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."
Whether it's pirouettes, extension or strength, one-sidedness is an issue for all dancers. It can occur because of a body's development, injury or training habits. But to become well-rounded and injury-resistant, dancers must even out their strength and flexibility. Students might hesitate making this correction; many dancers would rather concentrate on what they do best than to focus on their limitations. But if you can show them how to find balance, coordination and strength on their weak side, they'll see their dancing improve.
Imbalances often start before students set foot in the studio: Most bodies are born with an unequal amount of strength and flexibility between their left and right sides. This causes joints and muscles to function and develop differently throughout dance training, which can throw off how positions, balances and movements feel. Fixing this problem often begins with a mind-over-matter approach—imagery can boost confidence in students when attempting to work on their weaker side. With pirouettes, for example, Berdo talks about axis points. He asks, “Are you turning around your spine or visualizing going up and through a hoop?" These ideas can help dancers develop a better sense of rotation.
Muscle memory also plays a big role. Berdo suggests having students perform the movement on their good side first. “I'll make them take a mental note of what exactly it felt like," he says, “then have them apply it to the other side. We start slow and keep going back and forth until they get it." Take the time to find what part of the movement is uncoordinated.
For those who struggle with flexibility, particularly young children, Pascale Leroy of San Francisco Ballet School takes a light and playful approach. She tells them to “feel like a butterfly, and use your arms as wings" or to “kick a balloon," so the troubled leg floats up without much weight. Staying relaxed can ease joint or muscle stiffness when working a side of the body that feels tighter.
While most people are either right- or left-handed by nature, students may favor a side because of the way they've trained. A traditional ballet barre begins on the right side, which Leroy says can, over time, impact technique. “When students first learn an exercise, they learn it on the right, and by the time the left side comes along, they're tired," she says. She suggests starting class with the right hand on the barre. “It gives you great results, especially with the younger ones. As they get older, it gets harder to tackle the weaker side."
Choreography for competition and performance is generally tailored to show off dancers' best skills. While it's important to ensure they look their best, this doesn't give them the opportunity to try steps in another direction. Jaclyn Walsh, a guest teacher at Walker's Gymnastics and Dance in Lowell, Massachusetts, notices that she instinctively designs choreography that favors one side over the other. “Most people, like me, are right-handed and tend to choreograph that way," she says. Walsh combats this in her contemporary and modern classes by creating a long phrase and having her dancers reverse it, without her help. “It's a mental battle to stay balanced and keep both sides up to par. Students need to have time with the material to engage their muscles and minds on the other side."
Imbalanced choreography can also invite injury. Walsh sometimes comes across students with problems from overusing a muscle. “They might have a strong tilt on the right side and do it 10 times in three dances, over and over again," she says. “All of a sudden they can't do it anymore because they've overworked muscles on that side of their body." Both she and Berdo agree that building strength and coordination through cross-training is essential to prevent these problems. It's also vital in repairing injury so that one side doesn't lag behind while the other improves—like an ankle sprain that can't support the weight of jumping.
Even after working on imbalances, students may always have one side that feels a bit more comfortable than the other. Remind them that directors are looking for adaptable dancers who can tackle all choreographic challenges. They'll be healthier and stronger in the long run—and there's no downside to that.
- 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."