How I teach ballet
Don’t let Deborah Wingert’s silvery hair fool you. Dressed in a black turtleneck and leggings, she unfurls her leg into an ear-height développé one Saturday afternoon while demonstrating adagio for her advanced students at Manhattan Youth Ballet. High-cheekboned and statuesque, Wingert’s physicality alone is enough to inspire a roomful of bunheads. But it’s her combination of fervor, humor and vitality that captures her students’ imaginations. “Développé so beautifully that it breaks my heart,” she says, passionately clasping her hands to her chest. But not long after the students begin, she signals for the pianist to stop—their développés are too punctuated. “It has moments of clarity, but it’s not sharp,” she says, pausing thoughtfully. “It’s clearly etched.”
Musical and technical clarity are big themes in Wingert’s class, a result of her 13-year dance career with the New York City Ballet. George Balanchine hired her out of the School of American Ballet at the age of 16, and his influence permeates her methodology. Shortly after Wingert’s retirement in 1995, MYB director Rose Caiola observed her giving a private lesson and asked her to join the staff of her new school (then called Studio Maestro). Now head of faculty, Wingert teaches up to 15 classes a week and serves as MYB’s Balanchine répétiteur.
Wingert’s rich voice resonates through the studio like a well-honed thespian. She stresses exact musical timing, with an emphasis on speed and alternating rhythmic accents. “Balanchine changed my ear,” she says. “The rhythm is the steps; the steps are the music. But you’re always in service of the music.” Wingert articulates what she wants through inventive metaphors, often related to food. “It’s like two scoops of ice cream in a pretzel cone,” she says, referencing the contrasting in/out accents during tendus. “Smooth and creamy, with the crispy.”
Balanchine, she says, fostered an atmosphere of persistence and proactive engagement at NYCB, and she tries to cultivate those values in her dancers. “No time for doubt, no time for judgment,” Wingert reminds a frustrated student during a particularly speedy pirouette combination. “This is the Balanchine ethic—you have to do it because you have to do it.” Her students soak up the pep talk—the second time around, they attack their turns with greater fortitude and success.
Wingert keeps her dancers engaged by often asking them what they could have done differently, rather than telling them what they did wrong. “I think the best corrections are when students understand their part in it,” she explains, a process that requires patience on her end. “But that’s what Mr. B allowed. He allowed for that process of not being perfect.”
In Balanchine training, glissade is considered a preparation step that serves the jump that succeeds it—in this case, assemblé. It has a distinct musical emphasis on the landing plié (“and one”), which creates a quick, definitive slice through the air in second position. “The emphasis on the ending is the impetus for the assemblé,” says Wingert. For assemblé, the legs should hit fifth immediately on the way up. “The assemblage is what elevates you.”
Deborah Wingert trained at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet under Marcia Dale Weary (where Wingert first cut her teeth teaching warm-up classes) and the School of American Ballet. She joined New York City Ballet at the age of 16, where she danced numerous principal and soloist roles by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. After retiring from NYCB, she joined the inaugural staff of Manhattan Youth Ballet, where she is now head of faculty. Wingert has also taught at School of American Ballet and Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, guest-lectured at Harvard University and Goucher College and serves as a répétiteur for the George Balanchine Trust.
Sophia Williams, 17, is an advanced student at Manhattan Youth Ballet and attends Bard High School Early College.
Photography by Kyle Froman