Ballet in the Time of Coronavirus

I can’t believe it has been years since I wrote my last entry. My life has gone through a sort of “sea change” while the external world went through a tsunami—one that swept through every facet of our lives, everywhere in the world. Yes, you guessed right: COVID19.

But even before the pandemic, my life—along with my ballet life—tumbled a few times and became almost unrecognizably different from before. Because of the constant search for jobs to make ends meet after I migrated back to the United States, I was unable to pursue my ballet interest. It was extremely frustrating.

Louisa_Ballet Grid_January

During 2018, I was still able to attend class in New York City from time to time, mostly at Ballet Arts Studio in the City Center, and sometimes at Broadway Dance Center. But my ballet practice became sporadic. Starting that summer, I spent a great deal of time running around working on TV and film sets—as a background actor (a.k.a. “extra”). The experience was fun, exciting but really grueling.

In 2019, I mostly stopped attending ballet class due to the instability of my work situation and a shortage of funds. My body started to turn stiff due to the lack of practice and exercise in general. I felt like I was giving up on ballet completely. But I wasn’t too concerned. I found a new love, and my life was full and happy.

Last Christmas, I suddenly had the desire to start practicing again and bought myself a portable ballet barre. It is a beautiful one, very light and made with unvarnished wood. I love the feel of the wood—warmer than aluminum or steel. I set it up on one end of the dining room, and started doing some stretching. I dusted off some old DVDs of Vaganova classes—for beginners (7-year-olds!), and practiced. Oh boy! What a wrong choice! It was a super-challenging class, and I almost died before the class ended. I over-estimated my ability.

Louisa_Ballet-Barre_1st-Day

Came 2020, I made a resolution to be more active. My joints were extremely stiff and crying to be moved. Somehow, because of that “failed” practice, I was apprehensive about going back to the barre. So I did other exercises instead.

It wasn’t until the COVID19 crisis started, that I found my way back to the barre again. Thanks to Finis Jhung—with whom I studied at Alvin Ailey more than a decade ago—I became motivated to stretch and practice ballet again. He started a series of live daily classes on Instagram. It was so good and inspiring to see my old maestro.  At his age—85, he is still quite nimble. He told us that his hip replacement surgery two years ago turned his health around.

Finis’ class took place at 11 every morning, and since my new at-home job wouldn’t start until 1pm, it was perfect timing for me.

So this was how I started my ballet practice again. His classes were fun, and his advice and tips sounded so familiar, like having a dialog with an old friend. It was a great refresher. Because of his live instructions, I was motivated to get back into a routine. Even though it was only half an hour, the class felt just long enough for me to get back into my ballet body while not exhausting myself. Baby steps!

I especially enjoyed listening to Finis’ advice at the end of each lesson. He would tell his students to be cautious and listen to scientists rather than politicians when it came to the Coronavirus. “You only have one life. Protect yourself. I don’t want you to die!” He would say. Somehow, it was really reassuring to hear these words. They restored my sense of sanity in the midst of our insane and toxic political leadership.

I also enjoyed listening to Finis’ weekly storytelling. He would read stories from his memoir and recount additional details in a vivid manner. The stories, which you can watch on his YouTube channel, were captivating and revealed so much about the ballet world in the past few decades.

A month later, Finis started to teach through Zoom, and I switched to take class using his online streaming classes and DVDs, which I purchased a while ago.  I am very happy for him that he can gather students virtually and teach from the safety of his home. He is lucky to have his son, Jason, set up all the equipment and film him. I also think he deserves to be paid for his tremendous efforts. If I could afford it, I wouldn’t hesitate to take his live class regularly. They are more affordable than his in-person classes after all. For now, due to my financial situation, I will continue to practice with his recorded videos. Sometimes, I would do 3-4 classes a week—a big improvement from before the pandemic! So the quarantine is a blessing in that sense.

I also took the time during the quarantine to wrap up the study for my barre fitness certificate. I have passed the written exam and just need to complete my practical. Once that’s done, I want to teach barre fitness virtually. Barre fitness is very different from classical ballet’s barre exercises. It targets different parts of the body and attempts to sculpt the muscles through repetitive motions. Some of the exercises are done in the center, on the mat and about 1/3 are done using the barre as a support. It can be a good supplement to regular ballet class. Because of the fast pace of the exercises, your heart rate will go up during class and it’s a nice form of workout. You’re definitely going to feel the sore muscles afterwards! If you are interested, let me know and I will inform you when I am ready to teach.

How has Coronavirus quarantine impacted your life and your dance routine? I do hope that you are well. Please leave a comment to let me know how you’re doing. Stay safe!

The Aging Dancer

As I approach the age of 50 (I’ll get there in 1.5 years), I am starting to realize how my body repairs itself in a much slower pace than before. The practice of ballet makes this realization more acute.

Sore muscles or strained tendons take what seems like ages to recover. Stiffness seems to be a faithful friend.

My knees took a beating without me even realizing it when the injury happened, and so did my toes. Hardwood floor isn’t ideal for ballet practice. If you can find some sort of marley, mat or foam to absorb the impact, that would be ideal.

Also, we aging dancers need to adjust our expectations and goals. Initially, in my back-to-ballet zest, I placed my turnout as I had always done–at about 120 degrees. But apparently, I didn’t have the strength in my turnout muscles to maintain that. So I overexerted myself and hurt my knees. Ouch!

Just as I have accepted the “new normal” of the pandemic, I have now come to accept my “new natural” turnout—a meager 90 degrees (or less, sometimes.) I am also trying to use more of my hamstring muscles to power my arabesque, and rely less on the lower back (which is super stiff from sitting too much). My former physiotherapist in Hong Kong, Jenny, has put up a video showing why this helps create a better arabesque line. Check it out:

Overall, I have shifted my focus internally rather than focusing on external things. I don’t even have a mirror, so no more narcissistic self-admiration, LOL! (Of course, I wish I had a mirror to correct myself, but a full-length mirror that is sturdy and large enough for ballet practice is out of reach for me right now.) I wear a tank top and shorts for my home ballet class, not caring too much about how I look. Of course, if dressing up for home ballet helps you get in the mood, go for it! It can be a wonderful ritual! For me, being casual actually lowers the threshold for getting started. I’d just slip my ballet shoes on and off I go.

I find that Finis Jhung’s teaching style fits me perfectly, as the way he teaches has always been keen on the inner workings of the muscles rather than the superficial “look.” I appreciate this approach all the more now as I no longer have the flexibility to put my focus on how high my extension is, and how great my turnout looks. I am happy to start from the ground up.

The aging body is like an aging car. It requires more maintenance. There are two main systems of maintenance that I swear by—postural alignment, and healing the body through precision and personalized nutrition. I will write about those in a later post. Stay tuned.

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Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg in ABT's "Giselle" | Balletomanehk.com

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Alban_Lendorf, Principal Dancer of ABT - Balletomanehk.com

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