All Ballet is Not the Same

by | Oct 16, 2013 | Dance | 0 comments

By Diane Claytor

All Ballet is Not the Same:

Gertrude Stein said it in her 1913 poem, Sacred Emily: “a rose is a rose is a rose.” This well-known phrase has often been interpreted to mean that things are what they are. I thought ballet styles were pretty much the same thing – you learned ballet and no matter where you were taught, the movements, the steps, the positions, were all the same.

And then someone mentioned the “European” style of ballet and how it’s different from the “American” style. So I started researching (meaning “googling”) and lo and behold, I found three distinct ballet styles and six different techniques. Now, those of you who are trained ballet dancers may react to this news with a big “duh”. But, as you may know if you’ve read any of these posts before, I am not a dancer and was actually quite surprised to learn that not all ballet dancers learn the same method.

Erin Halloran and Nurlan Abougaliev in Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake

Erin Halloran and Nurlan Abougaliev in Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake

Three Main Styles:

Let’s start with the three main styles of ballet: classical, neoclassical and contemporary. They no doubt have many similarities, but the way of performing and the vocabulary and technical aspect of each are also quite different.

Classical ballet is the oldest and most formal of the ballet styles and follows traditional ballet techniques used when ballet first began hundreds of years ago.

The beauty of classical ballet is that, while there is a set structure as to how steps are to be performed and a specific language to it, interpretation and training may be approached in different ways. However, because its stylings are relatively rigid, classical ballet leaves little room for creative expression.

There are variations in classical ballet relating to the area of origin and nationality, such as Russian, French or Italian ballet. So it’s not surprising to hear someone refer to “the American style” or “the Italian style” because each nationality does have its own defining differences which make its dancers unique. The differences are often very subtle and take a trained eye to spot them.

Classical ballet is characterized by:

▪ graceful, flowing movements
▪ classical form: turn-out of the legs and pointe work
▪ balance and symmetry
▪ etherealness
▪ emphasis on story ballets and narrative
▪ elaborate sets and costumes

Neoclassical ballet, introduced in the 20th century by choreographer George Balanchine, uses traditional ballet vocabulary but is far less rigid than classical ballet. Balanchine used flexed hands (and occasionally feet), turned-in legs, off-centered positions and non-classical costumes (such as leotards and tunics instead of tutus) to distance himself from the classical and romantic ballet traditions. What is left is the dance itself, sophisticated but sleekly modern. Dancers often dance at faster and more difficult tempos and perform more technical feats. The spacing on stage is more modern and complex and organization is varied, although the focus on structure is a defining characteristic. The style draws on the advanced techniques of 19th century Russian Imperial dance, but strips it of its detailed narrative and heavy theatrical setting. Neoclassical ballet is typically characterized by:

▪ increased speed, energy and attack
▪ manipulation of the classical form
▪ asymmetry, an off-balance feel
▪ non-narrative, often one-act ballets
▪ pared down aesthetics—simple sets and costumes

Suzanne Farrell rehearsing with George Balanchine

Suzanne Farrell rehearsing with George Balanchine

According to, “classical ballet can often be compared to a formal night out at the opera; neoclassical is presented best in a casual theatre with minimal costuming, lighting and sets.”

Contemporary ballet is influenced by both classical ballet and modern dance. It takes its technique and use of pointe work from classical ballet, although it permits a greater range of movement and relaxed steps not found in the strict discipline of old school ballet teachings. Many of its concepts come from ideas and innovations of 20th century modern dance, including floor work and turning-in of the legs.

George Balanchine is credited as being the founder of contemporary ballet through the development of neoclassical ballet, and Mikhail Baryshnikov is a shining example of a dancer who carved an entire career out of this style. Various well-known modern dance geniuses, such as Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor and Dwight Rhoden, have further developed the style, which is characterized by:

▪ floor work
▪ turn-in of the legs
▪ greater range of movement and body line
▪ pointe shoes but also bare feet

The more classical styles show off incredible technique and skill while the more contemporary and modern styles allow for more expression from the choreographer and dancers.

6 Major Methods:

There are six major schools, or methods, of ballet, each with their own – and equally correct – rules about technique and style. Many rules are the same across all six methods, but there are also some significant differences.

Agrippina Vaganova developed the Vaganova method of teaching classical ballet in the early 1920’s. According to, it “fused the romantic style of the French ballet and dramatic soulfulness of the Russian character with the athletic virtuosity that characterizes the Italian school to reform the old imperial style of ballet teaching.” This method has precise movements that express clean lines yet softness underneath. Even though a Vaganova-trained dancer would be very strong and clean, she/he would still be soft and perform well on stage without robotic stiffness.

It concentrates on lower back strength and the “boneless” look of the arms. Vaganova-trained dancers execute ballet movements with an effortlessness by using supple arms to contrast the robust movement of the legs. Many movements of the Vaganova technique require the dancer to remain in the air for as long as possible to offer an illusion of floating. This requires extreme flexibility and extension.


Agrippina Vaganova

The Cecchetti method, developed by Enrico Cecchetti, is one of the main training techniques of classical ballet. The Cecchetti method is a strict program with an emphasis on anatomy; it enforces planned exercise routines for each day of the week and ensures that each part of the body is worked evenly by combining different types of steps into planned routines.

The Cecchetti technique has a strict training regimen; there is a specific barre for each day of the week and each side of the body is worked altering from week to week. This method condenses ballet training to an exact science. It typically uses a classical style and develops a dancer’s balance, poise, elevation, vigor and suppleness.

The Cecchetti dancer moves as an instrument; the arms and legs are all one working entity. The energy is focused through the feet and up through the head so the line goes on infinitely. This method teaches quality over quantity; it was better to execute the movement right once, rather than doing it sloppily several times. It also teaches a dancer to be self reliant rather than mimicking the instructor.

Founded in London in 1920, the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) was brought together by taking the best elements of both the Cecchetti and Vaganova systems and fusing them to create a more rounded dancer who has a solid technique yet can be gentle and express emotions through their dancing.

It grew in the Royal Ballet School in London. With skillful teaching from former dancers such as Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina, the school turned out highly accomplished dancers, including Moira Shearer, Beryl Grey, Darcy Bussell, and Leanne Benjamin.

A well-known aspect of the RAD method is the attention to detail when learning the basic techniques. For beginners, the progression in difficulty is often very slow, only increasing slightly from grade to grade. The general theory is that if enough time is spent achieving the maximum level of each technique before introducing new steps, it will be easier for students to learn harder steps.

What is known today as the French method of ballet came largely from Rudolf Nureyev, who, as director of the Paris Opera Ballet School in the 1980s, incorporated his own tastes along with Russian training into the French classical vocabulary.

In a 2010 blog posting in, it is said that “included in the hallmarks of French ballet are Nureyev’s particular attention to musicality, altered tempo, and precision by dancers. The dancers are trained with sobriety, attaining a traditional and classical, ethereal look, while executing steps that are both impressive and virtuously quick.” The French method is one of the most fluid methods of ballet but due in part to its newness and the lack of literature available on any syllabus informally created, is not practiced outside of the Paris Opera Ballet School. The French school has also been referred to as the Nureyev school, with his very idiosyncratic style, based on all the steps that Nureyev himself excelled at. Great speed and quantity of steps, necessitating the music be played slower, are characteristic of this style.

The Bournonville method is not only a method of training and technique, but a choreographic school. It was developed by August Bournonville, who was the choreographer for the Royal Danish Ballet, a company that continues to use his choreography and teaching methods today. This method focuses specifically on the romantic style; Bournonville not only preferred a more romantic tone to his choreography, but he preferred his ballets to tell a vivid love story.

Bournonville said himself that “dance should be an expression of joy”. This method displays movements as effortless though they are very technically challenging. The Bournonville method dancer exudes fluidity, seamlessness and musicality. It is refined with delicate detail and is not only expressive and romantic, but it touches the heart.

The Bournonville technique, according to the posting in, begins in the shape and softness of the arms. This method has distinctive and specific lifted torso framework. The legs must define musical rhythm while the arms define the melody; this combination exudes musicality. The guiding principle of the Bournonville method is that the dancer should perform with a natural grace, dramatic impact and harmony between body and music.

Bournonville ballets display technically challenging roles, but usually in reversal of what we’re used to…Bournonville establishes the importance of the male character whereas other methods focused more on the female. This ballet method is an honest and revealing style using pure and precise movement. The choreography forms a harmony while telling a story.

The Balanchine technique, which is mostly studied in the U.S., is very distinctive; it requires extreme speed, a very deep plié, unconventional arms and hands, and emphasis on lines. Balanchine method dancers must be extremely fit and flexible.

Balanchine had a special liking for jazz and modern movement, as well as being a huge fan of Fred Astaire. Many of his ballets reflect this. Balanchine enjoyed watching dancers break laws of motion. His dancers developed such speed of motion that they would fit a lot of movement into a small block of music. Balanchine would not allow an orchestra to slow down for his dancers. He also wanted to create a look of longer limbs. A dancer could give the look of a longer arabesque line by opening her hip to the audience as well as opening it upstage away from the audience. This type of placement goes against general ballet form.

Many of Balanchine’s ballets reflect a contemporary or classical style of dancing. He defined modern ballet as we know it today.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers in Paul Taylor’s Company B

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers in Paul Taylor’s Company B

Returning to my original thoughts about all ballet styles being the same brings me to another famous quote (again about roses) by another famous person: William Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, wrote “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” A ballet, regardless of its style or technique, continues to be beautiful, graceful and magical.

Diane Claytor, a Chicago native, has spent most of her adult life living in the East Bay and working for several different non-profit organizations. Although admittedly not a dance aficionado, she enjoys all types of music and is probably happiest when she’s plugged into her mp3 player listening to whatever the mood dictates.