Training

These 5 Bad Habits Are Easy to Forget, But Fixing Them Can Take Your Dancing to the Next Level

Erica Fischbach with students from the Colorado Ballet Academy. Photo by Tamar More, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Striving for higher extensions, more turnout and bigger jumps may be at the top of your agenda in daily class. But what about those finer points of your technique, the subtleties that make a dancer really shine? They need just as much of your attention, and letting seemingly innocuous bad habits linger will impact your overall dancing.

"There are no shortcuts in ballet," says Cynthia Harvey, artistic director of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. "You can't expect good results by ignoring details that are the building blocks of technique." We break down five bad habits that are easy to overlook—but have a major impact.


Knuckling

Peff Modelski, a faculty member at Visceral Dance Chicago whose philosophy blends anatomy and Feldenkrais technique with classical ballet, often sees dancers knuckling their toes in an effort to maximize the look of their arches. Yet crunched-up toes in tendus or relevés reduce the ankles' ability to fully support your bodyweight. Modelski cites one hypermobile dancer who suffered from constant ankle pain and muscle cramping. "It was clear she was using her toes to keep from losing her balance, and was gripping for stability," she says, even on pointe. Coaching the dancer to point her feet with long, fully stretched toes produced immediate results: She was able to relax her clenched muscles, eliminating her joint pain and bringing new ease to her dancing.

Modelski recommends practicing tendus with lengthened toes and slowly rolling up and down from relevé in parallel, working for the smoothest movement possible. Notice how your balance is affected. "Ask yourself questions to make a routine of awareness: Where is the weight on the bottoms of my feet? Is it the same in first position, fourth or fifth? When I roll up and down does my body move as one piece? Am I able to turn my head without losing my balance?" Doing so leads to higher-quality pointework, smoother weight transfers and easier balances.


Crunched-up toes in tendus or relevés reduce the ankles' ability

to fully support your bodyweight.


Upper-Body Tension

"Relax your neck!" is a common refrain in ballet class, but upper-body stiffness is more than an aesthetic concern. Master teacher Elena Kunikova says tension leads to larger technical difficulties.

"A stiff neck is a result of a dancer being unfamiliar with, and afraid of, moving her head," she says. "Therefore, the inner ear isn't being trained to adequately manage equilibrium and spatial orientation, so the ability to turn, balance and change direction is hindered." Coordinating head, eye and arm movement is key to eliminating tension and gaining easier balances.

Kunikova's own training at the Vaganova Ballet Academy taught her to follow her hand's movement with her head, and she insists her students do the same. "I give exercises to synchronize their movements," she says. "For example, I instruct them to focus their eyes and really see the fingers while they practice port de bras. This not only achieves a natural quality, it trains our heads to sustain balance."

Building upper-body coordination into every combination helps cure a related bad habit: shapeless hands. Kunikova suggests concentrating on the shape and movement of the fingers while shifting between basic arm positions (for example, from a rounded first position to an elongated arabesque). "Fingers should move like grass or seaweed," she says. "Soft, pliant, lively but not stiff."


Thinkstock

Incorrect Arm Placement at Barre

Since barre work is meant to set you up for center, it makes sense that your placement there should be the same. But Colorado Ballet Academy principal Erica Fischbach says all too often students hold the barre incorrectly, causing them to grip their muscles instead of gaining strength through good alignment. Everything from turnout to partnering skills is directly affected.

"The elbow should be slightly forward, so if you pick your hand off the barre, you're already in second position," says Fischbach. "If your elbow's behind you, your shoulder is forward, your upper body is twisted, and you have to compensate by shifting your hips so they're not over your feet. And if your rear is out behind you, you can't turn out. It's a domino effect."

In class, Fischbach illustrates how much upper-body placement matters by having two students "partner" each other, with one person offering his or her hand as if it were the barre. "They try to do a rond de jambe en l'air, but start to pull their elbow behind them, and everyone falls down. It shows them how all the muscles work together as a whole, and for smooth control you need your placement."


Thinkstock

Fuzzy Spotting

The ideal mechanics of spotting, says JKO School's Cynthia Harvey, are misunderstood and undervalued. It's more than just whipping your head—the eyes must focus, too.

Intense concentration at barre often causes dancers to let their eyes "glaze over," a habit that becomes especially detrimental during pirouettes. The quality—and quantity—of turns depends on clearly seeing what you're spotting. "Taking your head around without returning your eyes to the same spot can throw you off, and will certainly affect continuous turns," says Harvey. "Returning your eyes to a focal point really helps." A great way to practice is by spotting a sign or lettering on the wall. Reading the words with each revolution will train your eyes to really focus.

Remember how powerful eyes are as communication tools, too—your face shouldn't get cloudy once your fouettés are finished. "Relying simply on the technical aspects won't make a person a good dancer if they can't convey anything, and 'speaking' with the eyes is part of that," Harvey notes.


"Focus and direction of the eyes are equally important to technique and can transform a good dancer into a superb one." —Cynthia Harvey


Ignoring the Music

Dancers with a keen sense of rhythm and phrasing immediately stand apart from those who merely dance on the correct counts, but musicality is a skill that can also be taught—and learned. And since technique and artistry go hand in hand, they must be developed together, says Houston Ballet Academy's Claudio Muñoz. The key is learning to not just hear the music but understand it.

In Muñoz's classes, students are challenged to think about how the music and combinations fit together, and why both beat and melody matter. "I gather the students around the piano and ask one to suggest what music would be proper for the exercise, and then to sing the melody they think is appropriate," he says. "The pianist plays several rhythms until the student makes the best selection."

Musicality starts with accuracy: listening for the beats within each phrase and making sure not to rush ahead or lag behind. Starting at barre, think about where you should be on each beat of a 3/4 waltz, for example, by counting the 1-2-3 within each phrase. When the teacher shows a combination, consider how many counts each step has: Is the tendu in half a count, one or two? Should you begin to move on 8 or "and"? How long can you hold fifth position before moving from it? Fine-tuning your timing can elevate your dancing to the next level. "It's the details like musicality that make a dancer unforgettable in the eyes of the audience," says Muñoz. "Without them, it becomes just movement, not art."


Claudio Muñoz leading men's class at Houston Ballet Academy. Photo by Cameron Durham, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Many of us take our ballet training for granted. But for dancers living in Puerto Rico, which is still reeling from the devastating affects of last month's Hurricane Maria, pursuing a ballet career or simply taking class must now feel insurmountable. What do you do when Mother Nature not only destroys your dance studio, but your home and the majority of the city you live in? Priorities must shift to those of basic survival.

Now, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports that the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School is trying to help six Puerto Rican dancers resume their training. The students, whose studio in San Juan was badly damaged, had recently attended SCBS's summer intensive. School directors Ariel Serrano and Wilmian Hernandez have started a fundraising effort called "Sarasota And Puerto Rico Dance Together" to temporarily relocate the dancers. While they can easily offer them scholarships, Serrano and Hernandez must raise an additional $36,000 to provide housing, food and living expenses for one year. (SCBS has a dormitory for female students, but not for male students.)

Keep reading... Show less
Alexei Ratmansky with members of the corps de ballet. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy American Ballet Theatre.

When the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky joined American Ballet Theatre as artist in residence eight years ago, the company hadn't had a house choreographer since the days of Antony Tudor. The gamble seems to have paid off handsomely. In that time Ratmansky has either made or restaged 12 ballets for the company. In 2011, the company extended his contract to 2023. Such commitments are practically unheard of at a time when top dancers and choreographers hop from company to company, continent to continent. The scale and ambition of the works Ratmansky is making for ABT is a rarity too, in a world of tight budgets, scant rehearsal time and pared-down esthetics.


Set design for new "Harlequinade." Courtesy ABT.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Houston Ballet's Jared Matthews and Sara Webb in"The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Despite the devastation and pain that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have left in their wake this fall, it's been encouraging to see dancers step up in aid of their communities: When the future of Houston Ballet's Nutcracker seemed uncertain, venues around the city pulled together to allow the company to produce the show on a "hometown tour." And when Florida ballet companies had to evacuate, Atlanta Ballet and Charlotte Ballet welcomed them with open arms. In addition, New York City-based studio Broadway Dance Center offered community classes in September with proceeds donated to the American Red Cross.

The next in this series of good deeds is Hearts for Houston, a benefit performance bringing dancers from seven major companies together at New York City's Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater to raise money for the United Way of Greater Houston's Harvey Relief Fund. Scheduled for Sunday, October 22, the evening will feature members of the Houston Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Texas Ballet Theater, The Washington Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Hearts for Houston is imagined and produced by Houston Ballet principal dancers Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews (both formerly of ABT) and funded by patrons Phoebe and Bobby Tudor and sponsor Neiman Marcus.


Keep reading... Show less
Catherine Conley. Photo by Alex Garcia.

When I was 4 or 5, I told my mom, "I want to go to a real dance school with barres and a mirror." My preschool recommended Chicago's Ruth Page Center for the Arts. That's where I trained until I left for Cuba a year ago. I went to regular school during the day, and then had ballet class for four or more hours per day during the evenings and weekends. Nobody in my family has a dance background, but they've been supportive through all of it.

My school in Chicago teaches a technique that draws on Vaganova, Cecchetti and Bournonville. I went to very different summer intensives, as well: American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Ballet School in London and Boston Ballet. Then, two summers ago, Ruth Page School of Dance director Victor Alexander, who is Cuban, arranged an exchange with the Cuban National Ballet School. A group of eight Cubans came to Ruth Page's summer intensive. I had to learn an entire pas de deux as well as a contemporary ballet piece in 10 days, and then perform them. I'd never had to do anything that quickly; it was hard work but exciting. I then realized that if I could dance professionally, I wanted to.


Conley in class at the Cuban National Ballet School. Photo by Alex Garcia.

Keep reading... Show less
Pointe Stars
Photo by Paul Kolnik, via Instagram

Zachary Catazaro is ending his New York City Ballet Fall 2017 season on a high note. NYCB's ballet master in chief, Peter Martins, announced Catazaro's promotion from soloist to principal on Oct. 12th, just before the company's evening performance.

Catazaro had a stand out season, making his debut as Prince Siegfried alongside principal Sterling Hyltin's Odette/Odile in Martins' Swan Lake. He also debuted in featured roles in Martins' The Red Violin and Jerome Robbins' In Memory Of... as well as George Balanchine's La Valse.

Catazaro, originally from Canton, Ohio, joined the company as an apprentice in 2007, and has quickly moved through the ranks.

Principal dancer Rebecca Krohn retired from the stage earlier in the season, and Robbie Fairchild is set to give his farewell performance with NYCB this coming weekend, so we can't wait to see Catazaro tackle his new rank (and the feature debuts that come along with it) in the coming seasons.

Training
Eleanor Rodriguez. Photo Courtesy RAD.

"When I compete, I'm the type to get nervous and shaky," says 19-year-old Eleanor Rodriguez. Growing up, the Phoenix, Arizona native had competed in figure skating and archery, but last month she got her first taste competing in the ballet world when she traveled to Lisbon, Portugal for the Royal Academy of Dance's Genée International Ballet Competition. Rodriguez, who has been most recently studying at the Russian-based Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, trained mainly in the RAD style under Mary Mo Adams. "I've been working in the curriculum my whole life, and the Genée is the height of that experience."

Rodriguez was also the only American participant, adding to the pressure. "I definitely feel like I have to represent," she said a few days before leaving for the competition. "But I've been training really hard. I'm as ready as I can be." She prepared two solos ahead of time—the second Shades variation from La Bayadère and a "Dancer's Choice" neoclassical solo choreographed by her Master Ballet Academy teacher Albert Cattafi. Once in Lisbon, Rodriguez enjoyed four intense days leading up to the semi-finals that included classes, coaching sessions with RAD faculty and learning another solo created especially for the Genée by Portuguese choreographer César Augusto Moniz.


Photo by Ed Flores, Courtesy RAD.

While Rodriguez, who joins Ballet Arizona's Studio Company this fall, did not make it to the final round, she felt the experience was well worth it. "I loved receiving coaching and having an opportunity to perform." We asked her to share how she stayed calm and maintained perspective during the competition, below.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Herman Cornejo in "La Bayadere." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy American Ballet Theatre.

A double tour, says American Ballet Theatre principal Herman Cornejo, "is the step that defines a male dancer." Here, he shares his thoughts on mastering this necessary trick.

Don't anticipate: "The takeoff is hard," Herman Cornejo acknowledges. "You want to take all your force around, and that twists your back to the side and your fifth out of place." Instead, the impulse for the rotations comes from the bottom of the plié. "Be calm to start. Prepare to a relevé, plié, and the moment the heels touch down, then you take the force."

Use your glutes: A common error Cornejo sees is "sticking your butt out and your chest forward in plié so that you're not on top of your hips. You'll never make it to the other side!" Your glutes, he adds, are "so powerful that when you engage them, it really makes a difference."


Cornejo in a double tour en l'air. Photo Courtesy Cornejo.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!