About Susan

Friday, May 11, 2012

Susan vs. Kettlebell

I love me some kettlebell ... sort of!

No, it's not a legal battle:  I'm on day five of my self-imposed Two Week Challenge at a local gym, and what a journey it's been so far!  In addition to taking hour-long classes auspiciously named "Body Sculpt" and "Muscle Mix", I've been working with a personal trainer in half-hour sessions.  I found out mid-week that my trainer, Nic, is known as "The Punisher".  He is a Mixed Martial Arts athlete and looks like it.  Like most dancers, I am pretty good at driving myself hard, so I wanted someone who would push me - Nic certainly is tough!

My goals of cross-training and exploring different ways of working my body are certainly being met.  I thought that as a dancer, I'd already learned how to use my muscles in myriad ways, especially with my work in Chinese ethnic dance.  But as soon as I started the challenge at the gym, I learned just how much dance has trained me to use my body in one way: Up and forward, on the balls of my feet, always stretching towards the heavens.  Even Korean dance, the most "down" I've ever had to be, is still forward compared to what I'm working on now.

Back on Your Heels!
One of the first things I learned was the proper "squat" stance.  It is a prerequisite to many exercises, including one that involves holding a kettlebell and swinging it between the legs, then snapping the hips upward to swing the kettlebell up.  After Nic showed me the stance and moves, I gamely picked up the weight and nearly swung myself out across the room.

"Back on the heels!  Sit in your hips!  Butt back into your hips!  On the heels, snap the hips, on the heels!" Nic barked, albeit in an encouraging way.

Wait, what do you mean, "back on the heels" and "sit in your hips"?  This was the very antithesis of everything I've ever learned!  It suddenly dawned on me as I panted and sweated that this was going to be very tough and interesting, indeed.

After a grueling half hour of variations on kettlebell routines, involving single arm swings, presses overhead, circling the kettlebell around the head with elbows tight, and so forth, I was feeling it everywhere.  The next day I could barely bend my legs without acutely feeling all these new muscles that I'd never engaged before, since I am never back on my heels.

By the way, when I first laid eyes on the 18lb iron thing Nic had placed before me on the floor, all I could think of was those weights that would, if you were unlucky, drop on your character and cause his untimely demise in the old sidescroller game Dark Castle.  I certainly wasn't going to let the kettlebell crush me, and yesterday was my second session of kettleball delight - a series of 5 exercises, repeated twice.

And you know what, I felt stronger the second time around!  I felt more secure in the back of my heels, butt so far out that it felt like it was in outer space.  However, this position really does enable you to snap your hips and get that kettlebell up so you're not only using brute force in the arms.  It works your whole body like you wouldn't believe.

Two unexpected side effects of this work:

1) I am acutely aware of where I'm weak and where I've been cheating in dance.  Nearly all moves are done in perfect parallel in the fitness world, and if you're attached to a kettlebell even the smallest imbalance is magnified 100 fold (or so it feels).  I realized that I've been skewing my body in arabesque to the left much more grossly than I'd imagined.  I felt how much less strong I am on that side, and now know what I need to work on.  Bless/Darn that kettlebell!

2) Going to ballet technique class after a fitness workout reminds me of how much I love ballet, and how much it is "home" for my body.  I get to engage those familiar muscles, to lengthen, to stretch to the sky.  It was like a breath of fresh air, despite my soreness.  Ah ...

Week Two, here we come.  I'll best you yet, kettlebell!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Into the Unknown

Yi Ethnic Dance "MoSheGe" - A great endurance buster!
... the Unknown being "fitness"!  I'd come across many references to "cross-training" as an important component to overall strength for dancers in various publications such as Dance Magazine and Pointe.  Ever since coming back from working in Beijing last year where I didn't dance at all and resorted to running on the "hamster wheel" at the tiny hotel gym to keep up a shred of endurance, I've become much more aware of what it takes to stay in shape.

I still feel woefully out of shape, to be honest, as I haven't been performing as often these days.  I hope to get back into the groove soon, but in the meantime I need to make myself strong.  Unfortunately, technique class doesn't seem to be cutting it.

To be sure, class is everything I need to feel my muscles working, to feel the floor, to make sure I'm doing things the right way.  I will not go without it!  And yet, I'm not sweating as much as I'd like - petit allegro and grand allegro across the floor are exhilarating (I've always loved jumping) but it's over all too soon, and my heart rate has only just started to get going!  As a result, I end up feeling somewhat unfulfilled.  I continue working after class, of course, but after reading about cross-training I decided to venture into the realm of "fitness" to see what the fuss was about.

I even leafed through the Health and SELF magazines my cousin and sister had lying about their homes to see what kind of exercises they recommend for their readers.  I tried to ignore the inevitable feature headlines ("Flat Belly Secrets!" "Drop 10 Pounds Eating What You Love!") and cut to the exercises.  That's when I vowed to try this strange looking contraption called the elliptical - it's supposed to be good for the heart rate and have less impact on the knees, which seemed fitting for a dancer.

I searched my memory for any references to the elliptical, and all I could come up with was Bill Murray's character in the film Lost in Translation in the scene where he gets on the machine and goes out of control on it, haplessly calling out, "Help ... HELP!!"  Undaunted, I bravely wandered into the gym at work and the very next day and tried it.  I didn't go out of control, and rather liked the experience.  I could listen to my podcasts, sweat, and even close my eyes and zone out if I wanted to.  (Doing the latter on a treadmill would have disastrous, slapstick results.)  Afterwards, I would work on my core, backbends, and other stretches.

I've kept this "cardio" activity up the past few weeks and am not sure if I should mix things up more, since honestly this kind of activity isn't exactly as interesting or stimulating as dance is for me (read: monotonous, despite the podcasts).  I'm still exploring some of the "fitness" sites and publications. While I occasionally find some useful exercises or tips, I find that in general these cater to folks with goals and needs different than those of dancers.  Conversely, dance publications often focus on certain aspects of technique, and those all-too-familiar areas of insecurity: turnout, arched feet, a higher arabesque, etc. rather than overall strength and total body health.

As part of my exploration, I am embarking on some personal training sessions at a local gym.  The goal is to challenge myself to completely different styles of movement and exercise, to see what I can do and what this does for me.  Yes, I'm a little nervous.  Stay tuned for the next chapter of my fitness exploration!