Learning something new as an adult can often feel like you are just not smart/talented/coordinated enough to ‘get it’. Especially with something perfectionist like ballet, it can feel like only a few naturally graceful adults can expect results (those who won the genetic lottery, or who did gymnastics or figure skating as a child), while the rest of us has to settle for some sort of 50% version of it.
Alright, if you have followed my blog for a bit, then you know that I won’t give you the pleasure of indulging in this pre-neuroplasticity point of view. Hate to break the news - but we ALL are selected!
But, let’s face it, the struggle is real. How often have I cursed and beaten myself up for not stepping on a straight leg, not spotting in a pirouette, or - THE WORST - flexing my hips (aka sticking out the popo) in anything plié. Fallen down the hole of “I will never get it”, or “this is taking way too long to learn”, or WORST “my body is just not made for ballet and never will be”. Or maybe you don’t beat yourself up - you may instead tell yourself you don’t care, it’s just for fun (while you secretely do care).
In case any of this is you, too, let me brighten your day a bit. With this article, I would like to give you an example of how not being able to ‘get’ something is just a normal (and correct!) response of the brain. Aaand what you could do to work with this response in a smart way - as an alternative to beating yourself up (which, let’s be honest, is usually not the most effective way to breakthroughs in ballet).
Here is the core knowledge bomb in a nutshell: Learning ballet means, to a large extent, overriding reflexes and breaking regular, everyday movement patterns.
We often assume that when learning a new activity, we are essentially learning new skills, new kinds of movements. And for most activities that’s true! Think about how you have to learn how to handle/manipulate and object (like in all ball/racket/club sports), or how to deal with an opponent (like in all kind of fight/martial arts activities), or how to do all kind of crazy stuff in space (like in gymnastics).
Ballet is a bit different in that respect. So there is some skill learning involved (think of jumps, fouettés, the different kind of pirouettes), but to a large extent, ballet consists of very basic movement patterns: standing on one or two legs, extending legs to different sides, lifting legs and arms, turning, stepping, hopping, jumping, bending your knees (commonly referred to as squatting).
BUT - and this is a big BUT - ballet employs these seemingly basic movements in a completely different way, mainly because of the BIG TWO: Turned-out hip joints and an upright pelvis.
These BIG TWO completely change even the most basic things like walking and squatting.
Let’s look at a common problem - piqués of any sort, i.e. where you are essentially taking a step onto demi-pointe (or pointe). Check this little video:
So the BIG TWO dictate that you will always be stepping on a straight leg. A turned out hip and an upright pelvis don’t give you any other way!
But, as we can also agree, that’s not how you would walk. When you walk, you are ALWAYS stepping on a bent knee. Check this slo-mo to confirm:
So what happens when you are in a ballet class and doing piqué steps (turns, arabesques, soutenu etc) - your brain constantly wants to resort to a normal gait. Because your gait is what has been with you almost all your life. It’s what your brain knows, feels comfortable with and what has done the job well so far. My son captured this beautifully during my last street performance:
So while you are fighting for the turn-out and an elegant, straight leg - your brain is automatically firing the opposite.
See how this doesn’t have anything to do with talent or the ideal ballet body, but simply with how the brain is wired?
Another example is bending your knees with turned-out hips and an upright (“elevator”) pelvis, which we call plié - in your brain, it’s constantly overwritten by sticking your butt out and keeping your hip joint neutral - i.e. what we call squat!
So nothing is wrong with you, even when you don’t get it after being corrected a thousand times. It’s not that there is something at fault with your brain - we all fight the same battle!
But, let’s be honest again, eventually it would be nice to get it. So what do late ballet party guests do?
As a first step we have to understand that we are creating two different movement scenarios in our life: ballet and not-ballet. (Which also implies that you want to avoid spill-over from ballet to not-ballet - but that’s for another post.) Again, thinking and feeling a movement idea is a powerful trigger for neuroplasticity, so it’s important to get neurally cozy with the BIG TWO.
(Re-)read my article on five crucial neuroplasticity principles. From all of them, I find that “Slow” and “Awareness/Attention” are crucial with implanting a new movement pattern world in the brain. Check out how, for example, my teacher lets me work on pelvis position at the barre, with super slow tendu:
(We do the same super slow pace for the “jeté” (essentially the same slow tendu with a degagé), and “adagio” (which is a super slow developé en croix, I don’t think there is much worse in life), and that’s pretty much our barre before we proceed to swings and pointe work.)
And finally, maybe the hardest part of it, it’s crucial to let got of any beating-up, giving up hope, frustration. Because, again: 2) Emotional State. My hope is that by giving a neural explanation for the struggle that is ballet, you can go about sticky learning points in a more relaxed, self-loving, and forgiving way (honestly, I am the worst at this :-) So it won’t always work, but the more the better). If we can approach the struggle with more of a playful mindset, we might just be able to cut out the drama a bit.
I hope this gave a different perspective on adult ballet struggle - and that you can enjoy your next class even more! And next time you feel you are not getting something - just thank your brain for doing its job and remember that you’re just a bit late to the party. But you have everything you need to catch up gracefully!
How about you - what are your sticky points in learning ballet movement patterns? How do you typically react when you don’t get something? Leave a comment and vent :-)