Heels push down. Little toes active. Energy flows out. Legs zipped close and locked straight. Straighter. Straighter. Spine reaches down. Back solid, resist. Don’t collapse when you breathe out. Don’t tighten on the shoulders. Spread out the shoulders. There! That is how it’s supposed to feel. Arms relaxed. Upper body should be light. Lower body solid and grounded. Carry with your elbows, not your wrists. No tension on the shoulders! Core tight. Tummy in. Fingers awake. Elongate and tap. Lightly. Don’t collapse the hips. Point the toes. Imagine you ear pulling you back. Stack everything straight. All weight should be carried by the supporting leg. Don’t lean back. Eyes forward. Float the head. Neck long. Breathe. Finish well.
Ballet is definitely commitment. So far, it has been four Sundays and we haven’t missed a week. If I hadn’t been so deep into a physical yoga practice for the past year, I would never have had the patience nor the core to pursue this. When I took a ballet trial class a couple months ago with my friend and co-singer Kaye, who has always been interested in pursuing ballet as an adult, I was surprised with how much I enjoyed it and how much of it I felt I could do. Because I have been so much into self-awareness and listening to the body and breath, ballet was suddenly something that had a lot of potential and was doable.
Good teachers, it matters
Yoga is personal for me. Other than taking three wonderful 30-day journeys with the awesome Yoga with Adriene on YouTube throughout lockdown for her virtual “company” and to commit to a routine with friends, I really prefer doing my flow and developing my practice on my own. I thought learning ballet with a teacher would be an interesting and complimentary journey to take alongside a personal and meditative yoga and breathing practice. It certainly is not a shabby skill to be training for as a performer, too.
It feels like serendipity that on the last night before lockdown was announced, I hit it off with Ballet Philippines’ former principal ballerina Carissa Adea on a car ride with a mutual friend on the way home from CCP. She visited our rehearsals for the restaging of “Rama, Hari” which was supposed to open in a week to close Ballet Philippines’ 50th season. I was supposed to sing for this run while she danced for “Sita” only a few years back. After a few months of random messages on breakup stories and different ways to enjoy peanut butter and ice cream throughout quarantine, I decided to ask her if she’d be willing to play ballet teacher for me and Kaye once a week.
I’ve felt connected to Kare’s energy both as an evolving human and as an artist, so it doesn’t surprise me a bit how her teaching has spoken so well to me and how I’ve thoroughly been enjoying our classes on different levels. I’ve especially enjoyed how visual Kare’s way of teaching is, because that is how I teach both singing and acting in theater, as well.
So I want to document this journey of “becoming a ballerina” because learning ballet has become more exciting and enlightening than I ever expected it to be.
Here are my personal favorite notes from our first four Sunday lessons:
I had no idea that so much of ballet would require me to stand like a tree—leaves lightly swaying in the sun with roots reaching deep down into and across the ground. On the first day of class, Kare instructed us to push our feet down and imagine roots crawling far, far out so that the energy goes far and beyond our toes and ankles. This will keep us more steadily and firmly grounded and at the same time keep the energy alive and flowing constantly, even if we are only standing still. I feel so alive being tree – my legs are bark solid and yet there is movement of energies constantly swirling and crawling out of and around me.
At the end of every exercise, she always tells us, “Finish well.” I like that. It reminds you to be committed to doing well all the way to the very end. And to be decisive, conscious and consistent with that commitment.
But what got me extra excited was when, at the final standing pose, with her ballerina smile and instructing hand making a flourish above my head, she says, “Sparkle.” It’s certainly finishing touches like these that make someone, even in complete stillness, beautiful to watch on stage.
Sure, I’ll sparkle!
Japanese ghosts behind me.
What surprised me the most is how much ballet requires you to have a strong, solid back. It has been the most grueling and mindf*@#ing for me to maintain a strong back while keeping shoulders and arms completely relaxed. It’s so new to the energy of my muscles and the isolation requirement is driving me nuts. Releasing tension from my shoulders is something I have worked on a lot already through yoga, but how is it done while holding your back up like it’s a concrete wall?
In the past weeks, I’d be walking around my house feeling Kare’s fingers push my back as she tells me to think of someone always latched on and applying force behind me, forcing me to engage the entirety of my back muscles and keep an alert resistance. It reminds me of this Japanese horror film “Shutter” where the ghost has attached itself to the person by riding on the person’s shoulders from behind.
So I’ve been constantly carrying a little Japanese ghost with me on my back for four weeks now, basically.
Inner thighs must be locked tight as if a zipper has closed it up all the way down to the heels. If I’m not alert enough, Kare will quickly see that my legs are lax. She has the eyesight of a hawk when it comes to how engaged or loose our muscles are.
Straighten the legs, straighten it more, straighten pa.
My legs are only as straight and locked as effectively as I am fully attentive to it.
Standing legwork is INTENSE.
Pick a flower.
When we move our hands from one position to the next, from one pose to the other, she tells us to pick a flower in the garden. Like little girls at play.
See the flower, touch the flower, pick the flower up and put it in your basket.
Need I say more?
I feel so pretty.
Be a manananggal.
And you think it doesn’t get prettier. When you are told to envision yourself as a manananggal just to be able to dance ballet correctly, this is the kind of moment that makes you gleeful that you are Filipino. Can a reference be more Filipino than that? And immediately, you know what you are supposed to do and how your body is supposed to feel. A manananggal is a folkloric character whose upper body separates from the lower half as it grows wings and flies off to find humans to kill for its delicious innards.
We so got this: hips down rock solid, upper body taking flight. The Black Swan’s got nothing on Filipinas.
See the forest.
I think it’s beautiful that while being a dancer requires an elaborate highway map of control and presence within your physical structure and body, the energy involved in it and produced from it goes even further beyond the body.
It’s an entire inner and outer universe.
Roots grow and crawl from your toes, legs burr and burn like industrial machines running noisily, the back is resisting unknown forces, there are vines of energy connecting your little finger to your back to your ankles and back around again, your shoulders melt and as you extend your arms tiny water droplets must fall off your wrists and fingers like dew drops all while your head is sparkling fairy dust.
You are in the constant grace and presence of flow and bewilderment.
She tells us to allongè and we are told to see beyond our fingers when we look on.
We need to see the entire magical forest. And we do.