Dance Training

How SAB Is Working To Fix NYCB’s Diversity Problem

Fellow Angela Harris teaching an intermediate girls class at SAB

New York City Ballet has an image problem. Despite having the moniker of one of the most diverse cities on the planet, the company regularly comes under fire for its lack of diversity. A perception of overbearing whiteness has plagued the institution, often acting as a cultural barrier for prospective students and audiences.

Over the last three years, the company's School of American Ballet and its diversity team have been working to change this. Since NYCB preserves its Balanchine legacy by keeping everything in house—dancers are hired almost exclusively from SAB, where they are trained by former members of the company—the school is a logical place to start transforming its image. And it's working. Presently, the children's division and intermediate/advanced division boasts 44% and 29% students of color, respectively.


Photo via nytimes.com

The importance of high numbers in the lower levels can not be undervalued. Dance is brutally Darwinian, and SAB is acutely aware that not all beginners will end up in level D. "It's so important that our 6- and 7-year-old pools are as diverse as possible," says Leah Quintiliano, senior manager of diversity and inclusion. "It gets whittled down so much, we need to make sure that we are left with options later on."

In addition to broadening audition locations to identify talented students of color, two years ago, SAB launched the National Visiting Fellows Program. Up to five classical ballet instructors with a commitment to teaching students from diverse backgrounds are invited to participate in two week-long sessions during SAB's Winter Term. They observe classes, discuss pedagogy and curriculum, and have an opportunity to teach in the school then receive feedback.

This is an unprecedented amount of access to the often opaque organization.

The intimate group is highly vetted. "We have to see expertise, and know that we speak the same language," says faculty co-chair Kay Mazzo, whose enthusiasm about the program is palpable. "They have to be good teachers who know what it takes to become a classical ballet dancer."

2016-17 fellow Christopher McDaniel of Connally's Dance Workshop, in San Antonio, TX, says the fellows watch just about every level in the school. "Following each level, different specifications on technique were broken down by a faculty member with a student demonstrating," he says. Participants are in an hands-on environment, Quintiliano explains. "In some other programs, the participants may be working together in an empty studio; our fellows are present in the classroom."

Spring 2017 fellows. Pictured left to right: (front row) Robyn Gardenhire, Mariana Alvarez Brake, Kay Eichman, Christopher McDaniel, SAB faculty member Katrina Killian. (back row) Jennifer Mason, SAB alumnus Silas Farley

For Angela Harris, founder of the Atlanta-based nonprofit Dance Canvas and part of the pilot program class, this level of access was invaluable. "I focused most on the younger classes, to reflect on how I could build my pre-pointe/beginner pointe classes," she says. "The regiment of the combinations, paired with the attention to developing the articulation of the foot, made complete sense to me. I came home and I slowed my classes down and spent two months returning to facing the barre for many combinations to isolate and correct positions. It made a difference, and my students became stronger."

All expenses, including travel and housing, are paid for. "We didn't just want teachers who could afford it coming," says Mazzo. "We felt that if we are taking a teacher away from a school, we wanted to make sure that they were paid for that week." In addition, each fellow's home school receives $5,000. Quintiliano says, "This is our way of saying, 'Please, we would like to help you continue what you are doing."

Many participants find the program actually reaffirms their own mastery. "It solidified my thoughts on, Am I teaching the correctly? Are my combinations taking the student to the next level? Showing my work and writing out my mission gave me great confidence in what I have achieved as an instructor and director of a program," says Robyn Gardenhire, a former American Ballet Theatre dancer who now directs City Ballet of Los Angeles, and who was scouted for the fellowship by SAB faculty member Katrina Killian. Gardenhire was also asked to be on SAB's Diversity Board, made up of school alumni.

Robyn Gardenhire teaching at City Ballet of Los Angeles

SAB is building these new relationships in hopes of expanding its reach, re-framing its image—and ultimately resulting in brown students seeing SAB as a possibility for them. "SAB's outreach through the fellows allows us to help break down a barrier for our students to feel welcome," says Harris. "Last year, a young dancer I encouraged to audition told me she'd never thought of auditioning because she didn't feel like she was 'what they were looking for.' Although she didn't get in, she had a great experience auditioning, and is headed to Ballet West or Texas Ballet Theater this summer." Students of fellows have their audition fees waived, and over the last two years, Harris has been able to offer 15 of her students audition scholarships for SAB.

Today, as you walk through the SAB halls when the children's program is in session, it looks like the residents of New York City. Though the diversity begins to wane in the upper levels, and there is still work to do, progress is happening.

SAB's summer course

The goal of adding ballet faculty of color will be harder to come by, since SAB only hires from NYCB, and there have been so few non-white dancers. However, changes are happening on this front as well: Former NYCB dancer Andrea Long-Naidu has been a guest faculty member, was present on SAB's national audition tour this year and will return for a week of the 2017 summer intensive.

When asked if the fellows might be called on to teach at the school, Mazzo paused. "Down the road…I don't know, we are always evolving. I can certainly see some of our fellows guest teaching here, and then we have to see how it works." She maintains that either way, the door to SAB will always be open to fellows to observe or get feedback. Harris shares that fellows feel supported—SAB's director of development gave her a list of potential funders for new programs at her school, and on a recent trip to New York, she spent an hour catching up with Quintiliano.

It is said that it takes 10 years to make a dancer. It might take just as long to change the perception that people have about NYCB. After all, the final decision on hiring lies with ballet master in chief Peter Martins. But the team at SAB has made it a mission to find and train dancers of color so that Martins has strong candidates to choose from.

We already have evidence of their work. Of the eight apprentices appointed this year, five are of color. Two are African American—India Bradley and Darius Black—and Gilbert Bolden is biracial. Where SAB's tradition might not make "outreach" a model for them, they are working to escort people in.

SAB students moments after they were tapped to become NYCB apprentices for the 2017/18 season. Pictured left to right: Andres Zuniga, Gabriella Domini, Nieve Corrigan, Roman Mejia, Darius Black, India Bradley, Mary Thomas MacKinnon, Gilbert Bolden. Photo by Paul Kolnik

The Conversation
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Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

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.


Rolling In

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."

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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.

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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.

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