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."
Have you ever looked at a student's posture and said: "Close your ribs" or "Don't grip your glutes" or "Use your abdominals more"? While that pinpointed correction may or may not have achieved the desired results in the moment, such phrases naturally raise a bigger question: "But how?"
It's the last class of the spring semester, and Paige Cunningham Caldarella isn't letting any of her advanced contemporary students off the hook. After leading them through a familiar Merce Cunningham–style warm-up, full of bounces, twists and curves, she's thrown a tricky five-count across-the-floor phrase and a surprisingly floor-heavy adagio at the dancers. Now, near the end of class, she is reviewing a lengthy center combination set to a Nelly Furtado song. The phrase has all the hallmarks of Cunningham—torso twists atop extended legs, unexpected timing, direction changes—which means it's a challenge to execute well.
After watching the dancers go through the phrase a couple of times, Caldarella takes a moment to troubleshoot a few sticky spots and give a quick pep talk before having them do it again. "I know it's fast," she tells them. "I know it's a lot of moves. And you're hanging in there! But stick with the task of articulating everything—try to hyper-explore that."
Irene Dowd's third-year students at The Juilliard School sound more like they're in medical school than a dance class, citing complex kinesiology terms and muscle names, like multifidus and iliocostalis. But instead of memorizing the vocabulary with index cards and textbooks, the students in Dowd's anatomy/kinesiology class come ready to move. “Motor-learning specialists have found that we learn by doing," says Dowd, who began teaching at Juilliard as an assistant to ideokinesis matriarch Lulu Sweigard in the late 1960s. “If you learn it [anatomy] intellectually, you forget it. You have to do it physically, and then you can start to understand what you've learned."
When Laszlo Berdo teaches men's class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, he sees some dancers who turn very well, but only to one side. “I have guys who can do triples in à la seconde on the right, but they can't do a double pirouette or a single à la seconde to the left," he says. “There's an extreme difference."
- Start with a good preparation. Plié in fourth, keeping the hips square and the back knee straight. Arms are in fourth. Texas Ballet Theater School associate director Kathryn Warakomsky encourages students to keep their heels down and use the whole foot on the floor, rather than rolling forward on the arches or letting the front foot slide into the turn first: "You want to go down into the floor and push from the back foot to go up."