In order to solve a mystery, you need many different angles, perspectives, and ideas. Ballet training is no different. Throughout the years, I've taken classes all over New York City and California (where I grew up), with many different teachers, in many different styles. In this post, I’ll discuss what I learned from each style and how each style gave me another piece of the mystery of ballet.
While it can be tough to try new styles (it involves finding new classes, new teachers, diving into unfamiliar territory, and of course, taking away from time spent training in ballet), I've found it to be well worth the trouble.
Some of my favorite things about learning different styles
1. You can progress in other styles more quickly than ballet. So for example, it only took me a couple of semesters of tap to get to some pretty complex combinations. This allowed me to learn lessons in advanced dance before I was ready for a comparable level as a ballet dancer.
2. When working in one style for a while, you get used to knowing everything (or at least not having new stuff thrown at you every single class). When I took hip hop, I had to eat a pretty healthy dose of humble pie, as I showed up the first day of class looking pitifully stiff in my leotard, bun, and tights.
3. If you’ve been dancing for a while, chances are you’ve experienced a few ruts and plateaus over the years. Getting out of your comfort zone and seeing things from a new perspective are both important aspects to overcoming stale challenges.
4. When you do finally get back to the barre, you can feel the sweet relief of familiarity akin to coming home after a long trip, and resume your training with a newfound vigor and fresh ideas to apply to the steps.
Below are the styles I've tried, with the length of time that I tried them, and what I learned. All were in conjunction with continuous ballet training. Some were a few months in a row, and some were scattered throughout. Some were through Pace University, and others were taken around NYC at various studios offering adult dance training.
Tap dance (6 months):
It's necessary to shift your weight in order to move from one foot to the other. Now this may sound self explanatory, but in a fast tap combination, this doesn't exactly come as naturally as you'd think. You have to pull up out of your legs and move from one leg to the other in time with the rhythm. The next time I had fast degage with alternating feet or a quick complex petite allegro, you better believe this came in handy.
It’s hard to sing, clap, and tap different rhythms at the same time. The exercise brings a whole new definition to coordination, and is surprisingly a lot of fun! It really makes you appreciate when you can close your mouth and dance in silence in ballet class.
One of the things you learn in tap is that in order to make a good sound with your taps, you need to loosen your legs and ankles. If your legs and ankles are tight, the sound will have a nasal quality, not a clear sound like you want. And, if you want to get fast combinations, you definitely have to loosen up. Learning to let one body part go limp while the others work hard and fast helps in so many intricate ballet steps -- think frappé and petite battement.
Sometimes you just have to go for it. When a combination is hard, fast, or complex, you have to just loosen up your legs and go. If you get scared, you’ll tense up and then there’s no way you can move fast enough to make all the sounds. Just go for it, let go, and let your legs do what needs to be done to make the right sounds. At this speed, there's no time to correct your mistakes, so just let them be.
Jazz (9 months):
- Remembering lots of choreography. I don't know what it is about jazz combinations, but even in beginner class they always seemed much longer than beginning ballet combinations. There are a lot of details to remember as well. You get better at it with practice.
- A big skill in jazz is isolations -- isolating your hips and your rib cage separately. Hold your whole body still except for one specific area. Really valuable for gaining more body control and awareness.
- Dynamic stretching. We spent a lot of time stretching, and it was always through dynamic movement with music instead of staying in the same position. It was the first time I noticed significant improvement in my mobility. As a late dance bloomer, I didn't get a lot of stretching as a kid, so I didn't have a base of knowledge about how to stretch properly and effectively.
Pilates and MELT (3 months):
- How good a foam roller feels after a long day of dance.
- How to use the front of the hip muscles to stabilize the hips. Keep the ribcage closed and stable while moving legs and arms around. This translates almost immediately to more stability and understanding of hip placement in ballet class.
GYROKINESIS® (2 class sessions):
- Lifting the chest while keeping the ribcage closed and down. This is an important skill to be able to isolate the chest and upper back without losing core strength. It allows you to have stage presence and a visually open heart without losing your placement.
Yoga (a handful of class sessions over time):
- How much upper body strength I was lacking.
- How hard it is to be still with your body and mind. In order to balance and turn in ballet class, this is crucial. You need to be able to quiet your body and mind.
Modern (a few months):
- Throw your body within your control. Let go, swing wildly, but pull it all back in for the next step. You have to let go for it to be interesting and emotional, but learn how to pull it all back together quickly to move on to the next step.
Character (1 workshop of 3 class sessions):
- Appreciation of the steps when performed in classical ballets. Although they don't always look all that exciting on stage, after having danced them, I am able to appreciate them for how fun they are to dance. I can imagine the history behind the steps.
House dance in Finland (1 class session):
- Dance transcends verbal language. I went to a house dance class in Finland, where no one spoke English except for the girl I went with. I learned how to follow choreography from a teacher speaking a different language. It was so fun and exciting to dance with people who I had no other means of communicating with. I'm pretty sure I didn't get any of the choreography right, but it didn't matter, we were all communicating through movement.
Hip hop (3 months):
How to memorize combinations without names for the steps. In ballet, every step and detail of said step has a name. In hip hop, seemingly nothing has names. And if it has a name, it's a step or combination of steps named after someone. So I had to learn new techniques to pick up choreography that had nothing to do with words. More like grunts, movements, counts, and visualization.
Don't take yourself so seriously. Seriously. Don’t be afraid to take a risk and to look silly (ironically, the more afraid you are, the sillier you look). In ballet, you'll have to take a lot of risks -- think pointe, partnering, multiple turns.
Learn how to copy style. The movements require flare and style. Watch others who look cool, confident, and fly, and try to mimic those movements. Fake it till you make it -- and eventually you’ll figure out how to do it on your own. In ballet, you'll need to develop an artistic style, so get in the habit of trying to mimic attitude in addition to the steps.
Look the part. The first several classes, I refused to change out of my leotard and tights, because that's how I felt most comfortable. However, my moves just didn’t look that good. Finally I put on sweats, neon orange high-top converse, let my hair down, and my moves transformed. I looked the part, which allowed me to actually mimic the styles of others and receive appropriate feedback in the mirror instead of looking (and feeling) out of place.
Salsa & swing (maybe 20 sessions, over a period of years):
The joy of dancing with others. You look at the other person, and smile. It's easy to get caught up in your own dance moves, but with a partner, you need chemistry for it to be fun to watch. At the barre, a dancer can almost have a look of glazed eyes, so focused internally that they're hardly seeing what's in front of them. In partner dance, you must focus but also look at your partner with your eyes. You need to be aware of your external surroundings as much as what's happening in your body.
Knowing where your feet are. Movies often make fun of guys for stepping on girls’ feet in these scenarios, but, trust me, as a girl it’s just as easy to step on the guy's feet. You’ll learn where your feet are and get better at this.
Partnering on pointe (a few months):
Core, core, core. My core was sore for days after my first partnering class. If the guy is new as well, he’s probably not going to hold you over your leg where you want to be, so you’ll constantly be fighting to stay on pointe while being tipped over. When you get back to being by yourself, you'll be a lot better at recovering from being off balance.
Trust. Trust in your partner that he won't drop you or let you fall, and trust in yourself and your body that you won't accidentally kick him where it hurts.
Pointe variations (several sessions over a period of years):
- They look easy, but they are not. They combine steps in a way that leaves you breathless and exhausted. It's great practice for building your skills and working towards a concrete goal. Dancing them myself really brought an appreciation for watching ballets. And each variation gave me a new challenge to work towards and focus on.
Choreography (3 months):
The audience needs emotion and a story to connect with. When I first started in choreography class, I was excited for the chance to create and perform my own mini ballets. I created little vignettes of my favorite ballet steps. Needless to say they weren’t super popular. Then one day, our assignment was to create a dance based on an emotion. I was feeling lonely that day, so I used that as inspiration, and used one of my favorite piano pieces. This piece was the favorite of the class out of the other entries. As much as you might care about the technique or the steps, the audience wants to connect with you on an emotional level.
Performing (many performances over a period of years):
There are so many things to learn with performing. Calming your nerves, getting one shot at your choreography without having a "do over", remembering said choreography and all your corrections under pressure, understanding spacing with other dancers, dealing with costumes, makeup, lighting, tech rehearsals, etc.
Dancing without the mirror is another skill to learn. You don’t realize how much of your body awareness is coming from your eyes in the mirror, or how much of your spacing is coming from there either. Be sure to practice without the mirror so that you can feel your body without the visual response. It’s important to practice technique with a mirror to see what you need to correct, but you also have to do without from time to time. If the stage is your first time dancing without a mirror, the nerves, lighting, new flooring, and lack of body awareness will be a lot to handle.
Weight lifting (1 year):
- I've recently gotten into powerlifting and olympic lifting. I learned how to be scared of something and do it anyways. It's pretty intimidating to look at 265 pounds and know you have to lift it up. You have to quiet the part of your brain that automatically creeps up and say you can't. You can't let that part win. This is the most valuable thing to translate to ballet. Do you think you'll miss your pirouette? Then you will. If you know you'll make it and can visualize it, then you've got a much better shot of doing so. Mindset is so important, I'll dedicate a future post to it, but for now, I'll leave it at this.