passion and positivity

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This morning I took class with the woman who (lovingly) forced my untrained knees into the semblance of turn out they exhibit today.  Long story short: it was hard.  I am more than slightly out of shape at the moment, and it had been years since I’d taken a class like this one- let alone with a woman who shaped me as a child and seemed keen on contorting my disapproving body just as much today as she did back then.

As I walked into their petite Barrington studios, I was met by my former coaches, a spirited couple of a certain age from Kazakhstan, whose passion for ballet and voracious thirst for life is impossible to describe with the limited black and white words I am able to type here.  With huge smiles, hugs and kisses like they hadn’t seen me in years- although I’ve been teaching their younger students all week- Vera and Zhanat reminded me what it feels like to be in the presence of those who are truly “for” you; Those people who genuinely want the best for your future and who truly believe with every bit of their being that these goals float within your reach.  Of course, not without a bit of their own shared expertise and (more than) a few tough Russian-style technique classes!

As we chatted before class, two more women walked through the front door and Vera bounded over to them with the excited abandon of her rambunctious 10-year-old students I’d spent all week attempting to tame.  I now see where they have learned this uncontrolled expressive excitation.  Vera unloaded the floppy black tutu bags from the arms of these new visitors and tugged back their zippers to unleash a boisterous wave of color.  Bright scanes of folded tulle, yards upon yards of intricately patterned ribbon, small satin flowers with the tiniest of pearls sewn onto each petal.  To say Vera’s face lit up would be an understatement.  Her entire body seemed to glow from the inside at the sight of these materials.  What may have been a pile of junk to a pedestrian was a treasure trove for Vera; Not a collection of fabrics, but an opportunity to create beauty.

“How could I ever stop loving ballet?  With all of this!  Look!  So much beauty in ballet.”

That broken English as charming as her rosebud smirk, Vera ran her hands over her prized new pile of prepatent beauty, beaming.

Earlier this week, when I attended Zhanat’s class with the young students whom I was to teach over the next few days, I was given an introduction to the audience of pre-teen bunheads like I’ve never heard in my life.  Flattery at its finest, people.  But one sentiment from Zhanat really stuck with me.

“This is Kirsten.  She is not a normal person, you see, she is higher up than people who walk next to you on the street.  Do you know why?  Because she is an artist.  She has a love for ballet in her heart and a dedication to this art form in her whole spirit.  This is what makes her special.”

Exaggerated and prolific as his words may have been, I couldn’t help but appreciate the meaning behind them.  What he was doing with this description was not attempting to feed my ego, but instead exposing his students to the idea that dedication to the arts can set them apart from the crowd.  It was heartfelt, eloquent (even in its occasional grammatical err) and, above all, extremely inspiring.

In a world that seems overrun with negativity (often self-inflicted, ahem, I’m looking at you, me), these moments in which we are reminded what true passion and devotion to the arts look like are essential to maintaining a healthy and vibrant relationship with ballet.  Thank you, Miss Vera and Mr. Zhanat.  Your devotion to your craft is wholly moving.

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Zhanat & Vera posing in the city

If you need a bit more help in this department, check out my 5 tips for avoiding negativity in-studio and onstage, now on firstposition.com.

To learn more about Vera, Zhanat, and their studio Ballet Prestige, see their website here.

a letter from your dance teacher

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Last night I stumbled upon this article from Huffington Post, and found it so intriguing I knew I had to share it with all of you.  The piece is written as a letter to the dance students of 2013 from “Your Dance Teacher”.  Although I have never actually taught, I immediately related to the letter from a student’s point of view, and I’m sure many of you will too.

Ms. Beckford’s letter addresses the many emotional hardships dance students undertake as a result of “harsh” or seemingly unreasonable teaching techniques from their instructors (you’ve all heard of ballet teachers using canes, scarves and brute force to literally whip kids into shape, right?).  However, instead of sympathizing with the discouraged or frustrated student as you might initially imagine, this letter expressly sides with the dance teachers of the world, explaining that they are merely trying to help in the only way they can.  This is something I not only agree with out of mere principle (seriously, read the letter, it is all so very well articulated), but also from first-hand experience.  Yes, public, sarcastic comments from instructors during dance class can be rough.  Humiliating even.  But it should never be disparaging.  If a teacher takes the time to correct you (which does sometimes happen so many times in one class you might begin to think you’ll never be able to make that correction), it means they see potential in you.  It means you should just work harder, not give up.

Although I do wish this letter had been written to me during my often tumultuous years of training, I wouldn’t have had to read it to know that my teacher’s biting remark about my floppy feet in petit allegro was not a result of her anger towards me or dissatisfaction with her own life; It was a direct representation of her dedication to me and to her job as an instructor of dance.  By inherently knowing this (okay, it did take some convincing from my mother), I was able to not only respect my teachers, but also befriend many of them.  And these friendships have lead to a mutual professional appreciation and connections all over the world.  Last month, when my old ballet teacher, Milica, came into town from Serbia to set Sleeping Beauty, she immediately told me how proud of me she was and how impressed she was with my growth over the years we’ve spent apart.  Next month while I travel throughout Paris, I am thrilled to be able to call up one of the teachers who changed my dancing the most, Yves (pictured above, he is a Paris native) to show me around.  It’s like Ms. Beckford says:

“The teachers who gave me the harshest, most brutally honest corrections are the ones I learned the most from. I didn’t like what they had to say, but in my day, we just went home and cried — never did we accuse the teacher of disrespect. Weeks, months or even years later, I realized how right the teacher was. That said, their corrections didn’t mean I was a) a bad dancer b) never going to dance professionally c) meant to be a Taco Bell employee.”

A lesson that it seems many of the ballet students of today could benefit greatly from.  Being a dancer takes a very thick skin.  If you want to be a professional and you don’t have a thick, outer coating protecting your emotions from criticism, you have two options: either grow one, or try soccer.