Teaching Tips

Use Sur le Cou-de-pied to Shape Dancers' Feet

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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.


From Two Feet to One

Once students achieve and maintain a solid fifth position, teachers can introduce the idea of moving from two feet to one. "I try to make them aware as soon as possible about weight transfer and the importance of the standing leg," says Aydmara Cabrera, director of Princeton Ballet School. "We talk about keeping the weight on the toes and establishing stability on the supporting side, which will eventually enable a stronger working leg."

Cabrera's students learn cou-de-pied (often called "coupé") first, ensuring that the dancers find their center while keeping the foot in the front or back of the leg, and are prepared for a pirouette position. "Then in our third level, we introduce sur le cou-de-pied," she explains. "The wrap is very useful to focus on turning out both sides, especially during promenades and balances, and strengthens the muscle on the outside of the lower leg."

Koltun also teaches coupé first, paying attention to the action of "scooping" the toes from the floor into a pointed position at the ankle. "The toes should go right to the ankle bone, like you're scooping up sand." She might also bring marbles to the studio and ask dancers to pick them up with their toes. "If the position is too low, the standing foot is not visible. You should be able to see the standing shoe and arch. Higher than the ankle bone, and it's not coupé front." Once they understand the proper position, Koltun will introduce sur le cou-de-pied.

"Like a Scarf Around Your Neck"

Jacqueline Cronsberg, former director of Ballet Workshop of New England, introduces coupé later, with fondu, and works on the wrapped shape as soon as dancers can do fifth position. "Sur le cou-de-pied is the perfect way to train the muscles and articulate the foot," she says. "You make the position with your whole leg, like you're wrapping a scarf around your neck. The knee starts the movement while the toes stay on the floor in fifth. Then they just slide up and around your ankle." Coming from the back, Cronsberg describes the same type of approach. "The inner thigh comes forward. Imagine your foot is behind you, and you're wrapping it around someone else's ankle."

Cabrera also uses imagery to help students achieve the right feeling. Dancers pretend they have Sharpie markers on their toes to encourage dexterity, or that their legs are mirror reflections of each other, showing equal turnout. "The younger ones also pretend that they are in a hot toaster, and the knee has to stay very far to the side to not get burned," she says.

Train the Toes

Sur le cou-de-pied helps build body awareness and muscle memory as students gain flexibility and greater control over their legs and feet. "It is a complete rotation from hip to toenail," says Cronsberg. "The earlier they can be trained to manipulate the foot, the more beautiful the instep becomes. The toes are often left out in the cold. The younger you start working on it, the better."

Some teachers prefer to use cou-de-pied devant and derrière throughout class and save the wrapped position for specific lessons on turnout and footwork, such as during petit battement or frappé. "The preference of the teacher can vary, as long as the end product is there," says Koltun. "The heel needs to come forward for classical ballet. That's what you need for any style of dance. Students have to be really clean and equipped to do it all."

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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