Amanda Garcia started dancing at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Plano, TX, as an intermediate-level 12-year-old. But Prodigy’s owner and director, Camille Billelo, quickly recognized Garcia’s potential and placed her in classes with older students. For Garcia, being the youngest among advanced dancers was exciting—and a bit intimidating. She was determined to catch up. “I had to prove myself,” she recalls, “and that helped define me as a dancer.”
All dance students aspire to join a higher level. But once promoted, the tougher demands (both technically and physically) can be daunting. How can you convince your teachers, classmates and yourself that your new level is where you belong? The answer lies in your
attitude and work ethic both in and out of the studio.
Dancers at Adrenaline Nationals (photo by Spencer Dennis, courtesy Adrenaline)
You were probably at the top of your former class, and the change from being the strongest to the greenest—or youngest—in your new one can be startling. Sometimes, it’s helpful to approach a new level one step at a time. Billelo transitions students by having them take only one or two higher-level classes per week (on top of their current classes) so they become familiar with their new teachers and classmates, as well as what’s expected of them, before moving up full-time.
One-on-one training can also speed up your progress. Billelo recommends that recently promoted students take a few private lessons with new teachers until they feel more comfortable. If it works with your schedule, ask if you can add a few lower-level classes, too, so you can work on the basics at a slower pace.
Show Your Commitment
As Garcia advanced through the ranks at Prodigy, she focused on building self-confidence, but found it crucial to stay open to criticism, advice and direction from her teachers. It showed she was committed to her training, and eager to stay in the higher level. “I look for passion and drive in a dancer—the students who, after class, ask ‘Do I have any more corrections?’ or ‘What can I do to improve?’ ” Billelo says. “I see which dancers come in early or stay after class to keep working. That’s how I know who really deserves to be in advanced classes.”
In class, show that you’re mature enough to handle the new and often more intense workload by immediately applying a correction, even if it wasn’t given to you directly. Pacific Northwest Ballet School principal Abbie Siegel cautions young dancers against going to class on autopilot. “A dancer may be taking class every day, but occasionally, it starts to become more of a habit for her just to be there,” she says. It’s not enough to just show up and go through the motions. Make the most out of each class, and write down your corrections each day.
And while it may be tempting to mingle with your new classmates and make new friends, do so after class. “It’s normal for students to become a close-knit group, because they spend so much time together,” says Miami City Ballet School faculty member Maribel Modrono. “But dancers need to let go of those attachments once they’re in the studio and redirect themselves to the teacher or choreographer.” It’s OK to turn to your fellow dancers every now and then for support, but don’t let your social network take away from your teacher’s corrections.
Regaining confidence in a new level—and not giving anyone the chance to doubt your worthiness—takes bravery, commitment and self-assurance. When she first moved up to the senior level, Garcia struggled with self-doubt, but zeroed in on her own goals to tame her insecurity. “I went through a phase where I didn’t believe in myself,” she says. “I had to learn to put everyone else’s opinions aside. Once I stopped being intimidated by the other dancers, I really started to grow.” Now 19 and a dance major at Chapman University, Garcia mentors younger students at Prodigy, and encourages them to be ambitious and focused as they climb the dance ladder.
As the newbie, be a sponge for information from both the teacher and the older students—and don’t be afraid to reach out for help with anything unfamiliar. Try “shadowing” an accomplished student by doing the combination behind her (or in her group across the floor), attempting to match her lines or timing. Decorum and respect for seniority is important, but remember that this is now your class, too—you deserve to be there.
Feeling like you’re at the bottom is no reason to have low expectations. “If you’re in a competition level with a wide age range, don’t make excuses for yourself by thinking, ‘I’m not going to win anything this year because I’m the youngest,’ ” Billelo says. “Instead, set a goal, like making the top 10, and try to reach it.” But keep in mind that not reaching a goal doesn’t necessarily mean failure. “As long as you’ve worked hard,” Billelo continues, “you should feel good about yourself. Ultimately, it’s not about competitions and winning. It’s about your growth as an individual and as a dancer.”
Some days, you may feel more out of place than others. But Siegel stresses the importance of trust—in yourself and in your teachers. “We wouldn’t put you somewhere we didn’t think you belonged,” she says. “As teachers, our main goal is students’ success, and making them the best dancers they can be. Trust that we know what’s best for you.”
Telltale Signs You’re the Youngest—or Least Mature—in Your Level
Are you the new dancer in class? Avoid these five actions that betray your true newbie identity.
1. Hiding in the back, the corner or behind other dancers. Having respect and an awareness of other dancers in class is important, but take some space for yourself, too. Getting up to speed will be a lot harder if the teacher can’t see you. Plus, excessive shyness telegraphs insecurity. Challenge yourself to go in front at least once per class until you feel brave enough to do it more often.
2. Blowing off the combinations because you’re having trouble picking them up. They may be longer or more complex than you’re used to, but if you stop trying halfway through, you’ll never learn the steps. Block everything else out and concentrate. And remember: It’s OK to ask the teacher to repeat something.
3. Never speaking up. While no teacher likes their class needlessly disrupted, if you have a question about a specific step or phrase, ask! Just make sure it hasn’t already been addressed (a sign you weren’t paying attention), and save questions that pertain to only you for after class. Your teachers want to know you’re working to improve.
4. Forgetting the dress code. Let’s face it: Mistakes happen. But if you’re consistently forgetting your pointe shoes, jazz shoes, leotard or enough bobby pins to secure your hair, it’s a sign you’re careless. Take the responsibility of being in a higher level seriously.
5. Trying to be exactly like another dancer. While you should certainly watch and learn from your more advanced classmates, don’t let your own self disappear. There’s a fine line between shadowing and copying. Take it from Chapman University dance major Amanda Garcia: “Dare to be different! You’ll stand out and grow as an artist.”
In today’s ballet world, dancers need to be adaptable. Long gone are the days when a few big companies would dance the classics, while others specialized in contemporary rep; now, everyone does a bit of everything. “You have to be able to put on different styles like you’re putting on jackets,” says Parrish Maynard, a faculty member at San Francisco Ballet School. “As a professional, one minute you’ll be doing a piece by George Balanchine, the next a contemporary William Forsythe work and then a week later Swan Lake.”
But studying a ton of different styles isn’t always the best way to develop versatility. While some dancers thrive on the multiple-technique approach, for others, it can be confusing to tackle several different methods before developing a solid base in a single style. So what’s the right path for you? Here’s advice from top teachers and pros in the industry.
When Less Leads to More
Ellison Ballet students showing off their Vaganova training. (Photo by Rachel Neville, courtesy Ellison Ballet)
If you already have your heart set on a company that specializes in a particular style—the Bournonville-based Royal Danish Ballet, for example, or one of the several American companies that prioritize Balanchine—immersing yourself in that style has obvious benefits. And sometimes, a narrow, single-technique focus can actually open doors to larger worlds. Now a principal with San Francisco Ballet, Sarah Van Patten studied for several years with master teacher Jacqueline Cronsberg, who specialized in Balanchine technique. “It was a small school, and very intense,” she remembers. “I just worked with my one teacher all the time, so I never felt like I got lost in multiple styles and views on things.” And she didn’t find Cronsberg’s Balanchine focus limiting, either. When, right out of school, Van Patten joined RDB—a company specializing in August Bournonville’s fleet, story-centric ballets—she felt adequately prepared. “The quickness of my Balanchine training actually translated into Bournonville very easily, especially in petit allégro,” she says.
Susan Pilarre leading a class at SAB. (Photo by Ellen Crane, courtesy SAB)
Teachers at some of NYC’s best ballet schools echo that diversity-through-specificity argument. “We teach a very strict Vaganova technique,” says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet, “but it’s not limiting. It develops an acute awareness of one’s instrument—how it logically functions—and it enables a freedom to adapt to any choreographic style.” Susan Pilarre, a longtime faculty member at the Balanchine-focused School of American Ballet, says that Mr. B’s style is like “a good little black dress. It can go anywhere.” Her proof? SAB students frequently go on to have professional careers with non-Balanchine companies.
The Benefits of a “Tasting Menu”
On the flip side, early exposure to the many styles you’ll be expected to take on as a pro also comes with great perks. “To make a dancer employable, we feel it’s important that she has a full rep in her body,” Maynard says. “A lot of companies don’t want people who look like they can only do one thing.” At San Francisco Ballet School, the technique is a hybrid “American” style that includes bits and pieces of several methods, and the curriculum also introduces students to works by choreographers like Balanchine, Forsythe, Nacho Duato and Jiˇrí Kylián. “It develops a very clean look, with no affectations,” Maynard says.
Noelani Pantastico, now a principal at Pacific Northwest Ballet, admits that when she joined the company at age 17, she didn’t have much of a range. “I was primarily Balanchine-based at that time,” she says. “I had a good technical foundation, but when I started working with choreographers, I realized there was another world out there.” Pantastico ended up getting her diversifying “training” as a pro: She left PNB to work with Jean-Christophe Maillot at Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, where she danced a wide-ranging rep for seven years before returning to PNB with a new sense of perspective. “At a certain point, it’s important to expand your focus,” she says. “I wish I’d done it sooner. I would’ve been a stronger dancer.”
Keeping an Open Mind
Parrish Maynard leading class during San Francisco Ballet School's Summer Session (Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy San Francisco Ballet School)
In the end, the real key to adaptability is openness—and courage. “As a student, I was fearless, and that let me take a new style and go with it,” Van Patten says. “I really watched everyone around me and took in their strengths.” And while figuring out your own approach to the technique question is important, Van Patten stresses the importance of finding a mentor who speaks to you, whatever her style. “A good teacher is a good teacher,” she says. “If my teacher had been Vaganova-based, I would’ve stayed with her! Ultimately, with the right mind-set and the right mentor, you can do anything.”
A Rundown of the Major Ballet Techniques
History: The legendary Russian ballerina and teacher Agrippina Vaganova combined elements of French, Italian and early Russian techniques to create this method. The syllabus is broken down into eight years of training—a slow, steady and deliberate progression.
Emphases: Use of the upper body and placement of the head. “Arms are not just for decoration,” says Yuliya Rakova, a teacher at the Vaganova-based Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. “They support the jumps and turns, and have to be very expressive.”
Affiliated company: Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia
History: George Balanchine, who trained at the Imperial Ballet School (before
it was renamed the Vaganova Ballet Academy), developed a unique style that was based on his Russian roots but influenced by his adopted American home. “He didn’t change the technique, but he stretched it and made it more modern-looking,” says Susan Pilarre, faculty member at the School of American Ballet in New York City.
Emphases: Deep plié, the use of épaulement and keen musicality. “Beautiful arms and hands and the shaping and placing of the feet are important,” says Pilarre. “Balanchine dancers can move quickly because they dance on the balls of their feet.”
Affiliated companies: New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet
History: Developed by August Bournonville, a Danish dancer who also performed with the Paris Opéra Ballet, this technique has both Danish and French influences. It’s the foundation of Bournonville’s many famous ballets, such as La Sylphide and Napoli.
Emphases: Light, fast footwork and a quiet upper body. The head and shoulders follow the working leg, and jumps are strong and buoyant.
Affiliated company: Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen, Denmark
History: Established by Italian master teacher Enrico Cecchetti, this technique
is maintained in the U.S. by the Cecchetti Council of America, through which students and teachers can complete several grades of exams. There are planned exercises for each day, with a focus on anatomy.
Emphases: Coordination of the head and arms, with smooth transitions between steps. Students are encouraged to work both sides of their bodies equally.
Royal Academy of Dance (RAD)
History: RAD was developed in 1920 by a group of leading dance professionals, who created a series of exams to help raise the level of dance education among students and teachers. The syllabus is influenced by the Cecchetti and Vaganova techniques.
Emphases: Attention to detail, particularly in port de bras and épaulement. Arms tend to be held low and rounded.
Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Alexander Peters has a fantastic petit allégro. His dynamic small jumps hit crystal-clear positions, with beats that scissor impressively—making him an obvious choice for roles like the impish Puck in George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But that apparent effortlessness didn’t come easily. As a student, he struggled to maintain his turnout in the air. “I spent so many hours at barre, strengthening my turnout so I didn’t have to think about it when it came time to jump,” he says.
Petit allégro can reveal a dancer’s strengths—and weaknesses. When you’re doing fast jumps, it’s easy to lose your turnout, let your feet flop or forget to use your plié. Don’t just muddle through! Instead, slow down and figure out why you’re having trouble. Dance Spirit talked to Peters and two fellow professionals about the most common petit allégro problems, and what to do to give your small jumps a lift.
If you lose your turnout during petit allégro, you probably aren’t supporting yourself properly at barre. Kay Mazzo, a teacher at the School of American Ballet, suggests removing your arm from the barre intermittently as you work, to make sure your weight is in the right place. “It should be over your toes,” she says. “That forces you to pull up from the tops of your legs and hips to maintain your turnout,” rather than twisting from your knees. And be sure your back isn’t swayed, another sign that you’re not rotating from the correct place.
Lifting your heels in plié before you jump will also affect your turnout. “As soon as that happens, you have less surface area to push from, which makes it more likely that your feet will turn in,” says San Francisco Ballet School teacher Damara Bennett. As you plié in fifth position to prepare for a jeté or an assemblé, think of keeping your entire foot on the floor before you brush and leading with your heels as you jump—especially if the movement includes beats. “That will create a scissoring side-to-side motion,” says Peters, “instead of turned-in legs that go front to back.”
Alexander Peters showing off his perfect petit allégro (photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet)
A good plié is the foundation of petit allégro. “Dancers who don’t use their plié correctly end up bouncing all over the place like a yo-yo,” Mazzo says. “There’s no control.”
You might think that since the steps are so fast, there’s no time to plié. But trying to jump with straight legs will actually slow you down. When there’s no elasticity in your legs, “the momentum gets stuck,” Peters says. “A smooth plié will absorb the shock of the jump and keep you moving in the right direction.” Accent the “down” part of the step, and each transition will happen more efficiently. “I think of hanging the position in the air for a second, but getting back to the floor quickly,” Peters says.
Floppy feet can ruin even the most impressive petit allégro combinations. “Make sure your toes are pointing right underneath you, so it doesn’t look like a fish dangling,” Peters says. “Dancers also tend to forget about the second foot in glissade, so it ends up looking like a club.”
Thinking about your feet will help with noise control, too. “You’re not just bouncing up in the air and slamming down,” Mazzo says. “Especially for girls in pointe shoes, be sure to roll all the way through the toes and metatarsals as you return to the floor,” which will keep your shoe boxes from making clomping noises.
Poor Port de Bras
It’s easy to focus on your fast-moving legs and feet and forget about your arms. Sometimes, port de bras troubles stem from coordination issues. “In petit allégro, the arms have to work a little faster than the legs in order to get to each position at the right moment,” Bennett says. In a simple jeté, for example, the arm should come down while you’re still in plié and lift to first by the time you’re up in the air. If you’re having trouble, work on the feet and épaulement first, keeping the arms in fifth en bas. As you become more comfortable with the legwork, add in the arms, thinking about when each arm should arrive where.
Trouble with port de bras can also be a sign that you’re not supporting your back correctly. “Think of the top of your body going slightly forward when you jump,” Mazzo says. “If your arms are behind you, they’ll be a hindrance and not a help.” Lift your elbows and send energy out through your arms and fingers as you jump, keeping your back broad and open.
When done well, a serene penchée can be magical. But while it’s meant to look effortless, the extended arabesque is deceptively difficult to master, requiring control, strength and flexibility. DS talked to three professionals about the most common penchée problems—and how to avoid them.
New York City Ballet's Ashley Hod shows off her pristine penchées (photo by Jayme Thornton)
It’s easy to fall out of a penchée, especially when you’re wearing pointe shoes, which make it difficult to feel the floor. Achieving stability starts with good placement. To avoid falling backward, “you need to have your weight right over the ball of your supporting foot,” says Karen Gabay, artistic associate and ballet master at Ballet San Jose.
As you lift your working leg, spread the toes of your supporting foot inside your shoe and engage your core, which will help you fight the wiggles. Gabay also suggests focusing your gaze out rather than staring at the floor, which can be disorienting. Have that “past your fingertips” feeling.
Dropping Your Back
If you pitch forward and drop your upper back as you penchée, you’ll ruin the step’s elegant line. Jessica Collado, a first soloist at Houston Ballet, thinks of leading with her leg to maintain the correct shape. “If you think of your leg pushing you forward while you resist with your upper body, you’ll never get into a funky ‘plank’ position,” she says. On the way back up, Collado does the reverse: She leads with her shoulder blades, resisting against them with her lifted leg.
Forgetting About Your Arms
Many dancers are so focused on the height of the leg that they ignore their port de bras. But poorly held arms can ruin your line and jeopardize your stability—especially the often-forgotten back arm. Gabay suggests picturing a partner supporting your back wrist as you move into the penchée to keep the arm from dropping too low or getting too far behind you.
Focusing on stretching both arms outward will create a feeling of opposition, which will in turn help steady you. “I like to think about sending energy out through my fingertips,” says Miami City Ballet principal Tricia Albertson. “It puts me right in the center of my balance.”
Sitting in Your Standing Leg
Shifting your weight back into your standing leg and hip might give you an extra inch or two of height in your penchée, but it’s also a recipe for disaster. “The second you rock back on your heel and stick your bottom out, you’ll start to lose control,” Collado warns. Instead, think about lifting up on your supporting side and keeping your weight over your toes as you lean forward.
Opening Your Hip
This is another penchée no-no that, in theory, allows you more height and stretch. But distorting your line can actually make your penchée look less impressive. “Don’t sacrifice your position just to get the leg up,” Gabay says. “The key to creating the illusion of a deep penchée is to maintain a high-quality line”—which will let the audience see every millimeter of your true extension. Gabay recommends imagining a connection between your back toe and the opposing shoulder to keep your hips square.
Penchée Polishers: Three exercises that will help improve your penchée
“The Sphinx”: Lie on your stomach with your legs stretched behind you. Prop yourself up on your elbows, with your palms flat on the floor, engaging your back and abdominal muscles. Keeping your palms and hips on the floor, do a series of slow “push-ups,” lowering and raising your chest. “When you’re at the top, look at the ceiling, take a deep breath, and imagine your hips dropping down,” says Karen Gabay, artistic associate and ballet master at Ballet San Jose. “That lengthening will give you a more
Back-Ups: Lie on your stomach and lock your hands behind your head. Lift your upper body off the floor. Rock forward, lifting your legs; then rock backward, returning your legs to the floor and lifting your chest again. “Continue to rock back and forth in that position, feeling the connection between your back and your pelvis,” says Miami City Ballet principal Tricia Albertson. You’ll build strength in
your back and hamstrings.
Wall Assist: Albertson also likes to do penchées against a wall, positioning her supporting foot a few inches away from the baseboard. “I put my hands on the floor and lift my leg slightly off the wall, 10 times,” she says. “It activates the muscles I’ll need to hold
the position, and keeps me from sitting back in my standing leg.”
When I first started learning August Bournonville’s Flower Festival in Genzano pas de deux as a young student, I figured it’d be easy enough. There weren’t any complicated lifts or balances; it seemed simple. But when my turn came to try the piece, I had to stop partway into the coda, gasping for breath. The brisés and ballonnés that were supposed to look so light left my legs feeling like jelly. There was no preparation for any jump—I was expected to power through the intricate footwork by the force of sheer will. And all the while, my instructor was calling out, “Soften the arms! Stop making it look like work!”
The Royal Danish Ballet's Alexandra Lo Sardo and Alban Lendorf in Bournonville's Napoli (photo by Costin Radu, courtesy RDB)
Bournonville was the master of deceptively difficult choreography. His dances, which are still performed around the world, emphasize harmony—a balance of laser-sharp precision and serene grace that leaves audiences smiling. Conquering Bournonville’s meticulous footwork while maintaining an open, gracious épaulement will take time, but you’ll be a better dancer for it.
The Man Behind the Moves
Born in Copenhagen in 1805, August Bournonville is considered the father of Danish ballet. As a dancer, he performed at the Paris Opéra and in London before returning to Denmark as a soloist at the Royal Danish Ballet. Bournonville was known for his buoyant jump and masterful mime—the qualities that would come to define his choreographic style.
In 1830, Bournonville became ballet master at the RDB and went on to direct the company for nearly five decades. During that time, he staged about 50 ballets, dozens of which are still performed by the company. Among his many masterworks are La Sylphide, Napoli and Flower Festival in Genzano.
Bournonville’s choreography is known for its effortless quality. While his ballets demand powerful grand allégro and brilliant batterie from both male and female dancers, his style also requires soft épaulement, with the arms rounded and low. The head and upper body frequently gesture toward the working leg to bring attention to its movements.
Today, the RDB remains the primary home of Bournonville technique, but it’s also taught as part of the curriculum in many ballet schools around the world. Marianna Tcherkassky, a ballet mistress at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, gave masterful performances of Bournonville’s La Sylphide during her days as a principal at American Ballet Theatre. She developed her love for Bournonville after taking classes from former Royal Danish Ballet dancer Stanley Williams at the School of American Ballet. (Williams introduced many American dancers to the style.) “What I loved about it was playing with the light and shade of movement, which is so indicative of Bournonville,” Tcherkassky says. “You’re doing small bourrée steps low to the ground, and then you explode into the air.”
How to Do It
The Royal Danish Ballet's J'aime Crandall in La Sylphide (photo by Costin Radu, courtesy RDB)
For most dancers, Bournonville’s petit allégro poses the biggest challenge. Sylvia Deaton, now a corps member at Boston Ballet, studied Bournonville at the Royal Danish Ballet during an exchange program and found that it was important to nail down the choreography’s footwork separately from the port de bras. Tcherkassky remembers Williams emphasizing rolling through the feet and using deep pliés to absorb the rapid-fire movement of the lower body. “You use the floor to land like a cat,” she says.
Think about radiating the warm, genuine presence that defines Bournonville, too. Many story ballets are filled with princesses, but Bournonville tends to emphasize the human aspects of the dancer. Tcherkassky remembers rehearsing a variation from Napoli with Williams. “At the end, I finished with a flourish,” she says. “He said, ‘No, you’re done. You give it; you don’t have to sell it.’ ”
Seo Hye Han in Boston Ballet's The Nutcracker (by Gene Schiavone)
It’s the end of class, and you’re whipping through a diagonal of piqué turns. You spin across the floor as fast as your body can move, propelled by the thrilling coda music. Everything feels great—until you finish, and your teacher gives you a long list of corrections. Apparently, your piqués didn’t look as good as they felt.
Piqué turns can be one of the most fun steps in classical ballet. But because the mechanics of the turn are simple compared to other types of pirouettes, it can be tempting to go for quantity (speed and multiples) instead of quality. Take the time to polish the smaller details of the turn. Soon you’ll be flying across the floor and looking clean and precise.
The Nuts and Bolts
Whether you’re new to ballet or you’ve been studying for years, it never hurts to break piqué turns down into their basic components. Doing so will make you conscious of maintaining correct technique and placement every step of the way.
Larissa Ponomarenko, ballet master at Boston Ballet, suggests starting in a good plié with your body weight over the supporting leg, so the push onto demi-pointe or pointe is well controlled. “Your hips should travel from the supporting leg over to the working leg in one smooth movement,” she says. “And the piqué should happen on a straight leg. If you’re going to the right, the right heel and the top of the right leg lead the turn.” The left arm, left shoulder, left side of your rib cage and left hip should stay in line with each other, helping to bring your body around.
As you reach the halfway point of the turn, keep your shoulders down and neck relaxed as you spot your head. At this point your arms should arrive in a neat first position. Your left foot should stay attached to the right supporting leg just above the back of the knee. During the last quarter of the turn, the left foot should remain attached to the leg for as long as possible as it slides down toward the floor.
The most common problems with piqué turns are easily fixed—with some extra attention. If you tend to piqué onto a bent knee, or let it relax during the transition between turns, try thinking of having a “peg leg”—one that never bends, and a foot that never stops pointing when you’re on pointe. “If you’re hyper-extended, it’s a bit more difficult to get over your leg when it’s truly straight,” says Frances Chung, principal at San Francisco Ballet. “You have to really step out and use your back foot to plié and push as far as possible.”
Do you lift your hip as you bring your foot into retiré? Make sure your knee doesn’t rise higher than the crease of your hip. “You want a high retiré without compromising your hip placement and throwing off your balance,” says Chung. “I try to relax my hip as much as possible and draw just my toe up.”
If you have trouble spotting and tend to get dizzy, make sure you have a clear object to focus on each time you bring your head around, and think about fully relaxing your neck. “Imagine you’re disconnecting your head from your body,” says Callie Manning, principal soloist at Miami City Ballet. “Think of your head as one thing and your body as something else, instead of them all going together to the same place.”
Taking It to the Next Level
Once you’ve mastered basic piqué turns, you can add a greater degree of difficulty by throwing in some doubles and varying your direction or speed. “When I do a double, I bring my foot to retiré as soon as possible to make sure I can fit both turns in time with the music, and I spot twice in a clear rhythm,” says Chung. Manning thinks of not stepping too far out when she does a double piqué turn. “You have to almost stop your forward momentum or else you’ll start falling out of the second turn,” she says. To piqué very fast, Manning lowers her leg into a coupé position, rather than retiré, and keeps her arms out to the side—both of which save time in a quick string of turns. She also thinks of darting rapidly onto pointe.
You can change up your port de bras, too. When Chung does a string of piqué turns, she’ll keep her arms in demi-seconde for the singles and then snap them into first position for the doubles to add a little visual interest. You can also try turning with your hands on your hips—which might remind you to keep your hips down, too—or your arms in fourth position. Usually dancers lift the right arm (if they’re turning to the right) because it helps pull up the supporting side.
Pacific Northwest Ballet's Lesley Rausch in The Sleeping Beauty (by Angela Sterling)
Different Piqués for Each Ballet
How you approach piqué turns should vary from one ballet to the next. They can be used to help develop a character, or danced as a pure reflection of the music. Here are a few well-known piqué passages and advice on how you can make them speak.
In the Act I solo from Giselle, Giselle’s circle of piqué turns reflects her joyous nature and love for Albrecht. “She is on the cloud of love, on a cushion of air!” says Boston Ballet ballet master Larissa Ponomarenko. “Those piqué turns have to travel a lot to reflect that, with a bit of a spring onto the working leg.”
In Gamzatti’s wedding solo from La Bayadère, the double piqué turns should be grand and wide, with a voluptuous quality. “They describe her sensual beauty, as well as the wit and confidence of her high-class upbringing,” says Ponomarenko.
In George Balanchine’s Serenade, the corps of women piqué in unison in a circle, showing the pulse of the music. “You have to spot the person in front of you and maintain distance, or else there’s a huge traffic jam,” says Miami City Ballet’s Callie Manning. “It’s not about you, but about the whole stage looking the same.”
Writing down her corrections in a journal helped Kaitlyn Jenkins (here on “Bunheads”) fix her arabesque for good. (ABC Family/Randy Holmes)
There are two words no dance hopeful wants to hear: “rookie mistake.” Even if you have fierce fouettés and super-pointy feet, there are still some universal no-no’s to avoid if you want to hear “yes” from a choreographer—and the list probably includes things you don’t even realize you’re doing.
1. Not arriving early. You may think arriving at 3 on the dot for a 3 pm class is totally fine, but it’s really not. “It’s frustrating and rude when people miss the first bit of warm-up and still want to take class,” says “So You Think You Can Dance” and Broadway alum Neil Haskell, who guest teaches for The BEAT Dance Tour. You should be in the studio (or waiting outside of it) at least 15 minutes before the scheduled class time. Not only will that give you time to warm up, but it will also broadcast to the teacher that his or her class matters to you.
2. Not retaining corrections. For the longest time, “Bunheads” star Kaitlyn Jenkins kept getting the same correction from her ballet instructor. “My arabesque was completely out of line,” she remembers. “It didn’t look beautiful—just distorted.” Teachers hate giving the same correction over and over again. It either shows the dancer lacks respect for the teacher, or that the dancer has trouble processing and retaining information. If you do have a hard time keeping track of your corrections, try writing them down in a journal. That’s what Jenkins did—and doing so helped her fix her arabesque for good. “When you write things down, it keeps the information fresh in your mind and ingrains it in your brain,” she says.
3. Not saying “thank you”—and meaning it. It’s pretty much a given that you should thank a teacher or choreographer after class, but being genuine matters, too. “You were the person yawning in back who didn’t take a single correction, but you still give me a big ‘thank you’ hug? I remember that,” says choreographer Mandy Moore. “I always find it interesting who is authentic with their ‘thank you’ and who’s not. I lock that into my brain, and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to work with that person.’ ”
4. Not going the extra mile with your homework. Before any audition, get the full 411. You may think you know what a good Chorus Line audition outfit looks like—but what if your director is doing a crazy, futuristic take on the show? “Research the piece you’re going in for, the style of dance it uses and the specific look the choreographer wants,” advises Jamie Harris, director of Clear Talent Group’s NYC office. “What you wear for Susan Stroman will be different than what you wear for Andy Blankenbuehler.”
5. Not being observant. The dancer who gets the job is the one who masters the choreography’s tiniest nuances. Jenkins advises paying as close attention to head placement and port de bras as you do to fancy footwork. She remembers a day on the “Bunheads” set when they had to reshoot a scene several times because two dancers couldn’t get the arms right on a particular combo. “Always look at the full picture,” Jenkins says. “In ballet, that can determine whether you get into the summer program or the company.”
Don’t fake your performance face! Expression and emotion are just as important as technique onstage. (Universal Event Photography)
6. Not giving good face. Expression and emotion count just as much as flawless technique, and faking won’t cut it, says Haskell. “Whether you’re watching a competition, recital or Broadway show, you never want to see pasted-on or forced smiles,” Haskell says. “It’s important to give an honest performance.”
7. Not being aware of your spacing. Dancing your biggest onstage seems like an obvious “do,” right? Wrong. For the sake of the dancers around you, don’t be a flailer. “Whether you’re working with two or 100 other dancers, know the space you’re in and figure out how big you can be,” Haskell says.
Moore agrees, recalling a recent instance on the set of Nickelodeon’s “The Fresh Beat Band” in which a dancer bumped into one of the principal performers. “I was horrified,” Moore says. “You never want to be the dancer who messes up a take—time is money on set. Spatial awareness is incredibly important.”
On the Job
8. Not tweeting with tact. It may be tempting to vent online about a terrible day at work, but those 140 characters could come back to bite you. “Don’t tweet about bad days and don’t bash anyone,” cautions Haskell. “Your name is attached to your social media accounts, and if a director looks you up, he might change his perception of you.”
9. Not keeping it professional. Remember that you’re representing your choreographer or company at all times, even when you’re getting fitted, grabbing a snack or waiting backstage. “I’ve been on sets where dancers I hired were rude to costume people or craft services, and it gets back to the producers—which makes me look bad,” Moore says. “Being kind and easy to deal with will get you so much further.” Harris agrees: “You don’t want to lose a job because you act like a diva—you want to get one because you dance like a diva.”
Sabra Johnson, who didn’t begin training until age 16, beat out former professional ballet dancer Danny Tidwell on Season 3 of “So You Think You Can Dance.”(Kelsey McNeal/FOX)
Picture this: Two dancers are up for elimination on “So You Think You Can Dance.” One’s been training since age 3 and is technically stunning. The other started dancing a few years ago and has struggled to learn new styles, but works hard and has a certain spark onstage. Who will the viewers and the judges save? You might be surprised.
“SYTYCD” is a dance competition, but since Season 1, the producers have made it clear that the winner is “America’s Favorite Dancer,” not “America’s Best Dancer.” Sometimes the best technical dancer does win—look at Season 8’s Melanie Moore—but just as often, astonishingly good ballet and contemporary dancers go home early on, after failing to inspire viewers to pick up the phone. Clearly, the secret to “SYTYCD” success goes beyond sky-high extensions, multiple pirouettes and years of classical training.
What’s the magic ingredient? “It’s God-given, I’m afraid,” says executive producer and judge Nigel Lythgoe. “People call it the ‘X’ factor, or charisma, or magnetism. A wonderful personality grabs people and gets them to vote.”
The good news is you don’t have to be an over-the-top extrovert to have a winning personality. Dance Spirit talked to two of the show’s choreographers and four super-technical former competitors about the importance of personality on “SYTYCD”—and how a trained dancer can become the total package.
Breaking Down the Vote
Ballet dancer Alex Wong (R, with All-Star partner Stephen “tWitch” Boss) won fans over with his personality—and his hip-hop moves—in Season 7.(Kelsey McNeal/FOX)
Do audiences consistently vote for personality over technique? Yes and no. “For viewers, it comes down to performance,” says Season 4’s Katee Shean. “Whether you’re a technical dancer or a street dancer, if you can captivate the audience, you’ll get votes. People relate to seeing emotion onstage.”
“You might have a street dancer who’s never pointed his feet, but you see something beautiful inside him when he dances,” adds choreographer Mandy Moore. “And then you’ll have someone who’s classically trained, a gorgeous mover and athlete, but who doesn’t have that light coming from inside. Dancers understand lines and stretched feet, but the majority of people watching the show connect more to the life in someone’s eyes.”
Both Mandy Moore and fellow choreographer Sonya Tayeh are quick to point out that even dancers with great personalities in real life can have trouble getting their joy and sense of humor across on TV. “Sometimes it feels like the technical dancers aren’t exuding passion and effort, but they truly are,” Tayeh says. “Trained dancers take dancing very seriously, and unfortunately, seriousness can be off-putting on camera.” Season 3 contestant Danny Tidwell’s intense focus, for example, was misread by some viewers as arrogance.
The Underdog Factor
Katee Shean and Will Wingfield showed off impressive ballet training in Season 4, but lost to charismatic hip hopper Joshua Allen. (Kelsey McNeal/FOX)
Highly trained dancers can soar from episode one, while dancers with less formal training may initially struggle to learn choreography and adapt to styles outside their genre. But in almost every season, there comes a point where those less-trained dancers are showered with praise for their hard work, while certain performers who have been consistent all season start to lose votes. Why does that happen?
“Audiences love an underdog,” Mandy Moore says. “Plus, it’s definitely easier for viewers to see growth in someone who didn’t start out strong, even though the technical dancers are growing and changing, as well.” Season 6 runner-up Jakob Karr agrees. “There’s an expectation that trained dancers can nail everything. That’s why people who haven’t trained can have such an explosive, exciting night: They blow everyone away because people aren’t expecting them to excel.”
But just because you’ve been dancing since you could walk doesn’t mean you can’t have your own underdog moment. Some technical dancers have been criticized for not showing enough emotion, and those who went on to have an emotional breakthrough were wildly applauded. A ballet or contemporary dancer can also be an underdog in hip hop or ballroom. In Season 7, ballet-trained Alex Wong set the stage on fire with a hard-hitting hip-hop routine, and had he not gotten injured, that performance might have helped him win the season.
Learning to Shine
Melanie Moore, the Season 8 winner, was one of the only technical dancers to triumph on the show.(Adam Rose/FOX)
So what can classically trained dancers do to make their personalities shine as bright as their technique? Finding your own “X” factor is easier than you might think. And take note—these tips can help you succeed not only on “SYTYCD,” but also throughout the professional dance world.
Be Yourself. Yes, the judges and viewers want to see personality. But that doesn’t mean you should act like something you’re not. “Honesty is so important,” Tayeh says. “Be truthful about who you are, whether you’re shy or outgoing. Embrace what makes you unique.”
It can be nerve-racking to present your true self on TV. Even bubbly, extroverted Melanie Moore took a few weeks to adjust. “I’m naturally giggly, but at first I was very reserved on camera because I didn’t want to come off as an airhead,” she says. “As I got more comfortable, I realized, this is my personality, and I want people to know who I am so they can vote for me as a person as well as a dancer.”
Be Humble. Confidence is good, but overconfidence is off-putting. “Never give in to arrogance,” Karr says. “If you think you’re the best at what you do and you don’t need to get any better, you should throw in the towel.”
“I don’t believe technical perfection exists,” adds Season 5 winner Jeanine Mason. “There are so many ways to improve as a dancer, technically and artistically. If you think the level you’re at is good enough, you aren’t working hard enough—and you won’t succeed on the show. And if you’re gracious about feedback from the judges, viewers will see and respond to that.”
Be Open. Even if you’ve won hundreds of awards in your own style, “SYTYCD” requires versatility—and being versatile requires an open mind and heart. Just as the judges expect the street dancers to take ballet class, classically trained dancers need to take hip-hop and ballroom classes. Not only will you have a better chance of succeeding on the show, but you’ll also have a greater appreciation of your fellow competitors’ skills.
Show audiences you understand your own weaknesses—and that you recognize the other contestants’ strengths. Melanie Moore remembers Broadway dancer Jess LeProtto coaching hip-hopper Wadi Jones through a pirouette, and then several hip-hoppers assisting LeProtto and others with hip-hop choreography. “We all helped each other reach a higher level,” she says. “Everybody had something to give.”
To some extent, it’s impossible to predict who will win “SYTYCD.” Favorites go home shockingly early, while underdogs become contenders. Votes can be lost based on a single poor performance, a judge’s harsh critique or an unflattering video package. As far as technique goes, the bar gets raised higher each year—not only for classical/contemporary dance, but also for ballroom and hip hop. What’s the take-home message? While personality plays a big role in who wins, it’s far from the only factor. That’s what makes it exciting.