On a sticky Mississippi morning in June, several dozen of the world’s most promising young dancers gathered in the mezzanine of Thalia Mara Hall in downtown Jackson, collectively holding their breath. They’d spent the last two weeks performing endless rounds of Le Corsaire, La Esmeralda and Grand Pas Classique at the USA International Ballet Competition, an Olympics-style event held in Jackson every four years. As Edward Villella, this year’s jury chairman, prepared to reveal the winners, he momentarily put down his list of names and addressed the crowd: “I would like to say, if you walk away without a medal, you at least walk away with a terrific, terrific experience.”
Indeed, the USA IBC encompasses much more than the competition it’s famous for. The campus of Belhaven University—where competitors lived together in the dormitories, took ballet classes and rehearsed—served as a virtual dancer village, allowing them to intermingle and socialize. Jury members, including Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater and Nina Ananiashvili, artistic director of the State Ballet of Georgia, taught the competitors’ daily class. In addition, many who didn’t advance to the finals chose to keep dancing anyway, rehearsing an ensemble piece choreographed by Point Park University professor Peter Merz, which they later performed at the awards gala. Meanwhile, the USA IBC Dance School, a two-week summer intensive for students, coincided with the event, as well as a Teacher Training Program led by Roni Mahler.
As chair, Villella endorsed changes in the competition’s contemporary component. While dancers have always brought individual contemporary routines (often an uneven display of choreographic skill), this year they were also required to learn set pieces by Trey McIntyre and Matthew Neenan for the competition’s second round.
In the end, dancers from South Korea dominated the awards. However, two Americans in the junior division took top prizes. Gisele Bethea, 15, from the Master Ballet Academy in Phoenix, Arizona, won the gold medal, and a full scholarship to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and an open invitation to join the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company. Mackenzie Richter, a 16-year-old from the International City School of Ballet in Smyrna, Georgia, won the silver medal and a contract with Houston Ballet II.
Photos by Richard Finkelstein, courtesy of USA IBC
In Franco De Vita’s class, less is more. Trim and poised, a neck scarf tucked neatly into his popped collar, he leads his Level 5 students through short, simple combinations, maintaining a brisk pace between exercises. He walks slowly among the barres, crisply clapping his hands to interrupt an exercise here, adjusting a head there. He avoids lengthy pontifications, preferring one or two pointed corrections laced with a touch of theatricality.
“Voilà!” he says as a student demonstrates a finished fifth position en bas, De Vita’s thick French accent making the moment remarkably authentic. “When the arm comes down, the upper body goes up, up, up!” The young dancers, ages 12 to 14, work earnestly, but not fearfully—De Vita knows how to sprinkle just the right amount of humor throughout his class to draw out smiles. The respect and affection between him and his students is palpable.
Since taking the helm of American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, De Vita has developed a national reputation for professionalism, efficiency and, above all, commitment. Yet his rise to director of one of the world’s top training institutions was slow and steady, steeped in 30 years of experience teaching pre-professional and recreational dancers alike. The ABT National Training Curriculum, which he co-authored along with longtime collaborator and curriculum artistic director Raymond Lukens, developed through decades of pedagogical work together. Since the NTC’s debut in 2007, De Vita’s teaching methods have had a nationwide impact on ballet instruction. This year, Dance Teacher honors him with its 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award.
A Reluctant Calling
Ironically, De Vita originally had no interest in teaching. Born in Italy, he trained with Hannah Voos at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Charleroi in Belgium and danced with several European companies, including the Ballet Royal de Wallonie, where Lukens was also a dancer. After chronic back pain forced De Vita to retire, he enrolled in hairdressing school. But the universe had other plans for him.
Brenda Hamlyn, who directed the Hamlyn School of Dance in Florence, Italy, invited both De Vita and Lukens to teach at her school. De Vita told her he wasn’t interested. “I wanted to cut with ballet,” he says. But she insisted, so he agreed to teach her advanced students for a week. Afterward, he still wasn’t sold, so Hamlyn suggested he try teaching a lower level. Although doubtful, De Vita nevertheless gave it a shot. “And then, something happened with the younger ones,” he says. “I really enjoyed it.”
His interest piqued, he attended the Cecchetti Society’s teacher-training program in London and joined Hamlyn’s faculty full-time, where he and Lukens eventually became school directors in 1983. There they taught students of all ages and abilities. “The audition process was basically a pulse and a purse,” says Lukens. Nevertheless, De Vita held his students to high standards. “He was tough. He demanded that they do it the way it should be done—but without making it oppressive. He didn’t force them to go into positions that their bodies couldn’t take.”
De Vita has changed very little in his pedagogical approach since then. “In Florence I was teaching the same way I teach at JKO,” he says. “I present the class like you are a professional—the students love that.” He firmly believes dance training should be slow and methodical; pushing too much too soon can be detrimental to a young dancer’s technique and physical health. “It’s important to look at the body of the student,” he says. “If a student is 12 but has the body of a 9-year-old, then don’t push the body too far. This is my big advice: Do everything gradually.”
BalletMet Dance Academy director Susan Brooker, a longtime friend and former faculty member at De Vita’s school in Italy, describes him as one of the best teachers she knows. “He has an incredible knack for putting exercises together in a manner that’s comparatively simple, but that prepares students of all ages and levels to be placed and on their legs,” she says, “with an emphasis on getting them off the barre and dancing.”
Indeed, De Vita’s JKO students are ready for center in 35 minutes. He often repeats the same barre for a week or so, allowing them to process one or two corrections at a time before adding more. “When there’s too much correction, you don’t know what to think about,” he says. His classes are meticulously prepared, designed to achieve daily, weekly and yearly curriculum goals as thoroughly and efficiently as possible. “I’m very organized,” De Vita says. “You can’t just improvise—you have to think about what you want to reach at the end of class, and from the barre you work on top of that.”
Leading the Way
In Florence, the early seeds of the NTC were planted when De Vita, Lukens and Brooker began developing their own curriculum. “It was a wonderful opportunity to develop our own philosophy of pedagogy, without outside pressures,” says Brooker.
At the invitation of then-director Kirk Peterson, De Vita joined the staff of the School of Hartford Ballet and helped revise its syllabus. Afterward, he joined the faculty at The Ailey School and the Ailey/Fordham BFA program before taking over as dean of faculty and curriculum at the Boston Ballet School.
In 2005, De Vita was invited to guest teach for the ABT Studio Company. Company director Kevin McKenzie observed and, impressed with De Vita’s deep knowledge and enthusiasm, tapped him to lead the newly formed JKO School. “Franco cares for the whole child,” says McKenzie. “He instills respect for the lessons the artform can teach young people about the nature of accomplishment—that achieving excellence is not easily won, but in striving for it, you learn a lot about yourself.”
The appointment also coincided with McKenzie’s desire to create a national training system for teachers. With the help of an artistic advisory panel and health professionals, De Vita and Lukens (who was appointed director of the ABT-affiliated master’s program at New York University) spent the next two years co-authoring the guidelines for ballet training, which incorporate elements from the French, Russian, Danish and Italian schools. “Every school has something to offer,” says De Vita. “Why not try to have the best of everything?” The goal was to produce well-trained, unaffected dancers who could easily adapt to classical, neoclassical and contemporary styles.
Since then, his JKO students have starting filling out the ranks of ABT, and McKenzie is impressed with the results. “They’re unusually versatile and adaptable to stylistic nuance,” he says. Skylar Brandt, an ABT corps member who trained with De Vita from the age of 12, says that one of his top priorities is purity of movement. “Franco always expressed that there was value in dancing cleanly—that two clean pirouettes have a greater effect than trying for a triple and falling out of it,” she says. “Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t push his dancers to do more. But they must do so without sacrificing quality.”
The response toward ABT’s teacher-training workshops, held throughout the year in New York and other cities, has been overwhelmingly positive. Dance educators are immersed in curriculum coursework, observe JKO classes and take examinations, which they must pass in order to receive ABT certification. Rather than dictating set exercises, the program offers guidelines and year-end goals that allow teachers to retain their own voice. Since the program launched in 2007, more than 1,200 teachers have become certified. “A lot of them say that after one or two years, they really see a difference in their school,” says De Vita.
The curriculum, he adds, will always be a work in progress. “There’s evolution in everything,” he says. He flips through the heavy NTC binder and smiles, noting that they can easily change a page if something isn’t working. “It’s the same as teaching—you never stop learning.” DT
How I Teach Pas de Chat
When breaking down pas de chat, De Vita uses the method taught in the French school. “Most of the time, the big problem in pas de chat is that the back leg starts turning in before the action of the jump,” he says. Emphasizing retiré helps students consciously maintain their turnout as they pas de chat.
Begin in fifth position with the hands on the shoulders. “When I start teaching a step, I like to place the hands on the shoulders, like in Le Corsaire, because it really works the back,” says De Vita.
Make sure that the back leg never touches the front leg in plié (a sure sign of rolling in).
Maintain proper alignment in the pointed foot to avoid sickling.
On count “and-a-3,” push off the standing foot into a jump, lifting the second leg through a turned-out retiré position as you land the first leg before finishing in fifth-position plié. Make sure that the second leg does not turn in and kick out as it leaves the floor.
Adding the port de bras: Keeping the back engaged, lower the hands from the shoulders to create fourth-position en avant with the arms. Look over the shoulder toward the direction you are jumping, keeping the chest lifted.
Don’t let the shoulder lift up or roll forward.
Photos by Kyle Froman
It’s a chilly March night, but there’s plenty of sweat inside Columbia University’s Roone Arledge Auditorium. As music blares overhead, scores of college students—proudly sporting school jackets—crowd the perimeters, hooting, whistling and cheering, smartphones held aloft to record their teammates in action.
No, this isn’t March Madness. It’s the Big Apple Dancesport Challenge (BADC), hosted by the Columbia University Ballroom Dance Team. More than 584 competitors—dressed head to toe in sparkles, feathers and tails—flaunt their fox-trots, tangos, sambas and cha-chas over the annual two-day event. While some are amateur ballroom dancers, most competitors are college students representing 67 different schools—just a sampling of the country’s hundreds of collegiate dancesport teams. These student-run organizations are open to all skill levels and coached by professionals. For those with dance backgrounds, joining a college ballroom team can provide not only a fun outlet for their skills, but also valuable social and leadership opportunities.
Ballroom’s Learning Curve
Etta Iannaccone, a senior science, technology and society major at Scripps College, grew up dancing ballet, tap, modern and jazz in La Cañada, California, and admits it felt strange not going to the studio every day after high school. “I knew I wanted to keep dancing, but I wasn’t as committed to ballet anymore,” she says. “I decided to go another way, and that way was ballroom.”
Joining her school’s ballroom team also seemed like a great way to meet people. Indeed, Yuehwern Yih and Daniel Dilley, professional American Rhythm competitors and head coaches for Purdue University’s team, admit most students initially join for the social experience. “We have to trick them into learning the technique,” says Yih, whose team has performed on “Dancing with the Stars” and is ranked second in the nation.
Most college dancesport organizations are divided into different categories based on commitment level, from social dance classes to team practices. Iannaccone soon found herself practicing four nights a week, with her weekends spent either social dancing or competing at collegiate ballroom events.
Dancers compete within their skill levels, which range from beginner (called newcomer or pre-bronze) to very advanced or championship. Yih notes that while students with previous dance training usually excel, they have to start from the beginning. “You’re in heels,” she says. “The way you plié is different. In ballroom you bend one knee at a time, and it has to roll inward—that’s what makes that crazy hip action.” Plus, there’s a lot to learn. Dancesport includes two different styles: International, which is recognized worldwide, and American, which is similar but mostly limited to the United States. International Standard/American Smooth dances are characterized by formality and grace (think waltzes, flowing dresses and tuxedos), while International Latin/American Rhythm dances are faster and sexier (lots of hip action, short skirts). Some colleges also have a formation team, which performs group numbers.
A Hard-Core Hobby
Once bitten by the ballroom bug, many students become serious about it. Nonie Shiverick—an amateur competitor and Barnard College/Columbia University alumna who, along with partner Jason Seabury, took first in champion-level Smooth at the BADC—had never had a ballroom lesson before joining Columbia’s team. Her background in figure skating, ballet and jazz came in handy, however, and it wasn’t long before she threw all of her energy into dancesport. “I took every dance form I could at Barnard,” says Shiverick, who filled her electives with dance classes. She sought out private ballroom lessons, and while studying abroad in England she trained with world champion Standard dancer John Wood. Back home, weekends were spent traveling to competitions. “It’s like being on a varsity sports team,” she says.
Iannaccone devotes up to 10 hours a week to the Claremont Colleges Ballroom Dance Company, which competes and puts on independent performances. “Our performances are more theatrical—there are lifts, tricks, a bit of a story,” says Iannaccone, who serves as CCBDC’s president. Dancers on the tour team, who are the most advanced, also have opportunities to coach other members. “It’s a good way for them to spread the knowledge that they’ve learned and have a chance to choreograph,” she adds.
Since dancesport teams are student-led organizations, there are plenty of opportunities to develop business acumen. Most schools host their own competition, which often requires months of planning. Shivrat Chhabra, who graduated from Columbia’s chemical engineering department in May, served as this year’s competition chair for the BADC. Not only did he and his committee have to book a venue a year in advance, they had to organize housing, raise funds, secure sponsorships and negotiate guest artist contracts. The experience gave his resumé an edge. “I spent half of one job interview talking about putting this event together,” says Chhabra.
“I developed a lot of skills that will help me long after I stop dancing,” says Iannaccone.
Shiverick, who co-chaired the 2012 BADC, agrees. But while students develop valuable leadership skills, the dancing is what keeps them coming back. Since graduating, Shiverick continues competing full-time as an amateur; she and Seabury are among the top Smooth couples in the Northeast. “I’m currently looking for a job that is satisfying as a career but will still allow me to ballroom dance,” she says. “When I think of my life without ballroom, it just seems kind of empty.” DT
“Alright, time for some cramp-roll love,” says Aaron Tolson midway through his afternoon intermediate-advanced tap class at Broadway Dance Center in New York City. “You know how I love the cramp rolls.”
His students groan good-naturedly in anticipation of what’s coming. “C’mon, it’s good for you,” he says with a smile, rubbing his stomach. “Vegetables!”
With his lengthy mane of dreadlocks, Batman T-shirt and two-tone purple tap shoes, Tolson exudes cool as he slowly sounds out the accent he wants: “one-ee-and-a-two-ee-and-a.” He asks his dancers to step into their cramp rolls evenly, keeping the rhythm square, rather than jumping into them with a galloping rhythm. “Then the muscle memory sticks,” he explains later. “With the exception of brush, toe-heel is the foundation of tap dance.”
After a few rounds, he changes the accents so that each sound of the cramp roll’s toe-toe-heel-heel has a moment to shine (one-ee-and-a-two-ee-and-a-three-ee-and-a-four-ee-and-a). Brows furrow in concentration as his students try to punctuate each accent, sometimes jumbling up their feet in the process. But they keep going, shifting tempos, breaking into groups and, finally, demonstrating one by one.
“You’ll probably never have to do that onstage,” he tells them afterward. “But you can!”
For Tolson, challenging students with exercises slightly beyond their technical level shows them the scope of what they’re capable of. The result is greater confidence in their abilities, as opposed to frustration or discouragement. He starts out simply, gradually tacking on new layers of complexity—crossing the feet, turning, traveling—to the original phrase, allowing his students to gain thorough practice of both the fundamentals and more advanced variations.
While his drills are tough, Tolson keeps a casual demeanor, laced with light sarcasm and humorous catchphrases. (“May the floor be with you” is a frequent blessing from the self-proclaimed Star Wars geek.) “My teaching method is based on the idea that classes should be fun and lighthearted, while still challenging each person,” he says.
Tolson, who teaches at both BDC and Peridance Capezio Center, frequently drills exercises straight through to the end of class. “I never get to my combo,” he says. “I really just love to focus on technique.” His students, many of them aspiring professionals, don’t seem to mind. He often squats down to watch intently as their feet hammer the tap-battered floor, stopping to correct not only rhythmic missteps but also improper form.
For instance, in rhythm turns, he cautions against stepping on a turned-in foot after the initial shuffle. “I always say this is $50 more in your paycheck,” he says, showing a cleanly crossed foot. “The details make such a difference. When you just do this,” he says, demonstrating a sloppy example, “it becomes mush. But when you’re very specific, you become a great dancer.”
Below, Tolson and student Hannah Kravec break down three variations of rhythm turns.
Aaron Tolson grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire, and started tapping with Joe Dussault in Lawrence, Massachusetts, at the age of 10. As a teenager, he studied under Julia Boynton and performed with Gregory Hines, Derick K. Grant and Savion Glover at the Apollo Theater. After graduating from St. John’s University, Tolson danced in a Tap Dogs training workshop and in Riverdance, and in 2010 he assistant-produced and choreographed the musical revue Imagine Tap! along with Grant. Tolson’s been on faculty at The Boston Conservatory and Plymouth State University, and he is currently on staff at Broadway Dance Center and Peridance Capezio Center. He serves as the director for Speaking In Taps, a pre-professional youth company based in Massachusetts. Together with his wife Emily and Derick K. Grant, Tolson co-directs the Tap2You competition.
Hannah Kravec is a student at Dance FX in Sunrise, Florida.
Photography by Kyle Froman
“Who likes to paint?” Vanessa Salgado asks her roomful of 5- and 6-year-old students at New York City’s Joffrey Ballet School. “Today, we’re going to pretend we’re paintbrushes and the room is a big piece of paper.” One by one she designates a color to a body part. “Let’s say our arm is the color blue,” she says as the accompanist starts a dreamy adagio. The children slowly dance around the room, waving their arms in an effort to paint the sky. “Now let’s pretend our back is pink and purple,” she prompts, and a little boy drops to the ground, scooching like an inchworm across the floor.
Throughout Salgado’s pre-ballet class, she asks her students to reach into their imaginations, interweaving simple ballet technique within their moments of make-believe. They tiptoe back and forth like giraffes, chassé like “crabbies at the beach” and practice spotting like an owl. All the while, Salgado maintains a brisk pace between exercises to keep their short attention spans engaged, stopping briefly to fix an unpointed foot or haphazard ponytail.
Her class, she explains, is designed to achieve a balance of structure and creativity. “That creative-thinking component is very important,” she says. “It helps build confidence, promotes independent thinking and I believe it is the special sauce that turns dancers into artists.” In addition to simple pliés, sautés and gallops, she leads her charges through speed, shape and level changes, exercises in spatial awareness and creative thinking, and memory games. All the while she maintains control of the room, expertly staying attuned and changing things up when necessary. “I think a really key quality of leadership is adaptability, to be able to troubleshoot and change,” she says. “Especially when you’re working with kids.”
Although Salgado has experience teaching all ages, she feels a special affinity for early childhood classes. “It’s so exciting to see a child come into the room and be so unbelievably happy,” she says. “Totally uninhibited, in love with the world, in love with the art of dance.” In return she tries to create a nurturing learning environment. “I want them to identify me as someone they can trust and as a positive influence.”
Below, Salgado and a Joffrey Ballet School pre-ballet student demonstrate a preparation exercise for marches and skips. “It’s very simple and straightforward,” she says, “but it prepares children to march with proper alignment.”
Vanessa Salgado trained with Tatiana Akinfieva-Smith, Elena Manakhova and Betty Webster in Salisbury, Maryland. Salgado developed a love for early childhood classes in middle school when Webster, a 2010 Dance Teacher Award winner, asked her to help as an assistant teacher. When Salgado moved to New York to attend the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, she took on her own classes at The Ailey School’s First Steps program. After graduation, she joined the faculties of Ballet Hispanico School of Dance and The School at Steps on Broadway. She joined the Joffrey Ballet School’s Children’s Program faculty last year and holds a certification in dance education from the Dance Education Laboratory at the 92nd Street Y. In addition to teaching, she dances for her sister Donna’s company, CONTINUUM Contemporary/Ballet.
Vanessa Salgado published a children’s book in 2012 with the help of her sister Donna, who is also a dancer. Crafterina is a ballet storybook that includes crafts that children and parents can do together. “The whole idea is if children can hone their creative thinking skills at a young age,” says Salgado, “as an adult those skills will allow them to move forward and be successful.” She often incorporates the projects—take-home crafts include tableaus, puppet theaters and paper dolls—into her class to give students an entry point for learning. “They can learn about all the different characters and scenes and make different formations with them,” she says. “They start to learn how a dancer and choreographer work.” (Crafterina.com and etsy.com/shop/Crafterina)
Photos by Kyle Froman
Bad habits—they’re enough to drive any dance teacher batty. Seeping into a student’s technique, their routine, almost involuntary nature makes them extremely difficult to break. Dance Teacher asked Finis Jhung, Irene Dowd, Sheila Barker and Pamela Pietro for their advice on conquering common bad habits they see in class.
The tendency to jut the head and chin forward feels so subtle that many dancers aren’t aware they’re doing it. Luckily, adjusting their alignment ever so slightly makes a world of difference. Irene Dowd, who teaches movement-based anatomy/physiology classes at The Juilliard School, uses these two cues to help students have a longer, more relaxed neck and face.
With your fingertip, find where the dancer’s central axis comes out through the top of the head, right above the ears. Have the student “get taller—press against my finger away toward the sky,” says Dowd.
Don’t place your fingertip too far forward on the head. “If it is, the face is going to tilt up,” she says.
For the second cue, place two fingers on the back of the head, near the base of the skull. Ask the student to “put eyes on the back of your head, open those eyes and see what is behind you.” This also refreshes the face and eases the jaw.
A common postural habit is allowing the shoulders to round forward. In a misguided effort to fix the problem, many students squeeze their shoulder blades together. Instead, Dowd recommends a multistep approach to help dancers discover a more useful strategy.
First, widen the distance between the shoulder joints to the sides, “so that both the front and the back of your shoulder girdle expands,” says Dowd.
Lift the arms to second position, reaching out with the fingertips as if to touch someone or something you love. “The third finger is going to lead the lower angle of the shoulder blade out into space,” says Dowd.
Lift the arms overhead to fifth position, which automatically widens the shoulder blades in back and wraps their lower tips around the armpits.
Limp, droopy arms are one of Sheila Barker’s pet peeves. “There’s no energy flowing through the body and the fingers,” says the popular Broadway Dance Center jazz teacher. Holding excess tension in the neck and shoulders, and failing to initiate port de bras from the back are usually the culprits (as opposed to lengthening the neck, relaxing the ribs down and rotating through the shoulder, releasing energy down the arm and past the fingers). “It’s not just about the arms,” says Barker. “It’s all connected to the body.”
To identify what muscles to engage, Barker recommends dynamic arm rotations in second position (forward and backward). Keeping the shoulders down and neck relaxed, feel the movement initiate from the upper back and scapulas. Use the breath, feeling a release through the back.
Don’t initiate movement from the shoulder girdle and neck. “It doesn’t come from the shoulders,” says Barker. “It comes from the back. There’s an energy and flow and breath that has to be included every time.”
Barker often sees energy stop at the elbows. Have students flex their wrists and wiggle the fingers to reconnect them to their lower arms and hands. “Then shake it all out to release some of that energy.”
When Pamela Pietro, an associate arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dance, asks students to narrow and concave their abdominals, they sometimes respond by splaying their ribs out into their front space. They frequently forget to utilize the back of their rib cages. “They pull together in the front, but that’s where your diaphragm is, your breathing mechanism,” says Pietro. “The rib cage needs to move out and in because there’s cardiovascular activity.”
To correct splayed ribs, lightly press your hand on the back of the student’s rib cage. “I ask them to draw their rib cage into my fingertips,” says Pietro. “It gives them an area in their back space as they widen and expand.”
At the same time, feel the feet draw into the floor while the top of the head moves up toward the ceiling. “Now we’ve created this big, wide, three-dimensional area.” For added imagery, ask students to visualize the rib cage as gills that billow in and out, rather than a static cage.
Arching the Lower Back
Arching the back is another poor postural habit that consequently releases the stomach muscles and tilts the pelvis down. When Barker sees dancers habitually sink into their lower backs, she recommends this floor exercise to help strengthen their abdominals and lengthen the spine.
Lie on your back, with knees bent and feet flat on the ground, hip width apart. Lift the arms overhead, keeping the shoulders and ribs down, and feel the stomach engage into the lower back. Take a deep breath and exhale.
On the next exhale, lift the knees again and bring hands behind the head. Inhale, and on the exhale curl the upper body in, bringing the elbows into the knees. Holding the position, take another deep breath. Relax any tension in the neck.
On the next exhalation, extend legs to 90 degrees, elbows still reaching toward the knees. Hold for two breaths. “You’re not bouncing,” says Barker. “You have a continuous flow of energy just breathing and holding.”
Hiked Working Hip
A common bad habit (noted by master teacher Finis Jhung) occurs when students hike the working hip during passé and développé. In an effort to pull up in their supporting leg or to lift the working leg higher, they neglect their hip alignment, resulting in a tilted pelvis. “It’s a bit hard to pirouette like this,” says Jhung. “It’s really easy to fall over, though!”
To help identify proper hip alignment, have students execute a simple grand plié in first position, preferably facing a mirror. Point out the squareness of the hips at the bottom of grand plié. “The knees are level with the hips, and your pelvis is not tilted,” says Jhung.
Knees Not Aligned Over Toes
When students measure their turnout based on the position of their feet, they often wrench them past their natural hip rotation. As a result, their knees don’t align over the toes (especially in plié), putting them at risk for injury. “The foot rolls in, the knee collapses and there’s no support or muscular control,” says Jhung.
To help students determine their true range of rotation from the hip, start by having them stand in parallel facing a mirror, with both hands on the barre. Lift the right leg to 45 degrees, keeping the foot flexed.
Holding Tension in the Feet
“This habit drives me crazy,” says Pietro. “Students do not use their feet to the fullest expansion, so the toes start crunching.” She cites over-pointing the foot as the source of tension. “Aesthetically it’s a great line,” she says, but dancers often neglect to release the foot as it articulates through the floor, especially while attempting to find their balance or move rapidly. “I like them to feel the extension of the foot drawing into the floor, so that they’re using the entire foot—the top, the bottom and all the way around.”
To find the full surface of the foot on the floor, imagine the space between the ball of the big toe, ball of the little toe and the inside and outside edge of the heel growing wider, while the fascia underneath the foot spreads out.
Photographed by Kyle Froman
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
Prevent and treat common nail injuries.
Few problems are as painful and unsightly as a battered toenail. Sarah Chisholm, a dancer with Ballet Arizona, knows this well. She has suffered from chronic bruised and ingrown nails throughout much of her career. “It’s hard to focus on your work when you’re always worrying about how much your feet hurt,” she says. “You don’t get to think about the joy that comes from dancing.”
Dancers spend hours crammed into sweaty shoes, making them great candidates for ingrown nails, bruising and nail fungus. Though these aren’t usually threatening enough to force someone to take time off, they can cause days, weeks or even months of painful distraction. Many nail problems can be prevented by taking small precautions.
A bruised nail might last several months, and the condition can be extremely painful. Often caused by stubbing the toe or knuckling over on pointe, the nail shifts over its bed where many blood vessels meet, causing bleeding under the nail. Long toenails and tight shoes or pointe shoe boxes that don’t match a dancer’s foot type can also put excessive pressure on the toes.
After bruising, ice the foot to soothe the pain. And regularly clean the area to prevent infection. “The dried blood under the nail bed is a breeding ground for bacteria,” says podiatrist Dr. Thomas Novella, who works with New York City dancers.
The nail may eventually loosen or fall off, but keep it intact as long as possible. “Band-Aid or tape it in place until a new nail begins to grow,” says Novella. Toenails grow just 1–2 millimeters per month, so it can take up to a year for a new one to fully form.
While growing a new nail, Chisholm applies 2nd Skin, a jelly-like adhesive that can be cut to size. “I stick it on my toenail, and it acts as a buffer,” she says. “It’s very cooling and helps with impact.”
Ingrown toenails are common in young dancers, whose nail plates have not yet strengthened, and those with nails that curve side to side. Chronic bruising can also damage nail beds enough so they grow back incorrectly, says Atlanta Ballet podiatrist Dr. Frank Sinkoe. “If it’s disrupted, it can cause an abnormality,” he says. Trim the nail to match the toe’s shape to help prevent ingrowns; be careful not to cut too far into the corners.
To soften the nail as it grows out, soak the foot in an Epsom salt and warm water bath. Resist the urge to pick; it could cause infection. If the pain is unbearable or there is swelling, redness and increased skin temperature, see a podiatrist. If it’s not infected, they can pack cotton deep under the nail. “This helps guide the skin away from the nail as it grows,” says Novella. In chronic cases, podiatrists can permanently remove the sides of the nail as a preventive measure.
Fungal toenails are rarely painful, but they’re extremely unsightly and hard to treat. The nails are yellowed, thick and crumbly, and the surrounding skin is red and scaly. They often have a yeasty odor and powdery debris.
Novella says to seek help after noticing symptoms because “addressing fungus early will help a lot in the long run.” To diagnose the fungus, a podiatrist sends a snippet of the nail to a lab, and if confirmed, may suggest topical creams. Oral medications are most effective, but they can cause serious side effects like liver damage.
To prevent toenail fungus, change socks frequently and dry out dance shoes and toe pads. “Funghi is Italian for mushrooms. And where do mushrooms like to grow? Moist, dark places, like under logs—or inside sweaty shoes,” says Novella. He adds that the condition is contagious, so students should avoid sharing shoes, socks and nail clippers. DT
Students need strong feet for pointe work, but few concentrate on their toes specifically. “Fatigue sets in and they start knuckling,” says Atlanta Ballet podiatrist Dr. Frank Sinkoe. This puts excess pressure on the nails, causing bruising. The exercises below strengthen the arch and intrinsic muscles, which flex the toes and support the feet.
Tendus for the Toes: Sitting on the floor with the legs in parallel, wrap a Thera-Band around the ball and toes of the foot, holding the ends of the band, and tendu side, turned in. Keeping the toes straight and long, flex and extend only from the metatarsals, 10 times.
Arch Squats: In parallel position, lift one leg off the floor to the side. Plié to 30 degrees and focus on maintaining the arch’s dome shape. Hold for five seconds and return to the starting position. Do 10 repetitions.
Slow Relevés: On one foot, relevé to demi-pointe on count one. Hold count two, rolling down on three. Complete three sets of 10 in both parallel and turned-out positions.
Amy Brandt dances with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet.