At Grand Rapids Ballet School in Michigan, ballet master Attila Mosolygo often changes the order of his barre combinations. One day, he might give an adagio before grand battements; the next, he'll save adagio for last. Like most teachers, he follows a general progression—pliés to start, strength-building battements or stretches to finish—but allows for variance to accommodate class level, timing and personal preferences.
A classical ballet barre is a model warm-up routine: It gets large muscle groups moving first and then progresses through a series of exercises that grow in speed, range and complexity. This start to class helps students find balance and work on fundamentals as it prepares them to dance unsupported in center. But that doesn't mean you need to follow the same script every class—especially if you want to keep your students engaged. "I don't think a specific way is better," says Mosolygo. "If dancers do everything the same all the time, they're less adaptable."
Dancers at the University of Arizona recently performed Jerome Robbins' Antique Epigraphs, an ensemble piece for eight women that requires intricate linear formations and walking in unison. "It was super-challenging for us," says dance professor Melissa Lowe. "Students needed a heightened sense of awareness, or it wasn't going to happen." Lowe asked dancers to use their intuition and aural sensibilities to help determine where they needed to be, when they should be there and how to get to those places—together.
Teaching dancers to work in unison, whether as a large corps de ballet or small ensemble group, is an integral part of their training. It requires teamwork, attention to detail and thoughtful preparation for a successful group effort. Teachers need to provide the right steps and counts to ensure cohesiveness, of course. But how you set the material will also encourage dancers to be in line and in sync—while still allowing them to be individuals.
Make sure they show up
Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of University of Arizona
University of Arizona students at the end of Balanchine's Serenade
Missing dancers can be disastrous for a group piece. "If it's a studio production, there has to be an agreement up front for students who want to be involved," says Lorita Travaglia, ballet mistress at Colorado Ballet. "When one person is missing and doesn't know what they're doing, it really does affect the whole group." Understanding the importance of commitment is a crucial part of dancers' (and their families') training. "They have the responsibility to everyone, not just themselves," she says.
Imagine that your studio has a new 12-year-old student, who is interested in studying ballet. She has no formal training, yet she wants to take class with her peers. Where do you place her, and how do you ensure she gets the necessary foundation and stays excited and engaged?