Learn more about the technical and theoretical underpinnings of our work in class. This page will help readers find related readings, videos, and podcasts to enhance their learning.
Turning Pointe is available now. I'm looking forward to this forward look into what's next for ballet.
The cover image is linked to Prairie Lights, where I ordered my copy. You can get yours there too.
A reckoning with one of our most beloved art forms, whose past and present are shaped by gender, racial, and class inequities—and a look inside the fight for its future
Every day, in dance studios all across America, legions of little children line up at the barre to take ballet class. This time in the studio shapes their lives, instilling lessons about gender, power, bodies, and their place in the world both in and outside of dance.
In Turning Pointe, journalist Chloe Angyal captures the intense love for ballet that so many dancers feel, while also grappling with its devastating shortcomings: the power imbalance of an art form performed mostly by women, but dominated by men; the impossible standards of beauty and thinness; and the racism that keeps so many people of color out of ballet. As the rigid traditions of ballet grow increasingly out of step with the modern world, a new generation of dancers is confronting these issues head on, in the studio and on stage. For ballet to survive the twenty-first century and forge a path into a more socially just future, this reckoning is essential.
Below is the link to the video called Dance On (from 1986) with Billie Mahoney interviewing Maria Vegh. The first 21 minutes will let you hear discussion of the life and work of Joanna Kneeland (specifics start at 6:59).
Dance On: Maria Vegh
The rest of the video will give you information about Rebekah Harkness and the splendid Harkness House. Google Chalice of Life to see images of the piece by Salvador Dali described in the interview.
At the close of the video, Billie Mahoney describes the changes in the world in the prior decade, from 28:30 on. It includes:
"Our lives are short. And in this impersonal world of high technology and ever-increasing stress, why don't you take time out to enjoy dance, whether as a participant or as a spectator?"
If this was true then—in 1986—what does it say about our lives now?
Below are a few of the outstanding accompanists whose piano recordings add richness to our classes.
A. Katarina Batist accompanied the influential teacher Stanley Williams (who you may remember from "turn don't turn," "over big toe," etc.) for 15 years. Williams died in 1997. To honor him, Batist, in collaboration with student Aaron Severini, created album of music commemorating his class style. The tracks are short and numerous, but the specific musicality expresses how the subtle efforts of a dancer (and the movements they produce) should be circular and counterbalanced.
Special thanks to Penny Askew of Askew Ballet Academy for sending me this gem.
In 1979 Bill Brown began working with teacher Finis Jhung in New York. In his memoir, Finis writes about working with Brown:
"He plays exactly what I like: ballet music that is mellow, but confidently and strongly played with a beat that is crystal clear. Truly it's music that makes you want to dance. Because he can improvise on the spot, he watches the dancers and plays what they need to hear. Teaching is such a pleasure with Bill because he is always tuned in to my thoughts."
Their partnership inspired Brown's The Ballet Book. This book of compositions for ballet class was published in 1982. Eventually, they made an album of Brown's music, New Music for Your Ballet Class. The record was originally released in 1986. The 1995 digital restoration is still available on Apple Music and Spotify.
The recordings are featured in the following videos by Finis:
Miro Magloire accompanied Willy Burmann and made three albums of class music tailor-made for his exercises. The music makes the steps feel inevitable and the tempos require the dancer to really move, tapping into the body's deep intelligence to succeed.
You can read Magloire's exquisite words about their partnership in this Broadway World interview.
When I observed Willy teach for the last time in 2019, one of his students was trying to make sense of a step by doing it in slow motion. Willy said, "That step can't be slowed down." The assertion epitomized Willy's tempo-sensitive teaching. Without saying so explicitly, Willy's teaching underlined the connection between tempo and physical constants of the natural world (such as the acceleration by gravity on earth's surface, g=9.81m/s²). That is to say, lowering the leg to sous-sus and dropping the thigh across to arrive sous-sus are two contrasting physical approaches because of their disparate speeds. For Willy, to get the physicality of arrival correct, there was only one tempo.
Lynn Stanford played for many master teachers and recorded many albums. My longtime students will recognize both Music For Ballet Class and In Private with Natalia Makarova, a pair of collaborations with the renowned teacher David Howard. A third album, Adagio and other Dances, includes what many of my students have come to know as "the golf ball song," which accompanies our ritual of massaging the intrinsic muscles of the feet. This uncomfortable activity seems more tolerable while Stanford's brilliant improvisational melodies wash over us.
In his 2018 book, Finis Jhung describes the conflict between his love of Madame Perey, his 'Imperial Russia personified' and 'magnificent' teacher, and his realization that his dancing ability was declining as he tried to contort his body to meet her demands. This period of his career seemed to be the start of his vehement adherence to the principle that dancing from the feet—and feeling the interaction with the floor—is far more important to technical achievement and well-being than creating textbook positions.
This was 1960 yet these were not new ideas. Years before, Willam Christensen had taught Finis an intelligent way of moving that worked within the natural limitations of his body without ever demanding perfect fifth positions or using the easy-to-misinterpret cue pull up.
The concept of dancing from the feet is often absent in the teaching I observe. I hear from students it is missing from the classes they have taken as well.
Perhaps there is something about naming bodily shapes that allows them to persist with less effort than muscular engagements identified by proprioception. I hope to hear your thoughts.
The account of dancing for Madame Perey begins on page 68. Although the book is out of print, it is available as an eBook through Amazon.
To see the principles from technique class in action on the stage, watch closely this video of Sara Mearns, principal dancer at New York City Ballet, performing Balanchine's Walpurgisnacht.
(If you open in a computer browser you can watch in full-screen HD).
First, in 0:34-0:49 there are nine examples of Ms. Mearns reaching out of the supporting side wrist/arm/scapula to create counterbalance—either to sustain the equilibrium over the pointe shoe or locomote more efficiently in coordination with pressing the ground away with her toes.
Then, at 0:50 Ms. Mearns begins a series of piqué turns. The first four alternate between en dedans turns attitude derrière and en dehors turns attitude devant, followed by two standard piqué turns, two "lame ducks" (sometimes called step-over turns), and one more piqué turn. In all nine turns, the principle of the leading arm and shoulder going back to turn the body is evident.
This exquisite performance demonstrates the fundamentals we work on in class applied to dancing at the highest level. When turning (whether in pirouette or a simple facing change like battement tendu en tournant), let the leading arm start taking the spine around and don't lose the integrity of the supporting side.
For beginners applying this to your work: instead of pushing the shoulder of the second side into the turn (which often spoils the balance by sending too much weight in one direction) reach out of the arm on the supporting side to make and maintain a muscular connection between the upper and lower body, as well as keep your weight off the heel. Once you've learned to pirouette with the arms in second position—like a birds wings energetically soaring—you can start moving the arms to other positions.
Eventually, to increase speed for multiple turns one can practice pulling the arms in closer to the axis, which decreases the moment of inertia and increases velocity (as one goes down the other goes up to conserve angular momentum). This action, however, is a trick for increasing speed after you've already set a turn in motion, not the the technique for starting the turn.
Sara Mearns performing Walpurgisnacht. Movement with opposition creates equilibrium.
In a 2020 interview with Georgia Canning, Finis Jhung tells stories from his life in ballet.
Click the image in this section to visit the Balanced Ballerinas Podcast on Spotify and iTunes, then find Episode #42.
The podcast celebrates grace and grit, and is always worth a listen.
"Providing space and content for people from all walks of life to experience and enjoy the many benefits of ballet"
—Georgia Canning, writer, podcaster, entrepreneur, ballet teacher and founder of Balanced Ballerinas