A former principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet, Julie Diana Hench is the executive director of American Repertory Ballet and Princeton Ballet School. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
Few things ruin the magic of a performance faster than the sound of loud pointe shoes. "When an audience watches someone dancing, they don't want to hear tap-tap-tap," says Houston Ballet first soloist Allison Miller. Pointe shoe sounds can be distracting to you, too, breaking your concentration and keeping you from getting lost in the moment. So, how can you step more softly? Doing so takes thought and practice, and maybe some changes to your shoes themselves. But it can also help you stand out—quietly.
Even for natural turners, pirouettes from fifth can be a challenge. You need to take off from a small crossed position and stay straight over your supporting leg, from start to finish. "It's the hardest place to turn from, because you can't access your plié as much as you can from fourth," says Jennie Somogyi, former principal dancer with New York City Ballet and director of Jennie Somogyi Ballet Academy in Easton, PA. "I'm always telling my students to plié more!"
If you're struggling with pirouettes from fifth position or want to refine your approach, try these pro tips.
DO keep your body straight up and down. "Many dancers tend to pull their hips back and tip their bodies forward in step-overs, but that makes it difficult to get around," says Nanako Yamamoto of American Repertory Ballet.
"Lame duck." It sounds like nothing else in the classical ballet vocabulary, right? Also known as step-up turns or step-over turns—or, more technically, as piqués en dehors—these tricky pirouettes show up all over the classical ballet repertoire, perhaps most famously in Odette's Act II variation in Swan Lake. Here's how to keep your lame ducks from looking, well, lame.
A beautifully executed manège—a whirlwind series of steps performed in a circular pattern around the stage—can create a powerful, dramatic climax onstage. But while a manège is always impressive to watch, it isn't always easy to perfect. Even the pros struggle with them: Boston Ballet principal Misa Kuranaga remembers one rehearsal of John Cranko's Romeo and Juliet where she "cut through center stage, and didn't even realize it!" during a manège of sauts de basque and step-up turns.
So, how can you master manèges? The secret lies in figuring out how to keep your balance while constantly changing direction.
When Kelly Schmutte started dancing on pointe in fifth grade, she felt like there had to be a way to make it feel more natural. Right away she began thinking about how to improve the experience. "I wondered if there was a way to make it more enjoyable, so that a dancer could focus on technique and artistry, rather than what her shoe was doing," she says. Fast-forward to today, and Schmutte is founder and CEO of the wildly successful PerfectFit Pointe, a company that makes molded fitting solutions. Some of the biggest stars in ballet, like New York City Ballet's Sara Mearns and Lauren Lovette, say Schmutte's molds have been "game changing."
Contemporary phenom Christina Ricucci has super-flexible hips, which means she can stretch her legs to unbelievable heights. But when she noticed herself making contorted positions in class, Ricucci realized she was approaching her extensions all wrong. "I went back to the basics in class, squaring my hips and using my turnout," Ricucci says. "I learned to create proper positions, rather than whacked-out versions of them."
Some dancers are so wonky they have a hard time supporting their high legs, while others struggle with limited flexibility. But no matter your facility, you can find a balance of stretch and strength to achieve your fullest range of extension. It's not about how high (or not) your legs can go: It's the quality of the movement, and how you get those legs up, that counts.
When most of us think of The Nutcracker, we imagine a growing Christmas tree, dancing mice, and a little girl named Clara (or Marie) traveling to the Land of Sweets. But companies around the world have been reinventing the holiday classic, changing the storyline or adding their own spectacular sets and characters. To get in the Nutcracker spirit this season, check out these out-of-the-box productions.
There's an iconic moment in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet when Juliet sits on the edge of her bed, staring into the audience. She's completely still—thinking long and hard about her tragic situation—while the emotion of Sergei Prokofiev's score washes over her. If the dancer does it well, this dance-less scene can speak volumes.
As dancers, we tend to focus on mastering steps and speaking through movement. Yet the way we hold ourselves when we're not moving can also be a powerful way to communicate with an audience.
How can you make the most of those quiet moments onstage—and what happens if your muscles cramp, you have a crazy itch, or your mind starts to wander? We gathered tips from industry professionals to help guide you through.
Is there a part you desperately want to do, something that makes your heart sing? What would it be like to get the chance to perform it? For some lucky people, dancing a coveted role is a dream that comes true. We asked four top dancers how it felt when they got the opportunity to do a cherished part.
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Many dancers are deciding to go meat-free (vegetarian) or animal-product–free (vegan) because they want to fuel their bodies with plant-based foods. These diets can be beneficial, but they can also cause problems if you don't make thoughtful and healthy choices. Here are a few basic tips for dancers curious about a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.
Kansas City Ballet's Kelsey Hellebuyck cringes when she thinks back to her first few months in pointe shoes. "I started out wearing no padding," she remembers. "I had all these open blisters, so then I tried paper towels." But the towels would shred, and her blisters just got worse. After a lot of trial and error, Hellebuyck found that a thin gel padding took some pressure off her foot and still let her toes feel the edge of the shoe. "It was definitely a learning curve," she says.
It can take years—and many blisters!—to find the right pointe shoe padding for your unique feet. But that's not for lack of choices, from old-school lambswool to high-tech gel pads. Here's a breakdown of popular padding options that might give you some new ideas—and, hopefully, happier toes.
When dancers audition for Paul Taylor Dance Company, they're often thrown by one particular request: to walk across the studio by themselves. “Paul can see a lot about a person by the way they walk," says Michelle Fleet, a veteran Taylor dancer. "But many people get cut at that point, because they're terrified—a walk can be so revealing."
She just retired as a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, but as a teenager, Maria Chapman struggled to gain control of her flexibility. “I looked pretty good at the barre," she says, “but I was relying on it way too much, and focusing exclusively on what my legs and feet were doing." Without the barre's support, she became a wobbly mess. “It wasn't until I figured out how to use my back and core that I was able to be successful in center, too," she says.
Auditioning for summer intensives in person may be the ideal—but for Anna McDowell, a 16-year-old student at Juneau Dance Theatre in Juneau, AK, it's rarely possible. “Living in Alaska, it's difficult to travel to auditions," she says. “It gets way too expensive!" Instead, each year, with help from her teachers and a videographer, she puts together a well-crafted video and submits it to schools around the country. Last year, her high-quality video helped her earn acceptance to nearly every program she applied for. Most summer intensive programs, eager to attract students from far and wide, will accept video auditions from those who can't travel to take class. But major schools look at hundreds of submissions each year, which means video auditioners have just a few minutes—or even seconds—to make a great impression. If you're about to create an audition video, follow these tips from the professionals to put your best digital foot forward.