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We all know that ballet technique is necessary for competition dancers and we all hear teachers and judges preaching, “More ballet classes!” But some dancers might be asking, "WHY!?” And some teachers may be thinking, “Our dancers DO take ballet!” Here, I will address common critiques I give during competition routines relative to ballet technique as well as discuss how to transfer what you learn in ballet class to other styles to make the most out of your ballet classes. Even if you are not competing a ballet routine, the fundamental technique (and discipline!) translates to other styles of dance.
Let’s start from the ground up. One major difference I see between advanced dancers and beginner dancers is the way they use their feet. Beginning level ballet classes should take plenty of time working on tendus and dégagés with proper articulation of the feet. Start slow. Break down the tendu within the combinations you give. Work up speed later. Even advanced dancers sometimes need to go back to basics of footwork and revisit the mechanics.
Three footwork-related critiques I always give are:
When stepping into chassés (in preparation for a leap for example) step with the toes first, not the heel or whole foot at once. Articulate toe, ball, heel, plié, to chassé.
While rolling on the ground - point your feet and don’t sickle! Sometimes dancers feel like they are pointing their feet all the way but they are actually over-pointing and causing them to sickle. Shape the ankles when pointing feet.
Higher relevé. This is very obvious in pirouettes, but I should see a higher relevé all the time. In addition to being all the way up on the ball of the foot, the instep of the foot should be pressed forward so the ankle is engaged, the knees should be straight, and legs long. Just a few things to think about!
The first two critiques above are fairly easy to correct. They just require awareness. The third one needs more strength building. Hold balances at the barre. If a dancer can’t hold a balance in whatever position you are having them turn in, they shouldn’t really be attempting pirouettes in that position.
The next thing to focus on in ballet classes in placement/alignment.
Pelvic alignment is really key and will help with core strength. In beginner ballet classes I refer to this as “ballerina posture” or “letter ‘I’” posture. The more the concept is driven home in basic classes, the easier it is to correct later on. Bad posture is a difficult habit to break with older dancers. Advanced dancers can grasp the concept of pelvic alignment but if their alignment does not come naturally, they will need a lot of reminders on maintaining it.
Along the lines of posture is core strength.
As teachers, we can give crunches all day but if dancers aren’t using their cores in choreography, what’s the point? Time can be taken in ballet class to talk about engaging your core during pirouettes, for example. Think of holding a plank during your pirouette—those same plank muscles are used in turns. Hopefully that sets off a light bulb!
I’m not talking about that strict ballet teacher we’ve all had. When I think of discipline, I think of being on time to class, being prepared, wearing proper dress code, and having classroom etiquette and respect for your teachers and classmates. All of these things can be taught without being that stereotypical mean ballet teacher and can be taught in fun ways with gentle and frequent reminders. Not only does this kind of discipline help in other styles of dance…it helps in LIFE! A disciplined dancer is employable. (What a great investment for parents who have their kids in dance!)
One last note, when competing ballet at competition, the key is to keep it simple. Don’t feel like you have to choreograph a million steps. Make sure to keep choreography appropriate to their ability. If the dancers don’t have the strength to hold a turned out 5th position, there is nothing wrong with keeping choreography in 1st. If they don’t have straight legs in tour jeté, replace it with a clean soutenu. As a judge, I am totally fine with seeing simple port de bras, lovely tendus, and nice formations. No need for “tricks”. Simplicity is key!
Carrie Millikin Euker is a dance instructor in the Greater Baltimore area and is the Executive & Artistic Director of the Susquehanna Youth Ballet. Carrie has performed with ballet companies such as Milwaukee Ballet, David Taylor Dance Theatre, and Missouri Contemporary Ballet.
Follow her on IG @cmeuker.