by Kristin Lewis
It’s a hot summer morning in New York City, and in spite of the air conditioning, dancers at the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center are sweaty and breathless from the string of allegros they’ve just completed. The class was scheduled to end two minutes ago, but teacher Deborah Wingert, entreating the pianist for a few more minutes, brings everyone together for a final combination. A calm settles over the room as the dancers execute a simple, elegant port de bras with curtseys for the ladies and bows for the men. One student, who was frustrated during petit allegro in spite of Wingert’s encouragement “not to get cranky with that sissonne,” finishes in fifth position with a serene expression on her face. Afterwards, the dancers individually thank the pianist and Wingert, who offers each of them a correction or word of support.
This tradition of révérence is a pleasant way to bring class to a close, and though time-strapped teachers may be tempted to skip it, there are plenty of reasons not to. Révérence teaches etiquette, prepares dancers for curtain calls, cools down the body, and gives students a chance to focus on coordinating the upper body without the stress of demanding technical steps. It’s also a positive way to leave the room. No matter what went well or what went poorly, dancers recognize their hard work together as a community, instead of rushing out the door still gasping for air. “I used to finish with grand allegro and say ‘Bye, bye,’ ” says Wingert, a former New York City Ballet dancer. “Now I always try to do révérence, because it’s more professional. You walk out of the room feeling like you just did something special.”
The Art of Bowing
In a typical révérence, the teacher leads port de bras and formal bows or curtseys to the teacher and the pianist. If there is time, Wingert has some fun—giving a rond de jambe en l’air to the knee or a theatrical bow in the style of, say, Swan Lake. It’s also an opportunity to revisit basic positions, so dancers can solidify their placement.
The ability to bow when fatigued will come in handy onstage, when a controlled curtsey can be challenging after dancing a pas de deux, variation, and coda. Even the dancer who falters during fouettés or stumbles after a double tour must acknowledge the audience in a graceful way. “Révérence teaches you to be gracious with yourself,” says Wingert. “If you do a variation and it doesn’t go so well and all you want to do is get off the stage, when the audience is applauding, you must compose yourself and be thankful.”
Kee-Juan Han, director of The Washington School of Ballet, sees révérance as a way for dancers to imprint themselves on the audience’s mind. “The bow at the end of a ballet can be the most beautiful thing to watch. It’s an art form in itself,” he explains. “It’s a way to say, ‘After this amazing feat, I am still breathing.’”
Beyond the actual movement of révérence, many teachers appreciate its built-in etiquette. “As educators we sometimes get so caught up in teaching technique, we might forget that courtesy is part of ballet too,” says Han. “However you do révérence—with or without music—it teaches kids manners.” In particular, Han makes sure his students always bow to the pianist. “A wonderful pianist plays the ideal music to accompany the exercises, helping students develop their craft,” he says. “Quite often I also elicit the help of our pianists to teach music to the class, so I feel students have to thank them.”
The origin of révérence dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries, when bows and curtseys were choreographed into social dances. “Couples turned toward each other and bowed as a gesture of respect,” says Elizabeth Aldrich, curator of dance at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. If one couple performed a dance for someone of rank or nobility, their bows and curtseys were given as gestures of respect to this higher authority. Today, the higher authority is the teacher. Wingert recalls that when she was a student at the School of American Ballet, Alexandra Danilova always gave an elegant révérance. “It elevated us from something mundane—from it just being another class,” Wingert explains. “I would walk out of the room floating.”
Margarita de Saá, co-director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet and former principal dancer with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, says that to focus her students, she does révérence at the beginning and end of class. “To say hello to the teacher and the pianist and then go to the barre focuses them on what they’re about to do,” she explains.
But more than just an exercise in good manners, révérence should be an expression of gratitude. After all, a dancer’s success onstage would be impossible without the hard work of many people. “Each performance depends on a great corps de ballet, the orchestra, coaching by the ballet master, the choreographer, the lighting designer, the stage crew,” says Han. “One can’t take all the credit for oneself.”
Recentering the Class
Though révérence is a ballet tradition, teachers in other disciplines often find it useful to end class in a thoughtful way. New York City modern choreographer Alexandra Beller finishes with one to three minutes of a simple, gestural phrase done standing in place. “I remind myself of the center line, of symmetry, of folding and releasing, of grounding and centering, of inner and outer spiral,” she says. “These are all things we have hopefully worked on inside class, so it is a quick check-in for the body and a reminder of the work we did.”
Révérence also promotes community. “It allows you to feel a sense of oneness that we’ve gone through class together,” says Wingert. “It’s not just about bowing. It’s coming together to show honor, dignity, and respect for the art form.”
Beller views her end-of-class ritual in a similar way: “During class, I often encourage a sort of selfishness that is about engaging in personal instincts, pathways, memories, and style,” she explains. “But we start and end as a group, taking in the space and each other, ready to bring ourselves back to the larger world.”
Kristin Lewis is a writer, editor, and former dancer based in NYC.
Pictured: Reverence in Fabrice Herrault’s class at NYIBC, 2007. Photo by Whitney Browne, courtesy NYIBC.
Do’s & Dont’s: Picking Up Choreography
by Jen Peters
Some dancers are born with a quick-study gene. They look at a movement phrase and within seconds they have it down pat. But if picking up steps isn’t your natural gift, there are practical ways to become a quicker, more thorough learner. For a few tricks, we turned to Dionna PridGeon, jazz teacher at Chicago’s Lou Conte Dance Studio; Susan McCullough, ballet teacher at University of North Carolina School of the Arts; Elizabeth Farotte, dancer with San Francisco’s ODC/Dance; and Gwynenn Taylor Jones, former Ailey dancer and current member of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.
- Do use spatial relationships, word association, and musical cues to spark your memory. “Even if I’m not sure of the steps, taking note of facings and directional shifts helps orient me,” says Farotte. “It makes me feel like part of the group.” Especially when learning longer works, she adds, ODC dancers link quirky words or images to specific sections, like “rice paddies” or “hauling.” Developing an internal dialogue can help you connect steps as you dive deeper into the artistic presentation of a work.
- Do be patient. “When I’m learning a new piece, I’m bound to get frustrated,” says Jones. “I use my five-minute breaks to breathe and tell myself it’s OK not to be perfect. I also go home and work on the choreography until I feel confident.” During class, marking in the back while other groups are dancing will help to solidify the sequence (but be respectful to the dancers around you).
- Do practice picking up material from a video. Many companies ask dancers to learn new work from tapes or DVDs. Use the video to familiarize yourself with the style and overall feeling of the movement; then put together an outline of the steps. Once you’ve grasped the big picture, go to senior dancers or rehearsal directors for help with working out the details
- Do seek advice from more experienced colleagues. After learning ODC repertory, Farotte found it helpful to follow up with other dancers for clarification. “Senior members have insight about why or how a section was created. The added history gives me a better grasp of the steps,” she explains.
- Don’t get caught up by distractions, like street noise or chatting. “I remind myself that I’m in the studio for a purpose,” says Jones. “I try to channel out everything else while I’m working.” To center her mind in rehearsals, Farotte takes a challenging class first. “It sets me up for the rest of the day,” she says.
- Don’t change the choreography. “If the movement feels awkward, try to stay open-minded and problem-solve as you move,” says PridGeon. “Don’t overstylize or make it your own before you have the steps.” Also, don’t assume you know what the choreographer is going to do. “You’ve done a million arabesques, but you’ll miss the details of a soft arm or tilt of the head if you don’t look closely,” says Farotte.
- Don’t ask lots of questions before understanding how a teacher or choreographer prefers to work. Some choreographers welcome questions, while others feel talking takes away from movement discovery. “I want students to watch first without moving much, because details get lost when they try to look over their shoulder,” says PridGeon. “Then I tell them to keep looking at the phrase and figure it out as they begin to move, before asking questions.”
- Don’t get stuck in the mirror. “In class, students get used to looking at the mirror because they lack confidence,” says McCullough. “But if they face away, they learn the steps for themselves and find confidence within.” If you’re struggling, stand closer to the teacher or a friend who learns quickly. But over time, challenge yourself to be more self-sufficient. Taking responsibility for retaining steps will prepare you to be poised onstage and in auditions.
Jen Peters is a frequent contributor to
Dance Magazine and a member of Jennifer Muller/The Works.
Across The Floor: A Siren Stays Young at Heart
Former New York City Ballet principal dancer Yvonne Mounsey celebrated her 90th birthday wearing a fitted black dress, a gift from Vera Wang, in beachfront Santa Monica, CA. The 214 attendees at A Siren’s Soiree (titled after Mounsey’s signature role in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son) included many generations of students from the Westside School of Ballet, which she co-founded more than 40 years ago and continues to direct today. For a woman whose art and life have proved blissfully inseparable, it’s appropriate that the October 3 event raised funds for the preprofessional company’s 2009 production of The Nutcracker.
Mounsey toured with Massine’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe and danced with NYCB from 1949 to 1958. In 1967, she and Rosemary Valaire, formerly a member of The Royal Ballet, established what would become one of this country’s leading ballet academies, combining the rigor of the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus with the energetic range of the Balanchine tradition. Ron Cunningham, artistic director of Sacramento Ballet, has hired seven of Mounsey’s students. “The Westside dancers have no trouble negotiating not only Balanchine but all our repertory,” he remarks, “and they come with that understanding built in.”
Other Westside alumni have gone on to join NYCB, including principal Andrew Veyette and former corps member Melissa Barak (now with Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company). In October 2008, Mounsey coached Barak in the role of the Siren for The George Balanchine Foundation’s Interpreters Archive film of Prodigal Son. “Yvonne has a youthful love of ballet,” Barak says. “To this day she loves showing a step in class or a role in a pas de deux. And she was always very detail-oriented. She cleaned up your technique and knew how to make you look attractive in the way you presented yourself.” That cleanliness is stressed in preparation for the school’s two annual productions—The Nutracker and a spring performance, which may include Bournonville, Balanchine, and contemporary work.
For decades a full-time teacher, Mounsey thrives on watching her students improve, regardless of whether they will go on to become professional dancers. The 90-year-old can’t imagine retiring. What compels her to visit the studio every day, even when she’s not teaching? “The kids! They’re all there and eager to learn and get better. I love it.” —Emily Hite