Cross Training–Arm Strength

“Dancers often lack upper body strength. We spend so much of our time focusing on what the legs and feet are doing that we neglect the upper body,” says Nikol Klein, a former dancer and personal trainer.

I didn’t realize how true this was until I started doing arm workouts last summer. I now have a better understanding of how much arm strength can affect not only port de bras but also posture and overall movement quality.

Thanks to the internet, it’s easy and inexpensive to improve arm strength. Here are some workout videos I’ve found helpful:

Without Weights

Andrea Palen, 5 Minute Arm Workout


Ballet Beautiful, Swan Arms Workout


With Weights (Or water bottles)

Nikol Klein, Ballet Strength Arm Exercises for Port de Bras


Arm-Toning Moves from Ballet Body


Blogalites, Applause Arms Workout


Fitness Blender, Tank Top Arms Workout

An Unexpected Opportunity

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“I’ve got a part for you,” said my teacher. This news was a complete surprise. I had not registered to be in my school’s end-of-the-year performance. Being in this performance usually requires rehearsing 4-5 days a week for at least a month. Unfortunately, I am not usually able to rehearse that much. But I was too excited to say no. Besides, my teacher already knew my schedule and was able to work with it. Peter and the Wolf was one of the pieces on the program. I was to be the wolf!

The wolf was totally different than any other part I’ve had before. It was challenging to try to portray a fierce, villainous forest creature, but it also was extremely fun. I would easily agree to do a part like this again. And, as no one is ever 100% happy with their performance, there are some things I think I could improve on.

The choreography was based on the Royal Ballet School’s film of the ballet. In their version, the role of the wolf is designed for a male dancer. It has sequences of turning jumps and other steps that are beyond my ability. So, my teacher adapted the part and gave me some opportunities for improvising.

Yes, the costume was very hot! But the young students in the show really seemed to like it. Backstage, they repeatedly told me things like, “put on your wolf head!”, “put on your claws!”, and “you look like a real wolf!”

When I finished dancing in Hansel and Gretel back in March, I thought I was going to have to wait until September before I start rehearsing another performance. But, happily, I was wrong. It was a wonderful thing to be wrong about!

Q & A with Kathy Mata

Kathy Mata is the director of Kathy Mata Ballet,  a “non-professional, community-oriented dance company” for adult ballet students. The company was founded in 1988 and is based in San Francisco. Ms. Mata also teaches ballet at Alonzo King LINES Dance Center.  Ms. Mata would like to thank Claire Vlach, a dancer with KMB, for her help with editing this interview.


Photo of Kathy Mata by Christine Fu.

 What inspired you to create an adult ballet company?

I wanted to give professional working adults the opportunity to do community service work by performing for seniors and for benefits for worthy causes. When I was teaching at the Jewish Community Center, there were regular events there for seniors and my dance class was asked to perform. In 1988, the group branched out to perform at other facilities who had heard about us and requested us to come perform for them. The seniors were so appreciative that it became a part of our lives.

Did anyone ever discourage you from starting an adult ballet company?

Never. The activities director at the JCC encouraged me to start my group and supported me 100%.

What performance opportunities does your company offer to its dancers?

We perform 8 times a year. We perform multiple times a year for senior living facilities and community centers, and once a year we do a large theater performance for independent seniors and other members of the community. We also do fundraisers for causes such as brain tumor research and local dance facilities.

What advice would you offer to adult ballet students who are hesitant about performing?

I ask students to become familiar with our group and to volunteer with us to learn about the experience of performing. We have volunteers who help us with several aspects of the show, including help with costumes, stage management, coordination with senior centers, publicity, and soliciting donations from local businesses. Some of our volunteers have then joined the performance group, and others continue working with us in their volunteer capacity.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about adult ballet students?

People have the misconception that ballet is for children because of the physical preparation it takes to develop a dancer. It was believed that once the body was set and the skeletal structure and muscles were fully developed, it was impossible for adults to train. This is wrong. Many dance schools are now breaking that barrier by offering adult open classes and opportunities to perform. It has been shown by doctors and medical experts that ballet is one of the best exercises for physical injuries such as back problems, because it works both sides of the body evenly. Ballet is also a good therapeutic outlet for stress.


Photo of Kathy Mata Ballet dancers by Jennifer Maravillas.

Thursdays are for Thinking Out Loud #4: Theater Week – Jitters and Joy

This week’s Thursdays are for Thinking out Loud is brought to you by Rachel of Clara’s Coffee Break. Check out the link-up here.

This weekend, I am going to be in Birmingham Ballet’s production of Hansel and Gretel. I am very excited about it. Quite giddy actually. Today is our first dress rehearsal.

I am performing the role of a Village Mother and also a Flame in the witch’s forest (there are anthropomorphic parts like flames and shadows in this scene).  I feel that it’s more challenging to “get into character” when your character is something like a flame, but I am trying to draw inspiration from the Firebird. I’ve been watching a YouTube video of Maria Alexandrova dancing the Firebird and I love the quirky energy and power that she puts into it. Her dance is much different than ours, but I think it’s helpful to try to absorb the general mood of it and try to emulate the way she accents her movements (*try* is the operative word here!)

In both of my roles I’ll be doing more dancing than I have in past performances, but I’ll also get my “acting fix” since the part of the village mother is dramatic as well.

We will be performing in a smaller theater than we usually do and seeing the audience’s faces will be unavoidable. I guess this should not make me nervous, but, I confess that it does. Yet, on the other hand, I actually like the smaller size of the stage and wings. It has a cozy magic to it. And after watching some of the rehearsal from the house, I think it is special how the audience will be closer to the performers.

It always seems like theater week is going to be long, but it goes by so fast. Too fast. After this, there won’t be anything until Nutcracker rehearsals begin in September. Oh well…so long as you have another performance to look forward to, life is good.

Guest Post: Performing Character Roles

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 Party Scene in Birmingham Ballet’s Nutcracker

Adult ballet students often find themselves cast as party guests, mothers and fathers, royal court members, and villagers. On the surface, these can seem like “little” parts. But, as veteran performers know, character roles are challenging, rewarding, and worthwhile–not to mention being important to the plots of story ballets! Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet, told Pointe Magazine, “In a character part, the dancer doesn’t have the technical framework of a traditional role to fall back on. It’s all acting. People really have to go deep into their emotional side, and it takes guts to get out there and do that.”

Ideas for Preparing for Character Roles…

Think about the “who, what, and why” of your character –what motives them, how they respond to different situations, and why they respond this way. If your character doesn’t have a name or back story, create one yourself.

In her video Becoming a Character – NutcrackerKathryn Morgan, a former New York City Ballet soloist, says that you should ask yourself the five key questions that actors are taught to inquire about their characters:

“Who am I?

“Where am I going?”

“Who am I going to meet when I get there?”

“What do I want?”

“What extent am I willing to go to get that?”

Morgan also advises that you consider, “What is the music telling me?” She says, “The music is your guide to your character.”

Watch movies with characters similar to one you’re going to play. 

When New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin was preparing for the role of Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty, she turned classic childhood films for inspiration. She told Pointe Magazine, “I called my dad and asked him to send me tapes of every Disney movie that had an evil witch! I took a lot from 101 Dalmations’ Cruella de Vil in particular.”

The first year that I was cast as the feisty, flirtatious maid in the Nutcracker party scene, I used Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolitte from My Fair Lady as inspiration for interpreting my part. Like my character, Eliza is working-class, spirited, romantic and enjoys dancing and chocolates. I also liked Eliza’s animated body language and I tried to imbue some of that energy into my performance.

If your character’s personality is more open to interpretation, such as a party parent or royal court member, period dramas or movies and tv series from the fantasy genre might be a place to find a character to inspire yours.

Remember, you don’t have to directly mimic every aspect of a film character, you can just take elements of their personality, expressions, and body language that you like best and that work well for your role.

Watch performances of ballet character parts on YouTube, DVDs, or live if possible.

Do strengthening exercises like Pilates. Movement is part of acting and greater strength will improve your overall movement quality. This will help your performance even if your character doesn’t dance or isn’t supposed to be graceful. American Ballet Theatre director Kevin McKenzie explained to PlaybillArts, “Character performances must be defined by energy—by how the dancer moves.”

Film yourself rehearsing at home. Experiment with different expressions, reactions, and gestures. See which ones you like best.

Have fun! Character roles are great opportunity to explore your dramatic side and become more fully immersed in the fairy tale onstage.


Photo by Rachel Hellwig.


Pointe Magazine: Quite A Character

PlaybillArts: In Character with ABT: Exploring Character Roles in Ballet

Becoming a Character – Nutcracker | Kathryn Morgan:

Rehearsal of Carabosse for the Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty:

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