Gentle Reader! I’m delighted to bring you this guest post from Maria of Thirty-six Views, who didn’t speak Japanese *or* ballet when she took her first ever ballet class in Japan. Check out the photo at the end too, it might be the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen: classmates spelling out the word “Thank You” with their bodies, for a graduating student. So. Omg. Cute.
My first ever ballet lesson was in Japan almost three years ago. I went with my American friend (who already had several years experience), to a swanky studio in the centre of town that had a drop-in adult beginner class. Sometimes there were as many as five people there, sometimes it was just the two of us, and bless our teachers for trying, but they didn’t really know what to do with us. We had only been in the country for a few months and didn’t speak the language, I had no clue about ballet and was extremely inflexible.
We did that on and off for a few months until we found a studio that at first seemed a lot scarier. The teacher was a former dancer with the Tokyo Ballet and although there was an adult (beginner/intermediate) class in the mornings, because of our jobs we could only go to the advanced class in the evenings with junior and high school students and some really good adults. I teach English at a high school and I was mortified to learn that one of my students was in this class. Then when the lesson started, every available space was filled with the legs of twenty or more girls being extended to unbelievable heights.
Despite this initial impression, there was a wonderful atmosphere in class. The teacher speaks some English but I picked up the vocabulary for the parts of the body fairly quickly, and she uses the French ballet terminology. I’ve gotten used to the Japanese accent (pu-ree-ey = plié), but because I don’t really know the terms that well, I’ve found that sometimes I overcompensate on the translations. So when I heard pa-du-bu-rey, I translated it in my head to pas de blé (instead of pas de bourré) so now I associate that step with wheat. And as I was checking the spelling while writing this, I realised that I’ve been mishearing allongé as arrangé, I just thought we were arranging ourselves.
Most of the girls have been dancing since they were in elementary school and they are amazingly good. I thought it would be humiliating to dance in the same class as these lithe little dancers, but it’s been amazing. Everywhere I look I see an almost perfect example of what I’m supposed to be doing, and if I don’t understand something, I can ask them and they’ll happily show me how to do it. Although I know I am missing out on the basics by being thrown in at the deep end, I’m learning a lot just by example. I can’t compare it with any other country, but my American friend said she’s never been to a class with such a friendly, supportive, yet professional atmosphere.
When the students are in the younger class, they have to wear navy leotards with their name embroidered on the front, but when they graduate to this class they can get different colours or styles (always sleeveless though). Leotards with strappy details in the back and velvet busts are popular. Dancewear is really expensive in Japan. Maybe it’s possible to find bargains, but the most common brand costs about $100 for a leotard. Even wrap skirts cost about $70! The younger girls wear pink tights, their leotard and an alignment ribbon around their waist. Their hair is always slicked back into a bun and decorated with a cute clip or ribbon. There are some really good older dancers (in their thirties), who cover up more with shorts, skirts, long-sleeve leotards and t-shirts, but they always look stylish. I just wear a black leotard and shorts with my pink tights.
When I arrive in class, most of the girls are already there stretching and they set up the centre barre before the teacher comes. We greet and then start the barre exercises. The teacher demonstrates every exercise and will give pointers on potential mistakes. She always stresses using the inner thigh and she regularly warns us that we’ll look like rugby players if we only rely on our outer muscles. One thing I love about the Japanese language is the onomotopeia, for example when she’s demonstrating how to get up into a sous-sus, she will say ‘kyuu-p’ or ‘shoo-p’ to show the stretch and then stop. I also like how when she’s singing the music, instead of saying ‘da da da’, as I would if I were imitating classical music, she says ‘chan chan chan’, which I think has a much more orchestral ring to it. While we are doing the exercises, she walks around fixing us, and she often calls me out on my bad posture, which is called nekoze, meaning ‘cat back’ in Japanese.
We do barre exercises for 45 minutes, then the other girls change into their pointe shoes, and if it’s a normal class we will do floor exercises for the next 45 minutes, with her demonstrating each one and then we do it across in groups. When class is over there is a cleaning rota, so the students themselves clean the mirrors and the toilet and the floors to get rid of all the dust and hairs. It’s something to behold – if you’ve seen in Spirited Away when they race across the floor on all fours with a cleaning rag, picture Japanese ballerinas doing that across the studio. When students move away either to go to university or to continue their ballet career, the girls will organise a memory book where they will stick photos and pictures and write messages, and they might do a little skit where they spell out a message with their legs. One of the girls went off to train in Australia and she appeared in this advert:
In October, we will be having a recital, so for the past few months, the last part of the class is for practicing the dances. The studio has a recital every 18 months and it’s a big event. It’s in the city concert hall, professional male dancers are brought in from Tokyo to dance with the best dancers of the studio and a special teacher comes to give workshops to prepare for it. I didn’t take part in the recital last time but I am this year. The recital is funded pretty much totally by the performers and it costs quite a bit. The costumes they rent are exquisite and the quality of the dancing is practically professional. There will be a variety of different dances to show the abilities of the different classes (there are little girl classes too), and a series of dances from a big ballet. This year they are doing the party scene from Swan Lake so I’ll be in the Hungarian dance with some fellow Japanese adult beginners from the morning classes.
I’ve never taken a ballet class outside of Japan and I’m really going to miss the studio when I eventually leave. I never expected to take up ballet when I moved to Japan, but it’s a wonderful experience to have.