Nearly all dance teachers will agree that the barre work is an integral part of ballet practice. However, what many teachers don’t agree on is whether it’s better to do the same set barre work every week or different combinations.
This very topic got lots of attention in the forum Ballet Talk For Dancers, where one user asked whether other members preferred a set barre with little variation, a few different set barres that are alternated or different combinations done in each class. Many members were vocal about their preferences – read on for a breakdown of the debate.
The set barre, or the repetition of the same barre movements in every class, is found in several major ballet teaching methods such as the Cecchetti, Paris Opera School and Bournonville methods, the book, “The Ballet Companion,” noted. The advantage of this old-school approach is that heavy repetition of the same movements helps dancers focus on improving technique, isolate problem areas and improve their muscle memory. As the book mentioned, it also saves time in class because the teacher does not need to use up time explaining a new combination. A set barre can also be especially helpful for beginner students, with one forum user noting that it helps her novice students gain a sense of mastery before moving on to more advanced movements.
In the Ballet Talk forum, though, a common complain against set barres was that it’s very easy for dancers to get bored doing the same movements over and over again. Which leads to the alternative …
Foregoing the repetition of set barres, some dance teachers adopt the combinations approach, in which they always teach a new series of movements at the barre each class. The major advantage of this method is that it helps dancers learn how to pick up new combinations quickly, making them better equipped to quickly grasp new choreography. As Dance Advantage noted in its article on memorizing ballet combinations, dancers need to be able to learn and perform ballet combinations practically at the same time, and a varied barre helps develop this skill.
Combination barre strengthens the “muscles of the mind,” according to “The Ballet Companion.” As author Eliza Gaynor Minden wrote:
“Picking up combinations quickly and adapting to different styles require versatility and overall mental agility, both of which develop better when challenged by variety and the occasional “brain twister” combination that moves in irregular patterns or rhythms.”
In the Ballet Talk forum, the consensus was that a mix of set barre and combination barre was the best option. Teaching a set barre but changing it every couple of weeks or so still helps students flex their quick-learning muscles while allowing them to focus on technique simultaneously. Dancers don’t get bored, their minds and muscles continue to be challenged and correct technique is still prioritized.
What do you think – is set barre, combination barre work or a mix the most effective teaching method? Let us know in the comments.
For new dancers and their parents, ballet terminology can be a bit intimidating. Many of the names for moves and positions are in French – and there’s so many of them! If you or your child’s first dance class has your heads spinning, don’t stress any longer. Read on for a overview of the basic ballet moves in clear English. Don’t worry – you’ll be an expert soon!
The Basic Positions
The five basic positions form the foundation of ballet. They affect how dancers begin and end their leaps, spins, jumps – basically everything! First position is when a dancer stands with her heels touching and both feet turned away from each other – as close to horizontally as possible. For second position, the heels are placed about should-width apart, and the heels are still facing straight out to either side.
Things get a little different with the third, fourth and fifth positions. Third position is when one foot is placed in front of the other, with the midpoint or arch of the back foot touching the heel of the front foot. Fourth position is similar to third, but the front foot is moved forward so the feet are no longer touching at the heel and arch. And finally, fifth position is when the front foot is slid back so that the toes of the back foot touch the heel of the front foot.
It sounds confusing, but it’s easy to grasp after seeing the positions demonstrated a few times. Also, as the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre notes, third position is not very commonly used these days, since the heavy turnout of modern dancers makes it look confusing similar to fifth position.
Turnout is not a move, but it is a basic concept essential to understanding ballet. Turnout is when the legs are rotated from the hips so that both the feet and knees are turned outward. It involves a high degree of flexibility and should be used to do nearly all ballet moves.
Developpé is when the knee is raised up to the hips, followed by an extension of the leg so that it is held in the air. A dancer can developpé to hip-height, or if they have the requisite flexibility, extend they leg to reach above their head.
Jeté means “throwing” or “thrown,” explained Ballet Hub, and is when a dancer leaps forward, leading with one leg, and then lands on the other leg. There are many variations of jetés, some small and quick, some big and dramatic.
Ever been mesmerized by a dancer spinning around and around like a top? What you’re seeing is a fouetté. This move is when the dancer does a pirouette with one leg raised out to the side.
Another essential ballet movement, a plié is when both knees are bent as a dancer lowers her hips. They can be done in various positions, frequently at the barre.
Ballet has a rich history that goes back hundreds of years and spans various continents and countries. As a result, the has undergone many modifications as dancers and teachers incorporated new styles of ballet and techniques into their practice.
Years of experimentation and artistic inspiration have established various ballet styles that each have special characteristics and trademarks. Here’s an overview of the major styles of ballet.
Classical ballet is the most well-known and popular style of ballet. Its origins go back to the Renaissance courts of Louis XIV, explained Les Grand Ballets, and still adheres to traditional ballet technique. Classical ballet emphasizes elegant, graceful lines, heavy turnout of the legs and fluid, smooth movements. Perhaps the most famous of all classical ballets is “Swan Lake.”
The Romantic ballet style prioritizes emotion, drama and strong story-telling. Romantic ballet is not just about the technical or athletic feats of movement that dancers can achieve, but how movement can be used to tell a compelling narrative and connect with the emotions of the audience. According to California Ballet:
“The basic subjects of the Romantic ballets came from the perceived conflicts between beauty and ugliness, good and evil, spirit and flesh realism and fantasy.”
Dance Magazine describes the contemporary ballet style as “anchored in the old, hungry for the new.” It’s all about experimentation and creativity, drawing freely from other dance styles like jazz and modern. The focus is not on narrative or telling a story, but on prompting the audience to think about the power of movement and what aesthetic the lines of the body can convey. As choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa told the magazine:
“With contemporary ballet, you turn the room. The audience is asked to look at what is happening between the dancers.”
Neoclassical ballet is synonymous with the work of George Balanchine, an incredibly influential choreographer who created the Balanchine method, which is the most widely taught ballet method in the U.S. It is a 20th-century creation, Pittsburgh Dance Theatre explained, and emphasizes athleticism, speed and impressive technical feats. This style largely rejects elaborate costumes, sets or intricate stories to for a simpler design that places the focus on the dancers themselves. Neoclassical ballet pushes boundaries while still prioritizing technical skill and perfection.
If you need to get a lively conversation going at a party full of dancers and dance teachers, ask them which ballet method they think is the best. Ballet methods are different teaching styles or schools of ballet that have developed around the world since ballet’s inception in the 15th century. Each method has unique characteristics that define it and special characteristics in the manner it’s taught to students.
Read on to learn about the main methods of ballet – and to make sure you can hold your own in that dinner party conversation.
The Balanchine method is also known as the American method. It was invented by George Balanchine, an esteemed choreographer who immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in the 1930s, Juliette Dupre of the blog Ballet Scoop explained. Together with Lincoln Kirstein, Balanchine opened the School of American Ballet in 1934.
Younger in age than the other main ballet methods, Balanchine’s style is full of energy and vitality. While Balanchine took initial inspiration from the traditional Russian method, he rejected classical stiffness for jazzy, athletic movements, breathtaking speed and dizzying height. Every movement is pointed, emphatic and performed with the utmost expression and force. As Dupre wrote:
“Even a simple port de corp devant was not to be considered a stretch but a fully artistic movement where the aesthetic of the body’s journey through space was the most important thing.”
Consequently, the Balanchine method is considered neoclassical ballet. The modern and fresh approach to movement in the Balanchine method is expressed in other aspects of ballet performance as well. It rejects flouncy and frilly costumes for clean leotards, and scrapped fancy sets for simple backgrounds so that the focus is on the dancers, Ballet In You explained.
The French School
Where the Balanchine method is modern, the French School goes back. Way back – to the courts of Louis XIV in the late 16th century. In 1713, the Ecole de Danse de l’Opera was opened and was the teaching grounds of some of ballet’s greatest masters, according to the American Ballet Theatre.
While the French school traces its influences back centuries, it came into its own under the leadership of Rudolf Nureyev, who was director of the Paris Opera Ballet in the 80s. The French School is a classical ballet style that emphasizes elegant lines, fluidity and graceful dancing along with technical precision. The French school’s true trademark is the petite batterie – a prime example of the method’s emphasis on quick, precise footwork, according to DanceSpirit magazine.
Created by Italian Enrico Cecchetti, the Cecchetti method was invented as a way to teach ballet to new generations, ABT explained. Cecchitti meant business – his teaching method involves eight intense stages of training and includes strict repetition and routines.
The rigid and regimented teaching style is a result of Cecchetti’s scientific attitude toward ballet and the idea that jetes and arabesques don’t just involve one part of the body, but the body as a whole, according to Ballet In You. Technical skill is tantamount, and Cecchetti dancers must practice the same movements over and over again daily. The goal is that heavy repetition, dedicated focus and steady discipline will create dancers that can withstand – and thrive in the face of – the harsh demands of ballet.
The English Style is also known as the Royal Academy of Dance. It was pioneered in 1920 and is a blend of the French, Italian, Danish and Russian methods, explained Dance Informa magazine. The Royal Academy of Dance is also an international dance examination standard. For English-Style-dancers, the focus is on the details and getting each and every movement exactly, with an emphasis on perfecting the basics. Progress is ultimately slow for dancers taught in the RAD method, and it takes countless hours of practicing even the smallest movement to be able to move on to the next stage.
“The most famous of all Russian styles is the Vaganova Method.”
Of course, no discussion of ballet methods would be complete without the Russians. This school was formed from a blend of influences. French dancer Jean-Baptiste Landé is credited as its creator, while ABT noted that Italian ballerina Virginia Zucchi had an incredible influence on the Russian School when she performed in St. Petersburg in the late 1800s, along with Enrico Cecchetti, who also spent some time in Russia. Other ballet masters also influenced the Russian Method, including the legendary Marius Petipa.
However, the most famous of all Russian styles is the Vaganova Method. It was developed by Agrippina Vaganova, a Russian ballet dancer with the Marinsky Ballet who retired early to devote her time to teaching, explained Dance Informa. Defining characteristics of the Vaganova method include precise, crisp and strong movements that are still artistic and expressive. The Vaganova method is one of the most popular methods used in Russia today.
When performed correctly, the développé is absolutely mesmerizing – just see how long you watch this gif of Maria Kochetkova. Many dancers, though, struggle with the développé, and instead of being a source of beauty and grace, the move is a source of constant frustration. Every dance teacher has likely heard some of their students complain about their dancer flexibility and the développé.
Kochetkova makes the move look easy, but the développé requires several complex muscle groups to work together in perfect harmony. If just one group is underdeveloped, then the movement is failed from the start. A dancer can be able to do the oversplits with ease but lack the core strength to hold her leg over her head, while a dancer with flexible hips that allow for a wide range of movement can have underdeveloped hamstrings that prevent them from holding her leg in a straight line.
The key to stunning développé extension is thoroughly conditioning all the muscle groups that are involved in the move. Here are four ways that dance teachers can help their students improve their développé extension.
1. Work the Iliopsoas
Everyone’s heard of the hamstrings and hip flexors, but not many people are familiar specifically with the iliopsoas. Which is a real shame, because it’s absolutely vital to sky-high développé.
As Nichelle explained in a very informative article for Dance Advantage, the iliopsoas is the group of muscles that enables the leg to move higher than 90 degrees. For many dancers that are incredibly flexible but unable to lift their legs to their heads, an underdeveloped iliopsoas may be to blame. However, they usually aren’t even aware that this is the problem.
Deb Vogel, a neuromuscular educator, shared several exercises for strengthening the iliopsoas that dance teachers should have their students do.
First, sit up straight on a chair, without your back touching, with both feet on the ground. Keeping your pelvis strong and centered, lift one knee up toward the ceiling, then lower it down so your toes touch the floor. Lift your knee back up, and repeat the movement 20 times for each leg.
Sounds easy, but isolating the iliopsoas like that is a real workout. When your students can do this exercise with ease, have them try this next movement:
Sit in a chair with your back leaning against the back of the chair, and bend one leg at the knee while holding the other leg straight. Keeping the extended leg a little turned out, raise it as high as possible and then lower it back down so it’s even with the other knee. Repeat this movement 20 times, then do it on the other leg.
Vogel advised that dancers follow these exercises, or any other ones that focus on the iliopsoas, with lunge stretches. With these two exercises, it won’t take long to strengthen this important muscle.
2. Strengthen the Core
Dancer flexibility gets much of the attention when it comes to working développés, but core strength is also very vital. A strong core supports all the movements of the développé and ensures that the leg can be held up high while the hips and standing leg are stable. Strong abdominals allow the leg to be held up, but as The Dance Training Project explained, they’re also necessary to keep your spine straight, centered and stable. If you spine is not in a neutral position, then the pelvic alignment will be off, which prevents maximum leg extension.
However, contrary to popular belief, crunches are not the answer for a stronger core, according to The Dance Training Project. Making repetitive concentric contractions – like sit-ups – aren’t effective for building the core strength that dancers need. Instead, dancers should focus on exercises that lengthen the abs and other core muscles – known as eccentric training – so that dancers can achieve a greater range of motion. Planks and abdominal roll-out exercises will provide an eccentric workout, but The Dance Training Project put together a PDF that includes great eccentric core exercises for dancers.
3. Embrace the Floor Barre
Practicing floor barre is also a fantastic way to improve développé extension. Dame Lucette Aldous, a ballerina in the Nureyev rendition of Don Quixote, told Dance Australia how she teaches the Boris Kniaseff method of floor barre to improve her students’ développé.
According to the source, floor barre helps increase overall strength, improve body positioning and posture and even boost circulation, which helps expand range of movement.
“When joints are moving, it sends synovial fluid into the joints – it’s like you’re lubricating those joints,” said Aldous in an interview with Dance Australia.
There are different floor bar techniques for dance teachers to explore. Dance Advantage put together a great guide to the different methods here, including the Boris Kniaseff and Maria Fay techniques.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct the description of the iliopsoas.
A dancer relies on her feet, and it takes care and practice through foot stretches for dancers to make sure your feet are at the top of their game. Strong, flexible feet provide the foundation upon which other moves are done – weak feet, and you’re going to have a hard time dancing confidently and fluidly.
Whether you think you have flat feet or arches that need a little more oomph, there are lots of stretches you can do to strengthen your feet and make them more flexible. However, it’s important to be familiar with safe stretching practices and the movements that you should avoid. Stretching too much – or the wrong way – can backfire on you and cause serious damage.
Read on to learn more about stretching your feet.
Popular Foot Stretches for Dancers
There are several different ways that the feet can be stretched. One way is manually – the dancer herself uses her hands to bend her toes and arches to extend their stretch. Resistance bands, such as the Theraband, are also popular. Another way is to have your friend stretch your feet or – as you have probably heard before – to stretch your feet under a piano, door or couch. These last two methods – having a friend stretch you and using an object to stretch – are not recommended, as they can pose serious damage to your feet.
BalletHub explained that these two types of stretches put additional stress on the body. By putting your feet underneath a heavy object, you put extreme pressure on your knee, heel and leg muscles, making more prone to injury. For similar reasons, having a friend stretch out your foot is not recommended, either. Your friend isn’t you, so they don’t know how much pressure is too much – and if they do stretch your foot too far, by the time you notice the damage may already be done.
Stretching your feet yourself, without the use of heavy objects for leverage, and using a band are safer ways of stretching your feet. However, you should still take caution and gently stretch the feet, since it’s very easy to overwork them.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Stretching your feet once or twice a week is not going to get you anywhere. The key to effective foot stretching is consistency and a healthy dose of discipline. The author of the blog Ballet Heart described how she saw great improvement from stretching her feet three times a day, every day for four years. She writes that she can’t imagine how many hours have been spent stretching her feet, and that “It probably adds up to at least a week straight.”
Consistent stretching multiple times a day will garner the most results. Just be sure to gradually increase the intensity of your stretch, avoid stretching until it hurts and be careful not to overwork yourself.
Simple Foot Stretches for Dancers
There are plenty of simple stretches you can do to work your feet. The blog Live On Pointe recommended pointing and flexing your feet using a Theraband for resistance, along with doing relevés on each leg.
BalletHub advised doing the “Wrap n’ Push” to improve the feet. You sit on the floor, bend one leg over the other and stretch your feet through several movements using your hands. See their step-by-step guide to the stretch here.
It’s normal to feel a little overwhelmed going into your first ballet class. The plethora of poses and positions to learn might have your head spinning, especially since many of their names are in French. But with practice and time you’ll soon be fluent in the language of ballet. And it’s always helpful to have an easy guide with ballet terms for beginners.
To get you started with confidence, here’s an overview of some common terms first-time ballerinas will need to know:
The Five Basic Positions
Understanding the basic positions is a great place to start when beginning your practice, since they make up the building blocks of ballet. As BalletHub noted:
“The five basic positions are usually one of the first things taught in a beginner’s ballet class but are essential to the technique of classical ballet as practically every step begins and ends in one of the five basic positions.”
The basic positions concern the placement of the feet and are aptly named: first position, second position, third position, fourth position and fifth position.
First position: The heels are together with the toes of each foot pointed out toward either side, with legs straight and turned out, following the position of the feet.
Second position: Legs are straight and the feet are turned out to each side like in first position, but the difference is that the heels do not touch and are instead about hip-width apart.
Third position: This position is rarely used, since it can be mistaken for a sloppy first or fifth position, BalletHub noted, but it is still important to learn. Begin in first position, and then slide the heel of one foot so it lines up with the middle of the other foot, keeping both feet pointing out in opposite directions.
Fourth position: Stand with one foot about a foot’s length in front of your other foot. Each foot should be pointing in an opposite direction, and the toes of the back foot should line up with the heel of the front foot.
Fifth position: This position is the most difficult one. It’s like fourth position, but there is no gap between your feet. The toes of each foot should be directly in front of the heel of the other foot, and make sure your legs are turned out and straight.
Adagio is a series of fluid and focused exercises that are performed slowly in order to improve dancers’ balance, strength and lines. It also refers to the opening sequence of a two-person dance that includes one partner lifting the other.
Allégro means fast, brisk and energetic movements and is associated with jumps.
An arabesque is when the dancer stands on one leg with the other leg extended behind the body. The arms can be held in a variety of positions. Regardless, the goal of the arabesque is to create as smooth seamless a line as possible with the body, from the shoulders through the arms and down to the toes of the extended leg.
This is the wooden bar attached to the walls of the classroom, though some barres stand on their own. The dancer holds onto the barre for support, and a sequence of barre exercises is part of every ballet class.
This when the leg and foot are fluidly swept across the floor from one position to another. Typically, a “battement tendu” starts from first or fifth position, the leg is extended in the motion, and then it returns to the starting position. The leg should be straight and fully extended so that the foot only brushes the ground during the movement. BalletHub noted that many teachers refer to the move as just “tendu.”
When a dancer begins in fifth position, jumps up in place and then switches the position of their feet while in the air so that they land in fifth position with the opposite foot now in front.
“En pointe” is when you dance on the very tips of your toes. Pointe shoes, typically made of satin, are used to achieve this. Students begin dancing en pointe only after they have advanced to a higher skill level, Learntodance.com noted. However, on their way to dancing en pointe, students will practice moves and positions in demi-pointe, which is when a dancer stands on the balls of their feet.
Pas de Deux
Pas de deux means “a dance for two people,” and is sometimes shortened to “pas.”
A pirouette is a 360 degree spin made on one foot that is en pointe or demi-pointe, and is frequently begun from fourth position. The move requires strong core alignment and balance, and, as Balletdancersguide.com stated, “are the mastering ballet move which every dancer is undoubtedly always trying to figure out how to improve.”
Plié means “bent” or “bending,” and is when one or both knees are bent while legs and feet remain turned out, and are done in first, second, fourth and fifth positions. There are two main types of pliés, demi and grand, which George Mason University’s dance department defined as follows:
Demi: This is a small bend of the knees while heels are on the floor which creates a diamond shape.
Grand: A large bend of the knees during which heels are raised off the ground in a motion that mimics a “frog stretch.”
“There are two main types of pliés: demi and grand.”
Ronde de Jambe
Rond de jambe means “round of the leg.” It is when the dancer rests on one leg and makes a circular movement with the other leg. It may be done “à terre,” which means the circle is made while the foot is touching the ground, or “en l’air,” which means the circle is made in the air.
Sauté means “jump,” and is frequently used in combination with other moves to signify that they should be done with a jump, Learntodance.com explained. The source gave the example of sauté arabesque, which would mean to jump in the arabesque position.
Imagine for a moment that you are at Paris’ glittering grand opera house in 1832 to see the new ballet everyone’s talking about, “La Sylphide.” The red velvet curtain rises and to your amazement you watch dancers in ethereal white dresses gracefully twirl across the stage. They seem to defy gravity as they leap and float through the air. For the first time ever, you see a woman center stage, leading the group. And what’s that – they’re dancing on the tips of their toes! You’ve never seen anything like it, but one thing’s for certain – you’re witnessing the dawn of classical ballet.
Modern ballerinas are following in the footsteps of a long and time-honored tradition. Every position they assume, every jeté and rond de jambe they make has been honed over centuries. Today, we perform the same ballets in exactly the same way as they were performed hundreds of years ago.
We could go all the way back to the beginning of dance, but that’s a story for another time. Let’s jump ahead a bit to the 17th century, when “court ballets” held for royalty and the aristocracy were all the rage. As ballet grew in popularity, operas began incorporating it into their productions, to the delight of audiences. But, bigger things were on the horizon. In the 18th century, ballets began being performed on their own, with choreography and music that told dramatic stories.
The next century ushered in the Romantic Era. This saw the creation of ballets like “La Sylphide” that featured enthralling stories about the supernatural. This era was also when the tutu and dancing en pointe were introduced. The skills were harder, the choreography was more demanding and the ballerinas were finally being taken seriously as professionals.
Classical ballet really came into its own in the late 19th century in Russia. The two main reasons for the emergence of the classical style were that a new version of the pointe shoe was created, which enabled ballerinas to perform faster and more difficult moves, and that the rise of complex narrative music spurred choreographers to try to make dances that went along with them, “A Dance Through the Ages” explained. As the source stated:
“During this era of ballet, there was more collaboration between the musicians and the choreographers. The choreographers created the libretto which is the story or narrative idea and they choreographed the dance to go along with it. They then shared this with the musicians who wrote the score to go along with the story. A lot of classical dances were composed of four main parts: the adage, the female variation, the male variation and the grand allegro. Each part gave everyone involved in the production a chance to really show off their talent and skills.”
Most responsible for the rise of classical ballet as a genre was Marius Petipa, “the father of classical ballet” and possibly the most influential ballet teacher in history, as A Dance Through the Ages asserted. He put together choreography that was more intricate and performances that were more dramatic than audiences had ever seen before. He created “The Nutcracker” (or rather, the libretto), “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty”, and some versions of these ballets are still performed in the same way they were put on centuries ago. Tutus also became shorter around this time so that audiences could better see the ballerina’s impressive footwork and leg movements, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre explained.
Classical ballet emphasizes fluid, graceful movements and long lines, along with strict adherence to correct form and technique, especially turn-out of the legs. There’s also a focus on narrative and storytelling achieved through dramatic visuals and complex choreography.
Classical ballet may be best represented by Swan Lake. While it’s likely the most well-known and beloved ballet in the world, it was actually a bit too avant-garde for audiences back when it premiered in 1877. According to the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet, Swan Lake was “not well received with near unanimous criticism concerning the dancers, orchestra, and décor.” Audiences even disliked Tchaikovsky’s now-classic score, calling it too complex. So, with the help of Imperial Ballet master Lev Ivanov, Petipa retooled the ballet and things began looking up. Audiences were particularly charmed by Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani, who played Odette between 1894 and 1895. She turned 32 fouettes in the final scene of the ballet – the most ever performed at the time! Critics and audiences warmed up to the ballet, and well, the rest is history.
Remarkably, we’re still performing the same skills, choreography and productions as ballerinas did a couple hundred years ago. So the next time you step into class or take to the stage, think about how exciting it is to play your part in bringing the tradition of classical ballet into the future.
If you’ve grown up in the dance world, you’ve most likely experienced the phenomenon that is The Nutcracker in some way. You’ve either danced in it as a mouse, party guest or snowflake, or maybe even as a coveted role such as Clara or the Sugar Plum Fairy. If you haven’t danced in it yourself, there’s a good chance you’ve attended an annual performance of the ballet as part of Christmas festivities.
Even those who have not seen the ballet are bombarded with the famous Tchaikovsky score in virtually every mall and restaurant throughout the season. The Nutcracker is everywhere during the holidays in the U.S., and if the “Soldier’s March” or the “Dance of The Sugar Plum Fairy,” isn’t stuck in your head yet, it probably will be!
The Nutcracker is based on the story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816. Hoffman’s story is a dark, complicated one, and was adapted by Alexandre Dumas (writer of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo) in 1844 into the more family-friendly version we know today.
The story of The Nutcracker can vary from production to production, but the basic plot is as follows:
A girl, Clara (called Marie in the original story and in some productions), is at Christmas party in her home. Clara’s godfather Herr Drosselmeyer gives her a gift—an ugly wooden nutcracker doll. Her brother Fritz is jealous of the attention and breaks the doll. The doll is fixed by Drosselmeyer and that night, Clara has vivid dreams of a battle between the Mouse King (originally depicted as having seven heads) and her Nutcracker.
Clara kills the Mouse King with her shoe, and the Nutcracker transforms into a Prince (who usually looks oddly like Drosselmeyer’s nephew). Clara and the Prince travel through a land of snow to the Kingdom of the Sweets ruled by a Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. After hearing their story, the Sugar Plum Fairy invites the Sweets in her land to dance for Clara and the Prince. Clara awakens from the land of the sweets and finds herself safely back in bed.
The story is generally interpreted as a coming of age story with allusions to Clara awakening to womanhood as the Nutcracker doll transforms into her prince.
Dumas’ adaptation was set to music as part of a commissioned work by acclaimed composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The libretto (the storyline and stage directions, in layman’s terms) was created by Marius Petipa, ballet master and choreographer of The St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre, and though he is often given credit for the choreography as well, it was likely his talented assistant Lev Ivanov who actually choreographed the original performance.
The ballet premiered on December 18, 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg (along with Tchaikovsky’s last opera, Lolanta). The ballet was not deemed a success, with the dancers receiving mixed reviews and the choreography and libretto also attracting criticism. The musical score received higher praise, however, and a selection of music extracted from the larger work by Tchaikovsky, known as The Nutcracker Suite, became wildly popular. It would be almost another century before the ballet itself saw such success.
Popularity in the U.S.
The ballet’s first complete performance outside Russia finally occurred in England in 1934. The Nutcracker had its U.S. premiere in 1940 with an abridged Ballet Russe staging of The Nutcracker in New York. In 1944, the first performance by an American company was staged by the San Francisco Ballet to great success, and they continue to perform the ballet annually. The iconic choreographer George Balanchine staged his own grand production on the New York City Ballet in 1954, and as the Cold War gained steam, America began to repurpose this Russian ballet as an American holiday tradition.
Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” has been delighting audiences for more than 60 years.
The Nutcracker was first broadcast on television in 1957, albeit in a severely abridged form on the CBS show Seven Lively Arts. Excerpts from the ballet began to be performed on popular television shows of the time, including The Ed Sullivan Show. Mikhail Baryshnikov’s highly popular American Ballet Theatre version was first broadcast in 1977, and remains the most popular televised version of The Nutcracker in the U.S. to this day.
Baryshnikov, along with Gelsey Kirkland, dances in his famous 1977 ABT “Nutcracker.”
Bolstered by popular stage productions by major companies and a consistent presence on television, the tradition of performing the ballet at Christmas has spread across the U.S. Today, The Nutcracker is performed by countless ballet companies and schools across the country, and major American ballet companies generate around 40 percent of their annual ticket revenues from performances of this enduring favorite. It is now widely considered the most popular ballet in the world.
The Nutcracker story is relatively simple and open to interpretation. Over the years, the ballet has been adapted to various times and places in history, updated to match contemporary audiences, altered to include different dance genres, edited to include new variations on the storyline, and more. The San Francisco Ballet imbues a local flavor to its Nutcracker.
A 1991 version, The Hard Nut by Mark Morris, reintroduces the original Hoffmann story, but sets it in the 1970s in a world imagined by comic artist Charles Burns. The Hip Hop Nutcracker marries a modern dance form with Tchaikovsky’s enduring score. There’s even been Mutt-cracker productions that incorporates dogs!
“The Hip Hop Nutcracker” debuted in 2014 to rave reviews.
Popularity With Dance Organizations
In addition to its flexibility, part of the beauty of The Nutcracker is its accessibility to a wide array of audiences. It is a relatively short ballet, with only two acts, and the incredible Tchaikovsky score is an easy one for audiences to love. The ballet is teeming with roles for children, and is a favorable way to involve every student in a dance studio; or for a professional company, the community at large.
For many dance students, as well as the family members and friends that come to see them perform, the production is an introduction into the wider world of ballet. The accessibility, popularity, and general commercial viability of The Nutcracker translate into hundreds of performances by studios and companies around the country every year.
The recent film “Getting to the Nutcracker” highlighted the powerful role “The Nutcracker” often plays in introducing children to dance.
Cultural Significance in the U.S.
In the U.S., The Nutcracker has become deeply embedded in the minds of many people as a Christmas tradition and magical childhood experience. It is more than a cultural touchstone, however. The earliest stateside productions struck a chord with audiences and provided them with an introduction to classical ballet. Balanchine worked closely with The Ford Foundation to produce lecture demonstrations and related educational programming to promote ballet to youngsters in the late 1950’s.
This along with generous donations of his choreography to regional companies, further cemented the art form of classical ballet in America. In the 1960’s and 70’s the popularity of The Nutcracker and the roster of international stars who danced the iconic roles of Clara and her Nutcracker Prince helped fuel the popularity of classical ballet in the U.S. Indeed, the world of American ballet owes much to The Nutcracker, and the American ballet companies that continue to revive it and maintain its cultural relevance.
The Nutcracker ultimately endeared itself to the American public, earning itself a place in the collective cultural consciousness, becoming a rite of passage for young dancers, and solidifying the world of classical ballet in the U.S. for decades to come.
Pointe classes are something that shouldn’t be started without the go ahead of an experienced teacher, and only when a dancer is developmentally ready, strong enough and well-versed in foundational technique. When you do get the go-ahead to enroll in pointe or pre-pointe class, you’ll likely be chomping at the bit to put on those silky pink shoes and start pirouetting like the pros. Starting pointe class is a big step for any aspiring ballerina, but it’s not something to be taken lightly. Being prepared both mentally and physically is key to making the most of your first pointe classes, so here are some things first-time students should keep in mind as their initial class approaches.
“Your pointe shoes must match the size and shape of your feet.”
Respect the Pointe Shoes
There’s a lot more to pointe shoes than meets the eye. Think about it this way: Every dancer’s feet are different, so pointe shoes need to be chosen carefully. When you’re dancing in them, you’ll be resting your whole body weight on your toes, so it’s essential that the shoes conform to the shape of your foot as closely as possible. When you go for your pointe shoe fitting, the salesperson will help you determine the best shoe type for your feet, whether it’s a square box, a tapered box or some variation in between.
The video below, from the New York City Ballet, shows just how specific pointe shoe measurements are for professional ballerinas – plus, it shows some great clips of Megan Fairchild in action.
Fit isn’t the only thing you need to think about when it comes to pointe shoes. You’ll also need to learn how to properly sew your shoes, and you’ll want to decide what supplementary materials you need to comfortable dance in them. For example, some ballerinas choose to tape their toes, while others prefer to use toe pads as cushioning. There’s no “wrong” or “right” way to wear your shoes – it’s all about how you’re most comfortable.
Your First Pointe Class
When it’s time for your first pointe class, you’ll probably want to immediately do chaînés and grand jetés across the floor. Not so fast, though! The first thing you’ll learn is how to properly don and tie your pointe shoes. Chances are that you’ve been prancing around your house in your shoes, but you should pay careful attention to your teacher’s instructions. You could cause serious damage to your body if you don’t wear your shoes properly.
You also won’t be set free to prance around the studio either. During your first class, you’ll likely work off-pointe to improve your foot strength and mobility. If you do get to try some exercises in your shoes, your teacher will have you start slowly at the barre. Be patient, as the instructor will likely need to give students individual attention to correct their posture, stance and foot position.
As you probably realize, dancing on pointe is a whole new challenge for your feet. It may be uncomfortable for the first few classes, and you’ll likely have some blisters or sore spots after your first few classes. Michele Wiles, former principle dancer with the American Ballet Theater, explained to Capezio that her biggest challenge when starting pointe was balancing out her skills on each leg.
“I remember really noticing differences in my right and left foot,” Wiles explained. “The left foot was strong and able to do fouette turns from the very first class, but it didn’t look as flexible as the right. My right foot wasn’t as strong. The hardest part was dealing with these differences and the blister pain.”
It just goes to show that no one is automatically a natural. Even some of the most talented dancers had to overcome the challenges of pointe before they excelled, so be patient with yourself and stick with it! The efforts will pay off in the end.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include more accurate ballet terminology.
Few dancers are given the opportunity to bring an iconic piece of artwork to life, never mind when they’re just 25 years old. However, Tiler Peck, a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, is doing just that as she stars in the new Little Dancer musical, which is based off the amazing 17th-century sculpture by Edgar Degas. The show, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, is playing at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through Nov. 30, 2014.
‘Little Dancer Age Fourteen’
In 1878, Edgar Degas began his iconic wax sculpture, “Little Dancer Age Fourteen,” based on the young ballerina Marie van Goethem. Degas began painting dancers after becoming fascinated by the backstage life of the Paris Opera. His work culminated with a diminutive wax dancer who’s dressed in a tutu and slippers and adorned with real human hair.
Artnet Magazine explained that the piece was met with mixed reviews by Degas’s peers, as it was unprecedented to use non-art materials in sculpture. However, the statute and its model, the young Goethem, have inspired dancers and artists since, including Lynn Ahrens, the playwright behind the new musical.
“I began to see a story emerging about an artist who was beginning to go blind, who was frightened that he was losing his power to paint,” Ahrens explained to NPR. “Into his life, somehow, walks a little girl who inspires him in some way, because she is such an urchin, such a spirit and a stubborn soul, and he begins to sketch her and suddenly decides that he wants to sculpt.”
Ahrens shaped the Little Dancer musical into a show that explores Goethem’s relationship with Degas as it relates to the struggle of young women in Paris at the time. The young ballerina was born into poverty but worked hard to secure a spot with the Paris Ballet company.
Tiler Peck as Goethem
Tiler Peck was cast to play the young ballerina, opposite actor Boyd Gaines as Degas. According to the NYC Ballet, Peck has been dancing since she was 7. She joined the School of American Ballet at age 12 and became an apprentice with the company just four years later. Outside the Lincoln Center, Peck has also performed in “The Music Man” on Broadway, danced in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and starred in several major films. It’s an impressive resume for a dancer whose career has just begun.
According the Associated Press, Peck is just as dedicated to this musical as she has been to her previous projects. She’s visited the sculpture, which is located at the National Gallery of Art, a number of times to get in character.
“I want to make sure I get it as perfectly as possible and to be as true to the sculpture as I can,” Peck told the AP. “To be able to see exactly how her hands are clasped and what her hair looked like, where the ribbon was placed.”
Peck described the role as “emotionally exhausting,” as Goethem struggled to overcome many barriers before she made it as a ballerina. Looking at the dancer’s back story, it’s no wonder that Degas was inspired to immortalize her.
If you’re located in the District of Columbia or a nearby state, your dancers might enjoy the opportunity to see Peck bring the Little Dancer musical to life. If you can’t make the play, the National Gallery of Art is hosting an exhibition featuring the original statue and a number of related pieces through Jan. 11, 2015.
Images of Tiler Peck in the role of the Kennedy Center’s “Little Dancer” by Matthew Karas. Used with permission.
The conclusion of “La Sonnambula” by the New York City Ballet on Oct. 18, 2014, was much more than your average closing night. It was also the farewell performance of Wendy Whelan, an awe-inspiring ballerina who danced with the company for 30 years. However, Whelan’s departure from the NYC Ballet is by no means the end of her career, but it does bring to light the struggles that professional dancers face after retirement.
The Rise of a Star
Wendy Whelan, who was born and raised in Kentucky, began training as a professional ballerina at age 8. Her first performance was as a mouse in the Louisville Ballet’s production of the beloved classic, “The Nutcracker.” Her modest start is proof to all dance students that no one immediately puts on pointe shoes and steps into the limelight. It’s a journey that relies on hard work and dedication.
In 1981, Whelan got her big break when she received a scholarship to attend a summer course at the School of American Ballet. Within a year, she was a full-time student at the school, and in 1984, Whelan became an apprentice with the NYC Ballet. Slowly, but surely, she climbed through the company’s ranks. She achieved the title of principal dancer during the 1991 spring season.
During her career, Whelan performed as a guest artist with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden and the Maryinsky Ballet. She also originated several roles in pieces by Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky and more.
Life After Ballet
Unfortunately, Whelan sustained a serious injury in the fall of 2012, when she was 44 years old. According to The Atlantic magazine, she pulled her hamstring and a few months later discovered she had a labral tear in her hip. It took many months for the ballerina to recuperate and led to her eventual decision to retire from the company that had been her home for so many years.
As is the case with many professional dancers, Whelan began to worry about her financial security a few months before her farewell performance.
“We’re not supported federally at all once we leave the ballet,” Whelan told The Atlantic in March 2014. “There is no support whatsoever, financially or insurance wise for dancers in the United States.”
Dancers begin training at such a young age that their education is often put on the back burner. When they retire, usually between age 30 and 40, they have to re-enter the working world, often without a college degree or significant work experience.
Whelan told The Atlantic that she was considering becoming a dance teacher, but it looks like dance students will have to wait a few more years before learning from the legend. The NYC Ballet reports that Whelan has been appointed Artistic Associate at the New York’s City Center for the next two years. She is working with Edward Watson, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet, to develop a program that will premiere in London during the summer of 2015. The collaboration will debut in New York in 2016.
A Lesson for Students
Wendy Whelan’s story, and that of many other professional dancers, brings to light the struggle of transitioning from life on stage to that in the working world. A study from the aDvANCE Project sound that most dancers expect to perform into their 40s, but on average retire in their mid-30s. Further, 98 percent of current dancers claim they are aware of the challenges they’ll face once their career is over, but former dancers admit they weren’t prepared for the transition. Teachers molding the next generation of Wendy Whelan’s might add a little bit of reality to their lessons. Dance students should be educated about the realistic longevity of a professional career and the importance of an education in their life post-dance.
If you’re looking for a inspiring story to share with your dance students, look no further than that of Misty Copeland. The professional ballerina has gained a lot of attention in the past year, thanks to her lead role in “Swan Lake” and her powerful advertisement for Under Armour. Her story is one of determination and overcoming adversity and can be a fun teaching tool for young dancers.
‘I Will What I Want’
The world of professional dance, along with many other artistic and athletic professions, is brutally competitive and often harsh on young hopefuls. Copeland didn’t start training as a ballerina until she was 13 years old and faced a lot of rejection in her climb to the top. Her story is a great example for young athletes, as it shows that just because one coach or director tells you “no,” you can still be successful if you put your mind to it.
Copeland’s story became a viral sensation when Under Armour featured her in an advertisement. The video, which has been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube, features Copeland dancing while a rejection letter she received as a young dancer is read out loud. Copeland believes that the ad resounded with so many viewers because it addresses common experiences of rejection and perseverance.
“I think so many people can relate to it – not just as a dancer within the ballet world, but just feeling different, feeling like you don’t fit in,” Copeland told the TODAY show.
According to Copeland’s website, she overcame the obstacles that stood in her way and made history in 2007 as the first African-American soloist for the American Ballet Theatre in two decades. Dance instructors can use the Under Armour video and information from Copeland’s website to start a conversation about goals, hard work and adversity with their students.
Copeland in Print
If you want to assign your dancers a little homework, Copeland has not one, but two books about her journey as an artist. Her memoir, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” is a great read for older students. In it, she talks about growing up with five siblings in a poor household, how she got into dance and what the different struggles have been throughout her career. She also describes her career-defining performances, like working with music artist Prince and as the first African-American woman to star in “Firebird.”
“[Playing the Firebird] was one of the first really big principal roles I was ever given an opportunity to dance with American Ballet Theatre,” Copeland told NPR. “It was a huge step for the African-American community.”
This role was the inspiration for Copeland’s new children’s book, “Firebird.” The story is filled with bright, colorful illustrations that make it perfect for a class of young dancers. It addresses common issues like confidence and self-doubt. The moral of the story is that with hard work and self-assurance, young dancers can achieve any goals they set. The picture book could easily be used to calm novice students before their first big performance!
Continuing Her Growth
While Copeland is performing in Australia as the the lead in “Swan Lake,” the people in Hollywood are planning to spread her message even further. Deadline reported that filmmakers at New Line Cinema are considering making a movie based on Copeland’s memoir. The film would focus on her early years as a dancer and the struggles she faced. Copeland is definitely a star that dance professionals should keep an eye on – her story and message are both powerful teaching tools that can inspire young dancers!