On the morning of May 1, Miriam Barbosa posted a photo of her daughter, Itzkan, on Facebook. The image itself is striking—Itzkan stands smiling on pointe in front of Miami City Ballet, where she has spent the last year as a pre-professional student, perched atop a mountain of old pointe shoes of all different sizes. But it's the story behind the picture that's inspired so many people to comment their congratulations and appreciation. The photo contains every single one of Itzkan's pointe shoes, from her very first pair up until the moment she got her first professional contract as a corps member with MCB last month. The image not only calls attention to the hard work and dedication necessary for young dancers to achieve their dreams, but to the sacrifices parents make to help them get there.
Next semester, there'll be a new course name on the syllabus of Boston Conservatory at Berklee: "Constructed Gender Identities in Classical Ballet: Men's Variations."
But this is not a new course, just a new title. The old name is one you might recognize: "Men's Class."
Is it necessary to have significant experience in Balanchine technique to dance in any or most ballet companies in the U.S.? —Madeline
It depends. If you're interested in dancing with New York City Ballet, the company co-founded by Balanchine himself, you'll need substantial training in the style. (Besides, NYCB usually only hires from its affiliated School of American Ballet.) Balanchine experience would also benefit you if you want to audition for other companies that regularly perform his work, such as Miami City Ballet or Pacific Northwest Ballet. Of course, there are always exceptions—I was not initially trained in the style, and I went on to dance with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet later in my career. But I had to go through a challenging learning curve.
I'm 15 and want to be a professional ballet dancer. I have ballet five times a week, contemporary once a week and rehearsals year-round. It is 15 to 20 hours a week. When I hear about dancers doing 30-plus hours a week, I worry that I dance too little. Is my schedule enough? —Caroline
Courtney Henry remembers a time in middle school when she grew several inches just as her dance training began to intensify. Now a member of Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference in Germany, Henry would take dance classes at her school during the day, then have more classes and rehearsal at her studio afterwards. "As a result of this constant expansion in every direction—my hormone levels were growing as well—I remember enduring painful cramps in my lower and upper legs almost every night."
Such pains are typical symptoms of a growth spurt, or rapid growth in a short period of time. While they can happen at any point during childhood, growth spurts are most common during early to mid-adolescence: ages 12 to 13 for girls and 13 to 15 for boys. According to Chris Fisher, a physical therapist for Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, height change can sometimes be visible in a one-week period. During such a dramatic phase of development, young dancers need to have extra patience and support surrounding their ballet training.
Many dancers struggle with brisé, says Laszlo Berdo, associate director of the Charlotte Ballet Academy. "But once you've mastered it, it's not that difficult." Here's how he helps his students beat the brisé blues.
Hold your turnout: Laszlo Berdo says a common mistake is stepping forward on a turned-in leg in anticipation of the brisé. "You lose the support of that standing leg. Then you have no power to jump," he says. "That plié is your saving grace and control."
Create a line: Berdo notices that some dancers dégagé à la seconde instead of effacé. "It's really difficult to chase that leg into second when you're trying to move forward." He teaches brisé with an open shoulder blade. "The back arm's extension is a reference to the front leg's dégagé. Keep that energy stretching out."
Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet's founding artistic director Marcia Dale Weary shares how she coaches renversés of sigh-inducing beauty.
Practice it slowly: To help her students tackle renversé, Marcia Dale Weary first gives it in adagio. Take a développé to croisé devant. "Think about the shape of the right foot coming front," she says. "Show off a jewel on your heel." Pivot to effacé, then carry the leg through a high écarté, into an attitude that "circles around you. As the right arm opens, both legs bend and the left arm circles to frame your face."
Maintain turnout: Weary notices that many dancers lift their working hip in the rond de jambe. "Rotate that leg so the hip stays down and the sole of the foot stays facing front, and then carry it back without letting the knee turn over." Feel the standing leg turning out too. "Keep that knee back over your little toe."
Weary at work in the studio. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy CPYB.
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When Jurgita Dronina first danced Kitri for a guest performance of Don Quixote with Teatro Filarmonico-Fondazione Arena Di Verona, she was in essence cast against type. "Before Kitri, I was dancing only lyrical or dramatic roles, so I had to start from scratch in finding my own signature in the steps and my own interpretation of the character," says Dronina, who was dancing with Royal Swedish Ballet at the time.
It's a staple of grand allégro, but tour jeté—also called grand jeté entournant or entrelacé—is not easy. Miami City Ballet School's Geta Constantinescu shares how she helps her students fly higher.
Geta Constatinescu working with a Miami City Ballet School student. Photo by Pavel Antonov, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.
Prepare with care: "Let's say you piqué arabesque on the right leg," says Miami City Ballet School faculty member Geta Constantinescu. As you chassé sideways, "that right leg has to go in back, not in front of the left leg. Many don't even notice that little mistake!" The left foot is then available as you turn to step forward onto it, going into the tour jeté.
Plié both legs generously as you brush the leg through first position, so you don't jump from just one. "Use the floor to help elevate yourself."
Be direct: Instead of brushing to grand battement devant, Constantinescu often sees dancers go through a rond de jambe or "something not very clear," she says. "What is front, where is the toe going when you toss it in the air?" She suggests practicing the brush en avant in tendu and adagio combinations, to "imprint" that pathway.
Let the arms assist: Coordinate your port de bras with your grand battement. The arms go up through high fifth as you take off. They begin to open, Constantinescu says, "right at the top of the jump."
Practice your takeoff and landing at the barre with this combination: Grand battement devant on demi-point, turning towards the barre as you close fifth to finish on the other side with the opposite leg in arabesque plié.
Think "forward": As the legs switch, think of the arabesque in the air as a "demi-penché" to create space for a greater split. "Feel connected from the lower belly to the heart center as the leg goes back," says Constantinescu. "That lifting of the sternum supports the line of the demi-penché."
Imagine you're "kicking a ball" with the front leg as the back leg scissors into arabesque, like in a big sissone ouvert. "This will incorporate that quality of split in the air."
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.
The summer I turned 16, my head swirled with "what ifs" as I counted down the days until the start of the Chautauqua intensive. I'd attended the program four years earlier, and the experience had been a harrowing one—my first lesson in the competitive nature of ballet. Leaving the temperate waters of my little pond, I'd found myself a very small, uncoordinated fish in a pool deep with talent. Now, I was going back to test myself again, this time in Chautauqua's top level. Would I be as good as the other dancers? Would the teachers like me? Would I make friends?
Summer intensives are aptly titled. Their extreme demands can cause anxiety, nerves, jealousy and stress. But put down the question marks! Don't let a negative state of mind keep you from soaking up everything your summer has to offer.