On any given weekday between 11:30 am and 1 pm at New York City’s Steps on Broadway, Nancy Bielski offers an advanced-intermediate professional ballet class that keeps even ballet’s biggest superstars on their toes. By the end of tendus, her students (a mix of freelance ballerinas, former professional dancers and a revolving door of off-season principals) are dripping with sweat. But it’s her ultra-quick petit allégro that keeps many coming back for more—there’s no euphoria quite like nailing one of her combinations!
Bielski, one of Manhattan’s most beloved ballet teachers, began her dance training at 8 years old at a local dance school in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father, a member of the Boston Symphony, observed class one day, saw that the class was doing cartwheels and immediately took her out. “He told me it wasn’t ballet,” Bielski says. Instead, she was sent to learn from Esther Brooks at the Cambridge School of Ballet, where she trained in the early School of American Ballet method. “Esther set my foundation in dance,” she says. “She would travel to New York every six weeks to discuss ballet technique with Balanchine and return to teach it to us.” Once Bielski graduated from high school, she extended her training at the Royal Ballet School, on scholarship. Then came her first professional performance opportunity with Harkness Youth Dancers, later followed by stints with Boston Ballet Company and the Cincinnati Ballet Company. “I didn’t enjoy company life,” Bielski says. “It was me, not the companies. I just didn’t like the hours or performing, and I had gotten way too thin, so I decided to move back home to Boston and enroll at the University of Massachusetts.” While earning a degree in English, Bielski started a ballet club at the school, where she taught class to other students. She enjoyed the experience so much, she decided to pursue a teaching career.
After college Bielski returned to New York City where she taught at The Harkness School for Ballet Arts, and later, at Steps on Broadway and at the David Howard School of Ballet. “Everyone thinks David was their mentor,” Bielski shares. “But of course, I really think he was my mentor. His combinations were meant to be fun and not complicated. He kept the pace of class moving by doing each step multiple times, group after group, until it got into the body. He corrected the whole body by looking at how it moves through space and was a teacher you could trust.”
Eventually, Steps on Broadway became Bielksi’s true dance home. “[The school’s founder] Carol Paumgarten was like an angel to me,” Bielski says. “She never interfered with how her teachers taught. She took my class every day and gave me the freedom to express what I wanted to express.” Over the course of 35 years Bielski has taught every level of ballet at the school, including starting a children’s division. She has also spent roughly 20 years teaching company class at American Ballet Theatre.
To prepare for class each day, Bielski gives herself a barre in her kitchen. “It’s a great way to exercise and stay in touch with the movement,” she says. Though she does most of her class off the cuff, Bielski likes to prepare her petit allégro and one of her pirouette combinations ahead of time. “I just spend about five minutes preparing so [the steps] don’t get too convoluted,” she explains. In terms of technique, Bielski likes to focus on musical accuracy. “Keep the rhythm of the step in your body and the musical exactness in your feet so the movement is not overly punctuated.”
Here, Bielski discusses her must-have dance attire, the dancers who’ve inspired her artistically and her teaching philosophy.
Her must-have dance attire: “My unitards are SteelCore by Marisa Cerveris, my teaching tops are by Mari DiLena, my ballet skirts are by Abigail Mentzer Designs, and my ballet slippers are Juliets by Capezio.”
Her go-to breakfast: “Toast, a hard-boiled egg, juice, coffee and some fruit.”
The TV shows she can’t live without: “Right now I’m watching ‘The Last Kingdom,’ and it’s fantastic, but my all-time favorites are ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘The Wire’, ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’”
Her ideal day off: “A nice day off for me is having nothing to do. I like having time by myself and with my grandchildren. I’m happy to be healthy, living near my family and teaching. That is enough for me.”
The dancers who’ve inspired her artistically: “One of the dancers who has inspired me the most is Diana Vishneva—I think she epitomizes the beauty of ballet. Julie Kent, Jenifer Ringer, Sarah Lane, Veronika Part, Vladimir Malakhov, Misha [Baryshnikov]. They’ve changed the way I teach. How do you make someone who is so good feel inspired to be even better? Rather than looking to clean their arabesque, I look for some word or insight that will push them further musically or with their way of moving—something unexplainable.”
Her teaching philosophy: “I want to make each of my students the best dancer they can be, given what they have to work with, and to always be respectful of what the technique is demanding. I also never let dancers get depressed if they don’t get it right because they can always try again tomorrow.”