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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Skills vs lines


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I noticed something yesterday that I've never noticed before and would like to discuss.


I went to a (professional) audition yesterday for a musical. They were casting 6 classical dancers. To state my background: I am a musical theatre performer (and teacher). I am definitely a singer/actress who dances, not the other way round. I have pretty solid technique, but I was a late starter. I love ballet and would take class as well if I didn't do MT.

I knew some of the other girls. Some were Royal Ballet School of Antwerp graduates, Codarts graduates, some are freelance professional dancers, one girl won SYTYCD... Tough competition...


We learned 2 combinations, a classical and a modern. Neither were very hard or long. I had no problem executing either.


When watching the other girls, I noticed that even of the highly trained ones, some didn't have better technique skills than I do. Some did a single pirouette en dedans, like me, or a double en dehors that wasn't all that clean (mine are decent). My developpé was at least as high as some of these girls (obviously there were girls doing triples and developpéing to their heads). I was surprised to see this. However, these professional or highly trained dancers had lines none of the musical theatre girls could compete with. I can't explain exactly what it was, but there was a big difference in the quality of movement.


Is this what makes the difference between 'someone who dances' and a 'dancer'? (Sorry to use these terms, I know we all call ourselves dancers but these are the terms used in the industry I'm in, at least where I am) I know my technique is pretty good, yet I am not 'a dancer'. I've always concentrated so much on getting all the tricks, the pirouettes and jumps and though always striving for the most beautiful line, that seems to be what sets me apart from these professional dancers.How does one get to that level or at least improve line and quality of movement? I know I'll never be a dancer, but I might as well keep working on it.


Sorry for the long story, and I don't even know what it is exactly I'm asking, but it just struck me yesterday and I thought I'd like to hear what you all think.


I'd be really happy for some teachers input!


(Btw, I didn't get the job, which I am totally fine with. Though it would have been a chance to get started in my home country, I don't think I would have liked being in a musical and not getting to sing)

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A couple of points to consider. Every kind of selection process where humans make the selection is a subjective process. By that I mean not every qualified human will make the same selection, nor will one human make the same selection at different times. No matter how objective we try to make the criteria for selection, ultimately subjectivity enters the picture. What that means is that the person doing the judging is important. And there are also individual differences among those doing the judging.


As performers we often think we are just right for the part being cast. We think that based on the skills we have and our desire to get the part. But the individual doing the casting is looking at the whole of the project, casting a role rather than deciding who is best (whatever that means). I like to make the analogy with painting. The individual doing the casting is the painter; the performer is the paint.


The arts are a most subjective enterprise. Some people will have an undefinable "it." How to develop that it is a really good question. I certainly have no answer though my guess is that it has to come from within. Maybe one is born with it or maybe not. Interesting topic.

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Garyecht I think you misunderstood my post. I'm talking about the observation of the difference of quality in movement, not the audition/selection process. If I had been in class with these same dancers, I would have made the same observation and asked the same question.


Also as I said, I don't mind not getting the job, this definitely was not the job for me. Even in the waiting area I realized I am not the right person for this job, and during the audition I realized I really wouldn't enjoy 'only' dancing, as singing is so to speak my 'money making skill'. It was however a useful experience and even an enjoyable one.


So the question is not at all about how subjective the selection process is, I'm all too well aware of that. I'd rather talk about the difference between having certain skills, like a double pirouette, and having the quality of line these much better trained dancers have. Is it the amount of training they've had that leads to that, could it have been a kind attention for at that doesn't happen in non full time schools? And how can one work towards that?

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Marjolein, I think I understand what you are asking. In today's world the tricks have become a huge deal, especially due to the reality shows and competitions, however, when it comes to a production looking for classical ballet dancers, they are going to look first at line. Ballet is still all about line. Line is like sculpture, it's either aesthetically right, or it's just not. It starts with the proportions of the body, but is created by the training, in terms of use of placement, especially rotation, shape and articulation of feet, port de bras and use of the head and upper body, and the ability to move through space with grace and fluidity and maintain the shape of every move. Yes, one is expected to execute a reasonable number of pirouettes, but those pirouettes have to have a certain look created by the line of the body. And then there is the control to maintain that shape and lift out of the pirouette with total control. One must jump and execute lots of steps, but every step has to have the line and articulation of the feet as well as elevation. Every extension must have the line that is associated with ballet, not just an ability to get a leg up high. All of the in between and connecting movements have to have line and fluidity, and especially articulation.


That said, all of these things can be there and the dancer still just not have the exact look that any given director is looking for. But, in my opinion line rules, assuming other things are equal. :) Skills are great, but ballet is art.

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Thank you so much for your answer Miss Leigh.


I am intrigued to find out what makes my line not quite as beautiful and work on it. It is probably not port de bras and the use of my head and upper body as that's what I'm usually complimented on. I have to admit I am very lucky to have physical assets to help that line (small head, very long neck, sloping shoulders and long thin arms) and the rest of my body is well proportioned (very long legs). On the other hand, my rotation isn't nowhere near where it should be for a classical line, though my feet have become very strong, they will never look beautiful and I have a very stiff back, making especially my arabesque line and cambré weak.


Rather than focussing on the tricks, I will bring my attention in class more towards the line and see how I can improve that. I'll never be able to compete with those dancers, but I want to be as good as I can possibly be.For a year I was so concentrated on whether or not I could do certain tricks. Yes I have mastered a lot of them. Seems like this audition showed what I will now need to focus on to improve.

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You are a remarkable student. Just seeing that there was a difference between you and the more highly trained dancers is a very important step. I think that a lot of people fall in love with the image that they see in the mirror, and they really don't get an accurate view of themselves. I think that it would be impossible to comment on what is missing in your performance without actually seeing you in class. That being said, One of the concepts that I teach in my classes with respect to line is the need to feel connections in the body. Feeling how the fingers connect to the wrist to the elbow to the shoulder to the back and to the base of the spine ... then lengthening the arm while feeling these connections will give a strong beautiful Port de bras. There is a sense of dynamic opposition, connecting the arm to the back while it lengthens...Similarly I teach a connection between the leg and the pelvis and then lengthening the leg as one feels that connection. This is all very difficult to explain in writing and much easier to show and demonstrate. There are many images and methods and ways to teach ballet...all roads lead to Rome.


With respect to pirouettes and extensions: I know A LOT OF DANCERS. I don't know anyone who got a job because they could do 10 pirouettes or had an extension alongside their head. It's nice to be flexible and to turn well...but that is not what gets the job.

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I think that in the same way I can get all the notes right when I sing, but lack training in diction, and don't know how to show off my vocal strength, there are lots of people out there who can do ballet steps, but are missing the aesthetic to it, are lacking in flow, and don't know how to punctuate their movement.


I will say, when I read your post I wondered if the issue might be so simple as orientation -- body orientation. Sometimes folks who can do the steps mess up their lines simply by not understanding where their corners are: Their croises are over-turned to the actual corner in a long rectangular room, or their effaces are not turned far enough, etc. I suspect you are too far along in your training for that to be your problem, but it did bear mentioning, as it's a common error.

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Thanks a lot, insidesoloist... I always notice something strange in my croise, like it's overcrossed. thanks to you, I now realize it is maybe because I am facing the real corner in the rectangular room!

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The only situation in which the corner of the room works is if you are standing dead center in a perfectly square room. Teaching the "corners of the room" does not work. One must learn to find either the corners of their own square, or, standing in their own clock, where 11 and 1 are. :)

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I used to do this, I remember getting this as a correction for quite a while, a very long time ago. No one had really ever explained this to me back then.


But now I don't think that's it. I'm pretty sure rotation and feet has a lot to do with why my line isn't as clean as that of professional dancers.

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What a really interesting question, Marjolein, and how fascinating that you've analysed and identified something. I can't add to what Ms Leigh and others have said. You'll now have something really concrete to work on. (And boy oh boy, that sounded like a tough audition -- congrats for just being there!)


But your post reminds me that, in the wonderful fashion of serendipity, yesterday I was talking about the history of acting to my students, and we were looking at styles of acting from 200 years ago, with much more defined and sculptural gesture (at about the time that romantic ballet starts to develop). I was demonstrating the idea of the individual kinesphere to my students -- trying to have them visualise the sphere around them in all 3 dimensions -- like the Leonardo drawing of the man in a wheel.


I find that visualisation always helps me in the studio, to find my corner. And one contemporary class I was taking a while ago we did an exercise using the idea of a kind of 3-dimensional box around us, moving arms, legs, heads feet etc in relation to the various levels and corers of that box. Really helpful for finding a sense of your own orientation in space.

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I think this is a really great discussion.


I think in all art forms, Skill vs. Expression needs to be well balanced; rather, I think being able to express something is also a skill that needs to be developed. Since you're a singer, I think you'd understand--we see a lot of people with good voices and maybe even techniques but not necessarily the ability to convey what they feel inside.


In dancing also, having that "lines" is also a skill; whether that be used to communicate the dancer's emotions or to simply adorn their movements, it is a skill that the dancer developed over the years, because being on stage as a dancer means that you need to use your body as the medium of expression.



Like in all techniques in arts, some people may be natural at having that ability to express and others have to work for it. HOW to work on it depends on your teachers, and other learning experiences. How did you learn to express more emotions in your voice lessons? Did you listen to a lot of other singers' work and at first try to mimick them? And then once you were completely comfortable with your own voice and feelings, you were able to express them into singing? I think you see where I'm going with this. It's a combination of all factors--teachers, your own observation, practice, practice, practice.... :D

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pink_Chiffon, interesting that you connect lines with expression. Though the 2 are obviously connected, I don't think having a more or less perfect line makes someone better in expressing emotions in their dancing. I have seen dancers who aren't that well trained (thus having a line that is less clean) express their feelings beautifully and I've seen dancers with the most beautiful classical line who have no expression at all.


In my last class (which is a fairly easy class so I could concentrate on this well), I kept checking my line, especially in adagio. We did a combination with a reversé which I feel is one of the most beautiful movements in classical ballet. The step was fairly new for most students so I could take the time to practice it and correct myself on line. I noticed I might get the correct line in practicing, but in the combination I lack the strength and control to keep that line all the way through into the next step. So again something to work on.


Of course in the class I worked on line and not on tricks, I started doing triple pirouettes...

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I feel the same way, though I am of much lower overall skill than you are. I can absolutely sense the aesthetic, line and quality of movement among the well trained dancers, and am all too aware of where I lack.


I think, however, that the solution really is in precise, highly trained technique. You can't ever let yourself fall out of the phase where you're actively learning like a beginner does: constantly and rigorously checking and retooling everything. I read a book about memory and learning and in it was a section how virtuosity is acquired--or, more to the point, why some achieve virtuosity and others do not. One of the interesting concepts was that those who achieve true mastery at something (whether it be dance, chess, music or anything else) truly LEARN different than those who don't. When we first begin to learn something, we are really open to everything and are seeking out information and processing it very quickly. We are awash in detail and work like dogs to make sense of it; to put it in order, to make it work for us, to change from one state (inability) to another (ability).


After a while, with most people and most things, when we achieve a general level of competence, we simply stop trying to learn at the same rate. The flood of detail might still be there, but we don't really respond to it. I forget what the author called it, maybe the "competency threshhold" but it's something we do for a reason: the active learning phase is intensely resource-and concentration-consuming. It's why we learn to drive and then basically stay at the same skill level forever. Why we learn to type and then type at the same speed forever. It frees us up to use those skills to do something, and those skills go on auto-pilot with little or no additional learning.


Anyway, those who achieve mastery/virtuosos never leave this phase. They can't. Or, they won't let themselves. And consequently they are self-evaluating every little aspect of what they do right down to the basics for years more than other people do it.


So I think that ultimately, they are just so darn GOOD at what they do and the refinements, while as deliberate and considered as they were in the early years, are smaller and smaller. That line of the leg and overall aesthetic? Probably as intensely and highly considered and its execution worked on and actively refined as a beginner learning to do a simple 45 degree developpe.


And for others? They get a balletic kind of sense to them, can execute competently most steps, and then the "beginner" switch turns off. The line is pretty good, but once at a place that looks about right, the fundamental technique never really gets much better from there. Sure, they get better, but you'd be surprised how quickly something is filed away as "good enough to stop thinking about it every time I do it."


I necessarily had to (and still do) approach ballet with a beginner's mind. As I am one. I must think very carefully about so much about ballet simply to get it correct, never mind extension or artistry. There is NOTHING automatic about my pirouette, and I still think very VERY carefully about almost every muscle in my lower body simply in warm up exercises like demi-plies and the like. I constantly must contemplate exactly where my arm goes, and the quality of its movement. First arabesque? I still utterly must check everything square, front middle finger at midline, head tilted correctly, other arm at the right angle, etc.


Consequently, I am flooded with detail, and while it is often overwhelming, I like what I'm doing and because beginners make good progress when they are receptive to the task, I find it incredibly rewarding and look forward to what I can learn next.

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And one of these days I just would really like to be able to SINGLE pirouette even semi-competently. I certainly want to continue to ruthlessly refine it, but right now I simply need to learn HOW to do it. Exactly how much weight must go down, exactly how the pelvis must drop into the demi-plie, exactly how it springs to form, and exactly how it turns and where everything goes as it goes around. With so much to think about every time, I still make critical mistakes because obviously you can't think about all of it at all times. If my plie is perfect, and I'm well-centered and focused intently on the balance I'll need to have once I go up, it'll have taken so much of my concentration to do it, it's still entirely possible I'll try to turn the wrong way once I'm up! Or I won't spot. Or the wrong leg will go up.


Last class I prepared PERFECTLY, sank into the demi-plie exactly as I ought, great turnout, arms precise, alignment and balance ready to go. I even knew which way I was going, and knew exactly what leg was going where. I sprung up, and hit the perfect pirouette position. Shoulder blades connected to arms and lovely round position at the right height with fingers all aligned. Hips square, turned out, foot straight and unsickled and right under my kneecap, ribcage, pelvis, knees, supporting leg all where it ought.


Only, I didn't turn.


At all.


I had just sprung to a pose and that was that. I had forgotten to turn. I gestured out, came down and realized that I had spent so much effort concentrating on HOW the arms come in, HOW the position goes up in balance and what must change and what must stay exactly the same, that I had completely forgotten to generate any rotation.


So basically, I had done everything great except for the one freaking thing a pirouette does: IT TURNS!


Seriously? *facepalm*


Welcome to being an actual beginner. Not just a reasonably competent person with a beginner's mind.


On the other hand, pas de basque no longer looks like impossible maaaaaagic.

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