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."
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
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:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.