Students at Houston Ballet Academy. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
To an untrained eye, fifth position might look simple and easy. But the iconic crossed position of the legs and feet proves to be one of the most challenging classical ballet positions for dancers to do correctly, and for teachers to introduce properly.
At Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, teachers take a hands-on approach. "We rotate the tops of the backs of the legs forward, so students understand how those muscles should work," says Darla Hoover, associate artistic director. "We put their body in the right position while pointing to areas they need to hold. It's a constant narrative. You can't just slap them into fifth and call it a day."
Some leading schools differ in their philosophies about how and when the position should be taught. But they all agree that dancers need strength, good alignment and careful guidance to ensure that they find their best fifth.
Jeffrey Rogers, faculty teacher at Ballet West Academy, remembers working with a student who struggled to find control on demi-pointe. "The boy had very arched feet and hyperextended legs, and tended to sink into his lower back," he says. Rogers focused on posture and weight placement until the boy stood upright and lifted, with his spine and pelvis in a neutral position. "When he started thinking of pressing the balls of his feet into the ground," says Rogers, "he found his relevé and balance at the same time."
A strong demi-pointe is a sign of good, healthy technique that enables students to achieve a full range of steps. While dancers might not always get the height they want, they can work toward a lifted relevé that looks aesthetically pleasing and feels stable at the same time. Teachers can help by focusing on good placement and nurturing a balance of strength and flexibility, even with their youngest dancers.
Photo by Dylan Giles, courtesy of Christina Johnson
When Elizabeth Ferrell was a young student, Suzanne Farrell told her something she'll never forget. "Shesaid she was going to paint eyeballs on my eyelids," Ferrell says, laughing, "because I was looking down all the time." Ferrell now uses the same phrase when she teaches at American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. "Students have to make sure their eyes are open and alive, so they can communicate with the audience," she says. "It starts in the classroom."
As Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, ballerina Margot Fonteyn entered the stage with the excitement and abandon of a teenage girl on her birthday. "The way she ran out and down the stairs, I thought she was 16 years old!" says Sophie Monat, dance faculty member at California State University, Long Beach, and teacher at Westside School of Ballet. "But Fonteyn was actually 60 at the time. Her entrance was such an electrifying moment because of the way she embodied her character."
How dancers enter and exit the stage can leave a lasting impression. A great entrance sets the mood and captures the audience's attention, while a sloppy run into the wings breaks the magical atmosphere the dancer just worked so hard to create. Practicing entrances and exits in the studio—in context, and as often as possible—will help your dancers understand just how important these seemingly minor moments are to any piece.
Photo by Amber Permsap, courtesy of Metropolitan Ballet Academy
At Metropolitan Ballet Academy in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, young dancers will pause mid-class to say the combination out loud. Director Lisa Collins Vidnovic encourages them to sing each phrase, at the correct speed and rhythm, to help remember the steps. "They do it together as a group, even if just one person is struggling," she says. "I find they can't retain and execute choreography if they're not able to verbalize it."
Some students have trouble picking up choreography—and remembering it, too. Teachers might have to repeat the same material again and again, stuck on sequence instead of being able to move forward, coaching technique and artistic details. New challenges arise when dancers forget corrections and don't apply the notes they get every day. What are the best strategies to avoid these potentially frustrating issues and nurture this essential part of your dancers' training? DT consulted three teachers about their approach and tips to make the information stick.
Parents might ask to observe the lesson, but their presence could actually hinder the child's progress. "Students work better when their parents aren't watching," says Becky Erhart Moore, artistic coordinator at Marin Ballet. If they insist on peeking in, suggest that they only come for the last 15 minutes.
Scheduling can be tough, especially since most students aren't available outside of school hours. "If I have to turn down a student because of scheduling issues on my end, I refer them to someone on my staff who is available," says Cheryl Madeux-Abbott, ballet director at the Franklin School for the Performing Arts.
Your time is valuable, so encourage students to arrive ready for the lesson. "If they're practicing a variation, they need to have done class before," says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet. "But if we're working on fundamentals, then we can start at the beginning of barre and get warm as we go along."
Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet School
Attitude turns have the potential for major wow factor—the position originated from sculptor Giambologna's famous bronze statue of the Roman god Mercury, after all—but many dancers struggle with this kind of pirouette. It's a tricky step, one that requires good placement, coordination and timing. Whether your students are learning this turn for the first time or working on doubles, it's helpful to go back to basics and break down the mechanics.