Ask Amy: Technique or Artistry


Have a question?
Click here to send it to Suzanne Farrell Ballet dancer Amy Brandt.


I go to a strict school that is very technique driven. However, the summer intensive I just attended focused more on performance quality. Going back to my old studio, should I keep thinking about my presentation or return to dancing like a stiff robot? How can I still please my teacher? —Lauren
One of the wonderful things about summer programs is that they open your eyes to new perspectives. As you start branching out into the larger dance world, you’ll discover many different and sometimes contradictory approaches to training, all of which contain elements of truth. Your home studio’s emphasis on technique may feel a bit robotic or boring, but it probably stems from the valid philosophy that you should learn the rules before breaking them. A strong, solid base is essential, so try not to be dismissive of your teacher.

However, it’s imperative to develop artistically if you want a professional career. This summer served as a major artistic awakening for you. Rather than throw it all away, apply what you’ve learned to your meticulous technical training. Test the waters—see where your newfound presentation fits within the boundaries of your school’s syllabus. Take advantage of variations class, rehearsals, even jazz classes, where you’ll have more artistic freedom. And give your teacher a little credit—she knows that you’ve been studying with other instructors and probably expects you to return home dancing a little differently.

At the end of last season, my director gave me a principal role (our company is unranked). I felt very proud of my performance. But I’ve just been cast in a role usually done by apprentices. I can’t help but feel discouraged. How do I get back to the dancer I was? —Sherron
Trust me, most of us know how you feel. Casting rarely pleases everyone, and it’s hard not to interpret a minor role as an ominous sign of rejection. However, try not to take it so personally. In unranked companies, directors have more freedom to cast who they feel best embodies the role, and in this instance you simply may not be the right fit. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad dancer; it just means your movement style or even your look doesn’t suit this specific ballet. Your director may also simply want to give other dancers opportunities.

The artistic staff obviously sees your potential based on last season’s casting. But remember, one principal role doesn’t mean you’re entitled to them from now on, especially when you’re a young company member. Since it’s early in the season, don’t panic—and definitely avoid coming off as defeated or ungracious. Use this setback as incentive to work harder than ever. If poor casting continues throughout the year, try talking to someone on the artistic staff to gain insight into their casting decisions and see if there’s something you need to improve.

My shoulders naturally slump forward. When I try to push them back, my teachers tell me I look too stiff. But when I relax them, they tell me to push my shoulders down. I’m not sure what to do. —Emily
I can relate—I’ve been fighting slumpy shoulders my whole career. Called rolled shoulders, they can result from having weak upper back and tight chest muscles, and unfortunately create a self-conscious or lazy-looking aesthetic. Luckily, stretching and strengthening exercises, along with some added awareness in class, can help improve your posture.

Karen Clippinger, a kinesiologist and professor at California State University, Long Beach, recommends this exercise from her book Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology. Sit crossed-legged on the floor and hold a Thera-Band taut between your hands; have your palms facing up and elbows bent at a 90 degree angle. Keeping your elbows close to your sides, pull the ends of the band apart so that your shoulders externally rotate. Then, arch your upper back, making sure to engage your lower abdominals to prevent your pelvis from tipping forward.

Sometimes dancers overcompensate by squeezing their shoulder blades together tightly, almost eliminating the space between them. This could be what you’re doing when your teacher says you look stiff. Instead, push your shoulder blades down and lift your chest slightly (keeping the ribs together), as if you’re wearing a beautiful diamond necklace. At the same time, imagine both shoulders expanding outwards to the sides. This should help you engage the right muscles.

Latest Posts


The author, Lucy Van Cleef, dancing Balanchine's Serenade at Los Angeles Ballet. Reed Hutchinson, Courtesy Los Angeles Ballet

My 12-Year Journey to a Bachelor’s Degree While Dancing Professionally

If you'd have told me in 2009 that it would take 12 years to earn my bachelor's degree, I never would have believed you. Back then, I was a dancer in my early 20s and in my second year with Los Angeles Ballet. I was used to the straightforward demands of the professional ballet world. I knew that hard work and willpower were the currency you paid in the studio, and that the thrill of live performance made all that investment worth it. What I didn't know then is how life's twists and turns aren't always so straightforward. In hindsight, I can see how my winding road to higher education has strengthened me—and my relationship with the ballet world—more than I ever could have imagined.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Michael Cousmano, AKA Madame Olga. Courtesy When I'm Her

New Documentary "When I’m Her" Shows How Madame Olga’s Positive Affirmations Can Transform Ballet

Michael "Mikey" Cusumano was a rising star at American Ballet Theatre in the 1990s, joining the company at 15 years old and dancing principal roles by age 16. But the high pressure of ballet proved detrimental to his emotional and mental well-being. "I couldn't find the joy in ballet anymore," says Cusumano.

After 10 years as a professional ballet dancer, Cusumano transitioned to Broadway, where his alter ego, a sparkly-turban–wearing Russian ballet instructor named Madame Olga, was able to fully emerge. In Madame Olga, Cusumano became the ballet teacher he wished he had growing up. While Olga's classes feature the same technical rigor as any other intermediate-advanced ballet class, they also incorporate her signature humor and positive affirmations. It's common for Madame Olga's students to vocalize those affirmations while dancing (for example, saying "love" out loud while doing an adagio combination).

Keep reading SHOW LESS
New York City Ballet principal and Dance Against Cancer Co-Founder Daniel Ulbricht in New York City's Columbus Circle. Travis Magee, Courtesy DAC.

Dance Against Cancer Is Back With a Starry Outdoor Gala—and It Will Also Be Livestreamed

The annual Dance Against Cancer gala is back in full force this year, bringing major dance stars together on Monday, June 21, to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Held in Lincoln Center's outdoor Damrosch Park, it will be New York City's largest in-person ticketed event since the onset of the pandemic. And for the first time, this year's gala will also be livestreamed by Nel Shelby Productions for international audiences. The evening's finale—a tribute to first responders, medical professionals, educators, mentors and other heroes who have lost their lives to cancer or are battling it—stars special guest Kevin Boseman, a former dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Martha Graham Dance Company, a cancer survivor, and the brother of the late actor Chadwick Boseman.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks