A Return to Classicism

Gelsey Kirkland shares her passionate approach to traditional ballet training.

Dawn Gierling and Cristian Laverde Koenig, in Antony Tudor’s The Leaves are Fading

Ask Gelsey Kirkland to elucidate her idea of classicism and it’s easy to recall the hallmarks of her dancing, all that made her genius blaze: “It’s opposite to chaos,” she says. “It’s unity, wholeness, simplicity, a quality of patience in the body, plasticity. The body has to be able to absorb and radiate light. You have to be open, and the geometry has to be clear. It has to be very organized, and the body has to be working mechanically in an efficient way that’s not pushed.”

In their yin/yang manner of discourse, Michael Chernov, Kirkland’s husband and co-artistic director of the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet, chimes in with a definition that expands beyond classical ballet. “Classicism is something that is recognized through time,” he says. “What’s classical in ancient Greece is recognized now and later. That occurs because of the qualities Gelsey is referring to—the symmetry, the harmony, the wholeness.” The idea behind classicism, he proposes, dives to the root of human nature. Are we merely flesh and blood shuffling off our mortal coil or do we possess a divine spark?

With precepts like that, establishing, running and adapting a ballet school—theirs has 80 students in the professional division, 15 in the pre-professional level and five levels in the children’s division—to today’s students could be considered somewhat of a challenge, particularly in an age where hype and mediocrity too often trump classicism, not just in ballet but in the culture at large. And yet, if you watch any of the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet’s performances of chestnuts such as The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty (for the 2014–15 season it’s Don Quixote), you can see the effect of the training—even in the youngest dancers. The students are encouraged to revere the components of classicism. This results in centered pirouettes; lengthened lines of the body; port de bras that’s never thrown away; well-motivated acting; buoyant jumps; a healthy relationship to space and to other dancers; and an organic sense of purpose onstage. 

Kirkland and Chernov confer; (below) Eva Janiszewski teaches a summer intensive class.

In her own journey, Kirkland began as a student at The School of American Ballet, became a star at New York City Ballet as a teenager and subsequently joined American Ballet Theatre to dance the classics with Baryshnikov. Along that bumpy path, as documented in her book Dancing on My Grave, she worked with teachers such as Maggie Black and David Howard and became a muse for Balanchine, Robbins and Tudor, among others. She seemed like the perfect image of the eclecticism of American ballet: speed, drive, ambition toward perfection, perfectly streamlined technique, musicality, the versatility to dance anything with élan—sort of a Meryl Streep on pointe.

And yet, she points out, she learned classicism in reverse, backtracking from Balanchine’s neoclassicism to Petipa’s classicism. She doesn’t want her students to do that. “You can make the classical instrument go in many different directions,” she says. “I’ve experienced people who are trained in a particular neoclassical style not being able to do the classics. I’m a big believer that if you start at the center, you can move out from there. But you can’t go the other way.”

Chernov, who studied ballet and theater at the National Ballet and Theatre School in Melbourne, Australia, and the Urdang Academy in London, and danced in Europe and Australia until his retirement in 1986, offers the analogy of classical drama. “You can’t do a university course where you do four weeks of Shakespeare, four weeks of Chekhov and four weeks of Pinter,” he explains. A student needs an immersion in the spirit and language of classical theater, and a ballet dancer, they feel, needs the same with Petipa and Bournonville. “If you are doing a little bit of everything, you’ll never learn what style is, because everything will look the same—generic. That’s the summary one can make of contemporary life—that everything is becoming the same,” he adds.

And so, the GKA curriculum follows what might be considered an evolved Vaganova syllabus, which incorporates principles of alignment from Maggie Black, David Howard’s ideas about kinesiology-based movement, the core dynamics of Dreas Reyneke (who trained Kirkland at his renowned Pilates-based studio in London) and mime and acting directly with Pilar Garcia (who served as drama and mime coach to Kirkland during her ABT career). “The reason we chose Vaganova is because it’s the most logical system, the most scientifically thought-through system,” says Chernov. “We do work with the Russian system, but it’s our understanding and interpretation of all of that that makes it unique,” says Kirkland.

Summer session at the Tribeca studios

Both Kirkland and Chernov became convinced of the value of Russian-based training during their Vaganova teacher training, completed in 2003 at the Victorian College of the Arts in Australia, and two years separately with Russian master teacher Nina Osipyan, a former ballerina with the Moscow Classical Ballet. “Her teaching was the epitome of simplicity and naturalness,” says Kirkland. “The alignment was beautifully harmonious. It didn’t look pushed. I did her classes all the time and wrote them down.”

Most professional American dancers feel that their experience alone grants them the credentials to teach. But Kirkland realized that she needed to learn a step-by-step process, including the principle of “the divided exercise,” the Vaganova method of breaking down steps technically and teaching them at the appropriate ages.

When you watch Kirkland, now 61, teach in the GKA’s spacious, column-free, light-filled studios in Tribeca, the ease, fluidity and purposefulness of the movement help you to understand how she achieved the rapid-fire precision of Theme and Variations or the lyrical authenticity of her Giselle. One of the great powers of the school is the students’ opportunity to directly observe that.

Two examples of the specificity of Russian training are the use of the upper body and focus. The Russian emphasis on épaulement, the coordination of the port de bras, head and torso movement, Kirkland stresses, is often mistaken for style when it is actually organic principles of movement and balanced dancing. The focus comes when a student finds her own center and allows the diagonals of focus to emanate from that center, rather than gravitating to the corners of a studio or stage. With that clear focus, the student can relate directly to other dancers and to the stage space. When that happens, says Kirkland, “You can see a person.”

Kirkland and Chernov feel that pasting acting skills onto a dancer doesn’t work; dramatic motivation, including mime, must move through the body. “You have to find a plasticity and make choices to create a character,” says Chernov. “You have to understand how to embody your acting. And you have to train students on the classics,” like a piano student training on Mozart before experimenting with contemporary composers. The students sometimes even vocalize before class, to literally find their voice.

Kirkland and Chernov have trained five teachers in their method.

As for mime, an elusive artform for 21st-century dancers, “The first thing we tell them is it’s going to feel totally unnatural,” says Kirkland. Because storytelling through the classics is the GKA medium for developing dramatic technique, they introduce it at a young age. Last summer, the school inaugurated its Storybook Ballet Camp, for ages 3 to 8, consisting of five days covering five classical ballets: The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, Peter and the Wolf, Coppélia and Swan Lake. Each day, Pilar Garcia relates the story and teaches movement to the music.

During her performing career, Kirkland struggled mightily with the need to be perfect, an irony for many who viewed her dancing as flawless. When it comes to the GKA students, she’s determined to stop that in the doorway. “Perfectionism is the obsession,” says Chernov. “Working toward perfection is a process.”

“At the school we take in many different body types,” says Kirkland. “And so the hope is that we’ll eventually be able to work on the specifics of how to create a classical instrument within each limited body, depending on what God gave them as a gift.” Seeking perfection, in other words, can’t include the coveting of someone else’s impossibly long legs or metabolically blessed body.

What the GKA does focus on, however, is breaking bad habits that permeate much of American ballet training. “Ive had a lot of remedial training,” says Kirkland, referring to her odyssey from eclecticism to classicism. “And that’s what we do here—fast track people. So we try to find creative ways to undo those habits and keep it interesting to them,” whether it’s unlocking a misaligned torso or re-coordinating a blockage in pirouettes en dedans.

During Storybook Ballet Camp, students learn about five classical ballets.

Alexandra Gonzalez leads a Storybook
Ballet Camp session for 3- to 8-year-olds.

Within the organization, Kirkland and Chernov have trained five teachers in their method and would like to establish relationships with other schools. But because their teacher training requires time, says Chernov, “You can’t do it the way ABT’s doing it with a two-week course. You have to embody the training.”

Kirkland and Chernov’s strength as a team works because of their symbiotic relationship. That’s partially what attracted Dawn Gierling, who has danced the leads in The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty with the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet (which features 23 company members who have studied at the school, with additional casting from current students. Chernov and Kirkland want to expand it into a classical company that can rival ABT and NYCB). From Dawn’s first audition, her mother, Diane Gierling, saw that the school was the model they were looking for after trying several schools, including The Harid Conservatory. “The dynamics were there,” she says. “Misha (Chernov) wears 22 hats and he wears them well. And Gelsey’s methodology is top-notch.” In addition to the resources, such as individual coaching and access to first-rate medical specialists, such as Drs. William and Linda Hamilton, Gierling was impressed by the production values of the performances and how the dancers actually enjoyed what they were doing.

The Kirkland Ballet will perform The Nutcracker at Schimmel Center at Pace University, NYC, December 11–21. (Dancers shown are Galen Bolard and Marko Micov. )

Through the process of running a school, both Kirkland and Chernov have learned plenty: diplomacy, patience, organization, stage management and how to corral resources. “You learn what you’re good at and what you’re bad at,” says Chernov. “You learn to hand over control for what you’re bad at or what you haven’t got the energy for…but not too quickly.” DT

A former soloist with American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet, Joseph Carman is a longtime contributor to Dance Magazine, Pointe and Dance Teacher.

Photos from top: by Luis Pons, courtesy of GKA;  (6) by Kyle Froman; by Igor Siggul, courtesy of GKA

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.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

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.


Finally compelled to speak up, Griffith led a virtual seminar in June for the entire dance community entitled "Racism and the Dance World." Over a thousand people viewed her presentation, which was inspired in part by the mentorship of longtime family friend Dr. Joy DeGruy, an expert on institutionalized racism. Floored but encouraged by such a large turnout, Griffith quickly prepared a follow-up seminar, which also had a positive response.

"Teachers kept reaching out to me and saying, How do I talk to my students about this? They don't care about anything but steps," she says.

In response, Griffith designed a six-week professional-development program—Roots, Rhythm, Race & Dance, or R3 Dance—for teachers of any style seeking ways to introduce age-appropriate concepts about race and dance history to their students. The history of the art form, she points out, is the context in which we all teach and perform every day.

Griffith laughs, with eyes closed and fingers snapping to the side, as she demonstrates in front of a class of adults. A toddler is at her side, also in tap shoes

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"The white hip-hop teacher asking why Black people are trolling them on Instagram happens against the same backdrop as Tamir Rice holding a pellet gun and not surviving a confrontation with police," she says. "We try to see them as separate things, but they're really not."

R3 Dance isn't the first program Griffith, a 43-year-old mother of two, created for teachers. Since 2018, she has run the Facebook group "Dance Studios on Tap!," a space for sharing struggles and successes in the classroom, teaching tips and ideas on growing studio tap programs.

She has also offered a 10-week, online teacher training program, "Tap Teachers' Lounge," since 2018. Through lecture-demonstrations, discussions, dance classes and workshop sessions, Griffith helps studio instructors increase student enrollment, engagement and success in their tap programs.

"I had started to feel what so many professionals know from experience," she says. "There are huge gaps in people's training, and teachers don't get the benefit of individualized, process-oriented feedback about their pedagogy, especially when it comes to tap dance."

Griffith knew she could help fill in many of those gaps. She also suspected her resumé would appeal to a variety of tap teachers: Some might be impressed by her teaching credits at Pace University and Broadway Dance Center, while others would notice her experience with the Rockettes and Cirque du Soleil, or her connections to tap artists such as Chloe Arnold and Dormeshia.

Griffith also knew that many tap teachers are the sole tap instructors at their studios and have few opportunities to attend tap festivals or master classes. With her programs, they can learn exclusively online, without having to travel, while still teaching their weekly classes.

A key feature of the teacher training program is that participants submit video of exercises they've been working on and get feedback from Griffith. They're expected to implement that feedback and report back on their progress the following week. For Griffith, that accountability is a cornerstone of her pedagogy.

"Teaching is a practice—you have to put it on its feet, you have to do it," she says. "I want to give teachers the tools they need for their practice, and then talk about how that practice informs their preparation in the future, just like how you would teach anything else."

Griffith walks across the front of a studio, clapping her hands, as a large class of teen students practice a tap combination

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

Griffith takes a similar approach for R3 Dance, which last year included 180 participants from around the world working in public schools, private studios, universities and other settings, teaching both tap and social dance. Teachers might bring an anti-racist statement they're drafting for their studio, for example, or a lesson plan or proposed changes to a college syllabus.

Griffith also gives teachers the knowledge to confidently structure and lead conversations about race in the dance industry. Participants typically come with a range of comfort levels in discussing race, says Griffith, some just beginning to comprehend race as a factor in dance. Others have read books and watched documentaries but don't know how to translate what they've learned into lessons. Some worry that starting difficult conversations with colleagues or students will get them fired or reprimanded.

But Griffith says she's been encouraged by the ways in which participants have reflected on everything from their costuming and choreography to their social media presence and hiring practices as a result of the program.

"It's been really inspiring to see more teachers taking this part of history with the gravity that it deserves—not in a way that makes them cry, but that makes them get to work," she says.

For instance, Maygan Wurzer, founder and director of All That Dance in Seattle, Washington, found her studio's diversity and inclusion program enhanced after attending R3 Dance with two of her colleagues. This includes a living document where all 19 instructors share materials that they're using to diversify their curriculum, such as lessons on tap and modern dancers of color, and asking teen students to research the history of race in various dance genres and present their findings.

These changes address a common problem that Griffith notices: Teachers give lessons on certain styles, steps or artists without providing sufficient historical context. For example, it's important to know who Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers were, but it's equally vital to understand how racism contributed to the former having a more prominent place in the annals of dance history.

Griffith stands next to a large screen with a powerpoint presentation showing the name "Bill Bojangles Robinson" with some photos. She holds a microphone and speaks to a large group of students who sit on the ground

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"Topics like privilege and cultural appropriation need the same kind of thought and vision as teaching technique," she explains. "You have to layer those conversations, just like you wouldn't teach fouetté turns to a level-one student."

For educators who have finished one or both of her programs, Griffith is scheduling regular meetings to discuss further implementation strategies and lead additional workshopping sessions.

"As educators, we're excavators who bring out what we can in our students," she says. "But sometimes our tools get dull, and we need to keep sharpening them."

Ultimately, Griffith says that this work has been empowering not just for her students but also for her.

"Dance teachers are completely fine with being uncomfortable and taking feedback," she says. "I found an energy to do this work because there are so many people who are willing to do it with me."

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.

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