In my relentless quest for bodily alignment, I have been reading some dance books. One of them is Annemarie Autere’s The Feeling Balletbody: Building the Dancer’s Instrument According to BalletBodylogic (2013). Autere is a former dancer for the Norwegian National Ballet and the Royal Swedish Ballet, and a professor of dance. This book is not only useful, but a hoot to read: full of cartoons, memorable imagery (such as her idea of the “accordion spine”), and advice on dance training. Most of what she writes, of course, is geared for ballet, but I found some particular ideas to be useful for skating as well.
First is her idea that you don’t need to start from a very young age in order to learn proper ballet technique. I of course love this idea, even though I think she means that you can start ballet at age 10 or 12 and still get pretty good at it. I wonder what she’d make of a 55-year-old ice dancer?
Autere compares developing ballet technique to learning to play a musical instrument. She gives a three-year timeline for learning to play “our instrument” (the body):
First year: BUILDING our instrument. Assessing basic movement patterns.
Second year: TUNING our instrument. Technique, steps, and coordination.
Third year: PLAYING our instrument. Learning variations, pointework, pas de deux, styles, forms, different techniques. (4)
(Okay, that seems like a pretty optimistic timeline, but I think I can manage a three-year game plan. Now that I’ve finally isolated some of the basic problems in my “instrument,” I can see how to move forward to the tuning stage in the coming months.)
I especially appreciate Autere’s emphasis on developing an inner sense of one’s own body (proprioception), and overcoming injuries. She sees pain and stiffness as warning signs. Two of her comments definitely hit home for me:
Proper alignment depends on relaxed feet! (13)
A blocked, tilting, or otherwise misaligned pelvis puts the strain of carrying the weight of the upper body on muscles unsuited for this function. (16)
Autere uses the term “climbing down the ladder” to talk about the process of “climbing down the steps that had been ignored in my training” en route to a much healthier and more aligned body. She does suggest a number of things that differ from what I know of ballet training–and all of these are very good for skating.
NO COPYING. Don’t just copy or imitate movement. The trick is to build a foundation of bodily feeling, strength, and alignment.
NO BARRE. She doesn’t advocate using the barre: “How can you expect to master the exercises in the center if you cannot keep your balance with only a slight touch of one finger on the barre. On stage, you do not always have Prince Charmant to hang onto” (23). Hanging onto the bar inhibits proper arms and shoulder position and movement.
NO MIRROR. Watching oneself in the mirror changes head and therefore body position: “Requiring that the students should feel what they do, I had to take the mirror away. Even when we listen to our inner feeling, the mirror easily becomes a confirmation ticket. With us unable to keep our eyes from the mirror, the image we look for is the ideal idea of ballet aesthetics. Unfortunately, the source of aesthetics is not to be found in the mirror. . . And, remember that mastering technique is a question of inside muscles you cannot see in the mirror.”
PUSH OFF RATHER THAN PULL UP. This one is a biggie. Autere gives lots of different levels to this “pushing”:
- Pushing-off the floor with focus on the feet aligns the knees.
- Pushing-off the legs with focus on creating space between the legs and the pelvis (with a special emphasis on three muscles–the gemellus superior and inferior, and the obturator internus) takes you on-top-of-your-legs and thereby aligns the pelvis.
- Pushing-off the pelvis with focus on the sacral bone aligns the the lower spine.
- Pushing-off with focus on each and every vertebra aligns the spine.
- Pushing-off with focus on the occipital bone (the base of the skull) aligns the head.
I am not yet at the stage where I can integrate all of these pushes, but today I tried some of my favorite exercises while pushing up out of the ice just with my relaxed, yet strong feet. Amazing!
No lessons for a while, as I am in vacation mode for a few weeks: time to sleep a lot, eat gelato, and ponder the finer points of pushing off rather than pulling up.