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.
Revisit concepts. Explore origins.
Please study Sara Mearns working with the extraordinary teacher, Lynn Charles.
As you watch the first 20 seconds, can you see what is amiss? Even a dancer of outstanding achievement is susceptible to pitfalls of mechanical inefficiency. As I hope I have conveyed in class, if you press the floor away (and keep the toes unified with the shoe), the leg will follow to the destination. Or, as Finis often reminds, "the feet control the legs" not the other way around.
In this way, the pointed foot is not simply a shape to be imitated. It is the lingering visual evidence of having thrust the floor away.
The less discerning approach (moving the legs to lift the feet to a position) is visible in the dancing at the beginning of this video. Although Ms. Mearns' feet look impeccably shaped according to the ballet aesthetic, the lack of a crisp arrival quality and tardiness of intrinsic muscle firing made the exercise more exhausting than it needed to be.
After feedback from her eagle-eyed coach, watch how Ms. Mearns changes her engagement and takes on a brilliant clarity.
Although I wrote this to my students in 2019, a beautiful follow-up interview has appeared online in 2023. Listen to where this collaboration led this inspiring dancer and teacher and the major changes that occurred.
"It has to be science and devotion, and then it can't fail."
Alonzo King speaks on knowing and obsessing. Through devotion and one's depth of involvement in a discipline, it starts to reveal its secrets.
"There is also a component which is scientific, which works together, so it can't be just one..."
Below are a few of the outstanding accompanists whose piano recordings add richness to our classes.
If poignant music has ever brought a tear to your eye while moving in one of my Zoom classes, chances are good you were hearing Stephen Barnes.
Stephen Barnes' music offers intricate support when teaching movement. His album Ballet Class In America Volume III is full of beautiful adagios. On days when we warm up by side-bending, twisting the spine, or spinning the arm bones to unfurl empty hands, accompaniment by by Stephen Barnes seems perfectly suited for the job.
Unlike most ballet class albums, the tracks in Ballet Class In America aren't labeled for use with specific dance steps. Instead, an experienced teacher can browse track listings to find options with the desired musical qualities. Track names describe a time signature, tempo, or a texture. Some of my most used tracks have apt names like:
Visitors to the Stephen Barnes Ballet Music website can hear samples or purchase tracks and sheet music. Beware, once you're there exploring it's easy to lose track of time.
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.
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?
Kennedy Center Honors introduction of Patricia McBride
To see the excerpts of some of the many roles Patricia McBride originated, please revisit this video broadcast of the Kennedy Center Honors. Among others, Dances at a Gathering (Robbins) is especially beautifully excerpted.
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 technique for starting the turn.
Sara Mearns performing Walpurgisnacht. Movement with opposition creates equilibrium.
"So many people feel that Balanchine just created something in his own esthetic that didn't have a tradition behind it, and it's really not true."
In this video, one of New York City Ballet's most accomplished artists discusses the ways in which people have often wrongly characterized the aesthetics and misunderstood the inner workings of George Balanchine's ballet technique.
"His method, which really and truly is the old Imperial Ballet School... It's not Vaganova, it's before Vaganova."
The Sleeping Muse, by Constantin Brâncuși.
My thanks to Stephanie Saland for eliciting the image of this smooth, elegant, modern form.
Episode #42, April 13, 2020.
In an 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.
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