How I teach ballet

Tuttle (left) and Einhorn at Mark Morris Dance Center

The Friday night dinner hour may not seem a prime-time slot for an adult beginner/intermediate ballet class. However, former American Ballet Theatre principal Ashley Tuttle had such a loyal following in her Thursday night classes that when her students—largely young adults—demanded a second session and the only time available was Friday at 7 pm, they decided to make it work, even if it meant sore calves two days in a row and a delayed start to a night out on the town.

A mix of former, current and pre-professional dancers take Tuttle up on this chance, in addition to complete adult beginners and newly christened intermediates. They flock to her class at Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn for its undogmatic blend of musicality, brainteasers and playful, dance-y combinations. “I truly believe that if you set a high standard, people will reach it,” she says. Amid the technical challenge of her class, Tuttle is also keen on talking about what she calls the “why-we’re-here stuff.” She is known for waxing inspirational, offering the kind of spiritual encouragement many dancers would only expect from a yoga teacher. “Some of you are in your bodies all day, but some of you, this is your only chance this week,” she says. “Take advantage of being in your bodies.” It is this brew of rigor and encouragement that helps dancers find confidence to dance to their fullest potential and, week after week, keeps them coming back for more.

“If your balance isn’t right, just keep on trying. Make it an action,” says Tuttle, as the room struggles with a coupé balance. She is adamant that it is OK to make mistakes in pursuit of precise execution of steps. Throughout the class, she follows this philosophy: She may increase the complexity of a combination with a port de bras that moves on a three count while the legs are doing a four count, but she reacts to students’ struggles lightheartedly—“OK, that was a tricky one, but it’s a good thing in life to laugh, isn’t it?”—and offers modifications to keep everyone pushing their limits. Tuttle keeps corrections direct and pragmatic, reminding students to push the floor away when stretching the knees, to lift in the front of the hips when closing in fifth position, to send the gaze further out when dipping into a penché arabesque.

By the time the class is done waltzing across the floor in “ballet’s most romantic step,” Tuttle moves on to an exhausting series of jumps while shifting her focus to the more performative aspects of the art. “Don’t forget this is a visual artform; it matters what we look like,” she says, as she apes the furrowed eyebrows and concentrated grimaces in the class. For a moment, chuckles and self-conscious smiles abound, until brisés make an appearance in the petit allégro and the concentrated looks return. “Keep chasing your front leg!” she says enthusiastically. Ninety minutes later and completely exhausted, both from the workweek and inhabiting their bodies to the fullest capacity, some satisfied students gather up their bags and make plans to celebrate after class with cocktails. DT

Candice Thompson danced with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and is a writing fellow at Columbia University.

Ashley Tuttle grew up in South Carolina and trained under Ann Brodie before moving to the School of American Ballet. At the invitation of Mikhail Baryshnikov, she joined American Ballet Theatre at 16, where she made the rank of principal and danced for 17 seasons. In addition to her diverse repertoire at ABT, she was a member of the Twyla Tharp Dance Company and held featured roles in both of Tharp’s Broadway shows: Movin’ Out, for which Tuttle received a Tony nomination, and Come Fly Away. She continues to perform as an international guest artist and with modern choreographers, such as Pam Tanowitz, while maintaining a vigorous teaching schedule at STEPS on Broadway, Barnard College and Mark Morris Dance Center.

Jessica Einhorn is a freelance dancer in New York City. She also teaches in the children and teen program at Mark Morris Dance Center.

Photography by Kyle Froman

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