I recently came across two posts on social media that started me thinking about turning and how we teach dancers to turn. In the first post, a teacher linked a short video clip of a student unsuccessfully attempting a pirouette. The teacher then asked for suggestions of notes she could give the student to help her improve and hopefully master the pirouette. In the second post, a teacher had the idea of starting a “turning class” to help tap dancers turn better.
I think that most of us would agree that well-trained ballet dancers are among the best “turners”. I would like to share a very popular video clip that has made its way around the Internet. These boys in this clip are ballet students, competing in the YAGP. Now I’m not suggesting that these boys are finished artists, nor am I extolling the merits of competitions, but these boys are STUDENTS, and I think we can agree that they turn very well.
Turning is not an isolated skill. We cannot, as teachers, simply teach our students to turn. A foundational technique must be built from the ground up. Ballet training is structured in a very specific way. And the rigorous training that goes into producing a high-level ballet dancer, produces the technique, strength and skill necessary to turn well. The struggling student in the video that was posted by the well meaning teacher, was not even close to being ready to attempt a pirouette. She was not able to plié with both heels on the ground, she was not strong enough to press up to the highest possible half point, she did not have sufficient strength or balance to maintain the turning position, she was unable to maintain her turn out, she could not keep her shoulders down on her back, she could not maintain a neutral pelvis, she could not spot… And I’m just getting started.
When ballet dancers train, the techniques required for plié, releve, balance, turnout, and placement are built gradually and slowly from the beginning. Only after all of the technical requirements are starting to fall into place does the student begin to turn…and usually they begin with “quarter turns”; slowly progressing to single pirouettes, multiple pirouettes and more complicated turns in various positions. It is the technical foundation that ballet builds that allows for the dazzling turns. Without the foundation, the turns of that quality are impossible.
I often say that the idea of “Taking ballet to make everything better” doesn’t work. Taking ballet doesn’t make anything better. In order for ballet to help a dancer improve, the dancer must STUDY ballet the same way a ballet dancer does; with the same level of attention to detail, artistry, musicality and nuance…or it is a waste of time. And as teachers, we must try inspire our students to love the ritual of the ballet class and the rigors of the training. I have taught a lot of “required ballet classes”. I have taught them in neighborhood studios, colleges, conservatories, preprofessional programs and I have traveled to competition studios across the country. In these class rooms, inspiring dancers for whom ballet is not their primary discipline is at the top of my “to-do list”. Dancers must learn that their body is their instrument. They can play a poorly made, klunky and out of tune keyboard…or they can play the finest hand-built Steinway. And if they want their body to be as responsive and expressive as a Steinway, then they must build their instrument with the same care and meticulous attention to detail that goes into a Steinway. There is really no other way.
“When the student finds the joy in the process, a dancer is born.”