Ask Amy: Tackle a New Technique
Have a question? Click here to send it to Suzanne Farrell Ballet dancer Amy Brandt.
A recent move forced me to transfer from my serious Vaganova school to a Balanchine-based academy. While I think Balanchine looks beautiful, I’m having a hard time applying the idiosyncrasies to my body, and the constant corrections are frustrating. What are some tips for adapting to a new technique? —Lauren
I had a similar experience when I joined The Suzanne Farrell Ballet after years of dancing with a mixed-repertoire company. I never had any Balanchine training growing up, so my first season was definitely a crash course. There were so many different stylistic elements to adjust to: the straight back leg in pirouette preparations, the use of port de bras and épaulement, the musicality, spotting front. And while it sort of felt like speaking a second language (especially that spotting front business!), I did get the hang of it eventually.
It’s important to keep an open mind. Sometimes dancers can be stubborn, viewing one technique as “wrong” or “right,” but try not to resist your new teachers’ corrections. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, too, so that you understand why certain things are emphasized. Adjusting will take time for both your body and mind. While this initial learning period feels frustrating, you’ll gradually start incorporating changes into your technique (I noticed an improvement in my speed and attack after about one year). And remember, you’re not “canceling out” your Vaganova training. You’re just building on top of it. Your knowledge of both styles will allow you to be more versatile—which is definitely advantageous.
I recently found out that I have collapsing arches. I use orthotics in my street shoes, but is there any way to support my feet when I’m wearing ballet slippers? —Aviva
Collapsing, or fallen, arches occur when the foot’s arch drops downward during weight-bearing activities. This foot also tends to pronate, or roll in towards the big toe excessively, putting dancers at risk for injury. Dr. Alan Woodle, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s foot and ankle specialist, admits that while conventional orthotics are great for street shoes, they’re too rigid for ballet slippers. “You’ll need something that’s flexible,” he says. “Otherwise you won’t be able to articulate your foot.”
Woodle designs pliable, custom dance orthotics for his patients, but says that the next best option would be to purchase low-profile, silicone gel arch inserts from the drugstore. Slip- or strap-on arch sleeves can also provide necessary support and help prevent pronation. Footsmart.com carries a wide selection of gel inserts and arch sleeves, and helps you find products based on your foot type and ailment.
Taping techniques—called Low-Dye taping—can also help. “This is more of a temporary option because the skin can get irritated,” says Woodle. Using strips of one-inch athletic or Kinesio tape, your podiatrist can show you how to create various stirrup and crisscross patterns along the bottom of your foot to help support your arches. Woodle recommends using a spray or roll-on adhesive first to prevent sweaty tape from slipping off.
I dance in a professional part-time company with a short performance season. I love the company, but I’m eager for more performing opportunities. What are my options? —Helen
Try looking into freelancing during the off-season. This takes serious networking skills and may mean temporarily working in another city if your own dance community is limited. Reach out to smaller companies and choreographic projects to see if they need dancers for their performances—they’re all over the place in big cities like New York and San Francisco. Here is where social media is an excellent ally. Let your friends know you’re looking for gigs and ask them if they know of any opportunities. Think creatively, too—opera companies often hire dancers for their productions, and ballet schools frequently bring in guest artists to dance leading roles in their performances.
While hiring yourself out takes time and resourcefulness, it gives you a chance to build your resumé, gain experience and shape your own career. But if freelancing doesn’t appeal to you and you’re not satisfied with your company’s performance schedule, you may want to consider moving on to a larger company with a longer season.