Vocational ballet schools are quite unlike the regular schools that most of us attend. Whether they are day schools or boarding schools, the students there spend most of their days dancing.
Ballet school students under 16 also learn regular subjects like math, languages and science. While they train in their art with focus and dedication, the ballet students are also studying their academic subjects and clearing board exams! But the emphasis laid on the subjects varies from school to school, and some schools, as we shall see below, have some very specific ballet-related academic subjects. There are also vocational schools for students over 16, some with college academics and some which focus solely on dance and dance related subjects. Some schools, like the Royal Ballet School, have a lower and an upper school. Students from the lower school pass directly into the upper but the school also offers auditions for 16 year old ballet students from around the world to join the upper school. Here we are going to explore the dance related classes that are taught in ballet school.
A number of ballet classes are held throughout the day. There might be an ISTD syllabus class, then an RAD class, a Cecchetti class, a free class, etc. Students have to be very versatile, as they tune their body and mind in the way required by the method that they are doing. In each class they will go through the full set of exercises: warm-up, barre, port de bras, adage, turns and allegro and beats. These classes are an essential part of every ballet school timetable, as this is where alignment is correctly learnt and technique is strengthened.
Pointe Class/Male Technique
Girls will have a pointework class going from basic pointework, when they join, and working up to more and more advanced pointe work, as they progress through the school, and as their feet and ankles strengthen. Meanwhile, boys have male technique classes. In these classes they largely focus on virtuosity and flair in performance.
Pas de Deux
Pas de deux, or partnering, is an extremely important part of ballet. It is also quite complex, and so it is taught only in the later years of vocational training, after the basics of ballet technique have been properly established. Girls and boys practice together, and they focus on lifts, pirouettes and balances. Sometimes they also learn pas de deux from famous ballets like Don Quixote and The Nutcracker.
Classical repertoire is enormous, and there are many aspects to it. Ballet schools teach variations from different ballets like La Esmeralda and Le Corsaire. They also teach corps de ballet roles for classics such as Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty.
Contemporary and Modern Dance
There are many styles of contemporary dance, like Graham and Cunnigham and modern techniques like Horton and Limón. Contemporary and modern dance are a combination of many other styles, including ballet and jazz. There is also floor work, and an emphasis on contracting and releasing parts of the body. Ballet schools teach contemporary dance through all years.
Some ballet schools are very serious about their acting classes, as acting is as big a part of a ballet as dance. They teach sections of pantomime and gestures from different ballets, to get a sense of the movements. And of course, like all acting classes, they have some seemingly silly, but very effective exercises like pretending to be falling leaves or running at other people in the room but avoiding collision!
Pilates/Stretngth & Conditioning
Ballet schools use pilates to improve dancers’ strength. It is a form of exercise that requires strength, flexibility, core stability, muscle control and attention to posture – all of which are essential for dancing ballet well. Schools use pilates to complement ballet training, as it helps dancers stay strong and injury free by using the right muscles.
In ballet school, dancers have a chance to experiment with choreography. They get to try different types of movements and string them together in ways that they choose to. They are exposed to choreography from the very beginning, but they get to immerse in it only in later years.
Character dance is the stylised representation of folk dance set to music that has been adapted for the theatre, and they are seen in ballets with a lot of peasant dances, like Swan Lake and Coppélia. Some of the common styles are mazurkas, tarantellas, csárdás and even flamencos! It is taught through all years in ballet school. Boys and girls wear a heeled shoe for character dance.
In some ways, folk dance is very similar to character dance. These classes usually are only for younger students, and they stop in the later years of vocational training. They teach the basics of many different dance styles, many of which are no longer popularly performed, such as gavottes, minuets, and even ballroom dancing!
Special Theoretical Ballet Subjects
Only a few ballet schools offer these classes, in the final years. Some of these subjects are history of ballet, history of music, history of theatre and history of fine art. They might even teach Benesh notation, or choreology, which is a system of recording movements. These classes give background to ballets that exist in company repertoires, and help dancers appreciate the details of each production. At the end of these classes, dancers are already familiar with the music and choreography of classical repertoire as they get on stage and start their careers!