Career

A Man's World

Throughout Ballet West's Nutcracker, Sugar Plum Fairy Katie Critchlow is the epitome of feminine grace. Then, during the coda of the grand pas de deux, she unleashes a series of coupés jetés so impressive they would put any cavalier to shame.

Critchlow credits her stunning grand allégro capabilities—even at the end of an exhausting two-hour production—to one crucial training tool: men's technique classes. “Those classes taught me to really use my plié, push my heels down and harness the power of my legs," says Critchlow, who added twice-weekly men's classes to her schedule as a teenager. “I might be the only female dancer in the company who loves doing those coupés jetés."

Female dancers don't often see the inner workings of men's class. But women like Critchlow, who challenge themselves to join their male peers, have seen results, from stronger jumps and turns to a healthy competitive attitude. But there can be hazards to crossing the gender divide. As with any new training regimen, it's important to approach men's class intelligently so you can reap all its benefits.

A Physical Boost

Men's classes start out like any other technique class—pliés followed by tendu combinations at the barre—but the end game is distinct, with center work that's strongly weighted toward allegro and turns. “The goal is to be sure that you're doing them properly—and to continue doing them properly even when you get fatigued," says Critchlow.

It's not all about the showstopping big jumps. A strong component is petit allégro, working toward a crisp, clean battu, and gaining enough airspace to show them off to the last row of the balcony. “In men's class, we focus a lot on the coordination of the arms and the torso during jumps to create lift," says Atlanta Ballet dancer and men's class teacher John Welker. “The attack is important, but we also focus on the finish and transitions. A lot of that starts at the barre with finding the center and pushing the plié into the ground."

Miami City Ballet principal Patricia Delgado remembers trying a men's class for the first time while recovering from an injury and looking for a way to dance without wearing pointe shoes. “I felt so much stronger after having taken that class for the summer," she says. “We jumped a lot slower, so there was time to find length in the plié and create height," she says. “I try to remind myself of that feeling while I perform—making sure every step is done to its fullest potential." For Delgado, men's classes have been, at times, the equivalent of cross-training, building strength and stamina without having to lift weights or run. And that focus on footwork and grounding has come in handy across MCB's diverse repertoire—from intricate Balanchine choreography to high-impact contemporary works.

What to Expect

With all those jumps and turns, you may think class will be fast-paced, but the overall rhythm may actually feel slower, since the combinations leave more room for bravado. “The musical tempos may take some getting used to," says Ballet West II director Calvin Kitten. “Allegros tend to be much slower to allow for more ballon in their jumps." To take full advantage of the time, you have to sink into each plié and hang in the air. It may be helpful to leave your pointe shoes at the door, and focus on using your toes for extra grounding.

Another challenge for women can be traveling as quickly as the men across the floor, especially with large jumps you may not have attempted before. Critchlow recommends scanning the room and going with a group that you think may be closer to your speed. And if you notice another dancer closing in on you, it's better to step out of the line of traffic than to become manège roadkill.

Of course, when you try something out of your comfort zone, you put yourself at higher risk for injury. Before men's class, take some extra time to warm up and stretch—especially your hips and ankles. It's also important to try anything new slowly, staying aware of your physical limits. “Class will include things like double tours and double saut de basques, which you may have never even thought about approaching before," Critchlow says. “You have to be prepared that you may fall or accidentally shoot out in the wrong direction. To start, you might have to hang back or do singles instead of doubles."

Competitive, Yet Respectful

Remember that you're essentially a guest in someone else's class: Ask the teacher if you're welcome instead of just dropping in, and be respectful of any rules or etiquette that may exist. While women may be accustomed to standing in the front or going first when traveling across the floor, now might be the time to offer to follow the men's lead. Don't assume that the “ladies first" rule applies.

As long as you're respectful, most men will be happy to share their class with you. In fact, Welker says having women in the room often raises the competitive ante—pushing men to show off and women to test their limits. Delgado says it was this playful atmosphere that initially hooked her. “The benefits I've experienced from men's technique classes may have been more emotional than physical," she says. “I just loved the energy, the competitive nature and the feeling of support and teamwork. Whenever I've taken men's classes, I've felt like I have 20 partners dancing with me."

Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
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Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?

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Advice for Dancers
A dance career can send you on a roller coaster of emotions, but evaluating reality can help give you perspective. Thinkstock.

I never believe that I deserve to be happy. This reaction kicked in big time since I got a steady job. My emotions are a roller coaster: joy at the chance to perform, terror that the people in charge don't like me and resentment at not getting solo roles. I'm driving myself crazy.

—Terry, Philadelphia, PA

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