Teaching Tips

Susan Pilarre Explains 5 Balanchine Essential Elements

Susan Pilarre has been closely tied to the School of American Ballet for nearly her entire life.

From her first class there at age 11 through her 16-year career with its affiliated company, New York City Ballet, Pilarre learned directly from the great choreographer George Balanchine, absorbing the details of his unique style. Sensing her innate understanding of his principles, Balanchine encouraged her to teach; she joined SAB's permanent faculty in 1986. Since then, she has become recognized as an authority on Balanchine's teachings, instilling SAB and NYCB's distinctive speed, clarity and energy into generations of dancers.

Here, Pilarre shares how the specifics that Balanchine insisted upon in class contribute to the strength, beauty and musicality that define his style—and dispels common misconceptions.


1 "Every step is a sandwich on plié bread"

"Plié is completely paramount in Balanchine technique," says Pilarre. "You don't have anything without it. I often say every step is a sandwich on plié bread." To achieve the pliant, elastic quality Balanchine wanted (he famously urged his dancers to land as softly as cats), he had them land jumps with their weight forward over their toes, never quite letting their heels touch the floor—not actively picking them up, as is commonly misperceived. When executing a demi-plié from a standing position, he asked for a slight release of the heels.

"The misunderstanding is that people think you lift your heels and let them come way off the ground," Pilarre says. "Mr. B used to say, 'Slip a piece of paper under your heels.' It's important for soft landings that your torso is forward, in front of your hips, that you land in your toes."

2 A pirouette surprise

One of Balanchine's core objectives was to de-emphasize, or hide, preparations. "He didn't want us to broadcast 'Now I will pirouette,'" Pilarre explains. He thought the traditional fourth position in demi-plié encouraged "sitting" in the preparation, slightly delaying takeoff and disrupting the flow of movement. "One day he said, 'We're not going to turn like that anymore.' He wanted us to simply tombé into a long fourth position, as if we were going to do another step, and then voilá—you just turned. The pirouette comes out of nowhere." She adds that while the back leg is straight, it should not be not stiff.

3 Spot for the audience

Spotting the front, another Balanchine trademark, was intended to better present the dancer and engage the audience, particularly during turns along the diagonal. "Spotting the wing advertises that you're about to exit," she says. "It's all about the people we're performing for. You're not performing for the wings."

4 "The wrists and elbows are a team"

Balanchine wanted his dancers to sculpt their hands like pieces of art, shaping each finger individually. "The cup of the hand is rounded, and the thumb and pinky are completely separated from the other fingers, but they're not stiff. You should be able to wiggle your fingers," says Pilarre. Épaulement, intrinsically coordinated with the arms and hands, was particularly important to him—the look includes a gracefully curved neck, as if offering one's cheek for a kiss.

Elbows and wrists are supple and move with energy and intention, "taking" the dancer into each step. They often cross as they move through positions. "The joints move a lot, but with strength," says Pilarre. "The wrists and elbows are a team: You bring the elbows in, lift the wrists and the hands go up, and reverse that to bring them down." In a piqué arabesque, for example, she teaches students to lead, energetically, with the hand, arm and head. "You're always moving with your head and hands first, initiating it. It's more exciting-looking, and it creates musicality that you don't get if the hands are droopy or drippy."

5 Move, fly, spring into action

Balanchine ballets are known for their speed, which is why quickness is built into SAB training. Pilarre begins her classes with grands pliés (in only two counts each) and always includes multiple tendu combinations, each faster than the last, to train the students' feet to point very swiftly and strongly (toes pulling back sharply from tendu devant) for maximum attack in petit allégro. "The feet should point so fast no one even sees them go out there," she says.

In Balanchine's choreography, the accent is often down, on count 1 (putting emphasis on the plié), with an upward impetus just afterward. In class, Pilarre stresses counting all parts of each measure to teach students to be acutely aware of accents. "Counting is essential for musicality," she says. "I actually sing the counts in every single exercise I give, not just the 1 and the 2, but the 'ands' in between. Mr. B said you should see the music and hear the dance, but he also said the most important thing is to be on time. So I teach that right away, starting at barre."

The underlying concept is about more than simply moving fast, though. It's about readiness, says Pilarre, and creating a series of clear, vivid pictures as you dance. "Mr. B wanted dancers to be ready to move, to fly, to spring into action. To be on the balls of the feet, so you arrive at your destination on time and not a nanosecond later. That's what makes his ballet so exciting—the speed and the brilliance."

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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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.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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