As a pre-professional dancer, you need training that will help you transition as smoothly as possible into the rigorous environment of a professional ballet company. Among other considerations, that means developing strong and seamless pointework. Chances are, you’re spending a lot of your classes and rehearsal time in pointe shoes right now.

That said, there are real philosophies behind the role that pointework plays in class. You may be required to wear pointe shoes throughout all of your regular technique classes; or perhaps your studio prefers you to wear flat shoes for barre before putting pointe shoes on for center, or to spend the entire class in ballet slippers, offering separate pointe classes instead. With such differences in training methods, you may feel that you’re missing out on something. Luckily, each of these approaches is designed to strengthen you as a dancer—they just accomplish that goal in different ways. Pointe spoke to faculty members at four prestigious ballet academies for added insight into each philosophy.

Save Pointe Shoes for Pointe Class

At Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, advanced students wear slippers throughout their technique classes. But CPYB school principal Alecia Good-Boresow notes that students are still getting plenty of pointework. “They’re in a separate pointe class six days a week,” she says. “Then, they’ll often have several hours of rehearsal. On Saturdays, they might spend three to five hours in pointe shoes.”

So why not wear pointe shoes in technique class? “We want our students to really feel the floor in flat slippers, especially in center exercises,” says Good-Boresow. “When you’re jumping, you need to learn how to land quietly, rolling through your toes, the ball of your foot and then the heel, while still getting the maximum height of the jump. Also, jumping in pointe shoes can shorten the depth of your plié, and we want dancers to experience the full extent of their demi-plié.”

Most of CPYB’s pointe classes take place immediately following technique class, so students are already warm. “We believe that putting on pointe shoes with fully warmed-up feet, calves and Achilles tendons helps our students sustain their bodies,” Good-Boresow explains. After about a half hour of standard pointe exercises like relevés and échappés at the barre and in the center, the remainder of class is spent doing dancier phrases. “We want students to be able to do anything they’d do in their ballet slippers on pointe.”

Technique Class On Pointe

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the School of American Ballet in New York City has students in its advanced level—generally age 15 and up—wear pointe shoes in every technique class, including at the barre. It’s a tradition that comes from George Balanchine himself. “Mr. Balanchine wanted our pointe shoes to feel like a second skin,” says Kay Mazzo, co-chairman of faculty at SAB and a graduate of the school. “Dancing in them should never feel foreign.”

Wearing pointe shoes from the start of class pushes students to develop the same facility they’d have in their flat shoes. That facility is vital when performing Balanchine’s repertoire, which is known for its fast, articulate footwork. “To dance Balanchine’s ballets, students have to learn how to use their toes and roll through their feet in pointe shoes,” Mazzo explains. “We work on gently caressing the floor rather than letting the shoe hit the floor with a bang.”

It’s important to note that wearing pointe shoes for technique class is not the same as taking a pointe class. Barre exercises at SAB are designed to warm dancers’ feet up, rather than to force them into weight-bearing pointework before they’re ready. “From the start—tendus, jetés, ronds de jambe—we’re working the feet,” Mazzo says. Because of this extensive warm-up, she feels that Balanchine training can help students build strength and avoid injury. “Dancing in pointe shoes forces you to pull up and find your balance, even standing on flat,” she says. “From barre onward, you’re getting stronger and stronger.”

The Middle Ground

There’s quite a bit of gray area between these two philosophies. At the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, pre-professional students will often change into pointe shoes for center exercises in addition to their separate pointe classes. “I don’t have them on pointe at the beginning of class because they need to warm up every muscle first,” says Irina Vakhromeeva, a classical ballet instructor at the school. “The whole body should be ready to go on pointe—not just the feet.”

She adds that on certain days, she might not have students wear pointe shoes for center at all. Her decision might depend on the repertoire they’re currently rehearsing, as well as on any technique concerns she wants to address, such as rolling in. “If we put our feet in first position, all five toes must be on the floor. Sometimes in pointe shoes it can be hard to feel this.” Students are still in pointe shoes for several hours a day, so Vakhromeeva doesn’t feel anything is lost by having them take class in slippers.

At Ballet Academy East in New York City, whether or not advanced dancers wear pointe shoes for technique class is often left to the teacher’s discretion. “If they don’t have a pointe class that day because of rehearsals, we might focus on pointework in center,” says Cheryl Yeager, a senior faculty member. “On an individual basis, I might tell a dancer to put her pointe shoes on for center—or to leave them off, if I want to work on something like higher jumps. We don’t have a set policy. In general, our advanced dancers know when they should be wearing pointe shoes and when they should take a break. It’s fluid, rather than black and white.”

 

ABT’s New West Coast School

The Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, and American Ballet Theatre have announced the instatement of a joint year-round training facility, the American Ballet Theatre William J. Gillespie School. Scheduled to open at the Center in September, the school will offer a 36-week program for students ages 3 to 14. At the helm is Alaine Haubert, a former dancer and ballet mistress with ABT who trained with George Balanchine at the School of American Ballet. Under her leadership, students will receive professional training from teachers certified in ABT’s National Training Curriculum, as well as access to special audition opportunities for ABT performances at the Center, ABT master classes and other special events. Preceding the school’s official opening is the new ABT Junior Associates Program, which consists of monthly intensive class sessions for intermediate and advanced dancers from January to June, as well as other benefits similar to the year-round program. The school will offer a select number of scholarships and a series of free classes aimed at making dance more accessible to the community. —Meggie Hermanson

 

Technique Tip

“During my first few years with Houston Ballet II, my teachers emphasized making the core the root of everything. I try to always activate my lower abdominal muscles first, then visualize my spine as rooted into the ground with a lengthening sensation from the back of my neck. Ballet is such a visual art form, but if you visualize what you want your body to look like and work toward that image in your mind, you will become that image. When I am dancing, especially classical ballet technique, I try to imagine that my spine is like a candy cane, constantly spiraling upward.”

Katlyn Addison, Ballet West

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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