Teaching Ballet to Musical Theater Students; A New Focus

My career path has been strange to say the least. For my new readers who may not be familiar with the story: I was an adult beginner dancer with a short but reasonably successful professional career. I “retired” just shy of my 35th birthday and didn’t dance at all for 9 years. I started taking class again at 43 and met the legendary Broadway dancer Lisa Gajda who recommended me for my first professional teaching job: teaching Ballet at the musical theater conservatory CAP21. That recommendation lead to a completely new career path that I could have never imagined.

Throughout my teaching career, teaching Ballet to musical theater students has been my “stock in trade”. In addition to the Joffrey Ballet School, I am a regular faculty member in the musical theater programs at Molloy College, New York Film Academy, New York Conservatory for Performing Arts and I have traveled as far as Dublin, Ireland to teach at the Phoenix Performing Arts College (a truly remarkable musical theater program). And with each passing semester, each passing year, each new student that places their trust and their futures in my teaching, I have examined and re-examined the ballet education for musical theater students.

When I was training, the concept of the Musical Theater Conservatory was a new idea. The only program that I was aware of at that time was AMDA, and most aspiring performers shied away from this program, rather opting to train in open dance classes, small independent acting schools and with private voice teachers and coaches. We would cobble together a training regimen that suited our talents, tastes and interests. It was understood by most of us that in order to be a technically secure dancer for the type of dancing that would be required on the musical theater stage, ballet training was essential; and most of us started our day with a ballet class. 

When the new musical theater conservatories started springing up, and programs were being developed, ballet classes were rarely scheduled more than three times per week. As time went on, and programs evolved, most programs decreased ballet classes to twice or sometimes once per week. This presents a problem for the teacher. We are now faced with teaching a discipline that, for it’s 300 year history required daily training, in one or two classes per week. For these performers, ballet training is being used to “build the instrument”; to turn the performers’ body into a machine that can, with technical security, execute a wide range of dance vocabulary. Not only must the performer have this technical security, but they must have style, artistry, musicality and presence as well. Ballet only works to achieve these goals if it is taught to these students the way it is taught to ballet dancers. 

Over time I have have been adjusting my syllabi; tweaking what I do in the classroom to best serve my students’ needs. Of primary importance is “placement” and what Vaganova referred to as aplomb. The alignment of the bones/body, the positioning of the hips/pelvis, and vertical steadiness must be of primary importance. Ballet teachers can spend hours dissecting this topic. The Jazz master Luigi’s concept of “pressing down against the space” has always worked for me to quickly find that placement, aplomb and steadiness and I have brought that concept into my ballet studio. A clean shift of the weight from one foot to another is also essential. I started striving to create barre exercises that will achieve this placement, aplomb and steadiness, and I EXPLAIN as clearly and efficiently as I can HOW the exercises should be executed to achieve these ends. The exercises alone are never going to be responsible for the result; it is HOW the exercises are done that achieves the end. Luigi was a master explainer and I am so grateful for my years under his tutelage because it is in the EXPLANATION that the knowledge is imparted. 

Musical theater dancers also need to develop a sense of musicality and phrasing. Most ballet “technique” classes are designed to teach just that; technique. The typical ballet student will develop the nuances of musicality and phrasing in their variations, character and pas de deux classes as well as in their coaching sessions. But musical theater dancers will rarely take such classes. I therefore have started constructing my exercises and combinations to have complex rhythms and have started insisting more and more on a deep attention to musicality and phrasing, even in a tendu exercise. I will tell my students to “feel the music from the inside” and to “dance the sound rather than the steps” right from the very first moment that their hand touches the barre. This attention to musicality and phrasing must become part of how the dancer works instinctively, and this seems to be the best way to get that job done. I will talk about the music for ballet class. I will touch on the differences between a Polonaise, a Waltz and a Mazurka; not because the students will be performing these dances but because a knowledge of the musical forms will increase their understanding of music general.

Musical theater dancers will need to develop epaument, line and presence. They will need a rich and exquisite port de bras and need to develop a way of communicating what they do to reach and move an audience. Again, I have started creating exercises focusing on these facets of the work and started explaining the combinations in a way that highlights and clarifies these aspects of ballet. 

What I have realized recently, is that what musical theater dancers do not need (in general) are a near perfect turn out, high legs in adagio and brilliant petite allegro (beats). Professional musical theater jobs that require this aspect of the ballet technique (dancing roles in shows with “dream ballets” or extensive ballet sequences such as Oklahoma!CarouselOn Your ToesPhantom…, and Brigadoon ) are going to ballet dancers. Broadway productions are boasting cast members from NYCB  and ABT in these parts. Well, since producers are mining big ballet companies to fill these technical demands, I am finding it less necessary to train my students for jobs that they aren’t going to get anyway. I am, of course, still teaching turn out, but I am teaching HOW to use turn out for stability and I am respecting their bodies’ limitations. I am, of course still teaching adagio, but the FOCUS of the adagio is on the line, phrasing, quality of movement and the vulnerability of the exercise, rather than the height of the leg. And of course I am still teaching jumps and beats, but the FOCUS of the allegro exercises is on power, exuberance and the quality of the jumping rather than the lightning quick beating and ever more complex petite allegro combinations.

My teaching is still a work in progress. There is so much that I still do not know. But as I am charged with preparing my students for an ever changing musical theater industry, at conservatories with ever changing programs, I am constantly reevaluating what I bring to the classroom. As I continue to craft my ballet classes for my musical theater students, I am changing the focus to suit their needs. I am still teaching ballet, the way it was taught to me by my master teachers. I am still presenting a ballet class in its entirety, the way it has been presented for generations. But I am changing the focus. And I hope that this change will help my students succeed in this industry. Only time will tell. 

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