4 Tips to Get Your Students Off the Ground and Into the Air

Photo by Maxwell Bolton, courtesy of Philip Neal

Most ballet teachers like to reserve the last part of class for jumping, a time when students happily try to defy gravity and take flight. But some dancers have difficulty getting off the ground. Maybe they don't use their plié or struggle to coordinate their arms and legs to achieve a strong position in the air. “Dancers have to be patient and set themselves up properly," says Philip Neal, artistic director of Next Generation Ballet in Tampa, Florida. “Developing good jumps is a process, not an event." The key parts to that process? All good jumps require good placement, rhythm and practice.


1. Back to the Barre

Photo 1, courtesy of Diana

Whether you are introducing jumps to young students or taking advanced dancers back to basics, simple relevé-and-jump exercises at the barre will reinforce proper mechanics. Weight should be on the balls of the feet, knees pressed back toward the little toes in plié and chests lifted, not concave (see photo 1). “Placement is the key to jumping correctly," says Hilda Morales, The Hartt School faculty member at the University of Hartford. “Repetition with good alignment helps develop the muscles correctly."

Photo 2, courtesy of Diana

Morales gives slow relevés in each position, then faster relevés that dancers hold for a few counts at a time. In relevé, “students have to engage the seat muscles, bring the heels forward and lift the muscles above the knees," she says (see photo 2). Then Morales will introduce jumps, such as sautés, changements and échappés, making sure students don't press down too much on the barre and pike their lower halves (see photo 3).

Photo 3, courtesy of Diana

2. Rhythm and Plié

Simple steps like skipping and chassés help children get a sense of both ballon (lift and bounce) and rhythm. This natural feeling should be carried over into more complex jumping sequences, so dancers don't stop the momentum at the bottom of a plié. “The entire body has to have a rhythm," says Jeffrey Rogers, principal faculty at Ballet West Academy. “Ballet technique is highly codified, but it still requires a natural impetus."

To emphasize the need for a good plié, Rogers talks about how a ball has to be bounced down before it goes up. “A plié is an elastic movement, so dancers shouldn't snap their knees back together," says Rogers. He also teaches different kinds of pliés: fast preparations for petit allégro and slower, deeper pliés for big jumps.

3. Leave the Arms Off (and Then Add Them Back In)

Photo 4, courtesy of Diana

Neal sometimes has students do small jump combinations with their hands clasped behind their heads (see photo 4). “I make them do petit allégro this way to help them stand up straight," he explains. “The back should be long and the chest broad and proud. Then we do the same steps with the arms down, and then again adding port de bras." Students can try this no-hands exercise if they are already capable of doing jumps at the barre and preparatory jumps in center. “Our boys find it thoroughly entertaining," says Neal, “and it reminds them of where their strength is coming from—the core."

When dancers add port de bras, they often work against themselves by not coordinating the full-body effort. Arms should arrive at their position at the height of the jump, says Neal, and hold the position when the student lands. “It's an optical illusion to show that you're still jumping even though you've come down to the floor," he says. “It helps dancers who don't have a big jump look like they do."

4. Fun Imagery

Neal suggests breathing between jumps to replenish blood flow to the legs. Photo by Maxwell Bolton, courtesy of Neal

Instead of physiological corrections, try imagery to help students take the right approach. “Fly like a bird" or “hover in the air" might be good visuals for suspended jumps. When working on Bournonville jetés, Rogers tells students to imagine that they are running and jumping onto a waxed table, then sliding across it in their jeté position. For barrel turns, he tells boys to think about rolling across the hood of a car. Rogers likes to call saut de chat a “photo op," whereas grand jeté is an up-and-over kind of movement that you would see in real life. He likens this big jump to the way African gazelles run: high, lifted and suspended.

“Traveling jumps are naturally easier for people," he says, “although they still have to create that lifted feeling that goes up and over. No other dance form uses vertical jumps the way that ballet does, and dancers don't usually like to work on them. But the only way for a student to get better at jumping is to do it—a lot."


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.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

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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