Marcia Dale Weary in class at CPYB

Teaching ballet variations class

To this day, George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux gives me goose bumps. I was a young student when I first learned the woman’s solo in variations class, watching eagerly as our guest teacher, the great Edward Villella, went over the steps and spacing. His energy and attention to detail so inspired me that when the sound of Tschaikovsky’s glorious music filled the studio, I began to dance with indescribable joy. This was the moment I fell in love with ballet.

Variations class can motivate students like no other method of study. It gives them the opportunity to apply their technique in a meaningful context without the pressures associated with performance. But as a teacher, how do you choose an appropriate variation for class? How do you balance the time spent teaching steps with the time spent working on artistic interpretation? Consider the following suggestions as you prepare your next variations class.

Start Simple

Variations class should challenge students but not overwhelm their technical ability. Marcia Dale Weary, founder of the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, starts beginner pointe students with a simple variation, such as the Diamond Fairy from Act III of Sleeping Beauty. “With the little ones,” she says, “if I’m just starting a variation with them, I make sure that they have had all the steps in class. For the Diamond Fairy, those are emboîtés, contretemps and entrechats trois.” The more advanced students at CPYB work on variations from the ballets that the school will be performing later on. Dale Weary teaches all of them the lead roles, then casts the ones she thinks will be most suitable.

Francesca Corkle of the Joffrey Ballet School also begins her less advanced students with something simple. She uses Swanhilda’s first act variation from Frederick Ashton’s Coppélia because of its straightforward technique and pantomime, and because it was one of her favorite ballets to dance. In fact, Corkle prefers to teach only variations she has performed. “In doing so,” she explains, “I feel that I can impart the musicality and the little details that made the variation special for me.”

Take the Time

When you have a variations class for just one hour once or twice a week, it can be difficult to get through all the steps and work on artistic development. But students need to return to the same variation again and again in order to apply corrections and to familiarize themselves with choreographic details. “I don’t teach one variation in a class and let it go,” says Corkle. “One variation may last a month, or two months—however long it takes for the students to understand the artistry, the technique, the personality and the facial expressions.” First, she lets the class learn and absorb the choreography. Then she fine-tunes each detail, encouraging students to add their own touches. Corkle tells her students: “The reason your favorite ballerinas are your favorites is because of the little things. It’s not that they do 32 fouettés. It’s how they do them.”

If, like most teachers, you don’t have the luxury of spending months coaching a variation, consider giving your students a few key corrections to work with on their own time. Encourage them to practice difficult steps, or suggest that they go through the solo using just their port de bras. The corrections can be technical or relate to the quality of the dance—whichever aspect is giving them the most trouble.

Contextualize

It helps to put a variation into context. In a story ballet, for example, who is the character and how does her solo fit within the narrative? Or, if the variation is contemporary, what is the style of the  piece? Another one of the reasons Corkle likes to teach technically simple variations is that they allow the teacher to spend less time teaching steps and more time describing the atmosphere of the ballet, so that students can dance as if they’re performing. She spends at least a few minutes during each class talking about the setting, lighting, scenery and costumes, as well as what the character is thinking and feeling.

To emphasize character development, Claudio Muñoz, a ballet master at Houston Ballet II, divides classical variations into parts. He feels that the Prince in Swan Lake, for example, requires three different moods when dancing the Black Swan variation. “The first section is elegant and regal,” he explains. “The middle is romantic, and the end is full of attack and bravura. You have to be three different people in one variation.” Teaching the solo, he’ll work on each section separately, as if it were an independent variation, highlighting the different facets of the Prince’s personality. This way students learn how character development can make a role more engaging—even within a single variation.

Use Visual Images

Videos and DVDs, particularly ones showing different dancers’ interpretations of the same variation, can sometimes be helpful—but they are not necessary. Instead, Dale Weary uses vivid verbal description. “For the Diamond Fairy, for example,” she says, “I tell my students to ‘sparkle like diamonds’ to emphasize the sharpness of the movement.” Visual images like this help her students to get the right feeling and allow them to shape their own take on the solo, rather than copy another dancer’s version as captured on film.

It is important to nurture individuality when teaching variations class, because it’s a place where students can develop as artists as they try on roles they’ve always dreamed of dancing. If you select the right variation and teach it well, your students will undoubtedly be inspired. I know I certainly was. DT

Julie Diana is a principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania.

Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Introducing and teaching rhythm can seem easy, but in reality it can prove to be a complicated concept—especially for younger dancers to grasp. At Ballet Hispánico's School of Dance in New York City, Los Explorers for 3- to 5-year-olds uses classic salsa and tango music to help kids acquire rhythmic awareness.

Here Rebecca Tsivkin, early childhood programs associate, and Kiri Avelar, associate school director, offer exercises to help youngsters feel the beat.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Buzz
Panelists (left to right): Emily Nusbaum, Eric Kupers, Judith Smith, Deborah Karp and Suzanna Curtis. Photo by Aiano Nakagawa, courtesy of Luna Dance Institute

This past Saturday, I visited Luna Dance Institute in Berkeley, California, to attend the Dance & Disability Discourse & Panel—a discussion with five artists, educators and researchers about access and equity for disabled students in dance education. Here are three statements from the discussion that I found eye-opening.

Keep reading... Show less
How-To
Todd Rosenlieb, left, of The Governor's School for the Arts. Photo by Victor Frailing, courtesy of Todd Rosenlieb

You're setting choreography on your class and most of the students are picking it up. One dancer, though, is having difficulty remembering the steps. You review the material several times, but you fear that this is starting to hold back your more advanced students. Still, you're worried the struggling dancer will be left behind. What is the best way to proceed?

Memorizing choreography is an essential skill for dancers. Fast learners have more time to work on the technique and artistry within a combination, and they are often the first to catch the eyes of directors. Like most skills, learning pace can be improved. Encouraging students to develop their own memorization methods will help them approach choreography with confidence.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Neuromuscular expert Deborah Vogel with Jordan Lazan, right. Photo by Jim Lafferty

By strengthening the intrinsic muscles of the foot and ankle, a dancer can help prevent or correct existing pronation. Having strong intrinsic foot muscles keeps the arches aligned, preventing them from dropping inward.

Here, Vogel shares three strengthening exercises to help correct and prevent pronation. She advises dancers to include these in their cross-training regimen.

Mobilize your ankles. (Step 1)

For this ankle mobilization exercise, having a TheraBand wrapped around your ankles puts pressure on your feet to pronate. By resisting that action and keeping your feet centered through the relevé, you're essentially training the ankle where center is.

  • Sitting up straight in a chair, with your feet planted on the floor a few inches apart, tie a TheraBand in a loop around your ankles. You can place a yoga block vertically in between your knees to maintain space between your legs.

Next Page
How-To
Photo courtesy of New York Live Arts

Ellen Robbins' modern dance classes for kids and teens are legendary in New York City. Robbins, who has been teaching kids how to dance since the 1970s (and whose pupils included the actresses Claire Danes and Julia Stiles), takes the standard recital model and turns it on its head. Her students—ranging in age from 8 to 18—are the choreographers for the annual concert she produces at esteemed NYC venue New York Live Arts.

If that approach sounds borderline insane to you (we know you're all deep in the throes of recital season right now), consider Robbins' unique teaching philosophy: Improvisation is present in every aspect of class, for every age group. Here are four ways she shapes her youngest dancers into choreographers—almost without their realizing it!

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers & Role Models
Former students of Kelley gather around a cardboard cutout made in his honor at the recent tribute. Photo courtesy of Merritt

Every dancer has a teacher who makes an impression. The kind of impression that makes you want to become a dancer or a teacher in the first place. For Mara Merritt, owner of Merritt Dance Center in Schenectady, NY, and countless others, that teacher was Charles Kelley.

Known as "Chuck" to most, Kelley was born December 4, 1936. He was a master teacher in tap, jazz and acrobatics, who wrote syllabuses for national dance conventions like Dance Masters of America. Growing up in upstate New York, Merritt's parents, both dance teachers, took her into Manhattan every Friday to study with Kelley. First at the old Ed Sullivan Theater and the New York Center of Dance in Times Square, then years later at Broadway Dance Center.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored