Margaret Tracey works on the fundamentals with Boston Ballet School student Daniel Goldsmith.

Should your students know their ABCs (Agrippina Vaganova, Bournonville and Cecchetti, that is), or focus on only one ballet technique?

 

Until about 30 years ago, there were firm do-not-cross lines drawn between the various ballet techniques. Russian dancers, trained in Vaganova technique, didn’t touch Balanchine’s American style; Danish dancers, trained in Bournonville technique, stayed away from Vaganova. It used to be that members of The Royal Swedish Ballet could plausibly claim they “should not be dancing George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, since ‘we don’t really dance like that,’ i.e., speedily, with accentuated footwork,” as Helena Wulff recounts in Ballet across Borders: Career and Culture in the World of Dancers.

Nowadays, no dancer would dream of saying such a thing, since companies typically perform a potpourri of works by different choreographers, from different eras, drawing on many different techniques. As ballet companies move toward a more universal style, the best way to prepare your students for the diverse challenges they’ll face is with high-quality training—no matter the style (or styles). But will grounding your students in a specific ballet technique give them an edge? What are the benefits of training that exposes students to a wider range of styles, versus training based in a single technique?

Today’s ballet companies perform a huge range of styles. A single program on Boston Ballet’s 2012 lineup includes Florence Clerc’s staging of Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides (above), based in Russian technique; George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements (center), which uses Mr. B’s distinctive style; and Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia (bottom), a contemporary ballet that incorporates aspects of several techniques.

Although each ballet technique corresponds to a nationality, there is a danger in simplifying them. For the book What Is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism by Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen (1983), critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote a piece entitled “There Is Nothing ‘National’ About Ballet Styles”—a sophisticated overview of the various ballet techniques—and argued: “Rather than fall back on dubious national stereotypes to explain why one ballet company accents its works differently from another, why not admit that each style derived from the individuals who have shaped that company?” Kisselgoff has a valid point—and one that still applies to today’s ballet world, in which a Dane (Peter Martins) runs New York City Ballet, home of the Balanchine style, and a Balanchine disciple (Nikolaj Hübbe) runs the Royal Danish Ballet. Training your students in the Bournonville style in the hopes that it will help them find jobs in Denmark, or the Vaganova method to give them a leg up in Russia, is usually unproductive.

What about contemporary choreographers, whose works make up a good deal of the modern ballet troupe’s repertoire? Do they prefer dancers fluent in many ballet styles? Choreographer Roger C. Jeffrey recently created a work entitled a soliloquy among many on Philadelphia’s BalletX. Jeffrey, a modern dancer, was confident that BalletX’s dancers could master his choreography—even though they came from different backgrounds. “I worked with one dancer who was a Balanchine boy,” he says. “He had a very fluid torso—a lot of freedom in his hands and voluptuous movement—that was wonderful to work with. Of course, for some of the more modern movements, he had to watch me, just like playing Simon Says. But dancers are flexible now.”

Even if they’ve received their training at the Kirov Academy, or School of American Ballet, or a school with Royal Academy of Dance examinations? “In my experience, those teachers are the keepers of the flame,” Jeffrey says. “The Balanchine people, the Vaganova people —they’re hardcore. But dancers now are also taking yoga, acrobatics, karate, even break-dancing,” which help them develop a more sophisticated sense of body awareness. “So at the end of the day, a Balanchine dancer can relate to, say, Mark Morris choreography. It’s a different way of moving, but there’s the same sensitivity to music.”

The Kirov Academy’s Nikolai Kabaniaev, one of those keepers of the flame, believes that focusing on a single classical technique—in his case, the Vaganova technique—will teach students the discipline and attention to detail they need to conquer many styles. “If you train a student in a single system that is thorough and detailed, you get a dancer who can do almost anything,” he says. “The well-trained classical dancer is both the most versatile and the most desirable to ballet companies.” He also emphasizes that none of the techniques exist in a vacuum. “These are methods evolving with time and every new generation,” he says. “Today’s Vaganova technique is infused with new teaching ideas from all over the ballet world.” And, he adds, the techniques are inherently connected: Agrippina Vaganova worked with Enrico Cecchetti, and George Balanchine, like Vaganova, trained at the Imperial Ballet School of Russia.

Margaret Tracey, a former New York City Ballet principal trained in the Balanchine style, is now the director of the multidisciplinary Boston Ballet School. When asked about technique, she replies, “It’s a big question. Parents want to know, ‘What technique are you going to teach my child?’ Like the Suzuki method of violin instruction.” But rather than focusing on a specific technique, Tracey, like Jeffrey, emphasizes the importance of ballet training that includes nonballet classes. “A dancer trained at the Boston Ballet School can move with speed and musicality,” she says. “They have ballet class, yes, but also modern, character dance, Pilates. What we teach is the technical foundation for a dancer in the 21st century.”

Ultimately, the style question might be more theoretical than practical: The majority of today’s artistic directors are simply looking for strong dancers. In fact, a company of dancers with different backgrounds—some trained in one style, some in many—is often better off for it. The members of Corella Ballet Castilla y León, founded in 2008 by Madrid-born ABT premier danseur Angel Corella, are drawn from various schools and companies around the globe. But the result isn’t a messy melting pot of a company; it’s a wonderfully eclectic group with its own distinctive flavor. “I’ve been lucky to dance with the Kirov, La Scala, New York City Ballet and others, and I can see that each has something wonderful to offer,” Corella said to The New York Times, “so I don’t want to have a particular type of dancer. It’s the diversity of bodies and minds that makes us so special.” DT

Susan Elia MacNeal is a writer and editor. Her debut novel is due to be published in April 2012.

Photos from top: by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre; by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Mitchell Button, courtesy of the artist

Dusty Button prefers music with a range. "There needs to be a beginning, a climax and a strong ending. Like a movie," she says. The award-winning dancer, who joined American Ballet Theatre's second company, ABT II, at 18, has always been drawn to lyric-free tracks filled with dynamic phrasing, rhythms and composition. "Whether it's the violin, piano or cello, instrumental music gives me more inspiration. I want the dancers and the audience to feel something new," she adds.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network

When the news broke that Prince George, currently third in line for the British throne, would be continuing ballet classes as part of his school curriculum this year, we were as excited as anyone. (OK, maybe more excited.)

This was not, it seems, a sentiment shared by "Good Morning America" host Lara Spencer.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo via Claudia Dean World on YouTube

Most parents start off pretty clueless when it comes to doing their dancer's hair. If you don't want your students coming in with elastic-wrapped bird's nests on their heads, you may want to give them some guidance. But who has time to teach each individual parent how to do their child's hair? Not you! So, we have a solution: YouTube hair tutorials.

These three classical hairdo vids are exactly what your dancers need to look fabulous and ready to work every time they step in your studio.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Via @madisongoodman_ on Instagram

Nationals season is behind us, but we just aren't quite over it yet. We've been thinking a lot about the freakishly talented winners of these competitions, and want to know a bit more about the people who got them to where they are. So, we asked three current national title holders to tell us the most powerful piece of advice their dance teacher ever gave them. What they have to say will melt your heart.

Way to go, dance teachers! Your'e doing amazing things for the rising generation!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox