Ballet in Japan

Throwback Thursday: Originally written in June 2014

Konnichiwa,” I say loudly as I open the door. A round of “Konnichiwa”s greet me in return. It’s 5:45 pm and I’m just arriving at the dance studio for my weekly ballet class. I walk to the change room, cheerfully saying “Konnichiwa” to everyone I pass along the way. (In Japan, aisatsu, or greetings, are very important – more important than they ever were back in Canada!) I enter the tiny change room and get ready for class. I double check that I remembered to bring my hand towel – I’ll hang it on the barre next to me so I can use it to wipe my sweat away mid-class, like all the other ladies do.

I finish getting ready and leave the change room. There are five other ladies warming up in the studio. It’s completely silent except for the “Konnichiwa”s to greet newly arriving students and “Sayonara”s to say goodbye to students who are finished and going home. Our teacher stands to the side, marking through different patterns and exercises. I start to warm up, too.

Hai, hajimemashou,” our teacher says. Let’s begin! It’s exactly 6:00 pm. We all stand up to curtsey. We finish with a bow and a chorus of “onegaishimasu” (which, in this context, I understand to mean “please teach us and take care of us”).

Saisho wa plié,” our teacher says. I think that’s probably the weirdest and coolest thing about taking ballet class in Japan – the mixture of French and Japanese (and even English) that it’s taught in!

We move to our set spots at the barre. Our teacher presses play on the CD player and shows us the plié exercise right away. We silently follow along as best as we can. She dances it through in its entirety on one side, then presses stop on the CD player. She confirms the pattern once more and tells us what we need to remember and what we need look out for. “Niban kara, demi plié, futatsu. Sore kara grand plié o hitotsu. Kokansetsu kara… Barre no hou e, yoku nobite!” Starting in second position, two demi pliés. Then one grand plié. Turn out from your hips… Side stretch towards the barre, stretch it well! I realize that I’m becoming more and more familiar with the vocabulary with every class.

Hai, yatte mimashou!” Let’s give it a try! At first, seeing the pattern only twice before dancing it was hard for me, but I am much better at remembering quickly now. I do my best in the plié exercise, already starting to sweat in the warm June heat.

“Good! Hantai, douzo.” Other side!

The barre lasts 45 minutes. We do tendus, dégagés, ronde de jambs, frappés, fondus, a pirouette preparation exercise, and finish with grand battements. It’s comforting knowing that the core of ballet is the same across the world; even though the different heads and the arms sometimes feel strange to my Cecchetti-trained body, the barre overall reminds me of taking class back home. And, just like back home, I’m really sweating now, so I drink my water and wipe my face with my towel.

We have three minutes to stretch. Our teacher plays a song in the background as we work out our various kinks. I always have trouble with my hips, so I spend a lot of the stretch time on them today. No one is talking. I don’t know if it’s just my class or if it’s the ballet etiquette in Japan, but it’s very different from what I’m used to back home!

The song finishes and we all stand up in a straight line in the center. This time, our teacher goes through the exercise slowly first. We start with a port de bras. I know the French vocabulary, but sometimes the Japanese accent confuses me – I thought for ages that my teacher was saying “ao” (Japanese for “blue”) when she was really saying “en haut.” Our teacher presses play and we mark the pattern with the music. She nods her approval. “OK, ni group. Saisho wa first group. Tsugi wa second group.” We spread out into our two lines. I stand in the second line, so I will dance with the second group.

We don’t spend a lot of time on the slow centre work; before I know it, we move to the corner and start travelling pirouettes. I like turning, so this is always one of my favourite parts of the class! Our teacher gives us many compliments – “Jouzu!” “Good!” “Kirei!” – but we mess up the left side and she makes us do it again.

With only ten minutes left of the class, we start a travelling jumping and leaping combination from the corner. The style is very different from Cecchetti. I can’t remember the last time I did a “proper” warm-up jump in the center, or the last time I did a beat! My body is tired and I can’t jump as high as I want to, but I keep fighting. My teacher watches my group and she says, “Christina, good!” I smile to myself and keep dancing.

We are all tired now. It’s 7:28pm. “Yoku ganbarimashita! Owarimashou,” our teacher says. You did a good job! Let’s finish. We spread out in our two lines in the centre. Our teacher presses play and watches as we do the set reverence. I finally have the reverence memorized so I don’t have to copy the other dancers anymore! I let myself breathe through the steps. It’s relaxing for me.

We finish the reverence and our teacher moves to the front of the room. We curtsey again in the same way we started the class, except this time when we bow, we answer our teacher’s “otsukaresamadeshita” (You worked hard today) with “arigatou gozaimashita” (Thank you). Class is over!

I gather my towel and water bottle and walk to the change room. Some of the ladies will stay to do a second class, so the change room isn’t too crowded. I like to talk with my classmates in Japanese as we change. Today, we talk about how different the weather is in Canada versus Japan. It’s already too hot for me here! I’m not used to 28 degree temperatures in June. They are surprised that my hometown is still so cold!

I don’t stay long. The next class is starting and I’m hungry for my supper! I say “otsukaresamadeshita” to my classmates and leave the change room. I pause at the door to bow and say, “Arigatou gozaimashita! Sayonara,” to my teacher and classmates. They reply with “Sayonara!” I close the door behind me and walk to my car. After eight months, I’m really getting the hang of ballet class in Japan!

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