Archive | April 2012

Classical, Modern and Contemporary Ballet

Classical Ballet, which is my first love in the dance world, is the most formal of the three ballet styles, because it follows a traditional “set of rules” or technique. It is said that when the French king Henri II married the Florentine Catherine de Medici in 1533, French and Italian culture came into close and formal relationship, and here is when the history of ballet begins. Ceremonies from then on were “choreographed” with lavish costuming and theatrical presentation. Including golden veils and Venetian masks.

Today there are several classical ballet methods. From the Italians is the Cecchetti method, named after Enrico Cecchetti. The Russians gave us the Vaganova method, named after Agrippina Vaganova, and from France, the Bournonville method, named after Auguste Bournonville is based on the teaching methods of the Frenchman Auguste Vestris, and was developed in Copenhagen

Classical ballet is best known for its exactness of technique. It features pointe work and turn out, high extentions and gracefulness.

Modern dance was not created until the early 20th century. It is a dance form that emerged as expression of rebellion against classical ballet. The foremost originating dancer of this period is Isadora Duncan , who thought classical ballet was ugly and meaningless. Isadora Duncan was the forerunner of modern dance and she is most noted for her free-flowing costumes, bare feet, loose hair, and using the upper body as the center of all movements. Isadora was born in San Francisco in 1877. During her career, she traveled and performed throughout Europe. Her movements were poetic and she incorporated humor into her expression of dance. Her dance movements were very natural and inspired by classical Greek art and nature. Isadora also liked to use common movements such as, running, jumping, leaping, and tossing.

Martha Graham is however regarded as the “mother of modern dance” Martha became a student at the Denishawn School in 1916. (In 1915, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn founded the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in. It was located in a Spanish mansion in Los Angeles. Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn wanted to liberate dance technique from the constraints of classical ballet. They studied world dance, variations of traditional ballroom technique, and yoga to incorporate into their choreography. Ted Shawn was the first choreographer to introduce carefully researched interpretations of traditional American Indian dances.)

Martha moved to New York City in 1923, where she performed in musicals and worked on her own choreography Martha developed her own dance technique that depended upon the concepts of contraction and release. Her principle contributions to dance are the focus of the ‘center’ of the body, coordination between breathing and movement and a dancer’s relationship with the floor, using the floor for choreography.

Contemporary Ballet is a form of dance which incorporates elements of both classical ballet and modern dance. It takes its technique and use of pointe work from classical ballet, however, it allows a greater range of movement that does not support the strict body lines that are traditional in any of the methods of classical ballet technique. Many of its concepts come from the ideas of modern dance, including floor choreography and turning in of the legs.

George Balanchine is often considered to have been the first pioneer of Contemporary Ballet. Today, the style he developed is known as neoclassical ballet, which is a technique that is between classical ballet and today’s contemporary ballet. Balanchine used flexed hands and sometimes flexed feet, turned-in legs, off-centered positions and non-classical costumes, namely, leotards and tunics instead of tutus, to get away from the classical and romantic ballet traditions. Balanchine also brought modern dancers in to dance with his company, which was the New York City Ballet.

One dancer that Balanchine brought in was Paul Taylor, who in 1959 performed in Balanchine’s piece Episodes. Balanchine also worked with Martha Graham.

Another dancer who trained with Balanchine in much of this neo-classical style was Mikhail Baryshinkov, who also worked with various modern choreographers, namely Twyla Tharp. Twyla choreographed several pieces for ABT and Baryshnikov in 1976, and in 1986 she created a piece called, In The Upper Room for her own company. Those pieces were considered innovative for their use of modern movements joined with the use of pointe shoes and classically-trained dancers, which brings us to the term “Contemporary Ballet”.

Twyla also worked with the Joffery Ballet and used pop music and a blend of modern and ballet techniques. The Joffrey Ballet continued to perform numerous contemporary pieces, after those Twyla Tharp pieces.

Today there are many contemporary ballet companies and choreographers. Some of these include Alonzo King and his company, Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet; Nacho Duato and Compañia Nacional de Danza, Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, who are co-founders of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, who I had the pleasure of seeing this past weekend.. Traditionally “classical” companies, such as the Kirov Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet, also regularly perform contemporary dance pieces.

I hope that this post will help you to distinguish between these three different ballet styles and how they are also similar.

Oh My Gosh!…I’m Going En Pointe!

This is the time of the year when decisions are made for classes for the up coming season. It is an exciting time to see what classes are available for your ability. One of the special times in a dancers life is when their teacher says that is it time to begin pointe work. Pointe classes need to be taken very seriously, as they are not an easy class and only for the serious dancer. It takes much determination. Pointe work is not for everyone. Even if you are anatomically capable and your technique is up to where is should be, pointe may not be for you. Then again …..maybe it is! Here are some considerations you need to be aware of before considering pointe work for you.

Because serious foot deformities can result from starting pointe too early, ballet students do not usually begin dancing en pointe until after the age of 11 and I believe not before the age of 12. This school of thought, is because the bones in the feet are still growing and can be permanently damaged if pointe work is begun too early. It is better to begin pointe later rather than too early. Dancers are ready for pointe work when they can hold their turnout from the hips while performing center combinations, hold a proper ballet alignment (straight back, good turnout, etc.), pull up correctly in the legs, and balance securely in releve, because dancing en pointe requires you to use your entire body, including the legs, back, and abdominal muscles. George Balanchine once said,” Why put a dancer on pointe if they can not do anything once they get there.”

Care For Your Feet

With pedicures being the rage today, be aware that they are not advised for pointe dancers. Dead skin and calluses on the feet are helpful and act as insulation against the strain of the pointe shoe.Blisters and sores on your feet from the stiffess of your shoes and every bleeding are to be expected. Nothing a band aid can’t handle. Be sure to cut your toe nails at least one day before pointe class to let the toes adjust to the new length of the nails. 

And When Do We Actually Dance?

A lot of time preparing for pointe work will be spent at the barre. It is a gradual process before leaving the barre. but before you go to the barre, you need to learn how to tie your pointe shoes. I have seen many dancers just tie them any old way and then have problems standing en pointe. Then, after your shoew are tied correctly, you will begin by starting to break in your shoes to mold directly with your feet by learning to pointe tendu and rolling over the box of the shoe. The next step is to learn to releve onto pointe and keeping your knees straight while on pointe. Some beginning strengthening exercises at the barre will be relevés and échappés. Once the class is fully comfortable in doing those the steps on both feet, steps ending on one foot are introduced, such as pas de bourrée

After barre work, you will progresses to the center exercises, and stress proper turnout, One thing I like to tell my dancers it to be sure that you can see both heels in the mirror while facing front in releve. The first exercises in the center will be on both feet and will be relevés and échappés. Then across the floor becomes the next challenge. Bourees are the first traveling step.

How Are Pointe Shoes Supposed To Fit?

The stiff shank and box of your pointe shoes help to spread your weight of the across your foot instead of being concentrated in the toes. For this to be successful, the shoe MUST be fitted perfectly. Each pointe shoe manufacturer makes a range of shoes to fit different foot shapes and widths. I can not stress enough the importance of proper fit. It is the difference of being able to hold a releve properly and not.

Pointe shoe fitters should haave extensive training and experience to identify with the different types of feet and the makes and models of shoes that suit them. For this reason, it is NOT recommended that dancers buy their first pointe shoes online. And even with a professional retailer fitting you, never wear or sew on your ribbons before your teacher approves your new pointe shoes. See the “How Should Pointe Shoes Fit” page in the page section of this blog for more details from Freed’s.

My best wishes for all you new pointe students. This is a happy and fun time in your dance experience. Be aware ….it will be hard work……

…And What Do We Do With Our Head?



In the Vaganova or Russian method of training, there is an unwritten rule with a few exceptions; never to dance with the body de face, in front, full face, facing the audience, Epaulement (shading) is used and your head is always turned in the direction of the foreword shoulder.



However in the Cecchetti method, there are several “rules”….

  • When you are traveling forward on alternate feet you incline you head slightly toward the shoulder corresponding to the foot that is forward.
  • When traveling backward on alternate feet you should incline your head slightly toward the shoulder opposite to the foot that makes the step backwards.
  • In some steps traveled forward when epaulement is used your head is not inclined but instead your head is slightly turned toward the forward shoulder.

Epaulement is the movement of the torso from the waist up. bringing one shoulder forward and the other back with the head turned or inclined over the other shoulder

  • When you are facing front and you are executing a ronds de jambe a terre en dehors the head is inclined to the side opposite to the foot that makes the movement
  • When you are facing front and you executing a ronds de jambe a terre endans the head is inclined to the same side as the foot that makes the movement.
  • When you are facing front and .you are turn your body away from the audience, to the right or left the head inclines toward the side to which you are turning. Like in a series of echappes to the second position.
  • In turning movements such as pirouettes, the head is the last part of your body to leave the front of the room as your body turns and the first to arrive as your body completes the turn. See spotting below.

There are five principal head positions in the Cecchetti method

  • Head erect
  • Head inclined to one side or the other.
  • Head turned to one side or the other
  • Head raised
  • Head lowered.


Spotting is the term given to the movement of your head in pirouettes, chaines, fouette ronds de jambe en tournant and so on. In these turns, you chose a spot in front or to the direction you are traveling and as the turn is made away from the spot the head is the last to leave and the first to arrive as your body completes the turn. This quick movement or snap of your head gives the impression that your face is always turned forward and most importantly, prevents you from becoming dizzy.

Remember, using your head correctly, in choreography completes the picture you are working to present…..

Arabesques and Attitudes, Infinate Choreography

Correct body placement for arabesques and attitudes is essential. Be sure to keep your body balanced and upright, except when choreography calls for attitudes to lean slightly back, away from the front attitude or forward, slightly away from the back attitude. In an arabesque, your body should lean slightly forwards. Throw out your chest but be sure that you keep your abdominals tight and in.

Two faults common to dancers are throwing out your abdominals at the same time as you throw out your chest or throwing out your “derriere” when you are required to keep in your abdominals. Keep your shoulders down, well opened and forced back. Your head should be slightly raised. Don’t forget your face. Your face should be animated and expressive. Your head and shoulders should be “framed” by your arm that is raised or en haut.


There are an infinite number of attitudes. How they are used depends on the choreographer. Croisee, de face, efface, ect. The attitude is derived from the statue of Mercury by Jean Bologne (1524-1608) The dancer and teacher Carlo Blasis (1797 – 1878) admired the statue and when he viewed it, he took the role of Mercury in his ballet The Festival of Bacchus. In the ballet he introduced a pirouette which used an attitude. In dancing today, this pirouette is known as pirouette en attitude.

In general an attitude is a pose in which the body is supported on one leg the foot being placed a terre, demi pointe or en pointe, while the other is raised with the knee bent and turned out. One arm is in the fourth position en haut and the other in the demi second position. At any rate the raise knee should always be higher than the foot. Attitudes are also done wit the working leg a terre. Balanchine’s famous “B+” position is actually an attitude a terre derriere.


Arabesques are poses which were originally inspired by antique paintings and sculptures. The name arabesque applies to the flowing ornaments of the Moors, a nomadic Arab tribe dating back to the 8th century. An arabesque is made by supporting the body on one leg which can be straight or demi plie, while the one the other is extended straight back either a terre or en l’air. The arms are what decides as to which arabesque it is, excepting in 4th or 5th arabesque. See the diagram page on this blog. Cecchetti method has five different arabesques.

The essence of a good arabesque is the correct distribution of your weight which should be neither too far forwards or too far backwards. An easy way to determine whether the body is correctly placed, is to pass the raised foot forwards and step and on it. If the weight is correctly placed, the body will remain balanced. If your back is too arched or your chest thrown too far forwards, your body will fall backwards or forwards. Remember that your shoulders need to be held square to the direction you are facing and that your fingers of the hand, extended front, must always be in a line with the center of the space between your eyes.

It is so oblivious that arabesques and attitudes are capable of so much variety. The slightest change of either foot or either arm will produce a new pose!

Port de Bras

It has been found from a dancers point of view that the positioning and carriage of the arms are most often found to be the most difficult things to apply in dance and choreography. With this in mind, as dancers we should pay special attention to our arms. It is a common mistake that the only aim of a dancer is to work on what she does with her legs. Dancers concentrate so heavily on pulling up, turning out from their hips and that beautiful leg extension that all ballet dancers so wish to have, that often the dancer forgets to study her arms.

Carlo Blasis was an Italian dancer, choreographer and teacher. He was well known for his very exhausting dance classes, sometimes lasting four hours long. He was the first who published an analysis on the ballet techniques in 1820, in a manual titled “Elementary, Theoretical, and Practical Treatise on the Art of the Dance”. He is most known for the pose “Attitude” that he picked up from the famous statue Mercury. Carlo Blasis’s methods were expanded by Enrico Cecchetti. Carlos Blasis’ theory on por de bras was “When the arms accompany each movement of the body with exactitude, they may be compared to the frame that sets off a picture. But if the frame is so constructed as not to suit the painting, however well executed the latter may be, its whole effect is unquestionably destroyed So it is with the dancer; for his steps, unless his arms be lithesome and in strict harmony with his legs, his dance can have no spirit or liveliness, and he presents the same insipid appearance as a paint our out its frame or in one not at all adapted to it.” I felt that I needed to print Carlo Blasis’s quote on port de bras since he has put it all together in a nutshell.

In raising the arms from one position to an other, the fifth position en avant (Cecchetti method) is the most important. It is sometimes termed the “door“, because just as a door is the entrance into a room, or from one room to another, so the fifth position an avant is generally the pose through which the arms have to pass when raised from one position to another.

When you are concentrating on your port de bras, keep in mind that the arms should move from the shoulder and not from the elbow and the movement should be smooth and flowing. The arms should be softly rounded so that the points of the elbows are hardly noticeable and the hands should be simple, graceful and in a continuous line from the arm and never showy.

Some tips for improving port de bras

  • Always maintain proper placement throughout the entire body
  • Make sure your shoulders are naturally placed in their sockets; and your shoulder blades spread, not pinched together
  • Never start the movement of your arm from your wrist
  • Avoid tension in the shoulders
  • Your arms shouldn’t be exaggerated or weak or they will reduce what’s happening in the rest of your body
  • When doing pointe work, don’t tighten up and change your approach to the port de bras. Remember basics from demi pointe work.
  • Lengthen and free the hands as an extension of the whole arm
  • Practice combinations, especially petit and grand allegro, using only the arms

You should always strive to make your arms nicely curved that the point of the elbows are hardly noticeable. Beauty of line is one to the dancer’s greatest assets. Correct and flowing port de bras is essential!

Galina Ulanova

Galina Sergeyevana Ulanova was born in St. Petersburg Russia on January 8, 1910. She studied in Petrograd with Agirppina Vaganova at the Leningrad Choreography School, and her own mother, Maria Romanovna, who was a ballerina with the Imperial Russian Ballet.

Galina graduated 1928 and danced with the Kirov Ballet until 1944 when she transferred to Bolshoi Theatre by Joseph Stalin where she became Prima Ballerina Assoluta for 16 years. A year after she was transferred to the Bolshoi, she danced the lead role in Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella. Prokofiev was so fasinated with her he is quoted as saying, “She is the genius of Russian ballet, its elusive soul, its inspired poetry. Ulanova imparts to her interpretation of classical roles a depth of expression unheard of in twentieth century ballet.”

Her impact on both Russian and Western ballet was enormous. She was considered as unforgettable in Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty, Les Sylphides, Fountain of Bakhchisarai and many others. In 1959 she became ballet mistress of the Bolshoi Ballet.

Galina was also a great actress as well as dancer, and when she was finally allowed to tour abroad at the age of 46, British papers wrote that “Galina Ulanova in London knew the greatest triumph of any individual dancer since Anna Pavolva“.

Galina retired from the stage at the age of 50, she taught many generations of the Russian dancers. Ulanova was the only dancer to be awarded Hero of Socialist Labour, and she was also awarded the highest exclusively artistic national title, People’s Artist of the USSR. She was also awarded the Lenin or Stalin Prizes in 1941, 1946, 1947, 1950, and 1957.

Galina died in 1998, she was 88 years old. Galina’s apartament in Moscow, is preserved as a memorial museum now. Monuments to Ulanova were erected in Saint Petersburg and Stockholm. See a video of her dancing Swan Lake in the video section.

The Importance of Balance in Ballet

Balance is a key factor when doing ballet. All parts of an adagio combination require balance and much control. Holding a pose is not all there is to it, whether you are holding it for a few counts or moving from one pose to the next.

A simple pirouette is executing balance while you are turning. Not only your physical strength, alignment and pulling up are the only keys to a pirouette, but disciplining your mind, concentrating and focusing are a major part of balance. In order to do that triple pirouette, you would need to be able to at least balance on demi pointe, or pointe for that matter, with your foot at your knee, in that position, without turning for as long as it would take to rotate three times.

While practicing balance a the barre, you need to remember that the position we are balancing in is never motionless. Dancers are not motionless beings. Your choreography will show life and from a balanced position you will move in another direction, to another balanced position.

While practicing balance you need make adjustments if you are feeling that you may be leaning to one side or the other. You will need to adjust to put yourself back to your center without completely loosing the balance. Being able to focus your thoughts on staying lifted out of the hips, but yet keep that position within you, will take lots of discipline. It is important to concentrate only on yourself and not worry about the person in front of, next to or in back of you. Focusing your eyes is important, as if you were keeping a spot for turning. While directing adagio combinations in class, I am always calling out to focus and spot, to remind dancers to concentrate on what they are doing.

Some important points for good balance

1. Lift out of your supporting hip. And lift the muscles above the kneecaps and through your thighs and upward.

2. Keep the your back expanded and don’t let your shoulder blades squeeze together.

3. Think of lifting up and over, like your ribcage is resting on a shelf. Keep your alignment in place.

4. Keep your spot at eye level or a bit higher so your chin doesn’t drop.

5. Strengthen your abdominal muscles.

Remember that balance is an important aspect of ballet or any dance form. Be sure you constantly work on it in all of your classes. Don’t be sloppy.

Rehearsing For The Big Day

It is that time of year when things get very exciting at the studio. Costumes have been handed out and moms are sewing the necessary parts together. Special rehearsals are coming around and the soloists are requested to attend group classes that they will dance with.

At our studio we do a mini story ballet which opens up the second half of each year’s annual revue. Casting is in October and we begin choreography then. As the year progresses the story unfolds before the dancers eyes! Much emphasis is placed on this ballet, and the younger classes can’t wait until they are old enough to be apart of it. The dancers who are old enough to participate ask through the entire month of September what story it will be and when they will know the casting.

With all this effort and excitement that is placed on this particular part of the revue, I would like to talk about how you, the dancers, can bring your part to excellence. Whether you are a part of our studio or a different one, here are some tips to excel this recital/revue season…..

Work on your dance piece every day. To keep your character from getting stale you should become the best dancer you can possibly be. While practicing you must dance like you are dancing on the stage every time that you rehearse your piece. If you practice each time like you are just going through the motions, or walking it, this may show come stage time. If you practice each time with the energy and enthusiasm that you would use during a performance, it will be easier to do so on the stage. This may also prevent you from being nervous too.

Each time you practice have a goal in mind. Keep thoughts in your head like, concentrating on your spotting when it comes to the turn combination in the choreography or keeping balance better in your arabesques. Think of keeping up more energy during a quick allegro part.

While resting, try to visualize your steps. Think of your steps for each part you are in. This valuable method is also rehearsing. It is embedding your steps in your memory so when it comes time to physically do them, your steps will pour into your feet like second nature. I used to put myself to sleep each night while rehearsing this way.

Most of all remember this is the most exciting part of the dance year. Have fun. If you make a mistake on stage don’t let it show on your face. The audience will never know. Stay focused but keep it fun and you will be on your way to your best performance ever!

Before Class Begins

Warming up before class is the key to a great class. Now I am not suggesting the stretch in the picture for a before class warm up. I just liked the picture.

If you are stretching before class with the goal of long-term changes in your flexibility, for example, you want to do a full split and need to work on it, save that type of stretching for after ballet class or between barre work and center floor work when your muscles are “warm.” If you want to warm up to take away stiffness, the type of stretching suggested below or I prefer to say warm up is good and won’t hurt you.

Prior to your ballet class there are several things you can do to warm-up and specifically activate your muscles. The goal of before class warm up is to restore your range of motion and to release tight muscles. This easy type of warm up also helps to provide blood flow to the muscles which brings essential nutrients into the muscle to repair, restore, and recover.

A great pre class warm-up for example would consist of high knee lifts like marching in place, torso twists, arm circles, jog in place or around the ballet classroom to elevate the heart-rate and get the blood moving.

Both of the types of stretching below have some short lasting effects on your range of motion and will help with your before class “pinchyness“.

Static Stretching

Now lets say that you are a dancer of average flexibility and you have no problem extending to 90-degrees, and once you are warmed up, you can easily accomplish a good split and higher extensions. But, when you first enter the dance room, you feel that pinch and that crunch, sort of stiffness. In the traditional thinking, if you are a dancer who likes to come into the studio early to sit on the floor in a straddle, or lays on the floor with their toes over their head in a plow position, or even bending forward until the pinch slowly begins to ease, you are performing a static stretch. This is where you choose a position at the end of your range of motion, that targets a particular muscle, and hold it there.

Dynamic Stretching

Now dynamic stretching is active motions that will increase your joint range of motion. Some dynamic stretches are leg swings or correctly called balancoire, or grande battements can be done, and arm swings, too. My personal opinion is that static stretching is a pre cursor to dynamic stretching.

Some things to remember about stretching. If stretching feels good, then stretch. Just take care in doing it. Stretching should never hurt. Don’t reach past your natural range of motion unless your body is completely warmed up. Remember that your muscles are like rubber bands, they extend and contract again.

Here are some before class Static Stretches you can do

Calf Stretch: To stretch the pair of muscles located at your calf. 

  • Stand with your feet together. Place your hands on your hips, and extend your right leg back behind your body. Your left leg should be bent, your right leg should be straight, and both feet should be pointed straight ahead. Allow your body to fall forward slowly, be sure to keep your hips straight and not lift the right one. Keep your feet flat at all times. Hold this as long as you can, and then switch legs and repeat.




Hamstring Stretch: The hamstrings are the string-like tendons felt on either side of the back of the knee. They are attached to hamstring muscles and into the tibia, which is the inner and larger of the two bones in the lower leg, and extending from the knee to the ankle bone alongside the fibula, outer of the two bones in the lower leg, the hamstring muscles are located in the back of the thigh. These stretches will help to stretch those tendons.

  • Sit on the floor, extend your legs straight out in front of you, and point your toes. Then, bend forward at the waist and reach for your toes. Hold this position, keeping your nose pressed to your knees and then flex your feet, holding the stretch. Hold this for as long as you can.
  • You can also stretch the hamstrings by kneeling on your left knee while extending your right leg in front. Point your right foot and bend forward toward your right leg. If you are flexible enough, lay your upper body on your leg, without rounding the back. Hold the stretch for as long as you can, then switch legs.

Quad Stretch: The quadriceps are a large muscle group that is on the front of the thigh. Stretching this muscle group will improve your arabesques, too.

  •  While standing, and possibly holding on to the wall or barre, reach your right hand behind your body and grab your right ankle, so you’re standing like a stork. Slowly pull your ankle up toward your head be sure that your heel is always facing your butt and do not turn out at the hip. Hold it as high as you can. Switch legs, and repeat. Do not to over-arch your back while you are doing this stretch.
  • Another quad stretch, can be done by lying face down on the floor, with your forehead resting on your arms in front of you. Straighten your legs flat on the floor behind you. Bend your left leg and grab your left foot with your left hand. Gently pull your left foot toward your left butt muscle. Strive to keep your left thigh flat on the floor. Make sure to keep your left foot in line with your left thigh. Hold the stretch for as long as comfortable, then switch legs.

Straddle Stretch: This stretch is for the hip adductors, the muscles on the inner thigh.

  • While sitting, straddle your legs out as far on either side of you as possible. This is called a straddle seat. Bending from the waist, stretch your body over your left leg, shoulder to your thigh move slowly to the center space between your legs, and then slowly over to your right leg. Also, sitting up straight, twist at the waist and lay your upper body over your left leg and then the right one.

Releve Stretch: This is to warm up your feet and arches. Dancers sometimes don’t remember that the feet need some warming up, too.

  • Stand in parallel position and slowly raise your body upward until you’re balancing on the balls of your feet. Balance as long as you can.

Remember a pre-class warm up to have a better barre……



Ballerina Biographies – Gelsey Kirkland

Gelsey Kirkland was born December 29,1952, in Bethlehem Pennsylvania. Her father was Jack Kirkland, a playwright, and Nancy, an actress, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. She also had an older sister, Johnna.

Johnna started attending the School of American Ballet and Gelsey started soon after, starting an intense rivalry between the sisters.

As a student Gelsey, was incredibly dedicated, she was considered a workaholic. When she first started attending the School of American ballet Gelsey was not very flexible at all and worked on her stretching to achieve the flexibility required. She also took extra ballet classes and worked as a model, to pay for ballet classes, and later on quit high school so she would have more time to dance.

When Gelsey was fifteen George Balanchine asked her to join the New York City Ballet, and two years later she became a soloist. At this time Balanchine created his new Firebird, with Gelsey as the lead. Although Firebird did not become a success there was, Gelsey was amazing in the role and later on she danced the lead in Jerome Robbins� Goldberg Variations.

In 1972 the New York City Ballet toured to Russia where Mikhail Baryshnikov first saw her dance. Two years later, after he defected in Toronto Mikhail asked her to be his partner. In September of 1974 Gelsey left the New York City Ballet and joined the American Ballet Theatre as a principal dancer opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov. The partnership between Miss Kirkland and Mr. Baryshnikov was incredibly successful, they were in perfect harmony in performance.

Gelsey’s perfection was in the area of romantic ballets. She had a delicate body and precise technique. She amazed audiences and critics alike. Edward Villella described her as having steel-like legs that are doing the most fantastic technical feats while the upper body is soft and lovely as though nothing were going on underneath in Time magazine.

Unfortunately, in 1976 her complicated personal life caught up to her. She had been very concerned about her looks and undergone several plastic surgeries. She was also anorexic and addicted to cocaine. Finally she collapsed due to nervous exhaustion and a potassium deficiency and was forced to stop dancing. This kept her from appearing opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov in the movie The Turning Point. After some time she was able to return to the stage. She made a moving debut as Clara in Baryshnikov’s Nutcracker.

She met and fell in love with Greg Lawrence and they helped each other out of their drug problems and depression. He also helped write her autobiographies, Dancing on my Grave, published in 1986 and The Shape of Love, published in 1990.

Gelsey was a success when she returned to the stage, and was asked to do a Command Performance in 1986 for Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II with the Royal Ballet.

Gelsey is now retired from performing and has become a teacher and coach.