3 Different Approaches to Mastering the Pirouette

Well-placed turns will enhance choreography and dazzle the audience. When teaching pirouettes, Kathryn Warakomsky has her Texas Ballet Theater School students watch videos of legendary ballerinas Maya Plisetskaya, Alicia Alonso and Galina Ulanova. "They spun like tops," says Warakomsky, the Fort Worth school's principal. "The public wants to see that excitement." The pirouette can be approached in different ways, depending on the technique, teacher's preference and a student's individual needs. Here are some great tips for Balanchine, Royal Academy of Dance and Cuban styles.



A Good Preparation

A pirouette en dehors from fourth position typically starts with a plié, with more weight over the front foot (see photo 1). “This style is very RAD," says Warakomsky, “where everything comes from a good soft plié that sets you up for your balance. You use the plié to push from both legs, so it's a movement and not a static position." She 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."

Balanchine changed the traditional preparation by having dancers take a wide lunge in fourth position with a straight back knee and outstretched arms (see photo 2). “He wanted it to be a surprise—he disguised the preparation so the audience wasn't sitting there waiting for you to do a pirouette," says Gloria Govrin, artistic director of Eastern Connecticut Ballet. When using this deep, elongated preparation, dancers should keep their weight far over the front foot and use their back toes to push into passé.

Spotting where the turn will finish

Juneau Dance Theatre student Gabrielle Duvernay, by Bridget Lujan

Spotting front, with Balanchine arms

Photo by Bridget Lujan

Using the Arms

Turning from Balanchine's long fourth position can also lead to faster pirouettes. “The arms are straight with the palms down," says Govrin. “You get into the pirouette position fastest if you turn the front hand and bring it to your chest, and bring the other arm across the first arm."

Working from the RAD curriculum, Warakomsky teaches pirouettes with rounded arms and has students open the front arm as they plié before the turn. This approach helps initiate force as the second arm then closes to first position. “Continue the pirouette with the feeling of going up," she says, “but not with the shoulders raised."

To help dancers feel their arms in a pirouette, Laura Alonso of Centro Pro Danza in Cuba suggests holding a full water bottle in the following (or second) hand and switching it to the other hand mid-turn. “Feel the weight of the bottle, and keep pushing it around you," she says.

Spotting

A quick spot is necessary for a successful turn, but there are different approaches to how the head should move. “The second and third head spots happen faster than the first one," says Warakomsky. “You have to flick the head around so you can add another pirouette to your balance." Govrin teaches students the opposite idea: Your first spot should set the speed. “If you're going to be up on one, the first turn should be done by one," she says. “Your spotting will determine how fast the rest of the turn will be."

The Cuban and RAD styles of training teach dancers to spot where the turn will finish (see photo 3), while Balanchine wanted dancers to spot front during the pirouette—even though the turn might begin and end with the body facing the corner (see photo 4). “That way, the audience could see the beautiful passé position. The leg doesn't disappear because you're facing the corner during the turn," explains Govrin.

News
Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.


His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.


"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Blackstone

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Betty Jones in The Moor's Pavane, shot for Dance Magazine's "Dancers You Should Know" series in 1955. Zachary Freyman, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow

An anchor of the Humphrey-Limón legacy for more than 70 years, Betty Jones died at her home in Honolulu on November 17, 2020. She remained active well into her 90s, most recently leading a New York workshop with her husband and partner, Fritz Ludin, in October 2019.

Betty May Jones was born on June 11, 1926 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and moved with her family to the Albany, New York, area, where she began taking dance classes. Just after she turned 15 in 1941, she began serious ballet study at Jacob's Pillow, which was under the direction of Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova for the season. Over the next three summers as a scholarship student, Jones expanded her range and became an integral part of Jacob's Pillow. Among her duties was working in the kitchen, where her speedy efficiency earned her the nickname of "Lightning."

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