Learn from the Master

This week, I was lucky enough to be able to take a class taught by Susan Jaffe, a former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre.  I wasn’t really sure what to expect, since I’ve taken class with famous dancers before, and been very disappointed by how little of their own sense of artistry they communicated to the students.  Sometimes, although they are or were great dancers themselves, they were at a loss about how to really teach a student to do something that came so naturally, and beautifully, to them.

 

However, Susan’s class was very different from this kind of experience.  The combinations were fast and quite tricky, but she didn’t focus so much on specific technical aspects of the movements, rather, she continuously asked us to work on the quality of our movements.  My favorite correction she gave (and which really worked), was to project energy and movement in opposite directions through the working arm and leg in arabesque penchee, as a way in which to stretch the position fully.  She demonstrated this idea, as she did all the combinations in class, modestly and precisely, without calling too much attention to her (still formidable) technique.  This is perhaps what I liked most about her as a teacher—she seemed to have left her prima ballerina self behind and wholly embraced her new identity as an educator.  She was encouraging, kind, and paid attention to each one of us.

 

I had forgotten how valuable an opportunity it is to have the chance to learn from someone who has danced and thought about it all, especially someone whose career was so long as Susan Jaffe’s.  It was clear to me that she wasn’t just passing on rote knowledge she had gotten from some other teacher, but was telling us about what she had learned by listening to her own body through the years.  This was especially clear when we were doing some attitude turns in the center, and she said “I find it’s easier if you lift your leg higher and shorten your attitude a little—attitude turns are hard!”.  It was definitely nice to know that even someone like her has had difficulty with them, and that she wasn’t afraid to admit to having made the same mistakes that we had.  It made being in her class much more comfortable, and I came away from this class with a renewed faith in master classes and famous dancers-turned-teachers.

Ballet Training
Hortense Millet-Maurin (third from left) and her classmates perform August Bournonville's La Conservatoire. Svetlana Loboff, Courtesy POB.

As a little girl, Hortense Millet-Maurin fell in love with the wide spiral staircase that dominates the center of the Paris Opéra Ballet School. Today, as a focused 15-year-old POB student, she and her classmate Vincent Vivet navigate the school's spacious architecture on a daily basis. In a hallway strewn with foam rollers and tennis balls, their faces are laced with concentration as they prepare alongside their peers for afternoon ballet class. Color-coded uniforms reflect Vivet's and Millet-Maurin's third division; with only two advanced divisions remaining, they are increasingly close to realizing their professional aspirations: joining the Paris Opéra Ballet. Pointe spoke with these two young dancers to see what it's like studying inside the world's oldest ballet academy.

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Sponsored by Ballet Arizona
Tzu Chia Huang, Courtesy Ballet Arizona

These days, ballet dancers are asked to do more than they ever have—whether that's tackling versatile rep, taking on intense cross-training regimens or managing everything from their Instagram pages to their summer layoff gigs.

Without proper training, these demands can take a toll on both the mind and the body. But students can start preparing for them early—with the right summer intensive program.

The School of Ballet Arizona's summer intensive takes a well-rounded approach to training—not just focusing on technique and facility but nurturing overall dancer growth. "You cannot make a dancer just by screaming at them like they used to," says master ballet teacher Roberto Muñoz, who guests at the program every summer. "You have to take care of the person as well."

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Ballet Training
Emily Giacalone, modeled by Elizabeth Steele of The School at Steps.

If you're feeling wobbly in adagio or wish you could hold your piqué attitude a bit longer, there are ways to assess and improve your balance. Try these four exercises, recommended by Heather Southwick, Boston Ballet's director of physical therapy.

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Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

While many of us are deep in Nutcracker duties, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director James Payne has been looking further ahead, finalizing preparations for the school's summer intensive programs. In January, he and his staff will embark on a 24-city audition tour to scour the country for the best young dancers, deciding whether or not to offer them a spot—maybe even a scholarship—in the school's rigorous 5-week intensive focused on high-caliber ballet instruction. Though he'll be evaluating aspirants, he urges that as a student, you should be equally selective in choosing programs that could galvanize your training—and possibly even your career.

We got Payne's advice on strategizing your summer intensive plan before the audition cycle kicks in:

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