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Beginning Ballet, Part 1

The philosophy behind this blog, Shunryu Suzuki’s classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, is something I have embraced in an entirely new way with my beginning to study ballet. Many times in the past I have peered into dance studios with class in progress, and while studying at Juilliard I even took a few classes in José Limon technique. Pondering what would be a good use of time and relative schedule freedom while on leave this fall, I made some inquiries about where I could where I could find a good teacher and class to study ballet as a complete beginner – and ended up at the Dance Studio at the Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute (MWPAI, or Munstitute as it is locally known).

Why was this important to me to do, why ballet? Being poised, graceful, and artistic in how we are in our bodies has always struck me as vital to ‘being a good animal’ – part of ‘doing’ our physical existence well – and of being aesthetically aware beings. I’ve always pursued being athletic, strong, and fit: swimming, running, triathlon, and yoga, Alexander Technique, and Tai Chi when opportunity allows. But particularly with taking up conducting I felt the need for some other piece where physical expressiveness and grace were part of my training and apparatus. Ballet stood out for me among the movement disciplines in its emphasis on elegance, line, form, technique, discipline, structure, with a deep tradition that parallels the great lineages of musical training. As a matter of personal balance, I am intuitively drawn toward what I most need. Yet ballet seemed to be the kind of skill, like learning an instrument, where studying from childhood was a requirement – past that window of opportunity, it was a form that could not be entered. Yet here I am, in a class where I am the only utter beginner. Everyone else had ballet as a child, or some other kind of dance background, and so at least has some basic wiring for this. I’m grateful to be allowed in a class that seems more advanced beginner – it’s very motivating.

Simply walking into the studio instantly alters my attitude. It is the ultimate minimalist Zen environment: there’s the barre, the mirrors, and the space – that’s it. Other concerns are left at the door. During the warmups my lesser flexibility compared to classmates (not helped by running) is very apparent. But the sensation of working with muscles and ligaments in their current state and beginning the project of improving my flexibility is amazing; endorphins must be involved. I can’t describe how joyous it is to be there in class: the stretching in itself sends the message to my body and mind that I can dance, I can be more flexible and poised, I can improve. Being in that studio, warming up to that new age-y soundtrack, I am ridiculously happy and grateful for the opportunity. (Hopefully the people around are oblivious to my euphoric state, as they are getting into their bodies as well.)

Once we get to the barre exercises my brain hums constantly, and body gradually over the weeks learns at least some coordination and sense of the posture, of flow and poise. Neurons are constantly firing from the cascade of visual and physical sensory information and instructions it is constantly processing. Noticing how one side is different from the other in ways you weren’t aware of before. The feeling and awareness that one is learning and flourishing that is so vital to our wellbeing.

The beauty of being the class novice is that you get to learn from everyone else. Whether closely observing my more experienced classmates, or someone more advanced drops in on class, or the pointers and tips another student whispers between attempts or in the dressing room afterward. It’s awesome to be told by women who are decades older than me that I need to work on strengthening my core! And even as everyone is deeply serious about learning, in trying some new moving step or combination you just can’t take yourself too seriously. Those moments of laughing at ourselves, and the spontaneous camaraderie that arises, are some of the best in class. There is an ideal balance between focus and lightness.

The net effect of joining this environment and practice is to lay down grooves of new, more positive, joyful, and creative habits and attitudes that I endeavor to take out of the studio and into the rest of life. (Those habits make us who we are.) This practice also travels well; wherever I can find an adult class, it’s the same technique, exercises and instructions. I can fit right in with other courageous grownup students who also aspire to cultivate grace and to keep growing. And as for regret that I didn’t start this sooner, there’s really no time like the present.

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