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Bold move: female ballet dancers who take men's class.

IT'S A WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON at the School of American Ballet. Light streams through one of the studio's high windows as a cluster of young men prepares for men's class. Over in the corner sits another dancer, tying the ribbons of her pointe shoes. Wait a minute--pointe shoes? It's Miranda Weese, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet. What's she doing here?

She's taking a men's technique class--and she's not the only one. Many female dancers take men's classes, and for reasons as varied as the colors of their leotards: for fun, because it's a challenge, or because it seems like home. Whether they take class on pointe (as most of them do) or in ballet slippers, they do it because it gives them something extra.

Weese has practical reasons for taking the men's 12:30 class. It isn't as crowded as company class and she gets a chance to sleep later during rehearsal periods. But there's more to it than convenience. Taking a school class lets her get back to basics, and doing big jumps and turns takes her out of her comfort zone. "Their steps are bigger and bolder, so [the class] helps you dance outside of your feminine box," Weese says. "It forces you to have a different kind of control over your body."

San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Katita Waldo agrees. "I think men tend to work more broadly--the combinations are more grounded and thorough in their use of the body. Their classes are more about movement and less about picky things. You jump more and articulate more because you're using movements that are a little freer."

Waldo says she often takes men's class instead of pointe class. "I like a barre that gets all my muscles and joints working," she says. "In men's class there's less fast footwork at the barre--it warms you up gently, like taking a bath." She also enjoys working in a way that most pointe classes aren't designed for. "I want to use my feet with as much articulation as I would in a flat shoe. It's important to let your feet spread out, not to tense them and be in a constant state of stress. Taking a men's class reminds you what it's like not to be gripping all the time."

For NYCB principal Sofiane Sylve, taking class with the boys at SAB is like going home. "The men get to turn more, jump more--it's closer to what I grew up with [in France]." Like Weese, she emphasizes getting back to basics. "School classes have a discipline that company class tends not to. When you're performing five times a week, class is just a warm-up. But in these classes I can really work," Sylve says.

What gets San Francisco Ballet soloist Frances Chung going is "the encouragement the men give each other, and the energy." She likes doing their combinations during a combined class, hanging with them afterward for the friendly rivalry of pirouette and jumping competitions, or taking an occasional men's class at the SFB School. "It's all good fun. I feel like guys have more freedom in their dancing," Chung says. "I like jumping, so that's part of the appeal. When I was in school [at Goh Ballet], the girls were challenged to jump as high as the guys."

Like Chung, Deanne Brown of the Joffrey Ballet does the men's combinations in company class. As a student she took men's class regularly. "I trained simultaneously in ballet and gymnastics, and when I quit gymnastics, I missed the more acrobatic tricks. So that was my outlet--taking men's classes," Brown says. She thinks they helped prepare her for some of her more challenging roles, like the Ghosen One in Nijinsky's The Rite of Spring and the Cowgirl in Rodeo. "You gain strength and lose fear. When you conquer something that you're not normally asked to do, it makes what you usually do seem less daunting."

Joffrey dancer Julianne Kepley cites strength and technique advantages. "Men's classes were a big part of my training. The barre was shorter but slower, so it built strength." And the combinations developed stamina. "They got you used to staying on releve and doing a lot of turns," she says. Jumping is one of her favorite things, so taking class with the guys was a treat. "I learned to jump by watching them. The speed, staying in the air, and landing in the juiciest plie you can do--those things weren't emphasized in women's or mixed classes," Kepley says. "Jumping in pointe shoes is hard, and those classes really helped. They added a new dimension to my artistry."

Considering the benefits, why don't more women jump in? "There's no physiological reason why women shouldn't take men's class," says Gigi Berardi, author of Finding Balance: Fitness, Training, and Health for a Lifetime in Dance and an assistant editor for the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science. "Men and women can condition themselves for any kind of work, but it takes time and effort. The only problem would occur if they neglected the work they need to do to keep their bodies honed for the movement they typically do."

Women who are tempted to join in with the men should keep a few things in mind. Because there are often more jumps and turns, says Marika Molnar, founder of Westside Dance Physical Therapy in New York, the gluteal muscles get more of a workout and the spinal column gets more compression from the high landings. To avoid injury she suggests toning it down a bit. "You don't have to do all the tricks full out or as often. Also you don't have to be competitive." Molnar advises a good cool-down at the end of class, with stretching to the pelvic girdle and lumbar muscles.

Whether you plan to make men's class a habit or take it only on occasion, as Joffrey dancer Emily Patterson did as a student, you might agree when she says, "They definitely left an impression. The way the men present themselves is more bravura, and it was good for me to see that." Ballerinas who fly through the air with the ballon and bravura to rival a man's leave an impression, too. And it's great for audiences to see that.

Cheryl Ossola is a freelance writer and editor and a contributing editor for Dance Magazine.
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Author:Ossola, Cheryl
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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