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.”

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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

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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Teachers Trending
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.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

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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