Berlin – The Studio, The Warmups, and Ballet Class

Berlin – The Studio, The Warmups, and Ballet Class

It is winter when I arrive in Berlin, and I become aware of how far north I have traveled.
In Berlin, I felt as if I was in this dark, wet, cold place ….

Each morning, I would get on the U-Bahn, in the dark, to go to class and hopefully rehearsal, only to go home in the pitch dark once again on the German Subway system.
For a sunshine-addicted, Texas girl … that alone … was a challenge.
I am sort of like a bear in the winter. I want to curl up with a good book, a cup of coco, and stay warm and sleepy by a fireplace.

But that was not the way it was going to be in Berlin.

I would get to the theater early because the cleaning ladies would have cleaned the ballet studios with Ammonia and had opened all the windows to air out the smell of sweat and effort.
I appreciate what they must have walked into each evening after all our hard work. And I even now appreciate the shock of the cold, brisk, air as a way to wake me up and stimulate my senses to pay attention.

The ballet studio would be freezing cold and smelled of the determined “Putzfrauen.”
I would immediately close all the windows and allow the radiant heaters to warm the room back up.

That process was slow as the studios were quite large and the radiators were along the window side of the studio.

Bundled up in as many warm things as I could wear, I would start darning shoes or go back up to the dressing room (as it was warmer) and put lacquer into the toes of my point shoes and then stand them up (on their tips) so that the lacquer would stay in the base of the point shoe and reharden the toe, so I could use these shoes for rehearsals.

This was a technique that all the dancers did at the time because breaking shoes in was quite a chore. Once they are broken in … the only problem was that the tip would become too soft to stand on without causing pain.
And shoes are expensive!

The Berlin Ballet and all professional companies pay for a dancer’s shoes, but one still likes to be able to reuse them … at least for classes and rehearsals.

Once the studio was warmer … I would go down and stretch.

This is a ritual for all dancers, male or female.

While dancers are strong, they also must be very supple and flexible.

All warming up rituals for dancers include a lot of ways to stretch, soften the hips, knees, ankles, and spine. Each dancer has their routines that they do.

To us, this is a habit that borders on superstition.

What I mean by that … is that we really become accustomed to the ways that we believe make us a better dancer.
We are attached to our routines in slightly fanatic ways.

Dancers are comfortable with repetition. All classes are that way. Rehearsals are all about doing the same things again and again, until the muscle memory is automatic and can be recalled instantly.
We unconsciously create our own warmup routines and while there are variations because of being injured previously, or stiff from that week’s rehearsals … we are all trying to loosen the knots, release the kinks in our muscles, and with that repetition for our stretches, to calm our nerves and center our mind.

Oh … And we chat with each other while we are doing them.
I could see (early on) that the ability to feel flexible also promoted a more flexible mindset. When we are warmed up and feeling loose, we are more open to feedback and handle criticism more easily.

While dancers try to deal with the constant criticism of ballet with grace, it does get to us.

We just don’t often show it.

That is because inside we are always fighting with ourselves in some way … shape … or form.
One cannot get to the top in ballet without having an eye that is clearly able to discern the potential inadequacies that the mirror in the studio consistently wants to show us.
We do not have that steely mindset without being willing to do things over and over again until some perfectionist inside is satisfied.
We know our body better than most “normal” humans and we understand what it needs and requires to perform at the highest level.
But each teacher has their own … shall we say … style.
They too have been dancers and understand the rigors required and have their own sets of beliefs, rituals, and programming as to what will make the best dancers better.
That is where things can clash.
The beginning of every dancer’s day is class. That hour and a half sets the tone for the day in each dancer. It sets not just the abilities of the body but the emotional sense of well-being and confidence inside as well.
A good class should prepare the dancer for the rehearsals ahead, the style of dance required in those rehearsals, and help dancers gain strength while challenging their heart and mind.

Great teachers are a huge help with all that.
Bad ones are a nightmare!

There are those teachers that leave lasting impressions but not for the reasons one thinks.

The first ballet teacher I encountered in Berlin, was Eastern European and while I cannot remember her name currently, I know that I unconsciously put her through much at the beginning of my time there.
I had just come from SAB and while I was trained in (what I thought was) a Russian style … the truth was that I was a young, colt-like, spirited, quickly moving, Balanchine trained dancer through and through.
My warmups and styles leaned towards quick, fast, and energizing.

This teachers very heavy Russian style was all about strength, power, and slowly ponderous combinations.

A verbal example would be that at SAB, the Grande Battements would go like this, “And one, and two.”

That meant that on the “And” the leg kicked up. On the number, “One” or “Two” the leg came sharply down. Up, Down, Up, Down. It was quick sharp, one accent was up, and the other down.

But this particular Russian teacher’s style was, “And … a … One, And … a … Two!” Meaning that that up kick had two beats and the down only one beat. Lifting against gravity is (shall we say) HARD! Lifting slowly requires a great deal of inner core strength and power in the muscles to work against the gravity trying to pull the leg down.

I learned over time that the point of this was to do just that. Russian style was all about doing the hard stuff over and over again until it felt less hard (it was never expected to feel easy). That is how great power is built up slowly.

But I was an impatient baby ballerina that thought she knew so much because after all, “I was at SAB, one of the best schools in the world.” Or so I thought!
But the Russians had been at this much longer than the Americans. And while we have great youthful exuberance, we lacked the strength built from great sacrifice and the determination to get ahead that the Russians have been sweating and bleeding over for a century or more.
So with this teacher, she is giving these heavy exercises and I finally just could not stand it anymore. My body was not happy. I was not happy. I was feeling inside heavy, dense, and miserable. And her way of teaching was only souring my already bad mood.
So, I did everything double time.

I was really pissed!

I just wanted to do what my body needed and wanted. I did not want all this heavy shit!
I had the logical rationalization that such movements would create dense muscles without the length that I believed was more beautiful.
Well … let’s just say that … One does not do that to a teacher in a class. They are the one in charge and you are in the Ballet Military after all. They are the general and we are supposed to do what we are told!
She tried to ignore me at first.

That just gave me more reins, and so I kept it up.
I will admit that I did not do it throughout the whole class but only on those things that went against my personal predilections.

By the time we got to the center and doing pirouettes … she wanted me to do the turns with the Russian style, double plié before turning and to straighten the extended leg to the side before I would whip the leg into a Passe´, to begin the spin.

She kept insisting that I do it her way and not the SAB way, which was to keep the back leg straight, the front leg was in a plié and to use the arms to whip around as we went into the turn.

Now, I must admit to being a bit of a “bitch” in that moment. I knew how to do pirouettes both ways. I just had a preference.

She kept insisting that I could do more pirouettes if I did it her way.

So I did it both ways and showed that I could do just as many her way as the other way.

It ended in a stalemate.

But I could see that pissing off the teacher would not really get me what I wanted … which was a good word in with those that made casting decisions.
So, I backed off and did things her way in class.

Arrogance and attitude are traits that all dancers bump into within our own psyche.

It is often not pretty. It is not always helpful. But it is something that arises when we think we know more than another.

I have learned that when one holds such a perspective, it is rarely going to allow growth.

Growth requires a willingness to try different things.

Maturity requires us to let go of the narrowness of our youth.

And wisdom comes when we can see the paths that are ahead and make choices that will allow for a responsive openness that cultivates all forms of authentic expression.
~Suzanne Wagner~


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