Ballet for adult beginners

For my fall-semester OLLI class I took “Ballet for Adult Beginners,” taught by Lei Shanbhag.

I took the class as enrichment of my movement practice. I felt like adding something very different to my existing range of taiji, running, natural movement, a tiny bit of parkour, and so on, and I thought that ballet would be very different, and yet still fall within the broad spectrum of “movement practice.”

I also took it as cultural enrichment. I wanted to learn a bit of the vocabulary of ballet—both the literal vocabulary (Allongé, Battement, Ronds de​ ​jambes), and the movement vocabulary (learning to see a dance as a conversation between the dancers and one another, and with the audience).

As far as enhancing my movement practice, I’d have to say it wasn’t a complete success—I did the moves in class, but I didn’t really learn them.

That’s entirely a matter of my own abilities: I’m just very slow to learn movement stuff. I have crappy mirror neurons, and I can only learn movement stuff verbally—I have to watch the movement, describe it to myself in words, and memorize the verbal description. Only then can I attempt to do the movement, by playing back my memorized description and attempting to execute it.

As perhaps you can imagine, this is not the quick and easy way to learn to dance. The upshot is that I need to go more slowly than most people (so I have time to create the verbal description), do it more times than most people (so I have time to memorize my verbal description), and then do it yet more times (so I can learn to execute the moves that I’ve described).

I could probably have learned, let’s say, half or a third of what was taught, if we’d done just that much, and spent two or three times as long on each thing.

As it was, I enjoyed the moving very well, but didn’t leave each class with one or two specific things I might practice between then and the next class.

I don’t mean this in any way as a criticism of the class, which was enjoyable and informative. I had the sense that other people in the class (all with some sort of dance background) were picking up much more of the movements than I was. And Lei was constantly asking if the amount done was the right amount. I could have said, “Wait! Before we go on, let’s do this one thing 5 more times.” I chose not to, so that’s all on me.

Despite not learning the movements, I nevertheless did the movements (as best I could), so the classes were a nice workout—well structured, with a warmup, stretching, practice of the moves we were learning, and more stretching.

I was more successful at learning the cultural stuff. I didn’t learn every ballet term, but I learned enough to provide some useful context. Now I can look things up and understand them. I also began to learn to see ballet, which is something that I didn’t really appreciate before.

One tidbit that we learned the first day stuck with me: The posture of ballet dance—feet turned out, hips forward, weight forward—dates back to Louis XIV. Basically, turning your feet out lets you activate your glutes, while shifting your weight forward lets you activate your quads. If you’ve got good musculature in your legs, this posture lets you show that off. (Especially if, as Louis often was, you’re wearing tights.)

Louis XIV Hyacinthe RigaudGalería online, Museo del Prado

Basically, ballet dancers stand that way because Louis XIV thought standing that way made his butt look good.

Achievement Unlocked: Chen 48-movement form

I’ve been practicing taiji for more than 4 years now. Jackie and I started with a 16-week class at OLLI, after which we continued studying with the same teacher, Mike Reed, at the Savoy Recreation center.

philip-brewer-ji
Me teaching the summer Park District class. Photo by Steven D. Brewer, used with permission.

The OLLI class taught an 8-movement form, the same form I taught my students when I taught a taiji class for the Champaign Park District this summer. We continued to do that form in the Savoy Rec classes, but also started learning a form that consisted of the first 12 of the Chen 48-movement form. Fairly early on, Mike proceeded to teach us the second 12 movements, so that we had a 24-movement form.

We stuck with that 24-movement form for a long time—I think we went most of a year without adding any new movements.

Jackie and I and a couple of other students bugged Mike about adding more movements, but he resisted. I think I now understand the reasons. The first 24 movements are pretty easy to do. That is, learning the whole sequence takes a while, and doing them exactly right may be difficult, but no individual piece of any of the movements is physically very challenging. Starting early in the second half of the 48, there are a number of movements that are considerably more challenging: Hops, jumps, kicks, and pivots—sometimes in combinations—that Mike hesitated to try to teach to a class where I’m the youngest guy there.

Eventually, after maybe a year, we wore him down. A year and a half ago, we got through the third 12 movements (somewhat modified, to reduce the aggressiveness of some of the jump-kicks and hopping pivots). This fall, we’ve learned the final 12 movements, doing the last two last week.

Today, for the first time, we did the whole 48-movement form from beginning to end.

I still have a lot to learn, even about the first movements—and, of course, I barely know the last few. But that’s okay. One of the first things I learned in taiji—that I should have learned from my previous studies of martial arts, but somehow didn’t—is that taiji isn’t something that you learn: it’s something that you do.

Now I can do a bit more. That’s all. And yet, it’s kind of a big deal to me.

Peanut butter is good

We usually buy our peanut butter from a local health food store that grinds it fresh. The owner comes out from behind the counter, grabs a 1-pound package of peanuts from the cooler, and then takes it back behind the counter and grinds it while you wait. (I think you’re supposed to get the package yourself and bring it to her, but I didn’t know that. Jackie usually does the shopping there.)

Sadly, we just used up our package of freshly ground unsalted unsweetened peanut butter, and for lunch today had to make do with our backup supply—some national brand peanut butter. We keep it on hand for two reasons. It’s less runny than good peanut butter, which is nice when we’re making peanut butter sandwiches to take to a lunchtime lecture at OLLI (or any similar brown-bag event) and want a minimally messy lunch. And it stores well.

It’s not as healthy. It’s salted and sweetened. Worse, some of the healthy peanut oil has been replaced with some less runny oil. (Although they now use less hydrogenated vegetable oil than they used when I was a kid.) But you know what? The commercial stuff tastes good even so.

Still, we’ll get some more freshly ground peanut butter first chance we get.