Growing up, Houston Ballet soloist Allison Miller often heard teachers compare the feeling you have during pirouettes to a corkscrew. But then her teacher, Diane Partington in Ellenton, Florida, offered up a surprising new analogy. Partington suggested Miller imagine a bank tube—a simple cylinder that uses suction to transport a round canister from a customer’s car to the teller. Picturing this straight, narrow tube drawing energy up and into itself struck a chord with Miller. “It worked instantly!” she says. “It clicked in my head and it gave my body the right feeling.” Even now, if she needs to refocus her pirouettes, Miller thinks of that image. “If I’m having a bad day, it helps me find my center.”

Miller is not alone in experiencing this kind of breakthrough moment. Common (and commonly phrased) corrections can grow stale for all dancers, regardless of age or skill level. The words become so familiar that they don’t register in your brain or your body. But things change when you’re given a new way to envision these adjustments. Your development as a dancer, says University of North Carolina School of the Arts dean of dance Susan Jaffe, “is in these ‘aha’ moments, layers and layers of real, deep, empirical understanding of things.”

To help you build your own repertoire of creative imagery, Pointe spoke with several teachers, including Jaffe. Together, they provide a wellspring of new ways to think about humdrum corrections.

Susan Jaffe coaches Misty Copeland (photo by Jim Lafferty for Pointe)

“Don’t Tuck Under”

Fresh Take: Imagine a “skeleton hanging from a string,” says Jaffe. Why? Because when teachers say, “don’t tuck,” they’re really asking you to reestablish your vertical alignment. “You need to maintain the natural curvature of the spine,” says Jaffe.

The Real Issue: Dancers often tuck, or scoop, their pelvis when they’re trying to access their turnout. This throws off alignment and creates a host of other problems. “If you tuck under, you cannot get to those lower muscles under the pelvis,” says Jaffe. “It’s a fake feeling of turnout, and you can’t actually straighten your knee when you’re tucked.”

To achieve proper turnout, Jaffe says, you must engage your pelvic area and your core. “It’s like you’re sucking your muscles in to the center of your body,” she says. “Those muscles are hugging your bones and you’re pulling them in.”

Peter Stark, the dance department chair of the Patel Conservatory in Tampa, Florida, offers a similar image. “The upper thigh is wrapping around the back of the leg as opposed to squeezing the butt,” he says.

“Don’t Drop Your Elbows”

Fresh Take: “With the arms in first, pretend your arms are a hula hoop,” says Stark. Then imagine you’ve stepped inside the hula hoop. The line created by your arms extends all the way around your body to your back. “It’s all connected. It’s not just elbow or shoulder or hand.”

If that doesn’t click, try this image from Arantxa Ochoa, director of The School of Pennsylvania Ballet: “If you put a drop of water on the shoulder, it has to go down to the fingers. And if your elbow is dropped, the water gets caught.”

 

The Real Issue: This correction is another way of asking you to support your arms, which is of particular importance for pirouettes. “Lifting your elbows means engage your arms, engage your back,” says Jaffe. “It’s this invisible energy between your back and your elbows that holds you up. It feels like helium.”

But supported arms will look different on each dancer. “There’s a line that goes from the nape of the neck to the shoulder,” says Stark. “Some people have a sloping line; for others, it’s more straight-shouldered. That line has to continue in second position to your pointer finger. It’s not a matter of high or low. You’re trying to match the line that exists in your body.”

“Square Off Your Arabesque”

Fresh Take: Jaffe says to think of a twisting energy in your rib cage to counteract your open hip, “like an internal ‘S.’ ” For example, if your left leg is in arabesque, you “square off” by feeling an opposite, twisting energy pulling up through the left side of your ribs. “Otherwise you’ll collapse the rib cage on the lifted hip,” Jaffe explains. “You need to lift out of that.”

The Real Issue: “Square off” can be misleading when it comes to arabesque or attitude. “If you’re lifting your leg in arabesque, your hip bones cannot be square because your knee and the top of your arch will face the floor,” says Jaffe. “They have to face the audience, and in order for that to happen, you have to lift your hip. What is square is the rib cage.”

“Don’t Wind Up”

Fresh Take: When preparing for pirouettes from fourth position,“use the back foot like a hand, like a chimpanzee,” says Stark. “You’re grabbing the floor with your foot.” This focuses your attention on the real source of your turning energy—your foot pushing off the floor. Ochoa offers a similar, but more abstract, suggestion. “Think with your toes,” she says. “Your brain is there.”

The Real Issue: Dancers aiming for powerful pirouettes may mistakenly rely on their arms and torso to create momentum. This upsets the alignment of your hips and shoulders, and thus your balance. “The motivation of the turn really needs to come from the bottom,” says Stark.

Sometimes it takes unexpected ideas to release your potential, because you never know what phrase or image will do the trick. “When I think about the ‘aha moments,’ it could’ve been one word,” says Jaffe. “I hear that one word and suddenly it changes my life. That’s what you need to be open to.”

 

Walnut Hill to Partner with Ballet Austin

On the heels of its partnership with The Boston Conservatory, Walnut Hill School for the Arts is adding another partner to its list: Ballet Austin. Beginning this fall, seniors at Walnut Hill will be eligible for a spot in Ballet Austin’s Butler Fellowship Program. The yearlong, post–high-school training program gives fellows a unique and immersive opportunity to train and perform with Ballet Austin, where 30 percent of the main company members have come through the program. Fellows may be invited to stay a second year if they’re a good fit, and all are assigned a mentor to guide their transition to the professional world. “We are thrilled to partner with a company that holds so many common values and approaches to dance education,” said Walnut Hill’s director of dance, Michael Owen. “Both Ballet Austin and Walnut Hill make a commitment to holistic training of the complete dancer, offering expert dance training, as well as unparalleled mentorship and guidance.” —Meggie Hermanson

 

Technique Tip

“When I’m dancing, I am constantly thinking of sucking my lowest stomach muscles against my spine. This lowers my center of gravity and gives me stability. With stability comes freedom of movement.” —Nicole Teague, Milwaukee Ballet

Andersen in Balanchine's "Valse-Fantaisie." Photo by Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.

I got my corps contract on my 18th birthday. It was such a relief. I had convinced myself that I would be okay not dancing, but inside I just wanted to get a contract with Miami City Ballet.

I'd trained at Milwaukee Ballet School pretty much my whole life, and in 2014 I went to the MCB summer program and loved it. They invited me to stay for the year, and right when I got there, they offered me an apprenticeship. I spent the next two years as an apprentice. My second year I got to tour with the company and did Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Bourrée Fantasque.

Once I was told that I had a contract, it felt like so much weight was lifted off my shoulders. Every single person came up and individually congratulated me. They were so kind, and ever since then they've been like a big family.

It's such a jump from being in a school setting to being in the company. I'm lucky that I was able to experience so much firsthand as an apprentice, but there were still some things that I couldn't get used to. As an apprentice, I would spend half my day rehearsing and taking class at the school, and the other half rehearsing with MCB. Once I got into the company, there was so much less work. It was hard to stay in shape and make sure that I was on top of my dancing. The ballet masters don't give you as many corrections, and I didn't have anybody there to discipline me. It was all self-motivation.

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Master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee is back, this time sharing her tried-and-true advice from the streets of New York City. While conducting a pointe shoe seminar at the Joffrey Ballet School's NYC Ballet Intensive, Lee put together a list of five things to keep in mind when choosing a summer program. Whether you're about to embark on this summer's intensive or are already thinking ahead for next year, these are good tips to keep in mind. And what better way to receive advice than while viewing a stroll through some of our favorite ballet-happy spots in NYC?

American Ballet Theatre's Cassandra Trenary seems to have it all—not only is our June/July 2016 cover star a dazzling soloist at ABT, she has a sunny, down-to-earth personality and a life-saving hero for a husband. But her first year in the company had its fair share of disappointments—in fact, she almost left dance altogether to pursue acting.

In May, the National YoungArts Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships and mentorship to aspiring performing artists, brought Trenary (herself a 2011 YoungArts winner) and ABT artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky together for a salon-style discussion. Together they talked about critical turning points in their careers, as well as the challenges of navigating the dance world as a young professional. Below are exclusive excerpts of their interview—we hope their words inspire you as much as they inspire us!



There's still time to enter YoungArts's national arts competition for a chance at scholarships, workshops and more. Click here for information on how to apply.

ADrian Durham in CPYB's production of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy CPYB.

As a teenager, Adrian Durham studied at his local ballet school in Lake Charles, Louisiana. "I was one of three or four guys training there, and there were no male teachers," says Durham. "Most of my partnering experience came from rehearsals for performances." But after he began training with the male scholarship program at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in 2014, he experienced a sea change. "It challenged me mentally, physically and emotionally, because it's such an intense program," he says. Now 20, he is preparing for a professional career with an integrated set of tools: ballet technique, physical strength and partnering skills.

Men's ballet technique classes have been available for decades, especially at summer intensives and urban ballet schools. Yet programs designed specifically for male dancers, often offering full scholarships, have been rarer—until now, that is. Training that allows boys to separately explore their skills, above and beyond a supplement of double tours en l'air and pirouettes à la seconde at the conclusion of a mixed class, can literally give young men a leg up as they aspire towards a dance career.

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Alessandra Ferri in "Romeo and Juliet." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

To watch Irina Kolpakova coach Swan Lake is to witness a true artist at work. Although long retired from the stage, the American Ballet Theatre ballet mistress still possesses a commanding presence and an instinctive artistic spirit.

"Don't think about your shape when you first see Siegfried," she tells principal Isabella Boylston during rehearsal for Odette's Act II entrance. "This is not 'port de bras.' This is 'Don't touch me!' " Kolpakova demonstrates, transforming instantly into the Swan Queen. Her eyes sparkling and alive, every inch of her diminutive stature swells with a palpable energy capable of reaching the highest ring of the balcony.

Call it stage presence, call it the "it" factor, some dancers just have a natural ability to draw people in and change the atmosphere around them. Stage presence can carry a dancer to a higher artistic realm. It's the final piece of the puzzle, the emotional heart of a performance that can bring an audience to tears. Without it, even the best choreography risks falling flat.

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Via Instagram

Last fall, Diana Vishneva shocked her NYC following when she announced that she would give her final performance with American Ballet Theatre on June 23, 2017. The Russian-born dancer has been part of ABT since performing in Romeo and Juliet as a guest artist in 2003, and has held the title of principal dancer with the company since 2005 in addition to her principal role with the Mariinksy Ballet. Throughout her time with ABT, which she spoke about in the below video for The New Yorker, Vishneva has danced as a guest artist with Bolshoi Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet and Berlin State Ballet.


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Karen Kain is internationally renowned as a performer and as the National Ballet of Canada's artistic director. The former NBoC principal always carries herself with the grace and sophistication of a true leader. However, in this 1976 clip from Giselle, the distinguished ballerina is convincingly naïve and bewildered in her interpretation of the mad scene.



Kain conveys Giselle's innocence at the start of the scene with pure, unaffected gestures and facial expressions. Then, after Albrecht betrays her, her eyes stare unfocused into the distance as if she's in a trance. Although this scene is mostly acting, Kain dances dreamily to the musical motif at 5:30 and conceals her technical strength in order to show the character's frailty. It takes a true ballerina to perform this heartbreaking and beautiful role, and with performances like this and her lifelong commitment to the art form, Kain proves that she is an extraordinary one. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

Photo by Quinn Wharton

How can I wean myself off my coffee fix without experiencing headaches and crankiness that will disrupt my rehearsal process? —Lauryn

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