Dancing with Myself: My First Video Ballet Class

To avoid falling off like I did last season, I’ve been trying to stay in class consistently.

Most of the time I’m able to make it to class at least 3 times a week for a blend of technique (ballet, modern, jazz, tap) and what I call “performance quality” classes (hip hop, contemporary, jazz funk, etc.). This way I get a diverse blend of classes and my body doesn’t get bored.

But the devil and some major life changes (a new job, searching for a new apartment) have worked tirelessly to keep me out of class and off my leg. In an effort to keep myself accountable, I bit the bullet and decided to try a video dance class courtesy of Dancio.

I feel like now’s probably a good time to say this post isn’t sponsored. I’m just sharing.

Dancio lets you rent a ballet or modern class that you can play on the video platform Vimeo for as little as $3.99. The classes range from 46 minutes to just over an hour with dance greats like Craig Hall, Wendy Whelan and Carlos Lopez.

For my first try with Dancio, I chose Craig Hall’s 46-minute ballet class. NOT because it was the shortest but because, frankly, I’m rooting for everybody Black. 🤷🏾‍♀️ Here are a few takeaways from my experience.

Space was definitely an issue

I live in a studio apartment and decided to set up my makeshift studio in the area between my door and my bed (which takes up about 1/3-1/2 of the actual space in my apartment) and used a barstool as a barre (so I guess it was a barre-stool? I know, I’m not funny). But I’m 5’9.5″ and to get anything out of ballet you have to lengthen. Most of the time I was fine, but I definitely felt a bit smushed during battements (kicks) and adagio (slow developpes, extensions). Even when I had space, I definitely didn’t reach for my full length out of fear of kicking a piece of furniture. Grand allegro (big jumps) was simply a no-go so that part of the class just got skipped altogether.

But the good news was this really taught me how to be efficient about my space and to stick with my angles. Both of those things give you as much space as possible in a crowded room.

A barstool (or barre-stool, I’m not letting this go) is not a barre

Especially when it rotates.

Having your one piece of support come from under you before you’ve found your balance is terrifying. But usually, when the chair spun around under me or started to tip over, it meant I was probably bearing down on it too much, which likely means that’s an area where I lean on the barre too much when I’m in a real studio. It also gave me more of an excuse to test my balance during exercises when I normally hold the barre (rond de jambes, frappés, dégagés).

No one saw me, not even me

There are no mirrors in my apartment and, of course, there was no real teacher walking around doling out notes. This forced me to feel where I was on my own and to really think about what my body was doing, whether it was standing up on my supporting leg (something I’ve been working on recently), working through my foot during téndus or pressing into the floor during pirouettes. The downside is since there’s no expert teacher, no one can me when I’m doing something completely wrong or when I’m on the right track but need to make adjustments.

Despite the hiccups, I actually enjoyed giving myself a class and could see myself doing this when I’m too busy to actually get into a studio, or if Chicago decides to bless us with another one of her famous polar vortices next winter. The classes are inexpensive (my class was $3.99) so if money is tight it’s a good alternative to spending $10-$15 three or more times a week.

When it comes to the quality of the class, again, despite the issues I listed above, I was actually pleasantly surprised. Dancio has been around for a while but I avoided it because I thought, even though professionals were the ones teaching, since I wasn’t in a studio with other dancers I wouldn’t get anything out of the class. Happily, I was wrong. Even though the class was only 46 minutes, between rewinding to see the demonstration of a few exercises and taking it upon myself to re-do frappés, tendus at the center and petite allegro (along with a double pirouette tangent I went on), I actually ended up spending about an hour and 10 minutes total “in class.”

Just to be clear, video classes are not and will never be a replacement for actually getting to a studio and they won’t keep me in shape on their own. But all in all, they’re definitely a suitable alternative when life, money or the weather keeps me off the marley.

Reflections: Jordan Peele Uses Ballet to Examine Duality and Blackness in ‘Us’

 

After repeated side-eyes from my mother and incredulous reactions from friends, I finally made it to the theater to see Us, Jordan Peele’s latest thriller. The dancer and budding culture critic in me are both glad I did.  

Us is the kind of work where every bit of imagery carries weight. At the same time, every viewer has permission to draw their own conclusions after seeing the film. Because there’s so much to see and take in, everyone is going to zero in on one thing or another that jumped out at them.  For me, the visual that stood out the most was Peele’s use of dance to drive the story.

Obligatory disclaimer: This article has spoilers. If you haven’t seen Us and plan to in the near future, read at your own risk.


Dance and Us

Dance, specifically ballet, plays an integral role in the development of Us’ central characters Adelaide “Addie” Wilson (played by the stunning Lupita Nyong’o) and her tethered twin Red. Addie’s growth as a ballerina speaks to themes surrounding expression of Blackness, assimilation, duality, the other-ness of the Black body and Black liberation.

From the film’s start, dance takes centerstage as a mode of communication for Addie. She uses ballet to recover from a traumatic experience with her tethered reflection at a funhouse in Santa Cruz that rendered her mute. Several flashbacks show Addie doing exercises at the barre as a little girl. Notably, Addie avoids her reflection in a studio mirror as she practices out of fear of seeing her tethered reflection smirking at her.

Over the course of the film, ballet becomes a recurrent part of Addie’s relationship with Red as Red reveals that a solo Addie performed as a teenager (which she recreated underground), inspired her to help the tethered escape and murder their human counterparts.

At the climax of the film, the two engage in one final pas de deux as images of Addie’s teen solo (set to The Nutcracker’s “Pas De Deux: Intrada”) flash in between. Addie ultimately bests Red and kills her as the two share one last, jarring embrace.

But, just before the movie’s conclusion, we learn that “Addie” is actually one of the tethered, and dragged her real world counterpart underground after their first meeting, taking her place above. So it was actually the tethered Addie studying ballet, avoiding her reflection as she did pliés, and performing a solo in front of a crowd, as real-world Addie became her subterranean shadow.

Ballet and Blackness

As I said before, Jordan Peele’s selection of ballet to drive Addie’s growth is no accident. As Addie grapples with the existence of a tethered version of herself, her study of dance parallels her attempts to regain and perform normalcy as she addresses her blackness.

Historically, dance has acted as a method of communication, celebration and identification in the Black community. Take, for example, Crip walking, which allowed gang members to identify themselves through a series of detailed foot movements and hand signs. On college campuses, Black Greek letter organizations (of which I am a member) codified their history and distinguished themselves with stepping and strolling. Even traditional African dances held a variety of purposes, from courtship, to denoting social class or occupation.

By contrast, ballet is a genre that originated in renaissance-era Europe and was traditionally inhabited by white people as a demonstration of class and nobility. Though Black ballerinas have made important strides throughout dance history, it remains a style known for rejecting Black people and their bodies. Why else would it be news that a pointe shoe company finally started making brown shoes in 2018?

Addie, in her study of ballet, attempts to fit its rigid, Eurocentric standards, sacrificing elements of her Blackness in the process. During her solo, we see her childhood pigtails and oversized Thriller tee replaced by a sleek bun and a sparkly white tutu. Her body is lithe and thin as she twirls onstage. But, as she gains acceptance through the lens of a style that glorifies white bodies, Addie ultimately loses her innate, rhythmic connection to Black movement as viewers see when she struggles to snap on beat in the movie’s opening scene.

Reflections in Ballet

Conforming to the demands of the ballet world, Addie finds herself unwilling or unable to see herself, even as she dances in a room full of mirrors. Addie’s literal fear of her reflection becomes symbolic when you consider the timing of the movie. Us, and presumably, Addie’s dance training, begin in 1986. In 1986, the Rockettes hadn’t accepted their first black dancer. Lauren Anderson hadn’t made history as the first Black principal dancer in The Houston Ballet – and wouldn’t for another four years. Misty Copeland was a child and more than two decades away from becoming The American Ballet Theatre’s first Black female principal dancer.

We as the audience are led to believe that Addie avoids her reflection out of the dread of seeing her tethered twin grinning back. But, as Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Diaz said, “[I]f you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” One can only wonder if the person gazing back at Addie really is a monster, or if a lack of representation in the ballet world forced Addie to see herself as other and recoil from her own image.

Ballet and the struggle for liberation

The film’s plot twist further connects the idea of assimilation to Addie’s ballet career. Rather than pursuing dance to heal, Peele seems to imply that tethered Addie actually used dance to help her assimilate and appear human. Meanwhile, her formerly untethered self, now Red, dances with her underground, hitting walls and collapsing as Addie soars at center stage, with both finally realizing their own individual freedom during the peak ballet solo. Addie releases herself from her tethered past, gaining acceptance in a white art form, and Red sees that she can liberate the tethered through her dance. In their final confrontation, the two characters’ interpretations of their movement and corporeality merge as they fight for dominance in the untethered world.

It seems this choreographic struggle for freedom between Addie and Red is intentional. In an interview for Vanity Fair, Us producer Ian Cooper mentioned that the choreography for Addie’s solos revolved around the idea of “[P]recariousness—as if you should have a partner but you don’t.” As teens, Addie and Red dance separately but together. When they meet face-to-face years later, the two perform their adversarial duet as it was meant to be danced–in urgent unison, with the knowledge that liberation and the ability to live and move without inhibition are at stake.

The idea of the phantom partner and two opposing identities moving together reinforces the ideas of two great Black intellects: W.E.B. Du Bois’ and James Baldwin. Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness–the notion that Black people have multiple warring selves inside them, held together only by their intrinsic strength– and James Baldwin’s assertion that “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time” both shine through in Red and Addie.

For me, this duality is key to understanding how ballet weaves through Us’ plot. Though Addie appears calm and serene onstage as she performs for an approving audience, her inner consciousness of herself as a Black woman, lies just beneath the surface, embodied in Red’s attempts to copy Addie’s solo. This private ego becomes more frustrated and enraged as it is suppressed and hidden. Similarly, no matter how much we try to conceal and code-switch our Blackness away, it remains. And just as Red finally escapes her prison, our anger, history, trauma and our desire for freedom will eventually emerge and wreak havoc on the people and institutions that try to bury it.

Revue: With Ballet in My Soul: Adventures of a Globetrotting Impresario by Eva Maze

Yes, I spelled revue like that on purpose, it’s a stylistic choice.

I recently had the pleasure of being asked to review Eva Maze’s memoir With Ballet in My Soul: Adventures of a Globetrotting Impresario. The book is written by Maze and starts with her early days in Bucharest, Romania, during which she survived a bout with scarlet fever, a disease that would end her classical dance training before it had a chance to begin.

Each chapter is named after a city or country Maze lived in. The memoir shows Maze’s college years, marriage to her husband of nearly 50 years Oscar Maze, and the eventual beginnings and success of her career as an impresario, during which time she produced shows for notable dance companies including Lar Lubovitch, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, José Limón Dance Company and Bella Lewitzky Dance Company. The memoir ends with Maze’s eventual retirement to Sarasota, Florida, where she currently resides.

If Forrest Gump were a dancer, this is how I imagine the movie would have played out (haven’t had the chance to read the book yet–it’s on my list). The book beautifully integrates dance and the arts as a whole with major world events. Photos and visuals appear on nearly every page showing Maze as a child, young woman and as she is today at 95 years old. Coupled with newspaper reviews of many of Maze’s shows and historical photographs,  the book is one part memoir, one part photo album and one part history archive.

Maze has a front row seat to WWII, the raising and tearing down of the Berlin wall and the tragic massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympic games, among other landmarks in time. What’s interesting about With Ballet in My Soul, although it doesn’t become apparent until the very end of the book, is that because Maze spends the majority of her adult life living abroad, we aren’t given a glimpse into how dance intersects with major American events. The assassinations of  JFK, Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, the space race, and even the rise of computers and the internet are all omitted from the story save for a passing reference near the end. While it would have been interesting to see dance as a part of American history,  these elements aren’t missed.  Maze goes into amazingly descriptive detail to discuss her time in places like Berlin, Tokyo and Paris both as a producer of performances and as an observer of cultures.

While I generally enjoyed Maze’s discussion of the various environments she lived in throughout her life, there were times where I felt her assessment of other people’s cultures could veer into the territory of being a bit voyeuristic and problematic. An example of this is in the opening  lines of Maze’s chapter about India. Maze describes her life in Europe as “organized” and “middle class” but calls the Indian culture “chaotic, dirty, noisy, hot, poor and very exotic.” This othering happens in other areas as well including a section where Maze refers to a Kabuki dance theater in Tokyo as “exotic,” and it definitely took away from my enjoyment of Maze’s narrative.

It is no secret that it is a privilege to get to travel freely and experience other cultures. Maze does appear to become a student of the cultures she is able to live amongst and seems genuinely interested in learning the dance styles and history of places like New Delhi, Kathmandu and Tokyo. But her attempts, however subtle or unintentional, to differentiate her European upbringing from other non-western cultures, and even from being American (even though she lived and attended college in New York) are off-putting, and put a damper on my appreciation of what would have otherwise been an engrossing narrative.

Privilege aside, Maze does tell an engaging story that flows nicely from the beginning of her life as an aspiring ballerina to her present situation as a woman who has lived a full, rich life and can now enjoy the fruits of her labor. I often say that the key to success as a dancer and in life is to lean into the fact that your career won’t look like the career of the person next to you, the dancer your age, or anyone else. Eva Maze’s desire and willingness to have dance and the arts in her life in any way possible led her to have a brief professional dancing career and a longer and fulfilling career as an impresario. I’d say this could be a worthwhile read for dancers and dance lovers who want to learn about dance from someone who danced briefly, and also learn about what life can be like after dance.

You can purchase to book on Amazon.