How I teach ballet to the pros

Bielski and New York City Ballet corps member Faye Arthurs at Steps on Broadway

New York City Ballet’s Faye Arthurs first found Nancy Bielski’s class by following one of her idols in the company. “I was a huge fan of Jenifer Ringer,” Arthurs says, “and I thought, ‘I like how she dances. Maybe I should try the class she takes.’” Ten years later, she credits the class as a kind of classical cross-training that has quieted her port de bras and put more power in her legs. “Nancy’s combinations mix jumps with relevés and turns. Her adagio is complex and lasts a few minutes. You tax the muscles and get more out of breath. It really replicates the experience of what it is like to dance a ballet.”

Bielski’s advanced intermediate professional ballet class at Steps on Broadway is a dance-y hour-and-a-half class full of direction changes, weight shifts and movements intended to use the entire floor. “You can’t do the same thing all the time,” explains Bielski. “Dancing is like a tennis match, you have to alternate long and short shots.” Professional dancers of all stripes flock to this class, trusting Bielski to get them in shape for their next gig or prepare them for the demanding day ahead.

Surprisingly, Bielski’s passion for teaching grew out of a largely unsatisfactory performing career. After just two years in her first professional job with New York City’s Harkness Ballet, she quit, feeling “thin, lonely and unhappy.” After brief stints in college and with Boston Ballet, the still young Bielski moved back to New York City to try her luck at Harkness again, this time in the front of the room.

Her barre is a long series of short combinations, alternating slow with quick, that gradually builds up the speed and agility required for her aerobic center. “There is nothing random about the progression,” says Julie Kent, principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, who has been taking Bielski’s class since 1999. “Each one prepares you for the next, for center, turns, jumps. You are thoroughly warm in a way that is beneficial for the whole day.”

Although David Howard was one of her biggest mentors, Bielski has always considered herself “more of a pusher.” But Howard’s focus on organic musicality and connecting movement had a major influence on her, formulating a unique mix with the speed and rigor of her early Balanchine training. After she had taught kids for many years (and founded the children’s program at Steps), it was Howard who introduced her to Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova. Once Bielski opened the door to teaching professionals, she never looked back.

On a Wednesday morning in October, Bielski’s class is full of famous dancers like Kent, but she does not play favorites. Petite and dressed in black with a drapey skirt over leggings, she floats over the room. Her snapping fingers seem to be on autopilot, a way to make sure musicality is not forgotten even when she is focusing on alignment. “Pliés are not a position; they are a movement,” Bielski says. “Send light out of each finger. Try breathing.” No one is left behind, and everyone gets her sly sense of humor, though they are working too hard to laugh out loud. “You should be tired now; it’s OK to be tired,” she says after a fast passé relevé combination. Smiles of relief appear, though everyone knows her infamous petit allégro looms. Arthurs believes Bielski’s commitment to allégro, which increases in speed with each round, has helped her keep up with the fast pace NYCB repertoire requires onstage.

It is curious that someone with such a short professional career has been able to earn the trust of so many professional dancers—so much so that she also teaches company class at ABT on Saturdays, where Misty Copeland, Sarah Lane and Joseph Gorak are among her regulars. Kent explains, “Nancy’s class has given me something I can do to get in shape and be ready for my day. As a person, she is a mom and a wife, and she understands my life is about more than simply taking her class. Her support is something I can count on.”

Indeed, the appeal of Bielski’s class seems to be about more than musicality and exceptional strength building. Her attention to everyone in attendance, to details large and small, creates a positive and welcoming atmosphere where there is no intimidation. The class is not about her own agenda; it is about these professional dancers and the work they need to do, at that moment and throughout the rehearsals and performances that are likely to follow. “I had so many horrible, narcissistic teachers over the years, and I know it is very lonely to be a professional dancer,” she says. “I hope to be nurturing and helpful.” DT

Candice Thompson danced with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and is a writing fellow at Columbia University.

Photographed by Matthew Murphy

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