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Dedicated Dance Educator Mignon Furman Dies
“She was a shining example of dedication and passion for our art,” Rhee Gold said about Mignon Furman, a longtime Dance Studio Life contributor and DanceLife Teacher Conference faculty member who died December 4.
Furman, founder and director of American Academy of Ballet in New York, had shared advice on corrections and classroom behavior through DSL’s “2 Tips for Ballet Teachers” column since July 2007. She began her career with University of Cape Town [South Africa] Ballet Company, dancing in classics such as Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, and then taught and choreographed in South Africa, England, Europe, and the United States.
Furman’s life was steeped in dance education. She received accolades for her work as senior lecturer and acting director at University of Cape Town Ballet School, and she introduced her Performance Awards program (a system of medals and certificates that recognizes students’ accomplishments) to ballet teachers throughout the world—even braving the unsettled atmosphere of a war-torn Israel (“Ballet in a Modern Israel”, DSL, August 2009).
The administrator of Royal Academy of Dance USA for four years, Furman was admired and respected by her peers and beloved by her students. Perhaps the reason why can be found in something she wrote in her column: “I always remember what I was told as a young teacher. Be persistent, persevere, be patient, and always remember tender, loving kindness.”
Historical Treasure Trove
The next time your students say “Who?” when you mention Alexandra Danilova, Savion Glover, or Anna Sokolow, send them on a virtual field trip to visit America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures, compiled by the Dance Heritage Coalition (DHC) board of directors.
The Treasures was created as a traveling exhibit of commemorative materials honoring 100 important contributors to dance history. Eager to keep the materials available to the public after the exhibit ceased touring in 2009, DHC restructured the documents into an online resource of facts, photos, and essays, launching “The First 100” in July 2012 at danceheritage.org. A dozen newcomers were added in December: Jacques d’Amboise, Jane Dudley, Garth Fagan, Frederic Franklin, Loïe Fuller, Carmen de Lavallade, Michael Jackson, John Martin, Sophie Maslow, Daniel Nagrin, Maria Tallchief, and The Rockettes.
Birth and Rebirth at Jacob’s Pillow
In 1970, audiences at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival witnessed the birth of a singular, stunning new company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, in its debut performance. This spring, Pillow audiences will be on hand for the company’s rebirth when DTH opens the festival’s 2013 season June 19 to 23.
After years of inactivity and financial woes, the resurrected DTH will show off its streamlined and fit new format with a program of George Balanchine’s Agon, Alvin Ailey’s The Lark Ascending, and Far But Close by contemporary choreographer John Alleyne. The performances, under DTH artistic director Virginia Johnson, will come at the end of the company’s “first” national performance tour.
Audiences will witness another much-anticipated event August 14 to 18 with the world premiere of Wendy Whelan’s Restless Creature. The New York City Ballet star collaborated with four red-hot choreographers—Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, and Alejandro Cerrudo—to create four dynamic duets in four distinct dance vocabularies and styles.
Ella Baff, Jacob’s Pillow executive and artistic director, said both engagements grew out of conversations she had with Johnson and Whelan “about how artists and institutions regenerate and experiment.”
For the full festival schedule, visit jacobspillow.org.
Ailey’s Last Dancer
When Renee Robinson took her final bow December 9 at New York City Center, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater lost its last onstage connection to the master himself.
Robinson made her farewell with a stirring performance of the Revelations finale, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” which she had danced countless times since joining the company in 1981. The last of the company members picked by Ailey—and the only dancer to have worked with all three of the company’s artistic leaders—Robinson has been hailed as the quintessential Ailey dancer for the way she balances style, power, grace, and strength in masterpieces such as Cry, Night Creature, and Blues Suite. In Revelations’ “Wade in the Water,” with her white umbrella held high, Robinson displayed what could be called pure and simple Ailey soul.
Said The New York Times of that last performance: “Any dancer in any company could learn from her about focus, projection, and ardor; she danced as if she had not only the equipment to carry on much longer but the hunger for it too.”
Irish Dance Steps Its Way to Boston
It’s the home of the Celtics, the Dropkick Murphys, the Kennedy clan, a St. Patrick’s Day Parade to beat the band, and more Irish politicians than you can shake a shillelagh at. It’s Boston, and next month this Irish enclave will host the 2013 Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne—otherwise known as the Irish Dancing World Championship, run by the An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha (The Irish Dancing Commission).
The Boston Irish Reporter said that teams from Ireland, Great Britain, Europe, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand are expected to attend the competition, set for March 24 to 31 at John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center. Dancers ages 10 to 21, and seniors over age 21, will compete in solo as well as team céilí and figure dancing, and dance drama—sometimes to live accompaniment, and always in elaborate, traditional costumes.
Already a winner is Boston, who beat out 19 other cities for the chance to host this event for the first time—only the second time the worlds have been held in the United States.
Ballet teacher and former professional dancer David Arce will be sharing his words of wisdom and sound teaching advice as the latest Dance Studio Life “Two Tips” contributor.
Arce will be replacing original “Two Tips for Ballet Teachers” writer Mignon Furman, who died December 4. Furman had been writing the column since July 2007.
A San Diego native, Arce trained at Ballet Yuma and San Francisco Ballet School, and danced for 12 years with San Francisco Ballet. He is now artistic director of the Juline Regional Youth Ballet and teaches advanced pre-professional classes at Juline School of Dance in Modesto, California.
Arce joins the other DSL “Two Tips” writers—Geo Hubela for hip-hop, Gregg Russell for tap, and Bill Evans for modern—in this popular monthly feature. To peruse past tips, visit www.dancestudiolife.com.
The Rhee Gold Company staff is in mourning today for Mignon Furman, a long-time Dance Studio Life writer and DanceLife Teacher Conference faculty member who died yesterday, December 4.
A funeral service was planned for this morning at 11am at the Carlebach Shul, 305 West 79th Street, New York City, followed by a burial at the Beth David cemetery in Elmont, New York.
Furman, founder and director of the American Academy of Ballet in New York, had written the popular “Two Tips for Ballet Teachers” column in DSL since July of 2007, and she was a good friend of Rhee Gold and many ballet teachers across the country.
Her ballet career started in South Africa where she danced with the University of Cape Town Ballet Company in ballets such as Les Sylphides, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Prince Igor, c, and other classics. She studied ballet in London, England, with Anna Northcote (Severskaya) and modern dance with Sigurd Leeder. On her return to Cape Town, she started her own ballet school with one student; it soon grew to be one of the largest ballet schools in South Africa, with a staff of 10 and more than 600 students. She founded both the Cape Town Ballet and the Port Elizabeth Youth Ballet.
She served as senior lecturer and acting director at the University of Cape Town Ballet School. Her excellence as an instructor and also a teacher trainer was recognized when she was nominated for the Distinguished Teacher Award out of the university’s entire academic faculty of 1,200 lecturers and professors.
Furman also founded and directed the University of Cape Town Youth Ballet, taught and choreographed in London, Tel Aviv, Paris, and Cannes, and served for four years as administrator of the Royal Academy of Dance USA in the early ’90s.
At her own American Academy of Ballet she ran a highly-respected summer intensive program for pre-professional dancers, and also created the Performance Awards, a program used by ballet programs around the world for recognizing students’ accomplishments.
By Mignon Furman
Please trust your students. If you are clear about what you expect from them and they understand and know their dances, there is no need to stand in the wings and vigorously perform the dances. This distracts the dancers and makes it hard for them to concentrate, which prevents them from performing at their best.
In rehearsals, after teaching a portion of the dance, sit and watch without saying a word. Offer lots of praise when the young dancers remember the combination. In this way they learn to remember the steps and dance with self-confidence.
A ballet class needs pacing and rhythm. The teacher should not talk so much that the pace lags, the rhythm is lost, and the dancers get cold and bored. Dancers want to dance! Corrections should be given clearly and succinctly. Children cannot absorb and process too many corrections at once.
By Mignon Furman
Ballet vocabulary is often neglected. It helps to have young dancers understand the meaning of the French words because it gives them an image of what the step should be; for example, glissade (to glide), jeté (to throw), and assemblé (to assemble or bring together).
The theory is also important. The dancer must understand that for an assemblé you spring off one foot and land on two, while a sissone is the exact opposite: two feet to one foot. This can be a fascinating subject for young people.
For older dancers vocabulary is also very helpful. Students aren’t always aware of the English translations of terms even though they know what to do physically. Knowing the difference between devant (in the front) and en avant (moving forward) is just an example. The English translations, of en dehors (outward) and en dedans (inward) and élancé (to dart), for example, enhance students’ understanding of the movement.
Stiff fingers spoil the look of port de bras. A simple exercise for young children is to have them kneel and then sit, shifting their weight to the side (like the position of the statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen), moving the hands from side to side as though swishing through water. Then tell them to lift the hands (or one at a time) and wiggle the fingers, pretending that the water is dripping off.
Dropped wrists can so often spoil the line for older dancers. There should always be a curved line for the arms, except in an arabesque, where the arm and leg make the longest line possible. Think of reaching through the fingers of the front hand. The feeling of reaching out is so important.
Over the past months I’ve noticed that many dancers I see have poor posture. The posture must be correct with the core of the body firmly held. The “baby belly” of 5- or 6-year-old children should disappear as they grow, and they should be taught to be aware of holding the abdominal muscles.
Young dancers must be given combinations that reverse steps so that they understand the vocabulary of ballet. For example, teach three jetés derrière and assemblé over with a repeat, and then repeat all with three jetés devant and assemblé under. Another example is two assemblés over, sissone over, pas de bourrée under with the back foot; repeat. Then reverse with two assemblés under, sissone under, pas de bourrée over with the front foot.
Feet, feet, feet! I have written before about the importance of the use of the feet. But after seeing unstretched legs and feet literally hanging from them, as well as young dancers stepping onto unstretched feet or even onto the heel, I feel strongly that this important part of training is so often overlooked or not insisted upon.
Try this: battement tendu, dégagé/glissé. Exercises with a Thera-Band are part of this training, but above all teachers must constantly remind young dancers to stretch the feet. Make a game of it—each time students perform a movement using the feet correctly they get a point toward a designated total.
Back legs in arabesque need to be fully stretched. So often the knee is relaxed and looks bent. Just give a little tickle at the back of the knee and the young dancer will stretch that knee!
In the February issue we talked about the importance of stretching the Achilles tendon in using the legs for jumping. But we must not forget the feet. Fully stretching the feet as they leave the floor is of utmost importance. There is no better way of strengthening the feet than battement tendu. The friction of the foot against the floor as it is pushed out to the point and back to fifth is very strengthening.
And then there is the soft landing. To strengthen the muscles behind the ankle just below the calf, have students rise onto demi-pointe in first position and bend the knees (demi-plié) while still on demi-pointe. Lower the heels slowly and then straighten the knees.
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.
In order for students to develop good balance, instructors must teach correct posture and placement right from the beginning of training. It takes many years of training to develop the strength in the legs and the back needed to balance on demi or full pointe. Start early.
To test for the correct balance on one foot, have students hold onto the barre, standing in fifth position, and tendu to second. Next, tell them to raise the foot about six inches off the floor and take their hand off the barre. Dancers whose weight is over the supporting leg will be able to maintain the pose. Repeat this test in demi-plié on the supporting leg. It becomes very obvious if the weight has been displaced.
Attitude, a pose that mimics a statue of Mercury, is difficult to achieve correctly. A good way to teach it is for the dancers to work in pairs. One performs the exercise and the other assists in getting the position correct. The working dancer should face the barre, raise one leg to arabesque, then bend the knee, stopping when the knee goes out to the side of the body. The partner should help to keep the knee aligned. The shoulders should remain square to the barre.
Next, have students repeat the exercise without the assistance of a partner. In attitude, they should plié on the supporting leg and raise the same arm (as the raised leg) to fifth, making sure that the shoulder of the raised arm is square to the barre. Extend the leg and close to fifth. Repeat with the other leg.
By Mignon Furman
A fouetté (short for fouetté rond de jambe en tournant) is a step of virtuosity. The first thing to be strengthened is the relevé. Before attempting fouettés, practice doing relevés on one leg 8 to 16 times. The next thing to understand and practice is the action of the working leg. The Russians take the leg to the side and do a petit battement movement around the knee before extending to the side. We take the leg from fourth devant through second before whipping it to the knee. Coordination of the arms is essential, along with the use of the head and eyes in spotting.
When practicing fouettés, work for a strong second position when taking the leg to the side. The leg must be well turned out and whipped sharply to the turning position (passé with the toes of the working foot on the front of the supporting knee). The side arm (the left arm if turning to the right) must not go behind the shoulder line.
Practice with the hands on the waist, using the left side of the body (when turning to the right) to move around. Do not use the shoulders alone. The body must be well held. The head must be used for a quick whip-around.
Ballet is a beautiful art form. It should not make students look and feel miserable. Making corrections in a mean or sarcastic way is an old-fashioned approach to teaching that succeeds only in making the young dancers scared and nervous. They are captives and have no way to defend themselves.
Offering corrections in a positive and helpful way is much more successful. I always remember what I was told as a young teacher: be persistent, persevere, be patient, and always remember tender, loving kindness. This applies to older dancers as well as children, none of whom may answer the teacher back but suffer humiliation in silence.
Pleasant faces are always preferable to blank expressions. Wide and fake smiles are not necessary. Help your students cultivate expressions that are suitable for the type of movements being performed. Enjoyment, expressed facially, is an additional dimension of a dancer’s performance.
With the emphasis on high leg elevation, kids think that this is the epitome of technique. Teachers should explain that high leg elevation is only as important as other aspects of classical ballet, such as beginning and finishing movements in fifth position, a good demi-plié, clean pirouettes, well-stretched feet, and height on all jumps.
Attention to detail makes a step, combination, or variation complete. Footwork needs to be accurate, and arms should coordinate with the movement. Think about the beginning and ending of each movement. In class, have students hold the end of each exercise for a count of three before moving away. This is a very important lesson.
It is very important for young dancers to understand that port de bras consists of more than the arms making beautiful shapes; the coordination of the arms makes it easier to execute steps. For instance, in grand jeté en avant, if the arms are lifted as the leading leg thrusts up (like a grand battement), the impetus increases. Follow this movement with one arm lifting forward (in first or second arabesque) and the whole movement is easier. The arms and leg must coordinate and the arms open to arabesque at the height of the jump.
In pirouettes, using the closing arm to assist the turn and maintaining a good position of the arms (the hands opposite the breastbone, elbows rounded and lifted, chest open) improve the execution. On a preparation for a pirouette en dedans, the arm that is extended to second position should not be allowed to move behind the shoulder. It should be ready to close into the turning position as swiftly as the foot attains its position just below the knee.
Beginning pointe work is always so exciting for young dancers. For teachers, it is a time of great responsibility. Every young girl dreams of dancing on pointe, but some children are not physically capable of it, struggling with a long second toe or ankles that aren’t flexible enough for the foot to maintain the proper position on pointe. Teachers must recognize such problems and direct students to helpful products (such as toe caps that minimize pressure on the second toe), require them to work on demi-pointe, or even direct them to another form of dance.
Pas de bourrée couru can look neat if the feet are well crossed and the lead is taken from the back foot. The movements should be very small and fast. Have students practice by standing on flat feet in parallel and shimmying the knees, then repeating the action on pointe (at the barre) with very fast movements of the feet. Do the same in fifth position before allowing students to travel. Bourrées should glide; think of Wili queen Myrtha’s opening solo in Act 2 of Giselle.
By Mignon Furman
How can flexibility be increased without injuring muscles, tendons, or ligaments? Stretching should be done when the body is warm—after barre, at the end of class, or after a hot bath.
From age 6 or 7, it is necessary to stretch the hamstrings. Children should stand with the feet slightly apart, lift the arms above the head, and bend forward without pulling back on the legs. Not all children can touch the floor. Have them hold the position for a count of 8 and then stretch up again. Repeat three or four times.
Next, have students lie on the back with knees bent and feet parallel on the floor. Holding the right leg under the knee with both hands, they should extend the leg and pull it gently toward the body, keeping it as straight as possible without letting it wander over the shoulder line. Both shoulders and hips should remain on the floor to ensure that the hamstring stretches, not the back. If the knee starts to bend, hold the position there and count to 8. Gently replace the foot on the floor and repeat with the other leg.
Unless we own or teach in a school that can audition and take physically perfect bodies for ballet, as teachers we have to work with students of all sizes and shapes. Therefore we cannot make only general corrections in class. Because of differences in students’ physical builds, corrections should be specific to the children who warrant them. Look at the child as a whole to see what has to be adjusted to perfect a movement.
In petit battement, the foot can be wrapped (“fishing” or “winging”) or fully stretched in alignment. Both ways are correct. Be flexible in your expectations. Rather than requiring all students to do the movement in a particular way when more than one way is correct, teachers need to have open minds about what looks best on each student.
You’ve heard what Desmond Richardson, Jillian Meyers, Nicholas Leichter, William Wingfield, and other big names think about the nature and characteristics of contemporary dance. But we wanted to find out what teachers and choreographers in the Dance Studio Life circle had to say. Read on for their thoughts (in alphabetical order) on how they define contemporary dance.
Mignon Furman, director, American Academy of Ballet, New York, NY:
Contemporary dance is best defined by isolating it from other readily defined dance: classical ballet (adherence to technique and style), folk/national dance (traditional music and steps), and tap/theater dance/jazz (popular music and happy themes). If it’s none of the above, the dance is contemporary. To complicate the definition, contemporary dance is characterized by the style of many artists—Martha Graham, Ted Shawn, Alvin Ailey, and their predecessors, Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss, and Isadora Duncan—who revolted against the then-rigid style of classical ballet to form the freer “modern” dance. Ultimately, a definition is not important as long as the dance is theatrically sincere and artistically satisfying—even to those who think classical ballet is the supreme art of dance.
Helen Hayes, Youth Dance Ensemble director, Joy of Motion Dance Center, Washington, DC:
Contemporary dance is difficult to define because it is a genre, not a technique. It incorporates a collection of methods and techniques found in ballet, modern dance, postmodern dance, and others, giving it a unique look. Contemporary dance tends to be intricate and physical, and the dancers change levels and directions quickly and seamlessly. Contemporary dance may deal with abstract concepts, images, or emotional extremes. It has a rawness that sets it apart from plot-driven ballets or Broadway jazz. Contemporary dance is present!
Charlotte Klein, director, Charlotte Klein Dance Centers, Worchester and Westboro, MA:
What amazes me about contemporary dance is how the same moves can appear in routines from both the East and West Coasts, even without a defined technique. Bent knees and flexed feet are acceptable in this genre. Some contemporary choreography tells a story based on the words of a song, but other pieces have story lines known only to the dancers and their choreographer. It is most enjoyable to watch a contemporary dance on dancers who have very strong ballet, jazz, and modern technique.
Nina Koch, owner/director, East County Performing Arts Center, Brentwood and Antioch, CA:
Sometimes a dance is labeled “contemporary” because the teacher, student, or parent wants something different or trendy. Since the term came from contemporary ballet, I’m surprised it has morphed into a genre that covers so many styles. Now we see pieces that are a cross between jazz, modern, and/or hip-hop, and it’s all called contemporary. At competition I have seen lyrical, jazz, and character dances all classified as contemporary. I think it’s great—dance is dance and does not need a label. But it does bother me that the term “contemporary” is thrown around so often simply because it’s trendy.
Alice Korsick, ballet mistress, Spisak Dance Academy, Glendale, AZ:
Over the years, as a teacher, choreographer, and competition judge, I have seen trends in dance presentation that are new, yet emphasize traditional techniques. Lyric was based in ballet and emphasized balance, control of movement, and storytelling. Jazz evolved from modern and ballet with movements that were into the floor and fluid, like Matt Mattox’s and Luigi’s styles. Now jazz encompasses sharper and stronger moves and can be almost anything that the choreographer envisions.
To me, contemporary dance is based on modern technique but the movements are smaller, faster, and angular in appearance and are executed with many, many movements to fewer counts of music. The use of space is sparse. The movement is more internal, showing the dancers’ strength, control, and quickness of movements. Costuming is minimal—usually booty shorts, no tights, and a simple top. There is a serious intent to interpret the music or words that accompany the dancer.
Brian McCormick, career mentor, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, New York, NY: Contemporary dance taps ballet, modern, postmodern, jazz, ethnic, folk, and break dancing, as well as theater, performance art, and media. It’s a blending of styles, from simple hybrids to complex stews. As represented by So You Think You Can Dance, it’s been reduced for quick sale as a kind of trick-filled, “power” modern. In reality, contemporary dance stretches to fit the process-oriented works of Miguel Gutierrez and Ralph Lemon, the multidisciplinary oeuvres of Pina Bausch and William Forsythe, and the choreographed dances of John Jasperse, Kate Weare, and Angelin Preljocaj. Also, unique installations by artists like Yanira Castro that challenge the conventions of audience spectatorship and participation.
Christopher K. Morgan, rehearsal director and choreographer in residence, CityDance Ensemble, Washington, DC:
Contemporary dance is the work currently being made by choreographers who are pushing the field by drawing on existing dance forms, theater traditions, and other artistic mediums. It also embraces the pursuit of innovation, artistry, and self-expression. Recently, the presence of So You Think You Can Dance seems to have defined the genre as a lyrical jazz/modern/ballet movement vocabulary tied to narrative story lines. Though wonderful and valid, it worries me that this new definition might limit the creative possibilities for artists and diminish the interpretive faculties of our audiences.
Tom Ralabate, professor and chair, Department of Theatre and Dance, SUNY at Buffalo, NY:
Contemporary dance provokes, expresses, and reflects through movement the point of view of the dancer and/or choreographer. It capitalizes on the universal language of dance by using all types of movements, from stylized to pedestrian. Some “thread elements” visible in contemporary dance include modern, ballet, jazz, gymnastics, and world dance forms. Movement images, ideas, and emotions are set to a variety of sounds, from music to spoken word to the richness of silence. It is dance that crosses frontiers on many levels.
Kerry Ring, adjunct professor, Department of Theatre and Dance, SUNY at Buffalo, NY:
It is difficult to define contemporary dance because the essence of contemporary is to break new ground. I teach my students to look for trends when trying to define contemporary dance, such as a focus on athleticism, upper-body strength, and abdominal strength. Smaller, more revealing costumes highlight the range of motion and the line of the foot and leg. Choreography, showcasing the dancer as athlete, will often make use of intricate or extreme partnering or a dynamic use of levels. (The dramatic “knee drop” that is rippling through studios is an example of a contemporary level change.)
Often there is no plot, yet the audience sees the piece as highly emotional. Dancers must be able to move freely from idiosyncratic gesture and gymnastic-like tricks to combinations using ballet, jazz, and modern vocabularies. All of these trends are being pushed to new limits, distorted, and then redefined by contemporary choreographers.
Gregg Russell, president, 3D Dance Network, Inc., Los Angeles, CA:
Contemporary dance starts with a base of traditional modern. A grab bag of elements such as lyrical, ballet, martial arts, hip-hop, and everyday pedestrian movement then gets mixed in, creating a new style with a “contemporary” feel. As a judge for Co. Dance conventions, [I think] the biggest mistake [contemporary choreographers] can make is to just emulate what is popular. A true contemporary artist always strives to create something new that stands out from the others.
Aysha Upchurch, faculty, Joy of Motion Dance Center, Washington, DC:
When someone does something slightly different from the norm, eventually it’s given a name. Contemporary dance is the same. It’s not modern, it’s not jazz, it’s not hip-hop. When I see a dance piece labeled “contemporary,” I usually see something that has elements of technique from the classical genres, but with a twist. If it’s done well, I applaud it, just as I do with any dance that is done well. I appreciate accessible creative art, no matter the label. I don’t know who officially started “contemporary,” but I appreciate his/her/their contribution to the dance world.
Maida Withers, professor, George Washington University, Washington, DC:
The term “contemporary dance” has never appealed to me as a viable description. We used that in 1965 and it felt dated then. “Dance” is the best term, of course, but it seems we are always modifying with terms such as “modern” dance, “postmodern” dance, and so on. The most appropriate term might be “new media dance” since the most current work is taking place in cyberspace over electronic systems. This provides a more democratic access to dancing since you can do it instantly, even while walking down the street. In Washington, DC, there is a preponderance of “dead” dance—dances by choreographers who are no longer living. In that context, contemporary dance might be dance by anyone who is alive and well and still kicking—artists making dances of relevance in today’s world.
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.
Sickling inward is seen often in young children, especially in hops in attitude devant. To correct this, teach students to hop with the leg held straight out in front. Once they can hop correctly, instruct them to bend the front leg slightly, keeping the foot in alignment. Another problem position is passé. Have students push the heel forward to eliminate the sickle.
Sickling outward is also known as “fishing” or “winging.” Some schools encourage it, particularly when pointing the foot devant or in arabesque. The shape of the leg and ankle determines whether this position makes a good line, so teachers need to assess the elegance of the line in each student and not change what looks good. When pointing the foot devant the “fishing” or “winging” is governed by the flexibility of the ankle; on a dancer with flexible ankles it can look very elegant.
By Mignon Furman
The technique behind batterie, or the beating action of the legs, can be difficult for young dancers to understand. Here is one effective exercise. Ask students to lie on the floor with the legs lifted and straight and the feet pointed. Instruct them to open the legs slightly, then execute the beat, making sure to maintain turnout. Repeat in subsequent classes until students fully understand the movement.
Very often students will arch their backs, which projects the rib cage forward. I used to tell my very young students that sticking out their ribs was rude—just like sticking out their tongue! If the rib cage is flattened, the arched back will disappear. Students can also puff out a sharp breath; the action flattens the rib cage. Work with the students until they can correctly align their hips and shoulders.
So many young dancers don’t know what they don’t know. Those who feel they “know it all” may become frustrated when they take class elsewhere and find that they have to keep up with more advanced dancers. Remind students that dancers never stop learning and that they need to be open to corrections and new approaches.
Young dancers may want to learn steps, but help them understand that it is repetition that truly trains the body. As Violette Verdy said at one of my school’s summer sessions, “the more experienced the dancer is, the more she realizes that working slowly is a valuable opportunity to clean things up.”
Many students rely on copying the teacher and are not trained to retain the steps shown. Set the exercise, then stand aside. Give your students the freedom to make mistakes and then get it right on their own. Soon they will have the confidence to perform combinations without having to copy a demonstrator.
When teaching correct posture (stance), explain that the knees must be over the center of the foot, the hips in line with the knees, and the shoulders in line with the hips. Ask the dancers to walk as fast as possible with the weight over the heels, then with the weight forward. They will see that they move correctly and more easily when the weight is placed forward. Give younger dancers an image: tell them they should be as straight as a straw.
In a movement to the side, such as développé or grand battement, the working hip must remain aligned with the other hip. Instruct students that maintaining their turnout should keep the hips in correct alignment, except when the leg is lifted above 90 degrees. The weight must remain over the supporting leg.
Have the students lie on the floor in passé position, keeping the hips aligned. This will help them become aware of the “hinge” joint. As they extend the leg to second from passé, they will note the correct placement of the hips.
Here is an allegro combination suitable for preteens, to be danced to a 2/4 polka rhythm or, for more of a challenge, a quick waltz:
Glissade derrière—breathing arm to second and lower to bras bas.
Jeté derrière—arms third, front arm same as supporting leg.
Pas de chat—arms third, changing.
Changement—arms bras bas.
Repeat twice more (three times in all).
Échappé sauté—arms to second and bras bas.
Sous-sus (relevé in fifth)—arms presentation (demi-bras).
Repeat all to other side.
Make sure students keep allegro up to tempo or it will become heavy and build up unnecessary muscles. Insist on use of feet and a good push off the floor. This allegro is suitable for young teens, to be danced to a 2/4 polka or 6/8 rhythm:
Glissade derrière brisé over—arms third; repeat.
Brisé over, wide pas de bourrée over, finishing in wide fourth with the weight over the front foot—arms in arabesque line.
Pull up to fifth on demi-pointe; full détourné toward back foot.
Repeat all on the other side.
By Mignon Furman
Learning attitude en l’air is best done facing the barre. Have students stand slightly away from the barre, holding it with two hands. Have them raise the leg, derrière, and bend the knee slightly without altering the height of the knee. (A low position should suffice at the beginning.) As the height of the leg increases, the weight of the body moves forward. The shoulders and hips remain square to the barre.
When this has been achieved, tell students to raise the same arm as raised leg, to fifth position, being careful not to allow the shoulder of that arm to pull back.
More experienced dancers who have achieved a good attitude in the center can try a half or full turn promenade. Instruct them to pivot by making a small movement with the supporting heel (being careful that the supporting leg does not turn in). Caution them not to turn their bodies more quickly than they can move the supporting heel.
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.
By Mignon Furman
Batterie is often overlooked in classes when time is a consideration. So make sure the first allegro combination is suitable to be performed with batterie. For example, if the warm-up is four sautés in first and four changements, the changement can be changed to royale (changement battu). Or try four changement and two échappé sautés. Beat the changement and the closing movement of the échappé.
When beginning the allegro section of class, make the first combination simple, with small jumps off of and alighting on two feet. Tell your students to think of the feet pushing the floor away. I remember well my teacher, Anna Severskaya, a leading teacher in London, saying, “Treat the floor as your enemy”—push it away—“and it will be your best friend.”
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.
By Mignon Furman
Repetition, repetition, repetition—the only way to perfect a ballet movement is to do it over and over. Think of concert pianists who practice for hours to perfect only their fingering. Then think of dancers who have to perfect feet, legs, head, upper body, arms. How can you make this constant repetition enjoyable and meaningful for young dancers?
The trick is to do the same movement in different ways. Changing the timing, the placement of the head or arms, or the direction of the step adds interest and new challenges to the familiar.
Boredom is the greatest sin in teaching. A teacher who is infected with boredom spreads it to her students. Do not let burnout burn you up. Motivate yourself and prepare your class well. Act enthusiastic and smile a lot. Attend a teachers’ course to be refreshed and inspired to instill the joy of dance in your students. Remember, it was that joy that made you choose to become a teacher.
By Mignon Furman
A child who disrupts a class obviously wants attention. If the child is young, explain that you need to have someone hold your hand; then firmly and kindly hold that child’s hand. Or give the child a special place in the front of the class, along with the responsibility of being the class model. It usually works well.
An older student who always pushes to be in center front can be very discouraging to the rest of the class. To avoid this, assign the students to specific places in line and then rotate the lines so that all students have the chance to be in front during each class.
By Mignon Furman
Stiff and strained-looking hands and fingers, along with thumbs that stick out, show tension in dancers. To help them relax, have them circle their wrists in both directions and feel their fingers move.
Visible strain in the shoulders and an extended ribcage usually indicate that dancers are not breathing correctly. Have the students place their hands on the ribcage with fingers pointing toward each other and breathe in very deeply, so that the space between the hands increases as the ribcage expands. Make certain that they do not raise their shoulders. Have them hold their breath and then blow out through the mouth (quite sharply); this should bring the ribs into alignment and relax any strain in the shoulders.
By Mignon Furman
Often parents live their lives through their children. I have frequently heard a mom say, “We have started pointe work,” as if the mother were also in pointe shoes. Children will progress more in their studies when parents are not so involved.
Parents should be able to view classes only at designated times. (I suggest once a semester.) All contact with parents should be through email or mail, and discussions with the teacher or director should be by appointment only.
When parents feel that their children are superior to their classmates, you must help them learn to trust your judgment. Explain that class placement is determined by what is best for the child and that students make more progress when they are comfortable instead of struggling to keep up. Parents must learn that progress in ballet is measured not by the number or complexity of the steps but by the training of the body to perform more demanding technique later.
By Mignon Furman
Pirouette en dedans should be the easiest way to turn; it is the most natural. However, problems arise when turning is made so technical that the dancers become tense, restricting the movement.
Preparation is from a fourth position facing croisé with weight over the front foot on a bent knee with the back leg straight. The arms are in third with the same arm in front as the front leg.
Do not over-cross the croisé position and make certain that the shoulders and hips are aligned. The movement of the working leg should coordinate with the side arm. The working foot can come directly to the turning position (under the knee of the supporting leg) or pass through second. Try not to stop the turn but continue with the feeling of turning with the arms in first.
For piqué (posé) turns, dancers must push from demi-plié onto an extended, fully stretched leg. The arms open to second and then close into first position on the turn; coupe is performed on completing the turn. Stepping onto piqué without turning, and using the coupe to make the turn, is incorrect.
Arms should open on the piqué so that the leading arm points in the direction of travel. I tell young dancers that the leading arm is like a direction finder indicating where to go and the arm that closes is the engine.
By Mignon Furman
In teaching pirouettes it is important to emphasize using turnout. On relevé the supporting leg must retain turnout with the working leg placed so that the toe is just below the knee of the supporting leg. The turned-out working knee acts like a rudder of a ship, steering the way around.
The arms must also be used correctly. For en dehors pirouettes, with the preparation taken from fifth or fourth position, the arms should begin in third. Remind the students that they will turn toward the front arm and that the side arm must not go behind the shoulder.
To teach correct arm placement during the turn, have the students hold an object in the hand of the side arm. As they turn, they switch it into the other hand.
During the turn, the arms should be in first position and slightly shortened (closer to the body), with a feeling of width at the elbows. (People who have broad shoulders turn more easily than those with narrow shoulders.)
The Performance Awards bring teacher education and scholarships to Tel Aviv and beyond
By Mignon Furman
From my balcony at the Tel Aviv Hilton, I watched swimmers, surfers, and the waves of the Mediterranean Sea lapping on the beach below. In Israel for the Performance Awards, my program to encourage and evaluate ballet students, I looked out on this city of contrasts. Its skyscrapers towered over older apartment buildings built on concrete stilts, with bomb shelters in their basements and solar panels on their roofs. I could see the nearby marina, and the biblical Jaffa in the distance.
In the cool evening breeze, all seemed peaceful. But in Israel, suicide bombers might attack anywhere. For security, bags are inspected at stores and cinemas. There was a checkpoint on the approach to the Hilton; a security guard inspected the trunk of our car. At the hotel entrance, I was frisked with a metal detector and told to open my purse for inspection. On my return to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem, the police pulled our car over for a random inspection.
On my first visit to Israel for the Performance Awards, four years ago, my decision to leave the safety of Manhattan for the potentially dangerous cities of Israel was therefore greeted with some surprise.
A teacher from Ashkelon, less than 10 miles from the Gaza border, told me that her students could not always come to their classes because of the missile attacks from militant organizations in Gaza. The Israeli army had already withdrawn from its invasion of Gaza when I arrived in Israel. Everyday life in Tel Aviv did not reflect the war that had been raging about an hour’s drive away.
I had several objectives to squeeze into my visit: Assess the students, awarding a medal and certificate to each one; instruct teachers in my programs and in those of Merle Sepel for the preschool child; audition students for scholarships for my Summer School (American Academy of Ballet); meet the teachers who had participated in the programs; and judge the first Performance Awards competition in Israel.
There are some eight modern dance companies in Israel, as well as jazz, tap, and European and Middle Eastern folk dance companies. The main ballet company is Israeli Ballet, which has its own school. I saw the company at the new and modernistic opera house in Tel Aviv and was impressed by its style in the classical ballets.
One of the most notable companies in Israel was Bat-Dor (which means “Generation’s Daughter”) Dance Company. Bat-Dor achieved world recognition before the recent deaths of its benefactress, the Baroness de Rothschild (who had previously founded Batsheva; it is now directed by Ohad Naharin) and Jeannette Ordman, its director and leading dancer for many years.
Into this milieu I gingerly stepped four years ago, uncertain of how the Israeli teachers would view my concept of medals and certificates as motivation for enhanced technique and performance. At first the teachers who attended my courses were skeptical; they asked so many questions about the program and its implementation that I began to think my ideas would never work there. The Performance Awards were already active in eight countries (the United States, Japan, Mexico, Holland, the Bahamas, South Africa, Spain, and Canada); perhaps I would not be able to add Israel to the list. However, since then the number of participating teachers and students has increased; the 26 teachers and 530 students are an indicator of the Israelis’ newfound enthusiasm.
On this trip I was assisted by Brian Loftus and Merle, both guest teachers at the Summer School and judges for the Performance Awards in the United States and other countries. Brian lives in London and teaches there as well as in New York, Paris, and Japan. Merle is on the dance faculty of California State University at Fullerton and owns a ballet school in Santa Ana, California.
Our travels, by car and train, took us to some of the local community centers, where most of the Performance Awards were held. Built with lottery proceeds, the centers offer performance spaces, libraries, and instruction areas for art. Apart from Israel’s three main cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, we visited six other towns, some poetically named: Nes-Ziona (Miracle of Zion), Bat-Yam (Sea Daughter), and Sefar-Amir (Beauty—Bough of a Tree). In the biblical town of Shoham (Stones), the mayor—in jeans and open-necked shirt, reflecting the informality of Israel—gave a laudatory speech of welcome. For a moment I felt that American–Israeli diplomacy depended on ballet!
Merle had two memorable experiences. She traveled to a kibbutz in Ga’aton, near Lebanon, where she met a teacher who was 17 when she was freed from Auschwitz at the end of World War II. Then, at the Performance Awards in the Arab village of Shfar’am, the students danced in tights and leotards while their mothers in the audience were covered in black from head to toe, their faces and heads veiled with yashmaks. The teacher there, anticipating Israeli animosity, did not attend the teachers’ meeting, which of course was erroneous thinking.
At all the Performance Awards there were flutters of excitement, flashes of cameras, and bevies of flowers as parents shared the thrill of the students when the medals were awarded, whatever the color—gold, silver, or bronze. Several exceptional dancers received gold medals with distinction, which are rarely awarded. The improvement in the standard of schools I had visited a year before was quite apparent. I felt a sense of fulfillment that my concept of ballet education had been accepted in yet another country.
Our travels, by car and train, took us to some of the local community centers, where most of the Performance Awards were held. Built with lottery proceeds, the centers offer performance spaces, libraries, and instruction areas for art.
My second objective was a two-session course, attended by about 52 teachers from all over Israel. (Considering that the population of Israel is about 7 million, that’s the equivalent of roughly 2,100 teachers in the United States.) Although Hebrew is the official language of Israel and many of the teachers are sabras (born in Israel), they all had a good understanding of English; some were immigrants from England, Canada, or South Africa.
For the teachers’ course I showed videos of my two new programs, which are detailed instruction classes for different ages: “Junior Steps” for students ages 10 to 12 and “Now I Am a Teen.” I also included a session on beginning pointe work, an area of teaching that I often find needs improvement; some teachers (not only in Israel) do not seem to grasp the concept of the training elements.
Merle’s program for 3- to 5-year-olds includes a voice-over and special sound effects. She performed with the teachers as she taught them “Fantasy Sea Adventure” and “Jungle Adventure.” While these courses were taking place, Brian gave classes to senior students in another part of the center.
The next day we held the scholarship auditions. I award about 40 scholarships to our Summer School each year to U.S. dancers, and over the years I have helped more than 500 students attend. By improving their technique and performance quality, they take a step toward achieving their dreams of becoming professional dancers. I have also awarded scholarships to students from England, France, Spain, and South Africa, so I decided to extend the program to Israel. Forty-six students attended the audition. Brian gave the class; Merle and I made the selections—not an easy task, considering the high standard of the students. We awarded six scholarships.
Because in Israel both girls and boys are conscripted into the army (for two and three years, respectively) after leaving school, we had to choose extra dancers in case our first choices were unable to get military leave. (The army has an office of cultural affairs to enable young performing artists to continue their studies during their military service.)
The Performance Awards is not a competitive event in that the idea is not to find a winner but to assess the students and award a medal (gold, silver, or bronze) and a certificate to each dancer who participates. However, annual competitions for the high achievers are held in New York and Durban, South Africa. All dancers perform the same choreography, which is part of the repertoire taught for their level, wearing leotards and tights. Since attire, music, and choreography are not part of what’s being judged, the winners are chosen solely for their dance quality, technique, and presentation.
Since the program was now in its third year in Israel, I decided to hold a competition for the first time. Only dancers who had participated in the program and who were awarded a gold medal were eligible to enter—and 65 did.
In the highest level, the dancers were required to dance the solo from Act 3 of Don Quixote. Four students danced this demanding variation with great aplomb and technical virtuosity. The winner received a scholarship to the American Academy of Ballet’s summer school at Purchase College.
Prima Soft, Capezio, and Mondor donated prizes, and winners in each level received trophies. Because competitions are not as frequent in Israel as in America, the entrants and audience did not quite know what to expect. But their doubts changed to enthusiasm and the event was pronounced a success.
My final endeavor in Israel was a meeting in the Tel Aviv Hilton’s conference center with teachers who had participated in the Performance Awards program, in order to correct any deviations from the choreography that would diminish its style or technical demands. The Hilton laid on juices, coffee, tea, and eats. A great sense of bonhomie prevailed among the teachers, some of whom had never met each other previously. It was with many rounds of goodbyes, hugs, and kisses that our trio said farewell to the Israeli teachers. They continue to unfurl the banner of artistry and ballet education for young Israeli dancers, who, in addition to facing the usual complexities of life, are embattled by hostile forces.
On my last day, I asked Talia Perlschtein, who organized our visit and the travel logistics, to translate the Hebrew lettering on a wall at the dance center where the classes were held. She said that the center is called the “Seasons of the First Fruits.” As I left Israel, planning to return the next year, I could understand the psyche of the Israelis, who live the hope that the seasons will be perennial and the first fruits abundant.
By Mignon Furman
In traveling to many cities on my audition tour, I have become more aware than ever of many young dancers’ inability to turn well. Look for more tips on improving this aspect of technique next month.
The first thing dancers must understand is that to turn, one must be able to balance. Therefore at the end of barre exercises, teachers should introduce the concept of balance through the understanding of weight placement. Have the children practice rising onto demi-pointe with all toes evenly placed on the floor, hips over fully stretched knees, shoulders over hips, and the weight forward over the balls of the feet.
Practicing the use of the head and eyes in spotting is important. Have students shuffle around quickly, keeping the feet together with legs parallel, or skip around. Introducing turning steps at a fairly young age helps students grasp the feeling of turning. Changement, soubresaut, and échappé are a few steps that can be turned; young children can accomplish quarter- and half-turns.
By Mignon Furman
What age to start pointe work? This is a question frequently asked by teachers, and my advice is not before 10 or 11 years of age. But the most important criterion is not the age of the dancer but her strength. Are the ankles strong? Are the muscles around the knee stable? Can the child hold her body correctly with the weight over the three points of the foot (big toe, little toe, and heel)?
An important factor in developing strength is how many lessons the child takes per week. My preference is to put on pointe only those children who take a minimum of three classes per week.
Once a child is ready to start pointe work, the teacher must make certain that the pointe shoes fit correctly: too big, and friction can cause blisters; too tight, and dancing with cramped toes (instead of relaxed toes that lie flat in the shoe) can cause injury to the Achilles tendon. A good, knowledgeable shoe fitter is a necessity.
By Mignon Furman
Hyperextended (or swayback) legs create a beautiful line but present problems with strength and stability in some areas, including pointe work. When working on pointe, the weight needs to be well forward and the knees must be in line over the toes, not pushed back.
Teachers often ask whether it is better to tell students to get the knees straight and allow the heels to be slightly apart in first position or to stand with the heels together and the knees slightly relaxed. I recommend standing with the heels together and the weight more forward than normal. The knees should be as straight as possible and one knee must not be in front of the other. A therapist once advised me to put a small, soft lift in the heels of the shoes; it certainly helped to get the weight forward.
By Mignon Furman
How do you get students to keep straight lines when dancing in a group or ensemble for a competition or recital? It’s simple: Teach them to look directly at the back of the head of the dancer in front of them (right at the bun, if it’s a girl).
When turning and moving the lines in a sideways direction (i.e., toward the wings), the focus of each dancer’s eyes needs to be on the side of the head of the dancer in front of her.
When dancers are moving in a circle, often the circle becomes smaller or elongated, like an egg shape. To maintain a good shape of the proper size, the dancers must keep their eyes on the outside shoulder of the dancer in front of them.
To teach développés devant, have the students lie on the floor on their backs with their legs crossed as though the feet are in fifth position and with both feet fully stretched. Instruct them to draw the working foot through cou-de-pied to the passé (retiré) position. Then, leading with the heel, they should extend to an attitude devant, returning the leg to fifth position by reversing the movement. Have them practice développé to second from this position as well; it is easier to feel the correct placement of the hips.
Once the dancers are strong enough to perform a correct développé (maintaining good turnout and able to lift the legs higher than 90 degrees), they should be careful not to “lock” the hip in the passé position. Instead, they should lift the knee smoothly and unfold the lower leg in line with the thigh using the inside thigh muscle. This movement takes control, flexibility, and strength. It is easy to kick the leg high but not so simple to unfold and hold the leg with good elevation and placement.
Do not demonstrate too much. When teachers demonstrate excessively, young students depend on copying them instead of absorbing and remembering the movements.
It is better to show the movements or combination—being very clear about what you want—and then sit down and allow the dancers to perform the movement.
Really look at your students, not through “rose-colored glasses” but realistically. Observe each student’s whole body and note where improvements can be made.
Limit the dancers’ time working in front of the mirror. If you want a good eyeline (eyes aligned with the head instead of focused on the mirror) as well as no “copying,” it is best for the dancers to work without a mirror most of the time.
Working “blind” is also good practice for when they get onstage; it is very disconcerting to the dancers to suddenly be without the aid of a mirror if they are not used to dancing without one.
When teaching batterie (such as a royale or changement battu or an entrechat quatre), have the students start from an open rather than a closed position.
- Spring to second position on 1.
- Spring into the air, beat the calves together, and alight in second position demi-plié on and-2.
- Repeat on and-3.
- Spring to fifth position demi-plié on 4.
- Repeat all.
To practice the correct action for batterie, have the students lie on the floor on their backs and raise the legs 90 degrees in a turned-out position. Starting in fifth position, have them practice beating the calves and changing the feet in fifth.
If the studio has two barres that form a right angle in a corner (with space between them), have the students place a hand on each barre, then push up to suspend themselves in the air and practice the beating movement (see photo at left).
Explain to the young dancers that the legs must part before a beat can be achieved. Prove this by telling them to place their hands together and clap; it is impossible to do without opening the hands first.
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.
To explain the concept of turnout to a young dancer, have the child stand with legs parallel. Draw a straight line along the thigh through the knee and down the shin to the center of the foot. (Use chalk so that it can be removed easily.) Explain that the line must always remain straight even when turning out, and that only by practice and gaining strength and flexibility will each leg turn out to 90 degrees with the line remaining straight. Explain that if the leg turns out from the knee instead of the thigh, the line will not be straight.
To maintain and improve turnout when teaching ronds de jambe à terre, explain that the leg must pass through pointing to the corner of the room as it circles on the floor. In en dedans, the turnout must be held from the second position through the front corner before bringing the leg to fourth position devant. The same principle applies when working en l’air. The corner positions must be observed and the leg lengthened without disturbing the hips.
A demi-plié provides both spring and momentum in allegro work, making fast steps easier, jumps higher, and landings softer. Demi-plié must be used at the beginning and end of all springing and allegro steps, including glissades. A well-executed glissade must be completed in one count, making certain to put the same energy in stretching the closing foot as in the leading foot.
Demi-plié also facilitates the transfer of weight in a piqué. Before stepping onto a piqué (or posé), the dancer should demi-plié on the supporting leg to enable a good push off onto the stepping leg. This places the dancer solidly on the stepping leg on pointe or demi-pointe.
By Mignon Furman
In a class of 3- to 5-year-olds, it is a good idea to vary the format of the class. One way to do that is to place hula hoops on the floor and tell the children that each one’s place is in a particular hoop. (They become very territorial!) It makes for a fun class and teaches discipline as well.
If you observe that your dancers are developing strange habits, such as affectations involving the hands or shoulders, look at yourself in the mirror to see if perhaps you have developed some odd traits that you don’t want them to mimic. Children pick up bad habits much more quickly than good ones!
TIP #1: Corrections
Do not give instructions through the music. If a dancer is not performing the steps correctly, stop the music and correct the steps. Do not give more than two corrections at a time. If more than two are necessary, let the dancers get the first two correct before proceeding with further corrections.
TIP #2: Communication
Keep your words focused. Do not ramble on and talk too much during a class. Let the students dance to maintain the rhythm and dynamics of the class.
There is a correct way for teachers to ask a question in a class. Do not allow the students to shout a collective response or make a show of hands. Rather, make certain that the class is attentive, ask the question, look at each dancer in turn, and then call one by name to answer. If the answer is not correct, request the answer from another dancer, without making the first dancer feel inadequate.
Three golden rules for arms (except where choreographed otherwise):
1. The arms should never move to or be held in a position behind the ears.
2. The hands should never cross the centerline of the body.
3. In any arabesque, the shoulder of the front arm is never lower than the shoulder of the side arm.
Three more golden rules:
1. At the barre, when turning to repeat an exercise on the other side, dancers should always turn toward the barre.
2. When dancers must pass each other on the stage, those on stage left always pass in front of those on stage right.
3. Whenever the foot is lifted off the floor, it must be stretched to a full point.