Teaching Tips
Class at Canada's National Ballet School. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy of Canada's NBS

With little round tummies, shoulders up to their ears and limbs akimbo, young dancers are adorable twirling around in their first tutus and ballet slippers.

When they graduate from pre-ballet, though, proper alignment will become a top priority. Learning correct placement of the spine early gives children a solid foundation for their future training. Bad habits like slumped shoulders, buckled bottoms and arched backs with protruding tummies can inhibit technical development or lead to injury. Below, experts share three key strategies to help young dancers understand placement.

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Since his Broadway debut at age 16 in the first revival of On the Town, Chet Walker (DT March 2005 cover) has performed in, choreographed and directed a staggering list of productions, including the Tony Award–winning musical Fosse. The 55-year-old veteran choreographer continues to perform off-Broadway and on tour with his New York–based musical theater company, Walkerdance (also known as 8&ah1).

Walker also travels the globe to teach jazz dance and direct companies in Argentina and Norway. And for the past 10 years, he has directed the Jazz/Musical Theatre Dance summer program at the School at Jacob’s Pillow. To celebrate his decade at the Pillow, Walker invited a number of former students to perform in a star-studded benefit, “A Jazz Happening,” on August 23.

Dance Teacher: How has the Jazz/Musical Theatre Dance program progressed under your direction?
Chet Walker: At first, my approach was to inform young dancers about the type of dancing I did on Broadway. Then I moved in the direction of masters Matt Mattox and Luigi. I then channeled Donald McKayle and Robert LaFosse, to show modern’s and ballet’s role in jazz heritage, and Milton Myers for the connection with modern and Horton technique, along with Mr. Ailey for the way he brought jazz to his company. Next I introduced Jack Cole, the father of jazz and a student of Ted Shawn. In the second year, I went out on my own to find students from around the world, and financed scholarships for them. The Pillow is an international institution, and the school needed to reflect that. [Students now hail from over 40 countries.] And three years ago, I started “A Jazz Happening” to bring in professional dancers and show students the payoff for their own work.

DT: What’s new about this summer’s culminating benefit?
CW: Performers will include former students Andrew Fitch of Spamalot and Rockette Alyssa Epstein, plus Emanuel Abruzzo from Les Ballets Grandiva and Ric Ryder of The Music Man. I will perform with my “partner in crime” Dana Moore [of Fosse and Chicago], and probably with all the former students who will be there. Walkerdance will also perform as part of a tribute to Jonathan [Phelps, who passed away in January]. He was my partner and muse for 10 years, and I’ve been so grateful to know how he’s remembered.

DT: What dance professionals have influenced you the most?
CW: My teachers were Luigi, Madame Valentina Peryslavic, Maria Svoboda and Betty and Danny Hoctor. Those choreographers who had the biggest influence on my life were Bob Fosse, Ron Field and Gwen Verdon.

To be a teacher, not just someone who gives class, you need to be diligent. There should be a partnership between the teacher and the student, and that takes time. When a teacher moves you as a human being, not just as a dancer, you will carry that experience with you.

DT: So where do you draw the line between carrying on a tradition and creating your own style?
CW: When you solely carry on someone else’s tradition, you re-create their work. That becomes your own life’s work. My work is certainly structured like Mr. Fosse’s, but my style, steps and vocabulary show more than his influence. When you choreograph, you can’t go back and say, “What did he do?” It has to be about what the music says to you. It’s like someone reading great literature and then deciding to write their own novel.

DT: How do you advise students hoping for a professional dance career?
CW: I ask, “What sets you apart? What is your ‘it’ factor?” We all have something different to bring to the table; no one’s career is the same.

Click here to view a slide show of Chet Walker's 10 year anniversary summer.

Jennifer Brewer is a dancer, teacher and freelance writer in Saco, ME.

Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

When a dancer is described as having strong, supple feet, the topic of conversation is usually pointework. But well-developed feet are important for all dancers, regardless of genre. The muscles in the feet provide stability for all movement, and are particularly important for jumping. Consistent attention to working through the foot is the best way to ensure that they are able to protect the body and maximize jumps.

Mary Adams, who has owned Adams Ballet Academy in Tempe, Arizona, since 1965, refers to the feet as a dancer’s landing gear. She says that she can hear when a dancer isn’t using correct alignment, foot strength or a good demi-plié. “Sometimes the skinniest people make the loudest noise,” she says. “You know that their weight is in the wrong place and they haven’t learned to work through their feet.”

Put the Foot to the Grindstone

Training foot muscles is as important as developing the rest of the body. Although extra isolation exercises can augment strength, there is no substitute for a daily routine that includes footwork, notes Perry Julien, DPM, past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, who treats dancers from Atlanta Ballet. “The muscles get stronger over time with correct training,” he says.

Pointework can be an excellent strength builder. However, working exclusively in pointe shoes can actually be a detriment to foot strength, because dancers may not be able to feel the floor and articulate their feet fully. Long Island University Assistant Professor of Dance Shaw Bronner, who researches the biomechanics of dance at LIU and directs therapy services at Alvin Ailey, warns against exclusive use of pointe shoes, especially stiffer ones, in early training. “With stiff shoes, beginners use their ankles too much. They can lose strength in their intrinsic muscles,” she says.

To avoid hindering students’ foot development, don’t focus too much on speed during exercises. Dancers may sacrifice working through their feet in their desire to move quickly from point A to point B, relying on the ankle rather than the entire foot. But consistent practice will allow them to engage their intrinsics even in the quickest steps. “Fast movements can be superficial. The audience can see the difference [between superficial and proper movement], and you’re not protecting the body,” says Bronner.

Lack of flexibility in the calf and ankle can also be deadly to jumps, even if foot muscles are strong. A supple demi-plié is essential for upward force and additional shock absorption on landing. A good demi-plié is so important to Adams that she has been known to go around classes measuring demi-pliés with a yardstick.

Sandra Daniels, a teacher at North Atlanta Dance Academy in Alpharetta, Georgia, cringes when she sees dancers preparing for a jump with shallow pliés, particularly when the heels aren’t firmly grounded. “They develop bulging calf muscles and no foot strength,” she explains, noting that dancers are often surprised when they see in the mirror that their heels are lifted in landings.

Teach the Feet

You and your students should be aware of what the feet are doing and the purpose of each exercise. Simply placing body parts in prescribed positions won’t necessarily activate the muscles. For example, during a tendu a dancer needs to actively engage the metatarsals in order to gain strength. “The best thing is to work with understanding,” says Adams. “Unless your brain is thinking about what you’re doing, you don’t learn and the feet won’t get strong.” She advises teachers to insist that dancers pay attention to their muscles, rather than just assigning combinations and giving corrections on form. Bronner adds that without these reminders, beginners especially have a tendency to focus on achieving certain positions without engaging the appropriate muscles.

Imagery can also help students become more conscious of their feet. Compare feet to suction cups, peeling off the floor in a jump. In addition, you can compare feet to hands and demonstrate with your hands how strong, supple feet would bend into and out of the floor.

To help make sure that students are really using their feet, Daniels conducts as much as the first half hour to 45 minutes of her pre-pointe classes without shoes. Her students are required to use convertible tights, and roll them up for preliminary exercises. “It’s hard to see the toes even in well-fitting soft shoes,” she says. “It’s amazing how much you can tell with bare feet.” While her students do barre exercises such as pliés, tendus and relevés, Daniels watches their feet, checking to see that their demi-pointe is fully pulled up and their toes are gripping the floor. “If they are clutching their toes, their knuckles will turn white,” she says. “[This will cause] the toes to hit the floor crunched in jumps and be clenched, not extended, when pointed.”

Keep It Simple

You don’t have to add lots of exercises to dance class for your students to reap the benefits of foot strengthening. Plan ahead to maximize the time you have with students. “One hour goes fast,” Adams says. Fortunately, because most foot training can take place through a careful approach to exercises you already do, you shouldn’t find yourself running out of time. “There are many little places in class where you can sneak in footwork,” says Bronner. For seven foot exercises see "Try These."

Jennifer Brewer, MsEd, is a freelance writer and dance and academic teacher based in Saco, ME.

Mavis Staines, artistic director of Canada’s National Ballet School, has emerged as a dance education pioneer who is committed to students’ well-being and teachers’ continuing education. DT goes behind the scenes to find out what makes her tick—and what keeps NBS’ curriculum and training programs on the cutting edge.

"I can't stand to do something just because it's tradition if it's not the most effective way." —Mavis Staines

When Mavis Staines was called to the office of the National Ballet School’s founding artistic director, Betty Oliphant, she thought she was out of a job. After a year of teacher training at the Toronto school, Staines had been filling in for a teacher on leave. She was expecting the director to tell her that the teacher was returning and that, consequently, she was no longer needed. But Oliphant had something much more dramatic in store for her. “She asked me if I would like to train to take her place [as artistic director],” Staines recalls. “I trusted my intuition and said yes on the spot. It touched something in my heart and soul, and I knew it was the right direction for me.”

In the years since, Staines has become a visionary and inspirational leader in dance education. Her compassionate approach to educating students, her focus on health and the innovative new ventures she has introduced have led NBS to the forefront of dance training. Despite her accomplishments, she remains characteristically modest. “It is such a privilege,” says Staines of her leadership role at NBS. “[As artistic director] I have the chance to draw gifted people into my ideas, then I sit in awe. They take it further than I thought possible.”

Staines herself is a testament to the excellence of the student and teacher training programs of the school she has adored since childhood. After receiving her training at NBS, Staines studied in London and Paris for six months before launching a professional career, first with National Ballet of Canada and then with Dutch National Ballet. A leg injury brought her back to Canada, and a wrist injury was the catalyst for her entry into NBS’ teacher training program.

After six years as associate artistic director, Staines became artistic director upon Oliphant’s retirement in 1989. Her clarity of purpose, contagious enthusiasm and leadership skills guided her through the transition. “At first she was directing people who had taught her, and Betty was a hard act to follow,” says Laurel Toto, NBS teacher and manager of the school’s Junior Associates division. “But in the 20 years I’ve known her, she has never disappointed me. She is a great director to work under, and I regard her as a colleague and a friend.”

Staines acknowledges that her leadership qualities were in evidence even when she was a child. “When I was playing with friends, I’d always have ideas I thought were exciting and found I could draw my friends into them. We would play imagination games that took us to other realities,” she recalls. That same imagination has been taking NBS to new heights in recent years.

Nurturing Body, Mind and Spirit

Staines has implemented changes in the school’s curriculum and its programs to help develop healthy and well-balanced dancers. She is perhaps best known for her insistence that students should not be undernourished and for protecting them from becoming overly lean. But her focus on “advancing health and excellence in tandem” goes beyond weight. “It is about individuals fully exploring [their] talent and developing self-awareness and community consciousness,” says Staines.

NBS students are required to take body-conditioning classes, and the staff includes a cadre of physiotherapists and counselors who teach classes and are available for individual consultation. Although the conditioning and physiotherapy programs were in place before Staines became artistic director, she has been active in their evolution. To help educate the NBS staff about dance students’ specific physical needs, she enlisted Irene Dowd, a neuromuscular facilitator who works with Juilliard students and maintains a private practice in New York City. Dowd visits NBS three times a year, working directly with students as well as instructing teachers.

Fostering students’ spiritual health is also central to Staines’ educational philosophy, and she looks for ways to help developing artists toward self-expression and understanding. “It’s key to keep recognizing that the body is the vessel of expression, of the spirit,” she says. “When you are educating young people, it is important to teach them to trust their instincts and sense of self-awareness. They can do this without arrogance; they can be inspired to have a sense of themselves in their community; and they can learn self-respect and thoughtful respect of others.”

Toward this end, Staines invited former Royal Danish Ballet principal Sorella Englund to join the NBS faculty in 1999. Englund had suffered from anorexia as a dancer and nearly died as a result. Her recovery included developing a new belief system that emphasized self-expression. She now works with young dancers on issues of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. In addition to serving as an open and honest role model for students, Englund teaches classes in drama and expression. “It’s a rare teacher who can get teens to dig into their souls,” says Staines. “She creates an environment where teenagers feel safe to express what they are really feeling.”

Staines is aware that by encouraging self-exploration and expression in her students, she is creating dancers who may question choreographers and artistic directors. “Mavis doesn’t want dancers to be little boys and girls who keep their mouths closed and just follow directions,” says Toto. “Artistic directors want artists, people who will collaborate with the choreographer and director, and that’s what’s happening here.” As part of National Ballet of Canada’s 50th anniversary celebration last year, the company hosted a summit of artistic directors called “Past, Present and Future.” Staines derived great pleasure from watching NBS students interact with artistic directors from leading ballet companies in a public discussion and an evening dance presentation. “They directly yet respectfully asked questions. They are bright young people, and their questioning will enhance rather than undermine the quality of our art,” she says.

Developing The Curriculum

One of Staines’ first projects as artistic director was a revision of the NBS syllabus. She used the Cecchetti and Vaganova techniques as a springboard because of their familiarity. From those, she and her staff developed what she calls “an amalgam of our beliefs about which principles and what order of presentation are most effective for dancers.” Throughout the curriculum development and other initiatives, Staines has been a strong leader who remains open to the ideas of others. She is as interested in the individual voices and opinions of the teachers on the NBS faculty as she is of students and encourages individuality within a framework of common goals and ideals. “Mavis wants us to have strong opinions, then come to some consensus,” says Toto. “No matter how much you don’t agree on something, she’ll look for a solution and try to make it work. Sometimes you want her to tell you what to do, but she insists on getting us to work through our problems, and you never feel that she’ll hold your opinion against you.” In a continuing effort to bring in new ideas

as well as nurture an international dance community, she established annual student and staff exchanges, which now involve 12 professional schools around the world.

The faculty continues to examine the syllabus and make changes, according to its growing understanding of students’ needs and the changing demands on professional dancers. “I can’t stand to do something just because it’s tradition if it’s not the most effective way,” Staines says.

Her commitment to the mental and emotional development of her dancers also influences the school’s training methods. “It’s time to remember that the entire ballet vocabulary is meant to convey something emotional and spiritual,” she says. “Athletic feats have to be driven by an interior message. All drills and technical repetition should be connected with the artistic and musical experience of ballet. The physical aspect is much better and more beautiful when the artistic [aspect] motivates your approach to technique.”

Empathy And Understanding

Because NBS is a preprofessional school preparing dancers for a highly competitive field, students are evaluated each year before readmission. Students whose bodies are not developing the flexibility and strength necessary in the top ranks of professional companies, or who do not exhibit the drive and career focus that they need to reach these ranks, may not be readmitted, despite considerable talent and skill. Staines tries to explain these factors to departing students and their parents, who may be heartbroken and confused. “I’ve sat in on a lot of parent interviews, and I can’t believe the courage Mavis has,” says Toto. Staines tries to show students and parents that there are plenty of alternatives to NBS and that not being readmitted shouldn’t be seen as a blanket judgment on their talent. Often she offers to help them get into other schools. “She tries to help parents celebrate their children’s achievement," says Toto. "Mavis is compassionate, and that's the policy we work under."

IT is possible that dealing with her own disappointments has helped Staines to be able to guide students past inevitable setbacks. When she was tapped by Oliphant in the early '80s, Staines was at a physical and emotional low. Not only had her dance career been cut short by injury, she had also lost both her parents in one year. "I thought [offering me the position] was a particularly courageous choice on Betty's part. I was depressed and withdrawn, lacking in confidence and uncertain about my place in the world," she says. "She told me that, knowing the way I loved the school and the ideas I had about educations, she knew I would do well."

Oliphant's instincts about Staines were right on target. She has been able to turn even her most difficult experiences to the advantage of the students and colleagues with whom she works. "I believe that you have to celebrate the high points in life and not count on the world always being way we want it to be," she says. "None of us achieve every dream the exact way we want to. the important thing is to express ourselves in a thoughtful way." DT


Teacher Training at the National Ballet School

Full-time programs devoted to dance teacher training are few and far between in North America, although they are more common in other parts of the world. The National Ballet School program offers a number of options for training, depending on an instructor’s previous training, teaching and performing experience and professional goals.

Graduates of the three-year program receive certification from either the Cecchetti Society or the Royal Academy of Dance, in addition to their diploma. Dancers with extensive performing experience may qualify for a two-year or one-year condensed program, also resulting in a diploma and certification. All full-time students take classes in art history, psychology, pedagogy, anatomy and music, as well as ballet, modern and character dance.

NBS offers joint five-year programs with York University in Toronto and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, through which students may earn a bachelor’s degree as well as their NBS diploma and certification. Teacher training program manager Anuschka Roes hopes to develop similar arrangements with U.S. and other Canadian universities. Because the coursework is roughly equivalent to two years of a BFA curriculum, students can transfer credits to other colleges or universities, but NBS’ formal arrangements make it easier, says Roes.

Roes works closely with artistic director Mavis Staines to ensure that the program reflects the overall philosophy of the school. Ongoing research into developmental stages and learning styles informs Roes’ management of the program, and teachers in training are offered a wealth of opportunities to learn how to encourage “health and excellence in tandem” in their future students.

“Our goal is to produce teachers who are better than ourselves,” says Roes. “Our students get resources they aren’t even aware of from their experience here, particularly the ability to problem-solve. Teaching is so much more than knowing what a plié is; mechanics are only about 10 percent of the process. Teachers who keep training are the movers and shakers of the future.”

Teachers who want to continue their professional development without enrolling in the teacher training program can also benefit from the vibrant learning environment at NBS. Five-day intensive teacher seminars are offered each summer, and include technique classes, observation of NBS children's classes, lectures, workshops and discussions. Staff for teacher seminars includes neuromuscular facilitator Irene Dowd, NBS teachers and guest teachers.

National Ballet School L'Ecole Nationale de Ballet

105 Maitland Street

Toronto, Ontario M4Y 1E4, Canada



Founded: 1959

Major source of funding: Government of Canada

Curriculum: NBS’ ballet syllabus is in continual development, incorporating elements of major traditions and the demands of ballet as it evolves. Students also take classes in body conditioning and modern and character dance. NBS’ academic curriculum results in the Ontario Secondary School Diploma.

Campus and facilities: Two downtown Toronto blocks in the North Jarvis neighborhood, including studios, residences, classrooms and administrative offices, plus the 297-seat Betty Oliphant Theatre, an indoor pool and physiotherapy department and The Shoe Room, a retail store that offers expert pointe shoe fitting. “Project Grand Jeté,” a CN $88 million capital campaign, is in the works to renovate and upgrade the school’s facilities.

Staff: includes about 20 full-time and part-time dance teachers and numerous guest teachers, 20 academic teachers, 15 pianists, six body-conditioning instructors, three physiotherapists, 10 consulting psychotherapists and six consulting doctors

Professional program: Grades 6 to 12, full-time dance and academic curriculum, approximately 150 resident and day students, 75 percent of whom are Canadian and 15 percent American. Fees range from approximately CN $4,500 to $13,000, depending on Canadian citizenship and residential versus day-student status. Each year 1,000 students audition for about 50 places.

Junior Associates program: 250 day students, ages 6 to 12, take one to three classes per week with the same NBS faculty who teach in the professional program and with a syllabus that reflects the same principles.

Teacher Training program: 20 to 30 students, mostly Canadian; tuition ranges from approximately CN $3,000 for Canadians to $11,000 for noncitizens. Housing arranged by individual students.

Intensive Dance program: Approximately 20 dancers per year, including NBS graduates and dancers from other international academies, take this post-secondary year of intensive professional training.

Summer programs: In addition to a July session required of most students in the professional program, the school offers intensive 5-day summer seminars for teachers.

Jennifer Brewer, MSEd, is a freelance writer and dance and academic teacher based in Saco, Maine.

Photography by Eduardo Patino

Every budding ballerina dreams of the day she’ll put on her first pair of pointe shoes, but in reality the transition from soft ballet slippers to stiff pointe shoes can be difficult and painful. The unexpected surprise of painful blisters and sore toes dampens many young dancers’ enthusiasm for the coveted satin shoes.

To help students develop the proper muscles and balance to succeed on pointe, teachers are incorporating shankless shoes—pointe shoes manufactured without the stiff sole, but with the stiff box—into expanded pre-pointe training programs. “Shankless shoes are a steppingstone in the progression to pointe work,” says Jennifer James Church, director of The Academy of Dance Arts in Red Bank, New Jersey. Shankless shoes (also known as pre-pointes) offer a more gradual—and less painful—transition into pointe work. “These shoes introduce students to the feeling of a pointe shoe,” explains Gillian Davis, director of The Center for Dance, Drama and Music in Port Richey, Florida and an examiner for the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD). “After using them, it’s not such a big jump when they get real pointe shoes.”

Although they are not supportive enough to enable true pointe work, shankless shoes have a toe box and a thicker sole than ballet slippers to help students get used to the feel of a pointe shoe. “Tendu in soft slippers is so easy, but in pre-pointes it’s harder,” says Church. “Balancing on flat and jumping are also different.”

Davis uses extremely soft-soled shankless shoes for her pre-pointe students and even for her pointe students’ technique classes. She believes that even with soles almost as soft as a slipper, shankless shoes make dancers work harder in preparation for pointe. “With or without a shank, the feeling of the box is different [from a slipper],” she says. “Balance is more difficult and you have to take more care with placement.”

Wearing shankless pointe shoes can be a particularly useful intermediate step for students who are accustomed to split-sole slippers, according to Philip Burnham, who teaches ballet at University of Florida in Gainsville and works with RAD students preparing for exams. “I’m not keen on young students using split soles,” he says. “Although split soles are handy later in students’ training, it’s better to start out with full soles.” Burnham believes that young dancers who have trained in full soles are better able to feel the floor and to arch their feet fully in pointe shoes, as they are accustomed to thicker materials between their foot and the floor.

Toronto’s renowned National Ballet School (NBS) also utilizes shankless shoes in pre-pointe training. Footwear specialist Carol Beevers, who fit National Ballet of Canada dancers for thirty years before becoming manager of The Shoe Room at NBS, claims that proper preparation can help circumvent beginning pointe students’ technique problems. “With a hard pointe shoe, dancers push to get their weight over their toes and often they can’t,” she says. “Sometimes they end up working on the pleating [on the bottom tip of the shoe]. The muscles remember wrong, and later it’s hard for them to get all the way over.”

Pre-pointe classes generally include exercises to strengthen the abdomen and lower back as well as the feet. Typically, students begin in slippers and advance to shankless shoes when their balance, strength and placement have developed to the teacher’s satisfaction. Depending on the student’s physical development and ability, this preparatory training can last up to two years, when students get their first true pointe shoes. Church, who requires X-rays and medical consultation before any dancer goes on pointe, believes that careful attention to children’s pre-pointe development really pays off. “When our students go on pointe, they take off and fly—they’re not staggering around in agony.”

Although training in shankless shoes does not include true pointe work, Beevers notes that roll-ups to full pointe with both hands on the barre are part of pre-pointe training at NBS. Davis’ students also practice slow rises at the barre in their shankless shoes. Church’s students do tendus with a push-over, learning to hold the arch just as in pointe shoes.

Because of the possibility of misuse, students in shankless shoes should be monitored. Manufacturers specifically advise consumers that they are not for pointework, and some teachers, including Church,  do not allow students to put their weight on their toes. Some teachers may be concerned about students taking shankless shoes home and using them improperly; Church believes that teacher supervision keeps students safe. “I’d recommend collecting the shoes after class [if there is concern],” she says. Davis speaks to students and their parents about safe use when they get both shankless shoes and pointe shoes. “I’ve never had a problem,” she says. “Any teacher with beginning pointe students has to explain the dangers.”

A large proportion of U.S. sales of shankless shoes are to RAD students, as shankless shoes are required for exams. The shoes are not limited to a specific pedagogical method, however.  “Any teacher can use them if they understand what they’re doing,” says Church. Teachers can also wear the shoes themselves, to demonstrate pointe positioning.

Removing shanks from pointe shoes does not necessarily produce the same effect as purchasing shankless shoes. Burnham points out that manufactured shankless shoes are flatter under the foot and have a slightly softer box. While students who are already on pointe may choose to remove the shanks from their broken-in shoes for class use, pre-pointe students don’t have old shoes to de-shank.

In addition to their pedagogical benefits, shankless shoes may have psychological advantages for young students who are eager to go on pointe before they are ready. Because shankless shoes look like pointes but don’t allow real pointework, students can experience some of the excitement of getting shiny satin shoes a bit sooner. “I think it lifts their morale because they know they’re on track. If they’re in pre-pointe and they work hard, they’ll get their pointe shoes,” says Davis. Adds Church: “One of our teachers calls them the pretty pink shoes.” DT

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