Wanted: Body Parts

July 29, 2007

Dancers constantly evaluate—and criticize—various parts of their bodies, while envying those of their idols. They may crave Dwana Smallwood’s carved abs, Larissa Ponomarenko’s lithe arms, Maria Kowroski’s powerful legs, or Irina Dvorovenko’s elegant back. Here those dancers discuss their celebrated features and how they work towards their personal best. All agree that you can work on weaker areas, but artistry trumps physique every time.

Irina Dvorovenko

In an American Ballet Theatre rehearsal studio, Russian chatter flows between Irina Dvorovenko, her husband, Maxim Beloserkovsky, and their coach, Irina Kolpakova. As they rehearse the pas de deux from Act I of
La Bayadère
, Dvorovenko stretches her endless legs and long fingers into breathtaking poses. But the most thrilling moments come when she runs upstage, her back rippling in full view.

The Ukrainian principal credits her back’s expressiveness to training in gymnastics at an early age and to her mother. Also a dancer, Olga Dvorovenko taught Irina that a ballerina is an ambassador of fantasy, and as such must carry herself like royalty, with stomach pulled in and back held straight. “Your back is the biggest part of your body,” says Dvorovenko. “It must talk, must have eyes, and always be saying something even if you are just walking upstage.”

To maintain a stately bearing, Dvorovenko turns to yoga and Pilates, favoring exercises like cat/cow (on hands and knees, contract your abdominals for five counts, then arch fully looking at the ceiling for five counts); airplane (lie on your abdominals and simultaneously lift your arms and legs for a count of 10); or swim (same position but flutter your arms as you lift your chest).

But Dvorovenko warns that no amount of flexibility or strength can surpass presentation and projection. “If you don’t have enough artistry, the audience picks out the body parts,” she says. “But with artistry, you only see the character and the passion.”

Larissa Ponomarenk
o Arms

Swan Lake
to Jorma Elo, a ballet’s port de bras is its signature and often its greatest challenge. Larissa Ponomarenko, the Boston Ballet principal famed for her long, dazzling arms, was taught the importance of synergy between head, arms, and upper body as a student at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg. “My coaches always explained that the audience doesn’t see the difficulty of foot technique,” she recalls. “They look above the waist.”

Ponomarenko underscores the wrists’ capacity to emphasize character. “Your wrists should be expressive, not droopy. They can flick or be round, depending on your mood. They can be critical, especially in
Swan Lake
, as the feathers at the end of your wings.”

To sculpt your arms, Ponomarenko recommends being aware of them from the moment class starts. Then she suggests additional strength training, especially low impact activities like swimming, Chinese hand balls (small toy-size balls that roll between your hands and increase finger dexterity), and even piano practice (she plays often).

While muscles must be shaped, Ponomarenko notes that coordinating with the entire body is paramount: “Your arms can help or hinder you, throw you off or create balance. So make sure to complete your picture with a frame of beautiful arms.”

Dwana Smallwood

Her chiseled abs may seem like a natural wonder, but Dwana Smallwood says, “I’ve worked really hard. Everyone has to work on something. I use Pilates, Gyrotonics, the gym, and diet.” The former Ailey star, who recently left the company to freelance, says her work on her midsection began early, when teachers would remind the class to pull in their stomachs to create a strong center.

Smallwood has found this correction invaluable. “The audience can recognize strength versus weakness,” she says. “Your stomach is your core and without it you cannot stand with authority.”

Some pieces, like Tharp’s
The Golden Section
with its brief costumes, emphasize that core. Others like Ailey’s iconic Cry and Pas de Duke require a flexible back that must be supported by strong abdominals. To prepare for these taxing works, Smallwood takes yoga and does cardio training, using lighter weights and five consecutive ab exercises including leg raises (lie on the floor with legs straight, lift the legs—heels together and toes pointed—to the sky and return to the floor slowly, but don’t let your legs hit the ground or separate). While muscle definition is a goal, the real benefit comes in her ability to pull emotion from within, giving her dramatic power.

Maria Kowroski

Once cited as having one of New York’s 10 best pairs of legs, New York City Ballet principal Maria Kowroski’s claim to great gams is undeniable. Yet she was dubbed “Flamingo” by classmates, and, when she began as a corps member, being tall and long made the swift Balanchine work more difficult.

To strengthen her legs, Kowroski dug into ballet class and added Pilates and swimming to protect her hips and knees, which were prone to injury. “I use the Cadillac Pilates machine,” she says. “It helps my legs because it teaches you to use the correct muscles underneath instead of the quads and outer thighs as we tend to do mistakenly by habit.”

Now that her legs are not only shapely but sturdy, she loves dancing the leads in
and Prodigal Son. “Ten years ago I was dancing well but without expression,” she says. “Now I’ve learned to coordinate my whole body and use my legs to bring the movement to life.”

Kowroski thinks that many young dancers don’t integrate the movement of their legs and feet. “The foot is an extension of the leg,” she says. “Often quick footwork will be lacking because of this disconnect, and then you don’t see the beauty of the leg either. There must be a continuation from hip through the foot and then you will be really using your legs to dance to the best of your ability.”

Lauren Kay, a dancer and dramaturge, lives in New York City.