Janet Panetta: How I Teach Ballet for Contemporary Dancers

Photo by Kyle Froman

In a sunny studio at Gibney Dance Center in New York City, Janet Panetta is gearing up to teach Ballet for Contemporary Dancers. She slips on her signature red ballet slippers while chatting with one of her students. At her feet, a tiny white Maltipoo bounds over to a dancer stretching on the floor. "She has a job," says Panetta about her dog, Lulu. "She does something really nice for people. She relaxes them."

Because her class draws a wide variety of dancers—from contemporary to jazz to burlesque—that sense of relaxation is paramount. “It's not terribly important for people in my class to do six pirouettes. I'm not interested in super-high extensions," she says. “I'm interested in the placement of the lines. I want them to be functional." Panetta's relaxed and supportive atmosphere, emphasizing healthy alignment and efficient movement, is a haven for today's contemporary dancers seeking to maintain their technique.

“When I started the class, it was called Ballet for Modern Dancers," says Panetta. “Then in the '90s, as contemporary dance became a new field, the content of the class changed. Contemporary dancers need something different than modern dancers need." Whereas once she focused on offering supplemental training to professionals in companies like Limón and Cunningham, now she caters to a broader group: dancers of all ages, backgrounds, skill levels and disciplines. “The dancer today doesn't know what kind of dancing they'll be doing," she says. “They really need to have this overall condition of their body that is healthy and functional, and enables them to do the many different tasks being asked of them."

Class exercises are simple, and there is plenty of room for exploration. During a balance in passé at the barre, Panetta has each student shift their rib cage off-center and then back on-center. She then has them hike their working hip up and lower it to feel the difference. “You want them to feel it," she says, “not look in the mirror, but really feel it."

A particular challenge for contemporary dancers, she notes, is working through feelings of inadequacy. “They have a great love for movement, but often, in their past ballet or other technical training, they've been injured. And I don't mean physically; I mean emotionally," she says. “I have to keep saying to them, 'Stop critiquing yourself. This is a small task I am asking you to do.'"

Her positivity never falters—nor does her wry sense of humor. “Often dancers don't know how easy ballet is," she says. “One of the things I like to say in class is, 'Ballet has been around forever. No one would have done it if it was that hard.'"

A native New Yorker, Janet Panetta trained at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School before dancing with American Ballet Theatre in the late '60s. From 1973 to 2010, she ran the Panetta Movement Center in Manhattan. Today, she teaches at Gibney Dance Center and The New School in New York City and has an active schedule abroad, at the Brussels-based contemporary dance school P.A.R.T.S and ImPulsTanz dance festival, and serving as a guest ballet master for Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal. She received a Martha Hill Dance Fund Mid-Career Award in 2008.

Eleanor Hullihan is a professional contemporary dancer in NYC.

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