Advice on being the New Girl

Got this question from a reader named Anna the other day, and as it is all about courage and secret tricks and correctness, I thought to myself, ‘Self, who do I know that is brave, tricky, smart’? And then I thought, ‘well, Batman isn’t here right now, so I’ll ask Gentle Reader!’
So I’m counting on you, Gentle Reader. Be a hero, help me help a ballet beginner.

…I’ve been taking ballet class once a week since March at my university sports centre here in [a mysterious location]. Sadly classes ended at the end of June.. The class was not the traditional kind of ballet (for some reason called ‘Release Ballet’, with mixed levels in one class), our teacher was very laid-back. No rules about outfit or hairstyle or anything else. The motto was more or less: just come to class and enjoy it. I learned a lot and it was fun at the same time (even though I felt like there were too few corrections).

Now I’m going to be on study exchange in [a different location of mystery] from September to June and am planning on taking another beginner’s class at the university sports centre there. I’ve contacted a girl who’s been taking the course last year (thank you facebook!) and asked her a few things, like if they require certain outfits etc. and it seems as if everyone there took classes wayyy more seriously than here. They all wear leotards and ballet tights, she said the teacher was “tough” and there’s even a performance at the end of the term.

So I’m a little anxious about that class now. Apart from the fact that it’s going to be ballet danish style and not the kind of I’m familiar with (actually our teacher never mentioned what kind of ballet she was teaching. And I never asked or researched it..ahem), I’ve never worn a leotard in class and I’m not familiar with all the possible faux-pas there are. I’m sure I’ll put my foot in it at every opportunity…
How did you learn about all the ballet do’s and don’ts, from choosing the right outfit/leotard to unspoken rules in class? How do you cope with nervosity (well, if you are nervous at all) before attending a new class in an unfamiliar environment?

Well, first off, Anna, it’s cute how you think I know all the ballet do’s and don’ts, cute but distant from the reality wherein yes, omg, the Adult Beginner has nervousity left and right.
But, I mean, really, Batman himself would be nervous when confronted with a new teacher and a barre-full of sleek-haired leotarded primas. Right? Batman is no fool!
But I’ve got some tricks-
Trick one: Get Dressed. And I’m talking full-on ballet gear. Black leotard, black shorts or skirt, pink tights, pink shoes, bun if you can. This does two important things: First, it’ll make you feel confident, you’ll look like a dancer in the mirror. Second, it marks you as a beginner to the rest of the class. This may sound like a bad thing, but it is very good. When your classmates see your brandspankingnew gear, they also see your enthusiasm and excitement and they’ll remember back when they were the same and it’ll warm their little perfection-obsessed hearts and bring a smile to their glowing red eyes. And they may be inspired to help you out a little in class.
Trick two: Be Observant.
Ok that’s not so much a trick as just a good life skill.
For example: there are a lot of people in class. The barre is crowded. How do you keep from kicking the people behind and in front of you with your glorious extension during grand battement? After fumbling this a few times I finally stopped, looked around, and noticed that the more experienced girls were angling their bodies toward the barre, so they kicked diagonally to the barre in front, and out diagonally to the back, thereby avoiding kicking classmates in the gut. Which I’ve done. Seriously, not even kidding. Talk about putting your foot in it.
(And then immediately apologized a whole lot)
Later I was watching The Red Shoes and thought ‘aha they do it too!’ during a rehearsal scene as they all angled in and out from an incredibly crowded barre.
Trick three: Read Up. Ballet is French French frenchity French French. No matter what style ballet. Luckily, french shares a lot of cognates with it’s other romance language brethren. And those cognates can help you figure out and remember the intent behind a move. For example, developé sounds like develop. Your leg unfurls slowly, it develops.
But it can be hard to catch all the words in class as a teacher is calling them out, so the more you read about ballet the more you can catch and recognize those words.
For example, recently, I figured out that when we cambré (bend) our bodies to the back in port de corp (carriage of the body) we are not going ‘Grand Versailles’, as in the palace where Marie Antoinette lived, which is what I’ve been picturing in my head all this time, we are going ‘renversé’, which just means reverse. Duh. It’s taken me over a year and a half to catch that one.
Trick four: don’t do what they tell public speakers- don’t picture them in their underwear. Probably just make you feel creeped out.

Anna, I think it was very smart of you to contact a student in your new class.
And I wish you the very best!
Gentle Reader, what do you do?
Are you nervous before a new class?
How do you handle it?
How did you learn the in&oits and avoid faux pas, which means false step in French?
Help Anna out, and me too, the Adult Beginner could always use some more tricks.


About adultbeginner

Had my first ballet class Ever at the advanced age of thirty-two. Yikes.
This entry was posted in Technique and Class, You Asked for it and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Advice on being the New Girl

  1. I wore an Iron Maiden Powerslave t-shirt to my first ever class. I didn’t feel very balletic in it.
    After that, I wore leggings, a black little chiffon skirt, a bun and my soft ballet shoes. Now I am less self conscious, I wear a leotard with shorts and pink tights – I dress like a ballerina, as I’m there to work like one. I see it as my work uniform.
    But mostly, it’s about being comfortable and confident.
    If all else fails – copy what other girls are wearing.

  2. Kay says:

    I was so nervous when I first started ballet. I was slightly older than you, 37, when I first walked into a class. Its now been 3 years, and I sometimes still feel like a newb… but I will never forget my brand spanking new pink slippers and how it felt to wear them. This is a great post, I loved every word in it.

  3. Aleksie says:

    I talk to the teacher ahead of time to get a feel for the class.

    When I get to the class, I introduce myself to the teacher. I tend to stand in the back or in the middle of the line, if it’s barre. I like to observe/follow.

    Do things how the teacher/class does them, not how you’re used to doing them. You’re there to learn the teacher’s methods, not you’re old teacher’s. Don’t get upset if you don’t instantly get things or that they’re foreign. Keep an open mind.

    The other piece of advice I have is you don’t have to stay with the class. If you hate the teacher or the class isn’t a good fit, you are not obligated to stay on if you are unhappy. Many people stay on with teachers they don’t like (this isn’t just ballet), even if they have other options. Even if there is literally one teacher of that style in the area, I think it’s better to wait for a better fit. I’ve had interests squashed by a bad teacher.

  4. Sheena says:

    “French French frenchity French French” :) I don’t think I’ll ever get that out of my head now! Love it!

  5. Laura says:

    Would it be possible to go and observe one class before you actually take the class? That would give you a good idea of the atmosphere, dress code, etc. and maybe lessen the stress of having to learn on the job, as it were. I would also not hesitate to pepper the instructor with questions.

    Other than that, look at leotard ownership as an opportunity. I would LOVE a good reason to buy a new leotard. “Darn, it looks like I have to buy dancewear…” *fake reluctance while getting out my debit card*

    And tuck in the drawstrings on your ballet shoes.

    • papershaker says:

      I fully agree with you! A new leotard is beautiful and exciting. I also love pretending to hate having to try them on. I mean, I do have a kinda big chest for a ballet dancer, so it actually is hard, but I really love the feeling I get when I find that perfect one.

      I would add that in addition to tucking in your drawstrings you should also try not wearing underwear under your tights. That’s one thing that I see a lot of beginners doing, and with a leo, it’s really obvious when there are lines or even fabric visible. It might sound weird. It did to me at first, but really all a dancer has on under her leotard is a pair of tights. Just buy tons of tights and embrace the freedom. lol, I think it’s really a line thing. Or a bunching up thing. Or a something.

      • Totally agree about the underwear!
        Adult Beginner don’t wear no drawers! To class, that is!
        Here’s an underiffic post

        • papershaker says:

          Haha, it sounds weird, but once you go underwear free, you’ll never go back!

          • Queen Michelle says:

            Ooh I just went underwear free for the first time in my last class and I can’t imagine every wearing drawers in class again! I was a bit like, “Oh I’m not wearing knickers. In public. This is new”. But now, I can’t imagine ever wearing underwear with my tights and leotard now!

        • papershaker says:

          I love that underiffic post! It’s very good. Hide the string baby! Hahaha! I love it. And yes, that is what we do. And yes, we wash our tights after each use. They are NOT like jeans! I own about a dozen pairs because I hate to do laundry and I dance five times a week.

  6. Bead_109 says:

    Go all in! If you are doing something wrong, the teacher will tell you. It’s not a big deal, just fix it and move on. That’s how we learn, with directions and corrections, don’t fear the corrections! Also keep a dance journal, it helps to write down thoughts, ideas, corrections, questions, etc. while things are fresh in your mind.

    Have fun & dance!

  7. Acacia says:

    1.Find the best student and watch her, introduce yourself (complementing her dancing a little) She will give you the ins and outs about the studio, the instructor, etc. If she’s mean, move on to one more sympathetic.
    2. never be afraid to ask questions or ask for a second demonstration
    3. I agree with AB about showing up shiny, new and keen to learn. They’ll think you’re cute.
    4. bring a notebook and after class try to write down the steps you did in class. You can look them up later or ask the instructor about them.
    5. Remember that your classmates may have been at this a lot longer than. Use them as aspirational examples instead of comparing yourself to them.
    6. And this one is important. No one is judging you the way you judge yourself, no one worth thinking about is ever going to. You rock just for being there and doing your best!

  8. roriroars says:

    Adult Beginner, you give some sound advice here.

    I totally agree with dressing the part. It goes a long way in making you feel ballerina-ish. And don’t feel bad if you need to do a few Google searches to figure out the details. I started taking ballet a couple decades ago and only recently learned how to do a proper ballet bun. That probably says something about my prior training. Be that as it may… I did an internet search, found some good videos, and now know how to get a bun to stay in my hair without looking like it got caught in an eggbeater in the process. Who knew that hairnets could be used for something other than keeping hair out of food in restaurants?! Oh, and some advice on buying gear. While I’m a huge internet dancewear whore, I do recommend buying stuff in a store-store to start. Try on some basic leos and do some grand pliés in the store and see where that bugger goes. There’s nothing worse than getting to class and being distracted by your own ill-fitting clothing and having to figure out discreet (or not so discreet) ways to adjust your dancewear to keep it where it belongs.

    As for the nervousness issue, dang, I still get nervous. But I’ve learned to laugh at myself. Everyone screws up. Everyone has been the new kid at some point. And if you’re starting this class at the beginning of the school year, chances are you’ll be one of a few new people, so take comfort in that. If possible, send a friendly little e-mail to the instructor mentioning you are excited to take her class but haven’t had experience with that style of ballet before, does she have any suggestions, etc. Nothing too wordy (unlike my comment here), just a note to introduce yourself and hopefully get some tips from the horse’s mouth.

    If nothing else, try to enjoy yourself! Sounds like a great opportunity to learn and maybe even perform! Plus, Danish ballet? I’m jealous. The closest I’ve come is doing Bournonville jetés. I’m pretty sure there’s way more to Bournonville than that!

    • kaija24 says:

      Amen! I totally agree on the trial-by-trying-on-and-moving-in-it approach to leotards. Once you get a feel for your size in several stock brands, then the el cheapo internet buys are much less chancy. As far as “sizes” go in dancewear, just check your ego at the door and buy the one that fits…they tend towards smaller, as most dancers are either kids or small people, and I’ve learned to just go for the L or XL as a tall person (even though I’m slim, it’s the GIRTH measurement (circumference from one shoulder down through the crotch and up the other side back to the shoulder) that matters…otherwise it’s wedgie-city! Same with tights…I’d rather have the tights be a little larger than have the crotch creeping down towards my knees during class…I often go for the XXL tights (I’m 5’10” and 135 lbs, so it’s not like I’m a hulking Amazon beast, I’m just not “small”). :)

  9. odile53 says:

    I just chill out, and go and take class. I know how absorbed in my own technique I am, and I’d probably barely notice Godzilla if he came in wearing a purple tutu and did chaines deboules across the floor. Anyone else whose opinion would matter is just as self-absorbed. They might not even notice a new student in class until you’ve been there a number of times.

    I enjoy getting new insights from a new teacher. Other students’ observations are pretty much irrelevant to me.

    Relax, don’t get nutty about it, and you’ll do fine. After all, everyone at that barre was “the new girl” at least once or twice in their lives.

  10. Excellent article. I am going to share it. In Los Angeles at my Ballet 101 class we start all our beginners on the exact same day and take them through a complete 8 week course. The first thing I do is have everyone sit on the floor in a circle and explain what “inspired” them to take ballet. They are always amazing stories. I think it helps everyone feel more comfortable when we each share and “get to know” one another. Then the first exercise I actually instruct is point and flex the feet on the floor. Many people have never tried this and since ballet is a form of dance based on the line of the body and the foot point is the foundation of ballet it seems to make sense to start with this movement. Before we start the simplest barre work I remind everyone it will be very important to “turn off” their critic. I remind them that he will not help them in my class. He will tell you “I’m uncoordinated, I’m not graceful”, or worse. I explain that learning ballet is a process, and the life of a ballet dancer is based in the “process” not the perfection. I inform them that even the greatest most talented dancers have difficulty with this art form on a daily basis. I say it is ballet “class” not ballet “comfortable” and sometimes it is just going to feel incredibly difficult but that is just part of the process. That “feeling” of difficulty is not an indication someone should get frustrated or feel bad about themselves. The worst thing a beginner can do is beat themselves up. Class is a place where we are supposed to make mistakes. Every great skill takes time to built. I think ballet can teach one alot about themselves and make them stronger for any adversity in life. Many times my students inspire me more then I feel I could ever inspire them. It is an amazing experience to watch them transform. I hope my 2 cents helped. I could go on forever on this topic. Thank you!

    • This advice was so helpful for me as a 38 year old beginner. I go home and cry after almost every class because I feel I am so awful at it, and should be able to do the simplest of combinations yet I can’t – my brain forgets them almost as soon as they are given and then the panic sets in. It ain’t pretty after that. But this advice has really helped me gain a little perspective.
      My ‘critic’ is with me constantly, but I am kicking him out the way tonight!

      • kaija24 says:

        Awww….I want to say “don’t cry!” but I know how you feel and have had those teary days after the proverbial “bad class.” But it is true that ballet is a very slow simmer process where you have to soak in it and flail away for a time before the incremental progress comes. The inner critic is death to enjoyment and progress…one of my teachers reminds us to silence “the Shitty Committee” in our heads and feel the dance, that this is an art form and a basic human expression (all cultures in all times and places have had some form of dance…it’s in our DNA!) and that critics only sit on their butts in the audience while dancers get to DANCE!

        (and as result of my own tearful beginner days, I always make an effort to smile or chat with someone in my classes who looks like they are having “one of those days” after class…a little encouragement and commiseration can turn it around, so pass it on!)

        • Queen Michelle says:

          My “Shitty Committee” (and I LOVE that name for it!) are a noisy bunch. But I am trying SO hard to not cry like a baby when I get home. I do enjoy it beyond anything, but damn that committee! x

      • Oh Queen Michelle! I’m sad that you cry! But also really glad you shared this!
        Every time I read someone being all, “oh good class or bad, I always leave feeling better than when I went in lalala!!!” I’m all, wow, then what’s wrong with me? I sometimes leave class feeling way worse than when I went in. Sometimes I leave feeling downright crummy.
        So, I want to say don’t cry but I also really really appreciate your honesty.
        So then I guess the question is why do it if it makes you sad, to which the obvious answer is, duh, it’s Frikin Ballet, it’s Awesome, it can make you sad and then turn around and make you feel A-fucking-mazing.

        • Queen Michelle says:

          EVERYONE I know thinks I’m so silly for getting upset and they just say, “Ah just enjoy it. Who cares if you’re good at it?”, but I have to know I’m progressing and I cry after a bad class, because a/ it feels like they are all bad classes and b/ I want to get better, otherwise I’d be as well going to park and skipping. I cry because I LOVE it but the creeping fear is that the truth might just be I’m terrible at it. Who wants to be terrible at something they love so much? Does that make sense? Or maybe it’s just hormones!

          • Polly says:

            If you love it, then you can’t be terrible for too long. Your love of it makes you push yourself harder, set higher standards for yourself, and people who try the hardest become the best. You may not have as much natural talent as others in the class (I’ve never seen you dance. I don’t know), but your comment shows how hard you drive yourself, and you are getting so much better in every class, even if you don’t see it.

      • lalatina says:

        It takes so much courage to go to a ballet class as an adult beginner, and even more courage to share something like what you shared here! I think you are very brave :) If it’s what you love, keep on doing it because it will pay off, bad classes (even if they’re a lot) are part of the process and sooner or later you will notice improvement.

  11. studiodcfa says:

    Great tips all around. From a teacher’s perspective, try to relax, even if you’re petrified. Smile, even laugh at yourself (and at the teacher’s corny jokes/puns, if any.) Also, the hardest thing is making it look easy, and everyone around you is also in “fake it til ya make it” mode. Just remember that this is something that you’re doing for yourself: it’s not court-appointed community service; you’re not there because your mom signed you up against your will. Keep in mind that it’s a process, and enjoy the journey: no one learns ballet (or any dance style for that matter) overnight.

  12. chrisgo says:

    Do what they said.
    Also, find a spot at the barre between two people who look like they know what they are doing, they will have the dirtiest / well worn shoes. When you get lost and the French is flying, try to follow them.
    But be careful not to take someone’s spot at the barre, dancers are weird that way.
    Don’t be afraid to ask questions, most teachers will eat that up, mine do. It shows them you are there to learn.
    Find a book or two, it can be helpful to have a reference source to look up Frency terms or particular exercises after class.
    Have fun!!

  13. robin (mahrobi) says:

    odile53 pretty much said exactly what i was thinking – generally people won’t be judging you, they are more concerned about their own dancing. just go and have fun!

  14. robin (mahrobi) says:

    oh, also- don’t stand front and center right away or go across the floor first- there is often a pecking order. after being in class for a while you can sense if you should be a leader, but in the beginning defer to students who have been at the school before you :)

  15. And another thing!
    When I joined my current class, which is open level, I was very very beginner-y. And I used to worry, a lot, that I was slowing down the class with all the really basic corrections the teacher was having to give me all the time. But now, from the lofty position of Regular Class Attendee, I can see that all that worry was fact, I Love It when beginner-y people come to class, Because the teacher breaks down the really simple stuff for them. He doesn’t do that for the slightly more experienced students! He expects us to know all this stuff already! And there’s always some little nuance or something I’ve forgotten, so, yeah, you just do your thing, absorb your corrections, and don’t worry like I did.
    You may even see people correcting themselves with the corrections your teacher gives you!
    I swear, every time my teacher specifically tells one person to lengthen, all the rest of us get taller.

  16. messengerbird says:

    Anna here – thank you everyone for the great advice and nice encouragement!
    During my first 16-week-course I already learned a lot from (minor) mistakes – like the ‘do not stand at the end of the barre because you’ll turn around and then you’ll be first!’ and some French terms (good thing I learned French in school). I bought slippers after the first class – black, not pink. Didn’t know that dirt makes them cooler, thought with black ones you wouldn’t see the dirt so quickly. I found it kinda funny that only after a few weeks with showing off a pretty bow in the elastic cords, I randomly found out that you actually have to tuck the elastics in…
    I’d actually started to write a ballet class diary but forgot about it after the 3rd class or so. Maybe I should start again with the new course.
    In the meantime since I wrote to AB I bought a black leotard and pink tights – love the outfit! I think I tried every single leotard that I could afford in the shop, and I never thought I’d actually look good in one! I think I’ll look for a wrap skirt in the not-so-secret place I’ll be going that is Copenhagen (the girl I contacted said there are a few shops there that have offers quite often), and for the first classes black shorts will have to do. I also bought the book ‘Classical Ballet Technique’ by Gretchen Ward Warren so I can look up steps again after class and memorise them.
    The good thing (at least I hope so) is that it will be an all-beginners class and everyone will start on the same day, so we’ll all have more or less the same starting point of unfamiliarness with the teacher and the studio.
    Thank you again! I’ll definitely bookmark this post :)

    • You got the French? You’ll be totally fine!
      For another perspective, check out what Tights&Tiaras has to say about being the new guy in a ballet company
      And have a look at Tutus&Tea, there’s a link over there in the blogroll, great photography of food and ballet out of Copenhagen

      • messengerbird says:

        thank you, I didn’t know Tutus&Tea! I read Henrik’s blog post a while ago when I started, but it’s always interesting to come back to such posts with a different perspective after getting some ballet experience oneself!
        I just found out that I won’t be learning the Bournonville technique – seems like my teacher did learn the Bournonville method at the start of her ballet career, but then studied methods & pedagogical approaches Vaganova-style in St Petersburg to become a ballet teacher.. maybe I’ll get a mix, we’ll see ;) I’ll definitely write about it once the course starts.

  17. kaija24 says:

    Tons of good advice here and I’ll add my two cents:

    1. Yes, introduce yourself to the teacher and give a short summary of your background (exchange student, new to ballet, have some basics but eager to learn MOAR!) and concerns; that way he or she will know where you’re coming from and give you corrections and advice to “catch you”…otherwise, he or she has to guess or assume (and whenever anyone does that, there’s a much greater probability of being wrong than there is of being right).

    2. Leo and tights plus a wrap skirt (or booty short if they are allowed) will let you blend in, look and feel like a ballerina, while not feeling overly exposed. I bet you’ll get comfy in the leo and tights very soon though :) My dancewear has gotten more form-fitting and more traditional as I’ve progressed and have become more confident and more concerned with being able to see my lines and get corrections! :)

    3. There’s no training wheels for real ballet class…you just jump in the deep end and flail away until you start absorbing by doing. Some tricky barre exercises and some new across-the-floor combinations will baffle your mind and body…it’s NORMAL and everyone has that experience and can empathize with that feeling of incompetent panic. Sometimes you can slop your way through it, missing a beat or a step here and there but trying your best to pick up one new piece or even mark your way through it while concentrating on the port de bras…as long as you are moving with the group (don’t stop…just keep going no matter what!) and trying your best. If it’s too far above your level or is all steps you’re not familiar with, just stand in the back and mark it as best you can…even watching and miming along will let things seep into your brain so that the next time you see it, there will be some foundation there. And no, everyone will not be staring and wondering what your problem is…they will either not even notice you because they are too busy trying to figure out and remember the combination themselves, or they’ll notice in passing and have a flashback to their own experience. Afterwards, you may want to ask one of the more advanced dancers or the instructor to explain or walk through the combo with you so that you can practice on your own in the privacy of your living room :)

    4. A dance journal is a great tool! You can jot down those pesky combinations you want to work on, note what went well in class and what you need to work on (you should always be able to find one thing that you did well and one thing that needs improvement!), and over time, those entries will be evidence of the slow (so slow) but steady progress that is the ballet journey :)

    5. Lastly, I’m envious that you will get to study Danish ballet! I love the Bournonville technique and it is hard to find classes and good instruction in it outside of Scandinavia…enjoy the fact that you have a very unique opportunity and good luck :)

  18. Pingback: Lost in translation/Tendu is as tendu does… | Knit Two, Pointe Two

  19. bronwensw says:

    “it’ll warm their little perfection-obsessed hearts and bring a smile to their glowing red eyes”
    omfg, I fucking love this blog, I love you and I love Smirnoff.
    And I mean that all in a creepy way :)

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