The CBT wants to know:

Core Competency: Pilates to the Rescue!

Do you struggle when you teacher asks you to engage your core during battements, balances and turns? The core muscles – not to be confused with the muscles that create a six-pack – are vital for a dancer in any genre. Ballet especially, with its specific and sustained demands on your posture and alignment, constantly uses the concepts that pilates specifically addresses.

Control of your core or “powerhouse” goes hand in hand with dance and is fundamental for proper ballet and pointe technique, but it can often be one of the most difficult things to master. Your torso has layers upon layers of muscles. Generally, the core refers to the muscles from your abs, sides and back at the deepest layers which are designed to provide support to the spine. Of course, if you are looking to get that six-pack look (which is created by the more superficial layers of the abdominals), core training is still an important part of reaching that goal.

Pilates was created by Joseph Pilates, a prize-winning gymnast from Germany. This method is alive and well today because of its consistent and excellent results. Pilates opened his first studio right alongside a number of dance studios, and Pilates soon became an integral part of the dancers’ regimen.

Many ballet schools provide classes or even require them for their students. If you are interested in Pilates training, look for a certified instructor. Ideally, find a former dancer or dance teacher that understands the complexities of Pilates as it is intended for dancers. Private lessons are fantastic for beginners. If you don’t know where to look for a qualified instructor, check out the Pilates Method Alliance® for a list of first-generation teachers (who studied under Pilates and his wife) and to search their PMA Pilates Certified Teacher database.

Ballet for the Teen Beginner – Part 3

If you are getting ready to take ballet for the first time, you might want a heads up on what to expect, from what the barre is really for to what the teachers expect from you.

When you arrive, find out where to put your dance bag and purse. If you need to change, find out where dressing or restrooms are available. You should be in your dancewear with hair pulled back and completely ready to walk into class five minutes before the start time.

Exercises in ballet follow a certain general order. The class is begun at the barre, which you are probably familiar with from movies and TV as a railing that is used by dancers for warm-up. The barre is intended to be a light support. You should always practice at the barre as if you will eventually perform the exercises without it – because you will! Hanging on the barre or gripping it are huge no-nos.

When you walk into class, the first thing to do is introduce yourself to the teacher. Even if you met her during your enrollment, it is helpful for her if you re-introduce yourself.

Next, find a spot at the barre about four to five feet away from anyone else so that you can perform your exercises without kicking or bumping someone else accidentally. There’s definitely an unspoken rule about who gets what spot at the barre. Students who have some seniority usually have favorite spots that are considered theirs. Wait a few seconds before choosing your spot so you can avoid “stealing” one from one of these students.

If it’s the first day of class for a number of students or if it’s the first day of the year, the teacher might go over some class rules. In case she doesn’t though, here’s the basic rundown of what’s expected:

  1. When you are in the studio, speak only when prompted or raise your hand when you have a question, even if class is over or hasn’t yet begun.
  2. Ask for permission to leave the room or leave early, and ask in advance if at all possible. Never arrive late. If you absolutely must, enter the room as quietly as possible. Do not enter or exit the studio during a combination.
  3. Adhere to the dress code. Be neat and clean. Do not wear ill-fitting items or those in disrepair.
  4. At the barre and in the center, do not get so close to others that you kick or bump into them.
  5. Do not compare yourself to others. Work towards your personal best.
  6. Do not leave the room without a thank you, small curtsy or both to the teacher and accompanist. (This is very dependant on culture. Watch the other students.)
  7. No gum chewing.
  8. No jewelry.
  9. Water is the only drink allowed in class.
  10. You are responsible for reading notices, cast lists and keeping track of important dates and events.

The barre exercises will begin with knee-bends and extensions of the leg away from the body. At first, your toes will stay touching the floor, but as the exercises progress, the leg will be extended off the floor in increasing heights. You might also practice balancing on two legs and eventually on one.

After the barre exercises, students work on center practice. As a beginner, these exercises will be similar to the work performed at the barre and may also include small jumps. As you progress, turns will be added and jumps will increase in height and complexity.

Throughout the exercises, the teacher may call out corrections to the class. You are expected to listen and apply them. She may also direct her attention to an individual student and might use her hands to physically move the student’s body into the shape that’s needed. If you are that student, don’t get anxious. Just listen and try to put into practice what she is asking. If its your first day, this might happen quite a bit as the teacher works to get you to understand the steps.

For the last exercise, the teacher might guide the students through a slow bow or curtsy combination called reverance. Once class is over, all students should clap for the teacher as a thank you. They may also then thank the teacher individually with a curtsy. Watch the other students in the class and follow their lead on this. Some teachers do not prefer an individual curtsy and thank you because they need to get to another class and move on with the day.

Don’t be concerned at all if you did not understand a lot of the words used for the steps or if you were limited in what you could do. If you keep going to class, that will change quickly. This is my final post in this three-part series – All that is left is for you to go and take that first class!

Congratulations on trying something new and entering the beautiful world of strength and creativity that is ballet. Enjoy it and good luck!

Ballet for the Teen Beginner – Part 2

You have selected a dance school and signed up for ballet lessons. Now its time to shop for your ballet clothes!

Your dance school should provide you with a dress code and a list of stores to purchase the items you need. Don’t go online to buy your first ballet clothes – you will need to try things on and get help selecting styles and sizes. You will need at least one basic leotard, a pair of pink tights, and a pair of pink ballet shoes. If you will be taking more than one class weekly, you may need another set or two of tights and a leotard. Depending on the dress code, you may also wish to purchase a basic short wrap skirt and some simple warm-ups or cover-ups for walking in the halls between classes or for warming up before class. So let’s talk about what to shop for.

Before we get started, be forewarned that you may feel a bit strange in a leotard and tights at first. They look and feel very different than street clothes! A question that new female dancers are often too shy to ask is: Should I wear underwear and a bra under a leotard and tights? Most dancers consider the tights to be the underwear and most leotards are made with a lining or shelf bra attached. (Wearing dancewear is very similar to wearing a bathing suit.) If you are not comfortable with this and prefer additional layers, there are many options available specifically for dance that you may choose from. Body Wrappers, Natalie and Capezio offer boyshorts, thongs, bikini cuts, bra tops, leotard-cut underliners and unitard-cut underlines. These are all designed in fabrics and colors that fit discreetly under leotards or costumes and that are moisture-wicking. Do yourself a favor and don’t try to wear streetwear underclothes with your dancewear. Street styles are way too bulky and noticeable, and they can trap moisture and heat that can cause, ahem, issues.

Now for the fun stuff. For your first pink tights, ask for a convertible foot. These tights have a slit on the bottom of the foot so they can be rolled up to the ankle. This is invaluable if you are planning to take other dance classes, like modern or jazz. I would recommend choosing Body Wrappers, Capezio, Gaynor Minden or Bloch tights. These brands offer various fabric choices, so ask the sales person to let you feel the different fabrics and help you choose the proper size.

For your ballet leotard, you should choose something simple in a comfortable fabric and cut. A short sleeve or tank version with a high back is usually best for your first leo to avoid feeling too revealed and to be able to wear a bra if you prefer or need to. Some good leotard brands are Mirella, Body Wrappers, Capezio, Bloch, Grishko, Freed, Sansha and Natalie.

Next your pink ballet shoes. Soft ballet shoes are made in satin, leather and canvas. If your dress code does not specify, try leather or canvas which are what most students wear. Ballet shoes should cover the toes, sides of the foot and heel. The sales person should help you find a size that does not bag around your foot but does not cramp your foot either. For advanced students, I like to see elastic criss-crossed from heel to arch, but on a beginner, I recommend just one elastic across the arch of the foot. Ask the sales person if they sell any shoes with elastic pre-sewn. Look for ballet shoe brands like Fuzi, Angelo Luzio, Capezio, Bloch, Sansha, Freed, Grishko and Principal.

Ballet shoes come in split-sole and full-sole. That refers to the leather pad on the bottom of the shoe. A full-sole shoe has a strip of leather in a footprint shape while a split sole has a pad on the ball of the foot and one on the heel. The idea is that a split-sole highlights and enhances the look of the foot’s arch while increasing ease of motion. It does, but note that a full-sole offers resistance on the arch that can be useful for pointe preparation.

Now to accessorize. Does your dress code allow for a short skirt? If so, make sure you know what colors are acceptable and if there is a minimum or maximum length. If the dress code just says “short”, look for a one-layer skirt no shorter than ten inches and no longer than fifteen. Basically, you want a length that covers the bottom of you leotard when you are standing still, maybe an inch or two longer if you like the look. The most common cut of a ballet skirt is a wrap style that you will cross in the front and tie in the back. If you don’t want that hassle, some pull-on styles are available. Look for delicate chiffon, georgette or tulle fabrics that flow when you move and swirl when you twirl!

Now for your warm-ups. Most teachers do not allow warm-ups during class, but they are great for protecting the muscles after class during cool down and between classes. They also protect against cold A/C. Some warm-ups double as cover-ups. Warm-up options are so numerous, I can’t possibly list them all, but some options include legwarmers, wrap tops, shrug tops, tunics, knit tights, warm-up dresses, knit skirts and shoulder wraps. Try on different styles to find what you like best.

At any age, it is really inappropriate to walk to or from the studio in nothing but a leo and tights. You should bring either a change of clothes or cover-up outfit to wear to and from the studio. A simple cotton dress that you can slip over the head works well for this, as does a sweatsuit.

If you have a gym bag, that should be suitable for your ballet gear. If not, you will definitely want to purchase a medium-sized bag that can fit a change of clothes, a water bottle, your purse and your ballet shoes and warm-ups.

Lastly, your hair. Most ballet schools require that females wear their hair pulled up off the face in a bun or french twist. You should can pick up hairpins, elastics, hairnets and anything else you need at a local drugstore or at the store where you purchase your dancewear.

You have everything you need for your first ballet lesson! Be sure to allow enough time before your class to change into your dancewear and style your hair. And get ready to enter an exciting world of art, emotion, strength and unparalleled beauty. In my next post, I’ll tell you what to expect during your first class!

Ballet for the Teen Beginner – Part 1

When is too late to start ballet? What should I look for in a ballet school? Can I become a professional dancer if I start training as a teen? What on earth do I wear?

If you’re a teen that is interested in beginning ballet classes for the first time, these are just a few of the exciting questions you probably have. Ballet is a wonderful activity at any age for strengthening the body, increasing flexibility, emotional expression and spending time with friends. Starting as a teen will give you a different experience than if you start young, but it can certainly be as fun and enjoyable. So let’s get to those questions …

I recommend a physical exam with your doctor before beginning any new physical activity, but it is never too late to begin ballet lessons if you are medically able. Your goals in dance are important to consider though. Do you just want to get some activity into your week while spending time with friends? Do you dream of eventually wearing pointe shoes? Do you aspire to a professional career? Do you just want to try something new?

If your goals are recreational, you have chosen a wonderful activity. Ballet is terrific exercise, is very creative and is great for spending time with friends and making new ones. It’s unlike any other sport because it is also a performing artform. You should plan to take classes once or twice a week to progress at a safe pace recreationally.

If you would also like to one day wear the coveted satin pointe shoes, you may be able to reach this goal. However, this will require a bit more dedication than the above. There are many different factors that go into a student’s preparedness for pointe work, including skeletal structure which cannot be altered. Soft tissue malleability is also an issue. Young children have some ability to change soft tissue range of motion, but that decreases dramatically in the teen years. You will need at least two years of twice weekly lessons before you should be considered for pointe training. Whether you are an acceptable candidate for pointe at that time should be determined by a qualified teacher. But rest assured that ballet is incredibly enjoyable and satisfying activity regardless of whether you are on pointe or not!

Now for the toughest question: Can you become a professional ballerina if you start ballet lessons in your teens? If you are very, very lucky and work very, very hard, yes you can. Just ask Darcy Bussell, Melissa Hayden, Carmen Corella or Misty Copeland. But it would be wrong of me not to tell you that those are extremely rare and fortunate circumstances with dancers that were born with a naturally favorable body and facility for ballet and pointe. If you’ve read my article on becoming a professional dancer, you know just how competitive it is, and that is for students who have been training for nearly all their lives! (Of course, it is different for male ballet dancers, who may be able to start in their mid-teens with no problem.)

Training in ballet as a teen can open doors to other styles of dance that are based on ballet technique. Studying ballet can prepare you for success in modern, jazz, contemporary and other disciplines. Because they don’t require pointe training, these styles can be more accessible to teen beginners for potential of professional dance. Also, even recreational ballet training might lead to new college opportunities.

Once you’ve given some thought to your goals, its time to research local dance schools. The easiest way to come up with a complete list of dance schools in your area is to look on www.yp.com. There are a lot of websites that claim to have dance school listings, but most are dependent on the schools initiating that listing, which many schools don’t. If you are interested in pairing your ballet lessons with classes in other dance forms, focus on studios that offer those other forms of dance in addition to ballet.

Because dance can be harmful if taught improperly, it is important to review the training of each teacher you consider. They should have trained with a school that is well-respected in the dance community at large, not just locally, or they should have had a respectable professional career. Thanks to Google, this shouldn’t be difficult to find out once you have the teacher’s bio. Visit the school to get a feel for its suitability. Do the students conform to a clean and professional-looking dress code? Do the classes seem organized and logically-run? Ask if the studio has sprung floors, which minimize injury. Studios should be large and well-lit with high ceilings and with mirror panels covering at least one wall.

If you have dreams of dancing professionally, your ideal option is to enroll in the recreational division of a professional ballet school (one that is affiliated with professional ballet company) and to try audition into the professional training division once you have reached an acceptable level. You may need to audition even to enter the recreational division. Speak to the teacher or the school directors about your options for entry and progression. You will need to take a minimum of one class a day most days of the week to train at this level. Once you have a learned the basics and strengthened your body, this schedule could need to increase significantly.

Hopefully the schools you look at will offer a teen beginner ballet class. If they do not and you are not comfortable in a class with much younger students, look for an adult beginner class. Do not be discouraged if you cannot find either at a good school in your town. Instead, speak to the teacher or director about how far along you would need to be before you can move into a class with students closer to your age. Create a plan with the teacher or director for reaching your goal so you will not feel like you are stuck in a lower age group indefinitely.

Starting ballet classes can be so exciting. Congratulations on choosing such a beautiful and fun activity. In my next post, I’ll help you prepare for your first ballet classes … with a little shopping!

Choices, Choices – Plus Some Great Ballet Videos!

So now you have the basic scoop on the most popular techniques in this U.S. But there’s more! The other major methods that you should know of are:

Bournonville (pronounced BOR-non-vill) technique is a lovely iteration that evolved through the Royal Danish Ballet and is known for its quick footwork, kind expression and minimized show of effort. Bournonville ballets can be easy to spot from the pairing of busy feet and a calmly graceful port de bras. While the technique is not often taught in the U.S., the choreography is. Many Bournonville ballets are still performed regularly, including La Sylphide, Flower Festival in Genzano and Napoli.

Royal Academy of Dancing from England is an amalgam of French, Cecchetti, Vaganova and Bournonville styles and is known for its purity of line. RAD students are examined yearly and are recognizable by the strict dress code with belts and satin ribbons on girls’ soft satin ballet shoes. RAD cannot be taught by dancers not certified and schools not accredited. It is not as popular in the U.S. as some other techniques but is enormously popular in Europe and other continents.

Cuban ballet is also a blend other techniques but with a strong Vaganova influence and is noted for its joyful sensuality. Until very recently, Cuba was the only country where you could learn this technique, but a few schools have opened in the Miami area. The home of Cuban ballet is the Cuban Ballet School.

It is also worth mentioning that while not recognized widely yet, American Ballet Theatre is creating its own through the ABT National Training Curriculum. They recently settled on there own system of arabesques, which appear similar to the Cecchetti versions.

You should be prepared now, baby ballerinas, to recognized the techniques when they are named and understand some of their differences. Most good teachers are usually specialized in teaching one or two specific techniques and are educated on the existence of the others. Can you tell the differences in style? Which one is your favorite?

ABT Sample Video (Scroll to page bottom.)

Balanchine Sample Video

Bournonville Sample Video

Cecchetti Sample Video

French Sample Video

RAD Sample Video

Vaganova Sample Video

The Balanchine Technique: An Unprecedented Innovation

New York City Ballet – it is perhaps the most famous U.S. ballet company, rivaled only by American Ballet Theatre. Balanchine ballet technique and NYCB are true American creations. And through their evolution, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein completely changed the course of dance history.

George Balanchine, originally Georgy Balanchivadze, came to the U.S. from Russia in the 1930s. From a young age, he trained in ballet at the Imperial Theatre School and in music at the Petrograd Conservatory of Music. Balanchine began choreographing in his teens, and in 1924 was included in a small group that was allowed to tour outside of the Soviet Union, a very rare privilege at that time. The dancers did not return home but instead joined Serge Diaghilev’s famous Ballet Russes.

Balanchine left Ballet Russes eventually and took various other positions over the next few years. While in London, Balanchine met Lincoln Kirstein, whose dream was to open an American company with its own repertoire distinct from the Europeans’. And Balanchine wanted a ballet school for this company. Balanchine and Kirstein together created the esteemed School of American Ballet in 1934, arguably the finest ballet school in America today. Known simply as SAB to most dancers, this school is the main feeder for Balanchine and Kirstein’s company, New York City Ballet. The first ballet Balanchine created there, Serenade, was choreographed on the SAB students and is now downright legendary. Graduating SAB students are some of the only ballet students in the country who are nearly guaranteed to find professional dance work.

Balanchine’s contemporary choreography and manner of movement evolved into its own technique. Based on the Russian (pre-Vaganova influence) method, Balanchine took basic movements like tendus, pirouettes, port de bras and arabesques and reworked them in ways that he felt best presented the form and movement to the audience. Even a simple port de corp devant was not to be considered a stretch but a fully artistic movement where the aesthetic of the body’s journey through space was the most important thing. Petit allegro was sped up, exaggerated in places and given modern touches. Landings from jumps were with heels barely or not at all touching the floor. Some of Balachine’s choreography is easy to spot with hips sweeping forward and arms outstretched in a jazzy style never before seen in classical ballet. Balanchine port de bras work is also easy to spot with its arms crossing over one another during position changes and fingers each with their own specific placement.

Balanchine created some of the most famous neoclassical ballets. These were often called “leotard ballets” because the dancers performed in simple outfits of tights and a leotard with just a short skirt or slim belt. He preferred dancers that were very long and lean with girls’ hair kept high to elongate the neck. Balanchine urged some of is best dancers to teach his technique to others and some of the most revered schools and companies resulted, including the Pennsylvania Ballet with the Rock School for Dance Education and the Miami City Ballet with its school.

Balanchine’s technique is certainly not without controversy. Traditionalists often cite the jumping technique as unsafe. Many others find that the port de bras are overly flowery and the alignment for arabesques and such are too angular and harsh. Suki Schorer, who Balanchine trained to teach, wrote a book on the technique, but many arguments have followed from other Balanchine students on the correctness of her instruction.

In order to maintain the integrity of at least the dances he created, the George Balanchine Trust was founded as a licensing system. Balanchine’s ballets cannot be changed, performed or broadcast without authorization. It sounds like a good idea until you realize that Balanchine was a champion of evolution and innovation. And while the Trust has certainly protected Balanchine’s work from the being skewed or performed by simply bad dancers, it has also acted as a roadblock to sharing his genius with the world and building on it. Many arguments have been made about the prudence of the Trust’s legacy protection actions, considering today’s useful access to videos and data through the internet. Just last year, a very popular YouTube ballet channel, Ketinoa, was suspended because of a Trust violation.

What do you think, kiddos? Should Balanchine’s legacy be protected at all costs? Or does performing art belong to humanity?

Update: I just want to make two quick notes on this post. First, I want to clarify that I do understand the argument that says that Balanchine’s was a style, not a technique. However I refer to it as a technique out of a) loyalty to Ms. Suki Schorer after my few classes with her and at the Rock and b) my study of Balanchine work and understanding of it, however limited, compared to other techniques. Personally, I feel that the whole question in and of itself is divisively irrelevant and mostly symantical. Second, I want to thank D for his/her comment below which pointed out that Balanchine’s work was based on the pre-Vaganova version of Russian technique. I have made the requisite change in the above text. Thanks for your contribution!)

The Vaganova Technique: Fire & Ice from the East

One of the very first ballet teachers, Jean Baptiste Landé, had an enormous cultural impact on Russia when he took a group of French ballet students to perform for Empress Anna. The Empress was so delighted that she decided to open the first Russian ballet school, the Imperial Ballet School, in 1738. This was the first iteration of what was to become the famous Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet.

Agrippina Vaganova was a student of the Imperial Ballet School and danced with its professional company, the Imperial Russian Ballet, until retiring to become a teacher in 1916. During her career, Vaganova strived to discover the best methods for classical movement. She carefully studied the French and Cecchetti methods as well as the theories of her Russian colleagues and fused together the best of what she found. Vaganova taught and developed her system over 30 years of teaching at the academy, which eventually was named for her. The technique she created became a physical and aesthetic masterpiece that joined the romanticism of the French, the virtuosity of the Italians and the fiery soulfulness of the Russians.

Vaganova ballet technique requires and trains a malleable back and limbs and a very strong trunk. Like Cecchetti before her, Vaganova created her own system of port de bras, arabesques, body poses, attitudes, and wall/corner numbering, but instead of adding to the French systems of each, she streamlined them.

The Vaganova Academy still exists today. Thousands of 9 and 10 year olds audition each year after taking music and dance classes in their hometowns. Only about 20 boys and 20 girls are chosen. Students are housed in dorms and provided training, education, meals and medical care. Similar to the Paris Opera Ballet School, students are examined each year to determine whether they are up to the physical and technical standard to be allowed to continue. Those that make it to graduation are eligible for a position with the Kirov Ballet Company. The scene is much the same for the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, also known as the Moscow Choreographic Institute, which began in the late 1700s as a ballet class for an orphanage and is also firmly based in Vaganova technique.

The Vaganova and Bolshoi Academies have been responsible for the training of many if not most of the finest dancers the world has seen, including Anna Pavolva, Vaslav Nijinsky, Galina Ulanova, Maya Plisetskaya, Natalia Dudinskaya, Yuri Grigorvich, Natalia Bessmertnova, Ekaterina Maximova, Vladimir Vasiliev, Diana Vishneva, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Galina Mezentseva, Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, Uliana Lopatkina, and Svetlana Zakharova to name a few. In addition to these stars, the Kirov and Bolshoi companies are given credit for many of the greatest classical ballets ever created due to the residencies of legendary choreographers Jules Perrot, Marius Petipa and Petipa’s assistant Lev Ivanov, whose creations while in Russia included Paquita, Don Quixote, La Bayadére, The Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda, and revivals of Giselle, Le Corsaire, Coppélia, La Esmeralda, La Sylphide, Swan Lake.

In the U.S., Vaganova technique is one of the most popular methods because of the popularity of its stars and because many Vaganova dancers settled in the U.S. where they opened their own ballet schools and brought the Vaganova method to American students. The Kirov and Bolshoi each have a presence in the U.S. through the Kirov Ballet Academy and the Bolshoi Ballet Academy Summer Intensive.

The Cecchetti Method: A Singular Systemization

The Italians were the first to codify and systematize ballet training. Enrique Cecchetti, born in the dressing room of a theater in 1850, is considered the father of this method, though Cecchetti built on the principles of Carlo Blasis, who codified his own teaching method in 1820.

Known for its brilliancy and virtuosity, this method includes many unique modifications of steps. For example, an Italian changement is a change of the feet done in the same way as a traditional changment except that both legs come to a retiré position mid-changée. Other evolutions include interesting “off-balance” poses – think a lá secónde with the body tilted away from the leg. Additionally, new labels and executions were created for port de bras, arabesques, attitudes, body positions and wall/corner numbering. Perhaps the most widely-seen modification is the flexed-foot, floor-striking battement frappé, which is seen in the classes of other techniques quite frequently.

As a part of the systematization of this method, the Cecchetti technique is governed by a strict program of examinations, and classes for each level are actually pre-set for the particular day of the week, so that the teachers do not plan new barre exercises or centre enchainments each week. This helps the students to study and perfect examination exercises.

The Cecchetti Counsel of America is the accrediting institution in the U.S., but the true home of this technique is the Accademia Teatro alla Scala in Italy. The Scala school is not just for dance but also includes music, stage, and performing arts management departments.

The ballet company of La Scala is one of the most revered in the world, and was and is home to many of the most famous dancers of today and yesterday including Maria Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Roberto Bolle and Alessandra Ferri. And although Svetlana Zakharova is a Vaganova ballerina, one of her current contracts is as a principal dancer étoile with La Scala.

The French School of Ballet: The Elegant Original

The very first ballet school was established in France in 1661 by Louis XIV, which is why France is credited for being the original ballet technique despite Italy’s earlier balletic court dances. French ballet is known for its elegance and refinement rather than its virtousity. Check out the two beautiful videos here to see if you can get a feeling for the precision and understated beauty of this method.

The language of ballet terminology is French and is somewhat different in France than the version that is used in other methods. Take a quick peek at Gail Grant’s Dictionary and you’ll see many definitions annotated with, “A term of the French School.” Many of these phrases and words, such as sissone en descendant, are not used in any other method. The French School also has its own system ofarabesques, port de bras and wall/corner numbering.

L’École de Danse de I’Opéra de Paris is the modern day home of French ballet technique. Admission is extremely selective, and students at the Paris Opera Ballet School endure rigorous training and yearly eliminations. Apprentices and corps de ballet dancers are selected from those students that make it to graduation, which often makes training at this feeder school competitive and solitary.

The company, Paris Opera Ballet, currently numbers 191 ballet dancers total, and has a heirarchy system unique in the ballet world. POB has emerged as a leader not only in classical and contemporary ballet, but also in modern dance.

The French method is not often taught in the U.S., but it’s the direct parent school of all other ballet schools in the world. You can’t take a plié without having to credit the French!

How do you say “Cecchetti” anyway?

There are many different styles of ballet taught around the world. Each is usually named after its founder and that person’s country: Cecchetti for Italian ballet, for example. But what are the differences between them? Which one came first? Does it matter which one you are trained in? How can you choose which one is best for you? How can you figure out which one you’re currently training in?

The four most popular styles of ballet in the U.S. are:

  1. French Technique – This is the original style of ballet and the foundation for its vocabulary. All other ballet techniques can be traced to the French style.
  2. Cecchetti Technique – (Pronounced like “check-ET-ee”) A style created by ballet master Enrique Cecchetti in Italy as a revision of the French technique.
  3. Vaganova Technique – (Pronounced like “va-GAH-no-va”) A technique created by Agrippina Vaganova in Russia as a hybrid revision of the French and Cecchetti styles.
  4. Balanchine Technique – (Pronounced like “BA-lan-sheen”) Created in the U.S. by Russian-born George Balanchine as a revision of the Vaganova technique.

Other popular styles include Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), Cuban method and Bournonville (Danish ballet). Each technique has its own special philosophy on what kinds of movements look best on the body and are best mechanically-speaking. The vocabularies can vary quite a bit as well. I’ll be posting soon to tell you more about what makes each style unique and what would make a dancer choose one technique over another.

You can usually figure out what technique you are being taught by simply reading the brochures or website of your school or asking your teacher. Especially in the U.S. however, ballet teachers may be trained in a mix of styles and end up teaching their students different things from different techniques. This can create confusion for the student, especially the student thinks she is being trained in only one technique.

It can be great for your versatility to explore different ballet styles, but only once you have reached a somewhat advanced level in your dancing. Doing so too early can confuse your muscle memory and your brain! Until you are ready, its usually best to find a teacher who articulates what technique is being taught and who specifies when you are presented with a step or vocabulary from a different style.

10 Pointe Shoe “Don’ts”

Fall is nearly here, and with it a brand new crop of beginner pointe students. Are you ready for pointe classes? Perhaps you have scheduled a fitting or are just waiting for shoe-approval from your teacher. Maybe you already sat down with a parent or an older student to learn how to sew your shoes. Or maybe you are even entering your second or third year of pointe.

The CBT sees a lot of mistakes from pointe students in their first few years. Its to be expected, but if you want to jump the learning curve a bit, there are some pointers that can save you time, frustration and embarrassment. So with that in mind …

  1. DON’T rely on your parents. As you may have gathered from the above and prior posts, students should start taking care of their own gear and hair for class sooner rather than later. Having your parents take care of these things implies to your teacher that you are probably too immature to handle really advanced training.
  2. DON’T try to cheat in your sewing with Pointe Snaps or any other such horrid invention. Not only do they totally not work, they stomp all over the traditions of ballet.
  3. DON’T use Knot Keepers or tape to keep your knots in place. By all means, be concerned if your ribbons come out of hiding -Professional contracts used to include monetary fines for dancers that had this happen. But don’t ruin the look of your shoes by cheating with these things. Just learn to tie them properly.
  4. DON’T use rosin on your shoes if you have a marley floor. Here’s where innovation is a good thing. Rosin was used by dancers back when ballet floors were made of wood. It made the shoes slightly tacky to give greater connection and feel for the floor. Marley’s special makeup eliminates the need for rosin, and rosin can actually damage a marley floor.
  5. DON’T force yourself to deal with loose lambs wool or paper towels as your beginner toe padding. Those things are just far too much trouble for even the most advanced dancers these days. Again, the quality innovation and technology in this area is worth taking advantage of.
  6. DON’T overpad your toes. This is a super common beginner mistake. Overpadding prevents you from feeling the floor and pointing your foot properly, which makes the feet look like floppy fish and ruins your lines! Pad within reason, and as your feet become used to pointe shoes, periodically try to scale back your padding by going to a smaller pad or by removing them in favor of spot-padding.
  7. DON’T be afraid to try different shoes for a while. It can take quite some time to find the shoe that fits you best. You’ll probably get a perfectly decent pair the first few times, but its worth it to keep trying different things to find your most perfect match. You have to be prepared to learn the balance point in each new shoe you try, however.
  8. DON’T practice center exercises at home. At least, not unless you like taking off from dancing for six weeks because you sprained your ankle trying to do a piqué arabesque in your kitchen…
  9. DON’T expect too much too fast. Pointe training has to be done gently and carefully in order to reach the desired result. Every pointe student has had to go through the on-two-feet-facing-the-barre stage. You will be beyond that before you know it and glad you put in the time.
  10. DON’T forget to be proud of yourself for all the hard work you’ve put in and for everything you have achieved.

Back to Ballet Class

Fall is nearly here – Are you ready physically and mentally to get back to dance class? Here is some excellent advice by venerated classical ballet teacher Victoria Leigh on how to digest your summer training, set goals and prepare yourself to be at the top of your game this fall.

Batman Tandoo? You mean Battement Tendu!

Ever wanted to write, better pronounce, or better understand a term in ballet? Then you must grab yourself a copy of Gail Grant’s Technical Manual & Dictionary of Classical Ballet. This small book is an absolute must-have for anyone interested ballet professionally or for college.

Considered in the dance world to unquestionably be the best reference for ballet terms, this little tome is fairly inexpensive (just about $10 in the listing on Amazon) and is simply an A-Z reference for virtually every ballet term used or in use.

Part of what makes the Gail Grant Dictionary such a standby is its inclusion and cross-reference of terminology across ballet techniques. For instance, if you go to a summer intensive and hear the word raccourci, looking it up in Grant’s Dictionary would tell you that it is as a term of the French School. The definition then cross-references you to the Russian term retiré, so you will learn the interchangeability of the terms. (I’m sure you know that ballet originated in France and was exported to other countries where it further evolved. Thus the development of varying techniques from the Italians, the Danes, the Russians, the Americans and the Cubans. These have all made their way to the United States. With so many techniques here, it is common to hear different terms from different teachers, even within the same school.) You would also learn that it means shortened – referring to the bend at the knee which “shortens” the leg – because this position is actually a variation on a développé a lá seconde!

If you are looking for books to support your training and develop you into a knowledgeable dancer, Gail Grant’s Dictionary just can’t be beat. There are quite a few other books that are invaluable for dancers, but you’ll find that this one stands firm at the top of the list for professional dancers, serious students and seasoned teachers.

When Can I Go on Pointe, CBT?

Every beginning female ballet dancer dreams of going on pointe, but that dreamy day can and will be ruined by pain and injury if you are not prepared. I don’t want to scare you but I have witnessed the pain and frustration of an ill-prepared beginner pointe student! It is far more difficult to overcome poor pointe technique resulting from ill-preparedness than to simply wait until the dancer’s strength and technique are ready.

It is your ballet teacher’s job to know from experience and education when his or her students are ready, but surprisingly few ballet teachers actually share that information with their students. There can be many reasons for this. Some teachers are concerned that if they explain the details of why, students and parents will be encouraged to argue about whether their daughter fits the parameters. Other teachers like to encourage a certain mystique about the whole affair (though they’d never admit this), thus generating further suspense and excitement for the students and parents and securing the teacher’s perceived status as a guru of super secret sacred ballet info.

I do not subscribe to either of these philosophies. In fact, I believe that transparency in these matters is vital for the dancer’s education! It is with that in mind that I share with you my guidelines for pointe preparedness. Mind you, these are not hard and fast rules, and it does take the teacher’s expertise to know if the dancer has actually met a given requirement. So without further ado:

  1. A student must be 11 years minimum to allow proper bone ossification. When children are young, the growth plates are soft, and repetition of improper technique in something as strenuous as pointe can deform the feet and body in short order. It is common for dancers to have to wait until they are 12 or older so their technique and bones can strengthen.
  2. A student must have at least 2 consecutive years of quality training immediately prior to promotion. Length of training is not an estimation of pointe readiness, however.
  3. A student must be in good health and able to take a whole class. This includes being of healthy weight. If the student frequently needs to rest because of illness or injury, she is not strong enough for the extra demands of pointe work.
  4. A student must consistently take a minimum of two classical ballet technique classes a week. Daily class is preferred and necessary for students training for ballet as a profession. Class frequency makes a significant difference in development.
  5. A student must pay attention in class and work well. Going on pointe is a big step and requires commitment on the part of the student.
  6. A student must be responsible enough to bring all the gear she will need to class. Pointe shoes require extra care and accessories.
  7. A student must habitually use her core muscles properly and have a strong, proper posture while dancing and standing. Pointe requires that the student use the muscles in her torso, legs and feet to stand en pointe and not use the shoes as a crutch. Core weakness will throw the student off balance and will make it difficult to dance.
  8. A student must use correct plié while dancing and exhibit supple calf and leg muscles.
  9. A student must hold turnout from the hip while dancing. Turnout makes it possible to do steps that could not otherwise be done. If the student does not maintain their turnout, they are not strong enough for pointe.
  10. A student must keep the heels forward. (No sickling, a sure sign of improper technique.) The most stable position for pointe work is to have the weight slightly forward between the big and second toes. Improper center will make it more difficult to stay en pointe, and will increase the chances of strain and injury.
  11. A student must point the whole foot from the ankle and instep with toes pointed but long while dancing. These muscles need to be strong enough to support the body weight. If the student is not in the habit of articulating the foot muscles properly, they will not be able to support themselves en pointe.
  12. A student must have enough of an arched instep to stand on pointe. Dancers with very high arches often have weak alignment or weak muscles that they must first master.
  13. A student must execute properly 16 relevés in the center without stopping and 8 at the barre on one leg without stopping, right and left. There should be no pumping action through the upper body during this execution. Strength for pointe work is achieved by repeating exercises. Relevés are excellent for building calf and leg strength, which is vital for pointe. If foot and leg strength is an issue, Theraband exercises can improve this deficiency.
  14. A student must pique passé/retiré with straight leg and proper alignment. Student should have enough strength to push themselves onto half-pointe. This step is harder to do en pointe and a bent leg is a sign of weakness or improper step preparation.
  15. A student must hold a retiré balance on half-pointe. The student should be well-placed (hips square, back straight, legs turned-out), and have the strength to balance on half-pointe. This pose is more difficult to correct en pointe, as the surface area for balancing is smaller and the turnout strength requirements are greater.

Most syllabi dictate that working properly in ballet class is sufficient preparation for pointework. As mentioned above, special exercises may be prescribed to help the dancer who is behind her classmates. Some schools devote whole classes to this preparation, called Pre-Pointe. There are varying philosophies on its appropriateness  – but that is a topic for another day!