Most adult ballet beginners are exactly that: professional adults—lawyers, doctors, teachers, bankers—who live extremely busy lives and do not have the time to take regular ballet class. In fact, many of them either took ballet “lessons” when they were young children or are starting from scratch as adults. What they lack in aptitude and suitability is more than compensated for by their open minds and willingness to try their best.
Even so, they sometimes feel discouraged (or lost) in the most basic Absolute Beginner class. Initially, I thought the solution was to offer monthly intensives, but that did not seem like enough.
So, I have created “Finis Fridays.”
Starting this fall, adult beginners can improve their ballet technique in a new series called FINIS FRIDAYS: three different 2-hour classes to be held at the Pearl Studios in Midtown Manhattan.
The first class is titled LET’S DANCE! and will be exactly that. It begins with a short barre followed by exercises in center floor which teach correct body and arm positions; connecting footwork that travels in different directions; the waltz and balancé, and choreographed dances. If time permits, basic jumps will be included.
The second class is titled TURNOUT, EXTENSION, and begins with a warm-up jog, followed by seated and reclined stretches taken from my video Stretch, Turnout & Extension. After this, the students will come to the barre and work on selected barre exercises which will help stabilize turnout and extension. This class will end with relaxing floor stretches.
The third class is PIROUETTES, TURNS. After a short barre, students will practice preparing for and executing pirouettes en dehors and en dedans, châinés, and piqué turns. As always, the emphasis will be on teaching students the “untaught” preparations all good dancers use onstage, but which go unseen by the uneducated eye. We are going to enjoy unraveling the mysteries of turns!
These slowly paced, extremely detailed, step-by-step classes have proven to be remarkably effective. Not only do the students learn the material needed, they also develop self-esteem as they discover that they are capable of doing more challenging ballet work. Some of the more avid students further their knowledge by studying my instructional videos at home, and that too has proven effective.
The Return to Class.
Now, these “Adult Babies” are ready to move confidently with the rest of the class!
Ultimately, it’s the classroom experience where we are all together that makes the biggest difference in helping my “ballet babies” advance. It requires extreme patience and constant instruction on my part, and devoted concentration and muscular involvement on theirs. But time has proven that this is the best way to teach adult beginner ballet students what they need to know. FINIS FRIDAYS will help ballet newcomers learn how to move with graceful dignity and strength, both in the studio, and in the world.
Photo: Finis Jhung and demonstrator Mayumi Omagari show how it’s done. (photo by Stephen von der Launitz)
Pictured above: Russell with two lovely partners, Claire and Christina.
I call my adult students my “ballet babies” because, like young children, they are so eager to learn, are “pure” in that they have no pre-conceived notions, and dance as if there is no tomorrow. Some of my babies are teachers and students who live in Australia. Some have attended my workshops; all use my videos and music; and most have my memoir Ballet for Life. Russell Merriman lives in Bicton, Western Australia, and began studying with my streaming videos this year.
In his own words…
Streaming from Perth Western Australia is phenomenal. It is simple to log on and there are no delays in finding my videos. I am a ‘mature’ student. I turn 75 years of age on July 19. My ballet has improved dramatically since I started using your streaming videos. I have started pas de deux and my partner who was a professional ballet dancer thinks that I am a ‘natural.’ I purchased your Partnering Techniques DVD.
My first dance technique was contemporary dance. While a student at Flinders University of South Australia I attended a week-long workshop at Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide. I was aged 30 years and very stiff and inflexible. I was excited when, at the end, we performed a dance to the song of Buffy Sainte-Marie: God is alive, Magic is afoot. How prescient for my life!
I then joined a small group of dancers at Flinders University and after we performed, I was ‘hooked.’ I moved to Perth in 1974 and commenced contemporary dance classes with Ruth Osborne, wo taught the Graham Technique. After I turned 40, I found an introduction to ballet of eight free classes. After discovering pirouettes I never stopped.
Around the same time, I joined the Keszkeno Hungarian Dance group. I was mesmerized by the athleticism of the male dancers and remained with the group until 2016. We performed at concerts in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Hungary. I had to stop Hungarian dance as an old ankle injury couldn’t cope with the stamping.
I continued ballet classes, and my first brief ballet performance in October 2017 included a ‘mini’ pas de deux which introduced me to the delights of partnering.
I am indebted to Heather Callander who has been my teacher for over 30 years. She told me about the videos of Finis Jhung which allowed my enthusiasm for ballet to expand. She uses his concepts in her teaching. Justin McNamara has been instrumental in his beginner classes in teaching me the fundamentals of posture and balance. Justin says he ‘Really found it so helpful the way Finis explains the way to approach teaching the use of arms for beginners in classical ballet and the example for pirouettes of the kids toy where to make it spin you push down to make it turn.’
I have found that the secret of ballet is that it is anti-gravity as the movement is all UP. This lengthens the spine and frees up space in the joints. Obviously this counteracts the normal effect of aging where people ‘shrink’ and their body contracts. The change in one’s posture from ballet can be dramatic (mine has) and it results in new breathing patterns. So, like Finis, I will never give up.
PS: My favorite video right now is The Art of Teaching Jumps. I’ve had double hip-surgery, but will persist with patience and determination for my share of air-time.
The demi-plié is almost isometric. In both the downward and upward movements, the feet—rather than the knees—should initiate the movements. The feet grip the floor and pull the legs into the plié and then relax and push down to return the legs to the standing position. This also applies to pliés on one foot.
Most dance movements are on one leg. What must be developed at the barre is the ability to balance on and move from one foot. Try to work at portable barre placed parallel to the mirror. Stand behind the barre, on the diagonal. This will allow you to keep an eye on your supporting side and encourage you to work correctly. Test your balance by frequently taking your hand off the barre during exercises. In addition, check your readiness to move. You should always be able to rise off your heel whenever you press down on the floor.
The supporting leg controls the free leg, and initiates each movement. The timing of every movement is made by the supporting leg. The free leg (the foot that brushes or slides) never pulls or moves the body. Only the supporting foot that pushes the floor should move the body.
In the center floor, every step you take must be balanced by an arm, or both arms, reaching in the opposite direction. At the barre, develop this sense of the “back arm” by reaching for the barre and pressing down it. Never pull on the barre.
When you pirouette from the fourth position, be sure that you go to “the end of theplié.”
A jump is a relevé in the air. Push the floor, stand in the air.
Overcross the glissade précipitée, which leads into battement fondu developpé relevé, and jumping steps where the free leg is brushed into the air.
In July, at age eighty, I make the BIG DECISION. I will have my severely arthritic right hip replaced. I’ve been putting if off for years, but have finally accepted the fact that the leg is too unstable and getting weaker by the day. What hurts most is not the muscular pain and limited movement, but that after forty-five years of teaching, I no longer have the strength in my right leg to demonstrate full-out. And remember, I’m the guy who has always said “To dance is to live.” Ouch.
Luckily, my personal physician is Dr. Alan Kadet, who only refers his patients to top-tier specialists. His wife, Cindy, had her hip replaced in 2016 by Dr. Roy Davidovitch, Director of the Hip Center at NYU Langone in New York City. Dr. Davidovitch was the first surgeon in New York City to perform the minimally invasive (MIS) Anterior Approach Total Hip Replacement and has since successfully performed hundreds of these procedures.
Unlike other approaches to the hip, the Anterior Hip Replacement is truly a minimally invasive approach that requires a specially designed surgical table. The goal of the anterior approach total hip replacement is to return patients to their normal functional level in an accelerated fashion.
Wednesday, September 6, my son Jason and I check-in at the hospital at 5:30 a.m. The nurses in surgery greet us with huge smiles. They are so friendly and relaxing! There are nine other patients who will have surgery today.
We are all dressed in a plastic gown that has a tube attached to a heater. It’s inflated with warm air which is comforting, since the room is very cold. We are served coffee!
My vitals are taken, the anesthesiologist goes over details, and Dr. Davidovitch, the surgeon, visits with a reassuring smile.
I am taken to the operating room and placed on that special table. The next thing I know, I wake up lying in bed in a private hospital room with Jason and more smiling nurses attending me. I have absolutely no discomfort or pain. In fact, I’m hungry. Lunch is baked salmon on spinach with fruit for desert, and coffee and water. It’s all surprisingly delicious for hospital food!
That night at 8 p.m. Jason brings me home. I am wearing inflatable sleeves over my calf muscles which increase the speed of blood flow and reduce the risk of clot formations. I will wear these sleeves that constantly compress and release at least eighteen hours each day for the next fourteen days. Whenever I walk about I will wear the ActiveCare control device that weighs 1.6 pounds. When I’m stationary, I take off the devices, and plug them into outlets for charging. When I rise from working on my memoir at the computer, I often forget I’m wired in and begin walking out of the room until I am abruptly jerked back by the calf device cables.
On the second day after surgery, there is hardly any swelling and I feel good enough to try some of the exercises recommended by NYU. As usual, I overdo it, and loosen the tape over the protective gauze, and blood trickles down my leg. I am momentarily alarmed, but that drainage is natural after surgery.
The next day, Jason takes me to the doctor’s office where his assistant adds another layer of gauze and, she attaches a PICO device. Besides the long cables for the calf pumps, now I also have a small wire coming out of the protective gauze which is connected to a miniature unit with a long cord that is battery-operated.
For the next five days, I will be wired up to two different devices day and night.
Four days later, I return to the office where Dr. Davidovitch himself removes the PICO device, both dressings, cleans the area, puts on a new dressing, which I am to remove tomorrow. As long is it’s not draining, I will keep the incision uncovered. For the first time, I see that they really did use little metal staples to close the incision. One of my video customers, Justine Coulon, writes that her dad invented those particular staples. Small world!
The staples will be removed on Friday, September 22—seventeen days after surgery.
After this visit with Dr. Davidovitch, swelling and discoloration begin to appear in different areas of the leg each day. Somedays the thigh and knee are so swollen and tight it’s hard to bend the knee to sit.
I’ve been following a carefully prescribed program of medications, but rarely use the pain-killers like Hydrocodone or the “break-through” pills Oxycodone. Only during this past week—when the swelling made my thigh muscle painfully tight—did I take minimum doses. They don’t relax the muscles which are understandably swollen since they are healing.
What works best is to sit back in my zero gravity recliner which elevates my lower legs so they are higher than my heart and ice the swollen thigh for fifteen minutes an hour.
I seem to be in a very intense period of healing, where swelling and discoloration move up and down my right leg. I never can sleep for more than two hours at a time, because my body is cleansing.
Sleeping is a challenge since I am a side sleeper and it’s very difficult to do this with the right leg very weak and swollen, plus I have cables stemming from both knees that are always connected to the device. Last night, nine days after surgery—Saturday September 15—I finally found a comfortable sleeping position leaning back on a bed reading pillow with legs atop two body pillows and a smaller head pillow.
Since this is my first hip surgery, and each person reacts differently, each day has new challenges.
Sunday, September 16, when I awoke, the swelling and muscle tightness had lessened considerably. I did the gentle home exercises (lie on your back and flex and point the foot; bend the knee and slide the heel toward the buttocks; squeeze the buttocks together; and tighten the top of the thighs by pressing the knees into the bed) and I also walked down to the floor below and up to mine twice—a total of sixty-eight steps—using the handrail and a cane. No pain!
Monday, September 18 is the best day yet. Although my right foot is black and blue—it’s a natural healing progression—I can sit and stand and walk with minimal cane use. Jason takes me to see my intern who wants to make sure I’m not urinating excessively because of an infection.
Wednesday, September 20 Dr. Kadet informs me I don’t have a urine infection; the frequent urinations is just part of the healing process. And, today is the day I no longer have to wear the calf pumps. Off they come and away they go! Yeah!
Before lunch I go through all the home exercises and walk the stairs (17 steps) down and up three times—total 102 steps. After lunch, as usual, the swelling increases. My right foot and ankle are especially stiff and swollen, so I lie back on the recliner with legs up and ice.
At the moment, I’m sitting upright at the computer feeling no pain or discomfort. I am so glad I had this surgery and am fascinated with the recovery process.
Today we remember one of America’s greatest heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. This wise and courageous leader left us with many inspiring thoughts. One of them is my daily mantra:
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
When I first started teaching 44 years ago, I mainly taught professionals who were skilled dancers that required barre exercises that developed slowly in complexity and speed, and center combinations that were choreographed like short dances. The classes always ended at performance level with dancers flying and turning across the floor with dazzling speed and expertise.
Today, I no longer teach advanced professionals. Instead, at The Ailey Extension (and around the world with my streaming videos and DVDs) my focus is on teaching amateur adult beginners.
Because most of these adults are non-dancing professionals (doctors, lawyers, administrators, office workers) moving forward for them happens slowly. But steadily.
My personal challenge each day is to continue moving forward by thinking backwards – distilling ballet technique to its most simple and learnable elements so that regardless of a person’s age, anatomy, background, or aptitude, it is possible to learn how to stand and move with balance, strength, and grace.
As I watch my “adult babies” learn each exercise with childlike wonder and practice each exercise with rapt concentration, they reaffirm my deep belief that the art of ballet teaches one not only how to dance, but, more importantly, how to continue moving forward in the journey that is life.
It’s that time of the year again – out with the old, in with the new. Now, I’m not suggesting everyone will want to do what I did, when I discovered that burning your bridges to the past can open doors you never knew existed.
In 1968, I was a principal dancer with The Harkness Ballet in Monte Carlo. My childhood dreams had been fulfilled—I only wore white tights and danced classical roles. I was also I a devout Buddhist (having converted 20 Company members), and, one day, had a realization: “I can’t be lying here at the swimming pool in Monte Carlo doing nothing”—while the world is in tumult following the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; Vietnam; hippies; LSD; women’s lib; racism; and college protests.
In January 1969, The Harkness Ballet performed in New York. Shortly after the season, I told Larry Rhodes, who was the director, that I had decided to stop dancing so that I could devote my life to achieving world peace through Buddhism. I had no idea what I was going to do for a living.
After sitting in a hot tub and crying my heart out over what I then thought was the greatest mistake I had ever made, I pulled myself together and found a 9 to 5 job working in an office as secretary to a private investor. My evenings and weekends were now free to roam the streets looking for people to invite to our Buddhist conversion meetings.
For three years, every waking moment was happily devoted to Buddhist activities. And then, the owner closed his office and I was out of a job. I asked my Buddhist leader what I should do, and he said “Why don’t you teach ballet?”
I contacted Wilson Morelli who said he would love to have me teach at his studio in downtown Manhattan. I went to look at his class and was shocked. I could not remember what the steps were called! I was seeing ballet through the eyes of a stranger. I was in a mild panic. How could I hope to teach professionals when I couldn’t make sense of what they were doing?
I was in trouble—after I quit ballet, I zealously burned all the ballet memorabilia: books on technique, beautiful photo books, and films I had taken of Erik Bruhn onstage—the man who was one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century and had mentored me. I purposely destroyed all the reminders of my ballet past so that I could prove I was completely happy being a “nobody” without any special identity.
And now, in order to make a living, I was about to re-enter the ballet world. In desperation, I ran to the book store and bought all the ballet books available. My first class was attended by four students. Clearly, I had made a dreadful mistake—how would I survive making such little money? And teaching every exercise in 3/4 since I was too insecure to try anything else.
As we now know, I did survive—and thrive—and am now in my 44th year of teaching.
Because I had burned my ballet bridges, I was free to create my own ballet technique, based on teaching the way I wish I had always been taught – with sensible exercises that warmed you up slowly and thoroughly, built strength and artistry, and even more, with explanations on HOW and WHY we ballet dancers do what we do.
Through the years, I’ve graduated to teaching adult beginners in classes at The Ailey Extension in New York, written a Technique book, and sold over 54,000 instructional videos. Another book and more videos are on the way. 2017, here we come!
A One-Way Ticket Sent Me from Hawaii To Utah and Forward on a Path of Lifetime Learning
Everyone knows that there is no place like home for the holidays. The season brings hopes to nice and naughty children everywhere. For their parents, the chance to bring joy or put a smile on a child’s face is priceless – even if there is a little sticker shock. It is a time when the difference between luxury and necessity is blurred. Many work and sacrifice all year just to make the occasion more special for loved ones. Their generosity inspires kindness that is almost self-sustaining. That kind of impact can be felt over the course of a lifetime.
The most amazing gift I ever received began a journey of self-discovery that continues to this day. A one-way ticket from Hawaii to Utah changed my life forever and I owe it all to the devotion of my mother. I was only eight years-old when my parents divorced. It was 1945, and the war was over. My father left the islands. He also left his debt-ridden tailor shop at Hickam Air Force Base to my mother as our family’s only means of support.
With the war over, however, most of the servicemen left the base, as well – to return to civilian life on the mainland. With the departure of the troops, the business was a struggle. Mom had to rent the tailor shop, pay two seamstresses and raise three boys. Searching for houses we could afford to rent, we moved six times in the span of five years.
Each night my mother would come home with bundles of uniforms that needed alterations. After making dinner, she’d start ripping apart the seams of the uniforms so that the next day her workers would sew them together. Her ceaseless efforts and love for us three boys taught us to always do our best. Even at her busiest, she found time to encourage us to pursue our dreams – no matter where they would lead.
By 1954, I was 17 years old, and I still had my dream of wanting to be a professional ballet dancer. I had no idea whether I had the talent, but I knew I had to leave Hawaii to find out. It was not easy to leave behind everyone and everything I knew.
The Head of the Ballet Department at The University of Utah in Salt Lake City was Willam F. Christensen, famous for founding the San Francisco Ballet. I was accepted with a partial scholarship as well as a $160-scholarship from the Exchange Club. All great in theory, but there was one problem. We had no money at all. In fact, we hadn’t been able to pay the $14 registration for my senior year in high school.
Miraculously, to me, Mom somehow found the money to pay for my plane ticket to Salt Lake City and living expenses to start off. It was the gift of a lifetime, but not in the way I thought in that moment. That one-way ticket has never stopped giving, and has allowed me to give more of myself than I ever dreamed possible.
As a performer, I have been proud to share the artistry of ballet with generations of appreciative audiences. Since then, as a teacher, I have been blessed to impart the knowledge I have gained through a lifetime of collaboration with some of the greatest performers and teachers of our time. Going to Utah opened the door to my career in ballet that has never ended. Today, as a teacher to my adult babies at The Ailey Extension in New York and via my instructional videos – I connect with dance enthusiasts around the world every single day.
I am forever grateful to my mother – who was born on Christmas day—and to my two older brothers – for believing in my dream even before I believed in myself. Every Christmas since, I think about mom and the greatest gift I ever received.
RISING ABOVE – OVERCOMING SETBACKS ON YOUR UPWARD TRAJECTORY
A life devoted to ballet offers many chances to be graceful – just not always in the ways you might imagine
My spirits should have been soaring. It was 1965 and The Harkness Ballet of New York was making its official debut in Cannes, France. I was a soloist in a company of 40 dancers, fulfilling my humble dreams as a small child in WWII Hawaii. Even so, I was not a happy camper. Of the 18 works in our repertory, only three were classical – my passion and forte. Worse still, I never got to dance them onstage.
Much of ballet is centered on strength and grace. I found it hard to exhibit either limited to supporting roles as “exotic” characters. In fact, it was hard for me to take ballet seriously at a time when much of my time on stage was spent on the floor wearing knee pads rather than soaring through the air. It was particularly difficult to exhibit grace as the better parts went to other dancers. While I had great respect for their abilities, I felt with proper rehearsing I could do as well as they.
Luckily for me, our guest star was the great Danish dancer Erik Bruhn. He was the recognized “King of Ballet”— a living legend with phenomenal technique and extraordinary grace and beauty. He helped me to understand that what separated the elite performers from the merely remarkable was not ability, but approach. Great stars always work overtime. Erik took me under his wing and became a mentor – let me sit in his dressing room while he made up his god-like face (and hair); let me do the pre-show warm-up with him; and coached me during rehearsals. In all things, he showed me how to do my best.
Erik also taught me the importance of repetition – applying the same process to achieve the same result – day after day. Essentially, how you practice is how you play. After working with Erik, I was no longer concerned with what roles I had, but concentrated on perfecting my technique in preparation for better parts. Which did come with changes in our repertory the following year.
Since then, my own experiences as a teacher have taught me that the world is a better place when every individual is inspired to reach his or her fullest potential. Working with adult novice beginners is especially gratifying, as our sessions aren’t only about improving technique but also enhance the quality of life.
Whether you are a banker, doctor, lawyer, stay-at-home parent or billionaire CEO – the principles apply: discoveries in ballet lead to discoveries in life. Deeply immersing yourself in the movement process can lead to new life-changing thoughts in daily life.
With dedicated repetition of the fundamentals, both student and teacher steadily move forward with knowledge, grace, vitality and strength.
A star has 5 points. You have 5 points: Energy flows from the center of your body down through both legs and feet; up through your chest and out through both shoulders and arms; and up to your head and out of your eyes.