New Tires! I coughed up for some Challenge Strada Biancas ’cos I’m riding more cobbles and less cyclocross lately. Plus my current gravel tires are thrashed to bits. They arrived folded up; I thought they were open tubulars they’re so light. I really wanted the Paris-Roubaix ones, because Paris-Roubaix, but they’re 27mm and I like a bit of width for off-road bashing. So, Strada Bianca. Giro d’Italia, Strade Bianche, these are my favourite races along with the Cobbled Classics. Which start in less than a week!
Sanne Cant taking Marianne Vos on last corners of 2017 UCI Cyclocross World Champs. Ice snow mud cold horrible off-cambers. Brilliant!
First winter snow. Little better than -2º training ride, sun with ragged clouds, dry powder crunch under wheels, drifts ablating to ice crust.
Friday morning, perhaps the last hot day of summer after a week of proper heat and sun, David & I plus bikes meet at Alexander Platz, half an hour S-Bahn to the Dandenong of Berlin, Spandau, and bike south.
We get out of town quick, along side streets, past some farmers, and arrive at the Havel. From the opposite site I’m used to seeing it. There’s Grunwaldturm and the low hills of the forest across a glare of water. Along the shore for half the length, then inland past well posh houses, entirely around Groß Glienicker See, then into the water, swimming off the dust and heat.
Lunch, then on further along perfect fast trails through Königswald, around most of Sacrower See, and more swimming. We have time for the ferry (about 250 metres of cross-Havel distance works out to quite a few euros per kilometre), so stop in the Romanesque Revival basilika of Heilandskirche am Port von Sacrow.
More riding through Schösser and Gärten and Jägerhöfe, Wirtshäuser, through Park Babelsberg, and suddenly at Potsdam Hauptbahnhof and home in time for dinner.
Morning ride in the forest around Flughafen Tegel last weekend, when I was on residency in Isabelle Schad’s studio in Wiesenburg, Wedding. Up by the small lake, “Cripes that’s a massive dog,” at the dark, solid mass running across the track. “That’s no dog!” I think as it pauses and give me the beady eye in profile, “Wild boar! Cripes it’s big!” It potters off on skinny legs into the undergrowth where I can hear it and companion scruffing and foraging. This is right at the narrow end of the forest, houses and backyards just beyond the block of trees.
As usual, I pause on the lake rotunda and enjoy the view and stillness. A woman comes by with a pair of dogs. I say, “Excuse me, are you going left up ahead?”
“Are the wild boars out? There’s more than twenty of them in the forest,” she replies, quite proud of her mob of swine. “We had at least 14 piglets this year!”
Berlin, where I’ve run into a fox by Alexander Platz, saw another hunting a cat at night in the Uferhallen, where the forests in the city are full of wild boars, and there’s rumour of a wolf in Grunewald.
Stripped and rebuilt frontend of bike: hub, headset, (bloody cantilever) brakes, cables. Hectic shiny. Cripes it was grotty. Backend next.
45km/h top speed! On my cyclocross bike with low-pressure off-road tyres. & heart hit 190bpm (I have nothing of substance to blog about).
Me (on and off for the last couple of years): “It would be awesome to have a power meter or something so I can go all data on my training…”
Has any dancer ever measured a performance with a fitbit or pedometer? How many steps? How far do they dance? PLEASE will someone do this?
Me (in Jo Siska’s ballet class on Wednesday): “OMG Jo! Look! Data!”
Inaccurate data. But that’s what this is, a test of how to get meaningful and accurate(-ish) data on what goes on when I’m dancing.
When I was living in Wedding, part of my training routine was morning cyclocross rides in the forest around Flughafen Tegel. Last year when I inherited an (old, 4s) iPhone and stuck Trails app on it, I started to see what the intangible feeling of each ride represented. A couple of things were missing though, one of which I finally prodded myself to buy this week – a Polar H7 heart rate sensor (yeah, I got the pink strap). The other is one of those crazy expenses I’m unlikely to throw euros at unless I have around four thousand of them spare for a new bike: a power meter.
Power meters tend to be the province of bike crank arms, pedals, or hubs and cost about double what normal people spend on a whole bike. And none of them are objects you can take into a dance studio. Slightly getting there is the rpm2 shoe insert power meter, still no good for dance though. Which leaves the very new Stryd – and very cheap, not much more than a Fitbit (which I’ll get to later), and about the same size as the H7 – a power meter for runners.
Before all that, Wednesday. In the studio with my heart sensor on and my iPhone beside the barre, cos it uses Bluetooth to sync. That’s several problems right there. First, doing ballet (or generally dance) training with an iPhone lodged somewhere is not so practical, which means a pedometer is going to count exactly zero steps. Second, Bluetooth is possessive, it likes quasi-line-of-sight and proximity. Bouncing around ten meters down the studio with heart monitor facing away from it is going to generate some highly improvised heart rate info. If, for the sake of science, I slip my iPhone into my trackie pocket, I’ll get pedometer info, but any GPS-based data capture (speed, distance, location) is comically useless, having an accuracy of greater than 4 meters. I was dumping my heart info into Trails, which is a fine app for cycling training, and much of the time it had my location not even in the same building, plus my altitude changed by 24 metres.
Thursday on my morning training ride around Tempelhoferfeld, I used both Trails and Polar’s Polar Beat. The data resolution of both is pretty good, Polar Beat is more fine-grained, and neither had a problem with my phone being in the back pocket of my jersey. I’ve been doing enough cycling with data recording to know what looks right.
Which leads me to Fitbit, cos my flatmate has one. It stores the data locally so no need for a live Bluetooth connection. It does heart rate, pedometer, a bunch of other useful garbage, makes pretty data, syncs to phone, laptop, or to fitbit.com, and looks like a dainty watch strap.
So, Friday, ballet again. This time with a Fitbit and my H7 going to Polar Beat.
I’m siding with Fitbit when they say their data accuracy decreases outside fairly limited activities: both heart monitor and step counter are dependant on arms not windmilling for acquisition of useful data. Perhaps it requires repeated use to find the best spot on my wrist, but compared to the H7, Fitbit reported my average heart rate at ~20bpm less – I stuck fingers to neck and what the H7 shows is a good match. As for steps – and ignoring the first 18 minutes or so where I have no idea who it thought I was – it gave around 250 for the entire 40 minutes of barre, and 2200 for the class; obviously not counting a pas de bourée as three steps.
The H7 doesn’t do step counting – unless you pair it with their walnut-sized Stride Sensor somehow affixed to your foot. Its heart data though is magical. You can see every exercise through the class mirrored in my increased heart rate, and check out the centre adage starting at 40 minutes, where the curve is almost identical for both times, and the arc through the entire class, building intensity in small stages at the barre until peaking through the centre into longer and longer periods of maximum effort, before révérance-ing out. I can also look at sections, so if I select just the centre, then my average heart rate goes up to 167 and only once drops below 120. Lots of good data you can do stuff with. (And I can even assign training to Ballet, with a fancy Olympic-looking arabesque!)
But what about power? Or other stuff? Stryd for the power (and heart rate), and RunScribe for everything else? Would they even handle dancing? RunScribe would be awesome for visualising the mechanics of dancing, g-force, velocity, ground contact time, pronation – if it could handle the foot chaos. And then what to do with all this information? If it’s all just for a bit of woohoo! then Fitbit and its social network gamification of sleeping is fine. But if it’s for the purpose of improving performance, technique, being more diligent in how you train, that’s a whole other thing.
Finally winter. -11º, night of snow, glorious cyclocross riding through it to ballet.
I’m gripping Louis XIV’s pole like I’m trying to strangle it. I’m not sure it’s Louis XIV’s. I’m not sure I even know what’s going on. It’s a length of wood. Hurhur. That we grip. Double hur. Not too tightly though. We let our fingers and hand glide back and forth along its length—Ok, So we’re just done with “phrasing,” right?
We use the barre to: keep our balance for, while we work our legs for, as we warm up through various exercises to prepare us for … something something. I don’t think we know why we’re using it, except out of habit. We use it because we’ve always used it, because ballet uses it, because it’s the ballet barre part of a ballet class, because it’s ballet. So we grip it and strangle it and caress it and our eyes glaze over whenever we get near the question of why we use it because that original answer is lost.
I think it’s in lieu, of a hand, of another’s hand, of another person. It’s in lieu of our partner, with whom we dance. But we no longer dance with a hand and arm and partner who moves and dances with us; we hold onto a fixed wooden pole. I’m only presuming this because I thought the question of when the barre was codified was a straightforward one, but what I found was a complete absence. Nothing in Louis XIV’s time. An early mention seems most of a century later with Gennaro Magri in the late-1700s, or Carlo Blasis or Giovanni-Léopold Adice in the early-1800s, where a chair was used for support, subsequently to be replaced by our barre.
Whatever, the barre serves another purpose now, for another kind of ballet.
Michel Serres in Genesis talks about ballet, the barre, the body thinking—one of the only philosophers to seriously and genuinely engage with dance. I may disagree with him and others now somewhat in that I do not think that ballet is unnatural, a torture. It is a poor habit to regard that which oneself is not capable of, which one does not understand, as monstrous. On the other hand, he writes that the dancer is the possible: “Dance is to the body proper what exercise of thought is to the subject known as I.” I would go further, and say there is no subject which thinks, outside of the body. Thinking is the domain of the body and dancing is as much thinking as thoughts which form themselves in words around a thing we think of as I.
What thoughts come when a body exercises while gripping a barre?
I had one teacher who encouraged us to hang onto the barre, use it because it’s there. This in lascivious opposition to the statements of the majority that the hand must lie delicately on the upper surface, thumb next to index finger, and not wrapped around, to slip forwards and backwards with each change of weight. I’m sure I’ve done both, and I’m not sure there’s fundamentally much of a difference. The illusion of choice, to use or not use the barre, is just that. We use it, have used it, before we even recognise we need it. At this speed, our body preempts our thinking, and the fine detail of caring for balance within a body is overthrown by the hand always getting there first. Using the barre depends on an artificiality that has nothing to do with a body standing on one or two feet.
Early last week I’d been watching Ballet Company Reality TV. Horribly awful and impossible to look away. I’d followed that with one of the most frustrating classes in a long time, and as usual when frustration and desperation meet, crazy, wild, revolutionary things happen: I took my hand off the barre. Faaark. Radical shit right there.
Seriously. I felt like a menace to society.
I’ve done it before too, recidivist that I am. When I first started dancing I experimented with it as a fast-track, quick-fix. It’s neither. And occasionally teachers mention in passing the benefits of not using the barre. Though not in a serious way, not in a, “Let’s fuck shit up right now! Take your hands off, youse!” More of a proposition no one was actually expected to commit to. Or if they do, then the barre itself, the class is changed, it’s a special “Barre without the barre” barre, and not simply doing the barre without holding onto it. If you get what I mean.
So I let go of the barre, what happened? Craaaazy shit! One of my life-long bad habits is holding superhero levels of tension in my shoulders. And I’ve had years of “Shoulders down, Frances!” blahdiblah only to work out it’s not the shoulders which are up, but my head which is down, retracted all turtle-like. Yanking on the barre only exacerbates this. The amount of tension you can put into your shoulders is only limited by how securely the barre is bolted down. You have two of the most opposite ends of your body, a hand and a foot holding on and wedge in for dear life while you wave the rest of your body around in the mad panic called ballet, and hell yes will your shoulder and neck do the job of battening the hatches.
And then you get into the centre, the bit of the class without the barre and first thing expected of your body is to do dead slow shit on one leg. Shoulder and neck are all, “We live for this shit!” But they don’t. Cos there’s nothing for them to hold on to. You’ve spent 45 minutes diligently training yourself out of your body, out of coordination, out of balance and all the rest, and now you’re gonna turn it all on? Nope. A whole body’s worth of uselessness, and simply “not doing” that isn’t going to magically transport you into the necessary physical state. And what kind of caricature is all roid-raged in their neck and shoulders? The scary, uptight type. It’s a two-way street. Just as much as stress builds up in this location, so does tension there set off all kinds of emotional and mental bollocks. It’s exhausting stuff.
Last night I watched the Royal Ballet taking company class, and the barre was mentioned, as a device that enables the dancers to concentrate on the accuracy of their feet and legwork. They’re all fucking amazing so probably all isn’t really applicable to dancing at that level, but it occurred to me that the barre exercises in themselves—and not the aid of the barre—prepare that physical accuracy, the balance, control, coordination, strength, mental and emotional states, so when you get to the centre you’ve already done the basic work and you’ve already been dancing for 45 minutes with yourself, so things like that first adagio make sense as a coherent, logical progression, and not a bizarre leap from one physiological state to another.
This is just my experience of not using the barre: I have to rely on myself, through the pliés, tendus, all those little steps, my body has to discover how it balances and stands, where to hold and where to release, how my weight shifts forward and back, side to side, where my ribs are, how my spine assembles and rights itself. Without the noise of tension in shoulders and neck that comes from the deceptive security of holding onto something, there’s far more to hear within. My body sways far more, probably excessively right now as it adapts to this new regime, seems to work harder, or have more demanded of it, yet remains calmer and recovers from exertion quicker. Ballet forms itself more easily from this state, things like turnout result from this, or are more understandable within the physical logic of the system, rather than being something we—or I—do. Movement that often thwarts me in the centre comes together, patchily for sure at the moment, but inevitably also. Speed is sometimes not possible; at other times almost too easy. Things, by which I mean chronic injuries I’m still getting over, nag less, I think because the barre aids in going too far in movement, and not far enough in maintaining balance, causing overloading or counterbalance compensation stress and tension. It becomes a constant, personal experience of balance and movement. Tough also, definitely the toughest thing I’m doing right now, harder than climbing and cyclocross. Sort of a meditation, maybe because without the barre ballet is easier for me to see as a mental discipline.
An addendum: All this is part of a question of why do I keep dancing, for which I think the only real answer is: because I love it. It’s a question for which that answer is insufficient, particularly while getting older. It’s tied up in that word, ‘keep.’ Keep dancing. Keep doing ballet, when most professional ballet dancers have retired by my age and most professional dancers don’t really commit to the regularity and discipline of class either. Keep putting myself into a physiological state far from the everyday. Why? For what? Again an insufficient answer: for the thing itself. For whatever other reason, I continue doing ballet because it’s not finished with me yet.