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.