Turns are not all about quantity. Like many of the finer things in life, quality is what really matters. Spinning your way through six sloppy pirouettes is not as impressive as a sustained and controlled triple. A great turner with a beautiful position and a clear, consistent spot is easy on the audience’s eye; not just a Tasmanian devil-style whirlwind. Many “spinners” rely on a low releve position to keep them closer to the ground, as well as a small, low turning position to keep them closer into the axis of the turn, much like figure skaters who pull in to very rapid, tight spins. With a beautiful controlled turn, the audience is able to see the clear “coin flip” front-to-back action of the turn rather than just a blurry, gyroscopic spin. It is infinitely easier to control a soft, balanced landing from a proper pirouette than trying to stop the uncontrolled momentum of a spin by essentially falling or stumbling to the finish position.
Many “natural turners” can get carried away with increasing their number of turns and lose the quality of their turns exponentially. Some “spinners” will sit into their supporting leg or separate the action of the shoulders and hips to give more “whip” or windup from the preparation through the turn. While it is good to keep pushing your boundaries, dancers must always be conscious of keeping the technical foundation intact.
I started my ballet training at the age of eight. By the time I was around 12 or 13, I had discovered a natural ease for turning. In the SFB school summer program that year, I was Daniel Simmons’ pirouette demonstrator for our technique classes. I was so proud that I had found a part of ballet in which I really excelled. However, a growth spurt later that summer (three inches in three weeks!) totally disoriented my balance and body awareness, so I had to really work on getting my changing body under control again. For the rest of my schooling and my time in the company at SFB, I enjoyed participating in pirouette competitions after class with the other men (and sometimes Vanessa), trying to outdo each other. These competitions were definitely more about quantity than quality, but they did teach me how to eke out one more turn by keeping my spot consistent. My best moment was besting Joan Boada and the guys with my first time doing ten pirouettes, spinning on the wood floor at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. I hit just the right balance point and I felt like I had enough momentum to spin forever!
It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I felt myself take control of my natural turning ability. I was dancing at Dance Theatre of Harlem, but would often take open class at Steps with Willy Burmann to supplement my training (and to be around all the stars of the major New York ballet companies). Willy took a special interest in me and essentially became my pirouette coach. He emphasized getting around the front on “one”, which became a very clear dynamic that sharpened my turns. He often had me demonstrate pirouettes for the class, and I’ll never forget the day I did seven perfectly clean pirouettes ending to the front in a balance on releve and holding it for what seemed like forever. I could feel the collective gasp of the entire class, and held my balance just a moment longer to take in the full effect. Needless to say, I got a great round of applause and a new insight into the true potential of my turning ability. The next day, I walked into class and who was there but Mikhail Baryshnikov! As usual, Willy called on me to demonstrate pirouettes, hoping for a repeat performance, but with Misha in the room I could barely do a triple to save my life. My turn mojo had vanished in the presence of greatness. Willy looked at me, crossed his arms, and shook his head… and I just wanted to crawl under the piano and disappear!
Nowadays, I approach my Just Turns workshops with all of my knowledge and turning experiences in mind. I strive to emphasize the importance of quality and consistency. Teachers, choreographers, and directors are not as impressed with a sloppy spin as with a neat, confident turner who is consistent from the studio to the stage, no matter the turning surface. It’s always easier to spin rather than turn, but taking the harder road is ultimately more rewarding. So remember, with turns we should always appreciate quality over quantity… but of course, we can still strive to have the best of both!
On that note, here is a link to the famous scene of Baryshnikov’s “pirouettes for rubles” from the film “White Nights” with Gregory Hines: