This is the Pre-Entry class for the Vaganova Academy, the world-renowned Russian Ballet School. These girls are 10 years old and have prepared this class to audition for entry into the school. I think any ballet student would gain a lot from following along with this class; it is simple to follow as none of the exercises are complicated. But just try to do it with posture and feet as beautiful as the girls in the video :-).
Many Oasis Ballet students will be familiar with their warmup as we do this before most of our classes.
However I've had some parents express concern to me, reluctant to let their child pursue ballet too far, for fear that their young bodies may suffer injury or be pushed further than what is healthy. But in fact, in our classes the opposite is true! At Oasis I ensure that all the teachers are careful to teach within body-safe principles. So in fact, our students gain much more!
What are Body-Safe Principles?
It means that we always bear in mind the health of joints and muscles, and the overall health of the dancer, as we teach. Rather than insisting upon extreme amounts of effort to achieve perfection, we emphasise understanding and body awareness, encouraging slow improvement at a speed that matches the dancer's age and physical capacity. Our strategies are: warmups, an anatomical approach, body conditioning classes, Pilates, postural care, and appropriately targeted teaching.
We communicate to children a knowledge of their body that helps them understand what is safe for their body and what isn't. For example, keeping the hips, knees and ankles in correct alignment will prevent injury, and teaching this to a 12 year old is too late; it must be reinforced from day one. Likewise, if a student tries to lift their leg behind them in an arabesque, while using the wrong muscles, they may end up straining their back or hips. Our teachers have degrees in their field; they have studied anatomy, Pilates, sports science and injury prevention. We teach children to understand which muscles will help and which ones will hinder.
We hold a weekly body conditioning class, and although every single dance class is underpinned by our body-safe approach, Body Conditioning class is for the purpose of teaching how the body works. Students learn to progress more quickly but more safely, by practising stretching correctly, and strengthening key areas (e.g. core muscles, ankles) to support them properly during their dance classes. This class also provides opportunity for individual attention, and students who are having trouble in particular areas receive more focussed assistance. This ensures that we see very few injuries, and quicker recovery from any injuries children do suffer from causes such as trampolines, accidents and so on!
Pilates & Posture
Ballet should be taught from the inside out. Too many schools focus on the outward appearance of good ballet; pointed feet, high legs, etc., while leaving the development of correct posture to a wish and a prayer and the constant injunction to 'stand up straight!' 'tummies in!' or 'pull UP!'. These instructions are not helpful on their own. Posture is like the foundations of a house; without it, the rest of ballet technique will fall on its face through a lack of progress, or strings of injuries.
To develop good posture in a child is hard enough; to develop the carefully fine-tuned posture required of a good ballet dancer is an art in itself! This is why we focus on it so much, and we gently introduce kids to Pilates from the age of 5, so that slowly over time they realise the importance of this good habit, and develop the awareness to hold themselves safely and without twisting their hips, slouching, arching their back or wobbling (just to name a few common mistakes).
So the awareness kids gain, the strength, and good habits, are invaluable when we teach them. They will last their whole lifetime, helping them to have good posture, body awareness and injury prevention right into adulthood.
I saw this video about a brand of pointe shoes called "Gaynor Minden", which I have heard of but never tried. These shoes look fantastic, and from this video I am more than intrigued to try them.
I have these shoes in mind for students who do not have a lot of arch in their foot. Most pointe shoes can be fitted to the dancer's foot in terms of width, length, and toe shape, as well as foot strength. We choose brands based upon how the make of shoe suit the shape of the foot - Blochs are good for toes that have an even length, Salvios are good for toes that taper sharply etc.
However all of them wear out over time, and so a shoe with a shank that suits the dancer's foot strength when it is bought, will quickly soften and become too weak to support the foot properly. So to counteract this , we usually buy shoes with shanks that are too hard, knowing they will soften, and hoping that the sweet period where the shanks are worn in but not yet worn out, will last long enough for our bank accounts to catch up with affording the next pair of pointes.
This is the case with all brands. Gaynor Minden's are the exception, they last much much longer, because their shank does not soften. This means you buy the shank at the level of flexibility your foot requires, and it does not change. This is a huge advantage for a foot that lacks flexibility and will have trouble arching enough to get her toes squarely onto the ground in a regular pointe shoe. A foot like this will really struggle and be unstable in a regular pointe shoe until it is worn in. And will probably only feel like it is properly centred on the floor just as the shank begins to wear out.
Now GMs cost more, but end up cheaper because they last longer. So you might wear one pair of GMs for the same amount of time another dancer would go through 2-3 pairs. Regular pointe shoes are around $90 - $110. GMs are $160. So it is really worth it... as long as the dancer does not grow too quickly in the meantime!
I adore ballet and am passionate about teaching it and refining my own expertise as a dancer, so writing tips for improving your ballet technique is a pleasure.
1. When taking a ballet class, I think it’s important to remember two things. Firstly, it was initially developed as a genteel and stately court dance, a very far cry from the coltish gymnastics we see on stage today. Students of any age should bear this in mind, and it helps to form a far more attainable ideal in one’s mind. Secondly, it is a very small minority who are ever going to dance ballet onstage, and so we should approach our ballet class with the knowledge that is an effective means towards greater strength, flexibility, grace, and control in all our other life undertakings.
2. Beginning with your barre work, remember always to breathe. Plies are wonderful for this as it is a very natural feeling to breathe out as you plie down, and breathe in as you rise back to straight legs. Breathing with your plies, and all your other exercises, will improve your posture, flexibility, and rhythm.
3. It is easy to get very tense in ballet as many of the postures are so unnatural to us. However as a Venerable ballet teacher always used to proclaim to my class, “Tension-Hinders-Movement!” and she was correct. Translation: try to find ways of arranging your bones into their correct alignment without forcing or straining muscles. Think of the weight of each bone, and mentally focus on allowing that bone to hang or extend in the correct direction. This avoids overusing muscles.
4. Remember that arm positions were always devised in relation to the period costumes – tight sleeves, low, open necklines, and puffy skirts. For men, they still had tight sleeves, and puffy skirted coats, but they had ruffed collars which emphasised a noble carriage of the head. Arms then, should just rest on the top of your imaginary skirt or coat, in demi-seconde, for instance. Arms in a second position should never extend out at 90 degrees, but should slope down gently, echoing the line of the skirt or coat-skirt. Arms in 5th should frame the face like a cameo, and arms in first should round downwards opposite the waistband.
5. In order to move quickly through space and change positions of the feet rapidly during an exercise, you will need to carry your weight forward over the balls of the feet. This is extremely unnatural and there is no way of getting around it! Those of us with a slouch, sway-back legs, or a sway back, will find this difficult. Begin, then, back at point 2 – gently arrange the bones of your torso into a more healthy alignment and then bringing your weight forward over the balls of the feet becomes easier.
Most of all, enjoy your class. Ballet can be a bit like cod liver oil, to some, but with a little persistence, it is not hard to nose out some truffles that you can truly enjoy during your class!
Oasis Dance and Drama School is about Excellence, Creativity and Encouragement.