Technique Or Tricks - Which Is More Important To Master In Order To Become Successful In Ballet?
Ballet has been around since the 15th century and has continued to evolve as an art form ever since. Even just looking back at dancers in the 20th century, it is evident how far we as dancers have come in understanding movement and physicality and putting this into practice in our bodies. Ballet and ballet dancers will continue to evolve, and what is popular and trendy will forever be changing. So right now, is it more important to master the basics, or master the trends in order to be noticed by those higher up and be deemed ‘successful’?
‘Technique’ refers to the way in which a particular task is executed. In ballet this means focusing on and perfecting the minute details of every position and movement. This is impossible to master without understanding your body and understanding how to activate specific muscles in order to make specific shapes and lines. Even dancers who understand these things very well, often have days where their mind isn’t focussed enough, or their body is too fatigued to make it happen. This is why very few (if any) ballet dancers have truly perfect technique one hundred percent of the time.
There are of course practical reasons why strengthening our technique is important. The physical traits of Ballet, such as always working in external rotation, can be extremely unnatural for the human body. Therefore, if done incorrectly injuries can occur and potentially result in lifelong damages to joints. For example, it is common for less advanced dancers to be so wrapped up in their movement that they forget to activate the muscles that control and support their rotation, and so the alignment between hip-knee-ankle becomes jagged and twisted, causing stress to the joints. If this is done repeatedly for a long period of time, knee and ankle problems can become severe and pain can refer to other areas of the body.
Many people who train or work professionally as ballet dancers describe themselves as perfectionists. This is because perfectionism is a trait that feeds on chasing success, and in ballet, having perfect technique is practically unattainable. Therefore, those who have set high standards for themselves will continuously be working to achieve them. It is of course possible to improve and to become great, as many dancers have done over time. But this depends on factors such as our own physical limitations, and our personal desire to persevere. Dancers who are not as driven and motivated by perfectionism can find it difficult to continue honing and perfecting each movement, because often improvement will be extremely subtle and slow, so we may not feel as though we are improving or developing at all. It takes a great deal of patience to become great!
Dancers who perhaps have less facility, or natural ability than some, are often encouraged to adopt the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ attitude. This is where I believe some dancers can be mistaken into disregarding correct technique while still trying to achieve difficult movements. Although ‘tricks’ are an ever-changing phenomenon in dance culture, there will always be steps or artistic styles that are trendy. When dance students see these trends on social media, in the studio, and on stage performed by professionals, they immediately want to try them, even if they are not working at that level of difficulty yet.
Millennials, in particular, are often labelled as lazy because we now see so many students wanting ‘immediate-gratification’ from their dancing. Students are no longer interested in putting in the hours and the energy into perfecting their retiré position - instead they want to try triple pirouettes and complicated turning combinations right off the bat. In other words, students aren’t willing to go from A-B-C to get to D.
However, even within classical ballet, it is becoming more and more evident that tricks and extremely difficult movements are what the audience expects and is interested in watching. Large ballet competitions throughout the world, such as the Prix De Lausanne, or the Youth America Grand Prix, are showcasing young dancers who are performing incredibly difficult classical ballet variations. These variations were often originally choreographed to be performed by the principal dancers of a professional ballet company, and yet students as young as nine years old are performing them.
While learning difficult choreography can be beneficial in expanding a student’s knowledge of classical repertoire, if performed, it should always be reviewed and altered if necessary to accommodate the student’s current technical ability. It is important that we teach students the difference between performing steps because they can and performing steps because they are worthy - meaning that they have put in the hard work and are now able to perform the steps correctly and safely.
As a dancer, my personal experience has shown me that judges, adjudicators and directors appreciate when a dancer has something exciting to offer. When you have one or more particular skills that are different, more difficult, or more exciting than that of your peers and competitors, you are showing uniqueness and setting yourself apart from other dancers. In a cattle-call-style audition, standing out is imperative. If you walk into an audition with twenty or more dancers who all have the same body shape, are the same height and all have roughly the same level of experience, the only way to set yourself apart from the crowd is to show that you can do something different or better than everybody else in the room.
I have also learned that going back to basics and paying attention to the details of simple movement is a much more efficient way of improving than just banging out steps for the heck of it! When your body isn’t used to performing careful and controlled movement, trying to do more difficult movements will only expose your weaknesses sooner. In order to demonstrate exciting and challenging movement, we must first complete the tedious, yet rewarding, task of laying the foundations.
As a dance educator, I do my best to instil the ‘quality over quantity’ mentality in my students. I would rather see my students strive for a clean and precise double pirouette than a triple pirouette with incorrect technique. However, I believe a dancer should always be challenged to push to their limits. If a student has been demonstrating a movement correctly and consistently for a number of weeks, I would then encourage them to push for an extra turn, a higher leg or more elevation while maintaining or building on their artistic quality. We don’t improve by working at the same level every day - this is why I tell my students to aim higher in every lesson. Improvement is also a huge factor in building confidence and confidence inspires motivation to continue to strive for more.
Becoming a ‘successful’ ballet dancer depends on your definition of success. Many young dancers are now more invested in becoming famous than dancing for an influential ballet company. ‘Famous’ was once a label reserved for those who had achieved the utmost excellence in their craft. Prior to the invention of Instagram and other social platforms, people would pay good money to go and see the most talented dancers perform and be awestruck by their abilities. Now, just by luck of the Instagram algorithm, any teenage dancer with a smart phone can become ‘famous’ just by posting videos and photos of whatever is trending in dance that month.
Dance students must remember that the end goal for any dancer should always be to become the very best they can be. This means putting in the time and effort to develop themselves as an artist. Technique is the ground work for everything else that comes with being a ballet dancer. It is impossible to achieve your maximum ability without perfecting the small details. Honing technique is a never-ending task because we never stop learning and we will always continue to develop our understanding of ourselves and our craft. Learning tricks can be a way to set you apart from the crowd and also keep your training from becoming tedious. With the right mindset and priorities, there can be a place for both technique and tricks in the world of classical dance. Just remember that as long you keep your motivation for improvement genuine, then success will just be a bonus.
28th July, 2018