Deborah Wingert

How I teach ballet

Don’t let Deborah Wingert’s silvery hair fool you. Dressed in a black turtleneck and leggings, she unfurls her leg into an ear-height développé one Saturday afternoon while demonstrating adagio for her advanced students at Manhattan Youth Ballet. High-cheekboned and statuesque, Wingert’s physicality alone is enough to inspire a roomful of bunheads. But it’s her combination of fervor, humor and vitality that captures her students’ imaginations. “Développé so beautifully that it breaks my heart,” she says, passionately clasping her hands to her chest. But not long after the students begin, she signals for the pianist to stop—their développés are too punctuated. “It has moments of clarity, but it’s not sharp,” she says, pausing thoughtfully. “It’s clearly etched.”

Musical and technical clarity are big themes in Wingert’s class, a result of her 13-year dance career with the New York City Ballet. George Balanchine hired her out of the School of American Ballet at the age of 16, and his influence permeates her methodology. Shortly after Wingert’s retirement in 1995, MYB director Rose Caiola observed her giving a private lesson and asked her to join the staff of her new school (then called Studio Maestro). Now head of faculty, Wingert teaches up to 15 classes a week and serves as MYB’s Balanchine répétiteur.

Wingert’s rich voice resonates through the studio like a well-honed thespian. She stresses exact musical timing, with an emphasis on speed and alternating rhythmic accents. “Balanchine changed my ear,” she says. “The rhythm is the steps; the steps are the music. But you’re always in service of the music.” Wingert articulates what she wants through inventive metaphors, often related to food. “It’s like two scoops of ice cream in a pretzel cone,” she says, referencing the contrasting in/out accents during tendus. “Smooth and creamy, with the crispy.”

Balanchine, she says, fostered an atmosphere of persistence and proactive engagement at NYCB, and she tries to cultivate those values in her dancers. “No time for doubt, no time for judgment,” Wingert reminds a frustrated student during a particularly speedy pirouette combination. “This is the Balanchine ethic—you have to do it because you have to do it.” Her students soak up the pep talk—the second time around, they attack their turns with greater fortitude and success.

Wingert keeps her dancers engaged by often asking them what they could have done differently, rather than telling them what they did wrong. “I think the best corrections are when students understand their part in it,” she explains, a process that requires patience on her end. “But that’s what Mr. B allowed. He allowed for that process of not being perfect.”

Glissade Assemblé

In Balanchine training, glissade is considered a preparation step that serves the jump that succeeds it—in this case, assemblé. It has a distinct musical emphasis on the landing plié (“and one”), which creates a quick, definitive slice through the air in second position. “The emphasis on the ending is the impetus for the assemblé,” says Wingert. For assemblé, the legs should hit fifth immediately on the way up. “The assemblage is what elevates you.”

controlbar=over&file=http%3A%2F%2Fvideos.dancemedia.com/09b68b9d8ff0b382a7a7a6d403ff896e9237d446/video.mp4&image=/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/wingert_splash.jpg&&&viral.pluginmode=FLASH"/>

Deborah Wingert trained at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet under Marcia Dale Weary (where Wingert first cut her teeth teaching warm-up classes) and the School of American Ballet. She joined New York City Ballet at the age of 16, where she danced numerous principal and soloist roles by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. After retiring from NYCB, she joined the inaugural staff of Manhattan Youth Ballet, where she is now head of faculty. Wingert has also taught at School of American Ballet and Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, guest-lectured at Harvard University and Goucher College and serves as a répétiteur for the George Balanchine Trust.

Sophia Williams, 17, is an advanced student at Manhattan Youth Ballet and attends Bard High School Early College.

 

Photography by Kyle Froman

Music
Getty Images

Securing the correct music licensing for your studio is an important step in creating a financially sound business. "Music licensing is something studio owners seem to either embrace or ignore completely," says Clint Salter, CEO and founder of the Dance Studio Owners Association. While it may seem like it's a situation in which it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission—that is, to wait until you're approached by a music-rights organization before purchasing a license—Salter disagrees, citing Peloton, the exercise company that produces streaming at-home workouts. In February, Peloton settled a music-licensing suit with the National Music Publishers' Association out-of-court for an undisclosed amount. Originally, NMPA had sought $300 million in damages from Peloton. "It can get extremely expensive," says Salter. "It's not worth it for a studio to get caught up in that."

As you continue to explore a hybrid online/in-person version of your class schedule, it's crucial that your music licenses include coverage for livestreamed instruction—which comes with its own particular requirements. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about music licensing—in both normal times and COVID times—as well as some safe music bets that won't pose any issues.

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

Keep reading... Show less
Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.