Julie Diana is executive director of Juneau Dance Theatre. She danced as a principal with San Francisco Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet, and participated in a dancer exchange with the Royal Ballet in London. She has been a guest teacher at many renowned ballet schools, worked as a private coach and as Ballet Master at Pennsylvania Ballet. She writes for various dance publications such as Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit and Pointe.
A new year calls for a new approach to your training. As you make your resolutions for 2018, think about the corrections you hear most often. Now is the perfect time to address these issues and set realistic goals to fix them. Not sure what to tackle first? These seven resolutions master teachers wish you'd make will help you start the year off on the right foot.
1. Use your eyes.
It's easy to get stuck in the mirror and constantly analyze yourself. But keeping your gaze glued to the front means you're not using épaulement efficiently or focusing your eyes. "It can be a bad habit," says Pascal Molat, trainee program assistant at San Francisco Ballet School. "The head is the heaviest part of the body, so if you direct the energy with the eyes, the position will be correct." Your head should coordinate with port de bras from the beginning of barre, says Molat. "What you do there relates to what happens in center."
Class can be a whirlwind of information. Your teacher throws out multiple corrections at once—often in the middle of a combination—and as much as you want to apply them, they don't always stick. Though some are notes you've heard time and time again, you get too overwhelmed trying to fix all of them to correctly incorporate any of them.
Ashley Tuttle, photo by Duncan Cooper
Feedback is a necessary part of a dancer's craft, providing the guidance to develop technically and artistically. But applying new information is not always easy. You might feel bombarded with too many notes at one time, or insecure about being singled out for criticism. Learning to implement corrections is an art in itself.
A last-minute performance opportunity can be the biggest challenge—and the biggest break—of your career. Five dancers share their stories.
It’s a dancer’s nightmare: You’re thrown into a part last minute and you don’t know what you’re doing. With just a few hours—or minutes—to learn the steps, memorize spacing and grasp the musicality, you have to perform something you’ve barely rehearsed. The situation is high stress with high stakes, but it doesn’t have to be a bad dream. With the right approach, you can use the opportunity to tackle new roles and get noticed for even bigger parts in the future.
Adomaitis only had 30 minutes to learn a new role in Rassemblement. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB.
Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet
On tour, a girl in Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement got injured. I had been learning the ballet, but I thought: There’s no way they’re putting me on for her! It’s not my spot. Just as we were getting changed, they said Peter Boal needed to talk to me. He had seen that I was paying attention in rehearsal, so he had faith I knew what I was doing. It was the most stressful situation I could imagine. I had about 30 minutes.
I was wearing a costume for another ballet, with a French twist and diamond earrings. The first thing I did was breathe. Then I redid my hair into a low bun and got rid of the pointe shoes. Wardrobe cut up another girl’s leotard for me and gave me another dress lying around. I followed the ballet master into the studio to figure out the steps. I tried to focus on the choreography, nothing else, and we did it over and over for 20 minutes.
The biggest challenge was keeping my body calm. The movement is grounded, core-centric and very dropped. I tried not to let the adrenaline make me shake. Usually I don’t worry about the steps and get lost in the movement onstage, but I absolutely could not do that. I had to keep thinking the whole time.
On the next tour, I was the understudy for every role.
Advice: Learn as much as you can, even roles you’re not scheduled to do. Anything can happen!
Pennsylvania Ballet soloist
DiPiazza cut steps to keep the musicality. Here, with Lorin Mathis in Emeralds. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy PAB.
I was scheduled to perform in the corps of Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina and was understudying the lead. But I hadn’t done the principal’s steps full-out since I wasn’t able to take space in rehearsals. Two days before the show, they told me I was going on!
Merrill Ashley rehearsed me and my partner for one and a half hours, since I still had a dress and a performance that night. We had no pianist, just a DVD that was extremely fast. The next day I got a stage rehearsal to go over spacing. My performance was my first real run-through! I had to cut out a step or two because it was so quick and I wasn’t keeping up. But I knew the music, and it was easy to cover. My feet were completely numb by the end. There’s no way I could have had the stamina I needed with such little time to prepare. Being thrown in at the last second, you don’t have the work built up behind it, or the confidence.
Ballo is lyrical, but it has a lot of sharp technical aspects that I hadn’t done a lot of, so it was a rare opportunity for me to show another side of my dancing. The next season I got promoted to soloist.
Advice: Get a lot of rest, even though you don’t want to sleep because you’re so excited!
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago member
Hortin relied on his cast mates. Here, in Jirí Kylián’s Petite Mort. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Hubbard Street.
Eight years ago, when I was new to the company, I was a general cover for The Constant Shift of Pulse, by Doug Varone. I learned two or three roles, but never rehearsed them full-out in the studio. Then another dancer got bursitis in his knee.
I found out the night before. After about a half-hour or hour of rehearsal, I went over it by myself in the hotel room, figuring out which parts I knew, which ones I didn’t and the ones I needed clarification on. It was a group piece and I had to fit in. You can know all the steps, but to do them among other people is the only way to understand spacing. Luckily, the show went well. It was a combined effort from everyone, and the other dancers were really supportive. I showed that the company could count on me.
Advice: Intention plays a huge role. If you cover things well, it might not be what the choreographer wanted, but it’s not going to ruin the dance.
Christina Lynch Markham
Paul Taylor Dance Company member
Markham used repetition to memorize Black Tuesday. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy Taylor.
In my first season at Lincoln Center with the main company, someone fractured her foot the weekend before we opened. I had to forget everything I was doing in Black Tuesday and learn the “Big Bad Wolf” solo. What helped me most was repetition. I watched videos over and over, like cramming for a test. I would close my eyes and envision myself doing the movements very slow, to build a connection, and get faster and faster. Sometimes I would do it hyper-speed in my living room. Then I would go early to rehearsal and do it full-out. If I accidentally slipped up, I knew that I would slip up in the Taylor style.
Two hours before the show, I had such dread! I made myself breathe very deeply. The more grounded you are, the more you can shift your weight faster if you accidentally go the wrong way.
Onstage, I had a heightened awareness: I felt all my senses open, and my eyes were probably so wide I didn’t have to put eyeliner on! It was my job to make sure the audience got what they paid for. And for me, I got to dance a role that I probably would have had to wait years to perform. I didn’t want that to leave my grasp.
Advice: If you flub one count of eight, forgive yourself and don’t let it sabotage your entire season.
New York City Ballet soloist
I was getting ready to leave one afternoon when I found out I was going to do Raymonda Variations the next day. I had never seen any of the principal’s steps. I was so shocked! I had rehearsals right away: Joaquin De Luz and I worked for about an hour, then we had an onstage run where I did as much as I knew. Later, I had an hour to learn the rest, and another run the next day.
Pereira hopes her turn in Raymonda Variations leads to bigger opportunities. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB.
The night before, I sewed shoes and watched the tape over and over. I actually slept really well—my mind was so exhausted, it just shut down. Onstage, I tried to stay calm and do one step at a time, take one entrance at a time. There were no mishaps. I was so happy!
I hope that because I did so well in such a short period of time, they’ll give me bigger opportunities. It would be really awesome if I got to do Raymonda again with more preparation. But I got three more shows of it right away, and tried to bring something new each time. I had a blast! It was like a party onstage.
Advice: Remember, they can’t get mad at you: Even if you mess up, you’re still saving the day.
Former Pennsylvania Ballet principal Julie Diana is the executive director of Juneau Dance Theatre.
Socializing with your company's donors
When patrons linger at an after-party to celebrate a performance of the Mark Morris Dance Group, Lauren Grant, who’s been dancing with the company for almost 20 years, shows up to greet them. “I really like meeting donors because they obviously like the work enough to pledge some of their money,” she says. “Not every dancer in this group does that, and we are not asked to do that.”
Once upon a time, dancers were required to schmooze—and more. The dark side of ballet history in particular reeks with century-old accounts of ballerinas who were expected to sleep with their male patrons. Although this extreme policy no longer exists, the uncomfortable “pay for play” idea still lingers in corners of the dance world.
As a professional dancer, you will be invited to social functions where you can interact with donors. While these events are not mandatory, you might feel obligated to volunteer your time and celebrity to cultivate sponsorship. Some artists, like Grant, enjoy these parties. But newer dancers might wonder if they have to go, what to say when they’re there and how to handle inappropriate behavior if a patron crosses the line.
To Go Or Not To Go
When you sign a contract with a professional company, the agreement focuses on your responsibilities in the studio and onstage. But because American dance companies receive little government funding and rely on private sources for financial stability, they market you—the dancer—to help drive interest and contributions. “Dancers are an organization’s most potent resource,” says Janis Goodman, former chairperson of Pennsylvania Ballet. “Funding has become so difficult that companies focus their efforts on individual donors and how to seduce them.”
While dancers are not obligated to help raise money, you might be concerned that refusing to schmooze could negatively affect your career. That’s not entirely so, says Atlanta Ballet executive director Arturo Jacobus. “It could be hurtful if you are aloof and reluctant to engage. But it’s a gray area,” he says. “At the end of the day, the dancer’s career is made by how they dance.” Performers are hired for their talent, but companies want to work with people who are also friendly and willing to go above and beyond to help the organization. Companies cannot overtly criticize dancers for refusing to do so, and the day-to-day consequences for dancers remain unclear. But, the big picture is easy to see: Unsatisfied donors means unhealthy companies, and unhealthy companies means no places to dance. It’s a risk that’s on everyone’s mind.
Perks and Dangers
There are great advantages to attending donor functions. “Connecting with people could lead to future opportunities,” says Vanessa Zahorian, principal at San Francisco Ballet. Through her friendships with longtime donors, Zahorian has broadened her network, met Olympic athletes and posed for a sketch artist whose designs might be used in a future SFB collaboration. Grant has also had positive experiences, exchanging ideas with people who are enthusiastic about her work. “It can be isolating being stuck in the studio all day,” she says. “Donors can give an outside perspective about the pieces you’ve been slaving over.”
But there are times to be wary. “There’s a definite line between donors and dancers,” says Zahorian. “I’ve always been cautious not to tell everyone about my personal life.” Grant knows of a dancer who received excessive, unwanted attention. “It’s tricky because a donor might have access to the people who work within an organization,” she says. “Contact information has to stay private so that dancers are not hounded in any way.”
Be aware of situations that could become extreme, such as stalking or sexual advances. It is okay for patrons to follow your career at the theater and presence on social media; it is not okay for them to smother you or make inappropriate comments. Jacobus remembers an incident in which a dancer reported that a board member was singling her out at events, and he addressed the situation right away. “If you ever feel uncomfortable, tell someone immediately,” he advises. “Go to human resources. It’s management’s responsibility to do something about it.”
Keep Your Eyes Open
Mingling with strangers might be the last thing you want to do at the end of a show or in the midst of a grueling season. Socializing can often feel like another performance. But recognizing the people who support you could be win-win: They appreciate your efforts, and you are showered with flattery.
Darla Hoover stands at the front of the dance studio, holding a large red exercise ball as a student practices fouettés. Using the ball as a focal point, the dancer finds it with her eyes each time she completes a rotation. “Spotting is very difficult for her, but having that target really helps,” says Hoover, the associate artistic director of Ballet Academy East in New York City. “After she gets a good sense of bringing her head around, I’m able to fine-tune the rest.”
At right: Former BAE student Laura Wolfe Hunt, now at Kansas City Ballet. Photo by Erin Baiano for DM.
In pirouettes or other turning steps, spotting requires you to snap your head around faster than the rest of your body, letting you focus on one “spot” to reduce dizziness. The technique was developed in the late 19th century when classical ballet began to emphasize virtuosity, with dancers doing multiple pirouettes on pointe. The trend continues in today’s dance world where lightning-fast codas and a dazzling number of turns can ignite an audience.
Students typically learn to spot at an early age, when it’s easier to pick up the coordination and sense of timing. But what if you’re not a natural turner? It’s never too late to improve the mechanics and find a way that works for you.
If you feel too disoriented to finish a turning sequence, signs may point to spotting trouble. Maybe you are falling out of pirouettes, your turns have a jerky rhythm, or you carry so much tension in your neck that you can’t do multiples. Simple exercises can fix these problems and help you regain your focus. “Face the mirror and begin to turn your body without turning your head,” Hoover says, “then snap your head around to face front again.” If Hoover is working with someone who drops her chin, she’ll guide the dancer’s head with her hands and do it over and over for muscle memory. She also suggests aiming chaînés straight downstage, spotting the mirror, so dancers can find their eyes each time they turn. She’s even encouraged students to sit on a spinning stool to practice quick, consecutive rotations.
Shannon Bresnahan, a teacher at San Francisco Ballet School, tells her students to practice a series of half pirouettes from fifth, leaving their heads behind as long as they can before finishing. “Once they get a good sense of focus, we graduate to full pirouettes,” she says. Soutenu turns, Bresnahan offers, are other steps to work on spotting: Instead of worrying about balancing on one leg, you can experience turning and concentrate on using your head.
Many students have trouble finding their focus—looking at a spot and coming back to it each time. (Perhaps the target is too small or the stage lights are too bright and make it difficult to see.) Another reason could be poor vision. Hoover has sent many students to an eye doctor after she sensed that they had a problem. “They come around and can’t see anything,” she says. “They don’t realize that there should be
Nicolas Blanc, ballet master at the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, danced his entire career with a sight deficiency, unable to see well out of his right eye. “What helped me was having a very good sense of alignment and internal balance,” he says. “When I was turning, because one eye didn’t see much, I started to bend my head over and was totally crooked.” Blanc would visualize his left ear over his left hip (if he was turning to the right), and this imagery fixed his alignment, loosened his neck, and helped his spotting. He also practiced turning with his eyes closed to find a sense of internal balance. “In my mind, I could see my spine in the center of my body like a stick and I was turning around that stick,” Blanc says. “It’s not always by the book. Dancers have to find a way to make it work for them."
Different turns, different approaches
Every turn has an intrinsic rhythm, and how you spot depends on its tempo, coordination, and direction. For instance, a coda fouetté turn is sharp and quick, requiring a supple neck and a crisp spot. “You’re going to gain speed by the rotation of the head,” says Blanc. On the other hand, an adagio en dedans pirouette in back attitude requires less intense spotting—you run the risk of distorting the line by leaving your head too long. Blanc found success in that turn by following the advice of his teacher at the Académie de Danse Princesse Grace. He said to spot twice in that attitude turn: one look to the front corner and another look to the opposite diagonal. “I would stay far more on balance using several spots, which was really odd,” he admits.
And for the turns that begin in one corner and end facing another, Bresnahan suggests spotting in the direction you’re going to finish. “But it depends on what the choreographer and director want,” she says. Balanchine famously asked his dancers to spot front, even when they traveled to the side. “It’s a completely different feeling, but you just have to practice,” says Bresnahan. “Dancers today have to be malleable and able to do everything.”
Julie Diana is a principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania.
With her long neck, sweet face, and elegant bearing, Pennsylvania Ballet’s Julie Diana is the Audrey Hepburn of ballet. Articulate and generous in contemporary roles, she can be positively dreamy in classical ones. Diana discovered ballet at age 7 at the New Jersey Ballet. At 12, she began training at the School of American Ballet and joined San Francisco Ballet at 16. In 2004 she moved to Philadelphia, where she and boyfriend Zachary Hench joined PAB as principals (see “The Wings of the Dove,” Aug. 2006). The next year, after a performance of Romeo and Juliet in which Diana and Hench had danced the leads, he proposed to her onstage. This spring Diana, who earned her BA from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008, looks forward to dancing Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated, and a reprisal of Romeo and Juliet with her husband.
I initially wanted to be an Olympic champion in women’s gymnastics, winning gold medals and scoring perfect 10s by age 16. This dream, however, was not meant to be. At 7, I had a tremendous fear of heights and my body was already too long and loose for compact tumbling. My gymnastics coach, wisely, nudged me in a different direction—she encouraged me to try ballet.
I fell in love. Was it the music, the discipline, the outfit, or the combination of structure and expressive movement? I don’t know. But I readily gave up the bars at the gym and practically attached myself to a barre in the studio.
Before now, I’ve never articulated my reasons for dancing. I’ve been asked where I dance, how long I’ve danced, and what roles I want to dance…but never why I dance. So as I search for the words to describe my motivation, I realize that there is no simple answer. My reasons seem to be varied and predictable, constant yet changing.
I dance to act. Ballet enables me to be the things I am not, or maybe it allows me to express aspects of myself that I would not otherwise acknowledge. I dance to travel, to go places that I would not otherwise have the opportunity to see. I dance for those rare moments when everything comes together, when my body and mind cease to conflict and when I am absolutely present, when the steps just happen and I inhabit the music, when I don’t have to think because the dance has taken over.
I do not dance to be competitive (this might seem strange coming from someone who wanted to go to the Olympics). Instead I am driven by the desire to constantly improve myself, to strengthen my weaknesses, and to disguise my unchangeable flaws. Dance presents me with an endless set of challenges from which I can pick and choose on a daily basis. There is always another goal to achieve.
In years past I would strive for unattainable perfection, driving myself crazy with self-criticism. Today, my approach to dancing is more relaxed. I still aim for excellence, but I am even more determined to enjoy the artistic process and let myself feel fulfilled. It was after the birth of my daughter, Riley, that I rediscovered the simple joys of dance.
I perform for her around the house, in the studio, and onstage—anything to make her smile! At just a year old, she keeps me grounded and enables me to maintain a healthy perspective. She makes me appreciate the more practical benefits of my job that I used to take for granted, such as good health insurance and a steady salary. And I can see the essence of ballet through her young eyes. I am reminded of its transformative power, that it is a stimulating, emotional, and engaging art capable of moving both body and soul.
Dance is more than my profession; it is an integral part of my life. It has shaped and influenced my identity, but it does not define me. I dance because I love the way it blurs the line between fantasy and reality. I dance because I am able to partner with my husband. I dance because it is a wonderful way to spend the workday. I dance because, from age 7, it’s the life I chose. My professional ballet career is my Olympic gold medal and I would not trade it for anything.
Photo of Julie Diana and Zachary Hench in La Sylphide by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Diana.