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Students at The Ailey School practice balancing in retiré. Photo Courtesy The Ailey School.

"In Cuba, everybody turns," says Caridad Martinez, a ballet faculty member at The Ailey School and a former principal with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Here, she walks us through the exercises and techniques that comprise "the Cuban secret" of pirouettes in general, and fouettés in particular.

Pirouette Basics

Two legs in plié: The Cuban methodology teaches the fourth position preparation for turns with both legs in demi-plié. The benefits of this approach are speed and control, says Caridad Martinez. "That push of the back leg to passé, at the moment of relevé, makes it easier to generate more turns."

Finish up: For all turns, says Martinez, "we teach to finish on relevé, because that's when you really finish. Hold the position a little bit more—gluteus in and up, turn out the standing leg, open the knee and stay! Don't leave anything behind."

Spotting secrets: To find a more active torso, says Martinez, "have the sensation that you quickly bring your back to the audience." This "switch" of the torso propels you farther around, and with more energy. In addition to spotting with rhythm, try telling yourself "Back! Back!" You may find you effortlessly have the force for that extra rotation.

Round arms: "We keep the arms rounded," says Martinez of the Cuban method, though she notes that it's not incorrect to extend to allongé. She gives a simple exercise to help her students coordinate their port de bras in turns: Hold an object in your opposite hand (the left, if you are turning to the right) as you prepare. At the moment of the relevé, quickly pass the object to your right hand as you turn.

Fouettés, Cuban-Style

The progression: Following the Cuban training method, Martinez builds strength and coordination for fouettés systematically in class. "It's very important not to skip any steps," she says.

  • Begin with consecutive relevés in retiré, both at the barre and in the center.
  • "Then do that with a quarter turn, then a half. That is awful! But later you appreciate it."
  • Progress to three consecutive full pirouettes, holding the leg in retiré as you plié between turns.
  • Repeat the above, this time extending the working leg à la seconde with the plié between turns. Then add a beat, back-front, to the passé as you turn.
  • Pirouette, plié á la seconde, pirouette is one way to fouetté. "When you have the coordination and the technique to control that, the next step is to go to the front and then seconde," says Martinez.
  • Work up gradually, starting with three or four fouettés.

Options: As noted above, the working leg in fouetté may extend directly to the side with plié or rond de jambe from front to side. With rond de jambe, you have a further choice: You may relevé with the à la seconde and then turn, or open the leg in plié and relevé at the moment of the pirouette. "We use both," Martinez explains, depending on the choreography.

The twizzle: Rather than pushing off from fourth directly into a high passé, many students allow the back foot to linger on the floor as they begin to turn, causing the passé to over-cross and the standing leg to turn in. In fouetté, the consequence of this is that the working leg drops too low when it extends. "That leg does not come down," Martinez cautions. "Feel that you isolate from the hip to the knee, and keep that distance the same."

Extra Tips

1. "Practicing balance—that is the students' homework," says Martinez. She suggests trying promenade on relevé at the barre, going en dehors with the leg in retiré and en dedans with the outside leg in cou-de-pied.

2. During fondus or ronds de jambe at the barre, Martinez works on the transition from plié attitude en avant into écarté derrière: "Extend the standing leg and get to écarté at the same time—that coordination is important when we are thinking about fouetté." Practicing attitude, as opposed to extending fully to the front, helps prevent over-crossing.

Ballet Careers
Learning from your competition can help rechannel jealous feelings. Photo by Eric Ostling.

They are the urban legends of the dance studio: glass in a dancer's pointe shoes, ribbons cut before she goes onstage. The film Black Swan took things a step further, depicting a dancer so wracked with obsessive jealousy that she turns into a monster.

While these caricatures of the jealous ballerina are far from reality, it is not surprising that most dancers will battle bouts of green envy at least a few times in their careers. “It happens to all of us," says American Ballet Theatre corps dancer Paulina Waski, who despite signing a contract with ABT at 16 admits she's felt envious of fellow dancers. “Especially when you are at the point of transitioning from a student to a professional dancer."

According to Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet, jealousy is completely normal. However, it creates both physical and mental tension. “It can get in the way of relationships," she says. When Waski was promoted into ABT, she sensed that some of her colleagues from the ABT Studio Company grew distant. Later, she experienced jealous behavior from older company members. “It felt lonely," she says.

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Audition Advice
Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe

When Lilliana Hagerman auditioned for Orlando Ballet School's summer intensive, she felt overwhelmingly intimidated. “The other dancers were all so beautiful," remembers Hagerman, now a dancer with Kansas City Ballet. “I thought that if I made one mistake it would be over." Hagerman did make a mistake: She slipped and fell during grand allégro. “I got back up and I smiled," she says. To her relief, the teacher smiled back.

Summer intensive auditions give you only a few moments to make a good impression—often while crammed into a crowded room, after traveling distances in the car and with little time or space to warm up. It's hard not to obsess over a small mistake or feel discouraged if you're put on the intensive's waitlist afterwards. But according to school directors, many of your fears are overreactions. Here are a few of the most common audition misconceptions, along with what's really going on inside the teachers' heads.

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Ballet Training
Nicole Ivan, now a dancer with Bodiography Contemporary Ballet, in Elon University's 2016 Fall Dance Program. Photo by Tony Spielberg, Courtesy Elon University.

During his sophomore year at the University of Oklahoma, Austin Crumley switched the focus of his Bachelor of Fine Arts from ballet performance to ballet pedagogy. “I figured I already knew how to perform," he says. “I wanted to take advantage of OU's incredible faculty to learn something new." The degree change didn't close any doors for Crumley, who joined Sacramento Ballet this fall. However, he plans to focus on teaching after he retires. “The pedagogy degree turned a passion into a potential long-term career," he says.

Some degree-seeking dancers opt to concentrate on dance studies outside the traditional performance track—from dance science or administration to dance media, pedagogy, or even cultural studies. And for many, these degrees can support long careers both onstage and beyond.

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Ballet Training
Illustration by Emily Giacalone for Pointe

It's a familiar sight on Instagram: A dancer lounges casually in an oversplit, drinking her morning coffee. One foot is propped up on blocks (or even a chair) as her legs split well beyond 180 degrees.

In recent years, extreme flexibility has become the new normal, with social media flooded with images of dancers contorting themselves into pretzel positions. The question of whether one must be this flexible to achieve a professional dance career is a matter of taste, but it's clear that at competitions, circus-like penchés and développés are being rewarded with medals, scholarships and contracts. But can extreme stretching cause injuries down the line? In truth, it can be either safe or risky.

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Ballet Training
Tyler Donatelli, shown here in Etudes, initially turned down an offer to train at Houston Ballet Academy. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Harper Ortlieb knew something needed to change. Her three-hour commute to daily classes at the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre was unsustainable, and her obsession with ballet was intensifying. The family considered “away-from-home" training, but when Ortlieb, then 14, was accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy's year-round program in Moscow (after attending their summer intensive in Connecticut), they were caught off guard. “Harper had an unshakable dream of training in Russia, but until that point it was just that—a dream," says Layne Baumann, Harper's mother. “We knew time was moving swiftly, and this was one of those rare opportunities that can truly shape your future."

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Ballet Training
Arantxa Ochoa corrects a student. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

Growing up, Houston Ballet soloist Allison Miller often heard teachers compare the feeling you have during pirouettes to a corkscrew. But then her teacher, Diane Partington in Ellenton, Florida, offered up a surprising new analogy. Partington suggested Miller imagine a bank tube—a simple cylinder that uses suction to transport a round canister from a customer's car to the teller. Picturing this straight, narrow tube drawing energy up and into itself struck a chord with Miller. “It worked instantly!" she says. “It clicked in my head and it gave my body the right feeling." Even now, if she needs to refocus her pirouettes, Miller thinks of that image. “If I'm having a bad day, it helps me find my center."

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Ballet Training
The Kirov Academy's Irina Vakhromeeva teaching class. Photo by Pablo Galli, Courtesy Kirov Academy.

As a pre-professional dancer, you need training that will help you transition as smoothly as possible into the rigorous environment of a professional ballet company. Among other considerations, that means developing strong and seamless pointework. Chances are, you're spending a lot of your classes and rehearsal time in pointe shoes right now.

That said, there are real philosophies behind the role that pointework plays in class. You may be required to wear pointe shoes throughout all of your regular technique classes; or perhaps your studio prefers you to wear flat shoes for barre before putting pointe shoes on for center, or to spend the entire class in ballet slippers, offering separate pointe classes instead. With such differences in training methods, you may feel that you're missing out on something. Luckily, each of these approaches is designed to strengthen you as a dancer—they just accomplish that goal in different ways. Pointe spoke to faculty members at four prestigious ballet academies for added insight into each philosophy.

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Audition Advice
Via Pixabay

Ever dreamed of dancing your way through Europe? Of discovering new companies and wandering the streets of historic cities? For Kelsey Coventry, an American dancer with Leipziger Ballett in Leipzig, Germany, moving abroad was the perfect next step. “I thought that I would try to spread my wings a little further," she says.

Europe also comes with another lure: lengthy, stable contracts with good benefits. “Since I work for an opera house here, and we're government funded, I'm considered a government employee," says Coventry. “We're paid 13 months out of the year, with a 2-month vacation. It's a pretty good deal."
But before you get the job, you need to audition. If you've never traveled abroad, planning a European audition tour can seem daunting. But with advance planning and the right blend of organization and flexibility, it can be an easier and more affordable experience than you think.

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Ballet Training
Boston Ballet's Sarah Wroth in Symphony in Three Movements. Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

Skipping college for a ballet career wasn't an option for Boston Ballet corps member Sarah Wroth. “I didn't see it as a stable future," she recalls. But she loved ballet and wanted to continue dancing at school. She auditioned for Indiana University, confident she wouldn't be accepted into its highly competitive ballet program. But when the acceptance letter came, she was forced to decide what college would mean for her. Would it be a purely academic pursuit followed by a practical career in education or medicine? Or would she go to college with the intention of having a ballet career?

As high school graduation approaches, you may be faced with similar questions. Do you audition for ballet companies without the security of a college degree, or gamble on your dream by going to school? If you go, do you focus solely on dance or go the more academic route? Whatever tides are pulling you, here are some important questions to ask yourself as you navigate your decision.

Am I ready to audition?

Not every 18-year-old is technically or emotionally prepared to enter a company environment. "Looking back, I just wasn't ready," says Wroth, who feels her time spent dancing in college was important for her development as an artist.

Victoria Mazzarelli, artistic director of the Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory, encourages all of her graduating students to try at least a few company auditions to gauge where they stand. She also suggests that they apply to colleges at the same time. "The avenues and possibilities are vast for them," she says. Knowing your options will make decisions clearer and better inform your conversations with your parents and teachers.

Is there a compromise?

If you're offered a traineeship or company position, it can be hard to walk away—especially if it's your dream company, or one that hires exclusively from their school. Even so, some parents may still need convincing. To gain their support, take their concerns seriously and seek compromise. College comes in many forms, so if they insist that you earn a degree, you may be able to go part-time or take online classes while you dance. For instance, Mazzarelli points to Nutmeg alumna Quinn Pendleton, a corps member with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo who studies online at Harvard University. Mazzarelli says that Pendleton already had a well-established dance career before pursuing her degree, and finds that studying online works well with her touring schedule.

Will college hold me back?

Many dancers spend several years in a trainee program or second company before signing a company contract, so attending a college with a strong dance program may not leave you behind. "I danced almost as much as someone in a small company," says Wroth, who was in classes or rehearsals at IU five to seven hours a day. Just before graduation, she auditioned for Boston Ballet and was offered a contract—she's now been with the company 11 years.

Tauna Hunter, department chair of Mercyhurst University's dance program, acknowledges that while her students don't end up in large companies like New York City Ballet, she has many dancers enjoying fulfilling careers in smaller companies like Colorado Ballet or Nashville Ballet, where they have more opportunity to rise through the ranks and enjoy soloist and principal roles.

If you do choose school, maintain your focus. College is an exciting time full of new friends and experiences, but if you want to compete for a contract when you're finished, you have to dance as much as a professional, even if that means seeking out classes and dance opportunities off campus. "You have to quiet all the noise that covers up a clear view of ballet and the fact that it's what you want to do," says Wroth.

BA or BFA? 

When choosing a dance program, find one that supports your long-term goals both artistically and academically. At Mercyhurst, many of Hunter's students want to "make it count" by pursuing a double major. The school has adapted its BA program to better accommodate them. "The BA program can produce professional dancers," says Hunter. "However, it also offers an opportunity for the student to pursue other interests."

For Wroth, her BS at IU allowed her to major in dance while focusing on education studies as an outside field. The benefit was never more evident than when she had major back surgery last year. "I will always have the empowerment that a degree gives, of knowing that I could do something else."

Meanwhile, BFA programs are structured more like a traditional dance conservatory, with the intent of producing professional dancers and choreographers. They generally require more dance credits than BA programs. Hunter says that it is possible to have another major in Mercyhurst's BFA program, but warns that it's a challenging and more expensive pursuit that spreads some students too thin.

Whatever you decide, move forward confidently. "Leave yourself open to every option," says Mazzarelli. "You never know where you'll end up."

Ballet Training
From comp kid to soloist: Boston Ballet's Dusty Button. Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

Boston Ballet soloist Dusty Button owes much of her success to the fast-paced world of dance competitions. In her early years, she competed in jazz and contemporary, and her first Youth America Grand Prix win landed her a spot at American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, which led to a contract with ABT Studio Company.

But less than two months later, Button made an unexpected move for a dancer on the verge of a professional career. She enrolled at The Royal Ballet School. Once there, she found the environment a stark contrast from the competition-focused training that had initially shaped her. “At the school, they would call me 'bull in a china shop' because I could technically do anything they asked, but I didn't do it gracefully," she says. “I learned how to refine my technique. They teach you how to do a single pirouette well before you learn how to do five."

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