Rhiannon Archerelle’s Ballet Concepts class reframes classical training
by Mary Ellen Hunt
Initially, Rhiannon Archerelle’s Ballet Concepts class—which weaves together several strands of dance education, including history, anatomy, somatic practice, improvisation, and choreography—was designed to engage students who didn’t particularly enjoy taking ballet.
Archerelle, 39, first developed the class while she was teaching at The Next Step Dance Studio in Wenatchee, Washington. Although the dancers were interested in many styles, they were less enthusiastic about the required ballet class.
“We had a group of students who were in their teens, and they didn’t like it. It’s understandable, and I felt bad,” Archerelle recalls. “I thought, ‘Gosh, I totally get it, kids, because I hate doing laundry, but it’s something that I have to do,’ but how can we make this fun, and how can we make this more intriguing?”
“It all comes back to knowing how the body works and what muscles to use.” —Rhiannon Archerelle
“It was really about making the class enjoyable for them and getting their needs met,” Archerelle says. “I wanted them to understand body mechanics: working through the feet, learning to expand through their joints with movement, being aware of their pelvic alignment, what muscles control it. They needed to know about their bodies, and whether they want to be professionals or not, that comes in so handy later in life.”
A Washington native, Archerelle began studying ballet at age 4, and went on to direct the ballet program at The Next Step Dance Studio. While ballet has always been one of her passions, she has also done street dance and studied subjects that inform the Ballet Concepts curriculum, including sports medicine, physiology, psychology, and kinesiology. She is also a certified Pilates instructor.
Ballet Concepts—which Archerelle taught for three years before handing off the class to some of her former students—can be taught in one- and two-hour formats. It’s geared toward students who are less comfortable with ballet than other styles of dance, and is designed to foster a fuller understanding of the mind–body connection. Studio time is devoted to working on technique, strength, and balance; required reading and homework assignments educate students on terminology, injury prevention, kinesiology concepts, and choreographic theory.
The first part of a Ballet Concepts class is spent on conditioning, using elements of ballet technique, floor barre, and Horton and Graham techniques along with Pilates mat work to focus on targeted muscles. When Archerelle taught a lesson on the anatomy of the foot, for example, she sometimes began at the barre, talking about the structure of the foot and how a tendu does not involve simply the toe or foot, but also involves muscles all the way through the hip. During the barre and center, students worked through that concept physically as well as thinking about how the concept applies to other movements.
At the beginning of the season, the class focuses on strengthening core muscles to improve stability and balance and set up the body to work in correct alignment. Over time, students work outward from the pelvis and the spine to other muscle groups. The class progressively builds from conditioning to partnering, improvisation, group work, and choreography.
Theory and analysis form another key part of the curriculum. Former student Hannah Rice, who took Ballet Concepts with Archerelle at Next Step beginning at age 17, recalls that classes incorporated written work and research.
“We had to keep a notebook and she would give us homework. We’d study anatomy or research figures in dance like the Sun King [Louis XIV] and write a paragraph about them,” she says. “As a teenager I thought, ‘Dang, why do I have to do this? I already have so much homework!’ But in the long run, what an educational opportunity it was. We learned so much that I still remember today and I was so well-rounded.”
Rice, 21, who went on to teach the class at Next Step a few years after taking it, is now a student at Cornish College of the Arts. She says teaching students about body alignment even before showing or having them physically try a movement is a Ballet Concepts hallmark.
“In the class, you’re not just teaching a plié, but really going through the mechanics, talking about the femur, for instance, and how it’s turned in the hip socket,” Rice says. “Having that visualization really helps the mover articulate the work and understand the exercise on a base level.”
“It all comes back to knowing how the body works and what muscles to use,” says Archerelle, who often brought in textbooks such as Karen Clippinger’s Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology for the dancers to study. “I [tried] to make things that could be tedious as fun as possible.” Archerelle had students work through concepts physically, then do the exercise in the center; she would give them prompts such as, ‘Move like there’s a lot of gravity right now, but within your movement, I want you to think about how that concept is applied.’ ”
Giving students the freedom to discover a personal movement vocabulary even as they study the basics is equally important to Archerelle, who also incorporated opportunities for improvisation into the class and sometimes let the students choose music that they could better connect to for improv exercises. (She avoided classical ballet music for the class.)
“I think choreography today is more of a reflection of the instructor’s expectations than it is the student’s voice, and you miss a lot that way,” Archerelle says. “Going into street dance from a ballet background was really challenging for me, because all the moves that I had, all my muscle memory had been trained through repetition. It was really hard for me to break loose and learn how to find my inner voice, but that form of expression, where the movement really is your voice, is priceless. I think that that’s what they need to learn more of. You take your physical training and use your brain to think about how you move your body. But then you let your emotion into it and let your soul speak.”
Archerelle worked to create a safe and comfortable environment in which dancers could become more confident. She wanted students to see dance as a personal journey, express themselves, and overcome personal qualms to reach a higher level of dancing.
“How do you get past those things that hold you back physically, past that feeling of ‘I don’t know if I can do this, what are they going to think of me?’ ” Archerelle says. “Most of these students are recreational students; they’re not focused on a professional ballet career. Learning to have body awareness is a wonderful thing to carry with them throughout their lives, because as they get older, that knowledge is key to injury prevention.”
“Rhiannon shaped the way I work in class, and has been a mentor to me as a teacher—she helped me develop my work ethic in general. I don’t think that I would be where I’m at with dance right now if it weren’t for her,” says Rice. “For those of us in a small town at a competition studio who were not interested in being either a professional ballerina or following the competition track, she showed us that there are infinite choices in between those two things. She showed us how to be part of the dance world and I wouldn’t have gotten that any other way.”
Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle. A former dancer, now teacher, she has also contributed to Dance Magazine, Pointe, and Dance Teacher.
“I think that continuing education is really important,” says Archerelle. “When I became an instructor, I felt a huge sense of responsibility for the safety of my students. There is so much to know and my feeling was, if you don’t know it, research it.” There are many online resources, including videos and forums, but Archerelle recommends the following texts, which she used in part to create Ballet Concepts.
- Anatomy and Kinesiology for Ballet Teachers by Eivind Thomasen and Rachel-Anne Rist
- Applied Exercise & Sport Physiology With Labs by Terry J. Housh, Donna J. Housh, and Herbert A. deVries
- Ballet Pedagogy: The Art of Teaching by Rory Foster
- Both Sides of the Mirror: The Science and Art of Ballet by Anna Paskeveska
- Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology by Karen Clippinger
- Dance Improvisations by Justin Reeve
- The Dancer Prepares: Modern Dance for Beginners by James Penrod and Janice Gudde Plastino
- Ideokinesis: A Creative Approach to Human Movement & Body Alignment by André Bernard, Wolfgang Steinmuller, and Ursula Stricker
- Inside Ballet Technique: Separating Anatomical Fact from Fiction in the Ballet Class by Valerie Grieg
- Manual of Structural Kinesiology by R. T. Floyd and Clem Thompson
- Physics and the Art of Dance: Understanding Movement by Kenneth Laws
- Teaching Classical Ballet by John White
The books that Archerelle used to visually communicate concepts include:
- The Anatomy Coloring Book by Wynn Kapit and Lawrence M. Elson
- Dance Anatomy by Jacqui Greene Haas
- Striking a Balance: Dancers Talk About Dancing by Barbara Newman