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Playing for your first ballet class

Wow!  Second post and I’m already behind schedule!  I suddenly thought about three weeks ago that I’d like to record a Christmas album.  Seeing as that decision came a bit late in the year, I’ve been madly finishing it and releasing it over the past few weeks, and I’ve had almost no time for anything else.  Now that’s done and dusted (have a listen here if you want), I thought I’d return to what I started here in my last post, and give some advice to new or prospective pianists for dance.

This time I’ll be assuming that you’ve found somewhere that would like to have you play for them, and will give you an overview of how a class is structured, and what takes place during that time.

The Start of Class

Classes usually last between an hour and two hours.  When you enter the studio, either with the teacher or before the teacher, make sure you say hello to the students/dancers already in the room.  It really doesn’t help the image of our profession at all to slink into the studio and hide behind the piano without engaging with the dancers, and I find people are much more likely to treat you with respect if you make that connection with them first.

Class will sometimes begin with a reverence.  This is a short and formal way of greeting both the teacher and the pianist, and takes the form of a very short dance consisting mainly of two bows/curtsies, one to each of you.

During Class

Class will then follow an almost universally standard set of exercises designed to gradually warm a dancer up for the more athletic jumping steps at the end of class.  In a school setting, class is mostly a setting in which to learn the craft of the ballet dancer.  Attention will be paid to technique, and the teacher will likely give a lot of corrections to the dancers.  They will also be learning how to dance with music, respond to musical phrasing, and show emotion and interpretation through their movements.  In a professional setting, these considerations remain to a lesser degree, but class for professionals is mostly a daily ritual to stay in shape, keep their technique honed, and warm up before shows and rehearsals.

Essentially, class is in three main sections:

Barre:  This is a set of exercises done while holding onto the barre

Centre: This is a set of exercises done in the centre of the studio, without the support of the barre

Jumps:  This is a set of jumping exercises, starting with small jumps and ending with big, athletic jumps

Setting Exercises

The teacher will ‘set’ each exercise before the dancers perform it.  This means that they will show the dancers the steps, and on what musical counts they fall.  All you need to really know when you are starting out is the time signature of the music, the number of bars or ‘counts’ (more on this later), the tempo, and the overall feel.  By far the easiest way for the teacher to impart this information to you is by singing or humming a short phrase.  Most teachers are comfortable with doing this, especially if you ask them to ahead of class rather than in front of the dancers.

Performing Exercises

After an exercise has been set, the dancers will perform it.  Having chosen a suitable piece of music, the teacher will usually give a signal to the pianist to begin, such as saying “and” or “thank you”. This signal varies from teacher to teacher, and is a personal choice.  The pianist will then begin with a 4 bar introduction that establishes the tempo and feel of the music.  The pianist then plays the music and the dancers do the steps while the teacher watches.  The teacher might correct during an exercise either by addressing the whole class, or by correcting an individual dancer, but the pianist will carry on playing to the end of the exercise unless asked to stop prematurely by the teacher.  Exercises are always performed both on the right side and the left side of the body.  The teacher may decide to stop after one side, or perhaps to turn around and continue straight onto the other side.  This is a decision that is often, but not always, made before the exercise starts!  After the exercise is finished, the teacher will likely give further corrections, before setting the next exercise. If the dancers struggled particularly with an exercise, the teacher might like to do it again, possibly at a slower or faster tempo.

Exercises at the barre are usually done all together, but as the class progresses through the centre and jumping sections, exercises will likely be done in groups, to make best use of available space and allow the teacher to pay more attention to individuals.  Groups can be as large as half the class or as small as 1 or 2 dancers.  When an exercise is done in groups, the music might stop between each group, or simply continue on, repeating for each new group as necessary, with no break in between. The 4 bar introduction may or may not be repeated between groups, depending on what the teacher feels is required.

Company or professional class usually involves far less (almost no) corrections, and therefore runs at a much faster pace than classes in an educational setting.

The End of Class

Class in a school environment almost always ends with a reverence to say thank you to the teacher and pianist.  Company class for professionals, in my experience, usually dispenses with this formality.  This takes the same format as the reverence that might (but not always) start a class ie. 4 or 8 bars or 3/4 or 4/4 at a steady tempo.

Wrapping Up

I hope that gives a very basic overview of what to expect in your first ballet class, from the perspective of a pianist.  In future instalments, I’ll look much more closely at the process of setting an exercise and understanding the cues that a teacher gives in doing so, as well as individual exercises and suitable musical choices to accompany them.

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