Teaching Tips

3 Tips for Higher and Stronger Relevés

Photo by Beau Pearson, courtesy of Ballet West

Jeffrey Rogers, faculty teacher at Ballet West Academy, remembers working with a student who struggled to find control on demi-pointe. "The boy had very arched feet and hyperextended legs, and tended to sink into his lower back," he says. Rogers focused on posture and weight placement until the boy stood upright and lifted, with his spine and pelvis in a neutral position. "When he started thinking of pressing the balls of his feet into the ground," says Rogers, "he found his relevé and balance at the same time."

A strong demi-pointe is a sign of good, healthy technique that enables students to achieve a full range of steps. While dancers might not always get the height they want, they can work toward a lifted relevé that looks aesthetically pleasing and feels stable at the same time. Teachers can help by focusing on good placement and nurturing a balance of strength and flexibility, even with their youngest dancers.

1. Maintain alignment

At Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Youth Dance Program, teacher Mary Tarpley uses the word "stackability" to describe the foundation of a good relevé. "The toes should be flat on the floor, with the metatarsals aiming for a 90-degree bend," she says. "The front of the ankle should be over the ball of the foot, making a straight line that leads all the way up the leg." Tarpley tells students to imagine that their body position in relevé is tall and aligned, like a fully intact Jenga tower.

Dancers should be careful not to roll to their little toes on demi-pointe, because it could cause ankle sprains and other injuries. Rolling toward the big toe, or pronating, could cause bunion problems and put unnecessary strain on ankle and knee joints. Miranda Weese, children's ballet master at Boston Ballet School, asks students to keep their weight centered over the second toe. "It puts dancers in a more balanced position and allows their muscles to pull up and create the highest line," says Weese.

Photo by Igor Burlak, courtesy of Boston Ballet

2. Build strength

Dancers need strength to maintain a strong demi-pointe, especially on one foot. "Relevés are incredible strength builders, but it's how they're done—not how many you do—that makes you stronger," says Weese. She instructs dancers to pull up and think of wrapping muscles around from the tops of the hips and down through the seat and backs of the legs. "Have them do deep pliés and stretch their calves in between repetitions and after exercises," she says.

Rogers gives several combinations on relevé in class, like frappé, adagio and grands battements. "Don't go horribly slow," he says, "but keep a steady tempo so that students can think about placement and make sure the knee is tracking over the toes, hips are lifted and weight's not in the heel." He suggests that dancers push into the ground and press to demi-pointe—not jump. Working on relevé throughout class builds strength, stamina and good muscle memory.

3. Gain height

Not all dancers have flexible metatarsals, toe joints or ankles that bend sufficiently for a high demi-pointe. But they can work toward developing their personal best range of motion over time. To increase mobility, Tarpley has students sit on the floor and stretch their legs in front of them. "We keep the ankle pointed and just point and relax the toes to work on flexibility," she says. "If dancers push for a high relevé before they have the flexion or strength, they'll most likely sickle the foot and risk injury."

Tarpley also encourages teachers to develop a path for each student, with the understanding that achieving a high demi-pointe is not an overnight fix. "Motivate them to go a centimeter higher each time so they break the habit of hanging back on a low relevé," says Tarpley. "They need to stay persistent and keep pushing, so that their best demi-pointe will eventually become second nature."

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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