Friday, 18 October 2013

Playing with Triplets

I've been doing a bit of choreography recently - nothing unusual there, as I usually have several on the go or under revision (lots of choreography UFOs!). I switch between them as the mood takes me.  As I found myself adding triple steps to one, I looked back at a couple of recently completed pieces and I started to wonder: Do I use triple steps too often? Do any of my choreographies not have a triple step somewhere? (Answer: Probably not.) Anyway, why not use them when they are so simple and flexible?

All this set me thinking about triple steps, or triplets as they're often called. Triple step/triplet is a general term for any dance move which involves three steps, alternating the feet. Left right left, right left right. As usual, when I say step, I mean transfer your weight onto that foot. It's simple and pretty much universal. Examples are everywhere: the 'step-ball-change' used in jazz, modern and tap; ballroom dances such as the waltz and cha-cha-cha; the bouncy pas de basque used in ballet and many European folk dances; and ballet's chassé and pas de bourrée.

Triplets are also a basic step in contemporary dance and classes often include an exercise travelling across the floor, exploring the permutations of direction and placement of steps, switching between a flat foot, with or without a bent knee, and the ball of the foot, creating moments of hesitation or suspension; done in place, travelling, changing direction, turning. I used to get lost trying to work out all of the permutations for contemporary triplets and ballet pas de bourrée variations.

In belly dance, triple steps are used as one of the basic travelling steps and are very useful for travelling or changing the leading foot. With triple steps you can fly around, float, tip-toe in place, switch directions, weave to and fro, layer hip accents and shimmies and have endless fun playing around.  Here are some of my favourites:
  • Fly around the space with a 2/4 Malfuf rhythm. Stepping in time with the drum rhythm: Doum-tak-tak, flatfoot-toes-toes.
  • Float around with a 3/4 'Waltz' time, as if you are waltzing.  Pretty and effective with a veil.
  • With 4/4 rhythms, beat 4 can be used to add fluid or accented move, pivot turn, arm/hand gesture, whatever. You can repeat the same triplet on the other side, but use a different accent, or use the 'power of three' and do the same triplet and accent three times, then a completely different triplet and accent (or something completely different) for the fourth bar of four beats. You can travel and create pathways through the space, or stay almost on the spot.  If you want to be on balance for an accent or gesture movement on beat four, be careful not to take a large third step.
Here's a selection of triplets to play with:

Triple step A regular step with alternating feet, often done on the toes and stepping forward, together, in place, with the fourth beat used to swing the leg forward to take the next step. You can chant 'Tri-Ple-Step-And-Tri-Ple-Step-And' as you do it. You can travel backwards with them too, and add hip accents such as lifts/taqs, drops/chonks or twists. Another variation is effectively one and a half rocking steps - forward-back-forward, which can be done travelling forward or to the side, and layered with an undulation/camel so that you are doing two camels leading with one foot, then two with the other.

Side Together Side (faster and with a little jump after the first step, this becomes a chassé). Instead of stepping together (i.e. the second step to bring the foot to rest alongside the other foot), you could step across in front or behind.

Half grapevine/Opening the Gate/Link or Horse-shoe Step Finding a name which everyone agrees on is the most difficult thing about this step! Usually travels side to side with the lower body turning to face the diagonals. You step (alternating feet) across in front, to the side, then behind.

Back-Back-Forward Step back, second step to join the first, then forward again, toes-toes-flat.

Forward-Forward-Back Step forward, second step to join the first, then back again, toes, toes, flat. The tribal style 'double back' move is this triplet with a double hip drop accent at the end, the first drop happening as you step back.

3-Step Turn Is also a triple step and can be done travelling to cover space, or on the spot, sideways, forwards; in any direction you like really, but the trick is to take your first step and look in the direction of travel, and use some turn-out from the hip. Even if you are travelling, there's no need to take huge steps - keeping your feet 'under you' can help with balance.

Arabesque Unlike the ballet pose, standing on one leg with the other extended behind, in Middle Eastern Dance this usually refers to a pattern of steps with a quarter or half pivot turn. E.g. step across front, side, front and a pivot turn, in which the working leg may be extended behind, or just lifted from the knee (or other variations).  Can be done all on the toes, or flat-flat-toes. Be careful not to try to swing the lifted leg round to do the pivot turn.  The leg and foot should stay in place during the turn and then the foot comes down and through to step again. Turning the raised leg out slightly from the hip and pointing the toe creates a more graceful line.

So here's a little something to stimulate your creativity; a spot of homework, if you like. Over 8 bars of 4/4 rhythm, create a 32 beat sequence which uses all of these triplets, including two variations of the triple step. That's 8 counts of 4, 8 triplets with any move you like on count 4.

Want more?  You could double the length by adding some sort of static move in between each triplet, or repeating each triplet on the other side.

Go ahead! Experiment!  I know you'll create some lovely dance and you can show me the next time I see you!

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Finding a Balance

My consultant's appointment eight weeks post-op revealed how stiff my toe is still, despite my efforts with my foot physio exercises.  As I posted before, I wasn't sure whether I was doing the right thing, and the consultant agreed that I should have some time with a physiotherapist on an urgent basis. After nearly two weeks and several phone calls to chase up my referral, and then chase up the lack of appointment letter, I had my first session last week and my second session yesterday.  It was good, but hard work and painful at times. Before physio, I had no pain when I was just sitting doing nothing.  I was in so much pain by the time I got home after the first session that I took some painkillers, sat on the sofa with a drink and woke up a couple of hours later covered in cats.  There's a very fine balance between doing enough exercise for osteoarthritis and too much, and it's impossible to know where the line is on any given day. The following morning, I felt as though I'd been hit by a truck.  My knees ached, and the scar along my toe had gone from being a healthy, pearly flesh colour to being a dark pinky-purple slash, with a lumpy, shiny pink zig-zag running up it where the internal stitches are and a suffusion of darker greyish purple under the skin on either side.

It turns out that the exercises I have been doing are all good, but don't work the toe and foot hard enough. Also, it might still be early days, and it could be that the lump of bone which looked as though it was limiting the movement wasn't the only limiting factor.

The massage needs to include pulling the toe out to increase the joint space, and gently working it up and down. It feels good when the physio does it and I can't quite reproduce that for myself, probably because it's my foot, so I hold it at a different angle. I was already massaging the tendons involved in moving the big toe, but I should work a bit more where I can feel the stretch and tension when I try to move my toe.  Trying to bend and straighten, lift and lower the toe against resistance is really hard and painful, but it's only for a few repeats.  And I should hold a stretch against something solid (for which I use the end of the bath - the hot water makes it so much easier!).  This seems to be effective in a very small, slow way. I'm still trying to get back the small degree of flexibility I had before the operation, so every millimetre counts!

The real trick with all of this is to find exercises and work to a level which does not cause or increase symptoms of, in my case, pain, stiffness and inflammation, and it is particularly difficult when other joints are also a problem. I also notice that in physio, we only work the 'problem' side, but exercises should be done on both sides to keep the body balanced.

I was given a resistance band to do some leg exercises.  One end is anchored around the leg of a table, the other end has a loop in which I put my 'bad foot' ankle. Standing with my feet together so that the band is taut, I then do sets of 10 repetitions moving the leg out and back in a cross shape forwards, out to the side, across to the other side and backwards.  The resistance strengthens the working side, but also pulls on the supporting side which has to work to balance and to counteract the resistance pull of the working side. It's quite a stiff band, and the table starts to move across the tiled floor.  It is an easy exercise, but I found it really tough on my bad knees and almost immediately, my right knee went into flare. My left knee is better than it was after the flare which started in June, but still not great, so now neither knee supports my weight properly.  It's times like this when I start to become sleepless, partly through pain, and partly through worry that my dancing days will soon be over. But I'm not going to give up without a fight, so if three reps every third day is all I can manage to start with, that's what I'll do. 

The second physiotherapy appointment allowed me to have some fun (and muscles going for the burn) with wobble boards and a rebounder/trampoline (just bouncing a little stretches the toe joints), since I don't have those bits of kit at home. After that, both my knees were truly in flare.  

As physio is not supposed to cause or worsen symptoms, it was decided to switch to hydrotherapy. I had my first appointment yesterday.  The lovely warm pool was very much more gentle on the knees and I had a pinging sensation in my toe (in a good way) when I was doing a gentle jog up and down in the water. Even though I felt good afterwards, by the time I had done a small shop around the supermarket, my knees were agony and I was wiped out for the rest of the day. Just pass me the painkillers. Next week I have a hydrotherapy appointment first thing, then a drive and a somatic movement workshop.  I might be being a bit too ambitious, but I really need to be able to stand, walk and dance again.

The other exercises mainly involve balance challenges, which, I've discovered, are an important component of rehabilitation following lower limb injury or surgery.  They make the feet work harder, but also involve working the whole leg and the core muscles quite intensively. I'm finding them very difficult because of the pain and weakness in my knees. My balance has deteriorated noticeably over recent years. I've decided that I need to do more, and add more balance challenge exercises into my classes. This made me look back on my notes about balance and do some more reading, which will be the subject of another post at some point.

I have a kind of love-hate relationship with these exercises, in that they are useful and effective, but I find them difficult and don't really enjoy them.  In theory, the starting point is 5 minutes, building to 15 minutes, but like the 10 reps starting point, I would start lower.  If you want to do these too, set up a space where you won't hurt yourself or damage anything else if you fall over, although the idea is that you don't let yourself fall - have a chair or stand near a kitchen worktop which you can use for support. Or heap cushions and pillows around you so that if you do crash land, at least it's soft!

Standing on one leg
It sounds simple, doesn't it?  Part of the trick is to start the balance by checking/correcting your posture, then transferring your weight to your supporting leg.  To start with, lift your working foot only a little way from the floor, and lift your arms to the side to help your balance.

As you get better, you can make this more of a challenge by:
  • Closing your eyes.
  • Lifting and lowering your arms.
  • Passing a small ball around your body.
  • Lifting one leg and passing the ball under your thigh.
  • Bending and straightening the supporting knee.
  • Moving the working leg to the front, side, back (away from the centre line of the body).
  • Standing on a cushion or something spongy.
  • Rising onto the toes of the working foot.
Any exercise done on one leg involves some degree of balance challenge, but sometimes it's good to play with being deliberately off-balance, extending and moving legs and arms around while tightening the core muscles and trying to find counter-balances.  It doesn't matter if it looks ungainly, you are working hard!  I used to do this in contemporary class and was reminded of it in a workshop by Galit Mersand at Fantasia last December.

I don't think I've ever truly appreciated ballet barre exercises until now.  The barre is just there as a light assistance to balance.  The exercises work the legs and feet intensively. I use the kitchen worktop as a barre, and do just a few demi pliés and battements various, an odd stretch and feeble rise here and there. Just a few, until my knees start complaining that they would be so much more comfortable were I to lie down. I can currently cope with about five minutes.  Still, it's better than nothing and good to start low and build gradually, however depressing it may be that I feel so utterly and pathetically puny. This month is going to be physically tough!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Tie Stash Milestone

Soon after my previous post in which I mentioned progress with my stash of ties, I popped into a favourite charity shop and came away with more.  I couldn't resist it.  I look at the colours, textures and patterns  rather than the fabric type. Most of them were silk, including another Liberty print. I wondered whether someone well-off had recently decluttered their wardrobe. As I added the details to my stock inventory, I saw that it took the total to 150.  That's right, I had just purchased my 150th tie. Not only that, but it is an Ermenegildo Zegna.  Recognising it as a 'designer' tie, I looked it up.  The cheapest I could find for sale was over £50, as they tend to be in quite a heavy silk.  This one is black with diagonals of different textures, beige lines and white dots.  I had to go an have a lie down to boggle at the fact that I had reached 150 ties, and ponder whether it might be better to sell the EZ to someone who will give it a good home (considering that I do not have a significant other to give it to) rather than use it.  I'm still thinking about it.

I felt pleased that I had started processing them with a view to making some articles which will hopefully sell and allow me to feel that I'm not just an obsessive hoarder. I noticed when I was going through them that I had several which had no labels showing their fabric type.  I settled down the other evening to unpick them and take fibres or a small snippet of fabric to burn test.  Of them all, only two looked like silk.  The rest, including one which had a brand label 'La Seta Italiana' (meaning Italian Silk) formed the shiny black beads which indicated synthetic fibres.

Since then, I have unpicked and washed all of my synthetic fabric ties (just over half the total).  If I thought the interlinings were dirty, the tippings and tie fabrics themselves were even dirtier. There are some stains which will not come out, including a yellow mark from the degraded glue on a sticky price label from an pink tie which looked as though it had been left in the shop window too long.  In between hand-washing batches of them, I had a little Google for items made with recycled ties.  There were a few tutorials for making things such as rolled and folded roses or pouches for phones or iPods.  I'd already played with making a rose from a whole tie and decided that it was too bulky with the interlining. Most of the ideas seemed to involve using the ties just as they were.  Having seen the colour of the water as I was washing them, all I have to say to that is, Eeew, yuk!  There is only one tie in my set where I could see that someone had tried to clean it - and the scrubbing had pulled threads and created a fuzzy, frayed patch right on the main part of the tie.  Judging by the smell of socks and old after-shave, most of the ties came straight from cupboard to shop.  Now the idea of using a second hand tie without taking it apart and washing it is unthinkable.

It is certainly not the easy or cost-effective option. By the time that I have unpicked, separated, washed, dried, pressed, selected for use, fussy-cut and finally created the article, I cannot charge enough to repay fully the time spent doing all this, as well as the time spent visiting the shops in the first place.  No wonder many craft-makers prefer new materials, but I like the idea of recycling these fabrics into something new or different. There's the thing with arts and crafts.  The time spent by the artist in learning their craft, acquiring tools and techniques, researching, designing, experimenting, failing, practising and creating is never truly paid for by the buyer.  Whether it's a performer, writer or creative artist working with any medium you can think of, they are working at least partly for love.  It is said that money can't buy love, but it seems to me that if you watch a performance or buy something handmade, not mass produced and possibly one of a kind, then perhaps you are buying some of the love that the artist put into their creation.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Freshest Bread ...

... is one you make yourself.  I love bread and am very grateful that I can tolerate gluten, unlike some of my friends.  I had a craving, yearning for that warm, yeasty smell again recently and making my own bread was the only solution.

When I first moved to Wales, I made bread pretty much every couple of days and worked out my own recipe of a combination of flours, oil rather than lard or butter, dried yeast and lukewarm water.  We had a Rayburn and the solid state oven baked the bread beautifully - all I had to do was adjust the length of cooking time, depending on how hot the Rayburn happened to be at the time.  I sat the dough on the plate rack above the Rayburn to prove.  More than once, I left it too long and it started to escape the pans, but in general, I thought it was pretty good.

When I moved into the cottage, I had already given up making bread regularly due to adverse comments and the lack of time while working; besides which, the old gas oven was just not up to it.  It would have been a perfect time to get a bread-maker, but I didn't have the counter or cupboard space for one.  Then the old gas cooker packed up and had to be replaced.  I've had my lovely new oven (and no-one to criticise me!) for over a year, so I thought, why not?

I've forgotten so much - one of those 'use it or lose it' things.  I've made focaccia a couple of times and forgotten to cover dough on its second rise, to keep the crust soft.  I couldn't find my previous recipe, so used a different one, with different brands of flour and yeast, and was not very impressed with the results.

On Sunday, I found that I had forgotten to buy bread and didn't have any left in the freezer. I was yearning for fresh bread, so I decided to make a white loaf, shaped like a cottage loaf as I have lost my bread pans.  I used a new recipe and found the amount of water, albeit only 68% hydration, resulted in an enormously slack dough. Not just slack - really wet and sticky, somewhere between dough and batter.  Knocking it back was a nightmare which gave me flashbacks to my earliest attempts at bread making in my teens, where I would have dough stuck up to my elbows, in my hair, on my face and on every surface, except where it was supposed to be.  Eventually I gave up trying to knock it back and just let it slump into the oiled pan I was going to use, covered it with oiled film and let it think about rising again.  It didn't do much, so perhaps I left it too long on its first rise.  Wondering what it would turn out like, I threw it in the oven and remembered this time to take five minutes off the cooking time (I burnt the last focaccia).

The resulting bread was lovely, quite dense and with a beautiful crumb.  I don't aspire to be an artisan baker, but I think I'll be doing more bread making from now on.