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By Lauren Kay
Puanani Brown is one of American Ballet Theatre’s new standouts. During a recent company class at ABT’s studios, the corps member swept through a waltz with soft elegance and pointed focus, her flexible back arching in a high arabesque, creating a gorgeous classical line. When she makes a mistake in a tough combination, she goes to the back of the room to work on a turn with a sense of investigation. Perhaps this calm determination comes from her time as an undergraduate at Harvard, but more likely it’s what helped get her there—and into the ranks of ABT, which she joined in March 2010. It has also aided her in dealing with injuries and imbalances caused by her flexibility. Dance Magazine chatted with the young ballerina to find out how she stays in shape.
Tireless Training Until she joined ABT, Brown was accustomed to the life of a dedicated student. Before attending Harvard, she studied at the School of American Ballet (and even apprenticed with New York City Ballet); when she returned to dancing after a year at college, she enrolled at Ballet Academy East. She says that now, taking just one class a day (ABT’s company class) has been a challenging adjustment, in terms of maintaining technique, so she tries to make the most of every session. “I always stay to the end of class instead of leaving early,” she says. “Then I often work on fouettés or something difficult afterward by myself.” She gets to work before class, too, using the company’s gym to warm up on the elliptical or reformer.
During class, Brown gives a lot of thought to the “how” of her movement. “At SAB I had to push myself to get fast, and now at ABT I work on classical lines and correct port de bras, which requires me to look at how I dance, not just what I’m dancing. Things like ‘getting my hips up’ as Susan Jaffe says, or lifting my stomach are new ways for me to work.”
Brown bolsters her training with classes outside of ABT. She counts Elena Kunikova and Fabrice Herrault, both teachers at Steps on Broadway, and Darla Hoover and Cheryl Yeager of BAE, among her favorites. “I liked my training of many classes a day,” she says. “Working in the studio with great teachers who give constructive corrections still helps me.”
Core Control Brown says she is naturally flexible, especially in her hips and back. This gives her a supple line, but she says it can be difficult to control and can also lead to injury, such as the pulled inner thigh muscle she suffered last May.
To combat the possibility of injury, Brown devotes time to cross-training that stabilizes her core, glutes, and hamstrings. “I’m a workout addict!” she laughs. “Cross-training helps me keep all my loose flexibility in check.” For a full-body workout, she goes to the pool. “I was on swim team when I was younger. Swimming is great for your core, and it works on the backs of my legs.” She adds that the underwater solace is beneficial for mind as well as body. During her daily rehearsal breaks, Brown uses the treadmill. “I walk in parallel on a slight incline,” she says. “This helps relax my turnout that’s been working so hard, and targets my glutes and shins, too.”
Mind Matters The final component of Brown’s training consists of not training. “Having a life outside of ballet makes this career sustainable,” she says. “It can be isolating if this is all you do.” Nights spent watching Glee, friends from outside the ballet world, and her sister (NYCB dancer Likolani Brown) keep her even-keeled. “This balance I’m finding, from strength to flexibility, and in the studio to life outside, is what’s key for me.”
Lauren Kay, a Dance Spirit contributing editor, is a dancer and writer in NYC.
Brown as a flower in Ratmansky's Nutcracker. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT