Archive | February 2012

When A Dancer Smiles

 

Yesterday, I talked about a dancer’s face and on how it may appear while in class or in performance. The best face on a dancer is the expression of a dancer who has just been given praise for their work in class. There is so much talk these days in the dance realm, about the reality show Dance Moms. In my opinion, I feel that, that teacher’s methods are un warranted, un ethical and mostly degrading to the dancer. And to be quite frank, those moms are just dancer “wanna to bes” and are trying to live their lives through their children. They are purely ignorant people for allowing their children to endure such nonsense. Most teachers, at least the ones who have been my associates, employees, or my employers would never degrade a dancer as such. This popular show just gives the dance school profession a poor image of what a great dance teacher should actually be.

A key part of teaching ballet or any dance form, is providing dancers with effective praise. When a dancer is praised correctly, it provides them with positive reinforcement. It motivates them to bring their performance in class to a higher point of excellence. I have found that in order for praise to truly be effective, it is must be specific to what the dancer is doing at the time.

While teaching class, I know for a fact that praise does so much more for the dancer’s technical improvement than negative criticism. Dancers are in class to do their best and are always listening for the least bit of approval. One thing I have noticed about teaching ballet, is that the immediate praise you give, while the dancer is performing a combination or step in class is the most effective. When a dancer believes she is doing her best and doesn’t get any approval, the teacher has missed her mark on improvement for the future. When the dancer is doing something wrong and is given a correction with no praise, the teacher has missed her mark again and the dancer feels down hearted, like “Why should I bother, I am never going to get this”. Dancers yearn for that “ You’re doing really great!” or receiving a shout of praise while they dance across the floor. I have found that to be a favorite form of education praise, because it is spoken immediately and at the time of performance. It is always a dancer’s goal while in class, working their hardest, to have the teacher take notice and give a “Good girl!” shout. While teaching class I try made it a point to take notice when someone was pushing extra hard, or putting into practice a correction I had given them, by saying something positive to them.

Getting back to that horrible show, those plastic statues received at competitions are representations of hard work accomplished, at that time, at that moment, but should not be replacement for praise in class. I myself own crates and crates of those plastic things earned by my former dance groups, and they were of value at the time of acceptance, but nothing will replace the memory of a dance teacher, who makes you, the dancer, know you are doing well with just her words or expression of gratitude; that you the dancer are making her job as dance teacher enjoyable and impressionable .

Praise is gratifying to the dancer getting praised, of course, but it also boosts the happiness of the one giving the praise…. in this case the dance teacher…..at least I’ve found that true of myself. Because the way I feel is very much influenced by the way I act, and by acting in a way that shows appreciation, discernment, and thoughtfulness, I feel more appreciated, more discerning, and more thoughtful. And that boosts happiness…….. and makes a dancer smile.

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Think About The Face!

 

 

As a ballet teacher I get to see, at the beginning of class, the most heart warming  group of dancers smiling and ready to work hard. Often that look of  joy and those heart warming smiles wind up disappearing as we begin our ballet class and get to the difficult and most phyisical portion of class.

What is your face doing during class, rehearsal or performance? What  normally going though a dancer’s head is correct technique, body placement, timing to the music and your interaction with the other dancers. That is a lot to think about. For performance, dancers concern themselves with their appearance on stage…. Are my shoes just right? Are my tights the correct color? Is my hair and makeup perfect?

One thing that dancers are not realizing is how their face looks, in class or on stage. Most often in class when I see dancers concentrate, that look of concentration is on their face. Which is a good thing for the teacher to see, but often times that same face gets carried to the stage, or replaced by a nervous plastered on smile. With a facial appearance like that, the audience will not even notice how wonderfully you dance, just the funny, uncomfortable look on your face!

Dance is not an easy art form, by no means, and there is a lot going on in your head while you are in class or in performance. Relax. Remember your steps need to flow from one to another. They won’t if you are tense, and the tenseness will show on your face. Your time in class or rehearsal time should be spent perfecting your technique and choreography, so it becomes as second nature.

If you are a character in a story ballet, you need to not only produce that character in your steps but on your face. Is the character happy, sad, angry, fierce? Let your face show it!  This is where your Musical Theater class comes into play. Really concentrate on how that character would react to the story and put that expression on your face. This will give your audience the correct personality of that character

But most of all, enjoy what you do. Remember, you are a dancer, even as challenging as it may will get. While dancing, whether it be in class or on the stage, think about how lucky you are that you have this wonderful gift of dance.

Making The Most of Your Ballet Class

 

 

It can be very irritating when you can’t pick up choreography in class quickly. So, how can you make this class better when you don’t have the mental energy to even bother? Think about it…when you begin to feel sad, angry, upset, tired, or if you are letting the course of the day interfere with your class, think positive things about yourself.

 Keep thinking to yourself:

I have lots of energy,  I can do this.

I am relaxed.

I will get this step,  I am a good dancer.

I will learn new things in this class, today.

None of these thoughts have a negative in them such as: “I am not tired,” “I am not going to let this get to me,” etc. Keep your thoughts positive when things get annoying or difficult while you’re dancing. Never let the “outside world” interfere with your thoughts or your performance in class.

 Keep yourself focused on what is being taught.

Focus on counting to the music, new choreography, corrections and your place in line or formation. Keep in mind all of the corrections you were given in class by your teacher.

As you travel from step to step ask yourself:             

Is my foot pointed?

Is my leg straight?

Is my foot turned out?

Is my hip aligned?

                  Am I looking at the floor or looking up?

                  Is my arm in the right place?

                  Am I pulled up and balanced?

Ballet class or any dance class, for that matter, depends on what you put into it. If you continue to keep focused in class, after a while, all of your steps will just fall into place, and you will not  have to think about them. You should always be improving the quality of your steps, and the only way to do that is to think about what you are doing and make your own corrections.

Ballerina Biography – Maria Tallchief, Native American Dancer and Choreographer

Maria Tallchief was born January 24, 1925  to a Native American father, Alexander Joseph Tall Chief,  and a Scottish-Irish mother, Ruth Mary Porter Tall Chief. She was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma.

Fairfax is located on the Osage Indian Reservation. Part of her Native American history includes that  her grandfather had helped negotiate the treaty  that established the reservation and kept the tribe’s right to own any minerals found on the land. When oil was discovered on the reservation, the Osage became the wealthiest Native American tribe in the country. Maria’s father, was of the  Osage tribe and  was a wealthy real estate executive.  Eliza Big Heart, her grandmother, frequently took young Maria and her sister, Marjorie, to the ceremonial tribal dances on the reservation to participate in them.

Maria began ballet and piano lessons at the age of three and frequently performed before organizations in Osage County. By age eight she and her sister had exhausted the training resources in Oklahoma, and the family moved to Beverly Hills, California. Although her mother hoped she would be a concert pianist, Maria devoted more and more of her time to dance. At one of her performances she devoted half of her program to the piano and half to dance.

By age twelve, Maria was studying under Madame Nijinska, sister of the great Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1890–1950), and David Lichine, a student of the renowned Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (1882–1931).

When she was fifteen years old, Maria danced her first solo performance at the Hollywood Bowl in a dance piece choreographed by Nijinska. After her graduation from Beverly Hills High School in 1942, it was apparent that ballet would be her life. Instead of college she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a highly acclaimed Russian ballet troupe based in New York City. She made her debut with the company in Canada. It was at this time that Marie Elizabeth Tall Chief changed her name to Maria Tallchief to give herself a more European image.

In the beginning years with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Maria was often treated with uncertainty by members of the Russian troupe, who were unwilling to acknowledge the Native American’s true talent. When choreographer George Balanchine (1904–1983) took control of the company,  he recognized  Maria’s talent. He selected her for the understudy role in The Song of Norway. In working with  Balanchine, her  reputation grew, and she was eventually was given the title of Ballerina. During this time, Maria married Balanchine and they moved to Paris together. They were married from 1946 to 1951.

In Paris the same thing happened as with the Ballet Russe, Maria  was initially treated as an inferior. Her debut at the Paris Opera was the first ever for any American ballerina, and Maria’s talent quickly won French audiences over. She later became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Russia. She quickly became the ranking soloist and soon after joined the Balanchine Ballet Society, now called the New York City Ballet where she became leading Ballerina for allmost twenty years.  George Balanchine created more than twenty-five roles for her with the New York City Ballet. Maria’s  performance in the title role of  The Firebird made an enormous impression on the public, and it became her signature role. As Ballerina with  the New York City Ballet,  Maria became recognized as one of the greatest dancers in the world. When she became  Prima Ballerina, she was the first American dancer to achieve this title and kept it  until she retired. 

Maria left the New York City Ballet in 1966 and went on to found the Chicago City Ballet in 1981. She also served as the artistic director of that company through 1987. Maria was presented with a National Medal of the Arts award by the National Endowment for the arts in 1999.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       At this writing Maria Tallchief is eighty seven years old. When ever I hear the music to one of my favorite ballets,  The Firebird, she is the ballerina who immediately comes to mind.

Battement; Beats Of The Legs Of All Kinds

Battement is a term for various movements in which the leg is extended and then returned.  A beating action for the extended or bent leg. It is also one of those terms like pas and temps that are frequently omitted but understood. For example, frappe is short for battement frappe, tendu is short for battement tendu and so forth. Battements are so much a part of barre work that a ballet class can not do any warmup without some sort of battement being involved.

Battement Tendu meaning stretched beat. In class the term tendu is normally used for short. In excuting a battement tendu the dancer slides the working foot out until only the toes are touching the floor. The working extended  foot never leaves the floor. It slides devant, a la seconde or derriere from fifth or first position to reach fourth or second position. The heel is lifted off the floor stretching the instep. Both knees must be kept straight.  Then the foot  slides back to the original position. Battement tendu is an important exercise for learning to move the foot quickly and gracefully while maintaining placement. It is the beginning preparation for other barre work such as ronde jambe attere or grande battement. Battement tendu is also the beginning movement for a piorette preparation and most movements traveling across the floor. Balanchine considered it the most important exercise in all of ballet.

Battement Soutenu meaning sustained beat. Battement soutenu is performed smoothly and slowly from fifth position or first position. The dancer slides the working foot out until only the toes are touching the floor. The working, extended  foot never leaves the floor. It slides devant, a la seconde or derriere. The heel is lifted off the floor stretching the instep of working foot,  while the supporting leg is lowered to demi-plié. Then the foot slides back to the original position while the supporting leg straightens.

Battement Degage meaning disengaged battement (battement degage – Ceccetti method) (battement tendu jete – Russian method, battement glisse -French method). Battement degage is a quick battement similar to battement tendu, in which the leg is normally only lifted up to two or three inches off the floor with a well pointed foot. The working leg is lifted devant, a la seconde or derriere from fifth or first position to reach fourth or second position. Normally in this exercise, the accent of the movement is with the downbeat of the music an is on the closing in of the feet, as opposed to the extending of the leg. Battements degages strengthen the toes, develop the instep and improve the flexibility of the ankle joint.

Battement Frappe meaning struck battement. In battement frappe,  the foot moves from a flexed or sur le cou-de-pied position, wrapped around the ankle, of the supporting leg, and extends out to a straight position quickly and forcefully, and by doing so hitting the floor.  Battements frappes can be executed double, with beats alternating front and back of the standing leg’s ankle before striking out. The exercise forcefully extends the working leg from a sur le cou de pied position  to the devant, a la seconde or derriere and back again. This exercise strengthens the toes and insteps and develops the power of elevation.

Battement Fondu meaning melted battement. Battement fondu is a battement that is usually done slower than other battements. It begins from sur le cou de pied position of the supporting leg  which is in plie and extends until both legs are straight.  The working leg can end up on the floor a terre or off the floor en l’air. It can be executed double and is normallydone en croix .

Petit Battement meaning little beat. An exercise for speed and agility in the lower leg. In the starting position, the working leg is sur le cou-de-pied. It opens in the direction of second position but only half way, as the leg does not fully extend at the knee. The working leg then closes to sur le cou-de-pied opposite of where it started. The knee and thigh stay in the same place and do not move during the process. The bending action is at the knee, while the upper leg and thigh remain still. The working foot quickly alternates from the sur le cou-de-pied position in the front to the cou-de-pied position in the back.

Battement Developpe meaning developed battement. Battement developpe is usually a slow battement in which the leg is first lifted to a posse position, retire devante, pointed at the knee, then fully extended or unfolded passing through attitude devant, a la seconde or derriere position.

Grande Battement meaning big beat. Grande Battement is a powerful battement in which the working leg is raised from the hip into the air and brought down again. The accent being on the downward movement, both knees must remain straight. Tthe rest of the body remaining still and no movement is the shoulders should be noticed. The function of grande battement is to loosen the hip joints and turn out the legs from the hips. Grande battement can be done devant, derrière and a la seconde beginning and closing in first or fifth position.

Grande Battement Lent meaning slow beat. Grande battement lent is a slow battement, normally taken as high as possible, which involves considerable control and strength. Both legs remain straight for the whole duration of the excerise. The working leg begins in either first position or fifth position and returns to the same in either devant, a la seconde or derriere.  

Grande Battement en Cloche meaning grande battement like a bell. Grande battement en cloche is in which the leg does a grande battement and swings continually between fourth position devant and fourth position derriere. The body must be held erect and still as the leg passes through first position.

Grande Battement en Balancoire meaning battement like a seesaw. Grande battement en balancoire the dancer swings the working leg vigorously devant and derriere between fourth position devant and fourth derriere, passing through first position. Unlike grande battement en cloche, balancoires do not require that the body be held straight but to have a slight tilt opposite to the direction of the working leg.

 

 

The Five Positions Of The Feet…And A Few More

 

No matter what method of ballet you take or teach, the five basic positions of the feet are the same. It is the position of the arms that make them different. As a teacher of the Cecchetti method, the method I have been certified in and teach, we will discuss those arms with the prospective feet and the Russian or Vaganova and French methods will follow.

 

 

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First Position

In First Position the dancer stands with feet turned out and heels together. The arms are curved and are down next to the dancer’s thighs. Vaganova or Russian Method and the French Method -The arms are curved, fingers almost touching and the finger tips are in line with the navel.

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Second Position

In Second Position the dancer stands with feet turned out and with heels about one foot apart. The arms are curved and out to the sides. The shoulders are higher than the elbows which are higher than the wrists. The palms of the hands are facing forward. Vaganova or Russian Method – The arms are curved and out to the sides. The shoulders are lower than the elbows and the elbows are at the same level as the wrists. Palms are facing forward. French Method same as Cecchetti Method.

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Third Position

In Third Position the dancer stands with the feet a lined as in first position but the heel of one foot touches the inside arch of the other foot. The opposite arm of the foot that is in front is in front of the same thigh and the other arm is in demi-second. Vaganova or Russian Method – Arms are curved as in first position and raised above the head and slightly forward. French Method –The opposite arm of the foot that is in front first position and the other is in second.

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Fourth Position

In Fourth Position the dancer stands with feet turned out and one foot is in front of the other with heels in line with each other. This is called open fourth. When the front heel is in line with the back toe it is call closed fourth. There are two fourth positions of the arms called fourth en avant and fourth en haut. Fourth en avant (in front) is where one arm is in second position and the other arm, the opposite of the foot that is in front is in fifth front. Fourth en haut (high) is where one arm is in second position and the other arm, the opposite of the foot that is in front is in high fifth. Vaganova or Russian Method – The arm of the foot that is in front is in middle fifth and the other arm is in high fifth. The French Method One arm is in first position, the other is rounded and raised above the head.

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Fifth Position

In Fifth Position the dancers stands with feet turned out with one foot in front of the other. The front heel touches the inside of the back toe. The arms are rounded in front with fingers almost touching. There three positions of fifth arms. Low, middle and high. Vagnova or Russian Method and the French Method –Both arms are rounded and held above and slightly forward of the head.

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Although, not officially a part of any of the three traditional methods of ballet there are three more positions of the feet. I don’t teach them along with the five basic positions as mentioned above, but do use them in choreography.

Sixth and Seventh Position were added to the original five in the 1930’s by Serge Lifar a dancer and choreographer who at the time was Ballet Master at the Paris Opera Ballet. The sixth and seventh positions were not really Lifar’s inventions, but revivals of positions that already existed in the eighteenth century, when there were not five but ten positions for the feet in classical ballet.

Sixth Position  is just a parallel version of the traditional first position. This position is used frequently in modern dance but has its’ uses in classical ballet also.

Seventh position is just a parallel version of the traditional fourth position. Sometimes flat and sometimes on demi pointe.

I myself while using these two positions in choreography I normally call them parallel first or fourth.

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Eighth Position or the B-Plus Position is thought to have originated with Balanchine. The position is basically pointe tendue derriere but with the working knee bent so that both knees are touching and the big toe rests on the ground. The foot should be pointed as usual, neither winged or sickled. The actual proper term is attitude a terre. Your leg is in the shape it would take for an attitude, with the toes resting on the floor. As for the widely-accepted slang term B-Plus, there are several theories on its origins. The best known and most probable is that the B is for Balanchine because he made such frequent use of the position in his choreography for the New York City Ballet. Another is that in the Labanotation system of dance notation, the notation for this position resembles B+. I have worked with a ballet mistress for five years in the 1980s. She was originally from the Kirov Ballet. When she would see dancers stand in this position she was annoyed and felt it sloppy version of a tendue derriere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What To Do With Your Hair While Dancing…..

As stated in a previous post; “If one is recognized by one’s clothes then a dancer who looks like one goes part of the way in convincing people that they are a dancer. If apparel proclaims the person, a change of apparel proclaims a different person.”

Not only change of apparel, but change of look and attitude. A look of determination, confidence and elegance should be the look of a ballet dancer. Hair is an important part of that look and feel. When you feel the position you will accomplish so much more in your class and rehearsal time.

One of the areas that bothers me the most as a ballet  teacher is messy hair in Ballet Class. As long as I can remember, I have always had long hair..long hair. Currently, my hair is past my hipline.  I work hard at keeping it in place while I am teaching. Dancers with loose hair is combersome for them to work with and sloppy for the teacher to look at. Flipping their hair while trying to stretch or worse yet trying to look through loose and flying hair  to keep a spot while turning. Girls in all ballet classes need to wear their hair in a neat and tidy bun or pinned up so hair does not obscure the neckline or get in the students’ eyes. The ballet bun keeps hair from flying in a dancer’s face; it also creates a clean, elegant line for the dancer.

Hair that lays on theback of the neck is hiding  that important view from the teacher. This is an crutial place for the teacher to make corrections on body placement.  If the neck, which is  the top of the spine, is not inline with the rest of the spine, your  balance will be off.

Some dancers have short, layered hair. This is where clips, bobby pins and lots of hair gel come into play.  A hard hair length to keep confined is when the hair is just neck level. This type of hair style will require lots of practice in keeping it confined. Possibly learning to French braid will accomplish this trying task. If you love to dance and take class several times per week, you may consider growing your hair to a workable length. This will make your dance life easier for you in preparation for class, rehearsal and performance.

Always remember…to feel like a dancer you must look like one!