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Do We Need to Update Our Approach to Ballet Technique?

~ Written by Danielle Lee-Hogervorst, Outreach Coordinator at Ballegro Player, Dancer at Arts Umbrella’s Graduate Program


I took my first ballet class at 2.5 years old - a mother-daughter class - and have never stopped since.  Currently training at Arts Umbrella in their Graduate Program, I partake in the study of ballet 6 days a week. It is a never-ending practise.  One where you are constantly striving to be better than you were yesterday. One where you feel like you have gotten progressively worse since last week, but you nevertheless continue to show up everyday to persevere and challenge yourself, because you have a vision of what you can and hope to achieve.  One where you discover something new about your body, mind, relationship to others in space and time everyday.

 But is this practise and strife for consistency and possibly perfection giving us, as aspiring and professional dancers, everything we need to succeed in the 21st century dance world?

 I cannot deny that it gives me an incredible hunger, purpose, and determination to show up for myself and the work everyday.  It has enabled me to develop my resilience, musicality, precision, adaptability, and the ability to be quick at retaining exercises and corrections - all whilst remembering how much joy dance brings me!  However, I do feel that there are elements of choreography and repertoire that are not completely encompassed by this daily practise of ballet technique.


Cardio

 A primary aspect that is missing from ballet technique is cardio.  It is not often you find yourself in an hour-and-a-half or two hour ballet class whose sole purpose is to challenge your stamina.  Most of the time we are working to develop our consistency and the articulation of our bodies. We stop between each exercise, and often between doing the right and left side, to regroup and get feedback from our teachers. What are we struggling with? What tips do they have to help us succeed? Sometimes if it’s a more difficult exercise, we repeat it; and when we’re ready for our next challenge, we move on.  As we work on building our repertoire, it becomes clear how crucial stamina is. A creation can range from 5-20 minutes long, or a full-evening piece could be 1.5 hours! If we don’t include cardio in our daily practise, how can we expect to make it through these long and physically demanding pieces?


Warm-up

Another aspect of a dancers’ everyday practise is what happens BEFORE class even begins: warm up!  This, as my teachers often remind us, is the most important part of your day; the part where you set yourself up mentally and physically for everything the day has in store.  Cardio, joint mobilization, spinal twists, stabilization and coordination exercises, light dynamic stretching, and rolling out sore muscles are all on my agenda of things to fit in before class has even commenced!  This usually requires me getting to the studio at least an hour early. But I am now wondering if this should be necessary? Yes, it is important to have the diligence to know how you need to prepare yourself for the day; and yes, these exercises are incorporated into class to an extent, but perhaps these could be interspersed between exercises throughout barre and center, as preparation for the upcoming exercises as well as to further coordinate the body.  And then I could sleep in a little too! I don’t know if this is THE solution - it is a thought that has come up as I have been working on writing this post; it would likely require a longer ballet class in order to include these additional exercises, but could be worth a try!


Barre vs. Centre

I am also questioning the purpose of using the barre for around 50% of our practise.  Studies have shown that we use our standing leg 50-60% less at the barre! This means that by the time we get to center practise, yes we have had the luxury of being able to work on many other skills with our wooden or steel partner, however it is a whole new world when your additional support has been stripped from you!  This past week, I have been fortunate enough to have gotten to work with Alexandra Wells for Image Tech and ballet. One of the many great things we did during barre was doing a few of our exercises that would typically be done with the support of the barre, in the center - a true test to discover how ‘on our legs’ we are before the barre is taken away from us completely.  It is true that often our teachers recommend that we test our balance during exercises, but with the barre right under your fingertips, you are not forced to mentally or physically find your leg. So perhaps a way to enhance ballet class without requiring additional time is to take a step away from the barre for some barre exercises.


Versatility

Versatility is a non-negotiable component of being a professional dancer.  No matter where you end up dancing, it can be guaranteed that you will be required to perform different styles of repertoire, especially in this day and age.  For most projects and companies, including midsize to large ballet companies, works can range from Ohad Naharin and Crystal Pite, to more neoclassical works of George Balanchine.  If you want the opportunity to be cast in and thus perform all creations brought to you, it is crucial to be a well-rounded dancer. I currently dance around 50 hours per week, yet somehow we have just enough time to fit in a ballet class into our day before switching gears to rehearsal.  If time were truly our friend, perhaps we would have time to take a variety of classes everyday, like classical modern, floor work, improvisation, pointe, and partnering. However, unfortunately our days are not nearly long enough; so maybe there is a way to incorporate some exercises from these different genres into our daily ballet classes.  It could change every day, week, or month, depending on what repertoire is currently being set, or what the dancers feel they need to focus on. For example, if a company is working on Naharin repertoire, some Gaga methodologies could be brought into class; or if a piece has lots of partnering, a few partnering exercises could be introduced during barre - you could have a living partner instead of one made of wood or steel!


Gender Stereotype 

This leads me to my next point: partnering and ballet’s male/female stereotypes.  Why is it that in most cases, and especially in ballet, women do the pointe work and men do the large jumps; women get lifted and men do the partnering; women embody grace and nimbleness and men embody strength and power?  These ideas are being questioned and are slowly evolving in both the dance world and the outside world, but still in the practise of ballet, this remains mostly unchanged.  

As quoted by Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.” Both men and women have been categorized and explicitly told what they should be able to do, and therefore also implicitly told what they should not be able to do ‘as well as’ the other gender.  It is easy to let these messages give us easy ways out of striving for our absolute best, because we have been told that these steps are “not meant for us anyways”. I recently however watched an incredible video of Natalia Osipova effortlessly executing the Laurencia variation from Laurencia; one that is one split jump straight into the next!  If this doesn’t prove ballerinas are absolutely capable of jumping, I don’t know what does! Another example of this stereotype being challenged is with Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo (photographed above): an all-male ballet company where any role typically played by females is played by males. En pointe. Pink ballet tights. Tutus. Wigs in buns. Tiaras. The whole works featuring chest hair! I saw them perform at The Joyce Theatre in New York City; a hilarious, thrilling, and inspiring thing to see men partnering men, and see these insanely talented men performing "women's roles" with exquisitely flawless technique! 

So, what if we all challenged these stereotypes of ballet?  What if all men also did pointe work and all women were expected to jump as high as the men?  What if women partnered women and men partnered men, or if the women partnered the men? Even if it is just for the practise of versatility or to expand and understand your knowledge of aspects of your training you do not often get the opportunity to try; why not challenge these stereotypes?


Ballet Stereotype 

Another thing to challenge is our mentality around the expectations of ballet and what it is ‘supposed’ to look like.  What do you think of when you picture the ‘ultimate’ ballerina? Perhaps 180-degree turnout, banana feet, long legs, a slender body, and extreme flexibility, to list the most obvious.  What if ballet was not a strife for something that is physically out of reach for many aspiring dancers, but was a way to inspire us to further access, understand, and utilize our bodies to their greatest capacity?  To not feel like you need to crank your feet into a higher degree of turnout, or use foot stretchers that could do more harm to your feet and alignment than good. What if ballet were designed not to compare yourself to others, but work on the best version of yourself on that given day?  Maybe this means covering the mirrors, which are not advantageous for many reasons. Ballet could be your daily practise to better yourself, achieve your own personal best, and a way to challenge yourself to do more than you thought you could do last year, last month, or yesterday.


Start on the “right” foot? 

One final note that I have been questioning lately is the fact that we always start with the right side first. At the barre, this means our left hand is on the barre on the first side, and in the center we usually start with the right leg in front (in 5th position).  I used to always wonder why one side of my body is more stable, consistent, and comfortable than the other. If you take a moment to think about the setup of ballet class however, it is not hard to imagine why. When learning an exercise, we often mark it on the right to mimic our teachers; when doing an exercise, we start on the right - fresh and not yet fatigued; when practising steps after the exercise, for some reason our instincts often prompt us to try the side that was more comfortable - perhaps to see if we can do it on our ‘good side’ before attempting on the ‘not-so-good side’.  I think that this is an easy shift that could be made to not just ballet class, but every genre of dance, where as creatures of habit, we enjoy the familiarity of starting the same way every time.

There are so many aspects of our everyday ballet technique class that are so essential and beneficial to us as dancers and humans, and there are also many ways that we can progress ballet technique to further our training and understanding of our bodies.  There are many new methodologies that are already challenging what we have come to know as ‘ballet technique’, and I am quite positive that many more will surface in the upcoming years. But there are also many little ways we can update our everyday practise to continue the development of an artform that so many are apart of at some point of their lives! 

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