15 July 2011

The Melancholy Swan has moved!

The Melancholy Swan has found a new home at melancholyswan.com
Please update your bookmarks! I'd miss you if I lost you!

07 July 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan encounters a snotty teenage cygnet

Tuesday evening the Melancholy Swan arrived at the Academy as usual for the adult class. Generally the adolescent cygnets ignore me, either chatting in a bevy of their peers or the siren call of their smartphones. But this time, I was noticed, and a blonde of perhaps 14 or 15 years old looked me up and down. The contempt in her gaze was palpable "OMG. Are you kidding me?" as she turns away and starts whispering to her friends. I kept walking and when I turned back to look at her, one of her friends poked her that I was looking, giving the impression that I had been under discussion.

I've been heavy for most of my adult life and as I've gotten older I decided to stop worrying about the skinny girls at the gym or in yoga class (and I was taking yoga in Sherman Oaks, CA with lots of beautiful people) and focus on my work. I stopped wearing sleeved shirts when it was 95 degrees in the studio and discovered that cute guys at the gym actually encourage big girls working out.  But the biggest realization came when it dawned on me that no one was looking at me. They were focused on what they were doing, not on me.

The same thing happened when I started ballet. I was nervous and did end up being the largest one in the class, but nobody cared but me. Only one person was passing judgement on how I looked. Me. And I can be quite the mean girl to myself. So imagine my surprise when a bitchy teenager gave the snotty eye to a 40 year old woman! It's like having a kitten hiss at you. They're so cute when they try to be tough!

If I had been younger, I would have been hurt and humiliated. Now I'm just a bit confused why she would even bother. Besides, the little bitch wasn't that pretty anyway.

03 July 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan wrangles cygnets

Thursday last your Melancholy Swan waded into dangerous waters. I entered a studio populated with four and five year old little girls in tutu dresses there for the Intro to Ballet class. While doting parents and grandparents watched through the window, they jumped, spun and wiggled. While the little savages lifted their skirts and bounced from one side of the studio to the other, the tiny shy ones would hold my hand and babble on about something I couldn't understand. My task was to keep them all together in an orderly line and encourage them to follow Doris (my teacher.) They were adorable. They were spirited. They reminded me why I never wanted children. I watched with great relief as the baby swans returned to their families.

They next class was Ballet 3/4 which was made up of older girls ranging from eight to twelve. The older dancers got most of the attention. Unfortunately Doris does not have a lot of patience for smaller children and less adept students. One smaller girl couldn't follow along very well and when a new student arrived, I was asked to coach them. The first girl positively blossomed under individual attention (and some encouragement.) By the end my girls were happy and doing well. It was a nice feeling.

While the Melancholy Swan is fully aware that she really has no business teaching anyone anything about ballet, I think I at least gave the stragglers some needed encouragement. I was once the little girl struggling to keep up in class, unable to remember the steps. Now I'm an adult in the same position.*

Well behaved ballerinas (Not my class)
photo by Katy Batdorff

*I learned that I have a minor non-verbal learning disability, which is apparently why I was so clumsy as a child and have trouble learning ballet combinations now. I'm working to learn all the names for the steps so I can match the words to the movement and remember them that way.

30 June 2011

Beautiful Silent Film of The Sandman

My husband found a beautiful contemporary silent film of E.T.A. Hoffmann's  The Sandman and Freud's interpretation of the uncanny.

In which the Melancholy Swan moves to the head of the class and learns something new!

Yesterday was my class at the Parks & Rec and after a difficult class on Tuesday, I was completely different for Wednesday's class. One of the problems I have in my ballet classes is with my short term memory (thank you chemo-brain) where Josh would demonstrate a sequence of steps, I would follow along with him and then immediately forget everything he said. It's been a year and a half since I finished chemotherapy, but every once in a while lingering side effects show up, and while my memory for my work has improved, ballet combinations remain a blank spot. My breaking point came when we did turns and no matter how slowly I went, I could not spot and immediately became violently dizzy. I was in tears after class because it is so frustrating. Every time I feel strong, something has to remind me that I had cancer (as if the scars on my breast and underarm aren't enough.)

However, when I went to my Wednesday class, I was spot on. I remembered the combinations to the point that Linda had me move to the front of the barre so the class could follow me! We didn't do any turns, so I avoided the dizziness, but it felt amazing! Then after class she asked me if I could come back today to assist her with her Intro to Ballet class (4 and 5 year olds who just want to spin and dress like princesses) and Ballet 3/4 class. She said that she has a few superstars she works extra with and she wants me to dance with the rest of the class to make sure they can follow the combinations. It's a little strange to be in Ballet 1 and be asked to assist in a 3/4 class, but I'm excited. It's not going to my head because I know full well that yesterday was just a good day, but it makes up for my performance on Tuesday.

I also learned something amazing today on the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast about a riot that took place during the 1913 performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring with Nijinsky's choreography.  I love the fact that there was a time when innovations in art could inflame the public!

29 June 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan gets a message

Yesterday the Melancholy Swan was reading for an article I'm writing and when I opened the book to the next chapter I found a bookmark advertising a production of Coppélia. I'd missed a class last week and in the middle of a rather tedious reading (when dissertations become books, the result isn't always good, especially when they write according to the "tell them what you are going to say - say it - then tell them what you said" school of thought) and my little discovery gave me a welcome mental break.

Well, sort of welcome. See I loathe Coppélia I read the original story The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann, along with Freud's analysis of the story when I was writing my dissertation. It is a dark tale of Nathaniel, who as a child, feared the lawyer and alchemist Coppelius as the Sandman, who steals the eyes of children who won't go to bed. Nathan's father was killed during an alchemical experiment with Coppelius.

As an adult, Nathaniel believes that Giuseppe Coppolaan eye glass salesmen. He is briefly convinced he is in error by his physics professor Spalanzani who knows Coppola and has a daughter, Olympia.
Nathaniel meets Olympia at her "coming out" party and falls in love with her, while the other guests are creeped out by her uncanny, almost mechanical perfection and her lack of speech beyond "Ah, ah!" When he returns to the house to propose to her, he finds Spalanzali and Coppola (who is, in fact, Coppelius) fighting over Olympia. In their struggle, she is revealed to be an automaton, and is torn apart with her eyes falling on the floor. Nathaniel goes mad.

He seems to recover and is reunited with Clara, his real girlfriend that he dumped in favor of Olympia. They climb a high steeple to look out over the city, when Nathaniel spies Coppelius in the crowd and his madness returns. He tries to throw Clara out of the tower, but she is saved by her brother and ends up throwing himself over the railing and dies. Not a happy story.

Jacques Offenbach's opera, Tales of Hoffmann, transforms Hoffmann into the protagonist who's tragic love for Olympia in the first act ends with her destruction and his realization that he was deceived by Coppélius and Spalanzani. Again, not a happy ending.

Coppélia a comedy where the mysterious Dr. Coppélius creates a dancing doll, the idiotic village swain falls for her, she is revealed to be a doll, the swain returns to his living girlfriend, they have a wedding celebration that goes on forever. Happy happy, joy joy.

Sometimes I wish being an academic didn't make me a total buzz-kill, but it was a welcome distraction from reading about boredom.

17 June 2011

Perhaps less a swan than a goose

Though sometimes I do keep up with the swans!

Image from: The Sitting Fox

14 June 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan moves between Apollo and Dionysus

On June 2nd the Spring session at the Academy ended.  We had a great last class and afterwards I spoke to Jennifer (our teacher) and apparently it is possible for an adult to join pointe and advanced classes!  When I first started I was under the impression that those classes were only for the kids.  It will be a long time before it is even a possibility, but it is nice to know it is there.

Last week I started summer beginner classes through the local parks & recreation. I was a little apprehensive because their definition of adult is 16+ and I didn't relish the prospect of taking class with slim little teenagers.  That didn't happen, and the structure of the class (or lack thereof) kept me from paying much attention to my classmates anyway.

The class is taught by Doris, a tiny lady with seemingly boundless energy.  Since this was a beginning class, she gave us this introduction, "Okay, this is first position, this is second, this is third (but nobody really uses it), this is fourth (again, not used much), and this is fifth.  If you can't do fifth, third is okay.  Got it? Good!  Now go stand at the barre for grands battements."  Seriously, from there she led us through increasingly complex exercises done at breakneck speed.  She offered few corrections or instructions on posture, turn out, and breezed through arm positions.  When students looked confused she told us not to worry about it since this is just for fun!

I was the most experienced student in the class after my semester at the Academy and she asked me what I thought of the class.  When I mentioned the speed and lack of emphasis on posture (not in a negative way, but as a difference from my previous class) she declared that she thought her way was better.  I didn't necessarily agree, but said that there is probably a place for both. Heck, maybe moving so fast will improve my memory for combinations just out of survival instinct!

Tonight the summer session at the academy begins, so I will henceforth move between their appolonian discipline and rigor and the dionysian speed and lassiez-faire of Doris' classes. Should be interesting!

Updated on 4 July to correct my Parks teacher's name. I'm rubbish with names.  Faces...I'm great, but names just slide out of my brain the moment I hear them. This is a real problem since my university sells itself as "a place where all your professors will know your name" and I have to warn them at the beginning of class that I won't.

30 May 2011


This is just stunning! It's by the Australian Ballet titled Trace by Alice Topp.  It was posted on Dave Tries Ballet along with some other amazing ballet videos.  I don't always find the classic ballets as interesting as contemporary works and this one is quiet, strong and raw.  I'm re-blogging it mainly so I'll have it to re-watch whenever I choose! 

29 May 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan feels her toes again

Our penultimate class the week before last was much like the others before it.  It was such a joy to move and work.  Even learning the thigh burning grande plie was a pleasure.  At the end of class I left with the usual feeling of light and grace, but this time it stayed!  We didn't have class this week because the children were having their showcase, and it is still there.  When I stand still I have to remind myself not to go up on my toes (in public) and I continually move my feet from demi-point to point trying to get the strong toe-curl in point.  I missed it terribly and am thrilled that it has returned.

Winston Chruchill described depression as a black dog that followed you everywhere.  I've decided to name mine Roger.

23 May 2011

A Bevy of Swans

bevy: A group of birds, particularly when closely gathered on the ground.

14 May 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan attempts to submerge herself

 Classes are over, exams are graded, and issues at work....well, let's say they are on hold until August.  To start pulling herself out of the black mire of melancholy, the Melancholy Swan is immersing herself in dance and her own research for the summer.

Edgar Degas, Melancholy, c. 1874
For the past few weeks, the lightness and glow from ballet class faded within moments of leaving the studio, when it once sustained me for almost a week. I'm hoping that two classes a week will help me get it back. I also bought two orchid plants for my desk at home and living room and will be buying a posh candle (Jo Malone or Dyptique) in a lemon or lime based scent. Citrus scents are said to be good for melancholy. I'm very persnickety about scented candles so the Melancholy Swan can only buy them occasionally.

For Thursday's class we were in the large studio (usually we are in a small practice studio) using portable barres.  I have to say I didn't like them terribly much because I kept worrying that I was going to bang my foot into the pipe on the end.  What was great was the space we had for center exercises.  For an hour, everything else was forgotten, but only for an hour.

08 May 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan ...

has been far to melancholy to post of late, but not too much to cheer for her friend (and current hero) the Adult Beginner on the occasion of her first pointe class!

24 April 2011

Melancholy Swan Shoe Timeline 2

In my continuing quest for the cache of tattered, worn ballet shoes described by the Adult Beginner and inspired by Balletnerd's shoe timeline, I present the second installment The Melancholy Swan's own shoe timeline.

Here are the Melancholy Swan's shoes after 6 classes.

What are your shoes like?

23 April 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan re-evaluates the "ballerina body"

The Melancholy Swan is currently reading Adrienne McLean's Dying Swans and Madmen: Ballet, the Body, and Narrative Cinema, and came across this  photograph of the members of George Balanchine's and Lincoln Kirstein's American Ballet.  It was a revelation!  Look at their powerful thighs and rounded calves!  The curves of their bodies!

This is my new ideal ballerina body and with a lot of hard work, it is one the Melancholy Swan might actually achieve.

22 April 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan finally returns to the pond

Ahhhhhh!  Last night I was finally back in class.  It felt amazing to put on my leotard (and then hide it under cropped pants and a t-shirt) and my shoes and walk up to the barre.  I still had to face the (soul crushing) mirror, but hearing the music and feeling the studio floor beneath me took away the pull of gravity.  Thanks to plies and relevés  to the timing of my Sonicare toothbrush along with my NYC Ballet workout, I was able to jump right back in with my classmates.

I feel like I can breathe again.  I feel light again.  And decidedly less melancholy.

08 April 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan plans for the future

Today was not the best day for the Melancholy Swan.  There was no class last night because the Academy is on Spring Break and I won't be in class next week because I'll be at a conference in Grand Rapids.  I'm trying to be disciplined and practice by myself, but the NYC Ballet workout just doesn't inspire the same feelings.  In class I feel light.  If I avoid the mirror, there are moments where I forget to hate the way my body looks and rejoice the feeling of weightlessness that comes from walking on demi-point, of hopping and spinning on the studio floors.  I can dance through the rest of the week just from one Thursday night class in a state of grace.

Without it, the Melancholy Swan feels the pull of gravity.  Hurtful words and rude people pull me down even further and it becomes ever harder to rise up to my toes and the grace slowly ebbs from my life.

Which is why I am looking toward the future.  The semester will be over in a month and I want to take as many ballet classes as I can during the summer.  The Academy classes are short sessions (5-6 weeks) and I am looking at the local community college and park district for more.  The community college is taught in a Russian tradition and is said to be very disciplined, but they are only offering Intermediate Ballet during the summer (MW from 7:00 - 9:45pm), and I'm not sure I'm ready.  The park district offers adult ballet courses but their summer schedule isn't up yet.

Hopefully more classes and more dancing will make the grace last a little longer.

31 March 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan speaks out about the Black Swan controversy

Okay, to preface the following, the Melancholy Swan must reveal that she teaches art history and film at a small mid-western university when not in ballet class or doing barre exercises in the kitchen.

Black Swan is not a film about ballet.  It is the story of a young woman's psychological disintegration fueled by her quest for perfection as a ballerina.  Natalie Portman  portrayed a character, Nina and trained for a year to be able to even approximate the abilities of her character.  Portman could not do everything that Nina could and therefore a double was used who could perform the physical and technical aspects of ballet to be seamlessly blended with Portman's performance to create the character.  Like any stunt person or nude body double, Portman's double did not make the character.  She only filled in the gaps.

As with Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady*, there has been a fireball of smug schadenfreude about Portman's performance and the studio's claims that she performed the bulk of her character's dancing, when someone training for just one year could not possibly perform like an artist she portrayed.  Portman never claimed to have done it all (regardless of her fiancée's foolish defense) and acknowledged the use of a double for complicated dance scenes.  But apparently that is not enough for the dancer who was hired as the double.

Sarah Lane, who received multiple on-screen credits for her work has decided to destroy any chance she might have had for further film work by whining about not getting enough attention and that the studio's claims are an "insult to her discipline."  When hasn't Hollywood insulted artists, dancers, scientists, academics, by having actors pretend that they can do in a few weeks what takes years of sacrifice to master?  Lane did her job and Nina became a realized character.  Lane is now trying to destroy the character she so masterfully helped create by thinking that she was something other than a double.  She wasn't.  She deserves no more credit that what she received, studio bullshit be damned.  And she will never work in this town again.

I went to see Black Swan as a horror film set within the beauty and grace of ballet, and that is exactly what it was.  Nina's descent into madness through self-injury, anorexia, anxiety and hallucinations was created by Miss Portman.  The dance added verisimilitude but was not the focus of the film, nor was it the reason for Portman's numerous awards for her work.  Period.

*Julie Andrews portrayed Eliza Doolittle on stage, but was not chosen by the studio for the lead in the film.  Hepburn's singing was done by a "double" which was viewed by Andrews' fans with the same snark as the online ballet community (that I have seen thus far).  Andrews' got her revenge, since she won an Oscar for Mary Poppins.

22 March 2011

Melancholy Swan Shoe Timeline

Having read the Adult Beginner's explanation of the increasing cachet that comes from tattered, worn ballet shoes and inspired by Balletnerd's own shoe timeline, the Melancholy Swan has decided to create a timeline of her own.  Every month I will post an image of my shoes and how many classes I have worn them in. 

So here they are, after 3 beginner classes and 3 sessions with the New York City Ballet DVD.

20 March 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan has a substitute

Last class Jennifer told us that we were going to have Jason substitute for our next class and the moms were all a-twitter. In class last Thursday he had put us through rigorous barre routines (brilliant) and then turns and pirouettes! We did repeated releves where I realized just how weak my feet really are. We releves on just the right and then the left foot and I could barely lift myself once, let alone the eight times he was asking for!

I really enjoyed trying harder routines and moves and in this I had a partner in the loudest ballet mom. She's vary tall and a bit plus-sized like me and she loves drawing attention to herself. In the hallway she loudly announced how smelly her feet were from her pink ugg slippers and how lucky it was that her ballet shoes blocked the smell. She knew Jason and was joking with him a lot and showing how much more she knew than the rest of us. The Melancholy Swan realizes how bitchy that sounds, but I actually like her and was glad she was there because she wanted to try the harder stuff too. She was always first across in center work and I was happily right behind her. The Melancholy Swan is competitive by nature and I like having someone whose example makes me push myself a little harder.

Despite being spring break the latter part of this week the Melancholy Swan has been pretty damn melancholy, and once again, ballet class brought a period of exhilaration and excitement. I'm not sure if it is normal for someone in an acute depression to spin around the dining room at every opportunity, but it gives me hope that I'll pull out of this one a bit easier.

16 March 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan gets ahead of herself

This week the Melancholy Swan has been less melancholy.  The fact that it is spring break helps, but I find myself pointing my toes at every opportunity, and getting a cup of tea an opportunity for center work (while followed by a hopping corgi.)  I was reading old posts from Adult Beginner and caught myself wanting to respond to her posts as a fellow dancer.  A fellow dancer?  After only two ballet classes the Melancholy Swan is thinking of herself as a dancer!

The thought does make me happy.  I'm hoping that just like when they say the moment you get a cancer diagnosis you are a survivor, that when you start twirling around your dining room and counting the days until your next class you are a dancer.

I take my validation from this post by Lauren on her blog Hobo Mama

13 March 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan has an excellent point

That damned mirror (and how I looked in it) became such a focus of rumination that I nearly forgot how much fun class was on Thursday.  (I'm not the Melancholy Swan for nothing.)  I'd been practicing transitioning my feet from flat to demi-point to full point all week; when I brushed my teeth, while watching tv, standing in line at Starbucks, whenever I thought of it throughout the day.  It paid off in class and I got a lot of praise from our instructor Jennifer.  

I was doing great until we were working center.  I was so shaken by the mirror that I would forget the steps we were doing.  We "ballet walked" for three steps and then pointed for the fourth and pliéd with the leg extended or point for the forth and shift weight to forward foot while pointing back and raising arms to fifth position.  I kept forgetting which one we were doing and it threw me off. 

After class Todd was late picking me up so Jennifer waited with me before closing everything up. We were talking about yoga and the beginner adult classes and I mentioned that I stopped dancing as a child because it became increasingly clear that I would never have the proper "ballet body." I generally liken my shape to that of a corgi. The only feature that I have in my favor are my feet. I have square feet (toes almost the same length)and a high arch. Jessica nodded and said that she noticed in class that I had a excellent point.

So if I can just get the rest of me up to my feet I'll be fine!

Ballet Lesson by Lyn Hamer Cook

11 March 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan faces the mirror

The studio was practically empty last night.  The students and ballet moms were at a performance of Romeo and Juliet so there were only four of us in class tonight.  Somehow I ended up at the front of the barre (and the mirror), which was distressing.  When I don't see myself I forget what my body looks like and I just make the adjustment the teacher suggests.  I can just dance without seeing what I have become, what I so desperately don't want to be.

Photo from jonandmissy

07 March 2011

In which the Melancholy Swan recalls life as a tiny ballerina.

Well, not so tiny.  In fact I was already 4'5 and starting to develop the characteristics that lead to my early retirement from dance when I was given my first solo at the ballet recital.  While other girls were princesses or some-such pretty tutu-wearing characters, I was this guy.  Yes, I was Winnie the Pooh dancing to his song "Rumbly in my Tumbly."  My costume consisted of a red leotard with gold tights, a headband with round furry ears attached and (worst of all), a ovoid furry tail that was pinned to my bottom with a single safety pin inside my leotard.  This tail bounced and wobbled with every movement as I stuck out my belly and waddled around the stage.  The parents were enchanted!  Everyone wanted to bounce my tail!  It's charming when the dancer is 8 years old and not built like her tiny little classmates.  Not so much when she's 43 and can still feel that damnable tail.

04 March 2011

Day One

Last night I went to my first class at the Peoria Ballet Academy.  At first I was surprised that it was located in what was essentially a metal pre-fabricated building in an industrial area.  The interior was nice and I immediately flashed by to the classes I took as a child in Hollywood.  The studio was on Hollywood and Vine above a pizza parlor where a set of narrow stairs let up to hallways lined with piles of the vestiges of girlhood tossed casually on the floor and worn cubbyholes filled with grubby little shoes.

The Peoria Academy has the same feeling (but wider hallways).  The halls are lined with pink crocs (ugh), uggs or their cheap equivalent (ugh), hair brushes, brightly colored hoodies and garish backpacks and "dance" bags.  Tiny girls and coltish teens clomp by in tight buns and pink tights while music floats out under the doors of the studios.

Slowly the students in the Adult Beginner class gathered outside our studio and a loud clique of "ballet moms" filled the hallway physically and aurally.  Those of us not in the clique sat quietly together until class started.

I was so nervous but once we started at the barre I didn't really care about the clique or that I was wearing my lymphedema sleeve or that I was the biggest person in the room.  I just felt wonderful.  And when the teacher asked me to be in the first group when we started center work I didn't even hesitate.

I started the day in a terribly negative head space and left class exhilarated.  Too bad I have to wait an entire week to do it again.


This space will be a journal of my return to ballet after 30-odd years.  Through dance I hope to find peace, grace and finally become comfortable in my own skin.  I also want to finally leave the gaudy pink of the breast cancer ribbon for the soft pink of my ballet slippers.