Watch This Ballet Dancer Own the Floor as an Improvisational Swing Dance Champion
Just hearing the word "improvisation" is enough to make some ballet dancers shake in their pointe shoes. But for Chantelle Pianetta, it's a practice she relishes. Depending on the weekend, you might find her gracing Bay Area stages as a principal with Menlowe Ballet or sweeping in awards at West Coast swing competitions.
She specializes in Jack and Jill events, which involve improvised swing dancing with an unexpected partner in front of a panel of judges. (Check her out in action below.) While sustaining her ballet career, over the past four years Pianetta has quickly risen from novice to champion level on the WCS international competition circuit.
We spoke with Pianetta about straddling two different genres of dance.
How she trains for Jack and Jill competitions
"Social dance clubs are my classroom. I try to dance many nights a week with as many people as possible. Sometimes, I go out dancing at midnight and don't get home until 4 am. I also take workshops and private lessons to hone my technique, do footwork drills and articulations, and hone my frame to a particular tautness. I'm still working professionally in ballet, so I don't have to train my fitness as much as other dancers."
Pianetta's warm-up strategies
"For ballet, I foam roll, do ab work and stretch. Then take class with barre and center. For swing, I still foam roll and do a little ab work. But I add shoulder stability exercises to enhance my frame."
Shoulder stability exercises help Pianetta work on her frame for West Coast swing. Courtesy Pianetta.
A drawback of ballet training
"Sometimes, I am too stiff. In ballet, your energy has a very straight, elongated line with limbs working off a central axis. Swing is a street dance requiring a softening of the sternum and some swagger. This has been a challenge of mine. I'm glad I did more contemporary ballet in my career because I can pull from concepts I already know."
Her professional edge
"Usually, people who come from dance backgrounds have an edge because of their body awareness, discipline and athleticism. I'm also more comfortable in front of an audience."
Pianetta is also a professional ballet dancer.
Ballet vs. swing
"Ballet is physically harder, but the amount of presence required in West Coast swing is mentally harder. You need to have such a wide array of tools, ideas and problem-solving skills due to the immediacy of dancing in the moment. In ballet, you are drilled in a similar structure for years—you know what to expect, and there is a narrower scope in terms of what you need. But the tools in ballet need to be more refined."
Overcoming her fear of improvisation
"As a ballet dancer, I wasn't good at improvising. A blank slate was overwhelming. I loved learning choreography, but hadn't developed this skill at all. With social dancing, being a 'follow' gave me the parameter I was missing to improvise. The 'lead' thinks of the patterns, and, as a 'follow,' I respond as they call them out. The better I got at following, the more comfortable I became at putting in my own personality and style."
Pianetta performing at a West Coast swing event. Courtesy Pianetta.
How Jack and Jill has made Pianetta a stronger ballet dancer
"I am much more comfortable making new choices. I have become more confident in the moment and utilize my artistic freedom more. And in contemporary ballet partnering, I'm able to leverage my connection with a partner more effectively because of swing dance."
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
We knew that Ivo van Hove and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's production of West Side Story would challenge our preconceived notions about the show.
But a recent Vogue story gives us a taste of just how nontraditional the Broadway revival will be. Most notably, van Hove is cutting "I Feel Pretty" and the "Somewhere" ballet, condensing the show into one act to better reflect the urgency of the 48-hour plot. (The choice has been approved by the West Side Story estate, including Sondheim, who has "long been uncomfortable" with some of the "I Feel Pretty" lyrics.)
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