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Daily Diary at the Richmond Adult Ballet Summer Intensive
August, 2001
By Ed Lippman

 

Sunday, August 12th – Arrival and check-in

When we walked into the new home of the Richmond Ballet, we knew we were in for a great experience. The facility is so new you're almost afraid to touch the walls for fear the paint is still wet. Four large, well-lit and appointed studios are located on the second floor. This is where we'll be living the next few days. The third has the really large rehearsal space normally reserved for the company. We're hoping to get into this studio for Saturday's classes and performance. The facility is truly inspiring and instantly immerses you in the world of dance. You can't help but be put in a "dancing space" mentally, merely by walking in the doors. You may want to take the virtual tour offered on the Richmond Ballet web site at www.richmondballet.com.

Check-in was quick and painless, greeted by Heidi Pankoff, the director of the Intensive (her bio appears later). Three different stations checked us in, explained the placement class process, then ended with the all important detail of ordering tomorrow's lunch.

After checking in, it was a free-for-all as everyone grabbed a piece of floor to start stretching before the orientation. Forty students of all shapes and sizes are here. There are people from all over; Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, Denver. This time allowed us the chance to get to know each other a bit. Housewives, dance instructors, professionals, from all walks of life were stretched out on the floor together with one thing in common – a desire to learn and improve. That and nerves, but we won't dwell on that just now.

The orientation was brief, laying out the rules of the building and the general spirit of the Intensive which is essentially this: They will let you take any class, any level you wish so long as there is room. This Intensive is about a chance to immerse yourself in the process of learning, plain and simple. They go out of their way to make you, the student, feel comfortable. This is done in a few ways, most notably via the lack of designation in classes. They are Levels I, II and III, not Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced. Right from the start the pressure is off. This seemed to ripple through the students. As the day went on I noticed a much lighter, less apprehensive atmosphere.

The placement classes were not so much "placement" per se, as they were an easier level of class to stretch out travel-worn muscles and nervous bodies. Placement was done prior to our arrival by our own written assessment of our ability. This was a good call. While my Taurus ego was hoping to see a sign after the placement class posted some where with my name in the Level II class, the fact that this was not really about "placement" was a relief. Truly no stress. I had visions of teachers circling the room watching every move, eyeing my feet and my wandering hips with intense, lingering stares, wondering if they thought I really knew anything.

That, thank goodness, was not the case. The classes seemed to get universally enthusiastic reviews from everyone I talked to, though most people admitted being somewhat nervous. I must admit to being so nervous my legs were trembling at the barre. The longer class went on, the more I came into my old self and took ownership of my space at the barre and on the floor. By the end of the class I was feeling pretty good about things. The "willies" had passed. My class was taught by Richmond Ballet Company member Pedro Szalay, a pleasant, friendly man with a nice ability to communicate instruction and critique, not to mention his own beautiful technique. Watching a professional do an assemblé up close is a treat. You can learn just from standing next to someone like that. I'll put his bio in later.

Placement class was followed by a brief reception and then a lecture by a physical therapist, Susan Dodd, on the "older dancer" (nicely chosen words I thought), on how to maintain your body and health under the stresses and strains of dance.

So much useful information was laid out for us it bordered on overwhelming. I was glad I had a notebook but had to struggle to keep up. This was a very smart lecture to include in the Intensive, and Susan, a former dancer, was great with everyone's questions and demonstrations. She had us do several exercises, mostly to assess and aid posture. She had taken the time to drop plumb lines all around the room. At one point, she had us pair up and assess one another's posture using the plumb line. I cannot for the life of me stress how helpful this was. I've seen this in books before and thought it interesting, but to actually do it yourself, standing, in plié, in relevé passé, was truly beneficial. Amazing how a piece of string tied to a weight can make you look at yourself differently. My partner and I both were able to see and, more importantly, feel our own posture problems. (Me, I lean my head too far forward causing my upper back to curve too much.) That exercise brought home the point in a major way. I'm very curious to see how well I can put this into play tomorrow in class. I was able to hold myself in relevé passé for quite awhile because of this exercise. The improvement was immediate.

There's so much more to cover here it would take far to long to type and read, but the most important thing seemed to me to be about turnout. It appears that the three main causes of injury to older dancers all come from or begin with turnout problems or muscle control in turnout. Knee injuries like patella syndrome, pronation in the feet and centering problems all have turnout as a central element. Of all the things in her talk, posture and proper turnout came through as the most important of all. Now I can't tell you how many times I've heard the above from my teachers, and I can't tell you how many times I've thought I understood them. But I don't think I really did until today. The benefits of this lecture will show through tomorrow. I can't wait to try them out. And, since I won't be so nervous anymore I'll be able to concentrate more!

Time to get my jet-lagged self into bed. More to come tomorrow.

I won't go through and list the bio's on every instructor yet. I'll cover them on a daily basis. I want to list them mostly so those of you out there in Criticaldance-land can see what their backgrounds are, and, more importantly, see if you know anyone.

Heidi Pankoff, Intensive Director: I didn't take Heidi's class today, she taught the upper level class, so I can't pass on any personal observations. She is quite charming and exudes a true passion for the art of dance, and a concern and interest for adult students. This is reflected in a well thought out program for the week with a wide range of styles offered including Flamenco, Modern and Dalcroze, even Floor Barre (yeah!).

A few highlights of her career: She studied at the Boston School of Ballet with Bruce Marks and Ron Cunningham. She has worked with the Louisville Ballet and the Ontario Ballet Theater. Currently, she is with the Latin Ballet of Virginia where she is principal dancer, choreographer and Ballet Mistress. Heidi's been teaching since 1989.

Pedro Szalay: Pedro is a member of the Richmond Ballet Company. He began his training at the National Ballet of Caracas, Venezuela. He's been with the Richmond Ballet since 1991 and has worked with the New York Dance Theater. His full bio can be seen on the dancer's page for the Richmond Ballet site at www.Richmondballet.com.

Jasmine Grace: Here, she's teaching a few technique classes. She also is teaching Character and I believe Flamenco. She is a certified teacher of the Cecchetti Method and is a member of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing. She studied in Johannesburg, then began working with the PACT Ballet. She was Ballet Mistress for Ballet Arizona and Head of Faculty for the Ballet Arizona Academy prior to joining the faculty of the Richmond Ballet Center.

Julie Job: Julie is a very popular teacher here. Too bad she's not scheduled to teach any of my classes. Julie trained at the Flint Institute of Music, graduating from the North Carolina School of the Arts. She also studied at the Cleveland and Boston Ballet Schools, as well as the School of American Ballet. She has worked with the Washington Ballet, Cleveland Ballet, Ballet Michigan and the Minnesota Ballet. She has taught at the Flint School of Performing Arts, Yantra of Brussels, Universal Ballet School in Seoul South Korea, and the Virginia School of the Arts. She is currently teaching at the Richmond Ballet Center.

 

Monday – Quote of the day: "You suffer terribly, don't you."

That was said in reference to this one, utterly entertaining man from Atlanta who has a habit of making his aches and pains known rather loudly. This has already become a charming joke among the other students. He is more than willing to vocalize what we all feel. Not that it's been painful. Rather, it's been fairly gentle on our systems. Each teacher yesterday said the same thing at one time or another. They want to begin the week slowly and ease up to the more intense work later in the week. I actually came out of yesterday's classes feeling not that bad. I woke up this morning stiff, but ready to face the day.

The students are getting to know each other and there's a general feeling of camaraderie. I'd say we range in age from early thirties to early sixties. There's even one woman who appears pretty far along in her pregnancy. And, she carries herself well I might add.

I was lucky enough to have Pedro Szalay again for the entire morning. I decided to stick with the Level I technique class even though I can handle the Level II. Glad I did. A lot of people moved themselves into the Level II class so it's rather crowded. I decided I'd rather concentrate on technique and really learn a few things than get into a class where I'd be pushed, but not necessarily get as much out of it. Right decision because Pedro made it a good class for all.

Reviews on all the other teachers have been great across the board. Everyone seems to share the same love of teaching and of teaching adults. I spoke with Heidi (the Intensive Director) at lunch about how and why she began the Intensive. Her answer was short but genuine: "There was just nothing out there for adults".

Morning began with technique class, then moved onto pointe, stretch and men's classes. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to take a men's technique class. Since there's only four of us here (a large male turnout according to Heidi), we had quite a bit of time and energy devoted to us. This session was devoted to strengthening exercises and work on turns. I did my first tour en l'air today. Not the prettiest thing you've ever seen, but fun to try. Again, Pedro made this a fun learning experience. It was a real treat to have a class devoted just to men and I look forward to Wednesday's classes again.

Afternoon had some interesting sessions. Body Alignment was more of a stretch class designed to aid posture. Not the easiest stretches I've ever done in my life by any means. Today I've learned more new stretches than I ever thought possible. I couldn't possibly retain all of them. I'm glad we've got more time to learn them so I can keep some of them in mind. There were also several Flamenco classes. I'm not really into Flamenco, but I watched one of them. The women really seemed to enjoy themselves and the instructors were totally passionate about it. Then again, I've never met anyone into Flamenco who wasn't passionate about it.

Character was an interesting class. I had no idea what it was about until now. There's a whole new set of rules to learn for this one. Jasmine Grace taught these classes. An intense, slight woman with an accent tainted with a southern drawl, she reworked a version of a dance from Swan Lake for us. What a total blast! She really had us dancing across the floor in a short time. Getting into a "character" for this was great. Several people commented that they really felt like they were dancing for once instead of just doing a combination. Too bad we have to wait until Friday for more.

Dalcroze. Hmmmmm. I know I brought this up on the Criticaldance board before and I was hoping this would clear it up for me, but... I'm not sure I really get this one. A system devised to teach people how to listen to and react to music, it seems more ideally suited for children who want to learn music. Perhaps it was just my being way too "left brained" to let myself go enough to understand it. The concept seems to be that, through rhythmic exercises and games, one learns to "hear" music which leads to an ability to express oneself with music, song and dance. The games were simple exercises designed to make us react to changes in music, forcing us to pay attention and listen. Maybe I really do get it. Then again, maybe I missed the point. Music always came easily to me since I did choral competitions and barber shop quartet in college. The teacher, Marina Andueza, was a completely delightful woman whose love for what she's doing is plain for all to see. I think she knew she had a tough sell to some of us, but she plowed right into the fold and did her best. It worked, too. I saw a few students who struggled with their counts at the barre earlier make progress here.

For me, my one goal was to come out of this with improved pirouettes. I am pleased to say I've already met that goal. I had an hour to while away yesterday. After watching Flamenco for a bit, I wandered into an empty studio with another student. I started practicing my pirouettes. Heidi was deep in a project outside but she noticed us working alone, abandoned her work and slowly made her way into the room. Before we knew it, we were getting a private pirouette class. She has a great, gentle way about her and quickly had us doing basic exercises to feel our balance with 1/4 turns then 1/2 turns. She came to the conclusion my spot was my biggest problem. I was not spotting my eyes as I came out of the turn, ending up too far to one side. This made me fall out of passé too early. She also had me work on bringing my passé leg up as fast as possible. Within twenty minutes I found myself making a complete turn and ending in relevé passé. I stood there, facing the mirror, balanced in passé, and just started laughing I was so surprised. I am very, very pleased and want to see if I can make it happen again today. Onward and upward. Wish this could go on indefinitely.

 

Tuesday – I'm actually writing this the morning of the fourth day.

I feel well worked out but no pain. Surprising, because I think I speak for everyone when I say yesterday kicked some serious ballet butt! As usual, technique began the day. Class was slower than Mondays. Heidi Pankoff taught the class. She's full of very helpful tips which she dispenses liberally. Glad I keep a journal because some of them are keepers. Example: I've struggled with the concept of en dedans versus en dehors from day one. She pointed out that the muscle of the leg facing the direction of the move determines the designation en dedans or en dehors. For some reason this just cleared it all up in my head.

After technique, we all split up into variations classes. There are only four guys here, so our variations class was very intense. I haven't worked that hard in a class yet, and some of my teachers at home can be demanding at times. This was pretty heavy and way cool. Pedro taught the class. Wonderful to be this close and working with a professional on a daily basis. I learned so much from watching him, and his way of communicating with his students is great. I did not write down what ballet this variation is from. I'll get that information today. We were having such a good time we extended the class another half hour. I missed "foot isolations" class (which I was looking forward to) and didn't even think twice about it. The women are learning a variation from the same ballet. The people I spoke with found it challenging but fun. All of us really feel like we're dancing for real, which makes it all worth while.

After lunch, we had classes in choreography, and Pilates. I skipped Pilates and laid down in studio four for awhile. This studio is set aside for people to use if they're tired or want to watch one of the videos Heidi has brought from her collection. The room is getting much use, mostly for the videos. Impossible to rest when American Ballet Theater is doing "Don Quixote." You just have to watch.

We had our first rehearsal for the performance last night. Curious to see where it goes. The music is awfully fast for some of the women in the group. We'll learn more tonight. My only problem with the Intensive so far comes from this class. Forty-seven people trying to learn a piece in a small studio is way too many in too small a space. For some reason we are not allowed to use the Company space upstairs, a much bigger space to work. I get the impression there's some kind of turf war over use of this area so we're making do. I hope the administration of the Richmond Ballet loosens up a bit. It's very hard to learn in that space with that many people.

Today was the eighth month anniversary of my first setting foot in a studio. I think it's a credit to the dedication of my teachers at home that I've learned enough to feel comfortable here. The men are all on about the same level. We all can handle the variation with the exception of a move called a "temps de fléche". It seems the bulk of the students here are intermediate level, skewed toward beginning intermediate. Seeing that I can hold my own in this group has been one heck of a confidence booster.

Almost forgot, we ended the day with a lecture on kinesiology – dance movement. I wish I could say I learned more. Unfortunately, I laid down on the floor to get comfortable. Sometime later, I was being shaken awake by the person next to me. I had a terrible night's sleep Monday night and I guess I just drifted off. I didn't get much from the lecture because I was just too tired. I heard it was good though. This is another reason I like this Intensive. They've thought about a lot of issues important to adults.

 

Wednesday – Today was a day to separate the men from the boys so to speak.

One of those days where you find yourself thinking "why would anyone put themselves through this?" The answer was as plain as my face looking back at me in the mirror across the room. Seven hours into our day, sore as could be from top to bottom, light on sleep from hotel beds and one more hour of rehearsal to go and I still had a look on my face that said it all. I was having the time of my life. There's nothin' like it, folks. Nothin'.

This was a tough day. Wednesday, I had heard, was the toughest one since you're tired from working so hard. It didn't start out easy because the morning was pretty chaotic. There was no time to stretch before class due to a group photo session, technique class was not the best warm up today, and we went right into a demanding men's variations class. That was followed by not one but two partnering classes. We didn't get a real opportunity to stretch this morning and I paid for it as the day wore on.

Partnering has to be the most amazing thing ever invented. This was my first (and second) class ever and it was a blast. We did little more than stand and balance the ladies, but boy, was it fun. A few guys from the Richmond Ballet joined us to assist. They were great. At no time did any of the students feel like they were being treated with anything less than respect and courtesy. It was nice to have them around to help. That really was the highlight of the day -- a long one at that. We did get into the company rehearsal space for the group photo. What an amazing space to work in. This is truly a lucky company.

Someone had asked how I learned about the Intensive. It's not part of the Richmond Ballet. It's a privately run event I found in the back of Dance magazine. You can either look for more information in Dance Magazine next spring, or you can contact Heidiplie@aol.com (Heidi Pankoff). They're already talking about expanding it for next year, but enrollment is limited. Fortunately, previous students are given the first shot at spaces. I already plan on coming back next year. Only I'll plan to come in a few days early so I can see the city.

 

Thursday – Day 5, already. Time sure flies.

Part of me look towards Saturday with a tinge of sadness. The other part of me, my feet, can't wait.

Some observations: People are a lot less hesitant to take time out when needed. The realities of adult bodies have surpassed our youthful sense of fun by now. Myself and a few others have taken to skipping a class or two in the afternoon to rest, stretch or practice variations. Words like "ice" and "hot tub" have become central to many conversations. The hotel hot tub has become the most popular member of our group. Last night there were so many dancers in it seemed like a big bowl of dancer stew.

No injuries yet that I'm aware of. People seem to be paying close attention to their bodies. That said, the ice packs in the kitchen are getting their own daily work out. It's as if they've become a fashion statement. You can't be seen in the kitchen without one (LOL). I've learned to have a great big, massive breakfast, something I rarely do at home. I find myself eating constantly between classes, apples, yogurt, Zone bars. If not, I get too fuzzy.

Jasmine Grace taught our morning technique class. She's a rail thin, extremely elegant woman whose waif-like hands speak volumes when she does a port de bras. I originally thought she was from Eastern Europe because of her accent. She's actually a Richmond native. She lived in South Africa as a child which accounts for the unusual speech rhythms. An understated, gentle way about her teaching. She spent as much time as necessary with whoever had a question.

Men's variations rules! All the classes are learning dances from the ballet "Sylvia." I want to rush out and find a copy when I get home. The music is wonderful. The four men in the group are all catching on pretty well. Pedro dropped the tour en l'air after he realized it was just too difficult for us to perform where he had it. I was both disappointed and relieved. The brisés, however, are still there, much to my chagrin. But what's life without a challenge? My temps de fléche won't win any awards, but it's coming along.

The piece being choreographed for the performance is coming together. Tough to create something for forty-seven people of varying levels, so it's on the easy side. Interesting to be part of the creative and rehearsal process. It's a real give and take relationship. And I've found adults can behave as poorly as children at rehearsals. It's hard for the choreographer (Mary Marshall) to hold it together at times. Forty-seven excited, tired people can be a tough lot to manage. I think this would have been better if there had been some rules of behavior set down up front.

Someone mentioned to me once the issue of adult students being money makers for studios. I can assure you that is not the case here. I always say "it starts at the top." Heidi is great with adults, and that attitude ripples down through each of the instructors. Her afternoon technique class ended up being one big pirouette class. She was patient with even the slowest learner and found ways to communicate what she was trying to say in the simplest of ways. One class with her could clear up anyone's pirouette problems. I nearly did a double after our impromptu session the other day.

Being exposed to hours of dance, day after day is a remarkable experience. The things we're told to do but don't necessarily get that much time to put into practice; using your ab's, lengthening the spine, supporting your arms from your lats and back, all become second nature by the end of the week. Part of me wishes this could go on forever. Another part of me just wants to fill a tub with Ben Gay and crawl right on in. I had a fun experience in a restaurant the other night. I was sitting on a long bench and thought I'd put my legs up on it, as they were so, so tired. I had to use my hands to lift my right leg, it was so sore. I laughed so hard people were staring. One of the joys of a week of dance.

 

Friday – Technique class was taught by Mary Marshall this morning.

A short, understated woman with a tremendous amount of talent (her coupé was lightning fast and she did it as though it was nothing at all), she led a class packed full of useful information. I've been struggling with en dedans versus en dehors. I mean, after all, in and out what door and where's the hinge anyway? She laid it out thoroughly and simply. The supporting side of the body is the hinge, the muscle on the inside (facing front) on the passé leg is en dedans, the outside muscle is en dehors. What could be simpler than that? Immediate improvement. Thank you Mary.

Men's variations was followed by stretch class. Perhaps I should remind everyone that there are always three levels of different classes going on simultaneously. This is not an easy feat of scheduling and there's always something for everyone.

I've learned by this point to take time off to rest. Ice packs are even more the fashion requirements du jour, and more people are utilizing the odd half hour here and there to rest and relax. Me, I decided to take the half hour before lunch to continue pushing myself to practice the men's variation from "Sylvia" for the performance. After lunch comes two and a half hours of partnering. Now, nobody had to twist my arm to do the two classes back to back, but being one of only four guys here, it's hard not to be noticed it you're not in the class. And, I loved it, so missing character class was no big deal.

I didn't realize until the middle of the first class (levels II and III went first – mostly on pointe) that many if not all of these women rarely if ever get the chance to partner. At once sad and exciting, it made me want to do everything possible to make certain they enjoyed the moment to it's fullest. I carefully watched the three Richmond Ballet Company members who joined our ranks for hand placement, when and how they grabbed onto their partner, how they watched them, etc. This moment meant so much more to both me and my partner than I had initially realized. I began having much more fun, trying to make it more enjoyable. Most of the ladies were nervous but excited. Trying to make it better for them made it all the more pleasurable an experience for me. And, it goes without saying, that I am now incredibly hooked on pas de deux. Guess I have to finally take advantage of those free classes I'll get at home if I take partnering classes. Great luck to be a guy in that respect.

The Ballet Repertory was busy tonight. I've learned my shins can't handle jazz moves at all. But I put a good face on, and a couple of packs of ice, and went right back in to finish. Amazing what we'll put up with, what levels of pain and discomfort, for something we feel so passionately about. If there's one thing I've learned this week, and there are many, I've learned I can be incredibly passionate about ballet. Passion carries you through the tough days where you can't do anything right, and allows you to sail through the good days where you can't do anything wrong.

More dancer stew tonight in the hot tub.

 

Saturday, August 18th.

There are times in your life, moments you experience, that you can never forget, moments that fill you with emotion and/or change your life forever. I've had three of those moments recently. One was staring in wonder at my best friend's new baby girl last week, the other was the passing of my father, and the most recent was this afternoon.

I will not pretend to be heaven's gift to ballet, but this afternoon I felt as if I could walk on clouds. I did my variation in the performance aware of every step I missed, the pirouette I nearly messed up, and the brisé I did instead of a glissade. But, it felt like the best thing I've ever done. It was such a thrill moving across the floor, my nerves were completely forgotten. The only dose of reality I had was in the middle of the variation when I saw Pedro hiding behind the stereo, trying to be as invisible as possible (he had accidentally called my name in the middle of the piece in rehearsal and I completely lost my train of thought and had to stop). I felt like laughing out loud when I saw him trying to hide. It only made me more confident and I smiled bigger as I went into the final combination.

The moment I finished, walking across the floor listening as the other students applauded, it hit me. Everything I've worked so hard for these past few months was done. Oddly, it was not a sad moment. I know I've begun something that will fill my coming years with joy in ways I could only previously imagine. But as I walked across that floor, that fourteen year old little boy who wanted so desperately to dance, to move with a grace and beauty that filled him with awe, had finally had his chance to step out and be seen. Even as I write this I find it hard to keep my composure. Tears of joy, not sadness, began falling as I walked across that floor. A dream long suppressed had come to pass.

I was one of the last to leave the studio building, that beautiful facility the Richmond Ballet is so lucky to call home. It was not an easy thing to do at all, dragging myself down those stairs to the street. In the course of a week I had come to feel a comfort in those halls. A hearty thanks to whoever finally gave the nod for us to use the big rehearsal space on the third floor today. Just being in that room seemed to give us all a little extra ballon today. And heart-felt thanks to Heidi and the cast of instructors she wrangled to join us this week. They went out of their way to make this a pleasant learning experience for everyone.

I cannot recommend more highly the value of an Intensive experience. To have the opportunity to live as closely as possible the life of a dancer, especially at an advanced age, is truly something one should make an attempt to experience. I'm going to crash now, dream the contented dreams that that fourteen year old boy was always so hesitant to enjoy.

And, yes, my check for next year's Intensive is already in the mail.

 

Please join a discussion on this topic in our forum.

Edited by Basheva.

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