Pas de deux

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Let’s end on this note, shall we?


On pointe

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While the majority of a ballet dancer’s wardrobe–tutu, leotard, tights–is required mostly due to tradition, pointe shoes are an absolutely necessity. They are the only exterior tool a ballet dancer uses, and they must be perfect. Pointe shoes represent the entire paradox of ballet: something that looks so beautiful and light to the audience requires years of craftsmanship and is only perfected through physical distortion. And they are often only used in one performance before being discarded. The movie Center Stage shows what ballerinas do to mold shoes to their feet:

Colum McCann’s lovely and brutal novel Dancer, an account of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s life, is famous long sentences that make up entire chapters. I especially love the 6-page sentence that describes a ballet shoemaker’s work. Tom Ashford, master pointe shoe maker, shivers “to think how [Margot Fonteyn] handles his shoes once she gets them, shattering the shank to make it more pliable, banging the shoes against doors to soften the box, bending the shoe over and over so it feels perfect on her feet, as if she has worn it forever…”

My favorite part of this sentence is the last bit, as Tom is contemplating the sketches he’s just gotten for the forty pairs of shoes ordered by Nureyev:

“by the sketches alone [Tom] knows the life of this foot, raised in barefoot poverty and–from the unusual wideness of the bone structure–bare on concrete rather than grass, then squeezed into shoes that were too small, coming to dance later than usual given the smallness yet breadth of the foot, 7EEE, then a great violence done by excessive training, many hard angles, but a remarkable strength…”

I love the idea of an artisan understanding his craft so well that he becomes like a reverse fortune teller: instead of reading the future from a palm, he reads a man’s history from his foot.

A lamentation of swans

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Exactly one week from right now, I’ll be suited up as a raven for the world premiere of a flamenco performance, Zorro in the Land of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker. This show is a mix of Spanish flamenco music with Ojibwa lore, in which ravens represent  message-bearers and truth-tellers. Six of us women form the raven chorus, or, as we like to call ourselves, the murder.

Just as a group of ravens is known as a murder, so a group of swans can be called a lamentation. Poetic, no?

Birds are a natural creature to portray through dance because of their symbolic qualities as well as their movements. (Our raven dances feature large black shawls–common to flamenco and Ojibwa dance, while also being representative of wings–and some of our choreography is meant to mimic the swooping of the flock). So it’s no wonder that one of the most famous ballets of all time is Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, made possibly even more famous by last year’s Best Picture Oscar nominee Black Swan.

One can’t but help think of the gracefulness of swans when watching the long limbs of Gillian Murphy as Odette, the white swan:

The pas de quatre is similarly avian:

Natalie Portman gives her all as the black swan:

And then there’s this Chinese version of Swan Lake, which is just ridiculous. In all the best ways.

How to be a ballerina

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What you’ll need: pointe shoes, long legs

Songlist: Swan Lake, Nutcracker Suite

Further reading: Dancer by Colum McCann

Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev

The other night my boyfriend and I were making dinner with Beethoven and Schubert playing in the background. Between chopping onions and putting the bread in the oven, I pirouetted around on stockinged feet and pretended to go on pointe. I ruefully commented to my boyfriend that I wished I’d stuck with ballet–it so beautifully expresses what I hear in classical music.

Like many young girls, I had dreams of becoming a ballerina. My mom took me to beginning ballet classes when I was four, but after a few months I complained that preschool tired me out too much, and I didn’t have the energy to dance. (I wonder what “dancing” consisted of at that stage–practicing feet and arm positions?)

My favorite movie in high school, Center Stage, convinced me that I’d made the right decision to quit ballet before I even really got going. Ballet itself is beautiful, but it’s incredibly difficult on the body and the movie highlights the intense competition that American dancers face to get to the top. I never would have made it–my legs aren’t long enough. Also, a professional ballet dancer is like any professional athlete, who, after submitting his or her body to the grueling workouts necessary to become the best of the best, only really has a few good years before the body gives out.

It wasn’t until after college that I tried dance classes again–flamenco, this time. Unlike ballerinas, flamenco dancers are thought to only become better with age, as the range of life’s experiences allow a dancer to fully express deep emotion via movement. I’m thankful that at 25 I’m still considered a spring chicken–I’m the youngest in our dance company–and I can imagine dancing flamenco for decades to come.

Still, sometimes I look at those dancers in my flamenco company who have a solid ballet background and admire their grace, the way the hold themselves at all times. You can tell when someone is or has been a ballet dancer–they sit differently, they walk differently. Ballet leaves its mark on muscles and bones. An art form that molds the performer to the dance: it’s a thought both terrifying and beautiful.


Degas's ballerinas