Read an Excerpt
When Anna Pavlova was a young dancer in Russia, she faced stiff competition from a bevy of imported hotshot Italian ballerinas. With their tricked-out shoes and their formidable technique they performed marvels on full pointe: endless balances, dazzling pirouettes, even an unheard-of thirty-two fouettès. Pavlova toiled to make herself into a virtuosa in their mold.
Fortunately her teacher Pavel Gerdt advised her to leave off the tricks and turns and focus on developing her own innate qualities: delicacy, lyricism, expressivity. In the end Pavlova triumphed as a Romantic dancer at a time when hard-boiled classicism was all the rage, and she went on to foment balletomania the world over. Of course, she never stopped working on her technique; she even got the greatest Italian ballet master of all, Enrico Cecchetti, to give private lessons to her and no one else. And she did adopt the newfangled Italian shoes (albeit doctored in her secret way), but not just for flash or bravura. Pavlova did the opposite: she used pointework to convey achingly beautiful vulnerability.
Pavlova became a legend by tapping into her genius for self-expression rather than by technique alone. She cultivated her own eloquent "voice." And you can do the same even if you never set foot on a stage. Certainly executing steps well provides tremendous satisfaction. But ballet's joy lies not just in doing steps; it's in dancing them in the pleasure of expression through movement, of union with music, of singing with your body. I hope this book helps you not only in developing proficiency but also in discovering your voice.
The Ballet Companion offers a discussion of technique that is not just how to, but why. You already know what tendus are because you do them in class. But you may not realize why you do so many, or that the meaning of the word in French ("stretched") defines the quality of the movement, or that a famous choreographic passage, the opening of Balanchine's Theme and Variations, is based on them or how by perfecting your tendu you can improve your technique overall. Throughout the book, I connect the work you do in class to the bigger picture.
That picture, of course, includes performance. Looking as much as doing sparked my own love of ballet. My Wrst impressions were formed watching Fonteyn and Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Fracci, Makarova in Swan Lake, Kirkland in Giselle, and the opening night (a school night at that) of Balanchine's 1972 Stravinsky Festival with its landmark premieres. Granted, that's a hard act to follow, but every generation has its own superb dancers. Let today's inspire you.
In the back of this book you will find a collection of choreographic "greatest hits" along with some of my favorites that are less well known. Go to the ballet as often as you can. If you can see a work repeatedly, that's even better. A second or third viewing reveals the craftsmanship in the choreography and lets you compare different interpretations. In deciding what you admire and what you don't, what you allow to influence you and what you reject, you will shape your own character as a dancer.
Sometimes the first step toward finding your voice is to realize that it's okay to have one. This book is generously sprinkled with nuggets of ballet history that show how often a distinctive choreographic or performing personality has influenced and enriched ballet. Things we take for granted today the one-act ballet, the tutu, the overhead lift, the blocked pointe shoe, even women dancing professionally all were innovations in their time and sometimes bitterly resisted. Dance history is full of skirmishes between rebels and traditionalists, but ultimately dance embraces new voices and rewards those who take risks.
As a student I was captivated by ballet history and contrived to write every school term paper I could on a ballet subject. An assignment on great Americans became an essay on Ted Shawn, an art history project a study of Diaghilev's collaborations. My poor logic professor asked for an example of a well-constructed argument and got a scathing critique of the dance program at Yale. I took great pleasure in using my obsession with dance as a means of enlivening schoolwork; you might, too.
Ballet history is delicious it's rich and glamorous and fun. It's also important for your dancing in a serious way. You develop an informed artistry when you understand why the Sylph holds her arms differently from the Sugar Plum Fairy, or why a Bournonville allegro must bounce along the way it does. Petipa and Ivanov's Swan Lake and Fokine's Dying Swan were choreographed only ten years apart and both feature swan-women in white, feathered tutus. But to dance Fokine like Petipa would be to miss the point. Fokine loathed among other things classicism's stale verticality and lack of expressivity, so his reforms included a liberation of the arms and upper body. This isn't a stylistic nicety; it's a wholly different approach. We know about it from history: from his own manifesto and from the accounts of the dancers he trained.
I hope the historical tidbits in this book intrigue you enough so that you read more. Dancers' autobiographies are often delightful and engrossing. It's fascinating to read about your own familiar exercises and routines as they were in other times: in Imperial Russia or with the Ballets Russes or under Communism or for Balanchine. Some of the dancers' stories will surely resonate with you and contribute to the creation of your own dancing personality.
Ballet training rightly focuses on technique and artistry, but dancers are not indestructible, and they ignore their health at their peril. Ballet has become more overtly athletic. Although dancers still pretend not to sweat on stage, and still conceal their exertions under serene smiles, their bodies are being pushed and pulled as never before. Fortunately, there is now far more awareness and knowledge of dancers' health.
A whole new field of medicine has sprung up, and its practitioners have much to offer on the subject of injury prevention and safe training. Eating disorders, once a shameful secret, are now brought into the sunlight for compassionate confrontation and cure. Cross training is widely recognized as a complement to class that can speed the process of building strength and flexibility. I have devoted an extensive section of this book to the healthy dancer.
Like a strong and flexible dancer, ballet itself is hardy. It phoenixed out of the aristocratic pomp of the Baroque age. Powdered wigs and snuff boxes are long gone, but ballet has endured and maintained its traditions vestiges of its royal origins while resiliently absorbing new ideas. From a boys-only club to the cult of the ballerina, from six-foot hoop skirts to nudity, from courtiers elaborately curtsying to the king to performances that incite antigovernment protest, throughout its rich history ballet has repeatedly remodeled itself and survived.
So go ahead: cultivate your technique, your voice, and your ideas. No great choreographer ever picked a boring dancer for a muse. Ballet needs distinctive personalities to inspire new choreographic genius, to make the classics fresh, and to keep the audience interested. Your self-expression may lead you beyond ballet to other forms of dance, or to the theater. You may become a choreographer, dance teacher, dance historian, dance doctor, dance critic, dance notator, dance photographer, dance administrator or, as I did, a pointe shoe designer. You may decide to be the next Martha Graham and invent a whole new dance language. In all these endeavors your ballet technique, along with your knowledge of ballet's traditions, is the foundation on which you build. And even in nondance pursuits, qualities you develop in the studio physical intelligence and confidence in your own voice will serve you very well outside it. I hope this book helps you in joyfully creating your foundation. I hope it encourages you to soar.
Part One: To Be a Dancer
Selecting a Ballet School
Your mother says you danced in the crib. You love moving to music. Perhaps you want to perform. Perhaps performing is not for you, but the exhilaration of a well-executed tour jetè in class is. Perhaps you've been advised to try it for medical reasons, to make you strong or improve your posture. Or maybe, like Alexandra Ansanelli, principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, you were knocked out cold on the soccer Weld and your parents wanted you in something safer. Whatever draws you to ballet, finding the right school will make all the diVerence to your experience.
In the United States anyone can hang out a shingle and call him - or herself a ballet teacher. There is no organization or governing body to license teachers and maintain standards. But there are many indicators of a school's merits. Here are some things to look for when considering where to study, many of which are described in more detail later in this book:
- Teacher's Credentials
The instructor with the most glamorous and prestigious performing credentials may not be the best teacher. The ability to dance brilliantly is different from the skills that make a great teacher: the ability to analyze, to break down steps, to explain, to inspire. Some people possess both performing and teaching abilities; some don't.
In France no one is allowed to teach without a state diploma. In the United States, the Cecchetti Society, the Cecchetti Council of America, and the London-based Royal Academy of Dance (R.A.D.) are highly respected institutions whose founders cared deeply about how ballet is taught. Teachers who have been trained through these organizations have learned a well-established syllabus a known commodity with a proven track record of providing safe, solid, classical training. These are by no means the only good choices. There are other major training systems (see Major Schools of Ballet, page 63) that certainly produce excellent teachers, too. Don't be shy about asking about your teachers' backgrounds.
- Pure Classical Ballet Technique
A school that offers nonballet classes such as jazz, modern, or tap is a plus, but if you want to learn ballet, the school's focus should be on classical ballet technique. Your classes should be pure ballet, not a hybrid.
- Progressive Training and Syllabus
Before attempting the thirty-two fouettès in Swan Lake you must master the single pirouette, but before you can do that you must be able to balance in retirè on demi-pointe, and to do that you must have developed control of your turnout. In the best schools, students progress from one level to the next by mastering skills in a logical order. Ideally your school follows a graded syllabus that is informed, at least in part, by the philosophy of one of the major training systems. A syllabus helps ensure that nothing is left out and that there is a solid foundation of strength and technique on which to build in a safe, sensible way.
Some schools divide students into many levels; often each has its own leotard color, and the higher levels usually require more frequent attendance. The R.A.D. and Cecchetti systems offer examinations that students pass before moving up to the next grade. Other schools are more informal, have looser attendance requirements, and simply designate students as beginner, intermediate, or advanced. The important thing is careful, progressive training in a pleasant environment in which you are comfortable.
A ballet school should exude a disciplined and serious but cheerful atmosphere. (See What Class Expects of You, page 11.) Students should be well groomed, neatly dressed, and display good studio etiquette. Sweatpants and other loose, concealing garb should not be allowed. (See Studio Attire, page 11.)
- Forcing Turnout and Extension
Rotation of the leg in the hip socket so that the knees and feet point out to the side rather than to the front is essential for classical ballet. A turnout of 180 degrees is most desirable but rarely achieved. Forcing it can damage knees, hips, or ankles. A careful teacher will try to help her students achieve the desired flexibility by working within the range of a student's potential turnout and without putting the joints at risk. If students are struggling to achieve a perfect heel-to-toe-toe-to-heel fifth position, and are unable to straighten their knees or hold the knees over the toes correctly, they are forcing turnout. (See Alignment, page 78.)
- Pointe Shoes
At what age are the girls allowed to go on pointe? Starting too young can cause injury; a lot of very little girls in pointe shoes is a red flag. Ideally pointe class is not an option but, at the appropriate level, part of the training. (See When to Begin Pointework, page 17.)
The ideal space is large, open, airy, well ventilated, with high ceilings, a good floor, no obstructing pillars or pipes, and plenty of mirrors. The best studio floors are "sprung" (meaning there is air space underneath) wood and covered with a nonslip surface. Things should be clean and neat, especially the dressing rooms. A piano indicates a real accompanist instead of recorded music. This can be a tremendous enhancement, though not a requisite; plenty of schools do just fine with recorded music.
- Health and Safety
Good ballet training improves your body and your self-esteem. Bad training can have the opposite effect. Beware of a teacher who pooh-poohs health and injury prevention; she may well have a long, sad history of injured pupils. If most of the class has tendinitis at the end of term, think twice about what's going on. Sick or injured dancers can neither create art nor experience the joy of dancing.
When assessing the health and safety-consciousness of a school, ask yourself whether the students look happy and healthy. Are they lean, bright-eyed, and eager, or are they frighteningly thin and joyless? How much emphasis is being placed on being thin? (See Body Esteem, page 214.)
Is the emphasis on progressive training or on competitions? Performing experience is valuable and should be encouraged, but in the long run an overemphasis on rehearsing for a competition can be a distraction from building solid technique.
Choosing Your Level of Commitment
You get out of ballet what you put into it. Ballet rewards both the ballerina who basks in a standing ovation at Lincoln Center and the ardent amateur who is thrilled to have just done her first double piquè turn. If your ambition is to become a professional dancer, your training will follow a certain exceptionally rigorous path especially if you hope to dance classical ballet roles with a major company. If you are reconciled to not dancing Swan Lake at Covent Garden but still entertain the idea of a dance career, then you have a little more flexibility in the number and in the types of classes you choose. If you are lucky enough to study ballet for the sheer joy of it, and because there is nothing like the satisfaction of having had a terrific class, then you have more options still.
Many schools offer performance opportunities in recitals, workshops, or, often, a production of The Nutcracker. These can be great fun, and wonderful experiences. But be warned that auditions, rehearsals, and performances add signifcantly to the amount of time that you devote to ballet. Sometimes there are extra costs, too, such as costume rentals or new pointe shoes. Some schools require that you attend a minimum number of classes each week in order to participate. And if you do, you will be expected to be at every rehearsal and every performance.
Girls with professional aspirations, at about age twelve, usually in the third or fourth year of training, take class five or six days a week, often more than one class a day. Or they may put in the same number of hours with longer classes over fewer days. That's a lot of time and still more if there are rehearsals, too, plus the daily trek to and from the studio. Serious preprofessional training is also expensive. In addition to tuition there is the cost of practice clothes, shoes, and perhaps summer programs as well.
To make it to the highest levels in professional ballet, you should be dancing full time during the years when most people finish high school and go to college. Ballet careers are short, and those years are formative and crucial: your youthful vigor, resilience, and strength are at their peak, your body can best absorb advanced ballet technique and you can most easily adapt to an artistic director's vision and a company's style. This presents a diffcult choice for dancers' parents (usually the dancer knows that there is nothing in the world she would rather do than dance).
Forgoing or postponing higher education is not always a requisite for a professional career. Many colleges and universities offer excellent dance programs, some with prominent choreographers in residence. Conservatories such as Juilliard produce world-class dancers who also have solid academic backgrounds. Modern dancers can often start later than ballet dancers, as can musical theater dancers. Plenty of companies require that their dancers have a good command of ballet but not that they be virtuosi either because the repertory is not the most technically demanding or because it is not limited to ballet. Being a charismatic performer who can also handle modern or jazz sometimes counts for more than pure ballet technique.
Top-notch training and all the other benefits of ballet are available even to dancers without professional ambitions. Many schools, including some professional conservatories with "open divisions" (programs that do not require you to commit to the preprofessional track and allow you to enroll in fewer classes), offer excellent classes for students who want to dance for the sake of dancing. Most schools don't turn away the once-a-week dancer; just know that it isn't realistic to expect progress beyond the basics if that's all the time you can allow. To improve your technique, you must take at least two classes a week. Three is better. Most schools require regular attendance at several classes a week in order to begin pointework.
Even if you don't intend to dance professionally, there are reasons to make the commitment to frequent if not daily classes. Ballet class gives your day structure and focus. Patient, daily study pays oV not only in what it does for your technique. The applied discipline it takes will help you tackle other tasks in other areas of your life. It makes you stand out on college applications, too. But watch out: ballet class can be addictive. You may find that your problem isn't taking too few classes but wanting to take too many.
Ballet Moms and Dads: Sine Qua Non
Behind almost any successful dancer are devoted, supportive people who sacrifice to make ballet dreams come true. Your parents and family pay for all those classes and for all that special ballet gear. They drive you to lessons and rehearsals whether they're around the block or in another state, and they often wait in the lobby while you get to dance. They give up weekends and family vacations, sew costumes, and sell tickets for school performances. Their holiday celebrations have to accommodate your Nutcracker rehearsals, and they never miss the show. Mom's the shoulder you cry on and Dad's your biggest fan. It's a ton of work, and your commitment becomes theirs as well.
What to Expect of Class
Ballet classes last from one to two hours and are divided into two parts, barre and center. Exercises at the barre warm up and strengthen your muscles and help you practice the basic movements of ballet. Center work usually starts with stationary exercises, progresses to combinations that travel, then moves on to leaps and turns "across the floor," often along the diagonal from a back corner to a front one. The exercises vary from lesson to lesson, but always follow the same general order and build logically.
Ballet students are grouped in classes according to skill level and/or age. In large schools, they are sometimes grouped by sex. When enrolling at a new school, tell the registrar where you've studied, for how long, and how often. "Advanced Beginner" may mean different things at different studios. New students are often obliged to take a placement class to determine the appropriate level.
There is a good reason for this. Technique can only build progressively. If you're in a class over your head, you won't improve and you may be in the way. It's okay to challenge yourself with a harder-than-usual class, and it's tremendously inspiring to work alongside really good dancers, but the class is meant for the students at that level and you should defer to them. If you're an advanced student in a more elementary class, do demonstrate the steps if the teacher asks you to, but keep in mind that it's the beginning students' class.
Combinations can be tricky for beginners. Learning them has less to do with intelligence or a good memory than with concentration and focus. You don't learn steps with your mind alone; your muscles must learn them, too. Deliberate and continuous repetition ingrains movement patterns into your body and develops "kinesthetic memory." Be patient: mastering steps takes time and practice. The best way to pick up a combination is to mark it as the teacher gives it (see page 16). Certain steps are frequently combined. For example, sissonne tombèe often precedes pas de bourrèe, glissade, and grand jetè. The more you do these steps in familiar sequences, the more you can think of them as phrases that come automatically rather than as individual words.
Your teacher observes and offers corrections, sometimes as you are dancing, sometimes in between combinations. To keep the class moving and students' muscles warm, pauses between exercises are kept to a minimum. Don't interrupt the teacher. If you're lost when everyone else knows the steps, try to learn them by watching the others dance. In your regular class with your regular teacher, it's okay to raise your hand and ask a question if the answer would benefit the whole group; it's not okay if the question pertains only to you. See your teacher privately after class if you need help or advice.
Expect physical contact in ballet class. It's often helpful for a student to feel an instruction as well as to hear it, so don't be surprised if your teacher touches you to correct your placement or your line: it's essential and it's absolutely professional. It is inappropriate, and never necessary, for a teacher to touch breasts or private parts. But your arms, hands, feet, ankles, knees, ribs, shoulders, abdomen, and even your jaw or hip bones may all be adjusted. One of my teachers favored a stick for this purpose, as do many others.
What Class Expects of You
In today's world of instant informality and less than perfect manners, ballet class provides an oasis of true courtesy and dignity, a remnant of the royal decorum of the Baroque age. Studio etiquette may seem mysterious at first, but its importance soon becomes apparent. You are creating an environment conducive to learning, and you are physically demonstrating the esteem in which you hold your art, your teacher, and your fellow students.
Considerate, respectful behavior is expected. Courtesy is especially important for performing artists; putting a show on stage requires cooperation among directors, managers, performers, technical crew, and front-of-house staff. A performance is a complicated machine with a lot of moving parts, and politeness is the essential lubricant.
Be on time. Arriving late disturbs other students. Your teacher has carefully planned the class so that it builds on the exercises done at the beginning. If you must be late, ask permission to enter (you can do this with eye contact and a hopeful and contrite look). Locate a spot at the barre before walking into the room, and take your place quickly and quietly. Do a few pliès on your own to warm up. It's especially important that you not try to sneak in unobserved after roll call. If the teacher does not note your presence, your attendance record looks bad and that can make all the diVerence in when you are allowed to go on pointe or how you are cast in a production.
Be neat. Keep your hair off your face and neck. Hair that moves is a distraction. It should be tight against your head so that you can spot freely. If it's long, fasten it securely in a bun or French twist. (See Ballet Bun, page 28.) Ponytails and long braids are hazardous; they could smack you or someone else.
A general rule: Don't wear jewelry in the studio. It could fly off or stick someone, especially in a partnering class. Small stud earrings are allowed in some studios, but never dangling earrings, bracelets, large necklaces, or a wristwatch. Dark or bright red nail polish looks creepy on stage and for that reason it is often prohibited in class as well.
Be clean. Respecting others means wearing clean clothes and sweet-smelling shoes, and attending to your personal hygiene. Air out your shoes between classes. Shower before class and use antiperspirant or deodorant; keep some tucked in your bag as well. Avoid strong perfumes or cologne. What smells Wne to you may be overpowering to someone else.
Dress the part. Follow the dress code. The intention is not to quash individuality but to enable the teacher to see clearly. Even if there is no uniform, don't wear wild outWts or hide under layers of clothing. Wear clothes that show you are ready to take class. This not only sends a message to the teacher about your seriousness, it also sends a message to yourself. You will dance better if you are properly dressed for class.
Mind your manners. Dancers are ladies and gentlemen. They are polite. They don't lean against the wall or on the barre, and they don't sit down unless directed to do so. They wouldn't dream of chewing gum in class.
It is a privilege to have live piano or other instrumental accompaniment rather than recorded music. Treat the accompanist with the utmost respect, and never lean on the piano, use it as a barre, or place things on it.
Rudeness to teachers or the accompanist is unthinkable in ballet; you could be dismissed from class or even expelled from the school. Yawning, talking, whispering, or having private giggles with your friends counts as rudeness.
Pay attention. You're there to work, so watch and listen, especially when the combination is given. Some teachers may not show it twice.
Stash your stuff. Your school may well be so honest that you can blithely leave your dance bag unattended in the dressing room. Sadly, that's not the case everywhere. Especially in big cities, your dance bag goes with you into the studio. Look for the pile of dance bags and place yours with it, making sure it is safely out of the path of dancers. In crowded, unfamiliar studios put it where you can keep an eye on it.
Do the combination as given, and do it in its entirety. If everyone is doing one thing and you've decided to "improve" it, it's not only a distraction, it's downright disrespectful to your teacher. There are exceptions: a teacher might ask more advanced students to do a combination on demi-pointe or to add beats. If there are steps you must modify because of a physical condition, speak to the teacher beforehand so it isn't a surprise to her.
Always finish every combination. Even if you flub it completely, the discipline of ballet requires that you finish it, and finish it with as much poise as you can. Sighing, making faces, or otherwise showing your frustration or other emotions is inappropriate.
Know where to stand. If you're new in class, notice whether the other dancers have set places at the barre. Dancers are as territorial as lions, so try not to displace anyone. The teacher may suggest a spot for you. Otherwise, find an empty place, ask your neighbors if there's room, and settle in. You need to be able to extend your leg in grand battement as far as it can go both front and back without whacking the person next to you. If there isn't enough room, angle out when doing extensions.
If there are portable barres in class, help set them up and remove them. If you're new, offer to help, but let someone who knows where the barre goes place it. Men, be cavaliers: Take the barres away for the women.
When class moves on to center floor, the teacher may find a place for you in line. In some schools the lines rotate when the combination repeats so that everyone gets a chance to check placement in the mirror. In many classes no one is allowed to hide in the back and be a habitual follower; all must take a turn at being in front and on their own. If the lines don't rotate, then the honor of standing in front usually goes to the best students: it means the teacher trusts you to be an example to others. Work hard for that honor.
When everyone lines up to dance across the floor, take your place in line and be ready to go. Know the right number of phrases or counts between groups so that you start on cue. If you're not going to go, make it clear by getting out of the way.
Drink politely. Do drink before class starts and carry a water bottle but the norms of the gym don't apply to ballet class. If the teacher allows it, you may drink from your water bottle between barre and center, but not between barre exercises and never while a teacher is giving a combination.
Ask permission to leave. Even if you are suddenly taken ill, you should ask permission to leave the studio. Wandering in and out of the room is not allowed. If you absolutely must leave early, get the teacher's okay before class starts. Don't leave in the middle of a combination. Acknowledge the teacher by catching her eye and communicating your thanks with a silent wave, then leave unobtrusively.
Getting the Most Out of Class
Make time for ballet. Your brain understands what you ought to be doing before your muscles do. Coordination, line, speed, and strength develop only if you train your muscles through regular repetition. It's great fun to take ballet recreationally, but you can't expect much improvement in your technique if you take class only once a week.
Make time for rest. Professional dancers generally take one day off a week. Allow yourself at least this much rest. Your body needs it.
Be ready for class. Arrive in time to bring your mind into focus, warm up, and stretch. If you need them, have your pointe shoes ready in your dance bag, no fumbling with toe pads in the middle of class. Once class starts there are no bathroom breaks except for real emergencies; plan accordingly. Don't eat a big meal just beforehand, but don't dance on an empty stomach either. (See Eating Right, page 209.)
Take barre in a different spot periodically. Don't fall into the "this is my spot" trap. It's helpful to see yourself from different angles to be certain of your placement and line. Face the mirror straight on at some times; look at yourself in profile at others. Also practice without the mirror there isn't one on stage.
Mark the combination. To mark means to move through steps without doing them fully. Most people learn combinations much faster if they mark while the teacher demonstrates or explains. Lift your leg just a little rather than to your full extension or walk a step instead of jumping it. Change direction and orientation. Arm movements, however, should be done full out, not marked, to avoid developing bad habits. Be mindful of getting in the way of other students.
Work on corrections immediately. Even for professionals, class is not about being perfect. Don't be frustrated by a correction; be honored that the teacher feels you are worthy of his personal attention. Take corrections very seriously; they not only improve your technique, they protect you from injury.
Teachers expect you to try the combination again, incorporating their corrections right after they give them. Do the best you can: you may be able to correct the error immediately, or it may take more practice.
Stay after class and practice any step that's giving you trouble. Use a quiet corner or an empty studio. Don't practice at home or unsupervised when you are beginning ballet. If you do a step incorrectly repeatedly, it's that much harder to set right. Bad habits can sink into your muscles as easily as good ones.
The world's greatest, and probably shortest, commencement speech is said to have contained only three sentences, "Never give up. Never give up. Never give up." Take this to heart and realize that you are not alone. When the combination seems so fiendishly diffcult that you despair of ever getting it, look around; if you're having trouble it's likely others are as well. An amateur dancer told me that he was about to admit defeat on a series of turns when he noticed that a principal dancer from a major company was falling over, too. Try again.
When to Begin Pointework
It takes a long time to develop a body for dancing especially the feet. The pointes for girls have to be, I always say, like an elephant's trunk; strong and yet flexible and soft. It takes some time.
It is hard to tell an eager young dancer that she is not yet ready for pointe shoes. Students and parents must realize that teachers have to be Wrm: there is a risk of serious injury in introducing pointework too soon. Starting pointework is not just a question of age or physical maturity; readiness depends on strength, technique, attitude, and commitment.
The bones of the foot are not fully developed, strengthened, and hardened until sometime in the late teens or early twenties. Of course, there is a great deal of individual variation. If a young dancer attempts pointework without proper strength and technique, the significant forces created by the combination of body weight and momentum can permanently damage those not-fully-developed bones. Yet if a dancer is truly ready, if the introduction to pointework is gradual and always carefully and knowledgeably supervised, if the pointe shoes are well chosen and properly fitted, there is minimal risk of injury even if the bones are not fully formed.
Most dancers are ready to begin pointework between the ages of ten and twelve. Occasionally a supremely strong nine-year-old can safely go on pointe, but this is unusual. There is rarely any harm in waiting. A dancer who starts pointework a year later than her classmates almost always catches up. Many adult beginners are not ready for pointe either, but there is much less risk in their using pointe shoes because their feet have fully grown. In general, these are the criteria for readiness for pointe shoes:
Most dancers need at least two to four years of training in ballet technique, with a good attendance record, before going on pointe. Other forms of dance, or classes that mix ballet with other forms, don't count.
Someone who regularly takes several classes a week can probably start at a younger age than someone who attends less frequently. During the first year of pointe you will probably be expected to take at least three or four ballet classes a week (a minimum of five hours).
Your demeanor shows that you have the maturity for pointework. Your attitude is attentive and hardworking, and your studio etiquette is exemplary.
Pointework requires a continual lifting up and out of the shoe. It's the same strength and skill needed for attaining and sustaining a balance on a high demi-pointe on one leg. That means that you can always hold your turnout when you dance, that your abdomen and lower back your core are strong, and that your legs, and especially your knees, are really pulled up.
You must be able to both relevè and piquè up to a balance. Calf and ankle strength are essential. Your relevè must be particularly strong; at least sixteen Xawless ones onto a high demi-pointe center Xoor should be easy. You must demonstrate the correct use of pliè in your dancing and know how to work your feet properly in tendu and all other exercises that require pointing the foot no sickling.
Health and Physique
You should be in good health, not recovering from illness or injury, and of normal weight. You must possess the stamina to make it through a full ballet class several times a week. You don't need insteps arched like bananas, but your feet must not be so flat or your ankles so stiff as to prevent you from properly "getting over" onto full pointe.
It's the rare dancer who is not tremendously excited about going on pointe. It's a good sign: an indifferent dancer may not have the perseverance needed for the repetitive exercises pointe training entails. But don't let your enthusiasm tempt you to practice at home or to wear your new pointe shoes around the house. Proper supervision is so important that some schools require that their students keep their pointe shoes at the studio. And when you are ready to go on pointe, congratulations. You have worked hard for this moment. See How to Select and Fit, page 192.
All That Jazz, Modern, and More
Ballet has been called "the Latin of dance," the language the well-educated dancer knows. Still, it never hurts to learn another language. Just as ballet provides technical precision, strength, and Xuidity to students of modern, jazz, and tap, you the ballet dancer can learn much from other dance forms.
Modern and Contemporary
"Modern" usually refers to the techniques created by Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and their many choreographic descendants including Paul Taylor, Josè Limón, and Merce Cunningham. It may also refer to the lunging, swinging style of dance developed by Lester Horton and carried on by his students, among them Alvin Ailey.
Modern dance is more weighted than ballet; modern dancers speak of being "into the Xoor." Working turned-in as well as turned-out with bare feet Xexed as well as pointed, using a nonballetic port de bras, breathing at specified times, falling it's all part of the mix. Graham's technique emanates from the lower torso; her signature movements include the tightening of the body into itself, the contraction, and its opposing movement, the release. Modern class may include floor work seated, kneeling, lying as well as or instead of barre work.
"Contemporary" encompasses a wide array of styles that have their roots in both modern and ballet. In the United Kingdom, contemporary dance is usually what Americans refer to as modern.
An unleashed, makes-me-wanna-sing-and-dance energy Wlls a good jazz class. Like jazz music, jazz dance has developed into a variety of forms: from the theatrical work of Jack Cole, Michael Bennett, and Bob Fosse to the rhythmic exuberance of Billy Siegenfeld to the sharp, funky styles that sprouted up along with rap and hip-hop music.
Jazz emphasizes isolations freely moving one part of the body such as the head, shoulder, or pelvis while the rest is absolutely still. Ballet dancers who must carefully hold the pelvis in place especially beneWt from isolations and the coordination they develop. Both modern and jazz also practice suspension: moving through a position rather than stopping there to balance. Mastering the suspension adds fluidity and nuance to your dancing.
Ballroom and Social Dance
Discover the glamour of swirling around the dance floor like Fred and Ginger. Social dance develops smooth grace. Best of all, it's useful in real life. So many dancers are shy about dancing socially what, you mean dance without rehearsal? With ballroom classes, you won't feel awkward at a formal party. If you're interested in choreography, ballroom is the thing to learn. The partnering and steps can flow right into ballet composition.
Balanchine celebrated the waltz in Vienna Waltzes; other choreographers have explored the tango: Hans van Manen's Five Tangos and Paul Taylor's Piazzolla Caldera. And Julio Bocca, the Argentine ballet star, even formed a company dedicated to the fusion of ballet and modern with his country's national dance, the tango.
Tap focuses on percussive rhythm and precise patterns of sound. Tap is good aerobic exercise: it builds muscle control and rhythm. It can be improvisational, which can be liberating for the ballet dancer. Whether it's virtuosic like that of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Gregory Hines, and Savion Glover or just hooWn' and making your own music with your feet, there's something undeniably energizing and liberating about this great American style of dance.
West African dance challenges and rewards the ballet dancer who dares. In sharp contrast to the upright ballet stance, West African dance works low to the ground, constantly using the Xoor. And what Xexibility in the spine! Though the steps are codiWed and speciWc, the number of times a particular sequence of steps is performed is dictated solely by live drummers playing complex rhythms. You have to be highly attuned to the music because you can't go on to the next step until they give you the signal.
Folk and Character
Dance has arisen all over the globe, and there's a world to choose from. Whether you are drawn to capoeira, the dance form from Brazil that's also a martial art, or to Irish step dancing, with its compelling rhythmic vigor and precision, you will Wnd something to incorporate into your ballet training. For example, the "Xower Wnger" position of classical Chinese dance diVers greatly from ballet's hand and wrist, but the classical Chinese mandate that "eye follows hand" develops a lovely coordination of head and arm in the ballet dancer. The isolation of the head acquired in Indian dancing moving it directly side to side while the eyes and chin stay level might not seem applicable to ballet until a renowned contemporary choreographer asks you to rub an imaginary surface with your ear.
It's useful and enlightening to step outside ballet's physical conWnes, to dance in positions and alignments that are not balletic. In addition, some dancers, the shy types, can beneWt from a dance form in which assertiveness is a requisite. Studying Spanish Xamenco certainly increases your chance of being cast in the Spanish divertissement in The Nutcracker, and, more important, it develops a supremely confident stage presence. A Xamenco dancer often improvises, solo, in the middle of a circle formed by others, which forces her to show personality and self-assurance. The chest is lifted and thrust commandingly forward. The hips release so the feet can stamp strongly accented, propulsive rhythms beneath swirling arms, circling wrists, and clicking castanets. Every step must have boldness and brio.
Most of the major ballet training systems require some study of folk or "character" dance. Broadening your experience of music and movement enriches your ballet technique and enlarges your perspective, enabling you to better understand and appreciate ballet. It makes you a more knowledgeable, more versatile, and ultimately more interesting dancer.
Ballet at Any Age
Ballet is not just for the athletic, the artistic, or the young. Homemakers, physicists, philanthropists, lawyers, secretaries, movie stars ballet is more popular than ever among people of all metiers, all ages, and both sexes. Ballet oVers both a break from daily life and a challenge with its own distinct mental and physical rewards. In class you become a part of the grace and beauty you see on stage, and it becomes part of you. Ballet also provides a great workout, with lasting beneWts of toning, lengthening, and stretching. The camaraderie in class can be the best part. Your classmates become a second family because no one else understands so well your passion for dance.
Ballet class for adults has the same structure as ballet class for children: barre to warm up and center to move. But adults learn diVerently, by analysis as well as by repetition. Class may be more aerobic, with fewer stops so that muscles stay warm. Combinations are less gruelingly academic and more "dancey."
There's seldom a dress code in adult classes. If you feel too exposed in standard class attire, wear a T-shirt or wrap sweater and sweatpants or a skirt in which you can move freely. As you progress, you may Wnd yourself gaining definition and shedding pounds and a layer or two of clothing along with them.
Ballet need not start at age four and end at thirty, but adult beginners and returning students do need to be realistic about physical limitations. An older body with a set bone structure can't be pushed the way a younger, more malleable one can. You won't acquire much turnout as an adult, but you can strengthen the lower abdominal muscles to better use what you do have. To prevent injury and maximize enjoyment, aim for proper form, not that extra half inch of extension or two degrees of turnout.
You can certainly improve flexibility. Stretch frequently but carefully and only when you are warmed up. Cross training such as Pilates builds core strength and may make all the diVerence in your dèveloppès.
Many schools offer beginning pointe for adults. The classes concentrate on barre work and must be taken in conjunction with several weekly technique classes. Strength and alignment are prerequisites just as they are for younger students. Be sure your pointe shoes are fitted by an expert.
Starting Late but Serious?
Most ballet dancers' professional careers begin in their late teens, after years of training begun in early childhood. But there are exceptions. Carmen Corella, soloist at American Ballet Theatre, was a basketball player until, at age thirteen, she saw what fun her brother Angel was having in ballet. It's a myth that all sports conXict with ballet training; in fact, sports, especially gymnastics, can give you a leg up with a late start. Sylvie Guillem of the Paris Opera Ballet was a gymnast before taking up ballet, as was Igor Youskevitch, the great danseur noble of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Men can often begin later than women; Youskevitch started at the ripe old age of twenty.
If you're serious about dancing but playing a game of catch up, you will have to work especially hard and Wnd the best training you can. Enroll in a rigorous school that is either attached to a ballet company or regularly sends its students on to ballet careers. You must take class daily, and probably more than just one class a day.
Plenty of dancers who start training late are cast in community productions or even on Broadway. And lots of ballet students with no performing aspirations progress enough to learn pointework and variations. Get into class and dance!
Ballet and Pregnancy
There was a time when ballerinas were discouraged from having babies and pregnant women were discouraged from exercising. Fortunately both the dance and the medical professions are now more enlightened. Many women take class during pregnancy, and some, like American Ballet Theatre's Julie Kent, have even performed beautifully during the Wrst trimester. Check with your doctor or midwife, and unless she has a speciWc reason for advising against it, by all means dance. This is a time in your life when dancing may be especially joyful.
You may even find that your pirouettes improve because your weight is more forward. Be prudent, as you would be during any form of exercise, to avoid injury or exhaustion. You may wish to do only barre. Toward the end of pregnancy the body produces a hormone, appropriately called relaxin, that relaxes some of the tissues in the pelvis in preparation for childbirth. It can produce a very loose-legged sensation; be cautious with your newfound flexibility.
Copyright ©2005 by Eliza Minden