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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Difficulty in putting together combinations


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I started ballet classes twice a week) several months ago at over 60 after decades of extensive ballet watching, reading, talking. The class is at the studio of a small regional ballet company, and it is labelled "beginner-intermediate." I've loved the classes (barre especially) and have no complaints about the way the teachers handle the various adults of different experience, ability and age. :(


My problem is that, although I am in excellent shape and can "do" most of the individual movements asked for, I find it very hard to put them together into combinations, especially during center and petit allegro. Despite being rather athletic (and even coordinated in most things) -- and having grown up with a mother who danced professionally and a father who excelled most gracefully at several sports -- I just don't seem to "get it." I had a similar problem recently, re-teaching myself to do the crawl properly (all swimming elements of strock, back, core, legs, kick, working together.)


Just yesterday, after 4 months of watching others, looking at videos and photos and practicing on my own, I FINALLY was able to put together all element of a pirouette without having to think about it, usually getting confused as a result.

Balance was less than vertical, but it did look -- and, more to the point, FEEL -- like a pirouette. Now I can repeat it fairly comfortably.


Two questions:

(a) have any other adult students had similar problems (doing what)?

(B) how did you address and resolve the problem?

Edited by bart
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When I was a teenager I had the same problem! (I gave up because of it! B))

So I don't think it's age-related, I think it's just got to do with not being used to dancing. I used to do other sports, but none of them involved doing so many different things in a very precise way, in all these different parts of the body.

Recently I went to a pilates class that I found really hard for the same reason, and everybody told me it was just something you get better at when you take more ballet/pilates/dance classes.

So I think it will get better if we just keep going!




Edited by Cathy
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I have very similar troubles to you.

I am a 23 year old adult who had danced for years, stopped for 5 and then started ballet (a form of dance I never did).


I take in a children's class instead of the adult class and the teacher's mantra for combinations is often "If you can say it, you can do it." This never seems to be the case for me. I can say, glissade, assembly, jete, jete all I want, but when it is to tempo I trip all over my feet.


What has helped me is to know that it is okay to do things at my own rate (as long as it is still appropriate for the level) I need slow repetition before I can get up to speed. The little ones (9-10 year olds, in my class) seem to "get it" much faster, but they have a harder time remembering what the long combination was.


We all have our strengths.



And congratulations on your pirouette!

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Good for you, bart...

A while ago there was a fascinating tv programme here presented by Darcy Bussell, talking about the way the neurones and synapses in the brain needed to make a dancer get physically shaped by repetition. Until you have done something often enough your brain isn't configured to send the messages to your body to do what it's supposed to. I thought that was hugely comforting - even Darcy Bussell has to practice various combinations in her kitchen, cooking supper, until she gets it right!

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... a good reason to mention that the website for that BBC series The Dancer's Body is still online.


In one sequence a neurologist explained how children learnt proprioception and the Kathak performer, Akram Khan illustrated the complexity of moving limbs in independent sequence. The brain resists such movements initially. The body copes by developing mini-networks of muscle memory. Dancers command them, Deborah Bull explained, as “a package deal.”


A laboratory experiment carried out for the series demonstrated what happens in dancers’ brains when they dance. Bull has her brain scanned, first when watching an orchestral version of the Shostakovich score to Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto, which she had been rehearsing, and then when watching a danced performance. A neuroscientist measured the contrasts in brain activity. Bull’s brain was uniquely activated in the premotor cortex part of her brain; this was also the case when she was asked to imagine the movement without aid of an actual video. It was powerful supporting evidence for the role of ‘imaging’, of imagining steps before performing them. It strengthens ‘neural pathways’ and reinforces the case for a brain as well as a body warm-up before performance.


In another sequence Anthony Dowell coached Jonathan Cope in the role in Four Schumann Pieces, created for him in 1970 by Hans Van Manen, which he had last danced more than 20 years before. The original Benesh notator, Jacqui Hollander, watched as he attempts to remember the choreography:


Dowell “I think I had to wait here with the hands clasped and the lifts went behind me and on a certain note I had to listen and look – here I did something like this.


Hollander; "You’re turning the wrong way! The way it was done, Anthony, was for you to turn left!”


Dowell's memory kicked back into life, as Henry Roche played the piano score, stimulated by the music. He blanked. “Double tours – no longer I’ve blocked that out!” In this case there is a video as well as a notated record. What is evident is that the outline remains, but that “the little things go.”.

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Learning combinations quickly is often one of the first problems beginning students encounter. I remember when I first started beginner classes (I was 52 at the time) I would leave class literally with a headache, my brain was working so hard to remember what I was being asked to do.


The good thing is that it’s common, and with patience you remarkably get better at remembering combinations. So just keep at it and don’t be too discouraged about it. I take class with some professionals and teachers and I have seen them all goof up combinations, leading me to conclude that everyone forgets from time to time. My observation also (based on a small sample I admit) is that we males seem to goof up more often than do females, even at the professional level.


There is a psychological attribute called kinesthetic intelligence. You can think of it as the ability to either be asked to do some movement and then do it or to see a movement and copy it. Dancers have a lot of kinesthetic intelligence. The good thing is that kinesthetic intelligence can be developed with practice. The moral again is patience.


One thing you can do that I think speeds the process is to start recording as many combinations as you can remember and practicing them at home to counts (either music or simple counting). In doing this, you will start to see their structure and with time start to see movement in groupings of steps rather than one step at a time. You will also find that teachers tend to reuse certain parts of combinations. Teachers get in their own ruts so to speak.


It also seems that we older folk have a little more difficulty than do younger folk, center combinations are more difficult to remember (especially a fast petite allegro) than barre combinations, and the more we think about technical things, the more likely we are to goof up (in that sense I’d say goofing up is good).


One last trick that I know many of my peers employ (include me in that too) is to always position yourself so that you can glance at someone who never makes a mistake. There is always someone in class like that. Don’t watch them, but keep them in sight in case you need a reminder about what comes next.

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I second all the answers- it is basically a long process of repetition and routine. I have had the same problems as a teenager (started ballet at 14, stopped at almost 19 and now being back for one year already at 21). Some people need more time to pick them up and memorize combinations than others- I always was one of the "slower" brains in terms of memory. But repetition and practise helps.

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Muscle memory, kinesthesia, proprioception, and the ability to put things together in combinations is something like teaching the body a sort of calculus and the longer it's been used to simple algebra (ordinary movement), the trickier it is to inculcate the ballet calculus.

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Guest Irene

There isn't anything unusual about your situation. :) I'm in ballet 2 years now and I still am slow in picking up the combinations. Everyone is different, they move at different paces. I'm picking things up faster now (especially since I did recital this year and got more experience putting things together) but I still see that I'm slower than others in class. I just have to work at it more.


>>Two questions:

>>(a) have any other adult students had similar problems (doing what)?


I personally have a hard time getting the foot/leg movements in with the arm movements. I'm a bit coordination challenged. :) I tend to stress myself out and my mind goes blank too. I "think" and worry about it in class too much too. I think that will work itself out with time and experience.


>>( how did you address and resolve the problem?


The thing I've started doing is visualizing the combination outside of class. My teacher thankfully breaks things down for us to see it "step by step" both for feet and arms. So I'll sit there outside of class and literally think the combination through slowly at first and speed it up. I'll include everything eventually from the foot movement to arms and head so everything looks fluid and graceful. Now that teaches me the movements. Whether or not I can physically get it all nice and graceful is another story. :P But this helps me out a lot.


I hope that helps a bit! Keep it up and have fun! :) Good luck!



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Hi Bart,


Congratulations on starting ballet! I was very much like you in the sense that I read extensively about the art, talked about it, watched performances and videos, but never gathered up the courage to try ....until 4 weeks ago, at age 22. I took a 3 week long intensive, (3 hours per day), so I had A LOT of combinations to remember from day to day. I know I'm not even close to being an advanced dancer or anything, but I do have a couple of tips that may help you with combinations....


1) Never stop counting the music! EVER! I don't mean that you always have to be mentally saying 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4, but try to say the names of the steps in tempo with the music that you're doing the steps to. So, if I were to do a combination that went like this (in 4 time): pas de bourrée to the left, pas de bourrée to the right, step to the right and soutenu, pas de bourree to the right, pas de chat, grand jeté, I might count it in my head as pas de bou-right, pas de bou-left, step sou-te-nu, pas de bou right, pas de chat and, graaaand jeté!


{I'm sure you do this at the barre quite naturally- it's hard not to, especially when you're just learning a barre combination and the ballet mistress or master speaks through the barre combinations...and ten-du, re-le-vé, and ten-du, and pli-é!}


2) Write down the combinations that you learn as soon as you can after class. If possible, jot them down while your teacher is still there so that if you have any questions you can ask. Having the combination clear in your mind is half the battle.


3) Sit with your combination notes when you have free time (preferably before your next class) and listen to music and either visualize yourself doing the combinations, or mark the combinations.


I hope that helps!



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I also wanted to add that it really helps if you think about the purpose of each movement. In pirouettes, for example, think about where your momentum is coming from- when do your arms need to be in front of you? in 2nd? Which arm is "pulling you around"? Why does the head have to spot? When does the non-working leg come up, and why? What has to change when you change the direction of your pirouette?


Are the arms and legs mirroring each other in any way? For example, do the arms open and close when the legs do? We do a pas de bourree step in which (let's say you're travelling to the right) you start with your right foot behind your left and your arms low in preparation, then as you step out with the right foot, the arms are raised to chest height and then opened to 2nd position, and as you step with your left foot and bring the step to a close, your arms also "close" by curving down to the low position, and you're ready to do another pas de bourree.



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What part of Florida are you in? I'll be in Jacksonville July 10 - 13 to interview a dancer for the adult ballet documentary I'm shooting. If you're nearby, I'd love to interview you as well.


More info about the doc: Adult Dance Documentary


You can email me at isfilms@comcast.net if you're interested.



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Many thanks for all these incredible responses. It's good to know this is problem is shared -- and that there are steps to take, a day at a time, to resolve them. The advice "keep at it" is probably the best and kindest anyone can give.


I've started working on a number of the techniques you all have suggested -- practicing at home (right after class), writing down the combinations. The idea of "thinking about the purpose" of the move (as in a piroutette) is especially helpful. I'm also pursuing the Dancer's Body video (partly since Darcy Bussell is a favorite of mine who, I would have thought, was a natural who faced few of these difficulties). Also, garyecht, I've followed your posts on other topics and always appreciate what you write and what you've done, starting at an older age. 2 Left Feet, your project is impressive; I hope everyone interested in older dancers checks it out. (Right now, I don't think of myself right now as "dancing" -- more a matter of learning the components that might, eventually, become a v-e-r-y short dance.


Although I more often spend time on the other Ballet Talk board, I am staggered by the high level of involvement, knowledge, caring and mutual aid on BT for Dancers. Thanks again.

Edited by bart
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A follow up: your advice is working, and I'm able to do the first half of barre quite comfortably now. One thing that helps a lot is when the teacher basically repeats a combination (once slow, then faster -- once flat footed, then in releve -- once in tendu, then in degage). The more repetitions, the better my muscle memory. It's great.


Our Beginner-Intermediate class has, for the summer, been transformed into a "Basics" class -- including a few company dancers !!! -- which actually makes the Barre and Center easier to follow. However, petit allegro becomes rather hectic, with the first groups flying through multiple leaps and turns at top speed, and the less skilled bumping along at the end to v-e-r-y- s-l-o-w music indeed. Last night's progression: pique jump/ re-aim towards the corner/ pas de bouree/ amble/ glissade (always easy)/ pas de chat with glissade and pas de chat starting to look like the same step after a while/ jete with rear leg dangling/ limp off the floor.


People are pretty nice about it, though.

Edited by bart
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