“You don’t know what you’re capable of as a dancer until you explore different styles.”Jeffrey Cirio

 

Boston Ballet principal Jeffrey Cirio got hooked on hip hop early. “I went to a Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet summer program when I was 11, and I thought the hip-hop classes were the coolest thing ever,” he says. “The teacher started working with me on the side, helping me with whatever I wanted to do. I was crazy about it.”


Today, Cirio stops at Steps on Broadway to take a hip-hop class whenever he’s in New York. But his most frequent teacher is actually his good friend James Whiteside, a former BB principal (and current American Ballet Theatre soloist) who’s also a hip-hop fiend. “James likes to get me and a few of the other Boston Ballet guys together and give us a sort of jazz fusion hip-hop class,” Cirio says. “We rock out.”


Thanks to his hip-hop expertise, Cirio has no problem navigating the quirky upper body isolations in BB resident choreographer Jorma Elo’s works. But Cirio also credits his early exposure to hip hop as a mind-opening experience that made him start thinking about who he was as a dancer. “I often help young kids prepare for competitions like Youth America Grand Prix, and I’m always telling them to try out different dance classes,” he says. “Ballet is very square and strict. Something like hip hop will give you the freedom to figure out what your body can do, and what your unique style is.”

“Ballet dancers are notorious for being a bit stiff. Studying other styles helps you get rid of that rigid quality.”Ashley Dawn

 

Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer Ashley Dawn didn’t take ballet seriously until she was about 10 years old. “Before that, I was really into tap and jazz and hip hop,” she says. Eventually she discovered that she loved ballet’s technical challenges. But even as she began to attend ballet summer intensives, she found that she relished the programs’ occasional jazz and hip-hop classes. “They were the perfect breaks from the intensity of ballet,” she remembers.

Today Dawn takes those “breaks” at Vega Dance+Lab, an open-class studio in Portland. “I drop in all the time to take hip hop,” she says. “I’ve even experimented with ‘Burly Q,’ a combination of burlesque and jazz! I love to get a little funky, to give classical music a rest and dance around to top 40 songs.” Dawn also finds that mixing things up stylistically “keeps your brain fresh,” she says. “You’re learning a routine really quickly,” without any ballet vocabulary shortcuts. “It helps you stay sharp.”

Last year, OBT performed Trey McIntyre’s Speak, a “hip-hop ballet” danced in sneakers. “There’s even a pas de deux set to a Bloodhound Gang song!” Dawn says. “Definitely not traditional. But it didn’t feel strange to me. I didn’t have to fake my way through it.”

“When a ballerina can move with sharpness and attack as well as lyricism, her dancing becomes far more powerful.” —Allyssa Bross

Jazz dance was Allyssa Bross’s first love. “I started studying it at a small studio, and by the time I was 5 I was competing in jazz pieces,” says the Los Angeles Ballet principal, who grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I was only taking ballet classes a couple of times a week, but jazz was every day. I loved that it was so bold and high-energy.”

As a teenager, she was bitten by the ballet bug. She began training at the North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance—and watching NCDT company members rehearse contemporary works by Alonzo King and Dwight Rhoden. “Sitting in on company rehearsals, something clicked,” she remembers. “A lot of the choreography had a hard, jazzy edge to it, and I realized that I would be able to use jazz to make my ballet performances better. Ballet was teaching me discipline, but jazz had already taught me how to be free onstage.”

Today, L.A. Ballet’s schedule makes it difficult for Bross to squeeze in more than the occasional jazz class. But she’s still in touch with her jazzy side. “We’re doing works by Sonya Tayeh and Mandy Moore, choreographers who’ve made jazz and contemporary pieces for ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’” she says. “They want parallel positions, they want hard-hitting movement. It can be difficult for ballet dancers to make that switch, but it all feels familiar to me.” 

"The dancers who get to the top are the ones who have no boundaries.” —Derrick Agnoletti

As a young student, Derrick Agnoletti was squarely focused on classical technique, studying at the School of American Ballet and San Francisco Ballet School. But that changed when he entered the University of California, Irvine. “Suddenly it was all these Horton and Graham and Limón classes,” he says. It didn’t take long for Agnoletti to appreciate the modern slant. “Modern taught me how to deconstruct my ballet technique,” he says. “I learned how to find where a position comes from instead of just imitating a shape.”

Agnoletti continued to take modern classes when he joined The Joffrey Ballet after graduation, and he recently began experimenting with Ohad Naharin’s Gaga technique. “I’m a small, muscular guy, so I tend to shorten my lines—but in modern classes, I’m learning to stretch beyond myself,” he says. “It’s helped make my movement more tactile, too. Even something as simple as raising the arms to fifth—it’s not just about the arms, it’s about the entire body.”

And when The Joffrey performed Paul Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom a few years ago? “That was quite a push for the company,” he says. “But I was a little ahead of the game.” 

"Doing commercial jobs feels like recess." —Ebony Williams

Ballet fans know Ebony Williams as one of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s most striking dancers, with beautiful feet and legs that add ballerina polish to the company’s diverse repertoire. But to the rest of the world, Williams is best known as one of the backup dancers who helped make Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” music video a sensation. In fact, Williams has become a go-to girl on the commercial scene: She recently appeared in Beyoncé’s “Countdown” video, and has also worked with Jennifer Hudson, Rihanna and Fergie.

Though Williams has bona fide ballet credentials—she trained at Boston Ballet School and The Boston Conservatory—she sees her commercial gigs as a return to her roots. “When I was a kid, I started out learning all the street styles with my friends, and that was how people first noticed that I should probably be in dance school,” she says. “While I was training in ballet I had to put all that on the back burner for a while so that I could become a technician. Now that I have the technique, it’s fun to come back to the type of dance I started out doing.”

Williams sees her forays into commercial work as opportunities to grow. “Every dancer should try to experience dance in every way they can,” she says. “Frankly, I get itchy and antsy if I’m not doing something on the side! There’s always more to learn.”

“In salsa, you can be totally spontaneous. It’s a chance to let go and express whatever the music makes you feel.” —Katia Carranza

Katia Carranza heard salsa music constantly while growing up in Mexico. But it wasn’t until she began dating Luis Serrano, a Cuban dancer who now directs Ballet de Monterrey, that she actually learned to dance salsa. “When Luis and I first started hanging out, we’d go out on dates to salsa clubs,” says Carranza, a principal with Miami City Ballet and Ballet de Monterrey. “I loved the rhythm and how different it was from ballet.”

Now the couple, who have since married, salsa most weekends. “Every party, every get-together, and out at clubs: we salsa,” she says. “Even if we just throw a barbecue at home, by an hour into it everybody’s dancing.”

Carranza says learning salsa has given her ballet technique more musicality and spice. “Salsa helps you feel rhythms of the music all through your body,” she says. “And it helps you find your hips and shoulders. You barely move them in classical ballet, but many choreographers today want you to be able use them.”

She’s also learned from salsa’s approach to partnering. “In salsa, you have to let the guy move you and lead you. In a ballet pas de deux, it’s the same thing—it’s very important that the girl wait for her partner to guide her. As ballet dancers we want to be in control all the time, but we have to learn to trust our partners completely.”

“A lot of ballet dancers only do ballet. That’s such a waste of talent.” —Roddy Doble

Tap dancing has always been a way for American Ballet Theatre corps member Roddy Doble to loosen up—physically and mentally. “I took tap classes from the time I was 9 at my studio in Connecticut,” he remembers. “In ballet class, I was naturally very strong, but I lacked flexibility, so I always looked tense. Tapping allowed me to free up my body, because the rules weren’t quite so strict. And I think because I wasn’t taking it as seriously as my ballet classes, it relaxed my approach to dance in general.” He loved watching clips of the famous tap duo the Nicholas Brothers, and tried to emulate their easy, debonair style.

Today it’s hard for Doble to fit tap classes into his busy ABT schedule, but he still pulls out videos of classic tap routines, like Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s “Moses Supposes” number from Singin’ in the Rain. Doble finds that channeling those greats’ old-school tap showmanship can breathe life into his character roles at ABT.

“Ballet dancers shouldn’t be scared of tap,” he says. “It’s really just another form of cross-training. Studying ballet from a ballet standpoint only gets you so far. And if you want to do well in a company setting, never let the people at the front of the room find something you can’t do!”

"Nobody ever tells you to be sexy or tough in ballet class, but in contemporary ballets that’s often what they expect—and jazz class is where you learn how to do it.” —Miranda Bailey

Like many bunheads, Columbia City Ballet soloist Miranda Bailey wasn’t sure about jazz when she was required to take it as a student. “I used to skip class all the time,” she admits. It wasn’t until Bailey was in her teens that she really gave jazz a chance. “Suddenly, I discovered that it was this class where I had so much freedom,” she says. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, my turnout isn’t good enough, my extensions aren’t high enough.’ It was about dancing, not about doing the 32 fouettés.”

Now Bailey takes and teaches jazz frequently. “It’s my little reward for getting through ballet class,” she says. It’s also good preparation for CCB’s repertoire, which is full of jazz-inflected contemporary ballets. “We only go into super-classical mode when we do something like Sleeping Beauty once every few years,” she says. “For the rest of our shows, we need to be able to do the hip isolations and the body rolls and the other good stuff you learn in jazz class.”

But Bailey thinks even dancers who dream only of performing Petipa ballets can benefit from jazz. “It’s fantastic cross-training, because you use totally different muscles,” she says. “Often that helps you fix your ballet technique problems. For years, my ballet teachers yelled at me to turn out my supporting leg, but I could never activate the right muscles—until I discovered them during a jazz combination.”

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member Abby Relic has never been your typical bunhead. At her Kansas high school, she was a member of the decidedly un-balletic drill team—which is where she first discovered hip hop. “The captain made up this sort of hip-hoppy routine for us that I loved,” Relic remembers. “It was such a release. I’ve always enjoyed busting out of the ballerina box.”

But Relic didn’t start taking hip-hop classes regularly until she arrived in Seattle in 2008: “I discovered this studio, Westlake Dance Center, that has a bunch of hip-hop teachers. It’s fun to learn all their different styles. They’ve taught me that hip hop is about capturing an attitude, a feeling, and then adding a bit of yourself on top, instead of just copying the teacher.”

That emphasis on putting a personal stamp on choreography has changed the way Relic thinks about even the most classical pieces. “When you’re in the corps of a story ballet, you have to dance cleanly so you fit in—but now I consciously put more of me into the movement,” she says. Plus, she’s found that when the company is learning a contemporary ballet, her diverse hip-hop experience helps her nail the quirkier steps. “I’m used to picking up new styles quickly, even if they feel foreign at first.”

As a young ballet student in small-town Oklahoma, Emily Hunter thought she knew exactly what she wanted to be: a principal in a classical ballet company. But by the time she enrolled in the University of Iowa’s dance department, she’d begun to have doubts.

 

“After puberty hit, and I was facing the reality of my body’s limitations, I had to rethink who I was as a dancer,” she says. “During college, I began taking modern classes and working with contemporary choreographers. That exposure helped me discover that I didn’t have to be a tutu-and-tiara girl. I still loved the challenge of classical technique, but I felt more at home in contemporary mode.”

 

Today Hunter is a member of Texas Dance Theatre, a contemporary ballet company with a wide-ranging repertoire. She also teaches contemporary dance classes at a local studio and choreographs her own contemporary works, including several for TDT. “If I had limited myself to classical ballet, I don’t know if I would ever have been inspired to choreograph,” she says. “The contemporary style opened doors for me. It allowed me to find my own voice as a choreographer, and my own unique way of moving as a dancer.”

 

 

When New York City Ballet soloist Savannah Lowery was growing up, jazz class was playtime. “Ballet was always my thing, but as a kid, jazz was an opportunity to let loose and have a little fun,” she says.

 

Though her jazz schedule slowed down a bit as her ballet career accelerated, Lowery has started taking jazz class again. “Initially I came back to it because I was looking for a chance to get away from pointework for a while and literally let my hair down,” she says. “And I knew it was great for stamina. By the end of a long jazz combination, I’m usually on the floor!” Now Lowery takes jazz class whenever she can, sometimes twice a week during NYCB’s off-season.

 

She’s been surprised to find that training in jazz has enriched her work with NYCB, too. “It’s helped me with the theatrical side of dancing,” Lowery says. “I like to take Stephen Harding’s class at Manhattan Movement and Arts Center because he pushes me in that aspect. Most of his combinations are about conveying a message or character as well as getting through a set of steps. I’m more comfortable now with acting silly, cute, even evil.” 

Ballet and tap seem like polar opposites: one preoccupied with line and form, the other with rhythm and sound. But the two styles have more in common, says The Royal Ballet principal Steven McRae, than you might think.

 

“Actually, I think tap dance is an ideal companion to classical ballet training,” says McRae, who grew up studying tap and jazz in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. “Tap is intensely musical, and it teaches coordination and control of footwork. If you look at all the great Frederick Ashton ballets that The Royal does, or those of Wayne McGregor, it’s the speed and little details that are important. And that’s what tap picks up on: accuracy and precision at high speeds.” (Skeptical? Just watch McRae breeze through Colas’ fleet allegro sequences in Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée.)

 

Though McRae decided to focus on ballet as a teen, he kept up his tap classes—and he’s still tapping. “Whenever I’m in a ballet gala, I’ll do the Don Quixote pas in the first half, something really classical, and then come out and do a tap solo in the second,” he says, with a laugh. “It keeps things exciting!” And he recommends that all ballet students take a chance on a style like tap. “It’s a wise investment,” he says. “In today’s ballet companies, you need to be able to stick the double tours, yes—but you also need to be able to move.” Plus, you never know when those non-ballet classes will come in handy: “Christopher Wheeldon is making his new Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on us right now, and there’s been talk of me wearing tap shoes in it,” McRae says. “Who would have thought?”

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