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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Muscles! Princess! Muscles! Princess!

Trying my darndest to be graceful!

The integration of these diametrically opposed concepts is what a ballet dancer grapples with from day 1 as a student throughout the entirety of her career.  (Notice I didn't state "female ballet dancer" since the all-too-beautiful divas of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and Les Ballets Grandiva are wonderful examples of this dichotomy.  I love how each ballerina is referred to in the feminine.  Oh, to be Svetlana Lofatkina!)

A ballerina must be as strong as steel to perform technical feats that are - let's face it - largely unnatural to the human body.  But the audience must only see the luminous radiance of a beautiful woman: regal, poised, yet delicate and pliant.

So we work hard on building strength and length, meticulously and carefully.  We must be strong, but we must not bulk up in the wrong places.  "Lengthen, don't grip!  Do you want thunder thighs?"  If I had a penny for every time I've been told that ...

And when we're strong enough, our appearance and movement must not be the embodiment of that strength.  We must be strength sublimated into grace.  We must be strength in agility, fortresses of ethereal beauty.   

It's not easy for me.  I'm naturally a tomboy and love "strong" roles.  It's at once a great challenge and completely frustrating to work on "girly" roles.  I'm often told that I look too hefty in my upper body, that I need to soften.  I soften, and then I'm told I'm not regal enough.  I straighten my back, my elbows all the way to the tips of my fingers, and lift my chin a little.  No, no, no, too stiff!  And so it goes.

I owe the title of this post to one of my favorite teachers, Ramon from Ballet San Jose.  "You must feel like you're the most important person in the world," he smiled, encouraging me to show the carriage befitting a ballet dancer during center adagio.  "You are a princess!"

In nearly the same breath he gave another correction as I executed a développé écarté (slow extension of the leg to the side) - "Muscles!" to let me know I needed to tighten even more to smooth the movement into a beautiful unfurling of leg.  I repeated the movement.  "Princess!" he exclaimed, lengthening his back and chest to indicate the lifted, proud yet relaxed look I should be projecting.  "Muscles!  Princess!" he repeated as I tried again.

Finally I did it to his satisfaction, and only after I closed into fifth position carefully did I burst into laughter; I couldn't help myself.  At Ramon's quizzical look, I gestured to my lower body, "Muscles!" and then my upper body, "Princess!" and after a beat repeated in quick succession,  "Muscles!  Princess!"

Ramon smiled and said in the indulgent manner only he can pull off, "Yes, that's right."  (I really appreciate Ramon's patience and sense of humor ... if it had been another teacher I probably wouldn't have allowed myself to laugh!)

Even as I struggle with projecting strength and delicacy as a seamless whole, I'm gratified to know that at least I'm improving.  I admit I can see the difference in more recent performances, as well as when my Chinese dance coach gives me a rare and unexpected compliment: "It's a little more natural, now," she told me not long ago, and then gave me more corrections on how to improve.  When Chinese dance gets girly, it's really girly.

I'm ready to keep learning, to keep trying to become more graceful.

So, bring it on!!  Er, I mean, yes, please!  ;-)

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