The Rules of Company Class

I started writing this post back in July while creating at the National Choreographers Initiative, but quickly got distracted by the intensity of the choreographic process. It has been awhile since I posted, as I have been swamped while working the past few weeks in Anchorage, Alaska. While it is a few months since I started writing this blog, I feel that this topic is very relevant and hasn't been addressed much. So, I'd like to share. Enjoy!

National Choreographers Initiative dancers taking company class onstage
Back in October, I posted the rules of taking open class while prepping to dance with Barak Ballet in Los Angeles. Nine months later, I am back in the LA area having a completely different experience working as a choreographer for the National Choreographers Initiative. Each of us four choreographers have been offered the opportunity to teach company class for the professionals that have been brought in for this 3-week choreographic laboratory. I love teaching, so I happily took the director up on her offer. Having spent my first hour and a half on the other side of company class and digesting my vast experience taking class in an array of company cultures through freelancing has inspired me to gather a list of general rules for company class from both the teacher's side and the professional's side.

- Company class is a time for dancers to warmup their bodies and to improve their technique. This should generally be on their own terms. Some days a dancer is exhausted and just needs to wake their body up. Other days, a dancer may not have much rehearsal or may be understudying much of the day. During these periods, a pro may use class to push their technique to the next level. Company class is not an equal effort day to day.

- Company class instructors should approach class from an external perspective. Warmup should be approached very differently than classes that would be given to academy students. Yes, professionals need to be pushed, corrected, and kept on task. But company class should be nothing about the instructor and all about the dancers.

- It can be really effective for an instructor to offer combinations that relate to the work that is being prepared for performance. This offers the dancers an opportunity to perfect challenging sequences in choreography.

- Expectations of a dancer in company class should be very individual. If there is not a developed relationship with a group of dancers, it can be rude to make assumptions about why a dancer is acting a certain way in class. If a dancer changes my combination, I am assuming that they are making an important decision for themselves. Back to the first rule in this post, some dancers may be tired or hurting. Company class is a vehicle for the rest of the rehearsal day. Their is often an assumption that dancers must take class like they are students until they retire. Do every combination 100%, even if it doesn't feel good on your body. Of course, it is the dancer's responsibility to remain reasonable about their choices. For instance, if my back is sore from my recent injury, I may not perform arabesques or attitudes derriere in adagio or grand battements at barre. I am not being lazy. I am being smart about my body and extending the length of my career by making an educated decision to leave a combination out.

          (My mom sneaked video taking company class at PNB circa 2008)

- Apprentices and less experienced professionals should approach company class like they approached school class. It takes time to develop an understanding of what your body needs. I didn't start altering my approach to company class until I had my first injury three years into my career. At that point, I recognized that overworking any position in arabesque may be more detrimental to my dancing than beneficial.

- Instructors should try their own combinations with the music to make sure that the tempo is comfortable, doable, and what they imagined the exercise to be. To speak and hear a combination versus executing a combination is a very different experience.

- If a dancer is entering class with an established company, they should ask other dancers if they can stand in any specific barre spot before claiming space. If there aren't many spots available and you are waiting for dancers to show up and claim their regular spot, wait away from the barre until the instructor walks in. Typically, somebody will point you in the right direction of a dancer's place that isn't in attendance.

- I strongly believe that those who teach class should still be taking class. I find that I teach much better when I am checking in with my body and reminding myself what it feels like to dance. 

- If you are going to leave class early, you should always give the teacher a wave as you leave. To walk up and thank the teacher directly, as you would at the end of class, interrupts the flow for those who are continuing with class. Quietly grab your stuff, walk to the door, and wait for the teacher to acknowledge your exit.

- Generally, new or auditioning dancers should pay attention to the hierarchy of individuals in a class. If a dancer has been with the company for many years or is a Principal dancer, let them dance where they want to dance in center. Some dancers could care less about hierarchy, but some are very particular about this order.

- It is the instructors job to be sensitive about when to push dancers in class. I am a dancer that always appreciates corrections. As I stated before, some dancers just want to warm up and focus on their technique in rehearsals. If an instructor feels that a dancer is being lazy, then they can bring that up outside of class and try to push a dancer to work harder. One common error I see is that instructors make judgements about dancers that they barely know. A dancer that is altering a combination or skipping a combination is not necessarily a lazy dancer. Only when their is a developed relationship between a teacher and a professional is it fair to make a judgement.

- Teachers that don't teach to their ego are generally the most respected teachers.

- Do offer corrections to technique, but be careful when offering corrections in style. Once a dancer becomes a professional, for instance, they are very unlikely to change certain parts of their dancing. For instance, if a dancer takes their pirouette preparation from a straight back leg, they may not be willing to execute this from a bent back leg. If they have figured out how to execute a beautiful pirouette from one position, why force them to change it unless it is for choreography that requires unison.

- This is a pet peeve of mine, not necessarily a definitive rule. It is merely a suggestion. Professionals generally don't need to be given specific combinations for plies and stretching. Plies should be about telling the body that class is beginning and stretching should be about limbering your own individual needs. If a dancer doesn't know how to execute these on their own, they probably shouldn't be professionals. I tend to shut down if I am given an extravagant plie combination.

- In most companies that I have danced, it is generally acceptable to wear what you wish for class. When dancers are forced to wear a dress code or to take off their warmups, I have found that dancers are generally treated with a lower level of respect in those workplaces. 

- Instructors should learn to trust the dancers that they are teaching in their decisions. There is not often enough trust in dancers to make their own decisions.

- This is kind of a given. It is more common for dancers to talk in company class, whether catching up with a friend or discussing choreography for a later rehearsal. While it is ok to chat here and there, don't be disrespectful and talk throughout all of center. Show the instructor respect and offer your attention for a majority of class.

- One rule that I am a big advocate of is to support your fellow dancers. If somebody executes a major feat, show your appreciation. I'm also one of the first people to start clapping to the beat when a dancer accidentally ends up having a solo across the floor. Comaraderie and support go a long way in a difficult and competitive career.

- It is acceptable to miss company class here and there if your body really needs a break. Don't make a habit of missing class. If there is an instructor whose class you don't mesh well with, try to find a way to take another class to warm up, like open or academy classes.

- Now that you are a professional, don't approach class like you know everything. There is always something else you can learn.

- While most unionized companies don't require dancers to attend company class, keep in mind that this is more of a technicality than a pass to miss class. Beyond that, a great deal of casting, especially for incoming choreographers, takes place during class.

Company class can be a blur (PNB company class onstage circa 2004)
 - This is my own personal rule. I feel that company class, whether for a classical or contemporary company, should still be a classical ballet class. Ballet is the basis for most technical dance. When company class starts turning into an instructor's interpretation of a mix of classical and contemporary styles, dancer technique will suffer. Keep class as class.

- Whether you like the class or not, always thank the instructor and pianist after class. It is in our culture to clap at the end of class. If you really loved class, hoot and holler. Walk up to the pianist and shake their hand. Walk up to the instructor and say thank you. Instructors appreciate applause and recognition as much as dancers do. Most of them still are or once were in your position. 

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