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Warp-Speed Ballet

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Studio’s revved-up barre leaves students gasping—and loving it

By Karen White

Dance teachers take their students through hundreds, maybe thousands, of ballet barres in a lifetime. But how often does a barre end with dancers sweating, panting, gasping—and grinning from ear to ear?

The rapid pace and technical challenge of Clark’s barre exercises leave her students panting for breath. (Photos by Karen White)

They do at Melissa Kelley’s Dance Studio of Braintree, in Massachusetts, every time the school owner, Melissa Kelley Clark, eschews the traditionally calm, reflective, and refined barre combinations for her own heart-pumping creations. She has given her unorthodox approach the gentle name “A New Way to Ballet,” but her advanced dancers have their own variation on it: “Breathe Hard and Die.”

Or, as 15-year-old Rose Thackeray says, “A brilliant idea.”

“I’m not trying to change classical ballet. I love the structure of the class,” says Clark, a 20-year studio owner. “But the problem is I own a dance studio, not a performing-arts high school. Ninety-eight percent [of my students] come to dance as children for a hobby.”

And she finds that people are afraid of ballet. “They feel it is impossible for the average person to do. I want to spread the joy of dance, not obsess about making everyone a prima ballerina. If I did, then I wouldn’t have a job, and there would be one less teacher teaching ballet technique correctly.”

Clark’s “New Way to Ballet” is nothing if not correct technique. There would be no way to keep up with the brutally fast tempo or remember the split-second changes from balançoire to plié relevé to changement to rond de jambe en dehors (and en dedans) to sous-sus—all in the same 32 counts—with less than rock-solid technique.

Because of its cardiovascular impact, her students also call the stepped-up method “cardio barre,” but Clark doesn’t want it confused with the cardio barres she’s seen on DVDs or exercise shows that wrap a few ballet elements such as pliés into a cardio workout. Her method is not for ballet beginners or “want-to-lose-a-few-pounds” couch potatoes. This is classical ballet presented in a peppy, energized format that challenges students’ bodies and engages their minds.

The idea came to Clark last year after guest teaching at another studio. A young male student commented on how much fun he had in her class, but complained that ballet music was boring and the barre too long. That night Clark couldn’t sleep. Finally, at 3:00 a.m., she got up and started working on a new class to teach that young man later that day.

“I knew I could not take the technical discipline out of the picture, but I knew there had to be a way of presenting the same old barre work, but make it new for the dancers,” Clark says.

She started with the music, downloading fast-paced hip-hop, techno, or remixed versions or portions of classics such as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Rossini’s Barber of Seville, or Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. (Seemingly endless options are available on iTunes, she says.) Then she took all the barre exercises—plié, relevé, tendu, degagé, fondu, développé, grand battement, rond de jambe, port de bras, and frappé—and mixed them into a series of five combinations, using all directions and multiple reverses. The result is a barre that has students visibly panting by the second combination, with three whirlwind combos to go.

“Are your calves OK?” Clark asks one day, after fondu extensions mixed with rapid-fire frappés. The students grin and grimace. The music begins again, and they’re off and running into a killer of a stretch combo, then a finale filled with tendus and cambrés and back attitude balances (for 20 counts!).

“I want to spread the joy of dance, not obsess about making everyone a prima ballerina.” —Melissa Kelley Clark

“Are your legs shaking?” Clark asks cheerfully. The girls nod, seemingly unable to talk. One’s tongue is hanging out. “There,” Clark says. “I’ve done my job!” Because the barre hits so many exercises in each combination, her dancers whip through it in a little over a half-hour. After only a few minutes of downtime as they put away the barres, they’re ready to go on with class.

Despite the girls’ obvious exhaustion, they are ecstatic. “I love it. It’s lots faster, so it’s lots harder,” says Chantal Loreth, 19, a dance major at Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts. “It’s difficult to keep your body in correct placement, so it challenges your technique.”

“If your heart’s not pumping out of your chest, you’re slacking,” Katie Shiels, 23, says. “I really feel [muscle ache] more the day after these classes. But I love them—they get you pumped up.”

Cheryl McIntyre, 22, was introduced to the “new way” for the first time at a summer class. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “I can really see how this would help with stamina. It was such a good workout—I’d like to do this class once a week.”

Clark pulls out her “new way” barre about once or twice a month, whenever she feels a pepper-upper is needed. Other than minor tweaks, she keeps the combinations the same for the entire school year so the students can memorize them. She limits the barre to intermediate and advanced ballet dancers, making it a bit easier for her intermediate classes. Since the barre jumps right in at full speed, the students need to be warmed up before they begin.

With such a good response from her dancers, Clark has used her method in other areas of her ballet class as well. At a class last summer, upbeat versions of the Aaron Copland music used in Rodeo pumped as the girls launched into saut de chats, grand jetés, and tour jetés from the two corners—one right after another, no waiting allowed. Pachebel’s Canon in D played as the students flew through the eight positions of the body (especially fun for her younger intermediate students, Clark says).

Turns, moving steps such as pas de chat, ballon exercises such as cabriole—almost any part of ballet class can be revitalized by using teen-friendly versions of ballet standards, she says, as long as the combinations are kept simple and make use of fast-paced repetition. Beware of using too many steps—if the students have to stop and think, it defeats the purpose.

Since creating her new barre method, Clark has seen a huge improvement in her students’ overall stamina as well as their ability to perform petit allegro. It’s helped them in other dance classes as well, such as hip-hop and tap, where fast movement is a prerequisite. They also—and this is a biggie, she says—look forward to barre. “Kids come in now asking for this class,” she says.

Clark, who has owned her studio for 20 years and run her ballet company, Braintree Ballet, for 16, admits she isn’t the first person to set ballet to modern music or to think outside the box about ballet class. For her, this fast-paced approach is a teaching tool that challenges advanced dancers and makes class fun for those not-so-serious dancers who view a ballet barre as an unbearable chore.

Even at her school, where ballet is mandatory, she was tired of hearing, “Oh, she would be bored with ballet” from prospective clients. Even recreational dancers who are not beginners have fun with this approach, Clark says, as long as it is simplified for their level. “This lets them feel like they’re breaking the rules,” she says.

Clark believes that a dance studio’s biggest competition comes not from other studios but from cheerleading and soccer; consequently she is happy to share her discovery with other ballet teachers. At one area convention, she says, the teachers were “smiling and laughing like kids again” as they tried to meet the beat themselves.

“Everything has to start with us first. We have to be motivated to teach,” says Clark, who teaches all the classes for her 150 students herself (aside from the occasional guest teacher). “With this new way, I couldn’t wait to get back in the studio and teach. For me, it has been so much fun.”

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