Feet First

Not that kind of feet first — I mean let’s talk about feet, first. I’m coming at this from my experience: from the first time I tried to stand up after brain surgery until now my feet have been both the limiting and the liberating factor of my balance and mobility…

I failed, bombed my first balance test in the hospital; my feet just wouldn’t sit flat on the padded mats meant to break the inevitable falls of the neuro-patients that used the space. Nine years later, at last week’s tap class, my feet twisted and rolled while I tried to learn how to do a variation of the ubiquitous shuffle-step; a stomp shuffle step. After a couple of respectable tries, my right foot rolled onto its side producing a slow motion, arm flapping pirouette. Everyone pretended not to notice, or smiled like yeah, I know …except they don’t know, because I didn’t tell them that brain cancer wiped out my balance centre. I just wanted to tap to boppy, happy music. An unpredictable wild step now and then is my price of entry and I pay it gladly… then I go home and practice practice practice to get my feet on board.

In the very beginning, I couldn’t walk without a walker. And it wasn’t proper walking — more like shuffle walking. When I tried to stand or walk without the walker, my feet curled and turned on their sides. Think of a toddler careening around the house, loaded diaper wagging, knees high, feet alternately rolled onto their outer edges with toes tightly curled or up on tippy-toe. Now superimpose that image (minus diaper svp) onto a 38-year-old woman re-learning to walk . Without the soles of my feet in full contact with the ground, I couldn’t control my steps. It was ambulatory chaos.

The physiotherapist suggested exercises: walk backwards and forwards on your toes, heels and sides of your feet. Exercises, I’m sure, that have been scientifically tested for success. But when your brain  doesn’t understand where the soles of your feet are, and you don’t have access to a gym with parallel bars, the exercise is rendered useless. Without my walker I could stand for a maximum of twenty seconds. I couldn’t walk, so I couldn’t do the exercises, and if I couldn’t do the exercises I’d never be able to walk…

…insert obscenity here. I really can’t remember which one I used, but I bet it had and F in it, like fffffffeeeeet!

Because there was a time when I was a pretty good athlete. Quick and nimble with an epic sense of balance. Then I remembered Miss Anna and her magic string.

Miss Anna was my stern, suffer-no-fools, bun-headed ballet mistress. Well into her fifties, whippet lean in her leotard and be-ribboned dance shoes. As we all lined up at the barre for pliés, Miss Anna would remind us of our magic strings attached to the tops of our heads. Pull your string up, long neck, back straight, shoulders down, bottoms tucked…

I’ve always believed those pliés in Miss Anna’s basement studio were the  foundation of all my future balance and athleticism. And that’s where I started when I  had to re-build a new balance centre. Maybe they can help yours too.

  1. First position: Stand with your feet together (either facing or sideways to your support/barre tall enough so you don’t tip over). With your weight slightly on your heels open up your feet from the toes as far as you can (the balletic ideal is 3 and 9, but 10 and 2 or even 11 and 1:00 is fine).*
  2. Turn-out looks like it’s all about the feet, but it comes from the hips the ball and socket joint of your thigh bone and your pelvic girdle.If you can’t feel your glutes, push your heels forward until you feel the head of your femur in your hip joint (you will know it when you feel it). Or, when you see it: what ‘Ballet Bob’ my first adult instructor called ‘the wrinkles of turnout’. As in, your yoga pants will pucker around the outside of your beautifully clenched bum-cheeks. (Bonus: this can result in a rock hard nut of a ballet butt) Proper from-the-hips turnout can be intense up around the hip and glute region, so if it hurts, leave it and do what works for you body — it’s already been through some stuff, listen to it and trust it.
  3. Plié: When/if you’re ready, move onto the plié. The demi plié: Your heels never leave the ground. Before you move check your magic ballet posture string, pull up from the top your head; lift your chin ever so slightly and take a regal inhalation. I am the sugarplum fairy…or the nutcracker prince (whichever suits you)… Slowly bend your knees keeping your heels on the floor and your spine vertical – or Miss Anna will swat your tush. At the point when you feel your heels about to lift, straighten you knees and return standing. This is a slow deliberate movement.Take your time. Dancers take eight beats to do the entire movement; four counts to the bottom of the plié and four to return.littlegirlplié

*If turnout isn’t possible just stand en parallel, as Ballet Bob called it (BTW he introduced himself as Ballet Bob I’m not mocking the man who helped me re-build my balance centre): face your ‘barre’ feet together in parallel; as Miss Anna would say, pull your string up, stretch your neck, shoulders down, back straight…you regal ballerina you.Try bending your knees into a demi plié.  And whenever you’re ready, try turning-out into first.

If my instructions aren’t clear or if you’re ready to do more (there is always more, grande pliés with heels off the ground, arms added, the other four positions, the finishing relevé) try this YouTube channel with a series of adult beginner ballet videos:

http://www.youtube.com/danceclassvideo

Click on ‘playlists’ and find ‘adult beginners class’ & click again.

I’ll figure out how to do a proper link soon, promise. Stay tuned!

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