My Prior Thoughts on Ballet

My knowledge, and preconceptions of ballet before I started lessons came from three main areas. Ballet music, Black Swan and a trip to see Romeo & Juliet when I was about 21.

I play violin, and have a passion for classical music, so the music of the great ballet composers such as Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Saint-Saens was already known, and loved, by myself. I want to explore ballet music in much greater detail in later blogs, so I won’t go into this too much here, but the other two areas I can talk about now.

I’ll start with Romeo & Juliet. I was about 21, in the Army and attending a course near Winchester to prepare me for the Royal Military Academy, in Sandhurst, that I was aiming to join the following term. The course was mainly aimed as serving soldiers, looking to apply for a regular commission in the Army, and trying to ‘expand their breadth of knowledge’. So, we did things like essays on the expansion of NATO, explored and discussed classic art, mathematic problems, leadership skills, etc. The whole idea was to try and get you to the same ‘standard’ as the majority of Officer Cadets who came from University. I joined the Army at the tender age of 16, so didn’t attend college or university. Part of the course was to organise and attend trips out that would help to expand your knowledge, and one of the course attendees booked us into seeing the ballet. I believe it was the Royal Ballet at The Mayflower in Southampton, but please don’t quote me on that.

I do remember, and this is going back 20 years, that I really enjoyed it. We had pretty good seats, so you got to see, in close detail, the effort that was going into the production. I was a Physical Training Instructor, back in the regiment, at this time, so was fully aware of the physicality of what I was seeing and knowing that this was not an easy thing to do! I was in awe, even at this point of my life!

I think Black Swan did quite a lot of good for the ballet industry. And I’m saying that very much as a layman, looking-in. I feel that the film can be looked at from two sides. The first side is from the internal struggles that ballet dancers are constantly fighting when it comes to progressing up the ladder. I am of the belief that the professional ballet world is incredibly hierarchal, with a definite rank structure. This is very evident in the film, so I hope that my observations are correct. The second side is the amount of work that goes into what you see. Ballet is, without exception in my eyes, the most graceful art form, where even the most difficult parts are meant to look effortless. My violin teacher has taught me that the audience cares not whether a piece is difficult or easy, they just want it to be beautiful. I very much feel that this is also true in ballet. A paying audience has a certain expectation from seeing the ballet, especially from a professional company, so the standards are already set incredibly high, even before the company starts rehearsals.

So, I knew that ballet was tough and I knew that it was beautiful. I think that pretty much sums up ballet in two words for me, tough & beautiful. Little did I know that it was going to be lots of the former to get very little of the latter when it came to my initial practice. The journey commenceth…

First Ballet School Class (And The Dance Belt!)

In addition to the online classes, I really wanted to see how I would fare in a real live ballet class. The online classes do offer live classes, as opposed to streaming lessons, where you video conference in and the teacher directs you as if you were there with them, but unfortunatley the times that the classes were on didn’t quite fit my schedule. I had already lost a good 2 stone at this point and I certainly felt confident enough to get out there and give a real class a go. Without the knowledge that Sleek Technique had given me, I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to do it just yet.

I had a quick Google search to see where my nearest dance school was and I was delighted to come across Basingstoke Academy of Dancing. I dropped them an email pretty similar to the one that I sent through to Sleek Technique, when asking them about joining. And that was of the ilk of ‘Would I be the only man?’

The artistic director got back to me really quickly and again ensured me that I wouldn’t feel out of place, and that they do have males at the school, but none in the beginners class. She did say that this wouldn’t be a problem, and I was more than welcome to come along. She also said that the first lesson was free! Bonus!

I was quite happy when my wife said that she would join me, so that I wouldn’t be too self-conscious. Phew!

Again, a good excuse to do some shopping! I wanted to at least look the part, so after a quick Google and Amazon search I found that it would be handy (shopping bug strikes again) to have some ballet tights (more like leggings than the tights my missus wears) and a dance belt. Hmmmm, the good, old dance belt. To the initiated, you would know exactly what this is. To the uninitiated, it’s pretty much pair of pants with a string back. Yep, a cross between a thong and a pair of pants. Now, the reason you wear one, is firstly for a bit of padding/protection. Not quite as ‘well protected’ as, say, a cricket box, but enough to help. The second reason to wear a dance belt is all about ‘the line’. You don’t want the eye to be distracted by anything in ballet. And this includes a VPL! (Blokes, ask your good ladies what this is, if you don’t know already!)

Putting the dance belt on for the first time was rather weird. Sitting down in the car to drive to the class was even weirder. Bending over in a dance belt tends to make the back of the underwear ‘ride up’, and not exactly the most comfortable thing in the world. Now, I’m glad to say that after a few wears, you do kind of get used to it. And it does keep everything in place.

And so we went along on the first night of the new term to give it a go. The teacher asked if we had ever done any ballet before. My wife had done ballet as a kid, and she has a great memory, and I explained about the online classes. Our teacher was quite intrigued by this, so I gave her a few more details about Sleek Technique.

I was the only guy in the class, but there were only 4 more people, other than my wife and myself, so I didn’t feel to intimidated!

I have to say that I felt really chuffed with myself after the lesson. Not only did I remember what some of the French terms were, that described various positions and movements in ballet, but I wasn’t too exhausted by the end of it it. I mean, I was sweating, but I wasn’t completely hanging!

The teacher was really encouraging and made both my wife and myself feel really at ease. It was nice to have someone there that could point out the small things, like finger position and the flow of your legs and arms.

I said that we would be back!

Time To Go Shopping!

Well, being a man, and having a new hobby, I just had to go buy some kit for it! I tend to do that. Get a hobby and buy EVERYTHING to do with. Even if I have no idea how to use it.

Fortunately with ballet, so it seemed at the time, the only things I ‘needed’ was some ballet shoes and some clothes. I still had running gear, so didn’t really need to worry about that, but the shoes were definitely something that I wanted/needed!

I’m vegan, so I knew that I wanted to get some synthetic shoes. I did a quick Google search and came across Cynthia King Ballet Shoes, based in New York.

At $24.95 plus shipping, I was really happy to pay for these. It meant that I would have to do my online classes in barefoot until they arrived from the US, but I was fine with that.

A few short weeks later, and the shoes arrived in the post. I had to pay a small customs charge, but hey, I wanted my shoes!

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Because I had worn rock climbing shoes before, I was used to the fact that the shoes should be tight fitting, but not hurting. And I knew that when I got a bit hotter doing my online ballet workouts (and yes, they are definitely workouts) my feet would get a bit bigger and fill-out the shoes a bit more.

The simple criss-cross elastics kept the shoes in place, and I have to say, they were really quite comfortable. Again, after doing rock climbing and being used to having my feet a little ‘uncomfortable’, these were a breeze!

I felt pretty good wearing them for my next online class, and I know that ‘clothes don’t maketh the man’ but I genuinly thought I danced a little better with the ballet shoes on!

My First Online Ballet Class…

So, I became a fully paid up member of Sleek Technique, back in February and had a look on the site for a fairly easy class to take, for my very first attempt at ballet.

Fortunately, there was a section on the site marked ‘Beginners’ so I picked a streaming video called ‘Classical Cardio Intro’. The title seemed pretty self-explanatory and the video was only 14minutes long, so I thought to myself ‘How hard can it be? It’s only 14 minutes!’

Ha ha ha ha!! How funny, and oh so naive! Despite the fact that it was only 14 minutes long, I used muscles that I honestly never knew existed. And the burn I felt happened really, really quick!

The good thing is, like a few online yoga classes I’ve taken, you can pretty much go into them ‘from cold’. The exercises at the beginning of the class act as a warm-up, so no chance of getting injured.

Needless to say, after the first lesson, I could tell straight away that this was going to do the job. I was a good 35lbs heavier them than I am now, so it did take a bit more of an effort to get myself moving, but nevertheless at the end of the class, with the clear and concise instructions given by Flik and Victoria from Sleek, I knew that this was going to be money well spent!

But First, My Back Story…

I really can’t stand going to the gym! And I think I know why. It’s because I used to work in one.

I was in the Army for 10 years; and as a Physical Training Instructor I spent my life either in the military gym, or taking PT lessons outside. And when I left the Army in ’02, my very first ‘civvie’ job was working as a Fitness Manager in a private health & fitness club in Hampshire. Since then, I have completely changed careers and now work as a graphic & web designer (always been a bit of a geek, and now make a living out of it).

I have tried gym memberships, but I’ve found myself either just getting bored, or frustrated that I’ve paid so much money for membership and am now just attending so that it’s not a waste of my money.

So…..I find that if I’m going to do something to keep me fit, then it has to be fun. I used to rock climb, but for one reason or another I had to give this up. The benefit of climbing was that you got fit….kind of….as a result of having fun. Dangling off of either an indoor climbing wall, or outside on a cliff’s edge was such good fun and the weight just dropped off of me when I did this. Add to this the ridiculous muscle tone that happened, and you had a pretty cool way of keeping fit.

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Indoor climbing, in 2011

So, I stopped climbing and had to find something else to do, that was fun, that would keep me fit. Horse riding! That’ll do it! And it’s not quite as random as you may think. The Regiment that I was in, when I served Her Majesty, was The Life Guards (no, not the Baywatch type, the mounted bodyguards to The Queen type). These are the guys (and now girls) who sit on horses, wear the red or black (actually REALLY dark blue) tunics, big jack boots, sword, funny hat, etc. So, being a horse rider was something that I could do, and I was never fat in the Household Cavalry, so thought that it would be a great idea to take up riding again.

I loaned a horse (couldn’t really afford to buy one at that time) and really got stuck into riding. I even entered my very first dressage competition and won a rosette for 5th place! Woop woop!

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Me and Gainey on our way to our first competition

Unfortunately one thing led to another and it’s sad to say that the loan horse I looked after had to go back to stud, and I never really found another horse that I had a bond with like the Arab horse, Gainey, that I looked after for a few years.

So….fast forward a year or so and I’m there, putting weight on, not going to the gym, not really doing any exercise, and wondering what on earth I’m going to do to shed a few pounds, get fit and have fun. I thought about a few different sports. Fencing, martial arts, to name a few, but either the local club’s owner didn’t quite ‘fit the bill’ for what I was looking for in an instructor, or it was just too expensive to start off.

This then takes me through to the point I was at for my previous post. Getting in touch with Sleek Technique and asking if it was okay for me to join their site…

Sorry, But My Feet Just Won’t Bend That Way…

So, at 40 years old, I decided to take up ballet! :O Why? Oh Why? Oh Why?

I’ve always enjoyed the music of the ballet, and my wife and I have been to see a few, so when I was thinking of what I can do to get fit, that would be fun, ballet sprang to mind. I had no idea how I was going to do it; I didn’t know if it was only kids, or professional dancers, who took ballet classes. I really wasn’t quite sure where to look.

So, to Google! Search term ‘online ballet class’. Well, there was no way that I was going to go to an ACTUAL class. (Not yet, anyway). It was definitely going to have to be online, maybe YouTube. And that was where I found Sleek Technique, run by Flick and Victoria, both professional ballet dancers. Watching the intro video was encouraging. Despite the fact that the shapes that Flick & Victoria were making with their feet seemed impossible to me to start with, both presenters certainly seemed to know their stuff and were incredibly friendly.

Our live online classes and streaming workout are accessible, convenient and open to all levels. All you need is your laptop, tablet or smartphone, internet and a small space. – Sleek Technique

The option on the site to pay for a subscription was considerably ‘keener priced’ than a gym membership, however I was slightly wary of being the only male on the site and I certainly didn’t want anyone to get the wrong impression by my being there. The site had two main areas, live classes, or pre-recorded streaming classes, split into ‘beginner, intermediate and advanced’. I quite fancied a go at the streaming classes, so dropped a quick mail to Flick & Victoria, asking them whether I would be the only guy on the site, and if it was ‘okay’ for me to join up.

I was delighted when I received a lovely message back encouraging me to join up and give it a go. They said that they did have other men in the site, and there would be no reason for anyone to think of an ‘alternative reason’ for me being on there. My fears of people having the wrong impression were immediately waylaid and I felt that it would be a good move to give it a go.

So, I parted with my pennies and joined the site….