In Praise of Beats
Maxim Beloserkovsky teaching pre-professional men’s class at Ballet Academy East. Photo by Kyle Froman.
Scratchy entrechat sixes. Brisé volés with no brio. Royales unfit for a king.
One of the toughest technical areas to master in ballet, batterie too often is relegated to an afterthought. Despite the proliferation of extreme technique, encouraged by ballet competitions and Darwinian physicality, beats, it seems, haven’t earned the respect accorded to fouettés and grand jetés. Even in distinguished ballet companies, have they become the snubbed steps of ballet vocabulary? Why is that? And do teachers, dancers, and choreographers need to pay a little more attention to batterie?
“Yes, I have noticed a lapse. I don’t see many people stressing batterie,” says Patricia Wilde, the former New York City Ballet star who originated the lead role in Balanchine’s Square Dance, a study in devilish batterie. “I really think it’s a shame, because it gives a wonderful excitement to so many ballets and variations.” Wilde, a teacher at Saratoga Summer Dance Intensive and former artistic director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, notes that when she guest teaches company classes, “most of the women don’t do any kind of real entrechat cinq or entrechat six de volée.” And in some performances of Balanchine’s choreography, like Ballet Imperial or Raymonda Variations, the batterie has been watered down or omitted outright.
Maxim Beloserkovsky, formerly a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre who now teaches and coaches male students at Ballet Academy East in Manhattan, feels that batterie has been shoved aside for more flashy tricks. “Young, aspiring male dancers immediately ask me for major steps—right away they want to do double assemblés, double tours en l’air, pirouettes à la seconde, jetés en manège with double saut de basque—this kind of powerhouse technique,” he says. “It seems like the question of batterie is never even raised. Nobody really wants to do sixes or brisé volés.” (The one exception is double cabrioles, a beating step male students want to conquer quickly.)
One reason for students’ myopia is their desire to ape what they see—from watching live performances to attending competitions to scanning YouTube. “When they see that nine pirouettes brings the house down, they just concentrate on those particular elements,” says Beloserkovsky. In the competition arena, Beloserkovsky thinks men are overrating warhorses like Le Corsaire and Don Quixote and underestimating a Flower Festival in Genzano variation or a La Sylphide solo as medal-worthy. “If God gave you good feet and you trained well, you can deliver a phenomenal ‘James’ variation,” he says.
In his young men’s class, Beloserkovsky decided to teach some steps from the “Bluebird” pas de deux, which is riddled with beats. He asked them, “Have you ever experienced seven entrechat sixes in a row and finished with a double tour?” Attempting those and the string of brisé volés from the coda proved to be physically exhausting for the teenagers.
You’d be hard pressed to find someone whose beats surpass those of ABT principal Herman Cornejo. When he launches into a double cabriole éffacé, his legs resemble snipping scissors while his hips remain quiet and his port de bras retains perfect classical form. Batterie played a crucial role in his early training with Bournonville-influenced teacher Vasil Tupin at Instituto Superior de Arte at Teatro Colón. Cornejo’s first principal role was James in La Sylphide, which requires superb batterie with a relaxed upper body. “Today’s technique is moving toward circus training, which I understand—year after year, technique progresses with more jumps, more turns,” says Cornjeo. “But there are techniques like beating that are left behind. I guess because it’s a hard thing to train and some teachers didn’t do it when they were young, they just don’t teach it.”
A dissenting voice in the batterie discussion is Dmitri Kulev, director of the Dmitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy in Laguna Hills, California, and a recipient of a Youth America Grand Prix “Outstanding Teacher” Award for each of the last five years. He believes that technique is improving in all areas, beats included. “In the 21st century, ballet is moving forward,” he says. “Girls are jumping and beating more, boys are becoming stronger. As knowledge moves forward, ballet is moving forward.” To his credit, one of Kulev’s male students, Tate Lee, recently nabbed third place at a YAGP event, partly because of his exceptional beats in a variation from La Fille Mal Gardée.
He cites the Russian stars Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova as role models for younger dancers to push the boundaries on jumping and beating. “Vasiliev didn’t invent a triple cabriole, but he did it so well that the world is loving him and watching him, especially the boys,” he says. And Osipova’s springy entrechat quatres in Giselle create an almost slow-motion illusion that has inspired his female students.
Batterie’s particular method of utilizing musculature requires a refinement of technique that takes years of practice. “I remember my teacher used to hold a stick against my stomach so I would keep my arms down, because in Bournonville you’re not allowed to use your arms to help yourself during the beats,” says Cornejo.
When Cornejo teaches master classes at the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, he works with jumping from and into second position, Bournonville-style. “It’s good for working the inner thigh strength and stability,” he says. “I tend to introduce that to my little ones. All the beats are very flat, so you can focus on your base.”
Herman Cornejo in the “Bluebird” variation of The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
Barre exercises starting at a young age facilitate the technique. “It begins with the dégagés,” says Wilde. “Leon Fokine always used to give us a whole beat combination with entrechat six and royales at the barre using dégagés. And Mr. Balanchine gave a million and one dégagés at the barre—very fast.”
When students reach 12 to 14, Kulev ratchets up the petit and medium allégro demands. Beloserkovsky tries to allot at least 25 minutes for combinations with batterie in his pre-professional classes. For his own training, Cornejo adds beats in conjunction with the Pilates reformer, using the board to push off. “For professional dancers this can be a healthy way to train your beats without getting too tired,” he says.
Tina LeBlanc, former ballerina with San Francisco Ballet with a formidable petit allégro, now teaches girls in Levels 3 (ages 10 to 11) and 7 and 8 (ages 15 to 19) at the San Francisco Ballet School. “Frappés are important,” she says. “The speed of the feet with a fast attack.” If the girls aren’t crossing their legs enough during batterie in the center, she makes them go to the barre and use it to push off of to feel the correct action. With petit allégro combinations, she has upper-level students beat the combination on the second go-round and then reverse it with beats on the third set. “I try to make it part of their regular daily regimen,” she says. “This way, they get used to moving quickly and having their minds move just as quickly, if not a little bit ahead.”
As a teenager, LeBlanc learned a significant lesson when she was in Joffrey II and teacher Rochelle Zide instructed her—pay attention, ladies—to jump with the men, batterie included. “At that point I realized I could go a little farther and always push for more,” she says.
But how can women approach beating without losing their feminine style? “Like anything else in ballet, it’s important that you don’t see the strain,” says Wilde. “A sous-sus with an entrechat six should have the lift and lightness to it, emphasizing the feeling of up rather than the down.” For brisé volés, which take strength and coordination to move out into space, LeBlanc says, “you have to keep the beautiful shape of the upper body.”
More than anything, dancing Balanchine ballets helped Beloserkovsky, whose Russian-based training focused on a Romantic 19th-century repertoire, develop the necessary speed for brilliant batterie. But ballet competitions, because of the restrictions of the Balanchine Trust, don’t often feature Balanchine variations or pas de deux. (One notable exception: In 2000, the New York International Ballet Competition included Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux.)
And speaking of choreographers, why have beats disappeared in new ballets? Think of the scintillating batterie in Balanchine’s Symphony in C or the scherzo section of Ashton’s The Dream. “You could say that beats might be steps that are hard to use when telling a story,” says Cornejo. Wilde points out that contemporary hyperphysical choreography is already so demanding: “You have to be doing something with your little finger while you’re doing something with your thumb. Maybe because there’s so much else going on, they don’t stress batterie.” Another argument is that if dancers can’t execute beats well, why bother to even use them in choreography?
There are a few bright spots, however. Alexei Ratmansky, for instance, ingeniously integrates batterie into his choreography. “Alexei wasn’t a typical male Russian hero dancer, so he took every opportunity to perform La Sylphide, because he had a very light jump with phenomenally strong feet,” says Beloserkovsky, who danced with Ratmansky in the Ukraine. “He’s a big fan of the sparkle of footwork and beats.”
A greater consciousness about the possibilities of batterie could be embraced by choreographers, teachers, and, of course, dancers. “Beats have been overshadowed by the tricks and the obvious attractions,” says Beloserkovsky. “But if you don’t have them, certain ballets will never be in your repertoire.”
Joseph Carman is a Dance Magazine senior advising editor.
What it takes to excel in beats
• a solid core
• exceptionally secure turnout (especially in à la seconde)
• strength in the inner thighs and adductor muscles
• pliantly resilient feet and toes
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Two years ago, the American Ballet Theatre soloist got a personal training certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Now he trains fellow ABT members and teaches the ABT Studio Company a strength and conditioning class alongside fellow ABT soloist Roman Zhurbin.
He shared six of his top tips for getting into top shape.
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When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.
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When Chase Brock signed on to choreograph a new musical at a theater in New Jersey in 2015, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, he would be receiving fan art featuring his Chihuahua because of it. Nor could he have he imagined that the show—Be More Chill, based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini—would be heading to Broadway with one of the most enthusiastic teenage fan bases the Great White Way has ever seen.
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The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.
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The suit states that during Sturdivant's senior year, the Dazzlers' choreographer, Kevin Murakami, would not allow her to perform in a contemporary dance because he said her skin would clash with the costumes, and that she would steal focus from the other dancers because of her skin color.
You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.
What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.
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Some call them superstitions, others call them rituals. Either way, these tiny moments become part of our work—and sometimes even end up being the most treasured part of performing.
Raise your hand if you've ever gotten sucked down an informational rabbit hole on the internet. (Come on, we know it's not just us.) Now, allow us to direct you to this new project from Google Arts & Culture. To celebrate Black History Month, they've put together a newly curated collection of images, videos and stories that spotlights black history and culture in America specifically through the lens of dance—and it's pretty much our new favorite way to pass the time online.
If you're anything like us, your Instagram feed is chock-full of gorgeous dance photos and videos. But you know what makes us fall in love with an artist even more? When they take a break from curating perfect posts and get real about their missteps. These performers' ability to move past mistakes, and even laugh them off, is one reason why they're so successful.
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Dancers today have an overwhelming array of options at their fingertips: New fitness tools, recovery trends, workouts and more that claim to improve performance, speed up recovery or enhance training.
But which of these actually meet the unique demands of dancers? In our new series, "We Tried It," we're going to find out, sampling new health and fitness trends to see if they're dancer-approved.
First up: Brrrn, the cold temperature fitness studio (the first and only of its kind, they claim) located in Manhattan.
Lately I've been having recurring dreams: I'm in an audition and I can't remember the combination. Or, I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show, onstage, and I don't know what comes next. Each time I wake up relieved that it was only a dream.
However, this is the reality of how I often felt throughout my dance career. Once I knew the steps, there was no undoing it. It was the process of getting there that haunts me to this day.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.
To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.
Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.
Misaligning the Spine
Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.
Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.
Clenching the Toes
Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.
Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.
Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension
Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.
But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."
Using Unnecessary Tension
“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.
Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."
Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.
Pinching Your Shoulder Blades
Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."
Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."
Getting Stuck in a Rut
While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.
Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."
I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.
In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.
"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.
If you've ever wondered where models get their moves, look just off-camera for Pat Boguslawski. As a movement director and creative consultant based in London, he works with top brands, fashion designers, magazines and film directors to elicit bold, photogenic movement for ad campaigns, runway shows and film. Boguslawski has collaborated with plenty of big-name talent—FKA Twigs, Hailey Baldwin, Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian—and draws on his diverse experience in hip hop, contemporary dance, acting and modeling.
Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.
Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:
1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.
Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.
My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!
—No Longer Anxious, Philadelphia, PA
George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.