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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What Is Your Definition of Success? 10 Dance Artists & Leaders Weigh in

Success is sharing.

Arun Kumar, courtesy Ramaswamy

"As a dancer and choreographer of a form that is not widely known, sharing it with communities all over the country feels like a major success. The fact that audiences are eager and receptive to hear and see what I feel are universal human messages, but through my point of view, is incredibly rewarding.

"I also feel success in the relationships I've maintained. I create with my mother and sister—the three of us perform together and have grown our partnership over the years. My mentor in India, Alarmél Valli, has been my teacher for over three decades. Every day that I am accepted as her student I feel humbled." —Aparna Ramaswamy, co-artistic director of Ragamala Dance Company

Success is staying passionate.

Courtesy Steffanina

"My first goal was to pay my bills using only dance. No side jobs. Once I got to that point, I felt like I'd 'made it.'

"When I was starting out, it was a big deal to me when record labels would repost a video of mine. It's easy to get caught up in the numbers. But I've realized the most important thing is maintaining your passion for what you're doing. If it starts to be about the views, you will fall out of love with dance. Keep the passion first and then figure out your marketing." —Matt Steffanina, Los Angeles–based dancer and choreographer

Success is serving others.

Courtesy Hibah

"It was more about self-fulfillment as a youngster, and I think as I've matured, I look to see who I can help, whether I'm inspiring someone who sees me onstage or teaching an up-and-coming dancer or sharing my knowledge with my 'Seasoned Saints'—a group of women probably about 60 and over whom I teach yoga to. Of course, I want to continue to be fulfilled artistically. Every artist feeds off of having opportunities to thrive. But now I realize that what I do—how I maintain my body, my craft, my integrity, my diligence—is in fact serving the younger dancer or serving an elder who is looking to find strength and move." —Bahiyah Hibah, Broadway performer

Success if finding balance.

Christian Savini, Courtesy Pam Tanowitz Dance

"It was my dream job once I finally got hired at Cunningham. The financial burden was eased greatly by having that security, and it also helped me improve as a dancer because I had more resources. I was able to consistently go to an Alexander teacher and swim at the Y. I could afford to go to more yoga classes.

"Now, as a freelancer, being successful is having a family, having a healthy relationship and being able to also have a career. I'm at a place where I still love performing, but I also split my time with rehearsal directing and coaching. I feel successful when I can find balance in all of those things, and also financially sustain a life in New York with a child." —Melissa Toogood, freelance modern dancer and coach

Success is feeling proud—and passing it along.

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Anderson

"To me, success has nothing to do with how the public feels. It has nothing to do with applause. It has nothing to do with how much I got paid. It has to do with being proud of the work. As a dancer, every time I got to do a new role and I made it through, it was a little success.

"Now my success has nothing to do with how I feel. I work at Houston Ballet in education and community engagement, so my success is in how students understand what I'm teaching them, and seeing them grow." —Lauren Anderson, former principal dancer with Houston Ballet

Success is dedication and openness.

Stephanie Diani, Courtesy Gibney

"If there was a moment of success, it's probably in the future because I see my career as one of evolution. Certainly, along the way there were milestones—a piece of choreography that really resonated or a space that opened that was particularly functional or unique in its aesthetics. But I think our field is about moving forward one step at a time in increments—constant improvement, iterative growth.

"I think that success is having a deeply rooted, relentless dedication to what you believe in—dedication that can weather difficulties, indecision, rejection. That, coupled with a kind of agility and openness to change at any moment, to redefine and even reinvent yourself. I think those things combined, whatever the outcome, to me defines success." —Gina Gibney, founder, CEO and artistic director of Gibney

Success is continuing to learn.

John Deane, Courtesy Capucilli

"Whether it's delving into the archetypes of a Graham role, a day of teaching or the months required for staging a work, I think that delving voraciously into colorful expression in a truthful way that touches people is what fills me. These experiences can't really be measured by words of success, at least not in my book, but they become a reservoir of knowledge. To say 'I made it!' is too definitive. If you've 'made it,' your journey is over. It should constantly be evolving. I take great pride in knowing that I am continuing to learn." —Terese Capucilli, artistic director laureate with Martha Graham Dance Company

Success is making the most of opportunities.

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

"When I got promoted to principal, after 10 years of being a soloist, I really felt that I had accomplished something. And then, all of a sudden, I was thrown into premieres of some of the hardest full-length ballets, with no stage rehearsals, sometimes no company rehearsals, and I realized that actually it doesn't matter what rank you are. It matters what you do with what you've been given. For me, it was going onstage and being able to have enough confidence that I could forget about myself when I was performing, that I could actually get into the character and make the role my own no matter what." —Sarah Lane, American Ballet Theatre principal

Success is investing in others.

Noah Stern Weber, Courtesy Alexander

"I've found that as soon as you get to one peak, you look around and there are other peaks to climb. It's not dissatisfaction, but the creative impulse to continue.

"One of the measures of success I think about as an advocate and producer is that Chicago Human Rhythm Project has managed to invest millions in artist fees and marketing for American tap dancers who weren't being paid by mainstream dance presenters until recently. We've helped to build capacity for our field. That will last beyond me." —Lane Alexander, co-founder and director of Chicago Human Rhythm Project

Success is less important than desire.

Peter Graham, Courtesy Noche Flamenca

"Sometimes I don't even know what I'm looking for. It's like success has kind of been thrown out the window and it's more the feeling of, as if, I was thirsty and I needed to drink. During my career, or during my life, I've found different roads to try to calm that thirst, satisfy that thirst. But the thirst always exists. An artist is always searching. You can't look for success as an artist. For me, the only thing is a capacity to quench my thirst." —Soledad Barrio, star of Noche Flamenca

(Translated from Spanish by her husband and artistic director, Martín Santangelo)