Left vs. Right: How to Help Students Master Both Sides

San Francisco Ballet School's Pascale Leroy helps a student at the barre. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of SFB School

When Laszlo Berdo teaches men's class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, he sees some dancers who turn very well, but only to one side. “I have guys who can do triples in à la seconde on the right, but they can't do a double pirouette or a single à la seconde to the left," he says. “There's an extreme difference."


Whether it's pirouettes, extension or strength, one-sidedness is an issue for all dancers. It can occur because of a body's development, injury or training habits. But to become well-rounded and injury-resistant, dancers must even out their strength and flexibility. Students might hesitate making this correction; many dancers would rather concentrate on what they do best than to focus on their limitations. But if you can show them how to find balance, coordination and strength on their weak side, they'll see their dancing improve.

Physical Limitations

Imbalances often start before students set foot in the studio: Most bodies are born with an unequal amount of strength and flexibility between their left and right sides. This causes joints and muscles to function and develop differently throughout dance training, which can throw off how positions, balances and movements feel. Fixing this problem often begins with a mind-over-matter approach—imagery can boost confidence in students when attempting to work on their weaker side. With pirouettes, for example, Berdo talks about axis points. He asks, “Are you turning around your spine or visualizing going up and through a hoop?" These ideas can help dancers develop a better sense of rotation.

Muscle memory also plays a big role. Berdo suggests having students perform the movement on their good side first. “I'll make them take a mental note of what exactly it felt like," he says, “then have them apply it to the other side. We start slow and keep going back and forth until they get it." Take the time to find what part of the movement is uncoordinated.

For those who struggle with flexibility, particularly young children, Pascale Leroy of San Francisco Ballet School takes a light and playful approach. She tells them to “feel like a butterfly, and use your arms as wings" or to “kick a balloon," so the troubled leg floats up without much weight. Staying relaxed can ease joint or muscle stiffness when working a side of the body that feels tighter.

Training Patterns

While most people are either right- or left-handed by nature, students may favor a side because of the way they've trained. A traditional ballet barre begins on the right side, which Leroy says can, over time, impact technique. “When students first learn an exercise, they learn it on the right, and by the time the left side comes along, they're tired," she says. She suggests starting class with the right hand on the barre. “It gives you great results, especially with the younger ones. As they get older, it gets harder to tackle the weaker side."

Choreography for competition and performance is generally tailored to show off dancers' best skills. While it's important to ensure they look their best, this doesn't give them the opportunity to try steps in another direction. Jaclyn Walsh, a guest teacher at Walker's Gymnastics and Dance in Lowell, Massachusetts, notices that she instinctively designs choreography that favors one side over the other. “Most people, like me, are right-handed and tend to choreograph that way," she says. Walsh combats this in her contemporary and modern classes by creating a long phrase and having her dancers reverse it, without her help. “It's a mental battle to stay balanced and keep both sides up to par. Students need to have time with the material to engage their muscles and minds on the other side."

Imbalanced choreography can also invite injury. Walsh sometimes comes across students with problems from overusing a muscle. “They might have a strong tilt on the right side and do it 10 times in three dances, over and over again," she says. “All of a sudden they can't do it anymore because they've overworked muscles on that side of their body." Both she and Berdo agree that building strength and coordination through cross-training is essential to prevent these problems. It's also vital in repairing injury so that one side doesn't lag behind while the other improves—like an ankle sprain that can't support the weight of jumping.

Even after working on imbalances, students may always have one side that feels a bit more comfortable than the other. Remind them that directors are looking for adaptable dancers who can tackle all choreographic challenges. They'll be healthier and stronger in the long run—and there's no downside to that.

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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