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A romantic ballerina who could be both tragic and joyous, Hilda Morales has made her mark on ballet. As a principal with Pennsylvania Ballet and soloist with American Ballet Theatre (where she also served as assistant ballet mistress), Morales performed in works by Balanchine, John Butler, Tudor, de Mille, Limón, and Ailey. She appeared in the popular dance film The Turning Point and in Broadway’s version of the rock opera Tommy. A gifted educator, she has taught at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, the University of Indiana Bloomington, and Vassar College, and was ballet mistress for the International Ballet Celebration. She has been on faculty at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School since 1998.
At Ballet Hispanico’s summer intensive last July, Morales, who grew up in Puerto Rico, corrected students affectionately in both Spanish and English. Editor in chief Wendy Perron, who remembers admiring Morales’ dancing when both were students at the School of American Ballet in the 1960s, watched her class and spoke with her afterward.
I noticed that you start class with tendu instead of plié. Why? Grand plié is really heavy on the thigh, so warming up the leg beforehand is a very good idea. It establishes balance and placement and wakes up the body.
If students have a hard time turning out, what do you tell them? I stress that they have to work through their natural turnout and then continue developing it. Turnout is something that you work on every day. You can’t say, “OK, I did that step turned out yesterday so it’s OK today.” No, it’s not OK today. Your body’s your instrument and you don’t feel the same way every day.
At the barre, how do you get students not to forget about the side arm? In both barre and center, you maintain the arm in second position by training the back. Doing grands pliés in second position with the arms in second is very good training for maintaining the back. The Vaganova arms tend to be much higher in second position than the Cecchetti, which stay low.
Which do you use? It depends on what I’m doing. If I’m teaching a style, I tend to lower the arms, like in Cecchetti. But when I want the students to get a real sense of what the back is doing—because students don’t use their backs enough—I raise the elbow. The part from the shoulder to the elbow goes back, and the elbows to the fingers go forward, which creates opposition.
When your students did demi-plié before the jump, you said, “Go down to the basement!” Right. You want them to think of going as deep as possible without lifting their heels. All movement comes from plié.
How do you get students to finish a line? I give them images of the line extended out into eternity, never ending. Students tend to settle rather than making that line feel continuous. It should follow through the fingers and out, out, out—very far out. And not only that—the eyes create the illusion that the dancer is longer.
Can you say more about developing the focus of the eyes? The eyes actually direct movement. It’s like crossing the street. You look to the right and to the left to make sure you can cross. Focusing the eyes also helps with balance.
What were you saying in class about the neck? You have to teach students to feel their balance from the back of the neck—to lengthen there and feel the backs of the ears. Sometimes I say that the back ends right underneath the ears, so they sense that connection. Teenagers, when their bodies start changing, they try to make themselves smaller; they feel self-conscious. You have to make them feel that their bodies are beautiful, that they have this incredible instrument.
How has ballet training changed over the years? It’s become more athletic. I think that it’s wonderful, all these high extensions and jumps, to see the body leap to incredible heights. But we have lost the subtlety of the steps. We cannot forget the subtlety.
What advice would you give to a young dancer today who wants to get a job in a good company? First of all, find a good teacher. Read. Watch a lot of videos, and watch them in different ways. Watch the first time to enjoy it, and then find out what each school is best at. The Vaganova students have the incredible backs and beautiful upper body; the French school is also a beautiful school. The more you know about the art form, the better you will be.
Do you miss dancing? I miss performing—that sense of being onstage and that relationship with the audience. I miss it terribly. But I don’t have to do it. I get a great joy out of seeing my students improving. Through them I relive those moments of freedom and abandonment. I say to them, “There were some people from my dancing career who gave so much to me. It’s my time to pass on what they gave me, so you can take it in and pass it on to the next person.”
Photo by Rosalie O'Connor