When an adult starts ballet and begins researching styles or a young student switches ballet schools, I’m often asked what style of ballet I prefer. So I thought I’d share some of my thoughts below so I can send them to this post.
I can’t comment on all styles because I only have experience in two, but can shed a little light on the popular discussion between Russian (Vaganova) and English (RAD).
As a young student I began with the RAD method which unabbreviated stands for Royal Academy of Dance. This is the style that my little country ballet school offered. I kept progressing with this method until I was a tween.
When I joined The Australian Ballet School I was exposed to many Russian teachers who taught in the Vaganova style. A lot of people ask me if it’s hard for students to switch from one style to another and when I think back to my own experience it honestly didn’t cross my mind that I was changing styles.
The biggest difference I did notice though was the attention to detail and idea of mastering the fundamentals that my Russian teachers focussed on. We weren’t allowed to do more advanced steps until we had the basics almost perfected! Looking back, they were responsible for building my strong base of pure classical technique.
This is why I chose to teach the Vaganova method as a ballet teacher.
If we compare both styles, RAD allows students at a very young age to commence classes. Students as young as 3 start attending ballet in the English (and Australian) system. Whereas in Russia, students don’t start ballet until they are 7 or 8 years of age. This is because the Russians believe children need to be selected for ballet only if they have the right proportions, flexibility and anatomy.
In Australia and England, we tend to encourage ballet for everyone and everyBODY so this part of the English way of doing things really resonates with me. For example, I don’t teach a ‘Vaganova’ style to my 3 to 6 year olds. I adopt a more RAD approach with lots of play, movement and rhythm.
Once a student reaches 7 and 8 years of age, this is when I adopt the Vaganova style of teaching. We discuss strength, flexibility and conditioning (almost gymnastic like!) during class and focus on more repetitions of steps to master it. This is why a child who transitions from RAD to Vaganova can sometimes find the Russian style ‘boring’ if they aren’t open or patient enough to understand the benefits of doing something over and over again until it’s right.
Whilst I find RAD can look exciting and creative from the outside, I find that students are performing quite advanced steps at a young age with poor technique. Obviously this isn’t the case for some students who are exceptionally talented, but for the majority this is the case and can lead to injury.
Because RAD can look exciting and ‘pretty’ from the outside, it tends to give students and parents immediate satisfaction whilst Vaganova can give parents a sense of students not excelling fast enough. This is only exasperated by our fast ‘hack’ culture we live in today. When parents are patient and students are keen to really learn the fundamentals, an amazing transformation takes place when a student switches to the Vaganova method – I’ve witnessed this many times.
Whilst RAD students are often performing advanced steps incorrectly at a younger age, Vaganova students wait until the body is strong enough and joints are flexible enough to safely perform advanced steps with accuracy. In a nutshell, RAD masters ‘dances’ and Vaganova masters the fundamentals (eg. plié, tendu etc).
Switching gears to adults learning ballet; one thing I’ve noticed with adult ballet teachers who teach RAD is that they tend to give open classes with exercises that aren’t even on each side (eg. right and left). By differing the choreography of exercises on each leg or side you are creating uneven bodies which is not ideal when working with fragile adult bodies that experience aches and pains the young ones don’t.
For example, when teaching adult ballet classes I still favour the Vaganova method because I think it’s important to keep things the same en dehor and en dedan on the barre and in the centre. My goal in ballet is to create symmetrical bodies and some of the RAD exercises don’t align with this value.
Whilst RAD focuses on performance quality, Vaganova focuses on engaging the correct muscles. With that sentence alone, what would you prefer? I know that I’d pick engaging the correct muscles over performance quality any day. Because everyone has a body, not everyone will have a performance career.
One of the hardest things to explain to parents who switch their children from RAD to the Vaganova method is exam results. RAD results are easier to attain (with many people receiving Distinction) whereas Vaganova students strive for the ever elusive gold medal of Distinction. If you receive a Distinction in Vaganova then you’ve really earned it and are most likely to succeed if you want a career in ballet. Many students who receive Distinction in an RAD exam have no hope of becoming a professional ballerina, which sounds really brutal but it’s true.
My final point to make is that I never remember really learning the vocabulary of ballet as a young student, but with the Vaganova method I am teaching my students the correct terminology from the age of 6 and they are assessed on this in the theory part of their exams.
At the end of the day, this is just my humble opinion and am open to debate. But I hope this has helped explain the main differences that I see, coming from someone who has worked with both syllabi and styles. And on that note, I STILL work with both styles and syllabi…
Guess what, it’s all about BALANCE. I will use a more English (Australian) approach with our 3 – 6 year olds because I think little ones deserve the space to be creative and begin learning ballet. And whilst I choose the Vaganova style for older and adult students I often incorporate some free movement, improvisation and ‘play’ during class to balance out the receptiveness and structure – after all, we’re not in Russia!
On a completely unrelated note, I’d love to study the Balanchine method! But thats a discussion for another time…