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6 Tips to Improve Your Students' Épaulement

Angela Sterling, courtesy of PNB

The French definition might translate to "shouldering," but épaulement is actually much more than that. "It's not just a superficial turn of the shoulders—it creates energy from the inside out," says Marisa Albee, faculty member at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School. It's also what can elevate technically proficient dancing to something nuanced, dynamic and truly exciting. "Think of épaulement as the punctuation at the end of a sentence," says Brooke Moore, a faculty member for BalletMet's trainee program. "The head and the eyes are the exclamation point!"


"I think of épaulement as everything from the rib cage up," says Moore. "It's the whole upper body as a package—ribs, shoulders, neck, head, arms, hands, even the eyes."

Joseph Giacobbe, director of the Giacobbe Academy in New Orleans, likens épaulement to the famous ancient Greek Venus de Milo statue. "It has a curve to it," he says. Were you to remove the angling of the statue's torso and shoulders, its flattened front would be much less interesting. "Épaulement gives a third dimension to the dance—everything looks flat without it," says Giacobbe. "It shades what you're doing and gives it a coloration."

Brooke Moore demonstrates a position at the front of the classroom, exaggerating the \u00e9paulement.

Brooke Moore.

Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy Ballet Met

Upgrade your épaulement by avoiding these mistakes:

Don't overturn your body to the corner, especially when changing from one side to the other in a step like changement, says Albee. "When a student overturns, they look like an old-fashioned washing machine, throwing themselves from side to side," she says, "because there's no opposition of energy."

Don't let épaulement end at the neck. "One needs to have energy running throughout the entire torso—a lengthened waist and lifted chest," Albee says.

Albee in the front of the classroom, demonstrating tendue side. Her students are at the barre.

Marisa Albee.

Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB

Don't forget about petit allégro. That's when most dancers let it slip, says Albee, "making steps that have the potential to be exciting very bland."

Don't sacrifice épaulement for extension height. Moore has dancers stop, put their leg down and show her where the head and the arm should be. She tells them to memorize that position—"feel it, the muscle memory"—and then try the extension again.

Brooke Moore.

Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy Ballet Met

Don't let your collarbones be parallel with the floor, says Albee. Instead, strive for the collarbones to be diagonal. "This stems from having life in the waist, back and chest," she says.

Don't overturn your chin toward your downstage shoulders when in croisé, says Albee. It can cause the chin to tuck and pull back, creating what she calls a "harsh and static" look. Instead, with the body in croisé, first turn your head so that it's en face. From this position, then tilt the head, allowing the jaw to escape forward in space as the chest simultaneously lifts.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

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For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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