Take one look at Lupe Serrano and you’ll see a petite, incredibly fit, unassuming woman in her golden years. Take her class and before you’ve finished barre you’ll know you’re in the hands of a master. Her combinations are simple yet sophisticated, often syncopated, and always challenging. Why so difficult? Serrano wants her students to “dance ballet—not just do ballet.”
Born in Chile, Serrano made her professional debut with the Mexico City Ballet at age 13. She joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo for a season as a soloist in 1951, and in 1953 she went to American Ballet Theatre as a principal. She was known the world over as a prima ballerina who could often jump higher and turn more than the men. Later, Serrano spent 14 years on the faculty of Pennsylvania Ballet and 10 as artistic associate of The Washington Ballet. She now teaches company and advanced level classes at ABT’s JKO School.
Dance Spirit editor in chief Kate Lydon sat down with Serrano to talk shop.
What excites you about teaching?
When you’re a dancer, you have one body to work with—your own. When you teach, you have many different bodies to work with. Some have facilities you never did and some lack facilities you had. You can always make corrections, but to correct in depth you have to analyze and understand how that person is built. I find it fascinating.
How are dancers today different from when you were dancing?
There is more emphasis on stretching, and consequently the lines are better: the beauty of the arabesque, high extension, and the flexibility of the back. Also, some advanced students today can do double, triple, quadruple pirouettes and double fouettés. In my day that was a big specialty.
But there is more competition now—ballet is so international—and that might cause dancers to lack the freedom and individuality we had.
Can people find that freedom in your class?
I like to relax the demands every once in a while and say, “Just do it! Just get up there!” First do the movement, and then clean it up. You can’t get too frightfully academic or else the dancers forget what it is all about—movement, not posing.
How do you want dancers to approach your class?
With focus. I like seeing somebody who has a passion for dancing and for learning without overdoing the zealousness. When they are comfortable in their devotion to dance and they like working, that pleases me.
Can you explain how to turn out correctly?
You rotate at the top of the leg at the hip joint or not at all. You shouldn’t turn out just your feet. You don’t need to grip the inner thigh to come around. I like to do a simple turn-in/turn-out exercise at the beginning of class so that students realize how easy it is to turn out—that it happens at the hip joint. If you clench too much, you suffocate the turnout.
You have many class plans typed out on sheets of paper, and you usually bring one to class when you teach. Why?
I learned to teach backwards. First I did, and then I learned how. For the first 25 years, I just stood up and did what I thought was good for the students. Eventually, I began writing down the combinations I knew worked. I more or less created my own syllabus. Now each time I pick up a class plan to teach it again, I try to improve it and make sure it’s well balanced. I have 78 classes written down! Of course there are many repetitions, but I try to cover as broad a vocabulary as I know exists, including the novelties.
Tell me about your fabulous pointe classes.
You want to be able to dance in pointe shoes as if you have soft shoes on or are barefoot. You have to handle and manipulate the toe shoe. When going up and down, you don’t want to have a big thump onto pointe. You should be so pulled up on the demi-pointe that getting onto pointe is seamless.
First I teach a lot of piqués. There are so many—piqué front, back, développé, attitude, and eventually, piqués with turns. Relevés are best done at the barre and on two feet to start with. Then we do relevés on one foot holding the barre, and eventually, in the center with turns.
What do you think about competitions? Competitions are good for the profession because they increase public interest. They’re like the Olympics for figure skaters. Since they usually stress pyrotechnics, dancers are often drilled to excel in certain achievements. But ask those same students to perform with a different port de bras or musicality and they may be thrown. To dance professionally takes adaptability.
What qualities do you value in a performer? I appreciate honesty and passion, a willingness to please, but also good taste. I don’t like dancers who throw it at you. Sensitive performers can make you believe what they are trying to tell you.
Photo: Rosalie O’Connon, Courtesy ABT