Incorporating History into Dance Education

Posted by on 06.25.2015

One of the great things about summer layoff, is that I have the wonderful opportunity to teach and coach the next generation of dancers.  Yesterday I sat down with my students and asked them if they had done the homework I had assigned to them on Monday.  A few hands shot up in the air with excitement.  “OK,” I told them, “Let’s talk about George Balanchine.

We started with his birth in 1904 in St. Petersburg, Russia and his death in New York in 1983 at age 79.  I asked them why they thought I had them research George Balanchine. That elicited some quick responses: “Because you want us to understand his style,” and “You wanted us to look up videos.”   To which I replied, “Yes, but he is most important because he is known as the Father or American Ballet.

American history is an essential part of every child’s education in this country.  And similarly, all ballet students should know about the history of dance in this country, and that starts with George Balanchine.  He essentially brought ballet to this country when he arrived in 1933.  I explained to my class that though 1933 may seem like a long time ago to them, when comparing it to the overall history of ballet, which spans centuries, Balanchine is quite modern.  They are really a part of his lineage since their teachers were taught by teachers who were taught by Balanchine.

A famous photo of George Balanchine teaching in NYC.

A famous photo of George Balanchine teaching in NYC.

George Balanchine founded The School of American Ballet with Lincoln Kirstein in 1934.  “But first a school,” he is famously quoted as saying.  The establishment of a school was integral to what Balanchine accomplished in this country: he created an incubator, where he could shape his dancers and give them the skills they needed to dance his ballets.  With the establishment of Ballet Society in 1946 (which would later become The New York City Ballet), he already had a base of dancers to pull from.  I told my students that this is why ballet school is so important: it is meant to prepare you for all that you do onstage and serves as a laboratory to develop as an artist.

“Who knows how many ballets Balanchine created in his lifetime?” I asked. One young dancer offers, “Can I guess? Um… Eight?” I shook my head.  There are shouts of 20! 30! 35!  They are all amazed as I continued to shake my head, “Not even close.”  I look at them, “425,” I declare. They all gasp, with looks of disbelief on their faces. I explained to them that today somewhere around 90 of his works still exist.  It was so important to Balanchine that his ballets continue to be danced to his standards. In 1987, after his death, an organization called the the Balanchine Trust was established to protect the remaining ballets.

Before establishing The New York City Ballet, Balanchine spent time choreographing for Broadway and for major films in Hollywood.  These experiences contributed to, among other things, his unique style that fused technique from his background in classical ballet, with other schools of movement.  I asked my students if they could name some of the characteristics of the Balanchine technique.  Hands shot up in the air. Here is the list we complied:

-Speed and articulation

-Deep plies

-Emphasis on lines

-Abstract arms

-Hand placement

-Pirouette from a lunge with a straight back leg

-Spotting front for turns

-An athletic dance quality

After establishing why Balanchine is so important, I taught them a section of Balanchine’s first ballet he created in America, Serenade. The section starts with a repeat of the opening pose, as the women of the corps de ballet frame the Waltz couple.  Before getting started we watched a video to get a better idea of what we were working on.  They were so engaged and interested in the unique movements that the choreography called for.  The students were able to take some of their classical technique and expound upon that by adding more extreme movements.  I could tell they were really enjoying the experience of learning a piece of ballet choreography that was out of their comfort zone.

At the end of class, with a few minutes left, we watched the video from the beginning: the curtain rising on the ever-famous image of women in long tulle skirts with their right arms extended as if to block the moonlight. I could tell that they had never seen anything like it before.  There were exclamations of, “I love those dresses!” and, “Everyone is so together!” and, “That looks so hard!”

As a teacher it is so important to help young dancers develop their technique and understand how to execute steps.  But it’s even more important for us to offer them a history of the art form. By offering a context behind what they are doing, students receive a deeper appreciation for dance and become more motivated.  We must remind them that there have been many dancers before them who have danced the very same steps, as there will be many after them, but the way they do each step is entirely their own.  That’s the art.  That’s the very special thing about what we do.

 

For more complete posts on Balanchine’s life and work click here. 

4 Comments

  1. Hi Rebecca,
    I just happily discovered your blog through Pointe Magazine this month. I have been a ballet teacher for 30 years and formerly was a professional dancer as well.
    I absolutely agree with you about integrating dance history into our student’s curriculum. I am always shocked when I ask students if they know who Nijinksy is or Markarova, for example. Usually, blank looks.
    Our history is so rich and no better time than the summer to incorporate it!
    Congrats on such beautiful work 🙂
    Sarah

    • Thank you so much Sarah for your kind words! I am so glad you found me. Hope we can stay connected. Like this page on Facebook Facebook.com/tendusunderapalmtree or follow me on Twitter twitter.com/bexking.

  2. Love this, and very much agree that ballet history should be an integral part of dance education, that dance students learn not just by reading books and articles but from their teachers in the studio setting. Even just a brief discussion of how a particular step originated, and the different ways in which it used to be executed, is critical to developing young dancers’ minds. Too many dance students think their teachers invented the pas de bourrée!

    I do think it’s fair to point out that George Balanchine was not the only “father of American ballet.” The Christensen brothers deserve some of the credit, too. There is an appealing new children’s book about to be published (that I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at recently) by Chris Barton, called “The Nutcracker Comes to America,” and although it is centered around the story of the first full-length American Nutcracker production in San Francisco, it also describes more generally how the Christensens got their start and how they brought ballet to cities across the country. Because it is aimed at young readers, it doesn’t go into great depth but it is based on serious historical research. Your students might enjoy it, and it’s got wonderful illustrations, too.

    • Great point Carla! They certainly played a huge role in ballet in America. Thank you so much for your comment and for sharing “The Nutcracker Comes to America.” I will be on the lookout for it.

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  1. Balanchine BasicsNYCB Jan 30, Feb 5 - Ballet Focus - […] more subtle characteristics of the Balanchine style: deep pliés, abstract arms, emphasis on lines. See her post for more […]

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