Theory & Practice: Train Dancers to Move Fast Without Sacrificing Articulation or Artistry

Homer Bryant teaches an unconventional pointe class at the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center. Holding on to the barre, students do 32 relevés—on a trampoline. "Then we put the trampoline in the center of the room for jumps," he says. "This kind of training makes their legs stronger, so they can move fast."

Working on a trampoline might not be for everyone, but there's no doubt that strength training can help build speed. Full-body conditioning gives dancers the ability to fire their muscles quickly and the stamina to prevent fatigue. Yet strength and endurance are only part of the recipe. Dancers need the right energy, mental focus and musicality to learn how to move their bodies at a faster speed.


Build Awareness

To move fast, dancers must demonstrate control of their bodies. “Kids need to be aware of what they're doing," says Kay Mazzo, of The School of American Ballet (SAB). “Gravity isn't bringing their legs down—they're doing it. Show them that they're in charge of themselves, like how they lift a foot up and then put it back down." Encourage students to move with energy and purpose from the beginning of their training. Grand battements should go up with great energy and come down softly and controlled. In pointe shoes, girls should give extra energy through the tips of their toes.

Start Slow

Moving slowly might seem counterproductive when you're trying to build speed. But dancers must develop muscle memory and proper alignment before they can move at a faster tempo. “If you give 16 very fast tendus right away, they're not going to be able to do it," says Mazzo. She suggests working on the basics of a tendu first, such as: how the foot moves in and out from fifth position; how to maintain turnout; and remembering to pull up the body. “You begin with those basic things and build on it," she says. “Then they'll be able to move quickly."

Use the Music

“Musicality is one of the most important tools," says Jodie Gates, vice dean and director of the University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. “There's a constant counterpoint happening audibly and physically." Try double-timing an exercise: A waltz can be a slow three or a fast six, for example, depending on the structure of the combination.

Dancers who study more than one dance style will benefit from an increased knowledge of musicality. Because Kaufman students have ballet every morning and hip-hop class later in the day, they become what Gates calls “hypermusical"—a quality that's reflected in their movement. “The idea of bounce, speed, articulation and counter-rhythms are all embedded in their education," she says. “The outcome tends to be a light, fast, articulate hybridity."

Kay Mazzo teaches her SAB students that they're the ones in control of their bodies—including the speed at which their bodies function. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy of SAB

Remember to Breathe

When dancers forget to take a breath, they prevent oxygen from flowing to their muscles. They feel tired and look like they're moving underwater. “Every développé or grand battement should be an exhalation," says Bryant. “When legs and arms go away from the center, they should be breathing out." While dancers should avoid being tense, they shouldn't relax. Their bodies should be pulled up and ready to go, like a cat about to pounce.

Be Efficient—But Thorough, Too

Coordination is key. “The hands and feet work as one," says Gates. “The knees and elbows, shoulders and hips. The rotation and flow of these parts all aid in adapting to any tempo." She also encourages students to keep their weight over the balls of their feet. “When you sit back in the heels," she says, “you're not engaging the muscles that will enable you to move quicker later in the class." Using the bounce from their plié in petit allégro allows students to rebound quickly into the air. Mazzo agrees: “Four changements are really just point, plié, point, plié, so they're firing the toes in the air."

In an effort to be fast and efficient, some dancers might want to cut corners. But Mazzo warns against moving too small: “They should be as big as they can, even when the tempo gets faster." If students try to anticipate the next step, they might end up rushing the music or tripping over the choreography. Sometimes, Bryant says, students will make the mistake of comparing their speed to that of the other dancers in the studio and falter. “It's like they're running and looking back to see who's catching up to them," he says. “They've got to stay 100 percent focused." DT

Cross-Train Dance-Style

Homer Bryant, who directs the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center, uses cross-training to help his dancers build stamina and move fast. Here are some of his favorite exercises:

  • Jump on a trampoline for 20 minutes one day and 30 minutes the next, gradually increasing the number of minutes.
  • Sprint from one end of the studio to the other 10 times.
  • Pick up pencils with your toes for half an hour.
  • Slowly increase an exercise's repetitions. "If we do 32 échappés one night, we'll do 48 the next—up to 64," he says.

Julie Diana was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. She and her husband Zachary Hench now direct Juneau Dance Theatre in Alaska.

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