As the students filter into Kathryn Sullivan’s Advanced Beginning Ballet Class at Steps on Broadway, one of them presents Sullivan with a thank-you-for-helping-me-improve bouquet. It is an ordinary Friday morning, no special milestone. She accepts it with surprise and grace before jumping right into the first combination. From the moment pliés start, the attentive students hang on to each practical correction Sullivan gives. Dressed as the quintessential ballet teacher in a tank leotard, pink tights and knee-length chiffon skirt, she makes her way around to each dancer, her overflowing enthusiasm shaking its way out through her long arms and fingertips. “I am not the type of teacher who sits in the chair. I want to get around to everyone so I can approach people at their own level,” she says.
Twenty-five years of experience have helped Sullivan simplify her approach to teaching ballet. “I teach a range of levels from beginners to intermediate, so I tend to break down concepts,” she says. Pulling from her varied background in ballet and modern dance, Sullivan’s no-nonsense American-style class offers an unaffected, clean path into more difficult, intermediate steps.
Favoring function over style, she borrows some practices from modern dance to help students efficiently use their energy through breath and proper weight shifts. “I always encourage them to breathe, in order to initiate and connect movements, such as a transfer from two legs to one,” says Sullivan of one of her core concepts. At the barre, she encourages her class to punctuate a phrase with sous-sus, breathing in and out before the détourné. In the center, she asks for a breath out before each pirouette. “The exhale gets them more grounded,” she explains.
Introducing the vocabulary her students are ready for in the moment, she perches comfortably on the edge of developing confidence and pushing limits. She gives students time to internalize new concepts, asking dancers to work out the shift from second position to a single-leg balance in a low à la seconde, so they can recognize what that transition requires in terms of alignment from head to toe. And she nurtures a team environment to build confidence. Throughout the barre, Sullivan asks her dancers to practice corrections as a group, saying “Let’s try this out together,” before moving to the next combination.
To get her students paying attention to the music, Sullivan gives concise combinations that play with rhythm, including subtle weight shifts and accent changes. When not otherwise occupied with giving hands-on corrections, her energetic hands direct the dancers like a conductor.
As center progresses, Sullivan is bent with hands on her knees like a baseball coach. In adagio, she allows students to improvise for the final eight counts of the combination and sometimes encourages them to hum throughout the entire exercise. “We do it every Friday. Most of my dancers are from the contemporary or musical theater world, and I don’t want them to feel restricted,” says Sullivan. “The improv helps them relax, have fun and stop holding their breath.” DT
Candice Thompson danced with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and is a writing fellow at Columbia University.
Kathryn Sullivan teaches ballet and pointe at Steps on Broadway, the Peridance Capezio Center and the Joffrey Contemporary Summer Intensive. She is also on faculty at Barnard College at Columbia University. Her professional career spanned Boston Ballet, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, Connecticut Ballet and Les Ballets de Nancy. In addition to teaching, she has presented her choreography; collaborated with pianists on seven CDs for ballet class; directed three documentaries on modern dance; and created a barre accessory called The Ballet Glider.
Marika Chrisanthopoulos studies dance as a sophomore at Barnard College.
Photography by Kyle Froman