It is an understatement to describe Lirena Branitski as old school. Trained in Russia when it was still the Soviet Union, she danced with the Kiev State Theatre of Opera and Ballet before moving to the U.S. in 1980. As principal of The Dance Institute at Minnesota Dance Theatre, she has trained many successful professionals—and not by having a lax classroom attitude. In a rich Russian accent, she explains that jokes and laughter have their place in the studio, but more often when she works with professional dancers—not students, who should be focused on their training. “Students have to respect you and be a little bit scared,” she says. “If I raise my voice, it means it was bad. But I never scream at them. Never.”
She shows her warmth and natural humor to students outside of class, and she cares deeply about their success—and safety—as dancers. Her teaching philosophy centers on developing correct, simple technique and body placement. It peeves her when students want to dance at speeds beyond their skill level. “I do not like to give them a quick tempo until they get clean enough steps.” Sometimes, however, when students return from a summer intensive, Branitski can see they’ve been dancing too fast by the way they don’t lower their heels during jumps. “It’s what creates injury,” she says. “The Achilles is sensitive. If you’re jumping and pirouetting from your heels and not demi-pointe, you’ll keep your legs healthy.”
She opens each class with a nurturing warm-up of slow tendus facing the barre, before starting pliés in second position. “I think when you start with pliés, the knees, pelvis, thighs and groin are not ready yet,” she says, adding, “But maybe that’s because in Minnesota it’s cold.” DT
Footwear: “I wear soft leather jazz shoes (Sansha shown) with a tiny heel to save my Achilles during demi-pliés. I don’t like sneakers; I don’t know how teachers use them. I like to feel the floor.”
Pre-class meal: Branitski has never been able to stomach much food before class. She’ll have coffee and maybe a banana or orange.
Favorite hobby: knitting sweaters for Minnesota’s Russia-like climate. “It can be wool, or cotton for the summer.”
Setting an example: Branitski arrives 20 minutes before class to warm up her feet and prepare for the day. “I am never late,” she says.
Photos courtesy of Minnesota Dance Theatre (2); Thinkstock (6); shoe courtesy of manufacturer