separate them from everyone else.Whether you’re a ballet dancer-in-training or simply wish you were a dancer, here’s how to get the the look.

The posture: Imagine you have a metal rod running through the core of your body that keeps the spine ramrod-straight. Reach the crown of the head towards the sky to create length in the spine while keeping the chin high. Pay special attention to the area around the neck and shoulders: press the shoulders down away from the ears to create the illusion of a long, swan-like neck.

Photo © Alexey Yakovlev

Photo © Alexey Yakovlev

The walk: focus on maintaining an outward rotation in the hips, which will cause the feet to splay at a forty-five degree angle in the classic dancer duckwalk. Suck in the gut, tuck the buttocks under and cinch the shoulder blades together, broadening the chest. Swing the arms gracefully and move quickly—like there’s no time to waste as you hurry off to your next rehearsal.

The hairdo: Slick the hair back into a high ponytail, taking special care to tame any and all stray flyaway strands. It is imperative that every hair lies flat against the skull so use gel, mousse or pomade if necessary. Separate the ponytail into two sections and tug firmly to ratchet the ponytail into a high and tight position. Twist the ponytail until it begins to curl around itself; continue twisting as you coil the hair into a bun. Wrap the tail end under the bun and secure in place with bobby pins. To complete the look a hairnet is mandatory! Be sure to choose the shade that most closely matches your hair color. Cover bun and pin in place. Shellac the whole hairdo with a liberal shower of hairspray.

The outfit: All clothing must be chosen with movement in mind. Shoot for a cotton lycra blend or go for something feminine and flowing. Choose pants or leggings with a fit that accentuates those leg muscles. Tops should be gauzy, filmy, or ruffled, A-line, clingy, silky, or stretchy. Extra points for cut-outs, off-the-shoulder, elaborate embroidery, and yummy textures.

Alexandra Danilova 1948 ©Carl Van Vechten

Alexandra Danilova 1948 ©Carl Van Vechten

The bag: Find the largest bag you own. A tote or duffel bag is preferred if you are going for authenticity. Stuff the bag liberally with enough long-sleeve shirts, t-shirts, leotards and tights to last for several days. Additional mandatory items include: warm-up clothes, protein bars, water bottle, medical tape, band-aids, ace bandage(s), gel toe pads, hairbrush, hairspray, stray bobby pins, make up bag, mp3 player with headphones, sewing kit, emergency feminine hygiene kit, deodorant, pointe shoes, ballet slippers, TheraBand, wooden foot roller, tennis balls or other massage tool, tiger balm, lip balm, toothbrush and toothpaste. Extra points if you have pink toe-shoe ribbons dangling over the edge of your bag.

The accessories: This is your chance to go wild and add a bit of your unique personality to the look. Remember that sparkle and glitz is always better. Hair accessories with fake flowers and/or feathers and rhinestones add flair; be certain they are secured firmly so they don’t fly out during turns. Earrings are another way to add some sparkle; choose a pair that won’t catch on hair or clothing. During the colder months, add fingerless gloves or wrist warmers to add color and texture to what you are wearing.

MarieTaglioni

Follow these simple rules and you are on your way to looking like a true bunhead.

Truth or Fiction in Writing: WISH countdown day #5

A lot of writers include details from their lives or use them as reference when they’re writing fiction. Haven’t you ever wondered where some ideas come from… or if some of the stuff was real? Here is a taste of some of the complex moments of WISH and the breakdown of whether or not I’m telling it like it really happened.

true-false

Indigo runs into a beautiful boy in the most embarrassing way. There were plenty of times I ran into a boy in an embarrassing way but never in this particular way. Like Indigo, I have had plenty of ridiculously clumsy encounters with boys, including the time a guy I liked turned around just in time to witness my dance partner knock my tiara off my head while simultaneously ruining my perfect hairdo. However, more often than not my clumsiness was the subtle, verbally tongue-tied variety.

Indigo fills in last minute for a performance due to another dancer’s freak injury. This did happen, much like the way it’s described in WISH. There were hours of learning the part while dodging the furniture in my friend’s living room. Sadly, unlike the book, there were no chocolate chip cookies involved. Many years later the situation was almost reversed when I became injured a couple of days before a performance. I was super upset because the performance was supposed to be my first ever professional appearance in New York and I had a solo. For several days it was touch and go and I was completely angst-ridden but I healed just in time.

Indigo intervenes when Mom lashes out in a life-threatening way. Sadly, yes, this did happen. Which is one of the biggest reasons I wrote the book. I know the difficulties of growing up in an alcoholic family firsthand: it isn’t easy and it isn’t pretty. This type of occurrence is very common and it’s easy to feel powerless when a parent is an addict or doing something dangerous. Some situations demand that we take action.

Bitchy rivalry with another dancer at the ballet studio. Luckily, this never happened, which doesn’t mean there wasn’t rivalry. It was just much more subtle and unspoken. Ballet is a competitive environment by nature because there are always so many people vying for the same thing, whether it’s a solo, a company contract, or a spot in the center of the floor. This subtle rivalry usually played out as palpable tension in the room during class or playful, snarky repartee in the dressing room. Although there once was this epic confrontation in the elevator one day…

The end-of-summer beach bbq flirtation. Indigo remembers this in flashback when she runs into the guy she was flirting with that night. This did happen… but not exactly like this. In my real-life case, this flirtation lead to more flirtations on numerous other occasions, which lead to deep and profound discussions afterwards with my friends about the meaning of the flirtations after which I was no closer to an answer, which lead to great confusion and angst, but never a date. But then again, it was junior high. Everyone’s confused.

Writing Process: WISH book launch countdown

When I tell people I have a book coming out, one of the first questions they ask is, “How long did it take you to write the book?” There’s not a simple way to answer that question because I’m never sure if they mean the first draft, or the whole process from start to finish, which is a lot more complicated, since there were multiple edits involved…and then, do they mean actual total hours logged or the amount of time between the day I first put pen to paper and the day I release the book… The real answer is: it’s a process. My process may be very different from another writer’s; in fact, no two are alike. Here is what mine looked like:

I like to begin my day with exercise; it clears the cobwebs and gets my blood moving. I usually spend the rest of the morning writing. I began writing WISH many years ago, in between working on a bunch of other freelance projects. I’m a very visual person so I always create a vision board. I cut out pictures of characters and settings from magazines and put them together in a giant collage. The vision boards hang right next to my desk so I can refer to them. I also write character sketches for all of my characters. It’s important to understand your characters’ motivations, likes and dislikes before you put them in action.

photo by My Lovely Husband

photo by My Lovely Husband

Through writing WISH I’ve become a big believer in outlines. Creating a good, solid outline before you start writing makes it much easier to look at things from a big picture perspective. For instance, you can tell beforehand if the transition between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next flows well. I think outlines save a lot of time and headache, but they’re not for everyone. Other writers I know prefer to wing it a bit more.

Ballet and other forms of dance have been a huge part of my life since forever so it felt very natural to weave ballet into my story. I knew it was something that would interest readers because almost every little girl (and many adults too!) dreams of becoming a ballerina and for those who never experience it firsthand it’s an absolutely fascinating world.

The first draft took me a little over a year to write because I wrote in very short bursts, about 30 minutes at a time. But first drafts are usually nowhere close to polished (although I’ve heard that John Irving gets pretty close with his first drafts). I spent the next several months editing and patching up holes in the plot. I put it away for awhile after that. When I looked at it again months later It was actually kind of painful to read at that point—all I could think was oh my God! This is terrible! I have to fix it!

I knew I needed other peoples’ input so I found a critique group through SCBWI. It was fun to meet with other writers around a big table, share yummy treats and give and receive feedback about how we could improve our work. My critique partners asked a lot of questions, often about things that I hadn’t thought about.

Eventually my critique group read my whole novel but it still wasn’t finished, even after the work I’d done revising and implementing some of their suggestions. That was a little hard to sit with but I wanted the book to be as good as it could possibly be. I tinkered some more, focusing on the beginning because it still wasn’t quite there. I read a lot online about what makes a good beginning; I found a lot of helpful tips from agents and editors.

I gave the entire book a final pass by reading it out loud, word by word. Errors or clumsy language in your writing are much more obvious when you hear it aloud. This made a huge difference – not only did I trim thousands of words, everything read more smoothly.

Of course, finishing a novel is just the beginning; there’s still a lot of work to do! I’m now busy writing HOPE, the next book in the Indigo Dreams series. You can find me there most days (after I walk the dog).