New York City Ballet principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht on the joys of teaching
By Steve Sucato
New York City Ballet principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht is known for his high-flying jumps and charismatic stage presence. When he is not lighting up stages across the globe with his dancing prowess, he is also a much-sought-after guest teacher whose passion for the craft of ballet and rapport with students has earned him the respect of school directors, students, and fellow teaching professionals alike.
The 28-year-old native of St. Petersburg, Florida, admits to being apprehensive about teaching when he started in 2006. But he says he soon became addicted to the feeling he got when his students succeeded in their lessons.
“I fell in love with the process of breaking down something I do every day as a professional dancer and rediscovering the joy within it, and then seeing a student begin to feel that same joy,” says Ulbricht. “I started to want to collect every opportunity to share that with other dance students.”
Primarily a guest instructor, Ulbricht schedules teaching gigs around his responsibilities at New York City Ballet. He has been a regular guest teacher at the School of American Ballet [SAB] and at the Chautauqua [NY] Institution’s summer School of Dance. He is also artistic advisor at Manhattan Youth Ballet and co-directs (with fellow NYCB principal dancer Jenifer Ringer) the New York State Summer School of the Arts in Saratoga Springs.
Who influenced your teaching approach?
I have several mentors who influenced me, the first being my first ballet teacher, Leonard Holmes. He made dance so approachable for me by breaking down many traditional barriers to taking ballet, which made me want to dive into it. I was 11 and my first ballet class was taken in shorts, a hoodie, and a baseball cap; I didn’t have to put on the usual tights and such. He also initially made it more about the athleticism and less about the artistry, which appealed to me. He presented taking dance as another form of being an athlete, like a baseball or basketball player.
What else did you learn from him?
He had a way of “dangling the carrot” for the fun steps. He knew which steps I would be excited by and which ones I could execute, as well as what point to introduce them to me. He created a sense of anticipation in me about what we were going to do next by hinting about the fun steps we were going to do but then requiring me to learn the framework of those steps first. He was the first teacher who taught me to love dancing, which is probably one of the most important seeds that can be planted in a dance student.
My second teacher, Javier Dubrocq [whom Ulbricht took private lessons with from ages 12 to 14 in Sarasota, Florida] taught me discipline and respect for the craft. When I was at the School of American Ballet, Peter Boal [then a principal dancer with NYCB] had a way of making us students feel important in his classes. He had a teaching style that mixed articulating steps verbally with physically showing them, which I found to be very effective.
Another one was Michael Vernon, whom I met while attending the Chautauqua Institution’s summer School of Dance. He created a very positive environment in his classes that made you want to work. In that environment he would let you work out kinks in your technique on your own and would be ready to jump in if you needed it. That is important because even though ballet is a learned technique it is also a learned motor skill. It’s like swinging a golf club. You have to develop in your body the right rhythm to execute it properly.
Do you teach a particular ballet technique?
I teach a hybrid between the very strict Cuban classical style I was first exposed to as a student in Florida and the Balanchine style I studied at SAB. It is a great hybrid because the classical training gives you a very solid structure along with the strength and coordination that always goes with that, whereas the Balanchine style is more of an aesthetic, line-based style that has a greater sensitivity to the music, which I think makes classical technique come to life.
Do you have a philosophy about teaching ballet?
Technique always comes first. Other things like musicality and performance quality follow closely. I think a healthy teaching environment is also paramount. For me, the students dictate how I need to approach a class. I could go into a classroom with a piece of paper with all the combinations on it, but I think what sets a really good teacher apart is the ability to adapt.
I may come into a class with an agenda, but I try to be flexible, especially in articulating steps and making them clear to students. For one student I may say, “Watch your alignment”; for another I may have to be more specific and say, “Your hips have to be here,” or for another I may say, “Imagine your shoulders are on a hanger.”
“A good teacher gave class. A great teacher taught me something that made me a different dancer. A good teacher will tell you what to do; a great one will show you how to do it.” —Daniel Ulbricht
It isn’t a textbook that is teaching students ballet technique; it comes from a person, and I would like to think my abilities, passion, and fire to teach ballet technique and describe steps can help light a fire within a student to want to learn even more.
What kind of teacher are you in class?
I like to be on my feet, move around the studio. I try to make my classes fun, but I am also scrutinizing my students’ technique. I want them to feel comfortable in pushing forward in their dancing, but I also don’t want to let them get away with bad habits. I think I bring an up-to-date knowledge of what is going on in the dance world to my teaching that students really respond to.
Some teachers make analogies to things like food to describe or relate ways of moving or the quality of a movement. Do you use anything similar in your teaching vocabulary?
I use driving metaphors a lot. I may tell a student dance is like driving; you have to have a sense of where you are going. Or to emphasize being focused, I might equate that to keeping your eyes on the road. Others I use are relating the execution of a plié to the way you apply pressure to the gas and brake pedals and the way a student holds their arms to holding a steering wheel. I tell them, “If you let your arms go limp you might be able to steer, but you are not going to have the same level of control.” The choice of metaphors I use also depends a lot on the age of the students I am teaching. I try to draw on as many familiar things to each age group as I can in my teaching vocabulary.
Do you use props or visual aids when you teach?
You have to be creative in class. I may put a dollar bill just outside the reach of a student, making them have to extend a part of their body to retrieve it. I have also used a pencil between a student’s fingers to show the separation needed to finish off the line, and I have also given a student my iPhone to hold while they dance. The fear of dropping the phone helps engage them in not dropping their arms and supporting structure. I use props depending on what I want to achieve, but you also don’t want to overdo it and turn into a prop comedian like Carrot Top [red-haired comic Scott Thompson].
Do you wear anything particular when you teach?
I do have a pair of character shoes I teach in, but I could really wear anything. Put me in fishing boots and I would still try to teach. It is important to me, however, to have a clean and professional look that is respectful to my craft. I also don’t want to blend in with my students and look like I am taking class instead of teaching it.
For you as a student, what was the difference between a good teacher and a great one?
A good teacher gave class. A great teacher taught me something that made me a different dancer. A good teacher will tell you what to do; a great one will show you how to do it. The showing can come in many forms. I have found that great teachers are the ones who don’t give up on teaching a step even if they think the student is not getting it. Instead they think of alternate ways to get their message across.
Also, a great teacher will try to acknowledge every student in their classroom and really knows how to get the entire classroom moving while maintaining a rhythm and pace that keep everyone engaged.
What do you think is the most important thing a teacher can impart to a student?
Honesty in their assessment of the dancing. Being encouraging but honest about how they are progressing and what they need to work on. You have to be both an optimist and a realist with students. So many teachers these days are afraid of losing students by saying something they may not want to hear. Sometimes, though, students have to know the truth to fix what is wrong.
Do you see a dance school of your own in your future?
I don’t know yet. I think it depends on how long I dance and where I end up. It is “in the cards,” so to speak, but I am also very interested in being a director and producer. [He currently directs and produces dance performances for his pickup troupe, Daniel Ulbricht & Friends.] When my dancing days are over I want to know I have explored everything possible with my career. It is kind of like being a professional baseball player—when your playing career is over, there are other areas in the sport, such as coaching, managing, or scouting, you can go into.
What has given you the most fulfillment in your teaching career so far?
One thing is when a student gets a job [as a dancer]. It is a very special thing to be instrumental in someone’s training career. You are one component of their hard work. And to have them go from being your student to a colleague is pretty amazing. One example of a student of mine is Jordan Leeper. He came from a difficult family situation and grew up in Jamestown, New York, a town with not many opportunities to pursue a professional career in dance. But he put in the work and followed his dreams and now is with North Carolina Dance Theatre.
Another thing is when a former student wants to keep in touch with you and for you to take them under your wing. They trust in you and your abilities as a teacher and want to continue that bond going forward. Also, being able to share the stage with my students. Those are times I will never forget, and I hope my students will never forget sharing that experience.
Only a few lucky dancers have natural elevation. Elevation depends on the Achilles tendon, the thigh muscles, the muscles at the back of the knee, and demi-plié. To stretch the Achilles tendon, this is a helpful exercise: stand about a yard away from the barre, facing it with both hands on the barre and the feet in parallel. Then, with both heels on the floor, lean forward. The dancers should feel the Achilles tendon stretching. For soft, controlled landings, a good demi-plié should be developed.
The eyes have it! In order to hold a balance or perform a good pirouette, dancers should focus their eyes on a spot. To show a sense of style in classical ballet, the eyes should follow a hand in port de bras. Looking down has the effect of losing communication with the audience. This is a most important aspect of performance. Whether the dancers are gazing at each other in a pas de deux or expressing sadness, happiness, or horror, the eyes tell it all.
Teacher and artistic director, Tallahassee Dance Academy, Tallahassee, Florida
NOMINATED BY: Melinda Allen, owner of Tallahassee Dance Academy: “Cricket is dedicated to the arts and does whatever is needed for the students, whether it is finding scholarships, housing them, helping them find jobs, fund-raising, making their costumes, or helping them with their performance. She is not just their teacher; she is their role model. She has taught them dance and how to be a successful, confident person. At TDA she has been my right arm and through the years has become my dearest friend. Cricket’s energy and love for ballet have helped the studio to be the successful business it is today.”
YEARS TEACHING: 26 years
AGES TAUGHT: Fifth-graders–adults
GENRES TAUGHT: Pointe, ballet, and lyrical
WHY SHE CHOSE TEACHING AS A CAREER: I didn’t grow up thinking about teaching dance as a career. Dance to me has been an inclusive art form and a vehicle for making the world a better place. As a performer, I strived to engage my audiences as well as my fellow dancers. As costumer for Florida State University School of Dance, for me, creating costumes was an element of completing the holistic beauty of dance. When I began to teach I realized I could share the knowledge and passion I have for dance.
HER GREATEST INSPIRATIONS: In third grade I fell in love with Rudolf Nureyev. My dance instructor showed our class a film of him, and all I could think about was how could I perform like him. He had the greatest passion onstage of anyone I had ever seen—not to mention his tremendous leaps! Also, Nancy Smith Fichter, the chair of the FSU dance department. Even though I graduated more than 25 years ago, she is still a key factor in my life. And my boss, Melinda Allen, for giving me a wonderful studio to call home. And my constant inspiration is God. Every day I give Him thanks and praise for allowing me to live my passion and for granting me the strength to continue.
TEACHING PHILOSOPHY: There is nothing stronger than the combination of discipline and passion—with the correct balance, you can achieve anything. As a teacher, every day I strive to gain new knowledge to pass on to my students. I try to keep up with the latest trends in dance, music, technique, muscle conditioning, and nutrition.
WHAT MAKES HER A GOOD TEACHER: Growing up in Tampa, Florida, I had the opportunity to take from many great teachers. My favorite was Frank Rey and his partner, Richard Rader. I model my teaching skills on what I learned from them. They believed that dance’s discipline was not to just be pretty onstage, but to engage the audience and to always have self-esteem on- and offstage.
FONDEST TEACHING MEMORY: There is nothing better than watching my dancers come offstage feeling like they gave the performance of their life.
ADVICE TO TEACHERS AND STUDENTS: The sky is the limit. Every day, learn something new. Learn to take and give constructive criticism. And always remember, if you love your job, you will never work a day in your life.
IF SHE WASN’T A DANCE TEACHER: I would find a way to make sure the legacy of dance stays alive in all of our hearts. When I’m not teaching, I’m volunteering, working to create new ways to raise money and awareness of dance in our community. I have served on many boards in order to grant opportunities for all to enjoy the rewards of dance.
DO YOU KNOW A DANCE TEACHER WHO DESERVES TO BE IN THE SPOTLIGHT? Email your nominations to Arisa@rheegold.com or mail them to Arisa White, Dance Studio Life, P.O. Box 2150, Norton, MA 02766. Please include why you think this teacher should be featured, along with his or her contact information.
I realized long ago that ballet involves more than just learning steps. Now that I teach it to young girls, I realize that there is a lot more to learning ballet than I could have imagined as a student. Teaching ballet is about passing down a unique aspect of culture and continuing a long history of movement. From King Louis XIV to Sadler’s Wells and The Royal Ballet to Balanchine, ballet has had a rich life for more than 400 years.
Ballet class is about learning to incorporate the past into daily life. For example, a piece I choreographed for one of my classes, And Life Goes On . . ., has a very nostalgic tone, similar to the atmosphere of a 1930s speakeasy. But describing that to 13- and 14-year-olds who have not studied that part of history proved to be more difficult than I expected.
So one night I searched online for pictures or old photos that carried the essence of the piece: women in long gowns lounging with cigarettes, men in old-fashioned cars, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers doing a graceful ballroom dip. After showing these images to my students, they had a new appreciation for the choreography, some insight into the aesthetic quality I was looking for, and a new perspective on their country’s history.
Often I find that in telling students what kind of feeling each movement should have, I use words that aren’t in their vocabulary yet. For example, I used the word “nostalgic” to describe the tone of And Life Goes On . . . and one girl asked me what it meant. Although it caught me slightly off-guard to realize that the girls might not have the same vocabulary I do, I was more than happy to explain its definition.
This type of situation proves that authority figures of any sort need to have a strong understanding of language, because those listening to us do pick up on its usage. I’ve noticed that many people do not think about what they say beforehand or do not have an appropriate vocabulary to describe something at its essence, and I think this is a shame. The ability to describe a feeling, a piece of art, or a movement in specific terms can be incredibly useful in any mode of life.
My students, who had been lacking in strong classical ballet training, were not as familiar with ballet’s French terminology as they should have been. During the first few months of classes, I found myself explaining the terms (what each step is called, how to spell it, what it means). They now understand the terms much better, but I continue to introduce new terms and steps as we go on. While I do not expect my students to learn to speak French in my class, it is good for them to be exposed to other languages.
Teaching ballet also introduces other subjects such as physics, anatomy, and music. As dancers, we learn to defy gravity when jumping in the air or being lifted in a pas de deux. Pirouettes and tour jetés use specific forces and torque to complete the rotation. Each movement has direction and momentum, and a fair bit of ballet is learning how to coordinate several forces at once. Anatomy is also key: if a student does not know basic muscle and bone structure, how can she know how to use her body effectively? A basic knowledge of music is not necessarily essential but is still heavily relied on in class and most choreography. Students have to learn how to count the phrases and recognize different accents or meters so that their movement will breathe together with the music.
While I am still developing an understanding of the ins and outs of teaching ballet, my students are learning more than they realize. They have begun to better appreciate history, use language more appropriately, understand basic physics and anatomy, and follow music while dancing. And perhaps someday these students will appreciate how much more than steps they gained from ballet class.
By Maureen Janson
When Madame Peff Modelski teaches ballet class, everyone in the studio experiences a dynamic fusion of knowledge, professionalism, and love of the art form. Combining wit and intelligence, Modelski has developed a thorough approach to teaching and coaching that has captivated adult dancers for the past 35 years.
After a lengthy performing career that included dancing with American Ballet Theatre and Metropolitan Opera Ballet and in several Broadway shows, Modelski taught daily advanced classes at Steps on Broadway in New York City for more than 25 years. And she continues to teach and coach professionals in her unique way. From her current base in Chicago, she travels the United States conducting her trademarked PeffPointe© Teacher Training workshops.
Last winter, I talked to her after an advanced ballet technique class at Chicago’s Visceral Dance Center.
What led you into teaching?
I was a good dancer in my prime and I was demonstrating class for Nenette Charisse in New York. Very often somebody would say, “I don’t know how to do that,” and she’d say, “Peff, explain what you’re doing.” When she fell and broke her collarbone, she and the management of Steps asked me if I would fill in for her classes until she returned, and that’s what I did. Then they asked me to do some other classes, and it escalated from there. When [Charisse] finally retired from Steps, they had given me another class to teach and I began to develop my own ways of doing things.
And from that, you developed your PeffPointe Teacher Training workshops. Tell me about those.
I organize the workshops in the sequence of a ballet class as I teach it. We have discussions about different ways to approach things, how people learn, what provides a learning environment in which you can take enough time. Learning takes time. That’s the thing that makes it so valuable.
What do you mean when you say “how people learn”?
They learn by seeing, by feeling, or by hearing. One of those ways is primary [for each person], and the other two kick in after that. With one dancer I can say something and get a result, and another one, I just have to make a gesture and there’s an acknowledgment. With another, I may have to take her and physically move her.
It’s important to teach for people who can see, people who can feel, and people who can hear. I don’t just teach the way I am as a learner, because it isn’t fair. It leaves out two-thirds of the class.
In your class today, you used an anatomical approach to teaching. Do you incorporate that into your workshops too?
In the teacher trainings we discuss the construction of the foot, how the knee works, how the hip works and its relationship to the lower back, how the spine works, how the shoulders work, how the head works. And we explore those in terms of ballet, then take a closer look at pirouettes, jumps, développés, stretching, and pointe work.
We talk about the specifics of the establishment of balance, the use of the eyes, the whole vestibular system. We look at what the actual pattern and pathway is of the feet and the hands in every position and step.
In the training and in my teaching, I am very specific in what I say. There is never a “whatever.” I believe that everything counts all the time—every word, every facial expression, every response. That is what the dancers are receiving. Children in particular are sponges, sometimes more than we want them to be.
You teach adults, but do most of the teachers who come to your workshops teach children?
Yes, and so we talk about when in the syllabus it is appropriate to start jumping, when it’s appropriate to start doing long relevés, because of the delicacy of the growth tissue in the feet. I think teachers should have a chart that says a 6-year-old can remember this much and do this much physically in their bodies, a 12-year-old can do this much, and if you can edge it till they’re 14 to put them on pointe, it’s going to be easier.
But the world wants quick displays. So there’s a fine line between teaching the best way that you know you can and running a business. Teachers now have to figure out how to expand the teaching in such a way that the kids get what they need and the parents are satisfied.
Do you ever cover topics other than teaching?
Sometimes, if given the time, we can explore studio issues, behavioral issues, or kids with special needs like ADHD. We also talk about how to take care of yourself as a teacher. Many teachers come with very sore legs and lower backs.
What would you say to those teachers?
You have to do some kind of warm-up for yourself, something that works for you, whether it’s a little bit of Pilates or yoga or breathing. Put the computer down; do your accounts later on. Do something that prepares you for the whole day as a whole you.
Then, in every single class, change your shoes. Keep changing them. A change of shoes, specifically heel height and padding, gives the feet and the whole body enough change of position to avoid exhaustion and deterioration.
Stop demonstrating for every single combination. Do it with the students the first time, then let them do the work. Many teachers demonstrate everything and they are shouting and yelling on top of it, so they’re pouring themselves into the studio all day long. I don’t think a teacher has to prove anything. I think a teacher has to teach.
How do you address issues like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?
I’ve learned not to be judgmental about what people need in order to take care of themselves. When the brain is affected by ADHD, the body needs a great deal of organized movement, not itinerant, uncoordinated movement, in order to calm down.
One of the things you can do for someone who has a hard time standing still at the barre is to have them sit with a weighted blanket on their laps or around their shoulders for a few minutes before they start class. It has been proven now in therapy for kids with ADHD that the blanket helps release an endorphin in the brain that relaxes people. So you give them the gift of time with a weighted blanket to calm down. After several times, they will come into the studio and take the blanket for themselves.
Can your teacher workshops help those who teach dance forms other than ballet?
When you are teaching dancing, you are still teaching that the first relationship is the contact of the feet to the floor. I don’t care whether you are teaching tap, flamenco, circus tightrope walking, or modern. It’s universal. So you ask, “How does the foot work, how can you make it work better, how can you keep it safe? What parts of it can’t do things that you’re asking it to do? What parts of it can?” And then you work on how to incorporate the rest of your body into that.
How do you approach your coaching work?
I always start with a series of questions: “What’s the easiest part of this variation? And what’s the part you like the best?” They’re not always the same. And then, “What’s the hardest part?” And the dancer will show me what the hardest part is and sometimes we’ll troubleshoot how they’re going into the movement, the way they’re coming out, or what they’re doing with themselves to try to maintain something. And then how we link it, from the easy part to the hard part.
How do you bridge those gaps?
Hopefully the link is where my knowledge helps. I ask what has to happen in that moment to make the hard part easier. I take apart the initiation of movement. In other words, what are you physically doing just before you start to physically move? What are you thinking? How are you breathing? What is it that you intend to do first? Are you lifting or pushing? And once the dancers are familiar with my language, after three or four hours they start to say, “Oh, I was lifting!” or “Oh, I wasn’t pushing,” or “I went backward instead of forward.”
I always ask the dancers, particularly the pros, because nobody ever does, “How does it feel?” If they say, “It feels like I know I can do it,” I ask, “Can you do it again? Do it the way you want to do it now. Let’s run it and see what happens and how you are able to make your decisions turn out to be your own variation and not my take on it.” After a while, it has to be theirs.
You mentioned troubleshooting in both your classes and coaching sessions. What do you look for when you troubleshoot?
When I troubleshoot I look at how the feet land on the floor, and then I look at the eyes. I’m looking at where they are in relation to the place right underneath the anklebone that takes two-thirds of the body weight. If the eye is over that, you’ve got your balance, so you’re probably going to already feel that. If you’ve been looking at the mirror doing a tour jeté and landing backward, then the eyes are not over the feet, so you’re going to fall backward.
You also developed PeffPointe© Pointe Training. Tell me about that.
The thing about pointework is that it’s the very top of the profession; it’s the most elite part. The shoes are satin, you are creating an illusion, and it should be silent. That means there’s an awful lot you need to know.
The first thing I do is look at the feet, then I look at the shoes, and I look at how the shoes are worn, and I can get a pretty good idea of how an entire figure thinks it’s going to stand on that and be able to do something without losing its balance. Then we have to talk about how the foot works, what the technical level is, how they transfer their weight, and how they’ve been taught to go from flat to pointe for relevés, and from one foot to the other for piqués.
I’m looking at what they are doing physically, but I’m also looking at the quality, and if that’s not there they can’t dance in the shoes; they can only clomp around.
How do you help someone who doesn’t have the quality? Or do you just say it’s probably better to go back to class and not work on pointe?
It depends. If I’m working with a dancer who has had very bad training, I look at the shoes and first make sure they are tied properly so that at least the shoe and the foot go together. Then we work on how to step onto the shoes and how the rest of the body can feel supported. I try to help them find some comfort level to start with so the brain can relax a bit. And then I try to get them to move so they have a sense of that and a sense of ownership.
What are some of the most important things for young teachers to know?
I think teachers get so little feedback about the quality of their teaching, except after the fact. And so they need to learn to recognize when they’ve been successful day to day.
Teachers should take all the time they need. What a phenomenal responsibility it is to be a teacher! We take people out of their ordinary lives and give them a moment that is a little more beautiful to take with them for the rest of their lives.
Stephanie Herman, a former ballerina and longtime teacher, will be holding a “Barre Ballet Workshop” on March 27 from 1 to 2:30pm at Oshman Jewish Community Center, Palo Alto, California.
Herman will teach participants how to build a strong and flexible body from the inside out by learning to focus awareness on the mind/body connection. The exercises help to fine-tune muscles, create better alignment in daily movement patterns, prevent injury, and invigorate the mind.
A principal ballerina at 19, Herman danced for George Balanchine, Alvin Ailey, and Martha Graham and has worked with Julio Horvath, creator of Gyrotonics, and Carola Trier, a direct disciple of Joseph Pilates. She is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine and is the creator of the Dance with Me DVD series.
Cost is $15 for center members, and $25 for non-members. Center members can bring a non-member friend and receive $5 off. Contact Herman at email@example.com or 650.328.4909 with questions. For a full list of workshops/classes, visit www.stephaniehermanstyle.com.
Some young children find skipping very difficult while others just naturally perform the movement. To help those who struggle with it, teach them to march, lifting the foot with the toes pointed and the knee facing forward. Progress to three marches with a hop on four. Some children find it possible to skip once they’ve mastered marching and hopping on one foot.
Another way to help children learn to skip is to teach hops on one foot with the other foot lifted to the knee. To help with balance, have the children take partners. One child stands still while the other performs the hop, then they change roles.
Skidmore-based summer program finds a new home at Mount Holyoke—and keeps on making memories
By Karen White
In a spacious dance studio at Mount Holyoke College, a class is in the able hands of Viktor Lytvynov, a ballet teacher and company director from Kiev, Ukraine. But Mireille Briane just can’t help herself. “A little lighter—bounce!” she calls out to the aspiring ballerinas from her seat on the side. “Croisé, croisé!” She strides among the moving bodies, chooses one, and fixes some fingers. She no sooner retires to her seat than she’s up again, this time adjusting a head. Lytvynov waits and smiles. There’s just no way to keep this teacher in her seat.
There’s also no way to stop Briansky Ballet Center, the summer intensive program Briane and her husband, Oleg Briansky, founded 45 years ago at Skidmore College in Saratoga, New York, under the name Briansky Saratoga Ballet Center. In 2006 it appeared that the couple—respected throughout the dance world as teachers and accomplished professional dancers—planned to close the curtain and take a well-deserved rest. But those rumors of retirement were, apparently, premature. After a one-year break in 2009, the program has re-emerged in a new home, Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
What happened? “I don’t believe in retirement,” says Briansky. “You retire if you have no energy left and nothing to contribute to society. My wife and I have worked all our lives. As long as we have the energy, the will, and the desire to continue, we will.”
Standing against the barre in a sunlit studio, he tells of receiving cards and emails from friends and former students praising the program and begging for its return. But Skidmore had expanded its summer programming and the Brianskys’ old space was no longer available. The couple began researching other New York colleges, and then, on the advice of a friend, broadened their search to Massachusetts, settling on this quintessential, red brick, New England–style campus.
“We love it here,” Briansky says of Mount Holyoke. “There are lovely dorms, state-of-the-art studios, and the nature is lush and verdant. Everything is so green; the trees are beautiful.” Briane chimes in, telling of the stream with a waterfall that runs through campus, populated by ducks and one “mother” goose. But it wasn’t only the setting that attracted the Brianskys. The encapsulated campus is only steps from the dorm, allowing for close supervision of the dancers, ages 10 through teens.
The sports and dance complex, with two dance studios and a theater, also has a swimming pool, and the Brianskys make sure the dancers have scheduled swim time every day to work out aching muscles and help their bodies recuperate from the hours of daily dance class and rehearsal. “It’s an intense program. Some are not used to it,” Briansky says. “We want them to at least put their feet in the water.”
As Ann Dylewski of Suffield, Connecticut, mother of dancer Emily, 13, says, “The girls who swim aren’t the girls looking for ice.”
“Intense” also describes the Brianskys’ approach to their performing careers. By the 1950s, Briansky was performing with Ballet des Champs-Élysées, Ballet de Paris, London Festival Ballet, and New York Metropolitan Opera Ballet, partnering top ballerinas such as Margot Fonteyn, Maria Tallchief, and Violette Verdy. By age 16, Briane was a principal dancer at the Grand Theatre of Bordeaux, France, and also danced with Ballets de Paris and London Festival Ballet.
When severe arthritis struck down Briansky’s rising star, he turned his attentions elsewhere in dance. His wide-ranging resume includes judging at the Prix de Lausanne and other competitions, serving as associate artistic director of the Ballet de Rio de Janeiro, artistic and art director for the documentary film Children of Theatre Street, and translating ballet books such as the Vaganova textbook 100 Lessons in Classical Ballet. As a guest teacher at festivals, Briansky taught and directed principal dancers from major companies such as New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and Boston Ballet. For a short time he served on the faculty at the School of American Ballet, and many of his summer intensive students have gone on to professional ballet careers.
Briane created a year-long series of educational ballet programs for Britain’s Independent Radio Television, led her own ballet school in London, and taught at the School of American Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the Alvin Ailey school. From 1994 to 2006, the couple directed the Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
And, of course, there was Briansky Saratoga Ballet Center. From its inception in 1965 (when it was one of the first summer intensives) until 2008, the program attracted top teachers such as Peter Martins and pre-professional students such as Marianna Tcherkassky, later a former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, and Katita Waldo, a longtime principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and now a ballet master there. Briansky says students hailed from Japan, Morocco, the former Czechoslovakia, Italy, Spain, Costa Rica, Brazil, Colombia, and Canada. For the program’s grand 40th anniversary in 2005, well-wishes were sent from dance luminaries such as Leslie Caron, Clive Barnes, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Natalia Makarova.
The program had “a long and wonderful history” at Skidmore, says Sharon Arpey, director of institutes, conferences, and summer operations at the college. But officials at Skidmore were under the impression that the Brianskys planned to retire after the summer of 2008. With the arrival of a new dean of special programs in 2005, and the college’s decision to make dance an academic department, its own summertime dance offerings were expanding.
News that the couple planned to continue the program at Mount Holyoke took Skidmore officials by surprise, Arpey says, adding that they wished the Brianskys continued success.
“The Brianskys are really hands-on. They come to class and connect with every student. And all the kids are very motivated.” —student Dora Novak
Arrangements with Mount Holyoke were not finalized until January 2010, too late to do much promotion for the summer program, Briansky says. Enrollment for the first two weeks was small (about 17), but by the third week roughly 50 dancers were taking class from Lytvynov, artistic director of the Kiev Ballet of the National Opera of Ukraine; Alexandra Gonzalez, a dancer with Ballet Hispanico; and Jessica Hilf Greenlaw of Orange School of Performing Arts in Virginia. Ninety students attended all or part of the four-week program, but Briansky expects the number to return to previous enrollment levels. (At Saratoga, 100 to 180 students attended each summer.)
With three teachers handling classes in ballet, pointe, and Broadway-style jazz, plus logistical details to tend to (such as meeting with the health inspector), Briansky and Briane are not teaching—at least not officially. In one class students go over some Briansky choreography they are preparing for a demonstration showcase on the final day, and he can’t resist a comment or two. Briane fusses over the dancers—every time one group exits after a combination, she straightens a shoulder or demonstrates where a gaze should fall before sending them back out on the floor.
Gonzalez doesn’t mind the interruptions. “They have so much knowledge; I learn from them every day, either something about ballet or the people they talk about,” she says. “They are demanding, but it’s a good thing. They take this job very seriously, and these students are very well trained.”
This one-on-one attention has kept Dora Novak, 21, of Des Moines, Iowa, coming back. She first attended the program at 12, and in 2008 she became a counselor, taking class herself but also mentoring and supervising younger girls. “The Brianskys are really hands-on. They come to class and connect with every student,” she says. “And all the kids are very motivated. A lot want to be dancers, but even those who don’t [plan to dance professionally] enjoy learning this level of technique.”
The in-class atmosphere is strictly professional—perfect hair, leotards colored by levels, and 100 percent attention. Briane insists on live music, and smiling pianists play the grand pianos that sit in a corner in both ballet studios. There’s an international flair in the air, as Briansky discusses a point with Lytvynov in Russian, or notes are given to the Brazilian students in Portuguese. “We speak so many languages,” Briansky says, “that I don’t know sometimes which one I am speaking!”
Later at lunch, a group of dancers ages 11 to 17 all nod when asked if they want to be professional dancers. “I want to be one, but not full-time,” says Veronica Kelegian, 11, of Manhattan. “I also want to be a veterinarian.”
The girls are “exhausted and sore,” according to Gabrielle Rerra, 13, of Longmeadow, Massachusetts. The daily schedule includes class from 9:30 to 11:30 A.M. and from 2:30 to 5:30 P.M., with a one-and-a-half or two-hour rehearsal at night. But they’ve also improved, they say—in particular, they mention turnout, posture, and strength—and learned a lot from Briansky and Briane. “They are strict, but you improve a lot in a few days,” Hannah Babb, 12, of Grafton, Massachusetts, says.
“I think [the program is] special—they’ve been around a long time,” says Natalia Kurpiel, 14, of Dudley, Massachusetts. “I will remember the Brianskys and how they wanted to teach us everything.”
While teaching solid ballet technique has always been the focus of the summer program, Briansky says, “we are committed to developing more than just technical abilities.” Instilling discipline and respect for ballet training is paramount. He says he and his wife have always loved children, and they seek to develop character and self-confidence in their students by showing “interest in them as people more than just dancers.”
Their approach works. “I see a big improvement in attitude with the little girls,” says Maria-Luisa Noronha. “They look at the work differently, and make progress.” Noronha, director of Escola Estadual de Dança Maria Olenewa, a school in Brazil, started bringing her students to the program about 20 years ago. Last summer she was back again with 40 Brazilian dancers, some older pre-professionals and some “little girls” who dance for fun. Years ago she taught with the Brianskys at Saratoga, and while the program’s location has changed, Noronha sees “the same quality and caring and professionalism.”
Away from the ballet barre, there is plenty of fun. The Brianskys lead weekend trips to Jacob’s Pillow to see Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal or to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center to see New York City Ballet. Gemze deLappe dropped in one evening and regaled the girls with stories of Agnes de Mille and Oklahoma! Two Swiss students “roasted” the counselors and were the hit of an informal talent show. The college’s track-and-field area makes a perfect setting for the “Briansky Olympics.”
Veronica’s mother, Ludmila Kelegian, calls it “a great experience. They see the older ballet girls and look up to them,” she says. “They all cry when some leave. I think these girls will be friends for some time.”
Back when arthritis forced Briansky off the stage, it was “a shock. I could dance one day, then other days I was in so much pain I could hardly walk,” he says. “Mr. [George] Balanchine wanted me to join his company, and I told him I couldn’t. I wasn’t thinking of becoming a teacher, but I think it’s natural for dancers to become teachers. It’s an extension of the profession.”
That’s why, on the first day of the Briansky summer program, the teachers always introduce themselves and talk about their dance backgrounds. “You can’t go to ballet class and do a few battements and not know who your teacher is,” Briansky says. “You have to remember your teachers. It’s an important part of the art form. It’s an important part of life.”
And as teachers, Briansky and Briane are remembered. The two Swiss students’ teacher at home attended the Briansky program, and every year sends a few of her students to it. And the couple still receives letters from students from 25 years ago, who speak of the imprint the couple made on their lives.
With such an impact on young dancers, how could they close the program and retire? “I never said retire,” Briansky says. “It’s against my religion.”
Tina LeBlanc discusses her first year as a full-time ballet teacher at San Francisco Ballet School
Tina LeBlanc, a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet for 17 years, retired at the end of the 2009 season and accepted a position on the teaching staff at San Francisco Ballet School. She teaches Levels 3 (ages 10 to 11) and 7 and 8 (ages 15 to 19)—all girls, unless the boys join them for a combined class). Monday through Saturday, she teaches two classes a day (three in the summer). Dance Studio Life interviewed her last May, near the end of her first year, to find out what she’d learned about teaching—and herself.
When did you first start thinking about teaching?
I started talking to Helgi [Tomasson, artistic director of San Francisco Ballet] about going into the school in 2002, but I always knew I would teach, ever since I was a kid. I taught as a student at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and enjoyed it. And when I was dancing I always taught. While I was in New York [with The Joffrey Ballet] I taught in CPYB’s summer program, and I did some guest teaching.
I’m passionate about the art form, and my love for it has grown as I’ve matured. I’ve realized that more is always possible, and once you know that, it’s like opening a door. I wish I had taught more while I was dancing—you learn a lot about your body and body mechanics. I think all dancers should try their hand at teaching while they are still dancing so that they can further their understanding of their own technique and better view the whole picture. Some dancers might be intimidated by that role, but they should trust themselves. Professional dancers know more than they think.
Why did you choose teaching over becoming a ballet master?
Teaching allows me to be home in the evenings with my family. And as a teacher I get to do both [teaching and coaching], since I do some coaching for the SFB School Showcase. This year the upper-level students [did] excerpts from The Sleeping Beauty and an improv piece by a Canadian choreographer, Shaun Amyot. Classical ballet is a language I understand. The improv piece is harder because it’s freer; I have to interpret what the choreographer intends. It’s harder to correct because there is no right and wrong and it’s different every time it’s done. It’s very much in the moment.
How is full-time teaching different from doing it occasionally?
I think I’m still in the honeymoon period, but I prefer teaching consistently because I see the kids implement what they’ve learned. I see the rewards.
With the Level 3 kids, it’s fascinating to see where they’ve come from. They take class three times a week, so their progress is slower compared to the advanced kids. And SFB School doesn’t offer a summer program for this age group, so they take the summer off. It’s been wonderful to watch them turn into little dancers. They’re not perfect or consistent, but there’s been so much improvement. It’s very interesting to see the ones whose parents I thought were wasting their money—now I say, “Hey, that was good!” There is this one little girl who was a real marshmallow, and now she’s slimmed down and can hold herself well at the barre.
It’s the ones who blossom later that fascinate me. All those times you say, “Pull in your stomach, pull in your stomach!” and then finally they do it. It’s so interesting the way different people’s minds and bodies work. I had a friend who was a real “doe”—skinny legs, very weak—and then she blossomed and became a principal dancer in a company outside of the United States.
Now that I’m not dancing, I’m not so self-involved when I’m teaching. It’s all about [the students].
How would you describe your teaching style?
I concentrate on being purely classical—things like arms and placement. Classical technique is the hardest because it’s so contained. You want the bare, naked, pure classical bones, because then you can do anything. Then you can let go.
What’s your approach like?
Well, the kids aren’t afraid of me. Sometimes I raise my voice, but I want them to have fun and be inspired; I don’t want to stamp them down. With the advanced students, who are so serious, I really try to inspire them. But it’s an art form, not life or death, and they should enjoy it or it’s not worth it. They should explore, push themselves to the max. And they should enjoy the challenge of pushing their bodies and developing artistry; if not, they’re in the wrong business. Or, if they do become dancers, they’ll just get by instead of developing their full potential.
How do you prepare? Do you plan an entire semester?
No, it’s more week by week. The Level 3 class has been an experiment for me, since I’d never taught steps before, only technique. It’s slower than I imagined, and there’s so much repetition. You have to move on before they’ve perfected each step, but you see the refinement over time.
With the upper levels, the changes are more subtle, so it’s harder to see the improvement. But sometimes when I see a student in class next to a lower-level student, I realize how far she’s come.
One thing is always in the back of my mind: when I was in Joffrey II, a ballet master screamed at me, in front of everyone, “When are you going to get that side arm down in arabesque?” I was stunned, and the importance of that moment stays with me and gives me patience with my students.
Have you had to deal with any problems in the classroom?
Yes, and probably not in the best way! Some of the Level 3 girls use class time as a social hour. I pulled two girls out of class once to scold them; I was so frustrated that I needed to address the situation immediately. And I made another girl sit down once. It works because a lot of kids at that age don’t want that kind of spotlight on them. Some issues, like lack of focus, I address with the parents. There have been some kids I thought weren’t really interested, but in their evaluations they said they were. So I told them I need to see that in class.
I’ve seen a big change in the second half of the year. By then the kids are into the rhythm of how to act. They’re improving, and it’s wonderful and fulfilling.
What responsibilities do you have outside of class?
Aside from rehearsals for the Showcase, we have student and parent conferences and we do written evaluations twice a year. We try to help the parents understand where their kids are and, with the older ones, the mind-set of a dancer. I tell the younger ones’ parents how they can help. All the Level 3 kids need to stretch every day, and parents can help at home by reminding them. I really emphasize the importance of stretching.
What do you love about teaching?
Seeing the fruits of my labor, how I can make a difference, and seeing the students succeed. When you see someone grasp something, it’s so fulfilling. It’s not as fulfilling as performing, but it’s less painful!
What’s your biggest challenge as a teacher?
Not getting frustrated with the little ones. I have to stay very patient and not let my moods dictate how class will go. If they leave class feeling weighted down, that’s not good.
Teaching the older kids is hard because they’ve been working a long time with habits like flippy wrists, thumbs that stick up, or straight elbows. So it takes constant reminding about those. I try to help them see or feel things from a different perspective.
For example, instead of thinking about not hyperextending the back, I think about making my abdomen concave. And I’ve always heard the sound effects of my dancing in my head—my feet on the floor, my breathing. I wouldn’t actually hear the sounds, but I’d envision the physicalization of the movement through sound.
You have to try a variety of things until you find what works. I tell the upper-level students to talk to each other about what works for them. Or maybe they’ll figure out a new way that works for them.
What have you learned about teaching from your students?
With my little ones, their progress is slower [than the older kids’], but it’s more obvious. They’re not perfecting steps, they’re learning steps; they’re getting a rhythm into their bodies. But I am surprised at how grown up they are—I don’t dumb down the concepts for them. I tell them the same things I tell my advanced students. And when I first started doing that, I thought, “Oh my God, what are you doing? This is ridiculous.” But they responded.
So they were capable of more than you thought?
Yes! Like understanding being pulled up in the hips—what do you think that would mean to a 10-year-old? You’d think that dancers who have worked with their bodies for seven years might understand that concept better. But these kids understand it; they get it. They’re not consistent, but most of them know what I’m talking about and can do it.
I just throw it all out there and hope that something sticks. At this point, I haven’t been in it long enough to say, “OK, now is the time we go on to this concept, and now is the time we work on this because this is under control.” I don’t have the experience to know when all that’s going to happen.
So you’re taking your cues from them?
Yes. My little ones understand the concepts more readily than complicated steps. If I make something too complicated, it becomes obvious right away. I’ll do the same class for a few days so they can stop thinking about what comes next and start thinking about how they’re doing it. And if something is too complicated, after a few days I’ll know that probably was a wrong turn.
How much do you change a class from week to week?
I try to make subtle differences. Now, at the end of the year, I find that I’m recycling some of my older combinations because of what they gave them—things that used more angles or a different concept, or putting in a plié where there wasn’t one before. For example, if it’s a straight eight, instead of doing four slow tendus, I might mix it up and do one hold and two faster, or do two faster and one hold, or do one with a plié. [That way] they understand how to mix it up and it’s not so frightening for them. It prepares their minds to pick up different things.
Yes, there are so many ways a tendu, for example, can manifest in choreography. How do you know when you can push them in that direction?
Now I give the same class for a week, but in the beginning I gave the same class for two or three weeks because it would take them that long to remember it. Now it’s pretty much week by week, but that’s three classes for [the Level 3 students].
For a while, each first day [of the week] was a nightmare, because even if I gave a similar combination, they had to think differently. But all you have to do is focus on the moment, really. It was hard for me in the beginning; I’d think, “Oh my God, did I go in the wrong direction?” But then the second time they did that same class I’d see a little bit of progress, and then by the third time most of them could do it well.
Right now I’ve been concentrating on the shape of the foot, especially at the beginning of the barre, with the tendus and the degagés. So many of them sickle—they just point and that’s what they feel, and they don’t think about how the foot is getting there. We’ve talked throughout the barre about how exactly we get to the tendu—the heel leads and then the toe leads back—and about the shape of the foot. It’s all about repetition. I’ve said again and again, “If your foot is off the floor, it’s pointed.” Unless it’s choreography, unless I have given something that has a flex in it, if it’s off the floor it is pointed. But I still see them running with flexed feet, or brushing, doing a grand jeté with absolutely no foot line. So it’s all about the repetition and getting them not only to feel the coordination but actually feel their bodies, actually feel the line.
What have you learned about yourself personally in this first year of teaching?
Patience. And it’s mostly with [my Level 3s], because my 7s and 8s are so eager and dedicated that patience doesn’t really come into it. It’s more about demanding that they actually do something.
But with my 3s, I’m realizing that the better I come across in my approach, the more I get out of them. So I push myself constantly to go in each day with encouragement and not get too hard on them. Occasionally I think it’s good for them to hear me say, “No! No, go do it again and do it the way I asked you to. I know you can do it.” Sometimes they need that. But overall, I will get the best response from the class if I remain patient, encouraging, and have a little bit of fun with it.
If you could make a wish for your students, what would it be?
My wish for each of them, whether they make it [as professional dancers] or not, is that they get something vital out of it—how to focus, or maybe just enjoyment; something positive that benefits them for the rest of their lives. Maybe it’s just an appreciation for the art.
I wish dance were more a part of our culture; I wish more kids were able to be a part of it. I look at how much sports are a part of our culture and I think, “Why can’t dance be like that?” Ballet in particular is so hard; it’s such a complete art form—the complete control, the blend of flexibility and strength and artistry. I think a lot more people could benefit if they were exposed to dance.
The Georgia Ballet school has added Theresa Lee Crawford to its teaching faculty for the 2010-2011 academic year.
Crawford is an expert in the ballet syllabus developed by her aunt, Marcia Dale Weary, founder of Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, where Crawford was a permanent faculty member for 12 years.
She will teach ballet classes at the Marietta-based school to students ranging in skill level from beginner to advanced, ages 6-18. She also will launch an intensive program for 8- and 9- year olds, membership in which will be by audition only.
To learn more about the Georgia Ballet school, call 770.528.0881 or visit www.georgiaballet.org.
One of the weakest areas I have seen in students who audition for my summer school is the pirouette. If students cannot balance, they cannot pirouette. Therefore, have them start by balancing on two feet from age 8 or 9, feeling the body centered, then progress to balancing on one foot with the working leg in passé position. Once they have felt their balance, turning will become easier. Of course, the head, turnout, and arms must be synchronized, but the balance is the basis.
The second area that needs work is picking up enchainment (combinations). Set a combination of basic vocabulary: glissade derrière, jeté derrière, and two assemblé over. Repeat this twice and then add one pas de chat, a wait for one count, and then two pas de chat (one count each). Typically, dancers find it difficult to learn and to perform up to tempo, and their glissades have no demi-plié. (They look like poorly performed sissonnes.) The glissade must begin and end with demi-plié and the closing foot must stretch before closing. The combination must flow and keep moving.
Mignon Furman’s summer teacher intensive
Regular readers of Dance Studio Life have come to look for Mignon Furman’s “2 Tips for Teachers” department in every issue. Teachers who want more of Furman’s hard-won wisdom on ballet education have an option this summer: the Teachers Intensive 2010 at Purchase College SUNY.
The program at the Purchase campus, in New York City’s northern suburbs, runs from July 28 to August 2 and is presented by the American Academy of Ballet, which Furman founded and directs. Attendees must be older than 18 and involved in teaching ballet. There’s no registration deadline.
The program’s emphasis is nuts-and-bolts classroom work rather than theory. “I believe that teaching is a practical art that needs a practical approach—whether to a new class of 5-year-olds or to teenagers with stars in their eyes who have other options for their energy,” Furman explains in the program’s brochure.
The classes focus on such topics as classical variation as adapted for young students; postural alignment, turnout, and placement, including transfer of weight; the art and anatomy of port de bras and use of the upper body; and combinations suitable for various ages.
Attendees also will be able to familiarize themselves with the Performance Awards, Furman’s program for student development. “The basic concept is that all students—not only ‘stars’—need acknowledgement for their endeavors, an opportunity to perform a solo dance, and a stimulus to progress,” the program’s brochure explains. Awards ceremonies—at which every child gets a medal and certificate—are held as students, who start at age 5 or 6, advance through the program’s 12 levels.
In addition to getting special instruction in the Performance Awards program, teachers attending the intensive will be able to observe coaching classes for students and a Performance Awards session in which the students dance for an audience.
The faculty, in addition to Furman, includes:
• John Byrne, former artistic director of the Royal Academy of Dance in London.
• Olga Dvorovenko, who teaches the Studio Company of American Ballet Theatre.
• Rhee Gold, publisher of Dance Studio Life and motivational speaker.
• Brian Loftus, former director of dance for the Arts Educational School in London.
• Pamela McCray, a teacher in Virginia and a judge for the American Academy of Ballet Performance Awards.
• Merle Sepel, director of the Academy of Dance in Santa Ana, California, and artistic director of American Pacific Ballet Company.
• Violette Verdy, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet and now a teacher at Indiana University in Bloomington. She joins Furman, Sepel, and Loftus on a panel for a Q&A session on August 1.
Attendance for one or two days involves a fee of $130 per day for affiliates of the Academy of American Ballet—which costs $40 a year—and $150 for non-affiliates. For those attending for three or more days, the fee is $110 for affiliates and $130 for non-affiliates. Teachers’ fees are reduced by 50 percent if five or more of their students attend the American Academy of Ballet’s Summer School of Excellence from June 27 to August 8. Observation of Summer School of Excellence classes costs $60 per day for affiliates and $70 for non-affiliates. The cost of materials—such as CDs, DVDS, and notes—is not included, though these also are cheaper for affiliates.
A limited number of rooms at a reduced rate of $155 per night, including breakfast, have been reserved at the Hilton Rye Town, a 10-minute drive from campus. Also, some double-occupancy dorm rooms are available for $50 per night (for those sharing a room) or $60 otherwise.
For more information, contact Mignon Furman at the American Academy of Ballet, 250 West 90th Street #3A, New York, NY 10024; 212.787.9500; office@american-academy-of-ballet; or american-academy-of-ballet.com.
I am strictly a ballet teacher employed at a professional school in the Midwest. I teach both the company dancers as well as many classes in the children’s program. Although I love working with the company, there is something uniquely rewarding about working with children. Many students at the school will never be ballet dancers but might become strong dancers in another style of dance. I think some of them should be taking jazz or modern classes along with their ballet, and I have told several of them to look for a school that offers those styles. I also tell them to continue taking their ballet classes for a strong foundation.
Last week I was called into the school director’s office, where he scolded me for suggesting that my students should be taking anything other than ballet. He explained that jazz and modern are not recommended by the school and that we can’t afford to send our students to other places. When I told him that we have many students who would never become ballet dancers but who could have a future in another form of dance, he responded that it isn’t our place to tell them that. When I suggested that we add jazz and modern to our curriculum, he wouldn’t hear of it, telling me that we are a “pure” ballet school.
My daughter started taking ballet at this school, but she also took jazz and tap at a local school. Today she is a professional Broadway dancer who would never have found her place in the dance world if we had not been open to all forms of dance.
I called in sick this week because I don’t know if I can continue to teach the children. If I am a real teacher, I should be able to point my students in the direction that best suits their needs. If I don’t, my conscience tells me I am cheating them. Please help me decide what to do. —Michelle
First, thank you so much for writing. I have enormous respect for ballet teachers who appreciate and understand that all dance is created equal.
If it makes you feel better, there are many schools that have strong jazz, modern, or tap programs with children who should be training as serious ballet dancers, but their teachers don’t want to send them to a professional ballet school, either. It seems that guiding a student to another school or certain style of dance that better suits their capabilities is often taboo in our field. That goes across the board with the private sector, professional schools, and even some higher-ed programs. Too bad for all those dancers (especially the children) who never had a chance to discover the form of dance that they are best suited for.
I feel uncomfortable advising you on whether or not you should remain at this school without knowing your financial status or what the potential is to find another teaching position in your area. However, I recommend not making a drastic move until you know where you are going next. Consider remaining at your current school while you send your resume to other schools in your area. You may find that many school owners would love to have a strong ballet teacher who has as much respect for all forms of dance as you do. Or you might want to consider continuing to work with the company dancers while teaching children at another school that appreciates your integrity.
It is teachers like you who inspire me to do what I do. Please let me know what happens. —Rhee
When teaching jumps, tell the students to push the floor away. My teacher always said, “Treat the floor like your worst enemy and it will turn out to be your best friend.”
When teaching springs or sautés to young children, tell them first to bounce with their feet parallel. Then tell them to stretch their feet and legs as they push the floor away. Progress to a turned-out position and show the “window” made by the open knees in first position demi-plié. Reinforce the idea of maintaining a tall body as the dancers spring into the air and as they alight.
The basic vocabulary of ballet jumps includes sauté, changement, glissade, jeté, assemblé, pas de chat, and sissone. These steps should be taught slowly and carefully between the ages of 7 and 10, with continued practice to establish muscle memory so that they perform the steps correctly without having to stop and think. (“Practice makes perfect!”) Emphasize the following concepts:
- The foot never leaves the floor without stretching.
- All springing steps begin and end with a demi-plié.
- For the steps that start with a swish, such as jeté and assemblé, a firm thrust with the working leg gives the impetus for the jump.
A dance teacher with a mission, Elsa Posey gives high marks to accountability and lifelong learning
By Rachel Straus
Elsa Posey’s passion for giving children high-quality dance education comes by way of experiencing the opposite: Her first four years of dance training fell painfully short. Her early instructors, who had backgrounds in vaudeville, made her believe she was preparing for a career in ballet. They also jumpstarted her performance career, including her in military installation shows when she was 9 years old. But when Posey began studying at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School at age 12, she says, “I was told that I needed to begin ‘at the beginning’ and that what I had learned up to that point was not ballet. I had to forget everything and start from scratch.”
Posey endured and re-learned. Since then her mission has been to ensure that no dance student is as unprepared as she was and that no child should be exploited onstage. “I did not want any of my students to have to suffer that painful experience,” she says. At the Posey School of Dance in Northport, Long Island, her commitment to teaching young people is in its 55th year.
The school occupies the top floors of an 1891 building, where ballroom dance instructors were plying their trade when the paint was still fresh on the walls. These teachers learned their craft from Civil War–era teachers who traveled from town to town, teaching social dances to children of privileged families. If born earlier, Posey says, she wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to dance. Her father was a taxi driver and they lived “on the other side of the railroad tracks,” far from the mansions dotted along Long Island Sound. But by the late 1940s, it was possible for middle- and working-class children like Posey to take dance classes and find local benefactors to further a professional education.
Today this passionate educator teaches 12 ballet classes weekly and knows her field inside and out. Like a historian, she considers the big picture, which leads her to ask big questions: Why, in the United States, can anyone call herself a dance teacher? Why do teachers adhere to traditions that foster self-loathing in students? Why aren’t there standards for teaching dance? This habit of asking questions not only makes Posey highly knowledgeable, it makes her a born teacher who needs to understand as much as possible before passing on information to her students. That’s certainly Patricia G. Cohen’s view of her. “My first impression of Elsa,” says the New York University dance education teacher, “was that she listened. She wanted to know who I was and what I thought.”
Posey is a product of both vaudeville and European ballet training. American dance, she says, is a reflection of both strands, but schools, even today, remain divided into competition studios or ballet academies. When Posey opened her school, however, she didn’t want to create just a ballet academy. With her sister Jacqueline, who was trained in modern dance, she offered instruction in several dance forms, incurring the disapproval of her peers. “My ballet colleagues severely criticized me for bringing modern into the curriculum,” says the school owner.
Since Posey never divided dance forms into “good” and “bad,” “high” and “low,” she developed, with her sister, her own tastes and standards. When 29-year-old Jacqueline died in 1971 after being hit by a drunken driver, Posey’s mission for her school endured. She found other instructors to teach Jacqueline’s specialties—modern, jazz, and tap, thereby honoring her sister’s legacy and her desire to offer, she says, “a complete education in dance.” The school now offers classes in jazz, tap, Middle Eastern/belly dance, modern, ballet, and creative movement.
Today’s commonplace fusion of multiple dance forms on the world’s stages has not escaped Posey’s notice. But a career on the stage is not something she pushes on her students. “A majority of my former students choose not to pursue a career in dance; they dance to enrich their lives through artistic endeavor,” she wrote in her resume.
At first glance, Posey’s ballet classes appear identical to others’. Her students start with pliés and graduate to battements. They wear pink tights and black leotards. Silence, however, does not reign. “I believe children should be allowed to talk at appropriate times during dance class,” Posey explains. By reading about child developmental psychology and by talking to experts, her sense that children learn in many ways—not only by silently watching and replicating—was confirmed.
Last May, when Posey’s intermediate-advanced students took New York City Ballet soloist Jennifer Tinsley-Williams’ class at the Lincoln Center studios, they didn’t make a peep, knowing well ballet class etiquette. “I want my students to be able to take a ballet class anywhere in the world,” said Posey, observing their calm, concentrated approach to Williams’ class.
But in Northport, those students receive more than traditional technique classes. Posey teaches them historical dances, gives them individual corrections tailored to how each one learns best, and encourages them to improvise and choreograph. In 1997, Posey created The Children’s Dance Company, with a focus on children’s choreography. “[Students] should be encouraged to participate in creating the dances they perform, rather than just memorizing steps,” she says. Choreographing can yield fringe benefits, such as the increased understanding of musicality that high school senior Laura Dabrowski, a Posey School student since age 3, says she gained from the experience.
‘If you think of a pebble being tossed into a pond and the ripple effect it creates, that is Elsa.’ —Trish Harms, dance teacher and former Posey School student
Many of the students represent their family’s third generation with the school. “It’s important that they aren’t carbon copies of each other,” says Posey, speaking of her multigenerational clientele and of her desire to develop each student’s artistic voice.
Posey’s pride in her students and her desire to give them the best education possible led her to join eight dance organizations. She co-chairs an education subcommittee for the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science and is an active member of the Congress on Research in Dance, the Dance Critics Association, and the Society of Dance History Scholars. From 1998 to 2002 she was president of the National Dance Education Organization, which gave her a lifetime achievement award in 2007, established a scholarship in her name in 2002, and partnered with her to create the National Registry of Dance Educators. She is a founding member and past president of the American Dance Guild and a former board member of the National Dance Association, and was on the Professional Advisory Board of the Dance Notation Bureau.
Posey could have modeled her teaching after her most famous teachers—George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, Margaret Craske—and called it a day. But this teacher has never been star-struck or self-satisfied. She is a seeker of information. Her high standards for dance and her exploratory sensibility reached their most comprehensive expression with the creation of the National Registry of Dance Educators, founded in 1996 by Posey and Peff Modelski, a longtime teacher at STEPS on Broadway and a former Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre dancer. The RDE honors master teachers—regardless of whether they have degrees or extensive performing experience—by recognizing their ability to teach safely, ethically, and well. Though the registry doesn’t include a step-by-step model of how to teach, “it gives,” says Modelski, “parents the right to ask, ‘So what makes you qualified to train my child?’ ”
The RDE allows teachers to answer that question with confidence. To become a member, Posey says, “Applicants supply extensive information and documentation regarding their educational background, dance education, and performance and teaching experience, which is reviewed by trained evaluators who are qualified dance educators themselves.” RDE teachers possess a proven track record. They demonstrate ethical and professional teaching practices and knowledge of child development, dance science, and dance medicine.
RDE members pay $125 annually, becoming part of an online network of instructors who can safely ask and answer each other’s confidential concerns. They are committed to taking continuing education courses, attending seminars, and staying up to date on teaching methodology advances. To date, the organization numbers nearly 40 members who teach all types of dance and who work in studios, public schools, and as college adjuncts across the United States. Though Posey hopes to expand the membership base, the application and screening process is lengthy, requiring approximately a year.
When Posey began building the RDE, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Modelski says that Posey never faltered in her efforts to develop the organization or in her teaching practice: “She would have fallen over at the barre before she would have taught inappropriately.” Determined to create an organization that allows dance teachers to network and problem solve together “kept me going,” says Posey, who has been cancer free for more than a decade.
Straddling developments in dance medicine, history, journalism, and preservation, as well as federal- and state-level arts education initiatives, Posey’s involvement and contributions are staggering. She does all this without a PhD, a master’s, or even a college degree, making her an autodidact of the best kind. “If you think of a pebble being tossed into a pond and the ripple effect it creates,” says dance teacher Trish Harms, a former Posey School student, “that is Elsa.”
By remaining focused on people while continually learning from others, Posey has embodied a singular philosophy throughout her career: the human potential for growth. With this belief, she gives her students the desire and confidence to become dancers for life. And to the community at large, she serves as a role model of how to stay engaged and make a difference. “Many times you have one teacher who is trained in a village,” says Jane Bonbright, executive director of NDEO and an RDE member. “He or she opens a school. Fifty years later they haven’t learned much beyond the walls of that village.” But like the tendus that Posey teaches daily, “Elsa is constantly stretching and growing,” says Bonbright.
When asked what she wishes for in the field of dance education, Posey replies, “An openness where teachers are not so singularly focused” on their niche, “a free flow of information between all levels of the dance world,” and an understanding that “all people can dance.”
These days, rather than being satisfied with her achievements or writing her memoirs, Posey is looking forward. “My theory is that we are in a time of change; in the future dance will be taught differently.” With Posey and other master educators who think like her steering the way, that theory could become a reality.
In ballet, an ending is as important as a beginning and middle, if not even more so. From early training the children should be taught to remain motionless for a count of 3 at the end of each exercise. You can make this into a game of statues in which everyone turns to marble when they finish an exercise. Then wave your magic wand to free them, and move on to the next step.
With older students, insist that they finish all movements cleanly and in an appropriate position. Teach them to hold a pose in order to emphasize the concluding movement and enhance the presentation for the audience. Pirouettes in particular should have a well-defined ending. All diagonal turns should finish in a strong position as well, which can be varied according to the type of movement and music.
By Vanina and Dennis Wilson
“I’ll teach at your school, but only advanced or, in a pinch, intermediate students. I won’t teach ballet to beginners.” Is there a school director anywhere who has not heard this version of “I don’t do windows”? Many instructors consider it beneath their dignity to teach ballet—or any kind of dance—to beginners. A lack of teachers who are interested in and qualified to teach beginning ballet, along with some of the ways school directors respond to this problem, can negatively affect the quality of the instruction.
Why do so many teachers prefer working with advanced students? The obvious answer is that those students tend to be committed and enthusiastic and to work harder than their lower-level schoolmates. Most of them do ballet because they love it, and they push themselves without much instructor intervention. The teacher need only concentrate on the dancing—a pleasant and not-too-tiring proposition.
A second reason is that advanced students may be technically easier to teach than beginning students, especially for new instructors who are making the transition from performing. Performers have trained their bodies to do most ballet moves with ease and fluidity and have spent their professional lives around people with similar mastery. Consequently they find the capabilities of students who have already absorbed the basics of ballet training more familiar, and therefore consider such students easier to teach. Classes with advanced students who add beauty and intricacy to their dancing can be quite exciting; teachers can develop challenging series of steps with various tempos and types of music for these students. Not surprisingly such classes appeal to ex-performers who are familiar with this kind of energy.
The challenge of teaching beginners
Teaching beginners requires different skills than those needed in working with advanced students, and an instructor who is good with advanced students will not necessarily be equally good with beginners. In other words, the ability to teach beginners is not a “lesser-included capability” of the ability to teach advanced students competently. The most important skill in teaching beginners is a great deal of patience. Young children who are starting ballet, even in professional programs, often do not display the kind of commitment required to make progress. Discipline problems can arise when children cannot or do not want to focus on the class. Even focused students learn ballet slowly. The first years of training involve conditioning the body so that it can perform ballet moves safely and beautifully, and this development progresses slowly even for physically gifted and motivated students. The moves tend to be static, involving considerable repetition, correction, and command, and students do not actually dance a great deal at this stage; consequently teachers must be passionate and work hard to keep students interested. Having an unmotivated teacher in the classroom may lead to bored and resentful students who are prone to quitting.
Instructors of beginning-level students must also have a complete understanding of ballet moves and know how to demonstrate them. They must know some anatomy and be able to estimate what the students can do given their physical abilities and limitations. Their goal should be to enable students to work to their maximum while never going beyond their capability, thus risking injury. Ironically, performers who are transitioning to instructors may have forgotten the basics they went through themselves many years before. Those with a natural facility for ballet often have difficulty analyzing the detail of individual moves and assisting less-gifted students in conditioning their bodies.
Finally, teaching ballet to beginners is just more work. The instructor must plan not only each lesson but also the course syllabus, as well as assessing the class’s pace and organization. This process becomes easier with experience, but each class has its own challenges. Only teachers who are passionate about teaching ballet are likely to enjoy teaching ballet to beginners.
The director’s dilemma
Most school directors say it is difficult to find instructors who are willing and able to teach beginners competently. Because the directors know that only a small fraction of students will proceed to the intermediate or advanced levels, they may conclude that beginning-level ballet instruction is not important. Sometimes they assign their least qualified instructors, advanced students, or even parents to teach beginning classes. They may rationalize that students who acquire bad habits in such classes can be “cleaned up” by better-qualified instructors in more advanced classes.
But resolving the dilemma this way leads to problems. Students who have acquired bad habits because of deficient early instruction do not do basic ballet moves well, nor are they ready for more complicated moves. Even students with no professional potential run an ever-increasing risk of injury if they try to perform moves beyond their capability. For students who have professional potential, the results of poor initial training can be devastating. Besides the increased risk of injury, their bad habits will severely limit their ability to compete for positions in professional companies.
A director’s hope that a student can be cleaned up in later instruction is apt to be no more than wishful thinking. Almost every teacher has had the unhappy experience of seeing ballet students with good physical potential who are limited by deficient early training. Teaching such dancers requires being especially attentive to their moves and quick to correct mistakes, a tiring and often unproductive process. Such students, even if they understand the need for correction intellectually, may soon begin to resent what appears to be an incessant barrage of criticism. And despite both the students’ and teachers’ best intentions and efforts, ballet dancers, like all human beings, tend to revert to bad habits that feel comfortable under conditions of stress. Unfortunately, this stress is likely to be induced by competitions, auditions, and performances, the very conditions under which proper technique is most important.
Searching for a solution
There exists no “magic formula” that will enable school directors to find and retain instructors who have the temperament, skills, and desire to teach students of beginning ballet. School directors can, however, take steps to improve their chances.
First and foremost, do not try to rationalize the problem away by pretending that beginning ballet instruction is not important. Second, demonstrate the value that you place on beginning ballet instruction by visiting those classes at least as often as you do advanced classes, perhaps even teaching them periodically. Identify beginning students who show potential and desire, pay as much attention to them as to your advanced students, and encourage them to participate in competitions and auditions when possible. Finally, use the tools available to you as a school director (status and money) to reward instructors who show excellence in teaching beginners. Recognize those who teach beginners well (for example, change your faculty roster from alphabetical order and list them first) and consider paying them more or giving them a bonus.
People do respond to such incentives, and by using them you will improve the morale of beginning ballet instructors, the performance of beginning students, and the overall quality of your ballet program.
Teaching port de bras to two age groups
By Mignon Furman
Tip #1: For Young Children
To get the correct placement of the fingers, place a pencil under the dancer’s first (pointer) and ring fingers so that it passes over the middle finger. Make holding the pencil without dropping it a game. Use a point system—a chart placed in the studio, which shows points gained or lost, makes a great incentive. Awarding young students a gold star once they have gained enough points has a magical effect on getting them to work correctly. For this exercise, if the children hold the pencils successfully, they get a point; if they allow them to fall, they lose a point.
Tip #2: For Older Dancers
Explain that all port de bras require a circular movement. Even when moving the arms from first (fifth devant) to arabesque, the fingers lead in an outward circular movement. This gives a broader feeling to the port de bras and allows the dancer to use the music fully.
By Mignon Furman
This is the first of a series in which I hope to pass on to teachers some of the lessons that I have learned throughout my career as a teacher of ballet for young children, graduate-level college students, and teachers.
This month’s column offers suggestions for teaching the basic concept of classical ballet—turnout—to 6- to 8-year-olds. —M.F.
To explain turnout of the leg raised in front: The dancer sits on the floor with legs extended in front, parallel to each other. The hands are on the floor, slightly behind the line of the shoulders. Keeping the hips firmly on the floor (“push them into the floor”), the dancer raises one leg about 12 inches off the floor, turning it out from the hip so that the heel faces toward the ceiling. The height of the leg is not as important as feeling the turnout.
Exercise: While sitting, raise the arms to 5th position and lift one leg. The body must be held erect, with the back straight and the hips on the floor. Repeat with the other leg. Try raising both legs. This is a good exercise for feeling the turnout and the abdominal muscles and stabilizing balance.
To explain turnout of the leg extended to the side: The dancer lies on her back and lifts one foot in the passé position, keeping the other leg well stretched and as turned out as possible. The lifted leg will be in a turned-out position with the hips correctly placed.
Exercise: Lift one leg to passé and “swing” it to place the knee across the body. Then return to passé position.