How I teach character dance
Simply standing in the commanding presence of ballet teacher Olga Dvorovenko can inspire a dancer to lift her sternum, elongate her neck, widen her shoulders and engage her core muscles. Whether Dvorovenko’s teaching the youngest levels at Ballet Academy East or coaching older dancers at American Ballet Theatre, she’s able to pull the very best from her students, and they dance with the artistry and musicality of professionals. What’s one of her secrets? A deep understanding of character dance. “It teaches students coordination, and how to listen and express different music,” she says. “It helps them open up and show that they love to dance—it’s so expressive.” And beyond that, character dance gives students freedom in movement and dynamics that they may find more difficult to experience within the confines of classical ballet.
Found in almost all classical ballets—from the mazurka in Paquita to the polonaise in Coppélia—character is a highly stylized technique, done in special character shoes or boots. A standard part of many ballet academies’ curriculum, it’s also offered at many summer intensives.
Since character uses much of the same vocabulary and concepts as ballet technique, Dvorovenko says it’s best to begin character training around 8 or 9 years old. “Students have to have a basis of classical ballet. It’s impossible to teach character without one to two years of solid ballet training,” Dvorovenko says, adding that the tarantella, for example, uses the ballet step ballonné, so students need to have this movement in their bodies.
Since character is a dance tradition influenced by geographic location, stemming from both folk and court dancing in Eastern Europe, teachers may have varying stylizations and approach movements differently, Dvorovenko says. And though she was born in Ukraine, Dvorovenko’s style is heavily influenced by the Polish folk dancing troupes that often traveled to her town when she was a child.
One key movement that she teaches early on is the mazurka, a Polish step with a distinct 3-count rhythm. It’s a cornerstone of character dance and teaches students to travel smoothly across the floor, challenging their arm and head coordination. Here, Dvorovenko and student Paulina Waski demonstrate the basics of character dance and the classic mazurka.
Dvorovenko’s character classes begin at the barre, and she places great emphasis on training students to move their upper bodies elegantly. “Your upper body has to talk—every gesture is important,” she says. During class, she is careful to attribute each traditional movement to its global roots, giving her students a historical and worldly foundation. And because each step is associated with a unique musicality, students gain a solid understanding of rhythm and phrasing.
*Keep your chest and shoulders wide and open. Dvorovenko tells students to imagine that they have hooks and eyes attached to their backs, and the hooks and eyes are close together. At the same time, dancers must hold their stomachs in tightly.
*Increasing épaulement makes a dancer’s movement more alive, says Dvorovenko. It’s difficult to teach the arms and head together, because so many tiny movements happen at once. “It’s like adding many spices when cooking; they make the food so much more flavorful,” she says.
* When you open your arms in preparation, initiate the movement with your elbows. Then, rotate your forearms to lift your wrists and hands slightly while continuing to open your arms. When you do it correctly, your body will rise. Stay tall.
Mazurka: This 3-count step should slide across the floor. Try not to bounce, even though there are slight hops. When this step originated, dancers wore long, heavy costumes with detailed embroidery and jewels.
Photo by Kyle Froman at the ABT Studios in NYC