Through years of technically thought out exercises and disciplined training the aesthetic of the dancer becomes a beautifully sculpted work of art. From the outside we see something that is almost dream like, angelic, enchanting. The La Sylphide. To hear the inner monologue of the dancer would be another picture entirely as they squeeze, tuck and turn-out with every ounce of strength, all while counting and concentrating.
If you ever thought ballet was easy then you must not have been doing it right. It wasn't until I became a pedagogical student of scientific method that I could fully comprehend this. Suddenly, performing plié's made me break into sweat, and after a completed lesson my muscles still shook for hours, only to wake up with a sore body and repeat 6 days a week. With practice and time, holding a position like turn-out becomes easier. Pushing ourselves to squeeze, tuck and hold tighter becomes a challenge with ourselves to make the most of an exercise, to become better and refine our craft.
Almost every muscle in our body is activated during ballet. From the legs, back and stomach all the way to the little muscles in our hands, fingers and face. In order for the girls to understand how truly hard the muscular system is working at every moment inside the dancers body I had them lay down on the ground squeezing every muscle is hard as they could for only 4 counts.
Working every muscle in their body at the same time isn't required of them yet, but this gave them a great example as to how hard I want them to squeeze isolated muscles for a short amount of time during different exercises.
As I have mentioned in previous post, during the beginning of our lesson we have floor time. This is when we do warm-ups and work on exercises that teach us how to use and identify muscles as well as teach correct placement in the back and torso. I would like to point out that during this time we do not use static stretching. It is very important for the safety of the dancer to remain tight. Stretching the muscles weakens their strength for up to 1 hour. We must keep our muscles engaged and tight to protect the ligaments so as not to cause injury. Injuries to the ligaments weakens the stability within our joints which can lead to devastating long term effects. Instead, we use dynamic stretches that build both flexibility and strength at the same time. These exercises, like plié and tendu, are found at the barre.
One of the girl's favorite activities from warm-up and floor time is our mermaid exercise. Originally this exercise came from our Peter Pan dance lesson as the girls became the mermaids sunbathing on Marooners' Rock. This exercise teaches far more than just pretend play.
There are 3 parts, or "challenges" as I call them, in this exercise.
The first is learning to engage those very important core muscles that will keep you lifted, stable and support your diaphragm for breathing. If they do not engage those muscles, or as I tell them "touch your belly button to your spine", they will roll off the ball.
The second part of the challenge builds onto the first. Using all the muscles in the lower half of the body, they have to squeeze their legs together as if held by glue, and even use those muscles in their feet giving us a pretty point to the sky. Holding their legs together creates a second challenge. By keeping them together it helps them find their center, leaving less work for the core.
The third part of the challenge introduces small controlled movements like writing letters of the alphabet with our straight legs and pointed toes towards the sky. As their ability to stay stable on the ball strengthens, the movement's difficulty increase.
Another one of their favorite exercises is scooter boards. This was also taken from our Peter Pan lesson as we used them to spring off the floor and fly away to Neverland. For the past few weeks we have used these scooter boards and red ball for both a learning tool and fun. This exercise teaches them to work the glutes by keeping the ball and legs off the floor and uses the leg muscles as they squeeze the ball to keep it in place.
This week I used a new activity to help us understand how muscles can be shaped.
We started with this activity I found on pinterest.
Each child received a large stretchy made out of swimsuit lycra that was sewn into a circle. In front of the girls were activity cards. These cards had directions like make a 3 sided shape, make a twist or make a shape with 3 people. I placed these cards upside down. One at a time they flipped them over. Then, in their own unique way, they created an image to match.
The muscles are like these stretchy bands. The activities that we do can effect the way they are shaped. I gave the example of someone who lifts weight compared to someone who doesn't. We didn't dive too far into this, but for the purpose of this blog post I thought I would go a bit deeper on the muscle development in ballet training.
There are very opposing view points on the subject of bulky vs long lean muscles. There are two types of muscle fibers, fast-twitch and slow-twitch. Everyone has both. On average, everyone is 50/50. Due to genetic make-up though, there are people that have more of one then the other.
Slow-twitch muscle fibers are slow to contract. They also can stay contracted for an extended period of time. They're also more effective at using oxygen to generate fuel. Because of this, they make great endurance athletes like a long distance runner.
Fast-twitch muscles contract fast, with lots of force and tire very quickly. This muscle fiber can be broken down further into subcategories; the speed in which they can contract, their force and their ability to fatigue. Type b fast-twitch muscles contract faster then type a. These two types of fast-twitch muscles can convert between type a and b, but they can not convert to become a slow-twitch. This means that endurance training can give type b muscles some of its characteristics just as type a can give type b weight training characteristics, like strength. Sprinters and jumpers have more fast-twitch muscles.
Somebody with a make up of more slow-twitch muscles has a leaner build, like a marathon runner, than someone with the make up of more fast twitch muscle, like the sprinter.
Here is where some opposing views come into play.
Some people would say that some forms of exercise, like pilates, creates a longer and leaner body type. Others would say that it simply isn't true, there is not scientific proof, it makes absolutely no sense and that we are all just genetically made up to be one way or the other. It's true, genetics determine a lot. I mentioned previously, some people were born with more of one type of muscle fiber than the other, but the difference in which one strengthens their muscles is quite different. You can't negate the physical evidence in someones altered appearance from one form of physical activity to another.
Here is what makes the study of classical ballet unique to other forms of exercise and how it may truly alter someones aesthetic.
Every element of scientific method has been dissected and studied, from the exact placement of the body, to how long a position is held before it becomes ineffective or damaging. Vaganova was obsessed with the details. Creating the ideal aesthetic of the dancer was also of importance in order to create the lines that allow for artistic expression and to create the uniform look for the corps de ballet.
As I have dove deeper into the study of muscle fibers I find it very interesting that the very fundamentals of this method and the very detailed and methodical approach to the teaching of movement favors the development of the slow-twitch fiber. For instance, the placement of the body completely centered and in 180 degree turn-out which is taught on day 2 would be essential. Balance comes from this muscle fiber, and with the specific placement, you must find it or fall on your face. The placement of the vertebrae is important. It literally lifts you, lengthening your torso. The flexibility that is gained only comes while building strength. These are stretches with opposition which are found at the barré. Exercises that would engage the fast-twitch fibers are not as strongly prevalent in the early lessons. Exercises, like jumps that would produce this "bulky" fiber, aren't introduced in this method until much later when the dancer is stable and has had a chance to really develop the slow-twitch fiber.
Here are their tendus at the barre. They are stretching their leg as far as possible while still lifting the muscle and keeping it tight.
We continued our lesson with some history on some of the etiquettes of King Louie the 14th courts and finished with a little dance that follow some of these rules that I was able to teach them.
I have stated, and hopefully made clear in earlier posts, the reasons why I feel it is so important to teach my children through the arts. Yes, there is an abundance of cognitive benefits, but that doesn't even compare to my feeling on how important it is to give them an outlet for expression and my desire to teach them how uniquely beautiful God designed them and everyone else.
In this dance we used the song called, "Behold, Behold"
The lyrics come from a verse found in Revelation 3:20
I stand and the door and knock, knock, knock.
I stand and the door and knock, knock, knock.
If anyone hears my voice,
If anyone hears my voice,
and will open, open, open the door
I will come in.
One very detailed rule of etiquette was how deeply to bend the knee. Also when and for whom. This bend of the knee is also called plié. It was a sign of humility. The deeper the bend of the knee, the greater the person you bowed to.
In the time of King Louie there were as a divide in the Catholic faith. Alexandre Varet in 1666 said "Where there is dance, there is the devil." Taking from the writings of St. John Chrysostom he said, "Dancing does nothing but excite passions, making modesty lose its call amidst the noise of jumping and abandoning oneself to dissolution." However there was one group of Catholics who did not feel this way; the Jesuits. They used the arts as a tool to teach. They saw ballet as a way to attract and inspire believers.
So taking our cue from the Jesuits and the rules of etiquette in King Louie's court, how far do you bend your knee for the king and how far will you bend your knee for the ultimate King?