A flawless pirouette is a dancer’s holy grail: eminently desirable yet, at times, frustratingly elusive. For New York City–based master teacher Nancy Bielski, who counts New York City Ballet’s Jenifer Ringer among the faithful students in her advanced ballet class at Steps on Broadway, the secret lies in being clean, clean, clean.
For the preparation, which she teaches from a straight back leg, Bielski advises teachers to make sure students’ hips are square and arms in line (the supporting arm straight to the side, not behind the supporting side). “Then, when you push off to turn, it’s like spinning a top,” she says. “You have to push down against the floor rather than lift up out of the foot. You have to have a real sense of springing onto pointe. And the feeling is to start the body turning almost before you relevé.” As for spotting, she says to start right away: “The head should get around before the body does. A lot of dancers think spotting is holding the head but it actually involves moving it.” A good finish is—what else?—clean. Try to finish everything at the same time, Bielski counsels.
How best to teach pirouettes during class? The veteran instructor explains that she usually gives a center exercise that starts with a simple pirouette combination (e.g., a pirouette en dehors from a tombé pas de bourrée), then another pirouette combination preceded by lots of warm-up jumps. “Before I start the second pirouette I’d give 16 sautés in first or second just to keep the energy at a high peak, because you do need that high energy for turning,” Bielski says.
» Preparation for a pirouette en dehors: Plié in fourth, left foot front, keeping the hips square and the back knee straight. Arms are in fourth.
» Push down into the ground in order to spring up, beginning to turn as you relevé, and spotting immediately. Bring in your left arm right away so that you’re turning with arms in front. Pull up and engage your abdominals to maintain a vertical position.
» Continue turning, maintaining the arms in front and a very pointed, placed passé. The passé must remain in place during the entire turn. Don’t cheat and bring the leg down early.
» End in fourth position croisé lunge looking toward the audience, arms in fourth.
Pirouette Q & A with Nancy Bielski
Q:What are some common faux pas that you see in class?
A:[When students] tombé pas de bourrée fourth, then turn in the front leg [before going onto] relevé, it drives me crazy. A clean preparation is very important. Also, sometimes dancers have no position for their arms in front of their bodies. Even though you don’t use your arms to turn, they have to be quite strong, not too high and in front of the body. Another common mistake is that people don’t spot soon enough.
Q:Are there any differences between a pirouette that starts from a straight leg and one that starts from a bent leg?
A:I teach [pushing off from a straight leg], but I don’t care how people turn as long as it’s a turned-out preparation. It’s the same philosophy.
Q:Why are men sometimes better than women at turning?
A:Men have very strong upper bodies and I think that helps them to get around. Men don’t have to turn on pointe, which is very different, much harder, and sometimes women have such stretchy, long feet it’s harder to get onto pointe. When you see a really good female turner, like Gillian [Murphy] or Paloma [Herrera], there is just an uncanny sense of balance.
Q:When should you start teaching young dancers to turn?
A:I would start to teach them to turn very early and not worry about how they’re turning, but just [get them] over the fear of turning. Let them enjoy turning and fix it later.
Consultant Nancy Bielski teaches an advanced ballet class at NYC’s Steps on Broadway, frequented by members of New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Broadway shows. She also teaches ABT company class and privately coaches advanced dancers. Trained at England’s Royal Ballet School and School of American Ballet, Bielski danced with the Harkness Ballet before teaching with David Howard for 10 years at his school in NYC.