Pirouettes, Three Minutes at a Time
The video shoot was scheduled to end in 30 minutes, and Sachiko Kanai was still struggling with her pirouettes. She was delivering perfect turns to the right, but her left half, normally her better side, was not cooperating at all. Finis Jhung, legendary ballet teacher and coach, offered a few suggestions: Push down, ribs in, exhale, relax. Then he gently encouraged her to try one more time. Sachiko started the combination...tombé pas de bourée...and nailed the pirouettes--on both sides.
"He's the one teacher who has given me the passion and courage to dance," she says. "His message is that everyone can dance with their own body, safely."
We are at Pearl Studio videotaping Jhung's latest idea for teaching ballet: a series of twelve three-minute video downloads that break up complex ballet movements into fun, bite-sized, progressive lessons. Today's shoot is all about capturing the essence of the elusive en dehors pirouette. Sachiko demonstrates as Jhung conversationally directs and coaches. Each lesson discusses one of the fundamental elements for turning success, such as alignment, plié, pushing down to spiral (like a top), balance, relevé, arm/shoulder placement, spotting and a clean finish.
Overcoming an imperfect body to achieve ballet success is something most of us battle with, and it has been a life-long challenge for Sachiko. She started studying ballet in her hometown of Yokohama, Japan, when she was 3 years old. Very early in her training she was told she did not have the height or turn-out to become a professional ballerina. So at 17, she decided to move to London to study jazz, contemporary dance, acting and singing, hoping to eventually pursue a career in musical theater.
Later, back in Japan, Sachiko scored annual contracts with the Shiki Theater Company, one of Japan's best-known and largest theater companies. On any one evening she could be performing in Cats, The Lion King, Contact or A Chorus Line. "It was the craziest time of my life," she says, "non-stop." But after her sixth year with Shiki, she decided she had to return to her life-long dream: ballet.
She moved to New York, and discovered Jhung's advanced beginner ballet class three years ago. For the first time, according to Sachiko, a ballet teacher was helping her master the art despite physical limitations. "It was a revelation," she says. "I realized I had to relearn everything, peel back all the layers."
Her talent and work ethic did not go unnoticed. Jhung asked her to demonstrate for two of his DVDs: The Center Floor Ballet Warm-Up, which was inspired by his work coaching the young stars of Billy Elliot, and Use Your Head and Turn, which focuses on maintaining balance while spotting during turns.
Sachiko's dreams keep coming true. Last year she was selected to cover in Alexei Ratmansky's highly anticipated choreography for Aida, performed by the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. During the harrowing audition, she says, she felt a surge of confidence--thanks in no small part to her work with Jhung. "I just felt, 'I can make it,'" she says. She will be dancing in the Met's Armida, choreographed by Graciela Daniele, next February and March.
Finis Jhung's three-minute instructional videos will be available for download in mid-November. Check out finisjhung.com for more information.
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
Summer intensive auditions can be nerve-racking. A panel of directors is watching your every move, and you're not even sure if you can be seen among the hundreds of other dancers in the room. We asked five summer intensive directors for their input on how dancers can make a positive impression—and even be remembered next year.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.
We always love a good halftime performance. And we LIVE for halftime performances involving talented kids. (Fingers and toes crossed that Justin Timberlake follows Missy Elliott's lead and invites some fabulous littles to share his Super Bowl stage.)
So obviously, our hearts completely melted for 5-year-old Tavaris Jones. Tavaris may have just started kindergarten, but during Monday night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the Detroit native danced with the panache of a veteran pro at halftime.