Chantelle Pianetta competing at a West Coast swing event. Courtesy Pianetta.

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."

In the foreground, Pianetta is partnered by a male wearing a gray T-shirt. Their arms are in a firm swing dance partnered frame. A large audience (in the background) is watching them dance.

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 midair in a grand jet\u00e9. Her legs are split in a leap, and she is wearing pointe shoes, a light pink tutu and a tiara. The backdrop is a dark-colored map print with an octopus and a compass.

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 is being dipped by her male dance partner. Her head is flung back, eyes closed. She wears a red lace top, navy pants and ballroom heels. Her partner is wearing light jeans and a navy and white button-up and his hair is in a high bun.

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."

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Deborah Mitchell in rehearsal with New Jersey Tap Ensemble. Vibeckedphoto, Courtesy New Jersey Tap Ensemble

How Tap Master Deborah Mitchell Helps Students Release Their Inhibitions

Deborah Mitchell, executive and artistic director of New Jersey Tap Ensemble, shares tools from nearly 30 years of teaching.

Meet dancers where they are.

"Use what you're given instead of imposing what you know," says Mitchell, who teaches tap to ages 9 to 80-plus. Your job description may be to teach a certain technique, but she encourages educators to recognize where dancers are coming from and what they already know before creating the lesson plan. "Help them bring out their confidence," says Mitchell, so they'll be more open to trying something new.

Transform the space. 

Not all dance classes take place in a studio. If you're teaching in a community center or school classroom, or even virtually, "remind students that this is our special space and we can dance here," Mitchell says. Transforming spatial limitations into a magical environment will help release students' inhibitions. "It's amazing how comfortable people get," she says.

Target the familiar.

Use relatable imagery, whether it's shapes, colors or, for tap, sounds. For instance, Mitchell will clap a rhythmic pattern while her younger students face the other direction. Instead of worrying about technique first, the most important thing is what they hear. When dancers respond by tapping the same rhythm she clapped, Mitchell says, "they get the biggest charge."