Take me to church: like a ballet dancer

Last Sunday, listening to the radio swatting up for the pub quiz, Hozier’s Take Me to Church came on.

Every time I hear that song, I can’t help being reminded of that video. You know the one: it went viral. A lone dancer in an impossibly beautiful barn, shafts of light pouring in at all angles. Powerful, moving and shattering any perceptions of ballet as simply about tutus, tiaras and tights.

Published to YouTube in February this year, the video has been viewed over 12 million times, and it’s even been recreated on the The Ellen Show.

Who’s the dancer?

So, just who is the dancer everyone’s fallen in love with?

I started to look into who was dancing, and discovered an even greater appreciation of this piece of work.

Like Hosier’s original video, whose characters are dramatically battling their demons, Ukranian dancer Sergei Polunin shows a striking similarity, and by finding out about his story, you can start to really appreciate where the power and the emotive performance comes from as he dances.

You’ve probably not thought much about the ripped tights and the tattoos proudly visible, but neither of these would be tolerated on the professional stage of Britain’s ballet companies. The piece is raw, unapologetic choreography to match; with both the song and Sergei’s story.

At the age of just 19, Sergei Polunin became the youngest ever Principal of the Royal Ballet, a prestigious role for someone who got into professional ballet training quite late. But by 22, he had left the Royal Ballet amid stories of drugs, late nights and disillusion with the discipline. He was fighting a very personal battle in the spotlight.

So, how fitting that, in this piece, he is conveyed naked, alone, seemingly wrestling with the choreography and dipping in and out of ethereal light. The barn is a constricted space, and some of the leaps seem constricted and frustrated by lack of room.

Ballet, but not as you might know it

This raw depiction of ballet perhaps resonates more easily with the majority of people. We have all felt alone and have grappled with demons at some point, however big or small. There’s something in the nature of Sergei’s performance, in it’s power and pain, that’s very real and emotional. He’s not the traditional dancer, but seen by many as the bad boy of ballet. He’s human.

Ballet isn’t just all about the prim and proper routines and carefully-choreographed steps of the traditional ballet performance. That’s the beauty of dance. It is whatever you want it to be, and it’s personal.  Sergei has brought the personal to the masses thanks to the internet.

Division challenged!

Service in Guiding, Element 3 of the Queen’s Guide Award requires you to ‘take an active part in the planning of an event that involves the participation of at least two units’.

For my Element 3, I joined the team preparing the Division Challenge. With the Paddington movie such a recent blockbuster, we themed the challenges for Rainbows, Brownies and Guides around the adventures of the bear with the duffle coat and a love of marmalade sandwiches! Guides got to grips with a selfie-challenge and a walk from our Division HQ, (which became deepest, darkest Peru for the day) to the train station. Okay, so it’s not quite Paddington station, but I think they got the idea. Brownies and Rainbows enjoyed making an adorable Paddington bear (thanks RedTedArt for the craft instructions), excitably pinned the label on a Paddington bear and also enjoyed a dress-up relay race to see how quickly they could turn a member of their team into the much-loved bear. Guides enjoyed llama racing, where each team personalised a llama atop an aerodynamic base attached to string,  and then raced them from one end of the hall to another by winding up the string. I have never heard so much screaming directed at a piece of cardboard!

The highlight of completing this section for me was being asked to design the badge. I’m growing my skills with Photoshop, but having seen the faces of all the participants and leaders when they saw the badge, it was definitely worth the fiddly bits to get right! I think it’s fair to say we might think twice about having all of the Rainbows, Brownies and Guides involved on the same day, but judging by the smiles on the faces of everyone involved it was definitely worth all the late-night meetings and extra effort.

Our Division Challenge badge
Our Division Challenge badge

Dancing en pointe

Photo By Laura Bittner via StockPholio.com
Photo By Laura Bittner via StockPholio.com

Dancing ballet en pointe is hard. The end result might look graceful, elegant and effortless, but the training is messy. Think bloodied toes, blisters and bunions and generally very sore feet. Watching the faces of the pointe class before my own ballet class, I am reminded of why I gave up dancing en pointe: because sometimes your feet just can’t take any more. Pointe work is both physically and mentally exhausting – you’re asking a lot of your two big toes to support all of your body weight, so you have to make sure you’re ready to help them out with strong ankles, legs and core. You have to ensure your body is a buoyant as possible to even make it work, and this is as much of a mental struggle as it is a physical one. Since ballet, or its dance origins, have been around for the best part of 500 years, why and how did we suddenly decide dancing en pointe was such a good idea?

The earliest ballet dancers, back in the 16th century, wore soft slippers with low heels. Back then, a ballet was a court dance, usually led by the King and Queen. It wasn’t until the 18th century that ballet with a particular emphasis on dancing high on the toes, was introduced. By then, ballet had taken on a rather more professional form. Anna Heinel seems to be one of the earliest dancers who was described as dancing on ‘stilt-like’ tip-toe in 1770. She could well have been one of the first dancers ever to do so, adding it to her invention of the double-pirouette.

About 20 years later in 1795, Charles Didelot gave dancers the ability to pause on their toes before leaving the ground, courtesy of wires attached to their costumes. This ‘flying machine’ allowed dancers to express a more ethereal quality and a lightness on the toes, which captured the imagination of audiences and other dancers worldwide and spurred them on to establish new ways to achieve this without wires. Dancing on the toes began to develop, although the earliest ‘pointe shoes’ were little more than satin slippers strengthened by darning the toes and sides. With so little support, dancers were more likely to pause on their toes for a moment or two during dances. The first recorded ballet where en pointe choreography was used all the way through was La Sylphide in the 19th century. Principal dancer Marie Taglioni danced in modified satin slippers en pointe.

Today’s shoes are much more supportive for dancers feet than these early models. Pointe shoes now consist of a hard ‘block’ which encases and supports the toes. This is made from tightly-packed layers of paper and fabric, which are glued together. It is this glue which provides the rigid shape to offer support. The front end is flattened, to allow dancers to balance en pointe much more easily than the earliest, pointed slippers! To support the arch of the foot, the sole of a pointe shoe is made of a rigid material, which often has to be broken in before a dancer will wear them to perform. There are many, many different types of pointe shoe models to choose from, allowing dancers the flexibility of having the best shoe for the job. Quick, intricate choreography often requires a harder, more rigid structure, whereas more expressive, lyrical dances can be danced in a softer shoe. Over time and with wear, pointe shoes become softer.

Dancing en pointe is now an integral part of ballet performances. For professionals, the ballet shoe is the pointe shoe and for amateurs it is the nirvana that you aim to reach, to be a ‘proper’ dancer. I guess it the elegance that comes with dancing on your tip-toes that makes pointe work such an integral part of ballet and such a graceful means to get around the stage, even if it is hard work!

Minivate! for the Senior Section Centenary

Minivate 2014 logo

Call me old-fashioned, but I love getting post. Especially Guiding-related post. The other day, I received a very special delivery, reminding me of how I completed the residential section of my Queen’s Guide Award. At the end of July (so, I am very delayed in writing this post, but sometimes life takes over!) I joined with other Midlands Senior Section members at a Minivate! weekend, staying in the beautiful Manor House at the lovely Blackwell Adventure. Having never done anything like this before, I had no expectations whatsoever of the weekend. We had gathered to plan ways to mark the Senior Section Centenary in the Midlands Region in 2016.

Blackwell Court Manor House
The beautiful Blackwell Court Manor House, our base for the Minivate! weekend

The weekend started with a look at why we should bother to celebrate. In recent years, there seems to have been no end of Guiding celebrations, from the Brownie Birthday and Girlguiding Centenary to other, more local celebrations. So, do we want to create another headache for Leaders? But, actually, we were all agreed that the Senior Section is a really vital part of the Girlguiding movement and one that is, unfortunately, often overlooked. I myself had no idea that Rangers still existed, and Senior Section members who are pat of unit leadership teams are often isolated from their peers. So, what better way to unite Senior Section members from all around the region and promote the Senior Section more widely than to celebrate the fantastic achievement that is 100 years?

When we arrived at the Minivate! weekend, nothing at all had been decided yet, so there was a great sense of empowerment that we were right at the beginning of the journey to the 100 year celebrations.  What a privilege to be involved right from the start! Many, many sheets of flip paper and brain hours later, we had decided on 5 key events to take forward to the next stages. I’m not going to spoil the surprises, but let’s just say it will be a celebration to remember.

Amongst all the hard work, we also had time to enjoy some of the activities on offer – the 3G swing (in and around a pretty big storm), crate-stacking and the zip wire. There was a murder committed Saturday evening as we enjoyed a murder mystery dinner and the weekend was topped off by a pool party and barbecue on the Sunday.

So, back to that piece of post. At the end of the weekend, we were all encouraged to write down the responsibilities we had taken on and how we would promote the Senior Section back in our local areas. Thanks to Rachel,  these were all sent back to us as a prompt. I am now heading up a working group to organise a special event for the Centenary, thanks to the opportunities at Minivate! In doing this, I will also fulfil the Service in Guiding, Element 4 section of the Queen’s Guide Award. There’s a lot of work to do before 2016, but there are some fantastic events coming up and I am so excited to be a part of that. Watch this space!