The ability to make every movement matter—even the linking steps—is what distinguishes great dancers from good ones. A transition is often as important as the technical execution of the movements it brings together. For instance, rushing through a glissade on the way to a jeté or a pas de bourrée before a pirouette can result in a muddled and messy phrase. “A clean dancer goes through a position to get to a position,” explains Susan Quinn Williams, an associate professor of dance at The University of Arizona.
These nuances also enable students to give memorable performances. UA Professor Michael Williams likens transitioning in, and more importantly, out of a step to the way a singer is trained to articulate a note. “In singing, it isn’t just about how you start a note; the real beauty is in the resonance and release at the end,” he says.
For many, teaching students to seamlessly move in and out of steps is a challenge. Here, we talk to experienced educators to find out the secrets of clean and dynamic transitions.
Impart the Importance
The goal is to get students to understand how these movements will ultimately improve their overall technique and artistry. “If you perform a transition step correctly, the step after usually works,” explains Patrick Simoniello, a Chicago-based teacher and dancer with the Joffrey Ballet. Take a combination like grand jeté, step, step, piqué arabesque, says Simoniello. “Done without a plié, the two steps can look like you are popping out of the jump and lead to an unstable arabesque. With a plié, the movement is grounded, the arabesque will be more dynamic, and the whole body will be involved in the combination.”
Set the Foundation
Common transitions, like a plié, pas de bourrée, chassé, glissade or triplet, can be introduced at the very beginning of class. Charles Maple, director of the newly opened Maple Conservatory of Dance in Irvine, California, recommends using the barre to refine transitions and set the stage for work in the center. “If the foundational elements aren’t taught at the barre, dancers will have sloppy transitions when they come out to the center,” he warns. “Plan your barre combinations to alternate between those emphasizing quick movement patterns, such as dégagés en croix, and exercises like fondus that use the floor’s resistance to articulate the feet.” Tendus, temps lié and piqués at the barre will also translate later into glissades or preparations for piqué turns.
Quinn Williams integrates transitions into her basic jazz warm-ups. She teaches a choreographed plié series during warmup, adding on week by week until dancers are able to perform the four-minute-long choreography. “They are connecting movements at the very beginning of class, so when they come to the center they aren’t dancing like robots,” she says.
Divide & Conquer
Breaking center combinations down into simpler parts can aid dancers who are having difficulty linking movements. “If students are having problems with a glissade,” explains Simoniello, “I’ll retrograde back to when we did tendus at the barre. I remind them that the glissade starts with a tendu, one of the very first things we did in class, and we build the step back up from there.”
Don’t let students feel intimidated by the technique. Teaching combinations as a series of understandable units or relating them to everyday motions like walking, will enable them to progress to the finished movement.
Connect with Music
An understanding of music is integral to mastering smooth transitions, as it helps dancers grasp the importance of timing. Keith Clifton, master teacher and co-founder of the EDGE Performing Arts Center in L.A., emphasizes musicality by having his jazz students slow down and count aloud while doing the choreography. “I must see the music in people or I have them not only count but sing to me the phrase on which we are focusing.”
While cleaning a section of choreography, turn off the music and have your students take turns counting aloud. Making students aware of their breath will also help them determine the natural kinetic breaks in movement. “I see dancers going 100 miles an hour through a piece,” Quinn Williams notes. “If you don’t have time to breathe, neither does the audience.”
Experts also recommend using video to show the transition points between steps and to give dancers an objective, realistic perspective of their movement. Maple uses video as an instructional tool in classes and while coaching students for performances. When cleaning a variation, he first teaches it, then slowly goes over the arm and leg movements. Next, he videotapes the student running through the piece, and they watch it together, played back in slow motion. The slow motion option provides dancers a great opportunity to pinpoint the transitions between movements and evaluate areas of improvement.
Make It Fun
Always following a traditional rhythmic pattern or using typical transition steps can make a dancer’s performance seem dull. “Transition steps can become too predictable,” says Williams. “When you are watching a piece of choreography, the emphasis shouldn’t be on the triple pirouette. It should be on the surprise of the pirouette coming out of nowhere.”
To this point, he encourages educators to experiment with interesting variations by rearranging the rhythm or weight changes, or even adding vocabulary from other dance forms. Mix in stomps or brushes from tap vocabulary, try a preparation for a pirouette other than the usual tombé pas de bourrée, or alter the rhythm to give students a challenge.
The more exposure to stage time and varied repertory, the better dancers’ transitions will become. Students tend to be self-conscious and worry about doing the steps correctly, but encouraging them to explore how they move naturally will give them a better chance to find fluid and organic transitions and to master the movement as a whole. After all, as Williams reminds us, artistry is in the transitions. “Dancers long to be beautiful technicians,” he says, “but the artistry is not in how you do an arabesque, but how you get in and out of the arabesque.” DT
Kathleen Edens is a professional dancer and freelance writer living in Southern California.