Ballet Diary 8-9: Curtain Call

ArtsWatch's ballet spy presents closing thoughts on a 9-week learning experience...and flowers


Note: This is the final installment of a multi-part summer series, wherein ArtsWatch writer A.L. Adams bravely broaches beginner ballet classes with Northwest Dance Project and keeps a Ballet Diary for our amusement and edification.

Our ballet teacher Renee Meiffren is such a B4L (Ballerina 4 Lyfe) that as she makes a sad announcement, she habitually flutters her fingers in front of her face like Stravinsky’s Firebird crying. During our eighth lesson, she informed us that our ninth week of class would be her last; she was dipping out early due to family emergency. After that, she’d leave NW Dance Project to give private lessons.


These final two classes have been”crunch time”; time to stretch our necks up and our shoulders down one extra centimeter, time to balance in sous-sus for two extra seconds, time to perk up and point the limp tondues with which I’ve been closing my ronde du jembes en l’air. My battements have also gotten a crash course in follow-through force, with Meiffren crouching in front of me and holding her hand where my foot should kick. “I don’t want to kick you!” I exclaim. “Go ahead!” she says. “I didn’t know it was THAT kind of class,” I quip. “Maybe YOU should be paying ME.” (The class laughs because we’re all adults here, and ballet processes are still painful enough for some of us that S&M humor is oddly appropriate.)

You know the secret of a Hollywood high-five?


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.


Ballet Diary 5-6: quicker turnarounds

As she learns to move her feet, our writer/dancer keeps this short and sweet

This week, my ballet diary has to be short. It just has to. If you want longer stories, refer to previous weeks. It’s actually week 6 of Northwest Dance Project’s 10-week Adult Beginning Ballet course, but I had to miss one, making this the fifth post. Every week now, it seems that my philosophical insights are fewer, my movements are slightly more intuitive, and the ballet classes cycle is hurtling by faster and faster. This means it’s time for a Training Montage. ballet56_slippers_web Feel free to set the following to any music you like— Chariots of Fire, Eye of the Tiger, the “song of the summer,” Yakkety Sax. Okay, here goes: My feet on a checkered-tile kitchen floor, repeatedly leaping from fifth position into a wobbling semi-sous sous, crossing heels and closing into the opposite fifth. Sometimes bare, sometimes in ballet slippers, and sometimes in moccasins. My arms wide in second position, then one coming in for third. Right, then left. Me lifting my face with a pseudo-sophisticated air, then breaking character as I totter on my tiptoes. One shot of me affecting arms in third, attempting a right turn, and sweeping things off a shelf. A decent left turn that goes 360, followed by a desperate right turn that goes about 390 and ends in a stagger. Close-up of my face complaining on the phone with ballerina friend. Close-up of her mouth laughing. Me staring intently at the mirror. Head-snap. Head-snap. Head-snap. Regimented sets of my classmates’ feet doing rond de jambes and the foot-stretching weight-baring toe-balance our teacher Renee Meiffren calls “the doo-dad.” Me in class, hands on hips, diagonally skipping across the studio. Thanks to a note from Meiffren about how my feet should meet, sous sous-style, en l’air, I can now do this without looking terrible. The only man in the class and I continue our skip-step across the room after the music stops, then laugh and high-five. Every good training montage ends in a high-five. See you next week.

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!


Ballet Diary 4: breathe like a pro

Four weeks into her crash course in dancing, our ballet aspirant's body demurs, but her lungs learn a lesson

Walking back on the Hawthorne Bridge after last week’s ballet lesson, I felt a sense of pure…expanse.

The weather was hot and balmy, sunlight still bright even at 9 pm. My bad ankle hurt in the sharp-pang, woken-up way, the halfway point between its dull-ache swell and those rare times it pretends it’s fine. The Willamette was blue, the bridge railing was red. The dragon boats were out. It was all popping.

I was flooded with ballet insights to share with you, the ArtsWatch readers who are following my mid-life efforts at beginner ballet training from Northwest Dance Project (really more a form of arts writer continuing education than an attempt to master the art—the words “college try” apply). But it’s only now, after another week has passed, that I’m finding the words and time.

ballet 4

As I left Lincoln Hall (NWDP’s summer home), I’d passed my teacher, Renee Meiffren, in the breezeway. “Good job today!” she beatifically lied. But I’ll take it. Because I do try.

The first thing I was going to tell you was to clarify a detail from a prior post. “I think when you describe corps de ballet, you really mean barre,” a fellow arts writer discreetly corrected me on Week 3. It would seem so, but no. I did say—and mean—the corps de ballet. Meiffren had arranged us in a tight row on Week 2 and had us hold hands, explaining the configuration of corps de ballet and letting us try a few steps in that arrangement. I revised my text to make that more apparent.

“Sounds more like a ‘ballet appreciation’ class,” sniped my friend, who, out of respect for the discipline and technique that ballet requires, balked at the idea that newbs would get to try advanced moves, just for fun, possibly too early in their learning curve.

Back when I was considering an education minor, this very debate was all the rage in language arts. Do we drill students on sentence structure, punctuation and parts of speech, preparing them for the privilege of expressing themselves later…or do we just let them tell their stories right now, and then try to help them refine their craft as they go?

“You’ll entitle sloppiness!” frets one side.
“You’ll crush expression!” worries the other.

Perhaps both fail to account for the different ways we learn. A chance to try the “fun stuff” first can inspire some amateurs, but it gives others a dangerously false sense of mastery, or a dangerously discouraging recognition of how far they are from competence. Meanwhile, dogged repetition of basics can provide comforting consistency and realistic goals for some new learners, but it can leave others bored and unstimulated. In any case—I found out which kind of learner I am.


Ballet Diary 3: The jig is up

A stop-gap space for NWDP, a talk with the teacher, and the challenge of self-conscious creation

Now…which door is open after hours? And…which floor is the classroom on?

You’d think that by my third week of journaling a beginner ballet class for ArtsWatch (week one | week two) , I’d have fallen into a steady routine, slinging the same bag with the same camera and slippers over my shoulder, heading to the same studio to go through my gradually-improving motions. But this is a particularly dynamic time for Northwest Dance Project; they’ve just uprooted from their space of 10 years on Mississippi and Shaver and moved their summer activities, including my class, into PSU’s Lincoln Hall. For me, this replaces the last two weeks’ short drive to Northeast with an hour-long walk to downtown…which is a good warmup, actually. Probably something I should have been doing anyway.

Ballet students warm up in NWDP's temporary studio at PSU's Lincoln Hall.

Ballet students warm up in NWDP’s temporary studio at PSU’s Lincoln Hall.

Lincoln Hall is silent and slightly spooky, but a foamcore poster of dancer Andrea Parsons points to the stairs. As I head up the dim, echoey stairwell, a couple of buoyant Flashdance types bounce down. (Here a jaunty bandana, there an exposed shoulder.) They may be student dancers from NWDP’s LAUNCH Project summer intensive.


Ballet Diary week 2: best foot forward

Thoughts on slipper shopping, the "ballet body," and NWDP's big move.

Last week, an ArtsWatch writer ventured into a familiar space—The Northwest Dance Project studio—to try an utterly unfamiliar role: beginning ballet student. Here’s the second installment of our ongoing summer series.

Week 2, July 2:

The first step in truly committing to a sport is often going to the store to buy appropriate shoes. In a Catch 22 practically designed to make you feel foolish, you need the right shoes to properly try the sport, but you need to shoe-shop while you’re still unaccustomed to the sport you’ll be doing in said shoes. Sport shoe salespeople must be second only to porn store clerks at overlooking their customers’ self-consciousness and talking practically about their needs.


The Shoes

The guy at The Leotard was really nice about fitting me, even though it was the end of his day and I had to try a couple of sizes.

“When’s your class?” he asked. “Going straight there,” I replied.
“Okay…so…you won’t be able to sew these…”


Writer tries ballet: Dance diary, week one

ArtsWatch's A.L. Adams starts a summer in beginner's slippers

Brunch was winding down and I was closing my notebook. “I think I have what I need,” I told the directors of Northwest Dance Project, meaning enough notes and quotes for an article in a dance magazine. Suddenly, NWDP’s artistic director Sarah Slipper and executive director Scott Lewis got a mutual gleam in their eyes:

“Our beginner ballet class starts this week,” Slipper said. “Want to take it?”

In the course of arts reporting, I’m often called upon to cover types of art I haven’t personally mastered, and ballet is probably the farthest-flung discipline from my own experience that I’ve ever editorially broached. Though I try to do my due diligence, learn the lingo, and ask the right questions when I write about ballet…attending actual ballet classes would definitely put me on my toes.

Here on ArtsWatch, we sometimes run experience journals, from Sabina Samiee’s Year In Tango in 2013 to actor Phillip J. Berns’ current Acting in Yosemite camp diary. These firsthand accounts of trying new things are some of my favorite stories. They’re invigorating, inspiring and unpredictable.

When it’s only bandied between experts, art dialogue can stagnate…or worse, it can spiral further and further out from its source into an abstract intellectual ether that only experts—not audience or artists—understand. Firsthand accounts help reconnect us to an art form’s rudiments and roots, reminding us that always, while someone’s mastering, someone else is just beginning…

[Writer’s note: In the above passage, which has received some pushback, I’m attempting to explain that sometimes I feel (and ArtsWatch feels) a need to balance educated theory with immediate, fresh experience in all art forms, not just dance, because insights are found all along the continuum. I’m not, however, suggesting we throw over theory entirely in favor of practice. Both need to converse with each other.]

I told the Dance Project directors I would take the classes…and journal them. They said “hooray,” congratulating me for being that relatively rare ballet naif who’s nonetheless willing to try. And I’m sure they gleefully anticipated my come-uppance:

Hello Muddah, Hello, Faddah,
Ballet’s hard-ah than I thought-ah,
who knew dancing
was so wearing
dogs are barking, calves are mooing, tarsals tearing…

As I write this intro, it’s 5 p.m. The first Beginner Ballet class starts at 7:30. But before I go, let the record reflect: I’m already aware of ballet’s physical difficulty. A dear ballerina friend hips me frequently to her injuries, aches, and pains. I’ve also dallied just enough with Ballet’s mall-rat cousin Pilates to know that pliés are no picnic.

Furthermore, I know my own limitations, and I don’t expect to emerge from these 10 weeks a ballerina. In fact, I’ll be happy with slightly better posture, and ecstatic if I master one non-wobbly turn.

I’m wondering, then, since I’m so marvelously mentally prepared…what will still surprise me?

Northwest Dance Project's space...but not for long. The company will work from PSU for the rest of the summer, then open a brand-new HQ in the fall.

Northwest Dance Project’s space…but not for long. The company will work from PSU for the rest of the summer, then open a brand-new HQ in the fall.

Surprise! I’m too much of a pessimist. Beginner ballet shocked me by showing me a good time.