Nancy Bielski

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

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."

In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

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!"

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