Dance Training

Is It Time to Completely Rethink Ballet Class?

BalletMet in company class onstage before a show. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, courtesy BalletMet

Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.

She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.

But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?


Since ballet began more than 400 years ago, there has always been the question of how to train dancers for the job's unique mix of physical, theatrical and musical skills. Each generation has learned from the one before it, adding bits here and cutting bits there.

Tulsa Ballet company members practice morning pliés. Photo by Francisco Estevez, courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Eventually, around the beginning of the 19th century, ballet class took the form and structure of what professional ballet dancers now do every day, beginning at the barre with pliés and ending in the center with allégro. Like today, the steps they practiced were ballet steps; they trained as a large ensemble divvied up into lines and groups according to the exercise; they faced a mirror and followed the teacher's instructions.

Yet today's ballet dancers need to be much more versatile. Almost all midsize to large ballet companies now boast a repertoire that includes works by choreographers like William Forsythe and Ohad Naharin alongside neoclassicists like Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine.

To address those demands, BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang, for one, says he encourages his ballet masters to give class combinations that tie in with the choreography. For example, if they are performing Giselle they might do longer adagios for stamina and hold arabesque pliés while the men are given more petit allégro. For a contemporary ballet program they incorporate more transitional material into the combinations, which mirrors the complicated transitions in the choreography.

But, Liang admits, with a work like Naharin's Minus 16, there is no natural tie-in. (Instead, his dancers took Gaga three times a week after morning ballet class before their Minus 16 run.)

BalletMet's Edwaard Liang teaching company class. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Vaganova faced a similar situation in the years following the Russian Revolution. Soviet choreographers searching for a new dance style to match the new social order threw some very unclassical acrobatic moves at the dancers—steps like splits and high leg extensions which until that point were considered inappropriate. Vaganova adjusted her class to prepare students for these "new steps." In her view, these movements would be meaningless if they were not properly trained. "We will achieve nothing new by bringing them to the stage without the corresponding treatment," she wrote (as translated by Catherine Pawlick in Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition). Where choreography goes, preparation for it ought to follow, or, at the very least, adapt.

Today's dancers are not only asked to perform a greater variety of technique, but often at a higher intensity, which presents its own challenges. Emma Redding, head of dance science at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, points out in Dancers: Fit Bodies? that ballet classes focus on skill acquisition rather than general physiological development, such as strength and stamina. That means that most dancers need to supplement their daily class with all manner of cross-training—Pilates, yoga, Gyrotonic, spinning, swimming—to gain the aerobic fitness and power they need for performance, and to avoid injury.

Joffrey Ballet dancer Derrick Agnoletti, for example, does CrossFit three mornings a week and swimming and boot camp on the other two. "Class doesn't train us for stamina, but a lot of our work is stamina-based," he says. At 35, Agnoletti may be one of the oldest dancers in the company, but his cross-training regimen has made him one of the fittest. "When most of the dancers are out of breath I feel fine," he says.

Most dancers feel pressure to perform significant amounts of cross-training to build the strength ballet class doesn't. Photo by Quinn Wharton.

Could class be redesigned to improve fitness? Yes, say Brazilian researchers Josianne Rodrigues-Krause, Mauricio Krause and Álvaro Reischak-Oliveira. In Cardiorespiratory Considerations in Dance: From Classes to Performances, they propose introducing "ballet sets" after the center phase of technique class, such as five-minute routines of three sets of 20-second high-intensity exercise (allégro) interspersed with two minutes of active recovery (such as adagio). This interval training would challenge dancers' aerobic fitness while using the specific muscles and coordination required in ballet. They suggest teachers get the support of fitness specialists to integrate physical training principles into class to better meet the requirements of today's choreography.

Their proposals call into question the overall efficiency of the ballet class, and whether dancers' time and energy can be better managed. For example, is the barre section too long and unnecessarily repetitive?

A number of studies show that barre is not as effective in training dancers' balance as is commonly assumed. Curious about the transfer of training from barre to center, Virginia Wilmerding, a research professor at University of New Mexico, carried out an electromyographical comparison of a développé devant at barre and at center and discovered—drum roll—that the standing leg works 50 to 60 percent less while using the barre.

The standing leg isn't fully activated at barre. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

"You may be training a myriad of other things, but you are not training your standing leg," she says. "So then you go into the center and look at all the tendus you have to do because you wasted 45 minutes at barre not training the supporting foot." However, she recognizes that barre is more than this. "I feel weird saying barre doesn't do this or that because when I was dancing, I loved barre! It gets you into a kind of mindfulness."

Vaganova died in 1951 before dance science became a serious subject of research. But she already had a scientist's approach—she believed that ballet could be taught in an analytical way to achieve consistent results. She was not impressed by coincidental success achieved unsystematically. Vaganova would likely be delighted with all the new means of analyzing movement, like videography and motion-capture technology—more tools in the pedagogue's kit—and update her approach accordingly.

The classical ballet class has served the art form tremendously well for a couple hundred years. "Considering how old the traditions are, it is extraordinary what they got right," says Wilmerding. "The fact that you start slowly and move more quickly as time passes. The fact that you start with a wide base of support and slowly move to a narrow base of support."

Most dance professionals still believe firmly in the traditional ballet class as daily practice. "It is beautifully codified and sets one up for doing almost anything," says Jodie Gates, who heads the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California, "but I think we can approach it with contemporary thinking." Rather than challenging the structure of class, her program challenges its culture, taking ballet off its elitist pedestal by giving it equal weight as other techniques.

Ballet class at USC. Photo by Carolyn DiLoreto

Liang, on the other hand, is not sure we have ever thought outside the box enough. "We are steeped in tradition," he says, "and the scariest word to all of us is 'change.' " Many ballet dancers have an almost superstitious need to practice the same steps in the same order every day.

Yet in her lifetime, Vaganova's own approach changed. "Pupils who have not seen me for a long time find an improvement and progress in my teaching," she wrote in one of her last articles. "What is the cause of this? Diligent attention to new types of productions. Look at life all around; everything is growing, everything is moving forward. Therefore, I recommend… Keeping in touch with life and with art."


This story has been updated to credit quotes from Agrippina Vaganova to Catherine Pawlick's Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition and Agrippina Vaganova's Basic Principals of Classical Ballet. We regret the ommission.

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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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