Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ballet and Chemistry

Ballet and science hand-in-hand! A few of the many many ways that ballet has benefitted from advances in modern chemistry:

Friday, November 22, 2013

Ballet and Science?

Are they two completely opposing ideas? Dancers seem to defy the laws of physics every day. However, dance teachers know that ballet and physics go hand in hand. Here is a little presentation on the physics of ballet.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Had some time off of ballet? How to make those first days back a little less painful and frustrating

Summer vacation has ended and it's back to school. After several weeks off of ballet, it's also the first day back to class. Maybe you took the whole summer off, maybe it's only been a few weeks since you came home from that intense summer dance program. Every year I see my young students ecstatic about returning to ballet only to struggle with the frustration of getting their body back to where it was before the break. No mater how much time, if you've had some time off here are some things to help make those first few days back in the studio less painful and less frustrating.

1. Be patient with yourself. Don't expect the first day back to be exactly like the last day you danced. This is especially necessary if you've had a long span of time off (over 2 weeks). Ease into things. More injuries happen in that first week of coming back because we expect our body to bounce right back to where it was. Allow your body and your brain some time to get back into sync.

2. Focus on your technique. Remember that your turn out comes from your hips, not your feet. Forcing your feet into your best turn out right away can cause knee pain if the rotator muscles have gotten weak. If you experience that ache in the knees, back off out of your turn out and make sure you are holding with your rotators and not gripping with your thighs and feet. If it has been a very long break, work in first position for the first few classes before building back up to 5th.

3. Go back to the basics. For a day or two or more, allow yourself to practice one pirouette or even just balancing. Feel the position of passe, check the hip alignment, make sure the passe foot isn't "parked" or resting on the knee, but is driving up from underneath and held. You might feel that deep pinching sensation in the seat letting you know the gluteus medius is working. You might feel the pinch of the hip flexors letting you know the glut mede is not working. Lower the leg, find the place where the hip flexor in front is not straining and the gluteus in back are doing their job.

4. Be prepared for dramatic shifts. Many times the first class back is sensational and the next class we completely fall apart. We feel like we slide down into a hole that we have to claw our way out of. Do not despair! This is a normal part of athletic achievement. Allow yourself to have a few weeks of ups and downs before settling into your normal rhythm of progress. (Even THEN be prepared for those ups and downs!)

5. You will be sore! And soreness is not always a bad thing. It's always good to ease into your stretches, rather than pushing or working into them. Relaxing into your stretches can help prevent injury and sore muscles. Consider cross training with yoga, Gyrotonic or Pilates. Drink plenty of water to help flush the lactic acid out of the system, take an ice bath (marathon runners swear by these after a race), make sure you are eating healthily with plenty of fresh fruits and veggies and limit soda intake. Get plenty of sleep. Enjoy the sensation of sore muscles knowing they are getting stronger and more flexible, but be sure to pay attention to what your body is telling you. Don't ignore pain, but learn to listen and differentiate between the soreness of hard work and the pain of potential injury.

6. Work on your core strength. Core strength is the foundation of our strength whether we are dancers or not. Doing some extra exercises for your core can really help speed up the "getting back in shape" period. Having a weak core can lead to all kinds of injuries from pulled muscles to fractures in the spine. There are many different exercises from simple isometrics using the gravity and the body's own weight to Pilates exercises using machines to fit ball exercises and many more. I'll put together a few for the next post.

What other things do you do to help get back in shape and avoid the pitfalls of frustration and injury?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Celebrating a different kind of Independence Day

by Chad Abraham, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Renee Brook and her friend C.J. Locarro walked into Carbondale’s Third Street Center on a recent Wednesday, ready for a dance class in which they imitated the Harlem Globetrotters, ballet dancers and drummers.

That eclectic mix isn’t the first sign that this is an atypical dance offering. Brook, for instance, moved a little slower than other students taught by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet instructor Stephen Straub.

Brook, a part-time resident of West Buttermilk, has had Parkinson’s disease for several years. Straub’s new class is tailored to people with the condition and, judging from Brook’s response, is a success.

She said she enjoys the Dance for Parkinson’s class for several reasons, including a boost in flexibility, camaraderie and because it’s simply fun. Straub, a gregarious former dancer with the local company, ensures the latter benefit is present in abundance.

“I’m a strong believer in joy being the essence of dance,” he said. “I think that’s why this class is so special to me. We’re not working to become perfect, we’re working to feel good and bring out the joy.”

But there is another reason for the class: Dance and other forms of exercise are among the only things that have proven to slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease, said Kari Buchanan, director of development at Parkinson Association of the Rockies.

The association is collaborating with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet to offer the classes, which began in February, at the ballet company’s studio in Carbondale.

Parkinson’s, the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s, affects the central nervous system and muscle control.

“The disease is always progressing, that’s the nature of it,” Buchanan said. “But keeping the muscles moving, it really makes a difference in having more control over those muscles.

“It’s important for everyone to exercise, but for people with Parkinson’s, keeping them mobile and moving is especially important.”

Brook, 79, said she’s had Parkinson’s for several years. Classes like Straub’s and therapy sessions at Aspen Valley Hospital help a great deal, she said.

“I’m not a ballet dancer, but I do like to dance,” Brook said.

Asked what she enjoys about the class, she ticked off: “Flexibility, interaction with other people, we do a lot of hand motions.”

“I’m sort of stiff around the shoulders and the neck, and those hand motions just liberate me,” she said.
Roots of inspiration

This is the first therapeutic program in Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s nearly 20-year history, said executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty.

When Straub was hired in September as a faculty member, he approached Aspen Santa Fe Ballet officials about the Dance for Parkinson’s program, Malaty said.

“We have a lot of trust in him and were glad to have him join” the faculty, he said. “And he told me about this passion he had for this program that he learned in New York City. I thought it was great and something he could share with the community.”

Straub, 31, danced with the company from 2005 to 2009, and then attended the University of Colorado at Boulder. During his time there, two things clicked, he said.

As Straub was beginning his career as a ballet teacher, he happened across a blurb in a magazine. It told of a workshop in Brooklyn that was hosted by the city’s Parkinson’s group and the Mark Morris Dance Group.

“That’s where it all started about a decade ago,” he said.

 Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Stephen Straub leads hand-motion exercises in the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet studio in Carbondale. Directly across from Straub is Renee Brook, with her friend C.J. Locarro seated to the left.

He attended the Brooklyn workshop and became a certified instructor in the Dance for Parkinson’s program.

But according to Straub, his tie to disease actually goes back to the person who taught him his initial ballet steps.

His ballet teacher “when I was a little tiny kid” now suffers from it, he said.

“She’s probably one of my favorite people in the world,” Straub said. “When she was first living with Parkinson’s, she was still teaching a little bit. Now a few years have passed, and she’s not doing very well.”

The benefits of the Dance for Parkinson’s program had already been well-established in the medical press, Malaty said, and “we didn’t have any doubts” about Straub’s proposal.

Malaty said Straub’s experience with his first teacher is also a motivation to help others with Parkinson’s: “It means a lot to him on a personal level.”
‘Moving beautifully and confidently’

Straub acknowledged that his Parkinson’s classes “are kind of a way of giving back” to that first instructor.

He also teaches all levels of ballet, from, in his words, “baby ballerinas” to adults. Ballet instruction in general is extremely rewarding, Straub said, but the Parkinson’s class is rewarding in a different way.

“Some of these students feel like they can’t move, and I get to see them for an hour moving, and moving beautifully and confidently,” he said.

Leading Brook and other students through the class, Straub effuses a positive vibe. He soothingly instructs the students to “just enjoy the music and breathe. If you’d like to soften your focus, close your eyes,” Straub said melodiously.

Then it’s time for some hoops.

“And a couple more times,” he urges, pantomiming dribbling a basketball. “We shoot, swish!

“Let’s see how that goes with our music,” he said, as the familiar whistle of the Harlem Globetrotters theme fills the studio.

Brook and her friend, Locarro, after imitating a below-the-leg dribble, said it doesn’t seem like exercise. That may be because of the laughter and the joy Straub brings.

“It’s very special, he’s very special,” Brook said.

“At the end, we all holds hands, and you squeeze a hand and look somebody in the eye,” Locarro said.

They do the same to their neighbor and so on, and “it pulses around,” she said. “It’s a really great connection on how to end the togetherness.”

Still, Straub said he’s neither a doctor nor a therapist for his students, although the therapeutic benefits are clear.

“I think just my experience with movement is where I can put in my couple of cents,” he said.

Straub’s class helps attendees with balance, stretching and “all kinds of coordination,” he said. “Those are kind of secret benefits of the class that happen just because you’re dancing.

“But the bigger thing, really, is the sense of community that has developed and the feeling that you’re not the only one.”

The local Dance for Parkinson’s class closely mimics the Brooklyn program, but Straub said he has brought to it “all sorts of little twists and tweaks” — hence the basketball moves.

In the process, he said he’s also noticed a benefit that’s even more personal.

“I get so much out of it, too,” Straub said. “You can’t have a bad attitude if you’re going to teach a class like this. I can walk into the studio with my own stuff going on, and I have to turn it off.

“An hour later, I remember the great things about the world.”