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."