This is the second part of my interview with Laura Donnelly, Alexander teacher and professor of dance at Kansas State University. If you missed part one, check it out here.
Nowadays, ballet seems to be at the core of all dance training. What do you see as the relationship of ballet training to dance in general?
Right now a lot of dance training emphasizes technical facility above everything else. I think that the thing that’s unique about dance is that, while it’s highly athletic, it is a form of visual art and communication and the artistry and the content are of equal importance – at least equal – to the technical facility.
Dancers and dance students get really focused on the end goal. Alexander said you have to look out for “end-gaining” – the belief that the end goal is worth any cost. We know, as we get older, that that’s not true. But the challenge is to convince a student that it’s better to slowly develop your extension than to tie a rope around your leg and pull your leg up over your head. That’s not the way to achieve the goal you want.
Here’s where the psychology part comes in. It requires understanding the psychology of the student – the panic to achieve everything that day – “I don’t have much time,” “I have to do this,” “I have to prepare for this concert,” “I have to win this medal or get this audition.”
You have to get them to let go of those thoughts so they can be in the moment dancing. Then they have a chance to touch what really is the most awesome thing about dance which is this total joy of movement in the moment. And because everybody has a body, the language that you use is universal.
Can you say more about your particular approach to musicality and dance training?
I think that even when people dance in silence there’s an inner rhythm to the movement which gives musicality to the dance. I personally love music and that’s one of the reasons I love to dance. Because I can’t sing, dancing is the way I can be in the music the way a singer is in the music when they make sounds.
How do you teach that?
That’s part of the artistry. People have different levels of being gifted in understanding music. But a lot of dancers think that it’s only about the counts.
You need to take time in ballet class to incorporate some of the old exercises – such as standing port de bras where all you do is listen to the music and move your arms. Then you’re not so busy worrying about your whole body, you have that moment to express the sound of the music with your arms.
Roni Mahler, who was one of my mentors, includes this in a lot of the exercises at the barre beginning with the pliés. She would just add in a beautiful port de bras at the end. And that would teach people to follow the person who was at the front of the barre. That student would stand there every day and they would lead this almost improvised port de bras. It teaches observation and moving together as a group and it allows each person within the highly structured form of ballet to bring their individual expression starting from the very first exercise.
That’s an example of the oral-physical tradition of dance – what I learned from her and how I experienced that in my body and how I pass it on to the bodies that I teach.
What do you see as the most common or significant alignment flaw in dance?
I’ve been thinking about this – this is interesting.
What I most often see in dancers is a sway back tendency. When I first started teaching, to make a correction for that, to get the hip bones to face straight front instead of tilting down, I would tell them to imagine that they had headlights on their hip bones and they didn’t want to light the floor – they wanted to light straight in front of them.
But if the lower back is really tight, shortened, and the front of the back is not strong, then they end up creating more tension when they try to physically manipulate the pelvis that way.
So going forward in incorporating the Alexander technique to my teaching, the theory is that the beginning of the problem comes from the head and neck relationship and if that is off it will trickle down the whole spine.
Now I might say that the most common alignment flaw for dancers is a misunderstanding of the spine. The spine is all connected. The idea that they could put their ribs in the right place and not think about their hips, or that they could move their hips and not understand the whole rest of their spine including the relationship between their head and their neck – I think that’s the essence of the flaw.
You see it different ways – people tuck under or they over-curve their lower back or they stick their ribs out or they pull their shoulder blades too much together. They do pieces and parts – almost always in an effort to follow a correction they got from a teacher.
Dancers try so hard. If you tell them to push the pelvis in class they tuck under because they push it and keep pushing it instead of just understanding. Actually there’s not a “position” for the pelvis because when you’re dancing you have to be moving all the time. You want it fairly nicely aligned in a neutral position most of the time but you don’t want it held in any position because then it’s not ready to do what it needs to do when you’re moving.
What’s a way of thinking about breathing in ballet?
Holding your breath is just the worst. I studied ballet and modern simultaneously, and I studied a lot of Limon in the beginning. Limon is all about breath and the movement being inspired by the breath and the movement riding on your breath. Say on a large leg swing, the exhale is the downward push and the leg goes up and the suspension is an inhalation on the top.
I just took that back to my ballet classes. I tried so hard, I was one of these people who try to get everything perfect, so I try to ease up on the perfect thing when I’m teaching and instead encourage positive change in the right direction but ease up on the perfect thing.
Take Kobe Bryant, for example. He practices intensely but he had such a natural facility for basketball there were a lot of things he never ever had to think about in order to do them right. They just came naturally to him.
For dancers I try to get them to do a lot of breathing like they do in modern dance class. On grand battements I have them make sounds on their battement out. They look at me like I’m crazy but I tell them this will make their dance better and it won’t be as great if they don’t do it, if I can’t hear them.
What’s an example of a frustrating teaching experience you’ve had?
What frustrates me the most is when people have an attachment to something that they think they’re doing really well. Leg extension is one of them. They’ve decided that having their leg a certain height is worth any cost – shifting their pelvis, tucking under, whatever – as long as their leg goes high, they’re successful.
From my point of view, if the line is wrong, because anatomically they’re not using their body correctly, I don’t care how high their leg is, they’re wrong. To get them to back off of their goal, lower their leg and work correctly and take the time to let the extension go back up in the correct alignment, that requires that the student really trust you and believe that you have their best goal in mind.
It’s tricky. Dancers are stubborn – if they weren’t stubborn they wouldn’t get where they get.
A lot of times to work on that I bring in a skeleton into the classroom so they can see what’s inside their body and why it’s important that they not do this wrong. They’re young and they’re strong and it doesn’t hurt now but repeated use like this is going to make a long term repetitive injury.
Also I sometimes pick another dancer and make them do the same correction so the one student doesn’t feel picked on.
A big issue in ballet is that what they think they’re doing is not producing the results they think they’re producing. For instance, sometimes somebody is standing up straight and they have their chin sticking out. They think they’re standing up tall but what they’re doing is they’re really pulling their head back and down.
Sometimes if they see this on another person then they can see that they’re doing it too. I often try to get them to work together as partners. If they try to help the other person, then they’re not attached to the outcome – they’re trying to help that other person. In describing the exercise they say things to the other person that I was saying to them, but now they understand it.
How do you teach someone to point his or her foot?
If you’re not balanced correctly on your foot, then everything is going to go off all the way up because your whole body is connected. If your foot is tense the rest of your body is going to be tense.
To teach tendu from the beginning, first you teach them sitting down so that they can isolate the foot with no weight on it. You start with a flexed foot, then you extend the ankle and the toes spread out, then reach the toes, then pull the toes back and then the ankle.
A lot of times I have people face each other so their feet make a drawbridge. In addition, if they’re apart from each other, then their toes try to reach each other to make the bridge instead of curling under.
In standing up, as in tendu, I always emphasize feeling the floor – and again this is another thing from modern dance that I took into my ballet class because it made so much sense to my body to feel the floor all the way through the extension. The point was not the goal – it was the movement into the extension and the movement out of the extension.
Pointing the foot is not a position. Sometimes when people point all their energy curls under and it actually shortens the line of the leg. So I teach pointing as a movement not a position.
As you move through the class to the degagé and speed up everything it’s not always possible to go slowly enough to really manipulate the foot articulations but I try to remind them that even in rend de jambe that you’re brushing to the front before you carry the leg to the side or back and back into first – you’re still going through the ball of the foot. This is again musicality you can put it into the music and give the brush a whole count.
It’s slower, but as you speed up it’s “Do you remember how you did that in the tendu?” It’s all the same action even though you’re going faster.
This prepares you to jump and to land from your jump because if you don’t go through your foot when you land you’re not going to get to your plié and you’re going to bite your tongue. Or jar your marbles. You’re not going to decelerate correctly.
The feet are the foundation so if you don’t work the feet correctly everything else isn’t going to work well on top of that. I think people sometimes think of the foot as the last thing – for some reason. But in coming off the ground the foot is the first thing. Actually, I mean the stomach muscles are probably the first thing.
Laura Donnelly, MFA, BA is a choreographer, teacher, and dancer who also writes and creates community based public art projects involving visual and word art.
Donnelly, Assistant Professor of Dance at Kansas State University, teaches all levels of ballet and pointe, Alexander Technique, composition, and experiential anatomy. Her research interests include pedagogy, oral tradition in dance, collaborative process, music for dance, and the Alexander Technique. Her research has been presented at the Congress on Research in Dance, the International Association of Dance Science and Medicine, the National Dance Education Association, the Hawaii International Conference on Arts & Humanities, the 5th Annual International Conference on Civic Education, and the University of New Mexico Mentoring Conference. Donnelly’s essay Meditation in the Dance Studio is published in Teaching with Joy: Educational Practices for the Twenty-First Century, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.