By Laura Di Orio.
Becoming a professional dancer is like building a house from the ground up. You can’t start by adding the roof and interior decorations; rather, you must start by creating a solid foundation to support the structure and make it last. Similarly, a dancer must establish that foundation in technique before adding all the “tricks” and performance quality. And that foundation, according to many dance teachers and professionals in the field, is ballet.
“Because ballet has been constantly evolving for over 400 years, it has arrived at a very solid method of developing human movement potential for the stage,” says Stephen Pier, director of the Dance Division at The Hartt School of the University of Hartford, located in Connecticut.
“It’s still the most relevant technical training all around and can serve as a very effective way of organizing and developing the facility of the dancer. Most other techniques or styles have not been around that long. They are too limited to be the sole basis of training, and they haven’t worked out the science and art of dancing to the depth that ballet has.”
All of Pier’s students are required to take daily ballet class during their four years at Hartt. Ballet has proven to inform their dancing, and students have gone on to work in a vast range of professional companies – from Paul Taylor and Joffrey Ballet, to downtown contemporary and Las Vegas.
Like Pier, Dawn Hillen, master ballet teacher who currently teaches in NYC at Steps on Broadway, Broadway Dance Center and Ballet Arts, stresses the importance of ballet as a foundation of training. She says even her non-ballet-focused students have benefited. Some of her students who first started in hip-hop and found ballet later, for instance, said they felt definite improvement in their ability to change weight quickly, hit clean lines faster, focus and stay in the moment, and they became physically and mentally stronger.
“You can use ballet to refine yourself,” Hillen says. “It creates a dancer or performer who is centered, balanced, lengthened and physically graceful. Just standing up is an art form, and it is a big part of your first impression. There have been a number of pre-professionals who were not getting work, and once they added ballet training to their daily or weekly routines, they began getting callbacks and jobs.”
Ballet contributes more to a dancer than just refined technique, too. Pier says ballet also imparts skills like “attention to detail, mastery, form, harmony, precision, discipline, social grace and awareness of the group – all skills that help young people succeed in the adult world.”
In addition, Yuka Kawazu, who has been teaching ballet in NYC for 15 years at various studios, including Ballet Arts and Broadway Dance Center, says, “We learn so many things, like patience, discipline, a different language, how to breathe, and we share joyful moments with other dancers.”
For these reasons, it is probably best to introduce ballet early on in a dancer’s training, to establish these skills in his/her dance and life. “If you really have the dancer’s best interest at heart, you must offer a proper ‘diet’ of training, and ballet is a big part of that good ‘diet,’” says Pier. “Not everyone is going to like broccoli if they’re used to eating candy all the time, but you might find some great recipes for serving it more tastefully.”
Still, some students may complain that ballet is “boring” or that learning the basics of technique is “slow.” In actuality, however, ballet is rigorous and demanding and a practice that requires great physical and mental control. To change a dancer’s approach from ballet as “boring” to ballet as “interesting” or “enjoyable,” Pier suggests taking a look at that dancer’s passion. Perhaps he/she is more focused on jazz. Then how can ballet support that passion, and what does ballet have in common with that passion?
“Sometimes it’s good to show them how many successful artists in that field have studied ballet,” Pier says. “I like to point out in ballet class how different steps or phrases or movements relate to other dance techniques that I know a student is really turned on by.”
Similarly, as a teacher, Hillen says that when students come to her with the “ballet is boring” attitude, she tries to discover what they want, what they value and what drives them, and then she connects ballet to that.
“The dancer can use this same approach on themselves to link up what they love with what they may need to do that, at first, seems ‘boring’,” Hillen adds. “Ask yourself what you want and what you like and how ballet is actually a means to creating those things.”
Many of Kawazu’s students are young Broadway professionals, and she says they have all come to realize the importance of ballet training to their career. Her teenage students have performed on Broadway in Finian’s Rainbow, Mary Poppins, Billy Elliot, Beauty and the Beast, Evita, Once, The Little Mermaid and more.
Kawazu says she has had students who didn’t want to take ballet but should of in order to better their performing career. “I tell them that it’s okay to make a lot of mistakes and then they’ll learn,” she continues. “I mix between trying to make ballet fun and teaching more seriously. I would like them to feel that they can get better when they repeat the same exercises a few times. And when they hold their balance or can do the step, I see their face glow. I love that moment!”
In today’s dance world, where dancers are expected to be versatile, it probably doesn’t hurt every dancer, regardless of his/her concentration, to explore other dance forms. But it is the old tradition of ballet that seems to make the difference between dancer and professional.
“Ballet is the ‘grandmother’ of them all in the Western world,” Pier says. “This system has evolved over centuries and has survived and absorbed every fad imaginable. It has great wisdom and logic imbedded in it, which every dancer should learn about. It’s not important whether or not you think you will become a ballet dancer. It is very important, however, that you become educated about your art and respect all of its various practices and practitioners.”