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."