In a spacious upstairs room in his San Francisco home, ballet teacher Christopher Lam gently holds on to an ironing board as he pliés, tendus and dégagés in his socks on the wood floor. He is leading students in a virtual ballet class on Zoom in light of the San Francisco Bay Area's shelter-in-place order that has closed the doors of every dance studio where Lam normally teaches. After a particularly speedy and challenging frappé exercise with fondus, he steps up to the camera and says, laughing, "Dancers, I think that one was a bit ambitious for home—juggling the slippery floor and ironing board."
Q: How can I help parents understand that time spent in technique class is as valuable as learning choreography for competitions?
"Fifth! Fifth!" Daniel Catanach shouts during a brisk tendu exercise in his advanced-intermediate ballet class at Steps on Broadway. "That's 'fifth' with a 'th'!" he adds, making several students' tense faces relax into smiles. Watching Catanach in action, two things are clear: He's all about precision, and he wants dancers to enjoy his class. He's a stickler and a jokester, infusing discipline with humor. "What's the worst that can happen?" he asks during a pirouette combination. "You fall?" one student murmurs. "No!" Catanach laughs. "The worst that can happen is that you do it perfectly! Then you always have to do it like that, because you know you can."
Vicky Shick's voice echoes in the cavernous dance space of St. Mark's Church in New York City's East Village. A sinking plié gets a heavy "uhhhhh," while a swing-and-recover movement is accompanied by a joyous "whoo!" It doesn't take long for the students to join in with deep sighs and sharp yelps of their own. This is the only soundtrack for an hour-long, continuous warm-up that Shick has designed to be a neutral entry point into "everything you need as a dancer: strength, flexibility, alignment, shifting of weight, getting on center, using momentum." Rather than walking around, offering corrections, Shick participates in the warm-up, mirroring the class. "I like to allow time for people to get information from their own bodies," she explains. "There needs to be room to listen."
While leading a rehearsal of Balanchine's Serenade, Stacey Calvert can't help but join in, marking at the front of the studio with a grin on her face. It's a Friday morning at the University of South Carolina—where Calvert taught and staged works for 17 years—and the dancers are preparing for the annual spring performance, Ballet Stars of New York, during which the students are joined by several New York City Ballet dancers who perform soloist and principal roles each year. Calvert had helped organize the event since 2005, bringing to Columbia, South Carolina, such dancers as Lauren Lovette, Jared Angle and Sara Mearns, who grew up in the area and trained at Calvert's mom's studio. As a George Balanchine Trust répétiteur, Calvert clearly is a master at the choreography, and as a former NYCB soloist herself—she retired in 2000 after a 17-year career—the steps are firmly embedded in her muscle memory.
On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.
"Dancers can do everything these days," I announced to whoever was in earshot at the Jacob's Pillow Archives during a recent summer. I had just been dazzled by footage of a ballet dancer performing hip hop, remarkably well. But my very next thought was, What if that isn't always a good thing? What if what one can't do is the very thing that lends character?
Courtney D. Jones stands out for her unique movement approach.
dabfoto creative, Courtesy Jones and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts
Ching Ching Wong (in blue) maintains a recognizable movement signature.
Otto Kitsinger, Courtesy Lauren Edson
It's nearing 5 pm on a Sunday in February, and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" reverberates through University of South Carolina's volleyball gym, where the Carolina Girls dance team is rehearsing a Nationals routine. What's most striking isn't the dancers' radiating energy or the team's precise unanimity. Instead, it's the complexity of the choreography—the weaving formations, transitions, level changes, directional shifts and moments of partnering—that seems out of place on center court. It's a scene that would make more sense in front of a mirror (not bleachers) and on marley (not wood). Yet the 28 collegiate dancers, clad in well-worn jazz shoes and official Under Armour team apparel, look right at home, happily working out the kinks in each phrase and troubleshooting lifts.