Health & Body
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Q: I have an 8-year-old student who is coming along quite nicely in her technique, but I've noticed that one foot doesn't point as well as the other. What's up?
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Betsy Brandt teaches at Webster University in St. Louis. Photo by Gerry Love, courtesy of Brandt
Betsy Brandt gets more than a few questions about what, exactly, she offers the choreographers she works with—the likes of Jennifer Monson and Sara Hook, to name a couple. "I help people make dances," she says simply about her role as dance dramaturg. "Sometimes, it's like being their composition teacher—except they know more than me, and I don't have the power."
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Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Williams

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?"

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Paige Cunningham Caldarella. Photo by Philip Dembinski

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."

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Teaching Tips
Irene Dowd with Juilliard student Leiland Charles. Photo by Jim Lafferty

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."

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Teaching Tips
San Francisco Ballet School's Pascale Leroy helps a student at the barre. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of SFB School

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."

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Photo by Bridget Lujan, courtesy of Juneau Dance Theatre
  • 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."
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Technique
Many breaking moves require the upper body to bear weight. Photo by Kyle Froman

Pavan Thimmaiah casually hovers in a freeze, his weight between his head and hands on the floor, legs extending out on an upward diagonal. From this topsy-turvy position, he encourages his students to try this breaking staple. “Take a picture and make it your Facebook profile," he jokes.

Self-taught Thimmaiah founded PMT Dance Studio in New York City in 2001 to teach breaking in a classroom setting to students of all different backgrounds, levels and ages. By focusing on safe technique and catering to his students' diverse skill levels, he's built a loyal following of teen and adult b-boys and girls in his Breakin' 101 for Beginners class. “I think a lot of times in breaking classes, teachers want to fly around and show what they can do," he says. “I want to show the students what they can do."

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