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.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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