It’s Never Too Late

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By Genise Caruso

My answer was always the same. When asked, as a small child, what I wanted to be when I grew up, no hesitation or thought was necessary. I wanted to be a ballerina!

One of my earliest and fondest childhood memories was going to Saturday morning ballet class. I still hear a haunting voice calling out, “plié, rélevé, chassé, rond de jambe, chaînés….”Nothing is still so vivid in my mind, or left such a lasting impression. As far back as I can remember, ballerinas fascinated me. They were beyond perfection; ethereal beings, surely not mortal, as no female form my young eyes had seen was as exquisite and flawless. Even Barbie® couldn’t hold a candle to these heavenly creatures.

Like angels or fairy princesses, I believed a magical aura surrounded them. Dressed in silken skirts, flowing with shimmering opulence, or majestic tutus sequined in red, turquoise and gold, their lithe bodies seemed to defy gravity during a grand jeté.

Yet more than the glitter, above the glamour, and beyond the enchantment, my foremost preoccupation was with pointe shoes. I earned my first pair at the tender age of six and nothing in my world was better. I think the fact they were so scarce; the only place that sold them was Capezio Shoes, downtown, (Chicago) made them even more irresistible. Opening that box, unfolding the tissue paper to expose two perfect pink satin slippers, square wooden toe and long satin ribbons that tied around my ankles, was better than all Christmases and birthdays put together.

I have vivid memories wearing my pointe shoes around the house, trying to “break them in,” or bending them back and forth, to get rid of the stiff unnatural arch. When I wasn’t wearing them, I stared at them, even slept so they were the first things I’d see when I woke up. I was so in love with my pointe shoes, I would gladly have given up candy, ice cream and all my toys to keep them. I probably wouldn’t have traded them even if I never had to go to school again!

Every Saturday morning, at 10:00 am, I did pliés, arabesques, frappé, in first position, second position, and sauté, taught by Miss “K.” (I never realized at the time, her last name was actually Kaye) Year after year I danced and when I wasn’t dancing, I was doing cartwheels, handsprings or splits, as acrobatics was a part of the lesson.

Eventually I went from a gawky three-year-old child, to a poised and graceful young lady of 15. There were countless recitals and shows. I even had a part in a professional production of The Nutcracker Suite, but the images I recall most are the beautiful costumes and getting to wear eyeshadow and lipstick.

I had talent; everyone who saw me dance said so. It wasn’t simply in the mind of an enthusiastic child. I was good. I can’t remember a time where my enjoyment or exuberance faded; I always loved dancing. But as the years passed and my body changed, it became more of a disservice than complementary of a dancer. As a child, I was relatively proportionate in height and weight, but rather muscular from my years of ballet. Since a majority of my friends were quite a bit shorter than I was, everyone assumed I’d grow to be above average height. I know better now that despite a persons stature in childhood, it hardly is a determination of the cards we are dealt as an adult.

At the age of 11, I was 4 feet, 11 inches tall, and that is exactly where I remained and to this day, I have never seen the other side of five feet! In addition to my petite nature, I was “blessed” with curves, short muscular legs, no torso and ample hips. In my mind Iwas that slender, long-legged, willowy form, I so envied and worshiped for many years. Yet in reality I had about as much chance pursuing a career as a professional dancer as I would have being a professional model. The buck stopped here.

I gave up my dream of becoming a ‘ballerina,’ and went on with my life, though never really loosing the desire or ability to dance. During high school, I always held dance parts in plays and shows, but became more involved in cheerleading and gymnastics. Occasionally; however, I attempted to return to some type of formal dance classes, and took up jazz, modern dance and even belly dancing, but never again did a plié, or donned a pair of ballet slippers. It wasn’t a lack of interest; more likely a lack of confidence. Worse yet, I guess I always wondered, “what if,” and was afraid returning to ballet may open up some very intense and overpowering memories of a time in my life when I was wide-eyed and hopeful, filled with pipe dreams and wishes upon a star.

A lifetime has passed since I first stepped into Miss “K’s” dance class. I’ve married, divorced, married again and have three sons, ages 14, 18 and 33. Now at the age of 52, I look back on moments in my life, knowing I haven’t always made the best choices or taken the right steps. Many aspects in my life weren’t what I’d hoped for and many decisions led me down counterproductive paths. The older I became the more my attention revolved around negative factors such as wrinkles, gray hair, loosing the ability to bear children and even death. Yet one day I awoke to a great epiphany; no longer plagued with what was lost. I finally realized as I grew older, I grew better and gained far more insight and wisdom than anything lost. Much of the petty, trivial and insignificant concerns I once had were no longer a thought in my mind. Having lived through good times and bad put real priorities in perspective and in general, for the first time maybe in my life, I felt content and was comfortable in my own skin. I may have added a few extra gray hairs, but also gained maturity and trusted my judgment.

I took risks, though not the kind associated with youth. I took a chance on me and after 30+ years decided to go back to school and earn my degree. In 2006 I received my associate degree, with honors and since then have been working on my bachelor degree in English-Professional Writing, also as an honors student.

I’ve come full circle since walking into Miss Kaye’s ballet class. Now when I have a passion or goal, instead of letting more years tick by, I go and grab it. After wanting, wishing and thinking about ballet for some time I decided to stop wanting, wishing and thinking; and start doing and accomplishing my dreams. Now on Monday night, instead of sitting in front of the tube, I am standing tall at the barre, hearing those haunting words, “plié, rélevé, chassé, rond de jambe, chaînés….”

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Improve Flexibility

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Flexibility is an aspect of dance that will help you improve in many areas. It is something you can work on at home between dance classes. Push yourself to gain a greater range of flexibility. Listen to your body and identify your limitations. Stay consistent and disciplined to overcome them.

Warm Up
Always warm up your muscles before you stretch.

Get Started
While stretching, gradually increase how far your muscles are stretched. Hold each stretch for about 20 seconds (time varies from person to person). Holding the stretch will deactivate your muscle spindles, and you should feel a release in the muscle being stretched. Then, you can push the stretch a little further until your muscle spindles activate, and your stretch is naturally stopped. Hold this stretch for a moment and then relax.

Do Not Overstretch
If your muscles start to quiver at any point during your stretching, back off a little. Quivering means your muscles are being overworked.

Watch Your Range
If your range of motion starts to decrease, you have stretched too far. Let your muscles rest and heal.

Young Dancers
While you are still growing, your range of flexibility will probably vary. It is normal to experience a loss of flexibility during growth spurts. Bones grow faster than muscles, and it may take some time to regain your full range. Your body will even out, just keep stretching.

Basic Types of Stretching
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)
The method of contacting and releasing muscles to gain flexibility.

With a partner: Lay on your back, or stand up against a wall. Lift one leg, and have your partner hold it. Then, contract your muscles as your partner pushes your leg toward your chest. Hold this for a few seconds, then relax, and have your partner push your leg closer to your chest. You can repeat this several times, moving the leg a little higher each time.

Caution: This method of stretching is effective but can cause injury if not done properly. Your partner should be credentialed as a personal trainer or physical therapist.

Active Isolated Stretching (AIS)
This method of stretching is similar to PNF, but is safer because you control the range of motion.

Lay on your back, pull your leg toward your chest with your hands or an exercise band. Contract and release muscles, then push, stretch farther, and repeat.

Caution: Pay close attention to how your muscles are feeling so that you don’t over stretch. You can pull a muscle, so use caution. Never yank on your leg.

Method of holding a stretch for a long time.

Method of repeating the movement of a stretch.

Example: reaching forward to touch your toes, then pull back and repeat.

Caution: Keep your movements smooth and controlled, or you will activate your muscle spindles-which is the opposite of what you want.

*Always consult a medical professional before starting a new type of exercise.

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7 Highly Effective Habits In Ballet Training

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By Dianne M. Buxton

A key area of dancing for females is pointe work, and a key area for males is jumping. In early training, regardless of age, there are 7 highly effective habits that will contribute to excellence in both these areas. This analysis can apply to other areas of dance in the same way also, I’m choosing this one for the sake of discussion.

***First, education as to specific physical attributes and shortcomings. Every dancer would like to have long and stretchy Achilles tendons, and flexible ankles. These 2 advantages provide the biggest movement between the bottom of a demi-plie and the take-off point of a releve or jump. One of the dancers in my class at the National Ballet School of Canada had a very shallow demi-plie. Yet, she had very flexible ankles and a high arch, and this gave her the thrust to jump very high.

***Second, technical education . Regardless of physical advantages, understanding of the ideal movements and resulting positions can be obtained from an educated teacher, books, and the many DVD’s available to all through internet stores. There is no restriction on our access to information.

***Third, a teacher who not only has decent credentials, but who has the required habit of demanding correctness in class. This is a variable, and inexperienced teachers do not realize how often they are going to repeat the same old correction over the years of training, to the same students…. in a million different imaginative ways, and with appreciation for your own uniqueness too.

***Fourth, knowing that there is cross-training that will help you compensate for your physical shortcomings. If you are less flexible than you would like to be, there is Pilates, massage, or Yoga. If you are flexible but weak in some areas, Pilates, and weight training will help.

***Fifth, knowing where more details count – if your habit is curiosity, that’s a huge asset. If it’s not, adopt it. Studying anatomy and kinesiology is a plus. (I know you already have homework or a job, or family obligations, but hey, if you are serious about dance, all this is just more fun, right?)

***Sixth, coordinating your knowledge of your physiology, and how you might be compensating detrimentally to get the deepest demi-plie and best take-off that you can, and instead compensate more with cross-training and less with bad habits. It’s only a life-long process, don’t get discouraged.

***Seven, a truly habitual appreciation of your own uniqueness, talents, intelligence, and determination. There will always be an invitation to doubt yourself, envy others’ real or imagined superiority, and waste time thinking negative thoughts.

Proper rest and good nutrition have a lot to do with #7. Body and brain fatigue, and nutritional deficiencies are directly related to mood. Please be curious and get the information you need.

These 7 highly effective habits are just the tip of the icebergs, but they are a great guide to go with until you develop your own uniqueness in training priorities.

About the Author: Dianne M. Buxton is a graduate of the National Ballet School of Canada. She continued dance training at The Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, and Toronto Dance Theatre. She taught at, and choreographed for The National Ballet School, York University, and George Brown College, in Canada, and taught at Harvard University in the U.S. recommends The Ballet Bible – a concise package of textual and visual education for a dance student.

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