Ballet has shaped how I think about exercise and movement. My experience with ballet was marked with beauty and strength, focus and challenge. And that’s how I want to move now. I want to move within beauty. I want to grow stronger. I want to learn to focus, control, and challenge both my mind and body. Ballet has given me the tools to notice what kind of movement is most sustainable and nurturing to my life and creativity.
I can barely remember not being in ballet. I am not sure when I started—perhaps when I was four or five. I have a few memories of going to studio in California with a room full of little girls pretending to be trees and bunnies. Sway your hands, trees. Hop hop hop, bunnies.
But when we moved to Wisconsin, somehow I started at the more serious Milwaukee School of Ballet. There were no bunny hops, swaying trees, or glittery, fluffy tutus. There were standard issue light pink tights and colored leotards that corresponded to what level/class you were in. At level four you could wear a simple, shear, short, black wrap skirt to class along with your royal blue leotard.
Classes were in an ancient building with creaky wooden floors stained with resin and chalk. There was an Eastern European woman named Tatiana with a thick accent who accompanied the class on the piano. And there was never any talking. We routinely did our bar work with its exotic names: plié, tendu, dégagé, rond de jambe, and grand battement. It was some time before I knew that those were French words for “bend,” “stretch,” “disengage,” “around the leg,” and (strangely enough for what looks like a controlled kick) “large beating.” Once a year we prepared a piece for the spring “Showcase” performed in high buns with dozens of bobby pins, a hair net, and several ounces of gel to ensure not a hair would move. It was a showcase of control and precision.
At age 12, when I moved to New Jersey, my new ballet teacher said with some disdain that I had learned “boxy, Russian” ballet. She then spent the next six months sporadically yelling at me to have softer elbows and hands. In the New Jersey recitals, there were fluffy sky blue tutus with tiny rosebuds. This was a much more beautiful and graceful style of ballet.
I was neither particularly good nor bad at ballet. I simply went, focused, and learned to control and notice my body. I learned to land a pirouette on the beat. I learned, eventually, to soften my hands and elbows – looking more like that early swaying tree than a wind up toy. I liked working on stretching my leg further, pushing my legs to jump higher, and learning more complex steps.
Outside of first grade t-ball and one rather disastrous summer between sixth and seventh grade when my dad convinced me to play softball, I’ve never played team sports. I joined the cross-country ski team in eleventh grade, and learned a lot about perseverance. In skiing I also found that my ability to move with precision and coordination from ballet could translate into another arena.
Moving to Northern Wisconsin for high school meant that there was enough snow to ski but also that the closest ballet classes were an hour away in Hudson. And when I started to take AP classes, I stop taking ballet classes altogether. Instead, for two years I taught an adult beginner ballet class at the local arts center.
Occasionally I miss the ballet classes, but over the years I’ve found that ballet has followed me to modern dance and Pilates classes, to dancing at weddings or in my living room. Now I have found that a weekly routine of walking, doing yoga, lifting weights, and sprinting draws on the best parts of the beauty and strength of ballet.
Walking is main base of my movement. I walk to go places. I walk to talk with people. I walk to see beauty. I walk to be alone. If I had an ideal day, I would walk ten miles a day. But I rarely get days that afford me three hours to just walk. Most days I make the two-mile walk to the playground with a stroller, and after work I walk around the neighborhood for an hour, since Evan tutors until 9. Sometimes I listen to a pod-cast or an audio book. I’ve enjoyed running in the past, but what I love about walking is that I almost always feel good enough for a walk.
Yoga draws a lot on what I learned in dance. It is about strength and focus and control and breathing. Sometimes I follow a 20-minute DVD routine; sometimes I just practice for twenty minutes on my own. I think I’ve attended seven yoga classes in my whole life, which seems small compared to the hundreds of ballet classes. But yoga classes aren’t in the budget right now, and I like how much I can do yoga whenever it works for me. I like to learn new moves and work slowly up to doing new things.
My weights and sprinting only take ten minutes all week. It’s a simple routine. I do 75 kettle bell swings every two or three days. And once a week I do four 20-second running sprints with 10 second rests in between them. Eventually I’d like to be able do three to six of those sprint cycles, but right now I can do one set consistently. Little bursts of full-out work are effective and manageable.
I never dreaded going to ballet. It always seemed to me to be as hard as I wanted to make it. It could be peaceful and quiet or energetic and vibrant. I strive to make the ways that I exercise be that way as well. On days that I feel tired and worn, I walk slowly and stretch gently. On days I feel strong and want to push, I lift heavy weights, sprint, walk further, and fill my yoga with long holds.
Movement helps me have the strength and focus to create. It connects me to my body. It is a medium of creation and communication. It teaches me about patience and building muscles to become strong enough to do something I couldn’t do before.
How do you incorporate movement into your life? How do you see the links between movement and creativity?
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