In an adult ballet class, Kimberly Chandler Vaccaro noticed a woman working so hard that her shoulders were near her ears. "I was going to say something about her tension, but I didn't want her awareness to go there," says Vaccaro, who teaches at Princeton Ballet School. Instead, she told the dancer to remember that breathing muscles are low, below her sternum. "Then we talked about moving from the shoulder blades first, and how they're halfway down your back. She started this lovely sequential movement, and it eventually solved the problem."
Drawing attention to symptoms, such as tense shoulders, might create more issues for a dancer if the cause of the problem remains unaddressed. Simply saying "shoulders down" might compromise alignment as the dancer tries to show a longer neck or forgets to breathe, jeopardizing movement quality. Teachers can be strategic and communicate information in a way that doesn't aggravate the situation. "Dance will never be easy," says master teacher Risa Steinberg, "but it can be easier if you're not folding new problems on top of old ones."
A tap dancer's upper body might be hunched or upright, quirky or smooth, depending on the individual's style. "People might think it looks silly when hands or arms are doing awkward things, when the dancer is reaching for infinite possibilities," says Jared Grimes, tapper and choreographer based in New York City. "But that's what the back and core muscles do for a dancer. They provide support for the thoughts below."
At the LINES Ballet Dance Center in San Francisco, faculty member Erik Wagner leads his class through an adagio combination in center. He encourages dancers to root their standing legs, using imagery of a seed germinating, so that they feel more grounded. "Our studios are on the fifth floor, so I'll often tell them to push down to Market Street," says Wagner. "They know that they should push their energy down to the street level." By using this oppositional force, he says, dancers can lengthen their bodies to create any desired shape.
James Payne, director of The School of Pennsylvania Ballet, starts class each day by asking students how they feel. "If they're collectively hurting, and I know that the day before they were working hard on something new, I might lessen the intensity of the class," he says. "I won't slow it down, though. Sometimes it's better to move through the aches and get to the other side."
A productive class depends, in part, on how well it is paced. If you move too slow, you risk losing students' interest and creating unwanted heaviness. Move too fast and dancers might not fully benefit from combinations or get sufficiently warm, increasing their risk of injury. But even these guidelines may differ depending on the students' age and level. Good pacing is a delicate balance that can facilitate mental and physical growth, but it requires good planning, close observation and the ability to adapt mid-class.
As a young student, Becky Erhart Moore did not go on pointe with the rest of her class. "My teacher felt I wasn't ready, so I wore flat shoes when everyone else wore pointe shoes," she says. "My mom had to deal with my tears for weeks!" Moore, who is now artistic coordinator and faculty member at Marin Ballet in California, says that the setback she experienced as a child motivated her to work even harder. "When I finally went up on pointe with my class, it was that much sweeter."
At Michigan Ballet Academy, artistic director Irina Vassileni meets with a group of eager young students and their parents. She holds a shiny new pair of pointe shoes in one hand and an old, worn pair in the other. "I show them all the details, inside and out, and how working on pointe for hours will break down the shoe," says Vassileni. "I might even bring in different models and talk about how they're made. Parents need a lot of information to make them feel comfortable about their children going on pointe."
Working with a 9-year-old student, Alexandra Koltun asks the young girl to face the barre. She reviews fifth position, demi-pointe with the front foot and coupé devant. "I separate all the positions, so the student understands each one," says Koltun, founder and artistic director of Koltun Ballet Boston. She reaches down to shape the girl's foot into sur le cou-de-pied, leaving the heel in front and gently squeezing the toes around the ankle. "This position will equip the foot with more strength," she says.
Depending on a ballet teacher's preference and style of training, sur le cou-de-pied (meaning "on the neck of the foot") may be incorporated into class at different times and in various ways. From steps like pas de cheval to frappé and développé, the wrapped position can be fundamental to a student's technical development. Or it can be used less often and as a supplement to cou-de-pied front and back. Either way, the value of the position remains constant as a tool to mold and strengthen dancers' feet.
Naomi Glass, teacher at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, knows firsthand the advantages and challenges of hypermobility. As a young dancer, she was told to keep her hyperextended knees in a straight position far from her full range of motion. "It felt too bent to me," she says. "But once I was able to access my inner thighs and rotators, I found strength and stability and could still use the line that I wanted."
Hypermobility occurs when joints exceed the normal range of motion. Dancers can have hypermobility in specific joints, like their knees, or they can have generalized laxity throughout their bodies (which is often measured using the Beighton system—see below). While this condition may enable students to create beautiful aesthetic lines, it can also increase risk for injury. Help dancers gain the strength they need to stay healthy while making the most of their hypermobility.