On The Surface
Ballet dancers have a complex relationship with what’s under their feet. Different venues, shoes and choreography all affect how dancers “feel the floor.” Whether it’s slippery or raked, new or old, wood or marley, each ballet dancer has her own way of making herself feel comfortable on the floor.
San Francisco Ballet soloist Dana Genshaft starts her day with a floor barre, using the surface to find her placement. She prefers ballet slippers to pointe shoes when she stands up for barre. “That way,” Genshaft says, “I can feel the smaller intrinsic muscles of the foot waking up.” She says that focusing on the floor helps with SFB’s wide range of repertoire. “Contemporary choreographers want to see you using your shoes almost like you’re using a glove, and massaging the floor with them,” she says.
Floors can feel unsafe if they are too slippery. To combat slip, Genshaft first scrapes the bottom of her pointe shoes, then scoops up some rosin
in tissues or napkins, which she says applies better than paper towels. Next she rubs it all over her shoes, though she tries not to make them too sticky. “In contemporary work there’s a lot of sliding you do along the tip of your shoe,” she says, “so you don’t want to rosin so much that you’re getting stuck.”
North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Alessandra Ball has a warm-up routine that changes with the repertoire she is rehearsing. If she’s being coached in something classical, she likes to work at the barre in pointe shoes so she can find the floor through the shank. If she’s working on a contemporary piece, she adds yoga exercises that help her feel grounded. “Rolling on the floor is a true process,” she says. “You have to develop a trust with yourself, the floor, your body. Yoga helps me feel my weight drop, especially the warrior series and crescent lunge.”
Ball views the floor as a virtual partner. “When I’m doing classical works, I feel like I’m borrowing the floor—I’m lifted,” she says. “In more contemporary movement, you melt into it.” Balanchine ballets require yet another perspective. “Balanchine makes me try to find a rhythm with the floor,” she says. The accented relevés, rapid pas de bourrées and spritely Balanchine ballon demand a musical sense of when the foot meets, brushes or pushes from the floor. “I see a Balanchine piece,” she says, “as kind of tap dance.”
New York City Ballet corps member Alina Dronova feels most at ease in pointe shoes, perhaps because she had to take all her classes on pointe while training at the School of American Ballet. “Pointe shoes are the most comfortable to dance in,” she explains. “In flat shoes it can be a little bit weird because you feel the floor so much that it’s almost like you’re falling into it.”
Dronova has a clean, crisp technique that belies her casual advice for classical or Balanchine repertoire. “You really need to use the floor to take off,” she says simply. “It’s there to help you.” She tends to worry more about her upper body than footwork in contemporary pieces. “You don’t pay as much attention to your feet,” she says. “It’s like you go out dancing at a discothèque. The floor is just there.”
When Dronova was a student in Ukraine, she performed on a raked stage, but she doesn’t feel in her element there. “It’s a big adjustment when we dance on a rake on tour,” she says. “It takes quite a few days to get used to it, especially when I’m doing something that involves turns or a manège downstage. You feel like it’s taking you off. And climbing upstage is hard.”
Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s Sabra Perry likes to use barre as an opportunity to acclimate to the extra material that pointe shoes put between her feet and the floor. “In contemporary pieces we work a lot on rolling through the foot on pointe,” she says. “You have to find that moment of rolling between the tip of the shoe and the ball of the foot.” She tries to foster this awareness from her first plié.
Contemporary work also demands dancers find smooth transitions into the floor. “In classical pieces, we have to achieve this look of being other-worldly and defying gravity,” Perry says. “Contemporary work is all about playing with gravity and how we go into the floor. You do a lot of work off-balance.” Although contemporary emphasizes release into the floor, Perry does not make conscious decisions about the floor when she’s learning choreography: “I let the choreography speak to me,” she says.
In addition to dancing with the company, Perry also serves as Complexions’ assistant ballet mistress. When she coaches company dancers, she works on what she calls “that in-between moment” separating balance from off-balance and encourages dancers to use the floor as a partner: “You have to think of the floor,” she says, “as another candidate in the movement.”
Alexis Branagan is a former Pointe intern.