Ballet’s take on traditional dances offers partner skills, cultural awareness, and fun
By Fiona Ellwood
In classical ballet, the traditions of European culture come alive onstage. Watch a production of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, or Don Quixote and you’ll see fairy tales and stories of royalty and ordinary people told through the classical technique handed down from King Louis XIV. But you’ll also see character dances—ballet versions of traditional folk dances such as the Hungarian czardas, in 2/4 or 4/4 time; the Polish mazurka, in 3/4 time; the krakowiak, a fast, syncopated dance in duple time from the region of Krakow; the Italian tarantella, usually danced with tambourines in 6/8 time; and the Spanish seguidilla, in quick triple time that often starts on the “off” beat.
Major ballet schools around the world—including Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia; The Royal Ballet School in London, England; and The Australian Ballet School in Melbourne—teach character dance as an integral part of ballet training. The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), the predominant ballet education organization, includes character dance in its graded examination syllabuses at eight levels. Outside of these schools, though, character dance is often neglected in classical ballet training. That’s too bad, because character dance is an essential part of ballet training—and it’s also fun. And, for young children, it helps to develop awareness of geography and cultural differences.
Types of character dance
Developed by the dancing masters of the 19th century to include less technically challenging steps in the classical ballet vocabulary, character dances enhance ballet on the stage and in the classroom. We can thank Alexander Shiryaev, assistant to Marius Petipa, for codifying the folk dances of the time into the character dances we see in the great ballet classics.
At first glance the basic steps of the dances of eastern Europe seem very similar; however, the styles are diverse and nuanced. Often the position of the hands on the waist or hips is a clue to a dance’s origin. For example, in Hungarian character dance the hands are on the hips with the fingers together and the tips angled down toward the center of the body; in Polish dances, the hands are on the top of the hips, fists clenched.
National and folk dances often reflect the local topography, surroundings, and traditions. For example, Russian dance uses flat, long, even steps that reflect the vast expanse of the central Russian steppes. The upright backs and somewhat formal style of Polish dance, such as the mazurka and krakowiak, with clicks of the heels, reflect traditional equestrian and military customs. Heel clicking represents the clicking of the spurs—a way of showing respect and recognition upon greeting or departure. The small, close steps of the Hungarian czardas (which means “inn” or “tavern”) reflect dancing that takes place in a small space.
Why offer character?
Introducing character work in ballet classes, or as a separate class, offers several benefits to students. One is introducing partner work. Interacting with another dancer in close physical proximity helps to develop trust and confidence, as well as a sense of working together for mutual benefit. Children ages 3 to 6 typically are comfortable holding hands and making eye contact with their fellow students; however, this openness tends to diminish as they age. Character dance, with its emphasis on dancing with a partner or a group, helps students who are shy or awkward to build confidence, overcome social anxiety, and become comfortable interacting in a close physical context.
In terms of long-term benefits, character dance helps classical ballet students prepare for partner work. When they are accustomed to dancing with a partner, often they find the transition to pas de deux work less daunting. And character dance helps develop students’ musicality. This is particularly valuable when teaching syncopation. Students gain knowledge and understanding of various rhythms and time signatures when they’re exposed to the traditional music and instruments used in character dance. For example, some of the character dance music used in the RAD’s lower grades is orchestrated and uses traditional instruments of eastern Europe.
Character dance introduces students to storytelling through dance and develops necessary basic acting skills that enhance the students’ performances. The use of props helps with the storytelling and teaches the student the importance of using various tools to get the story across.
From a broader educational standpoint, teaching character dance is an opportunity to enrich young children’s knowledge of the world in a context that is vibrant with music and movement. Keep a world map in the classroom and point out the city or country where a particular kind of music or dance step originated (and likely is still danced).
Character in the classroom
Character dance can be introduced to students as young as 6 years old. The RAD syllabus introduces the first character work in Grade 1, in two Russian peasant-style dances, one with props (a watering can and an optional ribbon or garland). All work is choreographed for both boys and girls, with slight differences included in the syllabus.
Each level of the RAD examination syllabuses for Grades 1 through 5 has two character dances of varying styles: Russian peasant, Hungarian peasant, Ukrainian, Italian, and Spanish. In the lower grades the dances are all solo dances; however, in training, the steps should be taught separately, then slowly built up to create enchaînements that students can perform in class with a partner or in groups before learning the solo dances. Using the barre to teach certain steps is necessary, since good balance is required. These steps are the heel toe, picked-up runs (a springing run in which the back leg lifts behind the body, knee bent and foot pointed), pas de basque (a springing step onto one foot with a brief transfer of weight onto the ball of the other foot and back, with the released foot flexed), and cifra (like a pas de basque, but stepping onto the heel instead of the ball of the foot).
These steps are developed into traveling steps in various patterns, and with partners, which introduces interaction and making eye contact. Dancers learn how to interact by going across the floor hand in hand, or with elbows linked for the picked-up runs—and they also have fun. Moving on through the lower grades, the Hungarian czardas, an Italian tarantella using a tambourine, a Spanish flamenco-style dance, and the Polish krakowiak are introduced.
Students in the upper grades (6, 7, and 8) learn the more formal court styles that are more in keeping with the dances in the classical ballet repertoire. Exercises for various steps are taught and are danced in groups or with partners, mirroring each other, which reinforces the importance of bilateral transfer of learning.
In Grade 6, Polish Court teaches the Polish style, which includes the mazurka and full breaks (a group of three movements, ending in a strong clicking together of the heels) as well as quick and precise pivot turns. Grade 7 acquaints the dancers with the technically demanding Hungarian court style, with a pronounced and precise use of épaulement. In Grade 8, the simple-looking Danse Russe, in Georgian style, is quiet and understated and requires a mature, confidant style. These dances require a refined sense of musicality and an understanding of the dances’ differences in style and movement quality.
If you’re new to character dance, start with the simple peasant dances and work up to the more demanding court styles. One way to introduce character dance is to hold workshops or summer camps taught by experienced guest teachers. Also, character dance class can be part of the regular weekly curriculum, especially when students take more than one ballet class per week.
Add to the fun of character class by having the students wear the appropriate skirts and flexible-sole character shoes. The skirts are typically black and circular with ribbons decorating the lower part. The character shoes (which approximate the boots worn in many character dances in the classical ballet repertoire) are black canvas with half- or three-quarter-inch heels; the flexible sole helps with foot articulation. Students enjoy “dressing up” for class and the sense of performance they get from character dances.
Fiona Ellwood, a life member and registered teacher with the Royal Academy of Dance, has a degree in dance pedagogy and more than 30 years of teaching experience.