How I teach ballet

In Franco De Vita’s class, less is more. Trim and poised, a neck scarf tucked neatly into his popped collar, he leads his Level 5 students through short, simple combinations, maintaining a brisk pace between exercises. He walks slowly among the barres, crisply clapping his hands to interrupt an exercise here, adjusting a head there. He avoids lengthy pontifications, preferring one or two pointed corrections laced with a touch of theatricality.

“Voilà!” he says as a student demonstrates a finished fifth position en bas, De Vita’s thick French accent making the moment remarkably authentic. “When the arm comes down, the upper body goes up, up, up!” The young dancers, ages 12 to 14, work earnestly, but not fearfully—De Vita knows how to sprinkle just the right amount of humor throughout his class to draw out smiles. The respect and affection between him and his students is palpable.

Since taking the helm of American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, De Vita has developed a national reputation for professionalism, efficiency and, above all, commitment. Yet his rise to director of one of the world’s top training institutions was slow and steady, steeped in 30 years of experience teaching pre-professional and recreational dancers alike. The ABT National Training Curriculum, which he co-authored along with longtime collaborator and curriculum artistic director Raymond Lukens, developed through decades of pedagogical work together. Since the NTC’s debut in 2007, De Vita’s teaching methods have had a nationwide impact on ballet instruction. This year, Dance Teacher honors him with its 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award.

A Reluctant Calling

Ironically, De Vita originally had no interest in teaching. Born in Italy, he trained with Hannah Voos at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Charleroi in Belgium and danced with several European companies, including the Ballet Royal de Wallonie, where Lukens was also a dancer. After chronic back pain forced De Vita to retire, he enrolled in hairdressing school. But the universe had other plans for him.

Brenda Hamlyn, who directed the Hamlyn School of Dance in Florence, Italy, invited both De Vita and Lukens to teach at her school. De Vita told her he wasn’t interested. “I wanted to cut with ballet,” he says. But she insisted, so he agreed to teach her advanced students for a week. Afterward, he still wasn’t sold, so Hamlyn suggested he try teaching a lower level. Although doubtful, De Vita nevertheless gave it a shot. “And then, something happened with the younger ones,” he says. “I really enjoyed it.”

His interest piqued, he attended the Cecchetti Society’s teacher-training program in London and joined Hamlyn’s faculty full-time, where he and Lukens eventually became school directors in 1983. There they taught students of all ages and abilities. “The audition process was basically a pulse and a purse,” says Lukens. Nevertheless, De Vita held his students to high standards. “He was tough. He demanded that they do it the way it should be done—but without making it oppressive. He didn’t force them to go into positions that their bodies couldn’t take.”

De Vita has changed very little in his pedagogical approach since then. “In Florence I was teaching the same way I teach at JKO,” he says. “I present the class like you are a professional—the students love that.” He firmly believes dance training should be slow and methodical; pushing too much too soon can be detrimental to a young dancer’s technique and physical health. “It’s important to look at the body of the student,” he says. “If a student is 12 but has the body of a 9-year-old, then don’t push the body too far. This is my big advice: Do everything gradually.”

BalletMet Dance Academy director Susan Brooker, a longtime friend and former faculty member at De Vita’s school in Italy, describes him as one of the best teachers she knows. “He has an incredible knack for putting exercises together in a manner that’s comparatively simple, but that prepares students of all ages and levels to be placed and on their legs,” she says, “with an emphasis on getting them off the barre and dancing.”

Indeed, De Vita’s JKO students are ready for center in 35 minutes. He often repeats the same barre for a week or so, allowing them to process one or two corrections at a time before adding more. “When there’s too much correction, you don’t know what to think about,” he says. His classes are meticulously prepared, designed to achieve daily, weekly and yearly curriculum goals as thoroughly and efficiently as possible. “I’m very organized,” De Vita says. “You can’t just improvise—you have to think about what you want to reach at the end of class, and from the barre you work on top of that.”

Leading the Way

In Florence, the early seeds of the NTC were planted when De Vita, Lukens and Brooker began developing their own curriculum. “It was a wonderful opportunity to develop our own philosophy of pedagogy, without outside pressures,” says Brooker.

At the invitation of then-director Kirk Peterson, De Vita joined the staff of the School of Hartford Ballet and helped revise its syllabus. Afterward, he joined the faculty at The Ailey School and the Ailey/Fordham BFA program before taking over as dean of faculty and curriculum at the Boston Ballet School.

In 2005, De Vita was invited to guest teach for the ABT Studio Company. Company director Kevin McKenzie observed and, impressed with De Vita’s deep knowledge and enthusiasm, tapped him to lead the newly formed JKO School. “Franco cares for the whole child,” says McKenzie. “He instills respect for the lessons the artform can teach young people about the nature of accomplishment—that achieving excellence is not easily won, but in striving for it, you learn a lot about yourself.”

The appointment also coincided with McKenzie’s desire to create a national training system for teachers. With the help of an artistic advisory panel and health professionals, De Vita and Lukens (who was appointed director of the ABT-affiliated master’s program at New York University) spent the next two years co-authoring the guidelines for ballet training, which incorporate elements from the French, Russian, Danish and Italian schools. “Every school has something to offer,” says De Vita. “Why not try to have the best of everything?” The goal was to produce well-trained, unaffected dancers who could easily adapt to classical, neoclassical and contemporary styles.

Since then, his JKO students have starting filling out the ranks of ABT, and McKenzie is impressed with the results. “They’re unusually versatile and adaptable to stylistic nuance,” he says. Skylar Brandt, an ABT corps member who trained with De Vita from the age of 12, says that one of his top priorities is purity of movement. “Franco always expressed that there was value in dancing cleanly—that two clean pirouettes have a greater effect than trying for a triple and falling out of it,” she says. “Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t push his dancers to do more. But they must do so without sacrificing quality.”

The response toward ABT’s teacher-training workshops, held throughout the year in New York and other cities, has been overwhelmingly positive. Dance educators are immersed in curriculum coursework, observe JKO classes and take examinations, which they must pass in order to receive ABT certification. Rather than dictating set exercises, the program offers guidelines and year-end goals that allow teachers to retain their own voice. Since the program launched in 2007, more than 1,200 teachers have become certified. “A lot of them say that after one or two years, they really see a difference in their school,” says De Vita.

The curriculum, he adds, will always be a work in progress. “There’s evolution in everything,” he says. He flips through the heavy NTC binder and smiles, noting that they can easily change a page if something isn’t working. “It’s the same as teaching—you never stop learning.” DT

Grace Ann Pierce, 13, is a Level 5 student at the JKO School at American Ballet Theatre. She is a seventh-grader at Professional Performing Arts School.

How I Teach Pas de Chat

When breaking down pas de chat, De Vita uses the method taught in the French school. “Most of the time, the big problem in pas de chat is that the back leg starts turning in before the action of the jump,” he says. Emphasizing retiré helps students consciously maintain their turnout as they pas de chat.

 

 

 

 

 

Begin in fifth position with the hands on the shoulders. “When I start teaching a step, I like to place the hands on the shoulders, like in Le Corsaire, because it really works the back,” says De Vita.

 

 

 

On count 1, demi-plié, looking over the shoulder toward the direction of the jump.

Make sure that the back leg never touches the front leg in plié (a sure sign of rolling in).

 

 

On count 2, lift the back leg into retiré, with the foot placed in front of the knee.

Maintain proper alignment in the pointed foot to avoid sickling.

 

 

 

On count “and-a-3,” push off the standing foot into a jump, lifting the second leg through a turned-out retiré position as you land the first leg before finishing in fifth-position plié. Make sure that the second leg does not turn in and kick out as it leaves the floor.

 

 

 

 Straighten the legs in fifth.

 

 

 

 

Adding the port de bras: Keeping the back engaged, lower the hands from the shoulders to create fourth-position en avant with the arms. Look over the shoulder toward the direction you are jumping, keeping the chest lifted.

 

 

 

In retiré, feel opposition as your knee pushes back and your shoulder pulls front.

Don’t let the shoulder lift up or roll forward.

 

 

 

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Photos by Kyle Froman

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