COUNTDOWN TO 2017 #4: Your Students Will Spin Like Tops with This Lesson

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Well-placed turns enhance choreography and dazzle the audience. When teaching pirouettes, Kathryn Warakomsky has her Texas Ballet Theater School students watch videos of legendary ballerinas Maya Plisetskaya, Alicia Alonso and Galina Ulanova. “They spun like tops,” says Warakomsky, the Fort Worth school’s principal. “The public wants to see that excitement.”

It's All About That Prep ('Bout That Prep, 'Bout That Prep, No Trouble) 

A pirouette en dehors from fourth position typically starts with a plié, with more weight over the front foot (see photo 1). “This style is very RAD,” says Warakomsky, “where everything comes from a good soft plié that sets you up for your balance. You use the plié to push from both legs, so it’s a movement and not a static position.” She encourages students to keep their heels down and use the whole foot on the floor, rather than rolling forward on the arches or letting the front foot slide into the turn first: “You want to go down into the floor and push from the back foot to go up.”

 

Balanchine changed the traditional preparation by having dancers take a wide lunge in fourth position with a straight back knee and outstretched arms (see photo 2). “He wanted it to be a surprise—he disguised the preparation so the audience wasn’t sitting there waiting for you to do a pirouette,” says Gloria Govrin, artistic director of Eastern Connecticut Ballet. When using this deep, elongated preparation, dancers should keep their weight far over the front foot and use their back toes to push into passé.

 

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Photos by Bridget Lujan, courtesy of Juneau Dance Theatre 

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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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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