Bunhead(noun): an extremely dedicated female ballet student or professional. Derives from “bun” (a tight roll of hair in the shape of a cinnamon bun, on the back of the head) and “head” (that thing humans tend to have on top of the rest of their body).
It’s summertime, which means the jackets are off, skimpy clothing is in, which makes it the ideal season for spotting bunheads.
Bunheads come in all sizes and shapes. Ages, too. In their juvenile form, a bunhead is easy to spot. The bun, for starters. The gangly limbs and thin frame, the earnest expression, the leotard, the preference for staying in a pack (young bunheads are very conformist). They can be found either en route to the ballet studio, or returning from it, or anywhere lost in thought, dreaming of what happened, or will happen, at aforementioned studio.
Bunheads don’t die off young, as one might be led to believe, given the dramatic drop in bunhead sightings past age sixteen, and further reduction after age 25. It is simply that older bunheads opt for camouflage and/or cease to venerate conformist attire and behavior. Thus disguised, they retain their private identity as they move into adulthood, through middle age, and even beyond. Yes. A sixty-year old woman can be a bunhead, no matter what she wears or what her hair looks like.
The adult bunhead can still be spotted by the discerning observer. Below are ways and places in which such an encounter might occur.
10 Ways to Spot a Bunhead
In yoga class: she’s the one lifting her hip in Warrior 3 position, and balancing in Tree Pose with a turned-out foot, instead of the preferred yogic parallel position. Attempts by teacher to remedy position will not last, as the bunhead body rapidly returns to what is ingrained.
At a public swimming pool: you’ll see her practicing her développé a la seconde in five feet of water, grinning because her extension is so high and effortless. Will also perform grand jeté leaps underwater while arm remain still and pretty.
In the post office line: she’s the one who waits by standing in fourth position. Or fifth. Or, if the line is super slow, watch closely and you will spot her doing a furtive tendu to the front, to the side. Maybe even a little relevé. In extremely long waits, a shift to one foot, with the other foot tucked in a neat coupé or sur le cou de pied.
In long hallways (think empty corridors, the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, shopping mall), you can spot the urge in them to take off running into a tombe, pas de bourré, glissade, and big-assed leap. On very rare occasions, the adult bunhead will lose inhibition and go for it. Such inhibition usually requires considerable consumption of alcoholic beverage beforehand.
In the wild, during an unexpected downpour in a rain-deprived region, where the adult bunhead might lack the inhibition of the previous situation. Sightings are less rare, but still relatively uncommon.
Below is rare footage of an adult bunhead spotted in the wild:
6. On the beach, under the shade of an umbrella, where beach bag includes water, nutty snacks, 70 SPF sunscreen (bunheads rarely seek out a tan—their species prefers to remain pale and unblemished) and one or more of the following paperbacks: Astonish Me, Bunheads, Off Balance, (PS: this one is FREE this week!) Girl Through Glass, Misty Copeland’s Life in Motion.
7. At the grocery store, where her cart will include yogurt cups, bottled water, Diet Coke, plus over a dozen Luna or Kind bars, or one of the dozens of healthy-but-not-totally bars out there.
8. In restaurants, where they sit very tall, erect, like a princess at a state dinner, and try, not always successfully, to avoid the carbs and scarf down the protein. Gives self brownie points for eating all her vegetables. (Literal “brownie” points.)
9. At the pharmacy/drugstore, her purchase will include bobby pins, black ponytail holders, Band-Aids, hairspray and corn pads.
10. Her phone has a classical music ringtone that, invariably, is Tchaikovsky and, equally invariably, is an excerpt from Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty or The Nutcracker.
Have you spotted a bunhead this season? Got any dead-giveaway tips to add? We’d love to hear about it, and encourage you to share your stories of sightings of bunheads in the wild. Send me a photo and I’ll add it to this post. In the meantime, here are two sensational photos from photographer extraordinaire, Jordan Matter, taken from his book, Dancers Among Us. Check it out; the photos are sublime. You can visit his website HERE.
It’s time once again for my annual trek to Vajrapani for a three-day silent retreat. Last year, upon my return, I penned an article for Dance Advantage about how my meditation practice paralleled, oddly, my experience in taking ballet classes. Rereading it now, I’m grateful for the wisdom I’d accrued last year and utterly, wholly lost in the ensuing twelve months. Dang. I’d thought it was permanent wisdom. Silly Classical Girl!
So for myself, and you, dear reader, in case you didn’t catch this essay last year, here’s a repeat of some powerful common sense wisdom you can likely apply to your own life journey, be it ballet-strewn or not. (You can check out the original, modified article here: http://www.danceadvantage.net/zen-and-ballet/ )
Um, just how is ballet is like meditation?
Regular meditation is a challenge. Ballet is a different kind of challenge. Granted, it’s more pleasure than discomfort. It’s art, the beauty of applying movement and focus to music. And yet, it’s a breeding ground for dualistic thinking. Observe the following:
Even on good days, you sense you can always do better.
There is an image in your mind you’re striving for, that you can’t seem to ever reach.
There is always someone better than you. (If this is not the case, you’re taking the wrong class.)
My own ugly little confessions
I watch other students. I judge them. I study them. I use them as a template to decide how I am lacking. There is a tight feeling akin to grief that eggs me on, tells me to work harder, to strive more, tells me I am losing.
I remember who I once was, performing onstage, and it’s not who I am now.
I want to dance better. I am grimly determined to dance better.
In class, I lose all sense of equanimity. Instead, envy fills me. I want to look like her, and her, and her. I want to be thinner. Have a smaller waist. Thicker, longer hair. A narrower chest. This big shelf I carry will forever consign me to the “matronly” look, and that so doesn’t look good in the ballet studio’s mirror. I want to be happy like the others all seem to be. I don’t want to be me.
It is what it is
Duality. Desire. Ego. They run my life. The Buddhists gently suggest that, in order to find peace, ease suffering in your life, you should examine these culprits, observe them, try and distance yourself from their control. By staying in the present, what is, you are freed from “what once was” or “what really, really needs to be.” It is possible to make your way through life in this gentler way, not so caught up in right and wrong, good and bad, past and future, grabbing for what you want, running from what you hate. When I approach life through these parameters, I like myself more. It’s a novel feeling.
Being in the moment
In my sitting meditation practice, my goal is to simply observe the breath, my thoughts, the constant stream of them, striving to return to the present no matter how alluring or compelling the current thought tugging at my psyche seems. It is interesting to note that, outside this practice, ballet is my greatest “remain in the moment” activity. For ninety minutes of ballet class, I am there wholly, mind, body and spirit. If I allow my mind to wander (and it does; it’s terrible, my worst fault in ballet class) off it will go. I’ll get sucked into some past drama, some future worry, and before I know it, the teacher is cuing the music, motioning for us to take our places at the barre for the ronde de jambe a terre exercise (always complicated), and I don’t have a clue what I just observed her demonstrate. Bad girl! Bad ballet dancer, bad meditator!
But meditation isn’t about blocking thoughts, nor is it reprimanding yourself for getting it wrong. You aren’t “good” when the thoughts are slower to arise and “bad” on a day the thoughts race and mill about like mice on steroids. It’s like pirouettes in ballet class. You have good days where it all flows. You have bad pirouette days. Just awful ones that make you shake your head and mentally recalculate just how many months/years you’ve been trying, and for this result? It’s usually about your focus, your balance, both physical and mental.
Gentle tips to help you on your own journey
I’d like to share these ten nubs of wisdom I’ve accrued through my practice, that seem to apply to both daily life and ballet. They help me along the way, although darned if I don’t forget all the wisdom a day later. Luckily, this list is here to remind me and reteach me, every single day.
1) Wherever you are in life, at this very moment, and in your ballet practice, is precisely where you’re supposed to be. Don’t waste too much energy or mind power wishing otherwise.
2) Your body, likewise, is built exactly how it is supposed to be. And if it is healthy and supports you, regardless of its size or shape, it is beautiful. You are beautiful. Don’t let the mirror decide where your beauty begins and ends.
3) Be present. Be here now, in the class, in your life. Observe the way your attachments and aversions often dictate your moods, your choices, and limit you.
4) It’s good to improve on a regular basis in ballet, set personal goals, but don’t withhold satisfaction with the way things are right now. Don’t live your life waiting for the day things will be easier, or better. The reality is, that day in the future when things are “better,” you will find a new “better” dangled before you like a carrot. It’s all an illusion to pull you from your life in the present.
5) It’s all about the journey, the process of learning, not the destination. Once we stop the learning, we stop living.
6) Learning ballet (or maintaining the practice) is hard. Life, in general, is hard. But it’s the hard stuff, these forays outside your comfort zone, that make it so rich and worth living.
7) Observe everything with gentle compassion. We are all on this journey, on parallel roads. Each has its bumps and smooth spells. We all made choices in life that put us where we are now. We deserve to be cherished, and respected. Particularly by ourselves.
8) Some days it all comes together. You’ll have moments of startling insight, power, clarity, and it will feel like You Have Arrived. This includes pirouettes.
9) The next day, or ballet class, you may find yourself stumbling back to square one. This includes pirouettes. This should not be construed as failure. It is simply another facet of the learning process.
10) Pain hurts, both the physical and emotional kind. Don’t judge your own pain, even if it stems from competitiveness or disappointment. If it is there, burning, whether or not it is noble, have compassion. Compassion of the self is where it all begins, and is the greatest gift you can give yourself. Harsh self-judgment is nothing more than pain on top of pain.
Last but not least: enjoy the dance. Because that’s what life is. And the music is calling us to rise, leap in, and participate with all we have, all we are. Go for it.
Today, September 17th, is my birthday. I am no longer that milestone, easy-to-remember “fifty years old,” I am now “over fifty.” Which, in truth, doesn’t bother me. I am healthy; my body and I get along well. I can still dance, jog, kick-box and pretzel around in yoga. I remember as a kid, how “old “people (read: anyone over 39) would soberly intone, “be glad you have your health” and “treasure your health.” Back then, their reverence for it baffled me. Being healthy meant you never got out of school on a sick day. Never. Because I was very, very healthy.
I can well appreciate their words now. I am fit and in good health and it sends a shiver of gratitude over me when I ponder what my quality of life might be if I didn’t have this. In particular, on my 51st birthday, I consider my ballet practice. While some parts of ballet suit me extremely well right now, all that work on alignment, keeping the belly pulled up and tucked in, striving for balance within elegant movement, there are other parts that challenge my joints in a way that the average 50 year old might be looking to avoid. The knees. The hips. The fact that, in spite of the jumping and leaping we ballet dancers do, we are only wearing thin ballet slippers and not cushioned cross-training sneakers. But for me, it’s “so far, so good.” Lucky, lucky me.
So. My continued good health is as much of a birthday gift as I could hope for. Well, that and a little champagne around cocktail hour. Well, okay, and one of those Baskin Robbins ice cream cakes (mint chocolate chip ice cream atop chocolate cake) that my son and I like so much and eagerly anticipate each September 17th.
My blog is at 9,840 views (over 30,000 views if you count spam but I only do that on bad days when I need an ego boost). On the average day, of late, I’ve gotten 75 views. On a good day it’s over 100. On my best day, it was close to 200. So. Feel like giving me a birthday gift this week? If you’re here, reading this, do me a favor and click on a few of the above links if you haven’t before read the article. Or heck, if you have, read again! Or send a link of this blog to someone who might be interested in the above subject matter.
I’m so close, it’s thrilling. And even if you don’t do a thing, dear reader, you’ve already made my day by showing up to read this. You’ve made my year by showing up at my blog to check out my writing. In the early days of blogging, there were few visitors and views, because, well, that’s what happens when you start up a blog. It was a lonely, lonely time. Today, I feel utterly rich.
I’ve got my health and I’ve got my blog with its interested readers. I’ve got supportive family and friends encouraging and enriching my endeavors. What a wonderful thing to celebrate on my birthday.
Outside the Limelight, Book 2 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles, was named to Kirkus’ Top Indie Books of 2017 list! Still haven’t read Book 1, Off Balance? It’s $0.99 HERE
The dare, of course, was to me, thrown out by me. And once the thought had been floated out there, I sensed I had to do it.
You know how these things go: the bold idea that might prove to be too bold, and there are equal parts anticipation and dread in your gut at the thought of it. The idea grows; you can almost visualize it. The seed has germinated, it’s … well, doing whatever seeds do. Dividing, subdividing, taking on life, roots, shifting, making everything shift to make room for it, and it will only go away when you follow up and take that ballet class in Paris. Even if you are an adventure coward, like myself. Perhaps especially if you are an adventure coward.
I found a few more shared experiences online and suggestions from discussion forums. Armed with this knowledge, I decided on the Centre de Dance du Marais. Once in Paris, I went to scope out the studio, which is located in the Marais district, on the Rue du Temple. The building is gorgeous, old, historic. From the street you enter a passageway that spills into a courtyard, which holds a café, as well.
Most of the studios are on the second level. To my right, on the ground floor, was the reception office. I went inside, studied the class schedule, asked all sorts of annoying questions to the man at the reception desk. (How intermediate is intermediate? Yes, but will it be… too much for me? Can you elaborate further? Because there is “advanced beginner” intermediate and there’s “one step down from advanced” intermediate. Will it be scary for me? What if it’s scary and I’ll regret the choice I made and feel bad for wasting my one Centre de Dance du Marais class opportunity? So are you sure this is my best bet? And can you explain again how I’ll know which studio my class will be located in? And will the class be… difficult?) He informed me I would pay the teacher directly. There would be no need for me to check in at reception on the afternoon of the class. I could [leave him alone and] proceed directly to the room.
Monday arrived and I was nervous as hell. Idiotic, really. I speak fluent French and I’ve taken ballet classes for years and years. But there you have it. Outside that old comfort zone. I gave myself plenty of time to get there, arriving plenty early for the 3:30pm class. Inside the courtyard area, the posted list of the day’s classes showed that mine would be in “Beethoven.” (All the rooms are named after composers, for whatever reason.) Another sign pointed in the same upward direction for the “vestiere,” or changing room. I took the grand old staircase to the studio level, and another increasingly smaller, narrower staircase to the top level.
There, in the vestiere, I received a jolt: the changing room was co-ed. There were no men there changing, but at any time, one might walk in. The woman who’d informed me of this seemed surprised by my unease. “Among dancers, you know, it’s not a big thing,” she said with a shrug. It’s true; I remember the intimacy from my performing days, the physicality of it, the scanty attire on warm rehearsal days, the flat chests of many of the females, the sexual inclination of many of the men, rendering us all sort of neutered. Truthfully, I’m okay with nudity. But really, a unisex changing room? Hadn’t seen that one coming.
After dressing (very, very quickly), I descended to the studio level. Another class in Beethoven was finishing up. Outside the room, there were other students waiting, stretching and chatting. In English. One of my fears was eased. At least there would be fellow English speakers in there.
At 3:33pm the doors opened, other students left, we went in. The studio was well-lit with natural light, big windows along two lengths of the long, narrow room. I went to the front to pay the teacher and introduce myself and discovered there was a substitute today. English-speaking. American, in fact. I explained that while I wasn’t a beginner, I’ve taken some intermediate classes that have proven too difficult (chronicled here: http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/?p=259). She confirmed that this class was more along the lines of advanced beginner to intermediate. Whew. And that the class would be taught in English. More whew. …Or maybe not.
Yes, an instant relaxing of my tense muscles and mind. But then, the inkling of disappointment, that grew during class. Listening to English direction was no challenge. It turned out that almost all the students were English-speaking, from various parts of the world, and that this class was regularly taught, by default, in English. And complicating the substitute situation was the fact that the sub was training a student to teach, a young Australian woman in her twenties. It was she who taught the class.
It was starting to feel disappointingly commonplace, like just another class in the U.S.. Except for the ceilings. The beamed ceilings were original and astonishing. Painted curlicues, scrolls, designs that looked like a violin, or perhaps the image of a face in the center? (Hard to file away impressions at the same time you’re watching the teacher demonstrate the next steps.) Golds, blues, a rich red color. There were some metal braces in a few spots, holding the beams in place, which are always a dead giveaway that you’re looking at the real deal. The building dates from the early 1600’s, this beamed ceiling around 1640. To be in this room, knowing this, glancing up at this, made the experience 100% Parisian.
Barre was traditional and reassuring, although some of the combinations felt lengthy and overly creative, like little adagios. I wasn’t sure if this was a product of the trainee’s own experience or if it were a reflection of the regular teacher’s class, or a Paris class in general. At 18 euros (close to $25) and my family to spend vacation with, sadly, I wouldn’t be taking a second class to find out.
As would be expected, center work followed barre. The adagio work, however, seemed more advanced than intermediate. It was a lot of choreography. A lot. With counter-intuitive combinations and progressions. Or was it only counter-intuitive for me and my California studio-grown habits? Maybe this was typical of Paris classes. I sensed the confusion and consternation from the dancers behind me, though, some of whom were at the beginner to advanced-beginner level. I felt their pain; this was no advanced-beginner adagio.
One flaw I found in the otherwise beautiful room was the way it ran deep. Windows along the length of the room meant the mirror was in the front, on the smaller wall. We arranged ourselves in three rows of three. Had there been fifteen students, we might have crowded in there five rows deep, or risked bumping into one another. In my regular class back home, the teacher will have us switch lines after doing the combination once, so that each row has a chance to be in front. But that was the other strange thing. We only did the adagio once before moving on to a second combination. That one, it seemed we did only on one side, commencing on the right side and never the left. (In retrospect, perhaps it employed the left side within the combination.) I remember thinking, wait, we’re moving on to the next combination already? And an instant later thinking, good. The choreography had been too tricky to retain.
We ended with grand allegro runs across the floor, an easier “tombé, pas de bourré, glissade, grand jeté”, and it was a wonderful way to end—joyous, exhilarating, bringing a smile to every last student’s face. Grand allegro, in my mind, is the dessert, the crème brulée of class. It’s the reward for training for the previous eighty minutes. It’s where it’s all about the joy of movement. We were a close-knit group by then, the nine of us, a tribe, Those Who Love Dance, and it’s a delight, the way dance transcends geography, culture, language. We were dancers; that’s the language we spoke, and those last ten minutes our bodies sang.
I got a heck of a workout in. When you’re in an unfamiliar class, your body can’t do anything by rote. You give not your usual 110% but even more. My muscles were trembling and I had that depleted-but-buoyant feeling that is so delicious.
I’d done it. Stepped out of my comfort zone and taken a ballet class in Paris.
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PPPS: Ooh, I’ve struck further gold. Here is an actual class in Paris, intermediate level, judging by the students, but hoo boy, does the instructor, Evelyne Cohen, teach a complicated adagio in the center. Really, it’s like a little ballet. Ridiculously long, with a huge amount of time devoted to learning it and not just being allowed to dance it. So maybe this is indeed a Paris ballet class thing, and my own experience had been spot-on. With the exception of the English being spoken. When I saw this Youtube clip, I was utterly mesmerized, but, gotta say, had I been there, I would have been nervous the whole class. I very much picked the right ballet class to take in person, and the right one to watch on Youtube. (I am not certain where in Paris this studio is. If anyone knows, I’d love for you to share the info in the comment section!)
Ballet Class taught by Evelyne Cohen, filmed by Leslie Jean Porter
I’m a meditator as well as a ballet dancer, as you might have surmised, if you got the chance to read my “Silent Retreat” entry a few months back. ( http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/?p=355) Following that retreat, I dove back into life, but continued to apply the precepts and techniques I learned during those three days of wrestling with my thoughts. It all paired oddly well with my dance practice, as it turns out. Maybe because dance practice, or any hobby or endeavor we take on as adults, has a certain Zen nature to it, the way it is both humbling and illuminating. I put together my thoughts and ramblings about the subject, and shot it off to the wonderful Nichelle Strzepek, administrator and editor at Dance Advantage, who today has featured the article. Here it is: http://www.danceadvantage.net/2013/07/09/zen-and-ballet/. I hope you’ll take a minute to check it out. I’ve incorporated, within it, a list of “ten tips for the journey,” which is to say, the journey of life, of learning, of growing. My thought is that, whether you have a dance practice or not, a special hobby or not, you will find yourself nodding, saying, “Yup. Yup, that covers it. Yup,” as you read.
Well. Maybe you’re not the kind of person that says “Yup.” But maybe you’ll be doing some nodding.
Give it a try. And check out Dance Advantage, if you haven’t already. It’s a great site, with some great contributions and wisdom from all around the Web. Tell Nichelle the Classical Girl sent you.