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Test 1 / 25

Good preparation leads to success in ballet dancing

A former classical ballet dancer explains what ballet training actually involves.

What we ballet dancers do is instinctive, but instinct learnt through a decade of training. A dancer’s life is hard to understand, and easy to misinterpret. Many a poet and novelist has tried to do so, but even they have chosen to interpret all the hard work and physical discipline as obsessive. And so the idea persists that dancers spend every waking hour in pain, bodies at breaking point, their smiles a pretence.

As a former dancer in the Royal Ballet Company here in Britain, I would beg to question this. SelectWith expert teaching and daily practice, its various demands are easily within the capacity of the healthy human body. Contrary to popular belief, there is no need to break bones or tear muscles to achieve ballet positions. It is simply a question of sufficient conditioning of the muscular system.

Over the course of my dancing life I worked my way through at least 10,000 ballet classes. I took my first at a school of dance at the age of seven and my last 36 years later at the Royal Opera House in London. In the years between, ballet class was the first thing I did every day. It starts at an early age, this daily ritual, because it has to. Select But for a ballet dancer in particular, this lengthy period has to come before the effects of adolescence set in, while maximum flexibility can still be achieved.

Those first classes I took were remarkably similar to the last. In fact, taking into account the occasional new idea, ballet classes have changed little since 1820, when the details of ballet technique were first written down, and are easily recognised in any country. Starting with the left hand on the barre, the routine unrolls over some 75 minutes. SelectEven the leading dancers have to do it.

These classes serve two distinct purposes: they are the way we warm our bodies and the mechanism by which we improve basic technique. In class after class, we prove the old saying that ‘practice makes perfect’. SelectAnd it is also this daily repetition which enables us to strengthen the muscles required in jumping, spinning or lifting our legs to angles impossible to the average person.

The human body is designed to adapt to the demands we make of it, provided we make them carefully and over time. Select In the same way, all those years of classes add up to a fit-for-purpose dancing machine. This level of physical fluency doesn’t hurt; it feels good.

Select But they should not be misled: there is a difference between hard work and hardship. Dancers have an everyday familiarity with the first. Hardship it isn’t.

Through endless tries at the usual exercises and frequent failures, ballet dancers develop the neural pathways in the brain necessary to control accurate, fast and smooth movement.The ballet shoe offers some support, but the real strength is in the muscles, built up through training.As technology takes away activity from the lives of many, perhaps the ballet dancer’s physicality is ever more difficult for most people to imagine.Ballet technique is certainly extreme but it is not, in itself, dangerous.The principle is identical in the gym – pushing yourself to the limit, but not beyond, will eventually bring the desired result.No one avoids this: it is ballet’s great democratiser, the well established members of the company working alongside the newest recruits.It takes at least a decade of high-quality, regular practice to become an expert in any physical discipline.
Test 2 / 25

Cooking for friends

Choosing the degree I should study for at university was quite difficult for me as there were two careers that I found equally attractive: the law and catering. After much soul searching, I realised that whilst I could be a lawyer during the day and then enjoy cookery as a form of relaxation, the reverse was not true. Thus, I opted for a law degree and made food and wine my number one hobby.

I have never regretted this decision. Working as a lawyer provided a good living and allowed me enough spare time to indulge myself by enjoying some very fine food and wines at many superb restaurants. Select A life in catering would have meant that I would always have been working when my friends were playing and vice versa. The hours that have to be worked by chefs are quite ridiculous. They have to arrive at their restaurant by mid-morning, at the latest, to prepare for lunch. They work all afternoon dealing with the business side of their establishment and developing new recipes. Then, they must prepare for evening service probably crawling into bed in the small hours of the next morning feeling absolutely shattered!

Select

Sharing my love of fine food and wines with good friends in the relaxed atmosphere of my home has more than compensated for not owning a restaurant. Select Being a professional chef probably would have meant that, by now, I would be sick of the sight of food, much as I am completely turned off by the merest mention of anything to do with the law!

Planning a meal for people I love is a great pleasure. I have a vast collection of cookery books and I am an avid fan of many a TV chef. The problem I have, therefore, is choosing what to cook from so many different possibilities. How do I choose? Well, that depends very much on the friends. A starting point has to be catering for their own likes and dislikes and trying to avoid serving them the same dishes as last time they visited. Select I don’t claim to be anything other than an enthusiastic amateur but quite a few friends appear to be daunted by the prospect of cooking for me. They seem to think that some of the food I produce is better than they can do and, not wanting to appear to be a show-off or to overwhelm them, I sometimes hold back and cook something simpler than the more adventurous fare I might really have wanted to try.

The friends I like cooking for most of all are those who share the love of food and wine as much as I do and who are quite happy to reciprocate, in grand style, when I pay them a return visit. Select

Generally, my cooking has become less complex and pretentious over the years and, although I use recipe books and TV chefs as inspiration, I tend to find that the best way of deciding what to cook is to see what is available when I do the shopping. Years ago, I would have retired early to bed with a great heap of books around me, ploughing through them trying to find recipes that would be seasonal, suitable and impressive only to find that, when I visited the shops, many of the ingredients I needed were either unavailable or not very good.

Nowadays, I tend to do the reverse: what I cook is controlled by what I have been able to buy. Select I might have had one or two vague ideas but, more often than not, I am scrabbling through pages of recipes trying to find something new to do with some scallops, a leg of lamb and a punnet of raspberries. I nearly always buy some creme fraiche, a bunch of coriander and some seasonal vegetables. My store cupboard is pretty good and I can usually find all the spices I need, together with onions, garlic, chillies and boring stuff like flour, butter and so on.

At the end of a meal there is nothing better than settling down with a strong espresso and a dish of the very best chocolates. The very best of friends can normally provide entertaining conversation but, to me, the finest compliment I can be paid is that they aren’t afraid of gently nodding off. It shows that they feel satisfied, relaxed and happy as a result of my efforts!

 

How do you fit a decent social life into that sort of existence?The choices I make depend not only on the wines that might best complement the food but also upon the preferences of my guests.However, it was the luxury of having the time to cook for friends at home that underlined the good sense of the decision I had made.Another factor is their attitude to their own cooking skills.It is one of the great joys of my life and cooking has remained fun.This means that, very often, I don’t know what I am giving my friends until a few hours before they arrive.For these friends, I like to pull out all the stops!