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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Are adult beginners always going to look amateurish?


Tari

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I’m very passionate about ballet and my goal is to become the best I can be. Obviously not a professional, but I take my dancing very seriously. I would like to become as good as my body allows.

 

What worries me is this: I notice a great difference in quality of movement between preprofessional students and adult students. Especially in the upper body, head, gaze, Arms, back, épaulement. but also in the precision and dynamics of the lower body. For example, one thing I want to learn is this echo effect of the arms, if you know what I mean: The arms move slighly behind the music and give the movement a legato quality.

 

I was in class last night with a lovely dancer who spent her youth in preprofessional schools, and whenever I came up from a cambré or lowered my leg in time with the music, she was still in the movement.

 

I’m sure all this can be taught, even to people with less than ideal bodies? Why is it not taught? Is it just deemed a waste of time, because adults won’t become professionals anyway? Or is it only my teachers? I ask them again and again for more corrections, but they only correct a fraction of my mistakes and tell me that my technique and placement are clean and I work intelligently and am making progress. But I feel stiff and robotic. I try to use my upper body more, but I’m sure I’m doing things wrong.

 

I guess my question is: Teachers, what can I do? Except look for other teachers, because I have changed schools a lot and these are the best I can find. Should I video myself? Keep it down until I’m more advanced? Just accept that I’ll never look elegant dancing?

 

Adult students, have you noticed this difference, too? Or are you taught how to use your shoulders, fingers and heads, how to phrase movements etc.?

 

My dance background: I started ballet at 23 and am now 27. I have been taking five to six classes a week for the last few months, with four different teachers. Because I am overweight, I don’t do jumps or pointe, to save my joints (except for a brief time, but I had to stop because of pain) and I’m currently reducing my weight, hoping to be able to do everything soon.

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Yes! Adults can learn to move beautifully! It sounds like you are well on your way - so many "newer-to-ballet" teens and adults do not notice the phrasing, the use of shoulders, heads and fingers, etc., since they're too busy concentrating on what the darn steps are. You are noticing it! You are seeing what you like in others and noticing what makes it different from the rest of the class. It's OK to copy that and make it your own. There's a woman in one of the teen/adult classes at our studio that is new to us this year. She is - well, large is the only way to put it. Her extensions are low, and she doesn't jump much. But, she uses her feel nicely, and her placement and port de bras are beautiful. It makes you want to watch her in class.

 

The wonderful thing about port de bras is that it can easily be practiced on your own in front of a mirror. Since you're not jumping in class right now, that's a great time to work on arms, head, and back. Hang in there, it will happen (it probably already is happening, you're just not noticing since it's gradual :thumbsup: ).

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You'll find many amazing adult dancers all over the place. Clean and beautiful quality of movement comes from clean and beautiful technique first and foremost. I may sound like a broken record saying this, but if you don't know all your positions, how can you be expected to move or transition through them naturally much less beautifully? If balancing is not second nature yet, how can your upper body look or feel confident about choreography if you aren't confident about staying on your balance? Before you decide if ought to have your arms in high 3rd or "wili pose" for a grande saut de chat/jeté, you might want to be able to actually soar into a leap first.

 

Don't worry, the fact that you can see the difference is already a first step for you. The next step is to keep going to class and keep making ballet second nature to your muscles. God, now I hope I'm not one of those amateurish looking adults doling out advice! lol Seriously though, you're going to encounter adult dancers all over the place that are simply amazing - your goal is to enjoy the way they look and keep improving yourself so that one day you will be satisfied with how you also dance.

 

P.S. I admit that certain minor things like extending epaulment through music was taught by my teachers too. They'd yell, "What is rush to get up? Listen to music!!!!"

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From my experience, a LOT can be accomplished by dancers who begin ballet as adults, but they also have a number of challenges. Our strengths can also be our weaknesses...

 

First, adult beginners have intellectual and physical abilities beyond those of child beginners. We have the intellect to understand the mechanics of what's asked of us. We have the strength to do things 7-year-olds cannot. That means we tend to move faster through our early ballet development than children do, and we tend to learn more principles at a time. But it also means we miss the basic drilling that goes on in slowly-progressing children's beginner classes.

 

Second, with all that wisdom, adult beginners also bring some baggage into ballet: in particular, practised posture and movement patterns from life or other hobbies/activities that do not match the ballet aesthetic, combined with day-to-day obligations (hello desk jobs!) that don't help matters. These habits and handicaps to learning are difficult to overcome.

 

Third, the overwhelming majority of adult beginners will be amateur dancers for their whole lives, so in all likelihood they will look like amateur dancers, though perhaps very, very good amateurs. I don't say this as a derogatory thing. It's just a fact! I will be the first to say that I don't look like a professional ballet dancer, but that doesn't mean I'm not a good dancer or a dancer who attracts the eye or a dancer with a tonne of potential. I could be any or all of those things.

 

I don't mean to be discouraging, just to be realistic about the potential we have as adult beginners as well as the reasons why it is challenging (note: not impossible!) for us to look like we've had excellent training since childhood, especially with only a small amount of training in the grand scheme of things. If having that "quality" is your goal, continue to focus on it and be patient -- I'm sure it's happening bit by bit.

 

 

With respect to what you call the "echo effect"... I personally would not think of this phenomenon in terms of the arms moving slightly behind the music, because in general the arms should arrive with or even just barely before the legs (you could think of the arms as leading the legs). Instead, my suggestion is to think of this as a matter of musicality. Sometimes, it is important to dance squarely on the music. But there is tremendous beauty in sometimes playing with the music by slowing down one movement (as delivered by the whole body, not just the arms/upper body) and then borrowing time from the next movement to make up for it. It makes choreography dynamic and interesting.

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Where I dance there are non-professional adults who are really really good. But I have to say that they are not as good as the professionals in the company and it is quite noticeable to my eye. Sooooo? I mean there is a reason why professionals are professionals and why non-professionals aren't professionals.

 

I also think that ballet is a skill that's something like playing the piano or learning a language. That is, it's easier to learn when you start young. I think it's like learning a language when you are older. An older person is probably going to always have an accent. In ballet, one who begins late is never going to look like someone who who had significant training as a youngster.

 

Sooooooo?

 

I think adult ballet is about enjoying the activity. Yes, we all want to get better than we are. Part of the fun, at least to me, is learning and developing skill in the activity. Adults have lots of time to develop those skills. At first we are eager and impatient. But I think the "secret" to development as an adult is to take a breath and then accept yourself for the ability you have and realize that with patience, persistence and practice you will get better than you are right now. That's all you can ask.

 

I also believe that we adults are responsible for our own development. Development is not a simple enterprise. Teachers are important in that they do point the way. But there are many ways, and what may work for one, does nothing for another. I remember once a teacher I had told us that we knew every technical aspect of a certain step combination, so all we had to do was to just "dance it." Of course none of us in the class looked like he did when he demonstrated it. Being around people who are better than you are is also good because you can follow their model at times. Dance is an education. You learn a lot about yourself. You look at the world different. You react to situations different. That's what's so good about being an adult dancer.

 

As I said, with patience, practice and persistence you will improve. How much you don't know.

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Hey Tari!

So glad you posted this!!!! I know EXACTLY what you mean! I also strive to look better and better and as much like a pro as possible but SOOO know my limitations!

I just got a correction the other day for using my hands in an amateurish way..made me sad but he was so right! :(

I thought I was really dancing but I was not elongating my arms enough and was being fiddly with my hands while doing pas de bourrees accross the floor and then felt like an idiot!

I think less is more when you are still learning it seems. When I think I am really getting somewhere I always seem to get a symbolic slap on the wrist from someone who knows more than me and then get depressed again that I will never really be any good.

 

For sure, precision is a major difference between adult beginner and pro..as is extreme artistry...and it's more rare for an adult beginner to have both.

I see adult beginners who look lovely in their port de bras and heads but they are not turned out or can't remember combinations or can't do a tight fifth. I see beginner adults who danced a little as kids and have some nice qualities but rarely all of them.

They might have great extentions height wise but again can't stay turned out or look clumsy in turns.

 

Occasionally I will see an AMAZING adult who clearly could've been good enough to be a pro but they didn't have the body or the feet or the desire to pursue a professional career. These dancers are often the best in classes I take. They dance amazingly and it doesn't seem to matter that they are a little heavy or they have a large head or the wrong proportions. They can dance like pros!

 

I often feel that the best I can ever be is someone who can do nice port de bras when she is subtle, can act a bit, has good feet and nice hyperextention but realistically will always look like an amateur, sadly, as certain things are just really hard to pick up on as an adult... For example, lengthening the back seems very hard for me, remembering to stay elastic and to use the plie correctly and having poor turnout and barely average extensions...these things are hard to improve :(

 

Great discussion! I love what folks have posted on here :) I look forward to reading more!!

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Well, here's the thing. And it's a hard lesson to learn in ballet:

 

It's never enough.

 

What do I mean? Well, aesthetics and artistry and even some forms of technique vary greatly. A top dancer at a top company nationally can go to another company, ranked equally as high nationally, and look clumsy. Or can go to another company in another country and not meet that aesthetic.

 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

 

So, even what we mean by 'looking' amateur vs. professional probably varies greatly in our heads.

 

I think gav's post above is fantastic. Part of the trouble we have as adults is we can compute and interpret things so much faster... but it can be harder to translate it to our bodies. And if your teacher isn't correcting something, don't blame them! There's a lot to work on, and teachers have to pick and choose the most important thing. I have, however, seen adults (who began as adults) achieve amazing things. But it takes time. Remember, a lot of that 'finishing' happens in the final years of training, right before people start auditioning for companies, and TONS of artistic training continues in company life. To build on La Sylphide's ideas - you've gotta be able to get through that variation or that exercise technically before I start to add the flowers on top. Patience is a virtue in dance. It's hard, sometimes, but it totally pays off.

 

And, don't feel like an idiot. That's counter productive. Feel great that someone noticed, paid attention, and gave you a correction. If the correction was on artistry or musicality, feel great that you got a correction beyond technique - suggesting that you could start diverting a bit of attention to the more artistic.

 

Two tips:

 

1 - watch, watch, watch, and listen, listen, listen. To everyone, every correction, every dancer that catches your eye - figure out why. Watch ballet in the theater, on videos, on youtube, whatever -- figure out what it is that fits your own personal aesthetic.

 

And

 

2 - My biggest tip. Don't be afraid to show your joy. We all dance because we love it, and it's easy to get super serious and tense in class and keep ourselves from emoting. Be happy, and let the music and movement speak to you. It's like that old song - "More than words..." More than words is all we got at the ballet.

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I have been dancing for about three years and definitely still look very "amateurish." That's because I'm still learning the basics, but I'm also an adult with adult obligations. I have an adult job, adult student loan payments, an adult mortgage, etc. I simply do not have the time, money, or energy to perfect my ballet skills the way a pre-pro 16 year old might. So, will I always look amateurish? Probably. That doesn't mean that I won't eventually develop good technique or a lovely aesthetic, but I may never overcome the limitations of my lifestyle, my age, and my lack of previous ballet training. I do take advantage of the few opportunities I have to really challenge myself - I dance alongside the teens in a yearly recital (I'm doing Don Q's Kitri variation this year), take extra classes when possible and I am becoming quite proficient en pointe. I enjoy these experiences and I'm happy with the progress I am making.

 

As for getting better is concerned: I have found that hard work and consistency pays off, but I benefit the most when I have beautiful dancers to watch. I left my current studio for a month last summer to take classes at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Since the company is on hiatus in the summer, the professional dancers take the adult open classes. For a month, I took classes from and danced next to some of my favorite local dancers and when I returned to my regular studio, everyone noticed a subtle but significant change in my technique and confidence. One month at OBT did more for my dancing than months of classes at my regular studio. :thumbsup:

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I simply do not have the time, money, or energy to perfect my ballet skills the way a pre-pro 16 year old might.

 

This is a huge thing. I recall reading about a study of violin students that had compared the habits of "world class" students vs. "good" students, and found that the key difference between the two was mainly how much time they spent practicing on their own. In other words, while talent/natural ability may have helped them reach a certain level, beyond that point it just came down to how much time they put into it. Though in ballet, moreso than in music I imagine, there is also a physical hurdle that gets harder to overcome as you age, I've often wondered how much of the gap between the adult amateur dancer and the professional is just a function of the lesser time commitment made by most adults.

 

Even if you could find the sort of intensive and detailed training that pre-pro students get (unlike the average adult open class, where teachers must cater to a mix of levels and abilities and ages), finding the time to train 5-6 times a week as would be required of a pre-pro teenager is nearly impossible if you're working full-time, cooking and cleaning for yourself at the end of the day, trying to maintain a social life, and in many cases, caring for children.

 

I have, however, seen great improvements in myself since I started ballet ~5 years ago, and even better, many of those improvements are sticking around even when I take 6 months or a year off ballet. It is encouraging to think that applying oneself, even past the age of 18, and even with less dedication than a pre-professional dancer, can yield lasting results!

Edited by Kendra
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Great post - though I have been dancing for most of my life (over 30 years), my dedicated ballet training didn't really start until I was in my early 30s. I feel as though I have good feet and good turnout, but my port de bras leaves a lot to be desired... I was never taught a proper port de bras as a child, plus I have long arms so those two factors together result in some "interesting" movements :blushing: . In traveling steps, my port de bras tends to be opposite of what they should be, or it seems as though I'm flailing all over the place. It is definitely a process. My port de bras has certainly improved, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. My teacher will give me the occasional reminder about my arms, but it is taking awhile for it to become muscle memory...

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Here's my 2cents: you haven't been dancing that long yet (3-4 years) and Rome wants built in a day. You say you have been taking 5-6 classes per week for the last few months with various teachers. How often did you dance before that?...don't be so hard on yourself. This takes years and years and many many classes. It might help if there was more consistency and not so many different teachers. I came to ballet late...I took 2-3 classes per day with only 2 teachers...and it took years before I looked like a professional. Keep working, don't get discouraged and remember that you love to dance...it will come

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Wow, thank you all for the great replies!

 

LaFilleSylphide: I know that, and I don’t want to rush and do steps that are beyond me. I’d just like to learn to do everything precisely and correctly, including the upper body. Thank you for the good advice. :flowers:

 

gav: Of course, and I don’t want to look like a professional. Well, I would like to, but I know I never will. It would be great, however, to learn to move like them! :wub:

And about that echo thing, I think you have a better grasp of that than I. I just saw it and tried to explain it, but as you said, it’s not about actually being behind the music, but about what is probably meant by phrasing.

 

Garyecht: Thank you. And I DO enjoy it. More than anything.

 

BlleFille: I don’t even mean turnout or proportions and things we can’t change. I have no illusions that I’m suddenly going to develop into a turned-out, willowy, long-limbed dancer, no matter how hard I work. And up until recently, I fully agreed with the concept ‚less is more for a beginner’. But I have passion and a growing need to express something when I move, so I would like to be taught HOW to do it tastefully and correctly. Because at the moment, I am beginning to experiment, but then I feel foolish and as if I was just ‚emoting around’, and being overweight makes it even harder to expose myself if I am unsure whether what I do is beautiful or ridiculous.

 

Ami: Great advice. And I also read read read, especially here on BT4D, ever since I started. Thank you!

 

Lilcris: Yes, WATCHING good dancers helps, definitely. But I can’t (yet) be in class with them and keep a sufficient amount of self-confidence to make it a positive experience. Working on it...

 

Kendra: I didn’t use to have enough time and money, but at the moment the six classes a week are there, and they are mostly not open classes, but small groups with consistent progress, so I’m lucky.

 

Willimus: Thank you for your wise words. :) Before, I took 2-4 classes. And I have to have so many teachers, because otherwise I can’t get enough classes. They each focus on different aspects, and I know enough by now not to get confused. For the moment, it’s fine.

 

Once again, thank you and please keep sharing your thoughts on this topic. Also, what do the teachers think?

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Guest Pas de Quoi

Hi Tari:

 

Absolutely you can learn to dance beautifully, with solid technique, grace and expression even though you started ballet as an adult. I find much joy in teaching adult beginners. They are so enthusiastic and so motivated to advance.

 

Here are my suggestions - Watch as much really good ballet as you can - both live performances and non-live performances such as DVD's, tv shows, etc. Observe other more advanced classes if you can. See what those dancers are doing that you want to be able to do. Try to find classes for yourself in which the teacher emphasizes expression, gives exercises for port de bras, gives choreography that moves across the floor (such as pas de waltz, theatrical pas de basque, demi -character steps like pas de polka, mazurka, gallops, etc.) and encourages the students to use the technique of ballet to aid in their artistic expression. Ballet is an artistic endeavor and should not be taught as if it were an exercise class with fancy names for the movements! Consider taking a Flamenco or Classical Spanish dance class in addition to ballet. These forms of dance will help tremendously with musicality and upper body expression. Listen to as much ballet music as you can - it really helps with artistic expression when a dancer knows the music being used for a certain exercise. Keep your goals in mind - if you know what it is you want to accomplish, you are well on your way to doing just that.

 

 

With regards to the timing of arms and legs, these videos are great for analyzing which moves first, the legs or the arms. In this one, the legs seem to move first and the arms seem to respond. In actuality this dancer is using her upper body in coordination with the legs, however the arms seem to lag behind ever so slightly, which gives the dancer the illusion of floating.

It is this timing and dynamic movement quality that I teach to my students. Another great resource for learning about the timing and coordination of arms and legs are the many DVD's by Finis Jhung. He does a great job breaking things down for the beginner and also for more advanced level students. Here is the website: http://www.balletdynamics.com/

 

I would love to have you in my class! Good luck to you - I hope you will check back in with updates from time to time!

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You absolutely can learn those things, and there ARE teachers who are stressing it with adult students as much as they would with non-adults.

Edited by NoTwoSnowflakes
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I may be in the minority on this...but I really believe that it is the upper body more than the legs that make someone "look like a dancer". Listen to what your teachers say about the back, the arms, the torso, the abdomen....this is soooooooo important and not every teacher (in my opinion) spends enough time on these things. Sure...the legs are important. But a gorgeous port de bras goes a very long way.

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