What are you good at? How did you know?

There’s a moment in Marie, Dancing (post about the book here), where Marie is figuring out what she’s good at in ballet. Like, what kind of dancer is she.
She watches her older sister and sees how Antoinette slowly, heart-breakingly unfurls her leg to pointe to the chandeliers and realizes that Antoinette is made for adagio, while her quick, light, lively, charismatic little sister Charlotte is a petite allegro kind of girl.
Marie figures she’s best at the big jumps and flashy virtuoso steps, therefor her career will probably be in the en travesti roles, the pants roles, which was a thing back then. Men were not welcome on the stage so the ladies stepped into their roles and played the princes and the hunters and the hunters-who-are-secretly-princes and stuff. And wore pants. En travesti in the theatrical sense meaning dressed as the opposite sex.
I was thinking the en travesti roles don’t exist nowadays but then remembered how most of the boy party guests and soldiers in The Nutcracker are danced by girls, so I guess in that way the travesti roles live on.
Anyway, that part of the book stuck with me because I’ve also been wondering what I’m good at in ballet. I mean, if there’s anything in particular.
Thought about setting this as a goal for this year, but realistically figuring out what I’m good at is more of a five-year plan type goal. Not sure my little once-a-week ballet schedule is enough to really answer that question.
Or maybe it is? Maybe a person’s innate tendencies are totally obvious from the first plié to those who know how to see?
Hmm.
But!
In order to get closer to the answer, I’ve been paying attention to what new steps Smirnoff brings in for me, and for other people.
He does this every now and then. He brings in new steps or refreshes old steps for specific people in class. We all have to do the steps, of course, but they are specifically for one person.
He’ll be like, “ok my dear, next week for you we will work on the pas de basque.”
And then next week, sure enough, he’ll be like, “yes, you are here today, now we will begin to learn pas de basque.”
I have no idea how he decides. I don’t know if he’s introducing steps that will counteract a weakness or if he is building on things each of us tends to naturally be good at.
I’ve never expressed an interest in the pas de basque, but he brought it in For Me so I’mma learn that thing.
Other things that have been for me: assemblés, the different positions of arabesques (first arabesque, second, etc) sometimes the port de bras exercises, but sometimes those are for other people too.
One thing I know I’m good at is grande battemonts at the barre, because I can kick up to ninety degrees and actually hold it there for a beat, unlike the rest of the show-offs in my class who can kick up to their ears but can’t hold. Love those bitches.
I figure the arabesque thing is just about him seeing my inner nerd, the one who goes home and looks things up in ballet books and memorizes them. I’m not actually good at doing arabesque. He tells us that if it’s not ninety degrees it’s not an arabesque, and by that rule I’ve pretty much never done one.
So I don’t know.
Is there a pattern here?
Other people get stuff like that barre exercise where you point-flex-point-flex, or sobre-sauts, or cambrés to the back.
Gentle Reader, do you know what kind of dancer you are? How did you figure it out? Was it obvious or did someone tell you? Did it take a long time or did you know right away?

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About adultbeginner

Had my first ballet class Ever at the advanced age of thirty-two. Yikes.
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31 Responses to What are you good at? How did you know?

  1. My great strength in ballet is… uhm… writing about it with lots of expletives. Oh! And injuring myself! I am totally a well-rounded dancer.

  2. I was told by Sensei I’m a jumper, yet I fail easily at complex petite allegro. I love adagio and am not too bad at that either.
    Also I find my bourres lovely. Nice flutter, quick, beautiful, and effortless looking.

    • I want lovely bourrés! I’ve heard they are easier en pointe. True or false?

      • Hmmm, they are far more magical en pointe. As for easier, compared to flat… Technically they’re easier as your foot is constantly pointed en pointe and flat you have to point your toes every lift and lock your knees. Otherwise it’s just another level of complexity. You have to flutter pretty furiously in any direction especially backwards. Still working on that one and not trying to trip up or over and hurt myself.

  3. Leah says:

    Back when I was dancing I was good at all the big stuff across the floor. Mostly I think it had more to do with being more of a natural performer than anything innate in my dance ability – that part always felt like I was really _dancing_. And sometimes flying! It took me a few years to figure out I was good at that part, based on comments I got and it simply being my favorite part of class. Before I knew what I was good at though, I knew for certain what I was bad at! Turning and adagio were always the most difficult and painful parts of class because my control was pretty awful. Maybe it’s more of a process of elimination?

    • That’s a good call, that the thing that’s your favorite is the thing you’re good at. Hmm. I like temps lié and the port de bras exercises. Slow stuff. But I don’t have the natural flexibility that seems to be so important for adage.
      That’s neat that you were a natural performer, that it was your personality that was the best part of your dancing, more than a strength in specific area of technique. That’s very encouraging, kinda opens up the field of ways to be good at ballet. Thanks for that.
      And yes! Could definitely just go process of elimination, whittle it all down to the good parts.

  4. Barbara says:

    My teacher told me taking one ballet class a week you will not learn the art. Two classes you will learn but not improve. Three classes and more you will improve. I am super flexible and like you had the grande battement front but no arabesque. Over the years I had to learn how to appreciate my flexibility and try to gain strength along the way. I am still working on it 25 years later.

    • I feel discouraged by this rule of three.
      I get what your teacher is saying, the body can’t build the muscle memory ballet requires if you give it a whole week to forget. But to continue the rule, what do you get if you take zero classes per week? I feel like this kind of rule of three classes brushes off a once-a-week class as being not even worth doing.
      Which, if I’m caught in a low moment and not fortified with my usual Adult Beginner sassafras, makes me feel sad and foolish for even bothering.
      I think this is a bad message for a teacher to be sending.

      Also, how can you learn but not improve?

      • Martha says:

        I agree that the 3x per week rule is discouraging. I began ballet two years ago, and saw enormous improvement going 1-2x per week.

        Maybe this teacher thinks students are dancing ONLY during class time (you know, as opposed to in their kitchens while cooking dinner, in the yoga studio when they are the first to arrive, down empty hallways at work)?

        • Paulina says:

          “How can you learn, but not improve?” I think, AB, you are making a good point here. Probably a student who takes classes every day will improve faster (I was one of those students when I was younger) but even then there will be weeks or months where you feel you do not improve at all. Most of us adult non-professional dancers have jobs, little children and/or elderly relatives to care for, a whole lot of responsabilities. If we can sneak in one class per week that’s better than no class, right?
          Martha, empty hallways at work are great for doing chainés and piqués. But better avoid running over your boss, while practising chaines ;-) And make sure there is no waste paper basket around when you do a quick grand jeté en tournant (speaking from personal experience here).

          • asher says:

            Wow, I am so late to this party.

            However, I am so very, very comforted by this thread :) Good to know I’m not the only person practicing ballet while cooking, while shopping, while whatever-ing (there is no time for plies like waiting for the bus, right?!).

            My better half also ballets, but he does so less than I do, and doesn’t do it all the ding-dang-darn time. He does me the kindness of not laughing at me when I am pretending to be David Hallberg while making dinner.

            As for my strength: I have discovered that I have some degree of natural presence, which was cool. I have always liked being on stage. I’m far more flexible by nature than most guys. And, of course, I have these wicked legs derived from cycling and gymnastics and generally being a hyperactive spaz and leaping around all the time … so I am good at leaping and at leggy stuff like grand battement and ronds de jambe. Also at sweating, evidently, as I learned in class last Wednesday.

            Meanwhile, my arms are my nemeses, and sometimes turn into Medusa-head snaky things (or perhaps angry swan necks; evidently I was nearly eaten by an angry swan as a small child; perhaps I’m now some kind of were-swan?) that refuse to cooperate, but they are getting better every class.

          • Were-swan! Oh no! Terrifyingly graceful!

      • Caitlyn says:

        Totally agree. When teaching adults, this rule is setting the bar pretty high as we have about a million other responsibilities in addition to financial woes (ie, our parents aren’t paying for our classes anymore). Would I like to be in class three times a week? Of course. Is it realistic? Nope.

  5. RainStorm says:

    I can list a million areas of ballet that I’m not great at! One thing I love in class is pique turns – I’ll happily go spinning from corner to corner or in a massive circle around the room :) Something that makes me feel like a ballerina.

  6. Nellie says:

    I am great at knitting awesome legwarmers for class, draining my legs, sneaking out of the studio for barre stretch, picking up injuries and taking 5eva to get ready before/after class!

    In all seriousness… When I started back as an adult I was a jumper, alllllll about the jumps. Now I’m less about the jumps and more about adagio (I think I jury’s had a role to play in this change as well). I love luxuriating in a really good adagio when it goes right (less so when it goes wrong!). I don’t think of myself as ‘good’ though and am always slightly startled to get any kind of compliment… :)

  7. Katy says:

    It changes too (not sure if that’s helpful or not). I’m a petit allegro girl – I’ve got millimetre short achilles tendons, so I can bounce and bounce and bounce without having to use actual muscles to control my landing and rebound but standing in one place is a bit of a challenge.

    But the older I get, the more I find my centre (or maybe it finds me) and the better my adagio becomes. Ok I’m never going to brush the dew from my face with my leg, but slowly I’m able to consider shading and emotion rather than clinging to the floor with every fibre of my being.

    Try looking for times when you can consider more than the nitty-gritty of technique in a step, that implies a certain facility or head space for more real dancing.

  8. I’ve only had maybe 5 classes, and they’re drop-in classes, so naturally the instruction and corrections are nowhere near the level of an ACTUAL ballet class. I don’t know if I’ve had enough classes to really be able to tell what I’m “good” at, but I know what I’m bad at! Take me away from the barre and I’m a total wreck! However, I still enjoy it. It’s 90 minutes all to myself where I get to just act a total fool and not have a care in the world!

    Some of my favorite things to do at the barre are frappes and degages. Battements are fun as well, especially when she tells us to hold them for a beat! I love it! I also enjoy practising balance in passe, and I have seen a lot of improvement despite my classes only being 1x a week. I think I’ve finally reached the point where I can feel that I’m lined up, so I can take my hand off the barre for a few seconds. Of course, this never happens when she’s watching. Such is life. :(

    My teacher has also given me a few compliments in front of the class (always awkward as I’m quite the introvert). She says I have naturally long tendons which leads to more flexibility in plie (which is a huge shock to myself as I’ve always considered myself largely INFLEXIBLE due to the surgery I had to correct my Scoliosis). She also said I have a good amount of turn-out for a 26 year-old who’s never danced before.
    However, her compliments always come with a negative side: She said my flexibility and turn-out work against me because I do not have the required strength to control it yet. So just as my balloon is inflating, she pops it! How rude!

  9. Hey there AB! Back when I was taking ballet classes I was told I was good at turns :) I still can’t do over two pirouettes, but those only two pirouettes I do come out naturally to me. I can assure you there’s something you’re good at, it’s just that you still haven’t found it ;) Take care!

  10. I love ALL THE JUMPS! :D Once I passed the hurdle of being able to remember somewhat longer combinations (not a trivial hurdle!) I just found myself looking forward to petit allegro and snappy grand allegro combinations all the time. I think it’s something I discovered on my own – it’s easy to tell with all those mirrors who is mid-pack and who is excelling at the different exercises (but compliments/corrections from the teacher also help).

  11. Meeegan says:

    When I was a teenaged ballet student my teacher labeled me “a turner.” And my turns immediately got great – I don’t remember whether they were good before, or just decent middle-of-the-pack-type turns, but as soon as I got that label stuck on me I turned like there was no tomorrow. Lo these 25+ years later, I still dream of infinite pirouettes.

    • That’s fantastic. Now of course I’m imagining that your ballet studio was at the top of a misty mountain and your teacher sat cross- legged at the front of class manifesting things.

      • Meeegan says:

        You would not be far off! He frequently referred to himself as “the old guru.” Suited him because he was about 75 when I met him, though his native Scottish accent made the word “guru” sound a little funny.

  12. RO says:

    I don’t really know what kind of dancer I am but I do know that I’m pretty good at memorizing things. I’m not much of a turner, I’m not super flexible but I am good at feeling the music and dancing through separate steps so it becomes a somewhat elegant ongoing piece. I don’t know when it hit me, it just became clear over time.

    • Ooh, that’s interesting. Memorizing seems to be a rare skill in dance.
      I forget the word for it, maybe Repeteur? Regisseur? Reptititeure? Something? It’s the person in the ballet company whose job is to memorize all the dances in their body, and then teach them.
      That sounds like an amazing, almost magical ability.

      • RO says:

        Well that’s about as far as it goes, really. Indeed, I’m mostly the one who remembers choreo and therefore I’m always on the end or at the beginning of the barre. Also quite at the front with most performances, haha. It can be annoying because even I can forget something and people rely on you pretty heavily!

  13. Mara says:

    Like Marie my specialty is big jumps, especially grand jete en tournant. I have power and strength but less graceful arms and head position. I took ballet for years growing up and I was always good at jumps and less good at turns then. Then I had a 12 year break from ballet and started back up a year ago. I can turn but not very gracefully, it’s more a result of sheer will, and I land with a lot of momentum instead of being able to come to a stop in releve befrore closing. So I suppose I’d have the en travesty roles too, although when I was in Nutcracker I was a party scene girl and not a boy. (And, it seems related, when I did JV cheerleading for a year in high school I was always a base, helping to lift and support the ‘fliers’. We did not have any boys on our squad.)

  14. Yvonne says:

    I think I’m more the adagio type. I love developés and arabesques… and I’m more a turner than a jumper. En Pointe we’re doing a lot of turning now and I really like it. We’re working on grand jétés for the choreography and I’m really not good at these jumps. I eather don’t stretch both legs or do stretch them both (which causes pain in the back)…

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