An Ode to the Perfect Ballet Bun

The Perfect Ballet bun is very tight, very neat, and very controlled. It sits close to the head at the back of the skull, flowing organically from the back of the head in a way that accentuates the line of the neck and the shape of the head. It is pulled tight back, each hair neat and confined within the bun, with no stray hairs marring the line. The bun itself is coiled as flat against the head as possible to avoid unnecessary protrusion. It remains neat. It can withstand eight hours of training and rehearsal and grands battements and grands jetés. Which is to say, it can likely withstand Armageddon and remain polished and perfect.

MY perfect ballet bun is quite another story.

My perfect ballet bun happens at five thirty in the morning, after not enough sleep, no shower, and no breakfast. It happens even before my first cup of tea, which is a feat in itself, as very little happens before my first cup of tea. It walks a delicate tightrope, being tight enough not to fail structurally at a crucial moment, and yet not so tight that it gives me a headache. The subway will take care of that on its own and needs no help from my hair. It does not lie flat against my head, as my hair is too thick to coil flat. Instead, it piles up in a rough coil atop my head, leaving the back of my head unimpeded should I feel the need to lie down on my back on the mat and surrender to muscle fatigue at any time.

It is not neat and controlled, and yet it is not exactly messy, as messiness in my personal appearance just isn’t in my nature. My perfect ballet bun is vast. It contains multitudes. That’s part of why it’s so big, not just because my hair is thick enough to braid ropes and destroy elastic bands.

My ballet bun is held up with handmade, heavy-duty Amish steel. Four three-inch pins give it structural integrity. Sometimes my hair starts to reject them and then have to be nudged back in because my hair does not take kindly to discipline or interlopers. But I am the master of my hair. Sometimes.

My ballet bun withstands a 45-minute subway ride, a short walk, and a 50-minute barre class with only minimal wisping. But by the time I finish class, it shows signs of wear. It releases tendrils at the back of the neck and at my temples. And small pieces start to work their way out of the bun itself. I like to think it looks romantic and chic, but mostly it looks tired and probably a little greasy from the sweat.

But my ballet bun serves. It keeps my hair out of my face during pliés and Pilates, during aerials, and even, when it make it a bit neater, during a day of work at the office. It does accentuate the line of my neck and the grace of a body that still hasn’t completely forgot to be a dancer. And that’s why it’s my perfect ballet bun.

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My Morning Workout: Barre

So, since the last post I made, about skin care when life gets hectic, life got hectic and I very clearly did not prioritize blogging. Sorry, guys. Anyway, today I thought I’d talk a little bit about my current favorite morning workout: Barre fitness. Those of you who look at my Instagram story may have noticed the odd early-morning story about being on my way to the gym at an absurd time of day.

A caveat: I only go to Barre class once a week because it’s not the most convenient or inexpensive way to work out. But it is something I enjoy doing and I’ve definitely noticed some positive improvements in my body. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m sometimes a dancer, and even returned to ballet class as a thirty-year-old several years ago. Sadly, my new job in the city means that I don’t have the schedule flexibility to go to ballet class as often, plus my evenings are often monopolized by rehearsals, so exercise classes fall by the wayside.

So I needed to find something that I could do before work in the morning. Something that was convenient to work and that I found interesting. So when I found a gym near my downtown subway stop that offered Pilates and Barre classes, I thought I’d check it out. I signed up for a five-day unlimited trial and managed to go to three classes in five days. And, despite the general feeling of wobbliness of the legs that resulted, I’m glad I did. I managed to find a Barre teacher who I liked far above the other two, and she teaches at a time where I can go to class, wash up, and get to my desk on time with a bit of breakfast on the way.

Now, every Tuesday morning, I wake up at 5:30 a.m., confuse the cat, upset Fiancé, and irritate my internal clock, pack a large handbag with a change of clothes, and get on a 6-a.m. train downtown. I get there in time to stop for a cuppa with milk and sugar because by this time, my body has realized that I’m about to ask it to do things and it wants calories and caffeine first. Then, I make my way a few blocks down and settle in at the gym. I sip my tea and maybe stretch a bit. Lately the room has been rather warm, which is quite nice for a class that requires a bit of flexibility.

When class starts, the instructor leads us through some warm-ups, arm exercises, and then takes us to the barre for stretching, pliés, degagés, and other exercises. It’s very effective at making my muscles shake and cry out, but lately I’ve noticed that as I continue going to class once a week, I’m seeing an improvement in my alignment and stamina. Plus, I just feel graceful, bendy, and strong when I walk out, rather than bleary and a bit sweaty. As my schedule clears up after my next show, I may find myself committing to more Barre mornings, honestly, despite the fact that it’s a bit expensive.

The main thing I like both about Barre in general and about this teacher in particular is that she grounds the class in dance technique, rather than just making it about the burn. She calls the exercises by their ballet names, and even has us do things like pirouette prep exercises. Other Barre classes I went to treat it more like a Pilates class with a bar in the middle. And while I do appreciate a good Pilates class, when I go to Barre, I’m trying to reconnect with my inner ballerina. And this way, I can.

Triumphant Return to Tango

Last night I decided to stop by a local tango practica/milonga (once a month, they treat the practica more like an alternative milonga). I was nervous, as I haven’t danced in years, and I didn’t even know what I would remember. It turns out that Argentine tango is much like riding a bicycle. I arrived obscenely early because I forgot just how late tangueros tend to run and sat at the bar with a glass (or two!) of wine for a bit. I texted with an old tango friend and it turned out he was around the corner so he stopped in. I only danced for maybe two tandas because we were having so much fun catching up.

The organizer was very sweet and chatted with me for a bit and even tried to make a dance-setup between myself and one of the good leaders. I think he was trying to stall because he also chatted for a fair bit before any mention of dancing came up and my friend showed up before we actually danced. So I feel a little bad that I abandoned my setup, but at the same time, he danced plenty and I danced plenty. And it was lovely to dance with a friend for my first time back in years. At least I didn’t have to worry about being too embarrassed if I’d messed up, and he’s such a lovely leader that I did not mess up too much.

It made me realize just how much I missed the experience of tango. I love dancing. I love the free feeling of ballet or aerials or modern, but there is a level of release in dancing Argentine tango as a follower that I don’t feel in other forms of dance. Even swing involves a fair bit more thinking than tango. In fact, I find thinking too much, as a follower, can trip me up more. Following in tango requires a certain surrender to the leader and to the music, while still maintaining your own axis and balance, which is an interplay that doesn’t happen often in my daily life. I find that because of the sense of surrender, choosing a leader with whom to partner is essential and I was very happy to have a friend to help me re-enter the dance.

I certainly think this is something I will be making time to enjoy as regularly as I can and I can’t imagine why I took so long to return.

Danse en l’Air

So on Tuesday, I mentioned how competing forces are conspiring to keep me away from writing and taking pictures for this space. One of those forces is actually a new hobby I’ve picked up over the last month. About a month ago, while enjoying my first post-show week of no rehearsals, a friend convinced me to come up to a circus school nearby and take a class in aerial arts.

Now, most people know of aerial silks as what they do in Cirque du Soleil, where beautiful and strong dancer climb and play in fabric that drapes down from the ceiling. Yeah, that’s what I’ve taken up: climbing the curtains.

I’ve taken ballet for a few years now, and other forms of dance, so I knew I would be flexible and perhaps even graceful enough to do aerial arts, but I was very, very worried about my strength. Aerials requires pretty good strength in your arms, but also your core and your hands. So far, it seems like my hands are my biggest weakness.

But it’s still so fun. We start every class with some warm-ups, and then about fifteen minutes on the trapeze (not the flying trapeze), where we work on strength and maybe one or two tricks. Then, we move on to the fabric for a half an hour, learning a few new tricks and practicing ones we’ve learned before. Oh yeah, and as soon as we take the trapeze away and lower our fabric, our first task is to climb the fabric before we start any other tricks. Helps build strength.

I’ve been amazed at how easy some of the things are. Aerial tricks use a combination of strength and leverage so you’re not always using all your own body’s strength. And where you are using your strength, things are designed to help you use your strongest muscles where possible. For example, in climbing, you actually do very little with your arms; most of the upward work comes from your leg muscles. I don’t know about any of you, but my legs are much bigger and stronger than my arms!

Finally, even in the stumbling awkwardness of a beginner, I find aerials to be so graceful and fun. When I’ve gotten myself into a pose properly and can just arch and stretch and somewhat relax, supported by fabric, with the tails cascading down dramatically, it’s a beautiful feeling. It makes me feel like a ninja and a dancer at the same time.

So even though I tend to be left with sore hands and arms and legs the day after a class, it’s so so worth it!

Vintage Exercise: Ballet Class

You don’t get a whole lot more old-fashioned than dance. It’s probably one of the oldest forms of human expression. And as far as dance goes, ballet is the epitome of old-fashioned grace to me. It seriously took a lot of doing to update ballet even a little, and even then, most of the updates are considered “modern dance” instead of ballet and are kept separate from classical training. There’s a reason it’s called “classical training.”

Well, like Zelda Fitzgerald, I’ve come to ballet late in life. I did my turn as an adorable a 5-year-old, but decided not to pursue it. Then, when I turned 30, I decided to take a class with a friend of mine from my original ballet class, at the original studio where we took classes. She’s since fallen out of the habit, but I’ve continued to go. Since starting theater a year ago, I’ve lapsed a bit, but I still love class whenever I get to it.

I finally got back to my favorite mid-week class this week, and loved it. The teacher is tough and doesn’t go easy on the combinations. Her only concession to the fact that it’s called a “beginner” class is that she’ll take an extra minute explaining the steps. Sometimes. But I like that. I’ve taken other dance classes and over the years have decided that I’d rather be the lowest level dancer in a class than the highest level. I learn more.

Ballet, and dance in general, has given me a strong sense of poise and body awareness. The costumier of a show I did over the winter commented on how I was able to wear her beautiful vintage 40s and 60s costumes so well, and I credit a lot of that to my dance training. It makes you look taller and more confident. And, given that I’m actually quite clumsy, can disguise a multitude of awkwardnesses under a veneer of control.

Dance is one of my favorite forms of vintage exercise. In addition to ballet, I also do some modern. I’ve taken classes with a company, but I also do some freestyle dancing on my own. When I read the autobiography of Isadora Duncan, her approach to movement as something that is inherently natural resonated with me, and now when I have my own private dance time, I try to mirror her philosophy, if not her exact movements.

Sadly, this week, upon my return to ballet class, I learned that the nagging soreness I’ve been having in my toe while jogging is not just stiffness that needs stretching out and loosening up. It’s probably a sprain. So I will have to take a few weeks off both jogging and dancing while it heals. But I’m excited to return once more.

A Victorian Calisthenics Workout

It’s January, and I’ve been lazy through the holidays. Coupled with the lack of sleep from late-night rehearsals, and I’ve found myself feeling run-down. This week, I decided I ought to do something about this. I ought to get up earlier and eat healthier. And I ought to exercise.

But what to do when it’s below freezing and dark outside in the morning? I could do yoga, but I’ve found myself getting bored with my yoga routine lately. And then I found a couple articles on zero-equpiment circuit routines. It made me think, hey, how did people exercise before things like yoga and running and six thousand machines came to the US? I mean, the short answer is that they didn’t because people in the past either didn’t realize the benefits of exercise, or else they led strenuous enough lives not to need specific exercise time.

And then I did some research and found this site, which reproduces a Victorian manual for women’s calisthenics. Now, I always thought of calisthenics as zero-equipment exercises that are usually used for warm-ups. But this manual seems to make the distinction between calisthenics and gymnastics, perhaps suggesting that women ought not to do the jumping around that gymnastics involved. But even the equipment is very minimal. Most of the exercises can be done with dumbbells, a lightweight wand of wood (like a broom handle), and a resistance band. And the free exercises, in addition to being a wonderful light workout, look like great actor’s warmups. I might bring them out before performances this week.

Now, it’s interesting that this Victorian reference specifically recommends strength-building exercises for women when so much conventional wisdom of the time (persisting into the 20th century) was that exercise would harm women. But with so many women experiencing muscle atrophy from corset-wearing, the author makes a good point that strength exercises are necessary for beauty. It’s the same idea behind Pilates, which is another vintage system of exercise. In addition, dancers have trained more strenuously for centuries.

So I’ve come up with a simple, low- or no-equipment plan for increasing my strength using vintage exercise. This morning, without the benefit of having dug my weight equipment out of the closet, I did a zero-equipment workout consisting of more modern-accepted calisthenics, like pushups, squats, windmills, and planks. I warmed up with some arm and foot circles, then then alternated exercises every thirty seconds for a little over ten minutes. Then, I finished off with a stretching routine I developed to increase my flexibility as a dancer. Perhaps in the future I’ll incorporate some Pilates or some of the Victorian calisthenics with a band or dumbbells, and even add some dancing to my routine. In the spring, when the weather warms, I can even do my routine outside.