I’m officially done with RAD graded ballet. Walked out of my Grade 8 exam on Thursday afternoon, ridiculously smiling for the rest of the afternoon.
Yes I stuffed things up at times, like adding a brand new arm to an exercise (it wasn’t even a mistake I’d ever made before) and catching a case of nervous wobbles at the start of the exam that left me slightly off balance and wobbly and very difficult to maintain tight, turned-out fifth positions. But by the end of the exam, I had calmed down considerably and performed my final dance, Mazurka De Salon, with a wonderful smile and actually really enjoyed it!
I’ve been a perfectionist for almost as long as I can remember. I’ve been trying to work with it and improve because it was taking over my entire life, particularly in my academic studies, and leaving my mental health in shambles. Yet I walked out of this exam, able to point out every single thing that I did badly, but had a smile on my face.
It felt wrong. Like I was letting myself down by not beating myself up about the mistakes I’d made. I was just smiling at everyone with the confidence that the exam had gone well overall, but wanting to justify every comment with how many things were far less than perfect.
I suppose it’s still a very long journey. This seems to be a first step- not hating myself for mistakes. The next step will be to not feel guilty about it! And now really hoping that next week’s Advanced Foundation exam will go very well!
And if any of you are perfectionists as well, comment below to share your experiences, tips or advice with everyone, and check out this previous post. Dance is perfectionistic by nature, but we need to take care of ourselves too.
Dance is inherently perfectionistic. You stand in front of a mirror, wearing the bare minimum with one or more highly experienced teachers or former dancers watching your every movement to pick out even the smallest flaws. Coupled with a head that’s providing a constant loop of negative feedback … not turned out enough, arm too high, too wobbly, straighten knee. You focus on correcting one aspect and you hear the teacher’s voice pick out something different, often without noticing that you’d done one thing well.
But dance is also incredibly enjoyable. There’s no way that anyone in their right mind would go through the above without having an absolute passion and determination to continue and work through every continual correction.
So heading back into classes this week, only a week and two weeks out from respective exams, tensions, stress and pressure are high with teachers determined to fix last details.
Remarkably, during my Advanced Foundation class, it was going really well. Not absolutely perfect, small stuff-ups in balance and turnout, but overall, I was happy with it.
My hips were really loose for some unknown reason … they didn’t feel loose but when I was doing Rond de jambe jetés at the barre, my leg was effortlessly flying up. Normally when this happens, it means that I’ve cheated by tilting my hips so that my leg can get up. That’s a big problem because hips must stay down and aligned in pretty much all of ballet. However this particular set felt really good and my teacher said my alignment was great and that I simply must be having a good day with hip flexibility. No idea why, but I sure hope that I can replicate in the exam!
Most incredibly, I got through both pirouette exercises really strongly (pirouettes are still a terrifying weak point). I had been dancing so well and normally things go downhill as soon as we start turns, and they didn’t! I was so excited and went confidently and very excitedly onto adage.
Which is where things decided to actually take a turn downhill. I couldn’t get my balance properly in my arabesques and they kept turning into penchés, a habit I thought I had drilled out over the last few weeks.
We kept starting again with various degrees of failures. The most hilarious was an arabesque that turned into a controlled penché. I figured that in true exam spirit, I would keep going and pretend it was choreographed. So I recovered into an attitude position to go into a promenade. Unfortunately, I had misjudged the music and forgotten one more low arabesque before the promenade. So I just kept going and did a double promenade.
By this point the entire class, myself and the teacher combined were laughing uncontrollably … that I’d pulled off a beautifully executed penché into double promenade and just smiled and kept on going.
It certainly wasn’t “perfect”, because I’d done completely the wrong steps, but I smiled and laughed and we all had fun. It was a very enjoyable moment, with laughter all around and a joke that I’d love starting Advanced 1 in two weeks because it has plenty of penchés and promenades!
Of course we went on to actually complete the adage properly after a couple more tries, but in some ways, it was more fun and enjoyable to have messed up an exercise on a wobbly day and laugh it off, rather than complete the adage semi-perfectly and simply corrected all the little things.
Class is aiming to perfect little things, but the enjoyment is also there!
I apologise that my blog posts have slowed down in the last few weeks. There’s a very good reason, and that’s because the RAD exam session is about to begin.
Preparing for and completing exams is normally somewhat stressful, after all, you want to demonstrate your best ability to complete a grade of work. However I’m asking for double trouble this year by taking two exams- my Grade 8 and my Advanced Foundation.
For those of you familiar with ballet grades, both exams are quite a high level and take significant effort and dedication to complete on their own. Yet I’ve been preparing since this time last year, and now it’s up to the final weeks of class before donning exam attire and running in to smile and greet the examiner.
My first exam will be the Grade 8 exam. I get to complete it at my home studio with two of my ballet classmates, one of which happens to be my teacher! Long story short, she decided she wanted to resit the exam for fun (it’s been 5 years since the first time she did it), so it’ll be an interesting comparison as we dance alongside each other, but has been very fun and enjoyable taking classes with her as a dance friend rather than just as a teacher. Because in Grade 8 we pick one of two dances to complete in each section, she’s opted to do all the opposite dances to the ones she danced the first time. It’s certainly a fun idea, and I’m sure there aren’t many dancers or teachers who can say that they completed an exam together!
Anyway, I’m quite confident to complete my Grade 8. I’ve picked to do the Demi-Caractere, Mouvement Dramatique and Mazurka De Salon as my three dances that I get to choose. The way the exam is set up, we’ll have a barre that we all complete together, and then an Entre Polonaise done as a group where we have to be very careful to stay exactly in co-ordination with each other.
After that we all leave the exam room and return one at a time to complete the first dance, the Etude Lyrique. We then go onto the other dances we’ve selected, all one at a time. The one-at-a-time is quite unusual and only happens in Grade 8 because it is a solo performance grade and the examiner wants to see how well we perform solely by ourselves!
We’ll then all run back back in to complete the Finale Polonaise together and the exam’s over just like that. The individual dances are longer than normal exercises in other grades, but there are only 4 of them, so it’s not too exhausting. The dances are also not too technically challenging which allows plenty of space to really perform and delve into the expression and beauty of each dance … to recognise this, half of the exam marks are on performance!
Luckily, the dances have all been going really well and I’ve been consistently completing them very nicely for over a month now. I still have tiny things to fix every time, but overall they always work well with no major mistakes or anything, so I’m confident that I can just go into the exam next week and pull them off with a smile and love of dancing.
Advanced Foundation is quite a different story. I love the exercises, but it is a far harder syllabus. It’s one of the RAD pre-vocational exams, and they’re much more focussed on technique compared the the higher grades (Grade 6, 7, and 8).
Where grade 8 has only optional double pirouettes, great use of épaulment and the appearance of character and free movement work, Advanced Foundation has multiple doubles in different positions, pointe work and pirouettes en pointe, grande jetés, fast footwork and all the rest. Grade 8 is very fun and “dancey” where half the available marks are awarded for performance, whereas all the pre-vocational grades award the majority of marks to technique and prefer to see clean, technically correct lines with minimal épaulment and tend to be marked quite hard.
A big difference is on the RAD website, they recommend having done 130 hours of practice and class dedicated to Grade 8 before the exam, whereas recommend 275 hours for Advanced Foundation – more than twice as much! I’ve definitely stuck to this, not necessarily intentionally, but always have far more to fix and work on for Advanced Foundation.
I frequently struggle with the two pirouette exercises, but everything is slowly improving and I’m feeling at least that I’ve personally gone so much further in my dancing by pursuing this grade, regardless of the end outcome!
I dance nearly every day, but have to manage it on a uni student budget. At first I thought that the biggest expense would be managing class fees, and it probably is (particularly if you include extra classes and vacation schools), but then there’s everything else. Exam fees, costume deposits, new pointe shoes (because you absolutely cannot buy them secondhand).
I was expecting most of those costs, but the other thing that I started realising is that your one class uniform leotard and sole pair of ballet tights (probably bought second hand to start with) doesn’t hold up to being danced in for hours every day, most days of the week. So I’ve become somewhat more clever in managing which dance wear and costs I can cut or avoid or make up for.
And one part of that is wearing as much secondhand, discounted, mended or homemade dance wear as possible. So today’s post is a snapshot of my latest DIY project- leg warmers.
Ballet legwarmers that actually work
Dancewear is expensive, and for a good quality leotard or pair of shoes, that makes sense to me, but cracking out $20-$50 for a long-sock-without-heels-or-toes, not so much.
So why not get a long sock and simply remove the heels and toes?
That’s exactly what I did, and they’re amazing. My earlier attempts at legwarmers have involved sewing up fabric into a tube-shaped sock, but I’ve struggled to get them to stay up while dancing. Socks on the other hand, have elastic and are tight to start with, so they seemed a lot better than simply sewing a seam up some stretchy fabric (my main problem with this is that stretchy fabric often isn’t as stretchy as socks are, and the seam would have to be exactly tight enough that it would stay up, but I could still get it up. The challenge had proved overly difficult).
I started with this lovely pair of knee-high tight, fairly warm socks.
I cut just the toes off and a little triangle off the heel. I tried to start with a tiny amount because you can always cut off more, but it’s hard to add it back on if you cut too much! Even that tiny amount turned out to be more than I’d intended, so as a word of warning, socks are really stretchy so start really small!
After trying on for size I quickly did a zigzag stitch along the edge to stop the threads from fraying or unraveling and voila, ready to wear leg warmers!
Most people know that dancers are good at getting injured. We tend to have a high pain threshold and remarkable tolerance and determination to just keep on dancing despite the sharp, stabbing, agonising pain minor twinge.
So I’d love to be practicing right now. Instead, I’m sitting in bed typing a blog post. My calf has been quite sore. I pushed it through a very full week of dancing, followed by a 4-day Grade 8 vacation school. I knew that wouldn’t be great for it, but figured I could take a couple days off afterwards.
Which I did. I had three days off, then got back into practice. 2 days later and it’s quite sore again, so probably another couple days off with massage and magic creams and hopefully it’ll get a lot better.
Some tips to prevent injury
See a physio. If something’s sore, a physiotherapist is an amazing person to see. Try and find one who’s knowledgeable about dance if you haven’t already, and listen to their advice. Do your exercises and it should be better. My physio is an incredible person who has such an amazing understanding of the body and often targets a weak muscle group or something that I thought was entirely unrelated to the pain point and every single time it gets better if I follow her recommendations!
As a general rule to prevent getting excessively injured, I try to take at least one day a week off dancing entirely, no practice or anything. I’ll still do my exercises, workout or do a non-dance physical activity, such as running, walking or swimming as a fitness-promoter that uses different muscle groups and helps prevent the overuse injuries that so many dancers pick up.
I’ve also learnt to love ice packs. If something’s even just a little sore, a minor twinge or something, it’s very easy to just ice it for 15 minutes when getting home from class and most of the time that prevents it getting any worse. For more serious injuries, the ice is also amazing as it helps to reduce inflammation and promote the healing process. If I forget to ice an injury after class, 9 times out of 10, it’s far worse the next time I dance. If I do ice it, then it at least doesn’t worsen much.
My next thing is to take a day or several off. If something’s sore, perhaps your Achilles is playing up, your knee is just a little painful when you straighten it fully … whatever the case if it’s sore for a couple days and doesn’t seem to be getting better while you’re still dancing, then simply take a couple days rest. So many dancers that I know will just keep pushing, taking more painkillers and icing more often as injuries get worse because they’re afraid of taking any time away from dancing. End result: they have to take several weeks off because the problem just got seriously worse. Just take the day or two when it’s not too bad and it ends up being better in the long run.
Also make sure you’re doing any of your relevant strength exercises. Core strength is a big focus for me … I think it’s just so important to have an extremely stable centre to build off that helps everything stay aligned and correct to prevent injuries from poor stability. I intend to do some further posts on the topic of core and general strength, so if you’re interested, follow my blog to keep up with them!
Other exercises to strengthen specific weak points are also really important, as well as any physiotherapy exercises you’re given to work through injuries. If you’re wanting other exercises for strengthening specific areas, or just don’t know where to start, feel free to drop me a comment below and I’m happy to help from my dance knowledge or point you towards numerous amazing resources! Just ask and you shall receive!
As I mentioned in a recent post, I got to go watch the brand new ballet Dangerous Liasons (it only premiered in March) performed by the Queensland Ballet last weekend.
Long story short, it was incredible
Longer version of the story, I’ve been incredibly inspired to improve all my dancing, particularly my courus!
I do realise that that’s probably a weird thing to be inspired to improve the most, but one of the principals, Rachael Walsh, had the most amazing courus I’ve ever seen in my life. Her feet were moving inhumanly fast and she was actually gliding across the whole stage, then back and back again. I’ve never seen anything like it … truly making shame of feeble and clunky attempts of an Advanced Foundation dancer.
The ballet itself was incredible. The storyline is based off the novel and movie of the same name and the excellent choreography actually communicated the storyline really well so that it was actually possible to follow along with what was happening throughout! Although it was awfully confusing when one of the principals changed costumes … I’m sure I can’t be the only one who struggles with identifying dancers on stage, particularly given the fact I was sitting near the back.
I ended up sitting next to both my ballet teachers, as they had a spare ticket. One of my teachers is only slightly older than me and often takes the same classes and we’ve become good friends and we spent the performance together gushing over the dancers’ incredible technique and of course the amazing courus. We both attend Saturday class the next morning and resolved that we’d start improving our own courus immediately.
My other teacher lasted about 10 minutes in before leaning over to us and whispering that we should watch the arm lines of the dancers. Never missing an opportunity to hint about the great struggles that I suffer with making my arms look beautiful when I dance!
But I loved it and got to hear Li Cunxin speak during the interval which was pretty amazing!
We all know the story. A swan hatches in a duckling nest and is large, out of place and quite ugly at this young age. Struggles through growing up as the oversized awkward one, forever different and teased for it. Until one day, he matures into an adult swan. Suddenly his large size and ugliness has morphed into a beautiful and elegant swan.
As a late starter in ballet, it often feels like this. The tall, uncoordinated one standing at the back of the class. Not often teased, but not exactly welcomed into conversation … you’re at a different stage of life.
For me, the other dancers have caught up in height, but I’m finished school and working while they’re in the throes of assignments and exams. I drive myself to class while they’re waiting around to be picked up when their parents’ schedules align.
This metaphor of the ugly duckling really struck me this week when I was taking a grade 5 ballet class for extra technique. Those dancers are still a head and shoulders below me in height, yet I was still learning so much from their syllabus work.
Again on Saturday, I had the amazing opportunity to attend a Queensland Ballet masterclass. The other dancers wouldn’t have been older than 15, still small, little and skinny … with amazing turns and abilities to pick up exercises very quickly. I rapidly found myself in the last group to complete every exercise. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it, or that I was too much out of my depth, but simply that I still need a bit of extra time to pick up the new work and fitted in better with the less confident final group.
In situations like this, there’s often some confusion. Not teasing or unfriendliness, but simply a surprise that you’re different from everyone else. Obviously working hard, but also obviously not working for as many years as the others.
But even in remembering this metaphor, I also remembered the second part of the story- the swan’s delight in his eventual elegant maturity.
I might be in a grade 5 ballet class, or a masterclass with amazing young teenage dancers, but I’m still getting somewhere. Eventually long classes with younger students pay off and bring a wonderful display of maturity and hard work in an older dancer.
And what’s quite so magical about the late starter who eventually catches up? It’s that they have a true passion. Starting late, fighting against the difficulties, but doing it because they really, truly want it. That passion shows through in every dance, and creates beautiful swans amongst the ducklings.
In class there are a few things that I hear a lot.
“Relax your shoulders!”
“You’re too tense”
“Your shoulders are just about touching your ears!”
“Your fingers are too stiff”
These, and variations on the general theme, form the major part of the corrections I receive. One of my teachers will just simply remind me to breathe every once and while when we’re on barre. The other teacher has told me that my footwork and mastery of the steps has really improved, except my arms are so tense and awkward that my ability to do the steps isn’t seen and I look off balance even while being perfectly well balanced.
In fact, after making this observation, my teacher decided we were focussing on arms for the entire term (the past 9 weeks of dancing). Anyway, zooming back to this past week, we have indeed been doing exactly that. I posted a couple weeks ago about my struggles with getting my hands to work beautifully. I think that I’m doing better with them, but I need to ask one of my teachers to see if they’ve actually improved.
I hadn’t been making too much progress with shoulders though. The problem is that I tense them when I get stressed, whether that’s at dance or at work or anywhere, if I feel even the slightest bit stressed or concerned about something, I tense my shoulders. At the moment we’re 1-2 months out from ballet exams, so I’m really trying to work hard and get things right and unfortunately I’m unconsciously tensing slightly because of it.
But along the side, I’ve been reading and taking notes on ‘Conditioning for Dance’ by Eric Franklin, and one of the things I was reading about this week was using imagery to improve your dancing. One type of imagery he suggests is repeating a mantra of some type. His example was that if you wanted tension-free shoulders, you could repeat “My shoulders are flowing away from my neck” in your head.
Something about this phrase just sticks to me. I try thinking about my shoulders flowing away from my neck and I can feel my entire upper back and shoulder blades relax beautifully and completely and it feels amazing! And so I was thinking about this before my first class on Thursday while I was taking notes on this chapter.
I get through two hours of junior classes and then go to work on my syllabus pointe work by myself. Halfway through practicing, one of my teachers walks in. She stops and smiles, “Your shoulders are so relaxed!”
I suddenly realised that they were indeed, flowing away from my neck while I was dancing. It felt amazing, that they were down, soft and relaxed while my legs were doing all the work of keeping me up en pointe. This morning they felt down and beautiful again, even during this exercise which I videoed, which is a marathon in itself. It’s a big victory, and one that’ll hopefully be ongoing over the following weeks and months, and really hopefully on the exam day!
And I’d encourage all of you to work on your shoulder tension as well. Whether thinking about shoulders flowing away from your neck, or something else, find something that work for you because your dancing will look that much better, more relaxed and more controlled if you keep them down, down, down.
I made the 12 fouettés that my teacher challenged me to. They weren’t amazing, but I went and told her anyway … and nailed a full 15 immediately afterwards. So my goal to get to 10 by the end of this year has been well and truly met (just like the goal to run 10 km was smashed over in February). I think the next goal will be to get to 10 on the other leg and start going into doubles.
This is particularly exciting because I wouldn’t consider myself to be a “turner”, and have spent far more hours just trying to do doubles than almost anyone else I know. Yet fouettés just seem to be working for me. It’s incredible!
I wonder if part of this success is my recent dedication to core strength work. I’m not sure I have any way of testing that, but it’s certainly a theory.
Yet frustrations are only just around the corner, and I admit that I shed a couple tears during yesterday’s practice session when my body refused to dance as nicely as my mind could imagine the steps.
I had been listening to the syllabus music before practicing and I could see myself using all the music and really performing, all in my mind’s eye. In reality it didn’t work quite so well. I guess I’ll keep trying, striving and hopefully get there eventually.
On a different note, some other exciting things have come up. I bought a ticket to see the Queensland Ballet perform Dangerous Liasons in two weeks time, and also booked a place at the masterclass that they’re running the next day. So I’m very, very excited!
And finally my role in the end-of-year performance was confirmed. We have two main roles and I will be the “snow globe”, the entry way to the whole magic carnival. I’ll be starting the show on stage sitting in the middle of a giant snow globe while the audience enters and then get to dance and welcome the little girl (the other main role) into the carnival. It’s a little bit abstract, but still very exciting to have one of only two roles!
My Advanced Foundation class this evening was absolutely exhausting. We ran a full mock exam, complete with a lack of drink breaks. It’s made me decide that my stamina is perhaps what will let me down here, instead of anything else.
But we did full barre (which is a difficult and tiring barre), straight into port de bras and both pirouette exercises. We started straight into adage, still having not had more than the 8 seconds between exercises to breath, and it didn’t go so great. Spots were flying in front of my eyes and my arabesque fell apart on count 3. So my teacher stopped the music and I pretty much collapsed onto the ground panting.
After that (a 2-minute break) I did get through it fairly well, but we went straight onto allegros, which are all the jumps. Allegro 1 (energetic), followed immediately by Allegro 2 (absolute death, it’s super fast and technical) and straight into Allegro 3 (higher jumps). Then an allegro unseen, where the teacher/examiner gives you a new combination of steps that isn’t set and you have to be able to do it well.
Anyway, by this point, I am exhausted. The unseen section gives us a mini-break because we can stand still and do things slowly for learning it, but it’s only just before the final allegro.
So onto Allegro 4. And I think I over-compensated for being exhausted, and absolutely flew off the ground in the grande jetés en tournant. Then the grand jeté section itself truly felt like soaring through the air, way high off the ground and just about in full split. And the next set of grande jetés en tournant were so high that I was just about losing control of the landing.
Unfortunately I think that was the end of my amazing energy boost, as my feet and knees wanted to collapse during pointe, but it was just about worth it for those jumps!
It was absolutely incredible! I finished the exercise and smiled broadly at my teacher and said that those were the best jumps I have ever done in my life. And as so many ballet teachers do, she looked vaguely amused and said they were definitely improving.