Ballet Basics Part 2 – Company Class

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In this installment of Ballet Basics, we’re going to learn about the ritual of company class, a routine so fundamental to ballet that I chose to begin The Muse in Ballet Theater of New York’s company class. Company class, or “class,” as dancers call it, is the morning ritual of barre and center exercises that warm up the body for a full day of rehearsals and performances. All dancers from the 18-year-olds in the corps de ballet to the 40-year-old principal dancers take company class.

Class usually lasts around an hour-and-a-half. It begins with exercises at the barre that build upon each other in difficulty, which is why the exercises are performed in a set order. The movements start off small, as in pli

Half-way through class, the barres are removed to the sides of the room for center excerices. Again, exercises begin small and in-place. Women may choose to put on pointe shoes at this time to begin warming up their feet. For jumping exercises, men and women’s exercises might be split up, with women’s exercises emphasizing quickness of feet, and men’s exercises emphasizing height and jumping turns.

At the end of class, dancers move across the floor in a waltz, petit allegro, with smaller jumps and turn series, and grade allegro, with those enormous and exciting leaps that usually make it onto ballet promotional posters. Class always finishes with reverence, an exercise in which the dancers bow to the ballet master and the pianist.

This video, featuring the Royal Ballet of Canada, does a great job of showing what company class is like.

Ballet Basics

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Some readers alerted me to the fact that they wanted to know about all of the ballet terms that I use in The Muse.  So here’s your ballet basics tutorial.

One of the most common steps that I refer to in The Muse is the plié. In French, plié means “to bend.” That’s exactly what the knees do in this step. Dancers can plié on one foot or both feet.

The “opposite” of a plié is a relevé. A relevé is where the dancer will rise to the balls of her feet, or, if she is wearing pointe shoes, to the tips of her toes.

Here’s an example of a plié-relevé exercise at the barre:

 

Tendú means “to reach.” When a dancer does a tendú, she extends her leg in front, to the side, or behind her, with the toes touching the floor, like so:

 

The first step that William Darcy choreographs on Elizabeth in his piece is a piqué arabesque. In a piqué arabesque, a dancer steps onto the tip of her toes, with her leg extended in the air behind her. It looks like this:

Pique arabesque

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll be covering some other ballet basics topics on my blog, but let me know in the comments if there’s something in particular you’d like me to cover.

Backstage Episodes from The Muse

posted in: Ballet, The Muse, Writing Life | 0

As I discussed in a previous post, I used to dance ballet in a private, semi-professional ballet studio and in a performing arts high school. Many of the scenes from The Muse come from backstage episodes that happened to me.

In The Muse, my heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, overhears superstar choreographer William Darcy make a mean-spirited comment about her weight. Darcy tells the company artistic director that Elizabeth is “too fat to be a ballerina” because of her larger-than-average chest. This comment incites Elizabeth’s prejudice against Darcy and is, unfortunately, also inspired by events in my real life. I can recall three different instances when (male) dance teachers and choreographers told me to lose weight if I wanted to make it in the ballet world. (For the record, I was a healthy 5’4″, 130 pounds at my “heaviest.”) In part, Elizabeth’s anger is my own, though none of my teachers ever made amends like Darcy eventually does.

Another backstage episode inspired from real-life is the “tutu incident.” William Darcy recounts a situation in which the prima ballerina’s tutu gets stolen hours before a show. Seems pretty bitchy, right? This actually happened in my high school! We were performing a short one-act ballet, Paquita, when, an hour before curtain, the lead dancer’s tutu went missing. Fortunately, the costume director found her an ill-fitting tutu and she was able to go on stage. Weeks later, I was hanging out in the hall with a friend during our lunch break and saw a piece of tulle sticking out from a garbage bin. You guessed it: the missing tutu! In The Muse, they find out who stole the tutu, but in real life, our teachers never did. They did, however, punish every dancer in the program by canceling the evening performance of our Senior Concert. Rumors of the tutu thief’s identity circulated for years after the actual incident: everyone suspected the victim’s romantic rival. Pretty juicy stuff.

Honestly, I wouldn’t believe that these things could happen if I hadn’t experienced them for myself! Art imitating life, indeed!

Everything Is Beautiful at the Ballet (?)

posted in: Ballet, The Muse | 0

“Everything is beautiful at the ballet.
– “At The Ballet” from the musical, A Chorus Line

The Muse, my debut novel, is set in a professional ballet company.

I am not a professional ballerina, but from the the age of 5 until I was 17, I danced ballet.  It started when my mom put me in dance class, against my will. I hated going to ballet. I hated the itchy polyester leotard I had to wear. I hated the way the bobby pins in my bun pinched my scalp. I hated the slow pace and monotony of ballet class. I begged my mom to let me quit, but she wouldn’t cave. In fact, according to legend, I once threw myself on the dance studio floor and refused to get up. I had to be dragged off to the sides so that the other girls in class could continue.

I always loved to perform, though. Despite my hatred of ballet and my misbehaviors in class, I must have exuded some kind of devilish charm that my teachers liked. In my dance school’s recital, we performed as a troupe of glittery pooh-bears, and the teacher cast me as the mischievous bear that needed to be dragged off stage by the ring-master. A lead role (for a precocious six-year-old at least), and type casting at its finest.

Eventually, something shifted, and I grew to develop a love-hate relationship with ballet. I still dreaded dance class. I still hated the leotards, pink tights, and too-taut buns. The monotony of those barre exercises still put me to sleep. But, I discovered I loved to dance. I loved when we got to move around the floor. I loved whipping my head around and stretching my arms to the sky after a sharp turn. I loved the soaring leaps in grande allegro. I loved that dizzy, crazed feeling after a series of turns across the floor. It was the ultimate adrenaline kick.

In my short dance career, I attended a performing arts middle school and high school, and even danced in several semi-professional productions of The Nutcracker, Giselle, and Swan Lake. I danced seven days a week, for up to ten hours a day. I lived and breathed dance.

Some of my best memories happened in dressing rooms and in the wings of a theater. I loved backstage life. I loved fake eyelashes and tutus and the jittery feeling of standing in blackness just before the curtain rose. The camaraderie and the energy that dancers share before a performance is something I haven’t since experienced.

For many years, I thought I wanted to become a professional ballerina, but I eventually quit. I’ve never regretted it. The dance is beautiful; it still makes me ache when I go see the ballet. But ballet is a brutal art. I’ll share some more real-life experiences that made it into The Muse in a later post.