Posted by Rebecca King on 08.27.2014
As a part of my research for my summer teaching over these last few months, I came across “Progressing Ballet Technique,” an innovating training program for classically trained ballet dancers. Through my experience with my students, I observed a lot of weaknesses that I felt could be solved through pilates or other strength training techniques. I knew that they needed some strengthening exercises added into their training to help with the elements of their technique that were lacking.
Marie Walton-Mahon, a ballet educator for 39 years, decided to change the way her students approached their exercises. Through her programs entitled “Progressing Ballet Technique,” Ms. Walton-Mahon has developed a strengthening program revolving around a “Swiss ball,” offering exercises developed with the ballet student in mind.
I decided to get in touch with Ms. Walton-Mahon to learn a little more about her program.
Rebecca King: Tell us a little bit about your background in dance and in dance education.
Marie Walton-Mahon: After retiring from Les Ballet de Marseille in 1974 I opened a ballet school in my home-town of Newcastle Australia. My former students are currently enjoying careers worldwide. In 2007, I wrote a Diploma course and became the Artistic Director/ founder of the National College of Dance. I currently examine ballet students and tutor teachers worldwide for the Royal Academy of Dance and feel privileged to tutor these teachers. I have been involved in Dance Education for the past 40 years and in 2014 presented my Progressing Ballet Technique at the Cecchetti Ballet Conference in Sydney, and will soon be presenting it at the “Come Together Conference” at the Gold Coast.
RK: What inspired you to put this program together?
MWM: Sometimes I feel that students and teachers try to fast-track training, thinking only about ‘how high the leg is’ or ‘how many turns in a pirouette.’ Sometimes this leads to the quantity being a priority over quality. If the students understand the value of triggering muscle memory and can transfer this into their ballet class, it most certainly enhances the alignment and control over the way they move. My fellow teachers encouraged me to record my program after seeing how I worked with a Swiss ball in the classroom.
RK: You mention safe dance training. Can you describe in which ways your program promotes safe dance training?
MWM: The Progressing Ballet Technique Program works through every part of the body and encourages students/teachers to feel what’s happening in their body, instead of verbalizing. We commence with the deep muscles, not the superficial muscle groups. Alongside deep breathing, the students can really feel how to activate their muscles and maintain that feeling during class. Doing the program to beautifully composed music, I find helps the students to be more motivated.
A great example is training for “batter ire” [or beated jumps], perhaps an entrechat six. If a student stands up and practices this movement poorly over and over, it will only become worse and could cause injury. However, lying flat on the top of the Swiss Ball and feeling the correct muscle activation enhances the muscle memory of the correct placement. Another common problem is the proper technique of a “cambre,” the motion of bending backwards. Without proper alignment, great pressure can be placed on the back and other joints. This can be easily rectified during the port de bras section on the Swiss Ball.
The teacher’s workshops have become very popular, where safe dance is explained along with every exercise. The final DVD – The Advanced Level will be filmed early in 2015.
RK: What overall impact do you find your program has on students’ dancing?
MWM: Actually I never thought my program would really take off worldwide: the success has been totally overwhelming. I suppose it’s popularity reflects the program’s effectiveness. Joanne Simmons, a Principal at the Joanne Simmons Academy had this to say of the program: “The exercises are invaluable to the students who are particularly weak in the core area. The technique has really helped to start to improve their strength and control – even after a relatively short period of training with the ball.”
MWM: Teachers worldwide are using my programs in the following ways: (1) Adding Progressing Ballet Technique classes to their weekly timetable. (2) Learning the program and using specific exercises to correct certain faults that come up in the classroom. (3) Substituting one of their classes with Progressing Ballet Technique every couple of weeks. (4) Encouraging students to do the program at home by following my instructions and checking certain exercises each week in the classroom. (5) Discussing the muscle memory for certain movements and correct alignment.