As a young ballet dancer, Peter LeBreton Merz would often get into trouble for taking his shoes off in school and picking up pencils with his toes. "I was born flat-footed," says the current director of the Ballet West Academy. "I wanted my feet to get strong enough so I could sustain a full pointe."
It takes time for dancers to develop clean, well-articulated footwork. Some people, like Merz, spend years working to overcome flat, stiff arches. Other dancers continuously overstretch and struggle with feet that are floppy and weak. The right balance of strength and flexibility can maximize facility and lend the necessary control for supple and expressive feet. Though the exercises offered here to combat inarticulate feet are ballet-focused, they can easily apply to other dance styles.
Knowing how quickly to move through a ballet class can be tricky. If you go too slowly, students can get cold or lose interest. If you move too fast, they don't benefit from individual corrections and attention to detail. The pace depends on a group's age and ability, too. We asked three teachers how they ensure that the timing of a 90-minute class delivers the best results.
Former American Ballet Theatre soloist Anna Liceica has been judging the Youth America Grand Prix since 2007. "Once in a while, we see someone who tries to do too many turns without good form or musicality," she says. "We don't encourage it, and that dancer does not place high." Judges (and artistic directors in attendance) might appreciate the spectacle, but they take technique and artistry into account when assessing the overall dancer. "Of course it's nice to do a lot of pirouettes and jump high," says Liceica. "But if the rest isn't there, the tricks mean nothing."
Christy Wolverton had a student who often either missed class or seemed to be sick. "When you're in our pre-professional company, attendance is huge," says Wolverton, owner and director of Dance Industry Performing Arts Center in Plano, Texas. She tried to be patient with the dancer and communicate with her parents to get a better idea of what was going on at home. "When she was diagnosed with a serious illness," she says, "we were relieved that we didn't come down on her for something that wasn't her fault."
Most ballet teachers like to reserve the last part of class for jumping, a time when students happily try to defy gravity and take flight. But some dancers have difficulty getting off the ground. Maybe they don't use their plié or struggle to coordinate their arms and legs to achieve a strong position in the air. “Dancers have to be patient and set themselves up properly," says Philip Neal, artistic director of Next Generation Ballet in Tampa, Florida. “Developing good jumps is a process, not an event." The key parts to that process? All good jumps require good placement, rhythm and practice.
At San Francisco Ballet School, Henry Berg's conditioning program is affectionately known as “rehab." Dancers take this class when they're coming back from an injury and building up to their full school or company schedule. Rehab often starts on the floor with non-weight-bearing exercises and gradually progresses through a classical ballet barre and center. “I try to get them back as fast as possible," says Berg, “but they have to work slowly and correctly."
Not all schools can offer a separate rehabilitation class for injured students. More likely, dancers show up for class after having some time off for injury and are anxious to go full speed ahead. But teachers need to keep a close eye on them and make sure they don't do too much too fast. Watch for warning signs of overuse, practice good communication and encourage dancers to complete work outside the studio to ensure they make a full recovery.
Homer Bryant teaches an unconventional pointe class at the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center. Holding on to the barre, students do 32 relevés—on a trampoline. "Then we put the trampoline in the center of the room for jumps," he says. "This kind of training makes their legs stronger, so they can move fast."
Working on a trampoline might not be for everyone, but there's no doubt that strength training can help build speed. Full-body conditioning gives dancers the ability to fire their muscles quickly and the stamina to prevent fatigue. Yet strength and endurance are only part of the recipe. Dancers need the right energy, mental focus and musicality to learn how to move their bodies at a faster speed.
“Dance isn't about the flashy moment."
—Brenda Daniels, UNCSAAt the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Brenda Daniels includes in her syllabus a quote from Merce Cunningham describing how every movement is just as important as the next. “We don't prioritize big steps—we show how every tendu or gesture with the arm is fully investigated and embodied," she says. “I want my students to understand that dance isn't about the flashy moments, but the connecting steps or moments in between."
Thinking about how movements connect is a more mature concept than basic vocabulary, alignment or coordination, but it's one that can be introduced early on and emphasized throughout a dancer's training. Let class be an opportunity for students to develop the quality and artistry of each transition step. “Like any other correction," says Daniels, “if you emphasize the idea again and again, students start to incorporate it on their own."
Take It Slow
Preparatory connecting steps require precision in order to appear seamless and ensure that what follows—a pirouette, balance or jump—goes well. Igor Burlak, teacher at Boston Ballet School, for instance, emphasizes the importance of turnout in a glissade before assemblé. “I have students face the barre and break it down as much as possible," he says. “We go super slow, so that each move takes one or two counts." Then, when students try these steps in center, they are more likely to connect them smoothly.
Terri Best, jazz instructor at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, reminds her students to be mindful of using a good plié and maintaining turnout in connecting steps. “Some people do tombé pas de bourrée and turn in that last step before they take off for grand jeté," she says. “It doesn't set them up well for the big jump." Best will show this mistake and exaggerate the step by doing it very flat-footed. “I make my point through a little bit of humor," she says, “but then they understand."
Make It Visual and Physical
Teachers should show the proper way to connect steps, or have someone else demonstrate for the class. “If dancers can see what I'm talking about, then they appreciate the value and begin paying more attention," says Best. Daniels suggests offering only one or two corrections at a time and pointing out someone who is making the transition between two particular movements well.
Students should have ample opportunity to practice the movements, too. Daniels structures her class so that dancers go across the floor multiple times. “They should be physical and sweat," she says. Give students the chance to work in a detailed way and find an approach that is most successful for them.
Use the Music
The music can be supportive in a way that eases transitions. Burlak often asks the pianist to play first, before the dancers attempt a combination. “We'll listen for the transition between notes and phrases and relate it to the physical exercise," he says. “Then they see that dancing is like a beautiful melody when they move."
Daniels encourages students to use their breath and imagine that the music is an ocean underneath them. “Maybe they're in a little boat of movement on top of the water that's swelling, ebbing and flowing," she says. Or maybe the music is atonal or jarring. In that case, dancers need to make an abrupt change from one step to the next. “It's good for students to toggle back and forth between these two approaches," she says.
Terri Best demonstrating the right way to connect stepsTreat Every Step Equally
Best thinks that dancers also need to have the right mind-set. “If they're thinking of the next big thing, they're not in the present moment, staying in character or expressing themselves fully," she says. Remind students that the audience can see them even when they face upstage, and encourage them to stay grounded in the story or character. “Every step is equally visible and should be executed with the same attention to detail, commitment, precision and focus," she says. “Poor transitions can take the audience out of the moment."
Ask students to be aware of the lines and shapes they create as they seamlessly move through space. “Students always try to please their teachers," says Daniels. “If they sense it's an important issue to you, they'll do everything they can to achieve it." DT
Julie Diana was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. She and her husband Zachary Hench now direct Juneau Dance Theatre in Alaska.
Photos: by Garrett Parker, courtesy of UNCSA; by Adam Parson, courtesy of Edge Performing Arts Center