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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Steve Penhollow works out with other Fort Wayne Smallest Winner contestants and the Fort Wayne Ballet at the Auer Center for Arts & Culture.

Grace elusive even with ballet

When I and my fellow contestants in the Fort Wayne’s Smallest Winner program showed up at the Fort Wayne Ballet’s studios June 2, we had been through months of intense physical training and had months more to look forward to.

But the nagging question that was keeping us all awake at night was, “Sure I’m in the best shape of my life. But am I graceful?”

Maybe I was the only one who was asking himself that.

Before I was chosen for the fifth season of Fort Wayne’s Smallest Winner, an intense 15-week fitness and nutrition program, I thought of myself as a fairly coordinated guy.

Even though I had managed to spill every cup of hot coffee that has ever been poured for me (I recently earned my 40-gallon pin from The Institute for the Study of Public Embarrassment), I believed my essential nature to be that of a pretty suave dude.

Then I joined Fort Wayne’s Smallest Winner and immediately started to have real trouble during aerobics routines coordinating seemingly simple bodily motions, like making my left arm go in a different direction from my right foot and vice versa.

It was as if each of my limbs was tied to a chicken with its head cut off.

I started envying more elegant creatures in nature, like newborn fawns wearing orthopedic shoes.

Thankfully, no one asked me to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Watching me do this stuff is a lot less painful for the spectator now than it was nine weeks ago, but I was still in sore need of gracefulness training when I strolled (OK, stumbled) through the front door of the Fort Wayne Ballet.

The ballet had chivalrously offered to give the current Fort Wayne’s Smallest Winner squad a free workout.

A lot of people in the program weren’t sure what to expect.

I have been writing about the ballet for 16 years and I didn’t know what to expect.

My fellow teammate Ryan Reuille arrived wearing a spoofish tutu, which proved to be a big hit with everybody.

I predict that it will be equally well-received at his company picnic.

When most blue collar blokes and bloke-ettes think of ballet, they probably imagine frilly dresses, swan-like poses and exceptional flouncing.

But if you’ve watched a dancer in a lead role try to make it all look so easy onstage (it’s not) for three hours, you know you’ve seen a triathlete at the top of his or her form.

The triathletes who agreed to conduct our class were the ballet’s longtime principal dancers, Lucia Rogers and David Ingram.

Rogers plays most of the major female roles in ballet productions every year, and Ingram, who returned to the Fort Wayne Ballet from the North Carolina Dance Theatre last August, is the mad genius behind the annual “Fort Wayne Ballet, Too” performances that tend to happen in such unlikely places as public fountains and parking garages.

Rogers and Ingram taught us the five basic (foot) positions, the last of which requires someone to arrange his or her feet so that the heel of one is parallel with the toes of the other.

Amateurs should not try this at home, unless – of course – their ankles have been replaced by swivel caster wheels.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you, all you people whose ankles are more like reclining patio chairs.

The subsequent workout gave us many opportunities to attempt gracefulness, but these did not belie the workout’s overall intensity and strenuousness.

There is nothing rarefied or frou-frou about exercises to improve strength, balance, flexibility and endurance.

In Fort Wayne’s Smallest Winner, we do planks, which are basically stationary pushups without the pushing.

There’s a twist to the ballet’s version of this exercise, however, and that twist is two twists, one to each side. As twists go, it is pretty twisted (in the best sense).

I promise to stop typing the word twist now.

We were asked at various points to pretend we were a slice of bread being lowered into a toaster, a man wearing a suit of armor or a woman wearing a string of pearls.

I went the extra mile and imagined I was a man wearing a suit of armor and a string of pearls.

All of these visualizations were intended to help us maintain the correct positions, which is essential to getting the maximum results from exercise with the fewest injuries.

Near the end of the workout, we were asked to do a series of shuffle steps across the studio floor with a jump in between each.

As I did these, I imagined that I was the soul of grace and charm.

Then I caught my reflection in a window.

I looked like a mother robin pretending to have a broken wing as a way of diverting attention from my nest.

As of last Monday, the contestants in the fifth season of Fort Wayne’s Smallest Winner were on the verge of having lost a collective 1,000 pounds in a span of just nine weeks.

The seemingly impossible has become probable.

Could gracefulness also be within reach?

If so, you can bet I’ll spill some coffee while grabbing for it.

Steve Penhollow is an arts and entertainment writer for The Journal Gazette. His column appears Sundays. He appears Fridays on WPTA-TV, Channel 21, WISE-TV, Channel 33, and WBYR, 98.9 FM to talk about area happenings. Email him at A Facebook page for “Rants & Raves” can be accessed at