Ballet Diary 7: sleek new superhips

In which our reporter advances to adequate in beginning ballet class, and tries a little twerking, too

I should have known that one of these weeks (during my 10-week Adult Beginner Ballet course through Northwest Dance Project) there’d be no time for a contemplative pre-ballet-class stroll, that something (like a guest spot on a Wanderlust Circus Orchestra bill) would send me darting downtown by car, wedging into an “entertainment district” loading zone the second the clock hit 7, hastily dropping off a bouzouki player in front of Dante’s and speed-striding up to PSU in my full ballet-lesson regalia.

I was (almost) late, and to compound my rush, the class had moved up a floor to make use of a room with better AC. Phew.


Now maybe someone can explain to me what the hell has happened to my body. Because it seems to be…suddenly better. And I demand answers.

I’ve had the same black leggings since high school. Despite them being a “basic,” I don’t wear them a lot, and my first week of this ballet class, I was reminded why. My flesh seemed to have arranged itself into a set of distinct lumps that bore little relation to the overall “lines” my ballet was supposed to be showing. Hips and belly, particularly, were hilly. Placing the elastic waistband gave rise to various unspeakable dilemmas. I envied a woman in the first weeks of class who was—like me—not necessarily thin, but had a smooth overall hip-scape. I thought, “she must be that way after having taken ballet her whole life.”

Come to think of it, she’s disappeared…and now, suddenly, my hips are more like hers. It seems extraordinary that this change could have come from a mere seven sessions of weekly exercise. Maybe what actually happened was, on the last super-moon, I absorbed her powers.

My sleek new superhips seem to have enhanced my basic balance, allowing me to (sometimes) stand in sous-sus in demi-pointe without teetering. Meiffren describes the move as “being sucked up into a straw,” one of many phrases that I suspect she’s invented for the benefit of her younger-kid students; she also tells us to tuck in our “tushies” sometimes. Anyway, today, the invisible suction of the giant in the ceiling is somehow better maintained during my sous-sus, meaning I have more “lift” in general. But according to the law of ballet class, the minute we master one thing, we attempt another. So today we’re doing port de bras, or arm position, while we listen to Philip Glass.

I’ve been learning that ballet arms don’t go exactly where I’d have thought. The position called “brava,” a downward oval that we make to start almost every exercise, is intuitive enough. But first position, which I’d thought was straight in front of the chest, is actually a little lower, with the hands in front of the belly button. Same (for one hand) with third. Fifth, the upright oval, is familiar thanks to brava, but transitioning between it and second produces a straighter “V” than I anticipated (“Rrreach! Shoot laser beams out of your finger tips!” Meiffren cheers). And then I guess my second position was crying out for some personal instruction.

“Your elbows should be tilting up, even though your arms are straight,” she comes by and advises me. I try it. It kills. Behind me, my scapulae gnash together like shark jaws. Addressing the class in the mirror, she says, “I know, it’s hard, because your arms don’t normally go that way…” She smiles. Shrugs. She’s the messenger; ballet’s the master.

My ballerina friend’s single favorite shot from the movie Black Swan is of a woman’s back muscles rippling. “That’s a body double,” she’s repeatedly declared, claiming there’s no way Natalie Portman’s body could be trained to that level. I’m inclined to agree; it looks pretty pro. But how did Non-Natalie’s back gradually get to that transcendent point of sprouting swan-wings? Apparently with this oppositional technique of port de bras.

Funny thing: Very similar arm movements to these are used in tribal belly dance. The fingers are a little sharper and the arms more fluid; otherwise, the shapes are the same. (I’m thinking of this because I’ll spend some of my weekend at Jamballah, a belly dance festival, reporting for Artslandia.) One might think of belly dance as the opposite of ballet, but it’s not; there are several similarities there. The opposite of ballet is—well, probably technically the Charleston, but more contemporarily, I’d say twerking.

When my ballet muscles got fatigued during home practice last week, I thought I’d give them a break by putting them through the opposite motions. Twerking—the African-dance-inspired, New Orleans “sissy bounce”-iconic, Miley Cyrus-discrediting dance form that’s sweeping the nation—is, of course, learnable online. Basically, you get in a wide-open second-position plie with your hands on your thighs and your elbows turned out, and you alternate rounding and arching your lower back. It’s a bit like yoga’s cat-and-cow, and the idea is that if you have enough meat on your booty, it makes its own momentum. If you don’t (sorry, Miley), it’s harder to keep going. At any rate, when plies stressed my ballet muscles this last week, I resorted to anti-ballet moves to twerk them out. (Of course, like my version of ballet, my twerking is exercise-only, not performance-ready. So don’t even ask.)

“Hey,” I imagine you interject, “Why are you harping about exercise? Isn’t this an art forum?”

That’s a valid question, and a great segue to a realization that’s been dawning these last few weeks: dance is one of the most—perhaps the most—”intersectional” fine art form. Though the term “intersectional” typically has a political tinge, that’s not quite how I mean it here. Still, it springs to mind because it comes up often in theater—for instance, in the talk-back from Milagro’s play Learn to be Latina. That play’s hero was a Lebanese lesbian, placing her public identity at the intersection of two non-mainstream American populations, and highlighting the idea that “intersectional” individuals face a compounded challenge to be understood…and that’s why I grab it rather than “interdisciplinary.” I think the artists whose disciplines are intersectional, are probably miscategorized by others in terms of what “type of person” they are. I think dance in general, and ballet in particular, is definitely one of those disciplines.

What is a ballet dancer according to, for instance, the high school taxonomy—a theater nerd? A music geek? A cheerleader? A jock? All and none of those, kinda. Once (s)he matures into the adult art world, is a ballet dancer an emotive athlete, or a flexible actor? Is (s)he an embodiment of the classical music world, or a performance artist? And that’s not to even mention the mathematics, memorization, and physics of choreography. Four measures of this, eight counts of that, and by now your leg has to be here. I imagine dancers are routinely underestimated for one or more of the many talents they’re juggling, by both the artists who fully inhabit one of the many disciplines dancers touch on, and by a public that’s less keen to comprehend their process than ogle their haunches.

Now while we’re at it, why do slight departures from the dance art form incur such wildly different categorizations? When a ballet dancer spins in a hoop (as an aerialist I’ll see this evening), suddenly she morphs into a “circus person.” If she laces on some ice skates—tada! she’s emphatically an athlete, practicing a competitive sport of Olympic status.

Meiffren, our teacher, personifies multidiscipline. She’s emotive and sparkly, encouraging us to also mug for the mirror. Like a jock, she’s talked about teaching some ballet to a football quarterback, and she’s picky about proper form; like a music nerd, she’s got a giant back tattoo and is spinning the same slightly-worn Pitchfork hit-list I might pick as practice music: Sufjan Stephens, Universal Hall Pass, Koop…

Meiffren cues up Calvin Harris’s “Acceptable in the 80’s,” a neo-disco-funk number that instantly brings out my classmates’ sass. They start head-bobbing and duck-lipping as we wait to cross the room in a sequence of alternating-leg arabesques (Eek! My kryptonite!). You know what, though? I’m not terrible anymore. I’m adequate. Thanks, supermoon.

READ THE REST: Ballet Diary: An Artswatch Writer Tries NWDP’s beginner ballet


A. L. Adams also writes for Artslandia Magazine and The Portland Mercury.
She is the former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!


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