Updated: Oct 16
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Once upon a time, I thought that ballet was a dance technique that was the same no matter where it was taught. Of course, there would potentially be minor differences, but surely the principles are the same. In reality, there are many different systems for teaching ballet across the globe. They share a common foundation, but they can differ vastly in their technique, artistry, terminology, and philosophies.
This reality explains why you may find in a ballet class that a teacher uses a different word for a movement than you are used to, or teaches a particular movement in a different way. It can be confusing. At Dragonfly Dance, we teach our own syllabus, designed especially for adults, that draws on elements of a variety of ballet systems (although not all systems).
In this blog post, I am going to cover some of the most well known ballet systems of training.
Why knowing the different systems of ballet matters
Picture this scenario: you step into a new studio, eager to absorb every plié, tendu, and arabesque. But as the teacher guides you through the exercises, you notice variations in technique and terminology. Confusion might arise - is one approach right and the other wrong?
Understanding the breadth of ballet styles and techniques is useful for several reasons.
Firstly, it helps dancers to recognise the rich tapestry that makes up this art form. Each method carries with it a legacy of artistic expression and technical precision, honed over generations. When we acknowledge this spectrum, it allows for a deeper appreciation of ballet's vast, global heritage.
Moreover, being aware of different ballet systems helps students develop a crucial mindset of flexibility and adaptability. This knowledge empowers dancers to navigate through various training environments with an open heart and mind. It encourages them to view differences not as conflicts, but as opportunities for growth and enrichment.
Additionally, this awareness serves as a beacon of reassurance. It sends a clear message that there isn't a singular "right" way to approach ballet. A teacher's deviation from your prior instruction doesn't diminish the value of your previous learning. Instead, it unveils the mosaic of methodologies that collectively shape ballet into the multifaceted art form we adore.
In this journey of exploration, we'll delve into some of the most influential ballet training systems around the world. Together, we'll celebrate the diversity that has breathed life into this timeless dance, and discover how each unique approach contributes to the vibrant tapestry of ballet.
The different types of ballet
1. French School
Ballet didn’t start in France. It started in the courts of Italy, but the French were the first to have a ballet school, established by Louis IX in 1661. The French method is seen as the parent school of all other ballet schools.
The French method is known for elegance and refinement, rather than virtuosity. The hallmarks of the French method include an emphasis on clean lines, precision, and attention to detail, including alignment of the body, placement of limbs, and correct execution of steps. There is considerable attention to articulation of the feet, which contributes to it fast footwork and trademark petit batterie (small jumps where the feet ‘beat’ – cross over each other - in the air). There is a strong emphasis on port de bras and epaulment.
It has distinctive system of arabesques, port de bras, and wall/corner numbering.
These days, the home of French ballet is L’École de Danse de I’Opéra de Paris
The French Method of training was revitalised in the 1980s by ballet superstar Rudolph Nureyev. Some of his contributions included reviving and popularising many classical ballets from the French repertoire, including ‘La Sylphide’ (choreographed by Filippo Taglioni – an Italian, but this work was in the French style), ‘Giselle’ (choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot) and ‘Coppélia (choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon.
Ballet originated in the Italian courts, but France established the first ballet school in 1661 under Louis IX. This French school is considered the progenitor of all other ballet institutions.
The French method prioritises elegance and refinement over virtuosity. Its hallmarks encompass clean lines, precision, and meticulous attention to detail, including body alignment, limb placement, and proper execution of steps. Significant focus is placed on foot articulation, contributing to rapid footwork and the distinctive petit batterie (small jumps with feet crossing in the air). There's also a strong emphasis on port de bras and epaulment.
This method features a unique system of arabesques, port de bras, and wall/corner numbering. Today, the epicenter of French ballet is L’École de Danse de l’Opéra de Paris.
In the 1980s, ballet luminary Rudolph Nureyev breathed new life into the French Method. Among his contributions was the revival and popularization of many classical French repertoire ballets, including 'La Sylphide' (choreographed by Filippo Taglioni in the French style), 'Giselle' (choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot), and 'Coppélia' (choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon).
2. Bournonville Method
The Bouronville Method, created by Danish dancer and choreographer August Bournonville in the mid-1800s during the Romantic era of ballet, was heavily influenced by the early French school of ballet.
Known for its distinctive features, the Bournonville style emphasizes small, rapid footwork (bravura), complemented by epaulement, the graceful movement of the torso, arms, and head in alignment with the feet. This method is characterized by expressive mime, an appearance of effortlessness and lightness, achieved through a supple upper body in contrast to lively jumps and nimble footwork. The underlying principle is that the dancer should exhibit natural grace, deliver a dramatic impact, and maintain harmony between body and movement.
Bournonville said “The height of artistic skill is to know how to conceal the mechanical effort and strain beneath harmonious calm.”
Key elements of the Bournonville method include:
Arms held low and rounded, positioned in front of the body, gesturing towards the audience to engage them in the performance.
Graceful epaulement, typically involving a twist of the upper body toward the gesture foot.
Lowered eye-line, conveying kindness rather than pride, with the eyes naturally following the moving leg.
A juxtaposition of swift footwork with the graceful movement of the arms and torso.
Pirouettes executed with a low leg position, influenced by the long skirts of the time, transitioning from a low developpe into second position for outward turns, and from second position into fourth for inward turns.
Recognizable poses, such as pointe derriere with one arm in fifth position and the other at the waist, accompanied by a touch of epaulement.
Additionally, Bournonville's ballets were notable for their challenge to male dancers, providing opportunities for them to showcase their abilities on par with their female counterparts.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all ballet training systems. There is also the Cuban Method, the Argentinian Method, and the Chinese Method, to name a few.
3. Cecchetti Method
The Cecchetti Method was developed by Enrico Cecchetti, an Italian ballet dancer and teacher. It evolved over years of training and teaching. Cecchetti honed his system at the Imperial School in St Petersburg (1897-1902) and the Warsaw State School (1902-1905). Establishing his own school in 1905, he later became the ballet master for Ballets Russe after company members refused to tour without his classes. This method, rooted in the teachings of Carlo Blasis, emphasizes strength, balance, and musicality, with a particular focus on épaulement, the positioning of the shoulders and upper body. Cecchetti advocated for comprehensive training of each body part to cultivate strong technique and well-balanced dancers. Central to his approach is the concept of aplomb, or center alignment, which aids dancers in achieving balance and lines that convey effortlessness rather than strain.
Additionally, Cecchetti's technique underscores fluid arm movements, seamless transitions between positions, rapid footwork, and the natural development of turnout from the hips rather than the knees. Notably, it stands out for its meticulous attention to detail and precision in movement execution. The Cecchetti method employs a structured syllabus featuring graded exercises that progress in difficulty.
In 1922, the Cecchetti Society was established in England to preserve and promote his legacy. Two years later, it merged with the Imperial Society for Teachers of Dance (ISTD). I completed my classical ballet training in the ISTD ballet syllabus.
4. Vaganova System
The Vaganova Method, developed by Agrippina Vaganova in early 20th century Russia, was outlined in her book "Osnovye Klassicheskogo Tansa" (published in English as "Basic Principles of Classical Ballet") in 1934. It draws from Marius Petipa's teachings, the original choreographer of ballet classics like "The Nutcracker," "The Sleeping Beauty," "Swan Lake," "Don Quixote," and "La Bayadère." This approach seamlessly combines elements from the French romantic style, the athleticism of Cecchetti's method, and the soulful drama of Russian character dance.
The method begins by gradually introducing dance techniques for later performances, positing that all crucial ballet techniques can be unified within a single pas de deux, or partner dance. It engages the entire body in every movement, emphasising the upper body, legs, feet, and even the head and face, rather than fixating solely on the legs.
Each position must form a harmonious composition, incorporating the diagonals of the legs, arms, and head. The style is known for its delicate arms, well-set poses, logical order of dance movements, and a focus on dance quality.
Training progresses systematically, focusing on strength, flexibility, and technique. Early training emphasises épaulement, a stylized turning of the shoulders and body, along with core strength and back stability. The goal is to nurture dancers with acute awareness of their entire body, capable of moving with heightened harmony and expression.
This method demands rigorous training, involving extensive repetition to cultivate a polished, virtuosic technique. Dancers trained in the Vaganova method are recognised for their poised strength, controlled power, and regal posture. Additionally, this approach imparts a structured, scientific, and methodical outlook on ballet, rooted in an understanding of human anatomy for injury prevention. Vaganova also believed that students should delve into dance history, music theory, and related subjects alongside mastering ballet technique.
5. Royal Academy of Dance (RAD)
The RAD system of ballet, originating in London in the 1920s, was the first system I trained in and is now widely practiced in Australia. Founded by influential ballet teachers, including Adeline Genée, Tamara Karsavina, Philip Richardson, Edouard Espinosa, and Phyllis Bedells, it was initially named the Association of Teachers of Operatic Dancing in Great Britain.
The primary aim of RAD ballet was to advance academic training in classical ballet across Great Britain. Today, it has become a global standard for ballet instruction. The method emphasizes teaching basic ballet technique at a deliberate pace, allowing students to progress through each grade and complete the training regimen.
The underlying principle is that by mastering fundamental movements, students develop a robust technique, enabling them to execute more challenging steps with greater fluidity and precision.
The method is characterised by free movement, character dance, incorporation of classical ballet, and merging of the French, Cecchetti, Vaganova, and Bournonville methods.
6. Balanchine Technique
Balanchine developed his neoclassical style while touring Europe with the Ballet Russe in the 1920s. In 1934, he founded the School of American Ballet (SAB), now the world's authority on Balanchine training, emphasizing dancers capable of performing his choreography.
As a Russian dancer, Balanchine drew from the pre-Vaganova training method, blending old-world Russian techniques with the modern and daring American style.
Balanchine Technique focuses on training dancers to perform his choreography with athleticism, speed, and expansive movements characterized by sharpness and precision.
Hallmarks of his style include:
A deep plié.
Port de bras that is more open and less curved, with wrists exhibiting more freedom and fingers positioned unconventionally.
Head turned forward and up, creating a three-dimensional spiral from the waist up.
Arabesque line with an open hip and the side arm pressed back.
Pirouette en dehor initiated from a lunge instead of a plié in fourth position.
Weight shifted forward over the ball of the foot, enhancing speed.
Petit allegro performed without landing in demi-plie, and without heels needing to touch the floor
Use of the B Plus position (unique to Balanchine technique) which has the gesture leg bent with knees touching and foot stretched derriere (see image at top of this post)
In pointework, the dancer rolls up to pointe through demi-pointe, in contrast to the Russian method, which involves a small jump. This results in wider first and second positions while en pointe.
Balanchine's technique aims to present line, form, and movement to the audience in an elongated and streamlined manner. Dancers maintain an angled position, executing steps to the front, side, and back while moving diagonally in the dance space. In the studio, training exercises focus on enhancing movement quality, strength, and self-control, alongside promoting freedom and lightness of movement.
The Balanchine Foundation released a series of video recordings showcasing Balanchine demonstrating his technique posthumously in 1983. These recordings offer over nine hours of his interpretations of classical ballet technique.
7. Borovansky Ballet
The Borovansky syllabus was created by Czech-born Xenia Borvansky. Her husband, founder of the Borovansky Ballet, Edouard, first came to Australia in 1929 with Anna Pavlova. He returned in 1939 with the Ballet Russe and Xenia, deciding to stay in Australia when World War II broke out.
In 1939, he established the Borovansky Academy of Russian Ballet in Melbourne with Xenia. His goal was to form an Australian Ballet Company, which he successfully achieved. The Borovansky Ballet was founded in 1940, later becoming the Australian Ballet Company in 1962.
After her husband’s passing, Xenia chose to maintain the school in Melbourne and developed an Australian system for teaching ballet based on her Russian training. She named it the Australian Academy of Dancing, offering syllabus levels from preliminary to advanced. Today, the Borovansky Syllabus is managed by the Australian Institute of Classical Dance (AICD).
This syllabus focuses on examinations rather than training methods. Early stages emphasize learning enchainment (step combinations) to cultivate proper dynamics and fluidity. Specific port de bras and embellishments are left out to allow teachers to impart their personal style.
The goal of the syllabus is to nurture a love for dance and an understanding of ballet as both a recreational and potentially professional performing art. It's divided into grades, ranging from pre-primary to solo seal, with difficulty increasing gradually based on physical development and ability. Emphasis on dance quality, style, expressiveness, and musicality begins early and progresses. Additionally, the syllabus includes elements of character dance.
Dragonfly Dance Adult Ballet System
At Dragonfly Dance, we use our own ballet syllabus, developed especially for adults. It draws on the teachings from many of the systems described above. It is designed to give adults the same opportunities that children receive, which is to have progressive training that gradually builds their skills in technique, strength, flexibility, musicality, artistry, and terminology. If you'd like to know more about our Adult Ballet System please email email@example.com
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