A lifetime of ballet

By Janice Lennard

Born in 1942 in New Orleans, Louisiana, I have been involved with ballet through supervised training, on-going instruction, and independent practice for over 65 years. These experiences are the underpinnings of my work as a ballet instructor. I am a fifth-generation New Orleanian who grew up in the Laffite Housing Project, the Treme’ 6th Ward section of the city. There, surrounded by my family of historically significant French Quarter jazz musicians and parents with a shared enduring love of music, which they frequently demonstrated by their gracefulness as lovers of dance, I was introduced to those artistic forms of self-expression at an early age.

As a young child, I had a tendency to respond to the sounds of music which filled our home by dancing about with increasing skill. Because of my enthusiasm for dancing at every opportunity, by the age of seven, my Mother had enrolled me in the Kelly School of Dance in New Orleans. At 12 years old I was receiving individual lessons in classical ballet under the tutelage of Bob Coleman, a well-known icon of live theatre in the French Quarter. At age 20, I moved to California, where I continued my dance education, including 25 years at the Lichine Ballet Academy in Beverly Hills, California. There, I regularly danced alongside Alexander Godunov, Cyd Charise, Leslie Caron, and others in the entertainment industry, even though my presence among the artists of dance was essentially avocational.

Ten years ago my husband and I moved to Palm Springs, California where I continued with my love of ballet, by teaching ballet barre, yoga and pilates. Now, at the age of 78, my love and enthusiasm for ballet remain the drivers of my focus in teaching the techniques of dance to others! My ballet class usually begins at the barre, a long rail that dancers use to maintain balance while working on their technique. The first exercises are plies, demi-plies, tendus, and port de bras. The plie action is bending of the knees in one of the “feet turned-out” positions, usually the “first” position in the warm-up exercise. “first” position has the feet turned out, side by side so that the heels touch. The tendu action is “the stretching” and pointing of the feet. It is usually accompanied by the straightening of the leg. The English translation of tendu is to stretch. The port de bras is the moving of the arms and the body through a series of backbends designed to warm up the back and arms.

As the barre session progresses, dances will continue exercising. Each movement is designed for the specific purpose of strengthening certain muscle groups. Some of the exercises include degage, which is like tendu but usually faster with the foot raised above the floor and frappe which involves “striking” the floor with the foot. Others include the rond de jambe a’ terre, in which the leg is moved around in a semicircle on the floor to warm-up the hip musculature and fondu, which involves bending and straightening of the muscles of the stomach, back, and legs. Finally, the barre is completed with grand battements or “big beats.” These are the grand kicks of a dancer. Thereafter, except for stretches and a few other drills the dancers complete the barre exercise with the grand battement. My goal in teaching is to couple technical instruction with the myriad of feelings which should emerge as one dances. Mastery in a student’s dance technique, like grand battement, will reflect the precision, height and passion of their motion, grandly!