An Old Guy Does Ballet

Today’s guest, Andrew Stone, has been a reader of Dance Advantage for some time. Though typically his thoughts are reserved for our comment section, he recently requested an opportunity to share a post with you. I think you’ll find his unique perspective of interest as he considers some universal truths about ballet and dance.

I’ve been doing partner dance for a while, but recently I took on my greatest challenge: ballet at 50+.

Andrew dances with his partner

Andrew dances with a partner

It doesn’t need to be said that there are not a lot of 50-something guys in a beginner ballet class, but there I was, among a group of women who ranged in age from teenagers to women in their 40’s. I was the oldest.

My first reaction (after a cringe of embarrassment), was to observe what a varied group they were. If you have done a lot of partner dance you can spot the ‘good ones’ without them telling you anything. The posture, and the habit of pointing the foot (yes, good partner dancers unconsciously do tendu as well) give it all away.

The serious dancer, in whatever form, is marked for life — the balance, the posture and the flexibility cannot be hidden.

Some of the dancers were very good indeed, but others were not so flexible, and some of the teenage girls had clearly never done any serious dance at all.

All this was taken in with a brief glance of the studio.

How was anyone going to manage a class like that?

So, we all marshaled up at the barre. I could sense all eyes were on me.

There was a look of surprise from the teacher and from the better students. I passed the test comfortably. The old guy could lift his legs.

In partner dance, unfortunately, there is no pressure on the dancer to have a good range of movement and flexibility.

At the start, they don’t tell you that you need to learn chest isolations if you are to lead in Argentine tango, or that balance is essential for those fast turns in the Viennese Waltz.

As you get better, you realize it’s an absolute requirement, but as a beginner, it is not something you are encouraged to focus on.

Ballet is different — strength, agility, flexibility and balance are everything. It’s pointless learning anything until you have them, hence the relentless and very productive drilling at the barre.

I finished each class feeling like I had run a marathon and came to the next class with a little better balance, and a little better flexibility. I was learning to work my body.

A fabulous experience that teaches a core truth.

Andrew Stone and partnerThe basic skills of ballet are an absolute requirement to perform well in any form of dance. It should be the starting point of all dance classes, but I think most teenage boys would run a mile if told that had to learn ballet before dancing with a girl.

Those basic core skills are, however, also shared with the martial arts. Most Argentine tango dancers will tell you that anyone trained in Akido can go from beginner to intermediate in just about one class. Akido’s focus on shared balance, smoothness of movement and connection means an Akido fighter already has all the basic components to make a good Tanquero.

Lost in translation

As we neared the end of my ballet course we got into a little pas de deux work, which was fascinating. My experience from Argentine tango and West Coast Swing easily transferred to pas de deux. Clearly, my teacher knew about connection and how it worked, but teaching it was a different story. I found myself saying, ‘You’ll get the idea better if you do it this way’.

Similarly, at another event, I met up with one of the women from my class. This was a lady with many years experience in ballet, and I invited her to try Swing dancing.

Astonishingly, she could not improvise steps and she could not follow a lead, though by all accounts she was a fine dancer. I’ve encountered the same with an international-level ballroom dancer who froze completely when faced with a different dance structure and the challenge of improvising to music.

So here’s another universal dance truth:

You can’t dance if you can’t adapt.

Ballet is all about physical skill, intense physical skill, but if you can’t use that skill and ability outside of the ballet paradigm, you haven’t learned dance. You’ve learned ballet, and nothing else.

Alongside my ballet lessons, I was acquainted with a recently retired concert ballet dancer from Eastern Europe, a region devoid of the complex psychological and practical ‘safety nets’ to be found for retiring dancers in the UK and USA. She had taken the shock, the ‘little death,’ very badly and her boyfriend asked me to speak to her.

She couldn’t understand why an old guy like me would want to do ballet when I knew I would never be any good at it. The whole concept of dancing for the sake of dancing was beyond her.

What she didn’t see is that dancing has more than one dimension. There is a world of dancers outside ballet. There is a world of dancers outside ballroom. There is a world of dance outside Argentine Tango.

She saw her body as a tool. Something to be used like knife or a hammer. When it was broken, it was broken, and nothing could bring that back.

But it’s not your body, or physical skill that makes you a dancer; it’s the way you use those skills and what you use them for that makes you a dancer.

How do you feel about Andrew’s observations?

What other universal truths regarding ballet or dance have you uncovered?

We’d love to hear from all readers, but especially partner dancers who’ve done ballet or visa versa!

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Guest Contributors

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Comments

  1. Thank you for writing so candidly about your experience, Andrew! As a teacher of adults (many like you who are starting ballet for the first time at a mature age), I am always interested to hear the things that go through their minds as they take class. I also have a LOT of ballroom dancers in my classes who want ballet technique to help their own dance style – and they are usually exceptionally good at following and “adapting.” They also understand that you need to take a step back and lose your ego when you attempt a new style of dance. I call people like them “lifelong students” who are always trying to improve. I love them!

    Cheers and happy dancing!
    ~leigh

  2. Bravo for trying something new! I am always inspired when people start ballet classes after the ripe age of 8. And “But it’s not your body, or physical skill that makes you a dancer; it’s the way you use those skills and what you use them for that makes you a dancer.” well, that was just beautiful. I might frame that and put it on my wall.

    I’m looking forward to your next guest post!

  3. Thanks for the feedback. . . . .I think that what I was trying to say that for the dancer the body is a like an artists paintbrush. A better paint brush and better paints and canvas will help you make a better picture – but the artist chooses the colours, the image, the way technique is applied.

    A great artist can produce fine work with the poorest materials.

    Writing this I am very conscious of the dancer who had her foot blown off in Boston bombing – clearly she is still adjusting to the new dynamics, of her dance world, but despite what everyone says, you can dance with foot mssing. One of the best dancers I know has an artificial foot (actually a ‘fixed ankle if you know what that means). I didn’t know till she told me.

    In total ignorance I asked her, ‘you’re a great dancer, but what you shift wieght in that odd way’. . . . to which the answer was ‘my ankle doesn’t move’

    I cringed with embarrasement but it didn’t bother her though.

    She danced for the pure joy of it – like every serious dancer – and a missing foot was not going to stop her.

  4. Loved the article! Wonderful observations and I hope to read more from Andrew in the future.

  5. Wow – that’s inspiring!

    I’ve experienced the opposite challenge – I’m also over 50 with a background in modern dance and ballet. So although I have a baseline of comfort in a ballet class (of course, I’m not able to do what I used to do, and I was never that great at it to begin with, anyway), social dance forms are entirely foreign to me. I seem to have an aversion to the idea of “leading” someone else.

    I love what you have to say about adaptability – that’s where it’s at.

  6. Andrew says:

    People get the wrong idea about leading – ie that you push your partner about. It’s actually about understanding ‘shared balance’.

    If you know where and how your partner is balanced, you know in which direction they are going to move, it works the same for the lead and follow.

    You know how you partner is balanced, you indicate in what direction you want them to change their balance, they step, the lead walks into the space the follow creates.

    Beginners often get it the wrong way round. They think the lead creates the movement by forcing the follow, its actually the follow who creates the movement by opening the space. The trick for the lead it telling where the space is being opened.

    You cannot lead a follow who places their weight evenly between both feet. As soon as they put their wieght on to one leg the follow has invited the lead to move the free leg, the lead indicates where that leg it go then steps into the space created. The follow then offers movement again by balancing on one leg and freeing the other – repeat.

    When people talk about a ‘Strong lead’ what they actually mean is ‘A lead who knows where the follow is balanced, If you know where someone is balanced you can move them with the slightest of touches.

  7. Andrew says:

    It’s difficult for people who have done lots of choreography because they think in terms of body movement not balance changes. If we are dancing on our own we think in terms of the movement required to carry out the choerography not the change in balance, because that core balance is contained within our body.

    If we are dancing as a pair that core centre of balance is outside our body.

  8. Andrew says:

    I need to explain this. . . . .

    When I started Argentine Tango I was paired with very high level competition Highland Dancer. She was physically very strong, with a tight, near perfect core balance. Even when she was on one leg it was very difficult to tell where she was ‘unstable’, she had to unlearn a lot of what she had been taught about core balance and centreing her wieght. She had to learn about how to ‘give’ instability or ‘share balance’ with a partner.

  9. In working with dancers, I’ve found that there is an inherent mindset conflict between classical ballet and more contemporary forms.

    Classical dancers are trained to follow instructions exactly, be it barre, floor, teachers or choreography. They can add expression, emotion or musicality during performances if appropriate, but varying or improvising steps? Not so much. This feeds into and reinforces the perfectionist tendencies of dancers attracted to these forms. “I want to get it (and be) more and more perfect” in the eyes of themselves, the choreographer, the AD, fellow dancers and the audience. A self-perpetuating loop of perfectionism, reinforced by dance culture.

    Take someone with this training and drop them into a form they’re not familiar with and it can generate a massive, and understandable, fear reaction (freeze!) around messing up.

    Dancers tend to self-sort, the perfectionists attracted to more strict forms, the more easy-going attracted to less structured, more improvisational forms. That being said, it’s possible for the perfectionists to learn to go easier on themselves, but usually only through focused therapies to support them in this. 🙂

    • I completely agree.

      The same can be said of high level Ballroom dancers versus Argentine Tango and Swing dancers.

      Dance becomes a quest for better and better physical technique to the detriment of creative expression.

      That’s not to say excellent physical technique is not an absolute requirement for all dancers, but rather that its is only half of what being a dancer should be.

      It’s like saying you are a great painter when all you can do is make perfect copies of old masters. If you can’t create your own paintings or make your own interpretation of music in dance – then all you’ve learnt is technique. Nothing more.

      There is more to dance than this.

      Equally, you can have all the creativity in the world, if you don’t have technique, whatever you do is going to look amateurish.

      You get perfectionists in all forms of dance. The question becomes ‘what do you define as perfection’

      I do wish dancers on both sides of the fence would take the time to understand other forms. Argentine Tango and Swing looks incredibly sloppy to ballet and ballroom dancers – till they try it. Then they freeze.

      The usual question is ‘what steps do I need to learn to do this’ and of course (if you have a good teacher) the answer is, ‘you make the steps up to fit the music’

      I’ve show video’s of top class Swing dancers doing a Jack and Jill (Melissa Rutz, Ben Morris et al) to ballet and ballroom dancers and the reaction is ‘that can’t possibly be improvised’

      Well it can. . . . .

      (a Jack and Jill is a dance where the partners and music are picked at random, check out some video’s on Youtube)

  10. Or, Swing and Argentine Tango are VERY structured. but the structure lies in the music, not physical technique. Unless you understand that structure, you don’t understand what is happening.

    You can’t really appreciate ballet till you have some understanding of the immense physical technique required. The physical structure of what is involved. The skilled dancer makes it look effortless – and of course we all know that it is anything but.

    Similarly when I see a Swing or Argentine Tango dancer perfectly hit an accent I know that that it was planned 32 beats ahead, she analysed the musical structure, communicated with her partner she wanted to be set up there. . . . .all while she was dancing. Not easy.

    An example.

    That kick at 2.11 was set up at about 1.55, incidentally Melissa Rutz was trained to concert level as a ballet dancer and performed with San Francisco ballet.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tK8oJs36raU

  11. Love Ben and Melissa! Great example. They really show whats possible when you master your craft and then let its creative expression flow through you, being created in each moment. I do think forms other than classical ballet and ballroom provide more opportunity to explore this.

    And yes, my 10 years of ballet training provided me with (among other things) a deep appreciation for what it takes to make it look so effortless.

  12. The example was not ‘top of the range’. I used it because clearly in the second set she knows the music and he doesn’t. She has to communicate to him how she wants to be positioned.

    This is top of the range, the dancers are in both cases familiar with the music, but they have not danced with each and are improvising.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqVYEiRpYRE

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qdv4zOYGB0w

    Melissa Rutz in ‘concert mode’

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PUrQ74Id1M

  13. I use Melissa Rutz because she is a very adaptable dancer, Erik Novoa is another example as was the late Jason Colacino. They are not tied to one form.

    Jason Colacino on stage doing show Tango

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mib6_8ET12I

    And in a WCS competion (choreographed)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7XfKf46iZY

    That level of technique doesn’t come on the top of cornflake packets.

  14. And its interesting with Jason Colacino.

    Clearly, his partner, Katie Boyle is the better dancer. Physically she has very tight control of her movements.

    So what makes it work between them?