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The Modern Plié: John Pennington’s Dance Class

Emmaly Wiederholt |
September 10, 2013 | 5:14 p.m. PDT

Contributing Writer

Emmaly Wiederholt is an avid dancer (Emmaly Wiederholt)
Emmaly Wiederholt is an avid dancer (Emmaly Wiederholt)
It used to be that ballet dancers and modern dancers were on opposite sides of the fence. Ballet was too uppity; modern dancers needed to shave their legs. Well--news flash--this isn’t so anymore. The best ballet dancers are the best modern dancers, and vice versa.

First and foremost, I’m a ballet dancer. I have a BFA in Ballet (yes, you can get a BFA in Ballet), and before that my childhood passed by in tights and a leotard. I'm what you would call a bunhead.

Even after I moved to San Francisco to indulge in my hippie modern leanings, I still took ballet class often. And while I was dabbling in both modern and ballet--as well as Improvisation, Butoh, and Gaga--I realized that the best ballet dancers are not uppity. They’re grounded. You have to be grounded to appear lofty; our bodies work in contradiction like that. When I took ballet class, I found that my lift and aplomb separated me from modern dancers who didn’t have a strong grasp of ballet.

Here’s the secret: it’s all in the plié, or the bend of the leg (hairy or not). Whether you want to float in a tutu or sink in ripped sweats, the plié is the key to success.

So, when I headed over to ARC Pasadena to take John Pennington’s class, that’s what we did. We did pliés. And a plié is not only a bend in the knee, but also a release in the ankle, knee and hip that allows for more range of motion.

Pennington had the best pliés in the room. Watching him move was like watching a cat. Detailed, precise and agile. And it all came back to that plié.

After warming up the ankles, knees and hips, we added movement on top. We isolated our heads, shoulders, ribs and arms. We leaned this way and that, flung our bodies around the classroom, zip-a-dee-doo-dah! 

Though I paint the picture of an orgasmic free-for-all, Pennington was meticulous in his corrections. Combinations were short and simple. We did them repeatedly, and he stopped us each time to give corrections. There were about 15 of us in class, so there was ample time to get personal attention.

Pennington knows that there is nothing like dancing to live music, so he also hired a talented drummer to accompany the class. Let's just say the pliés really got going then. 

The drums pounded and we lept through space, our knees bending and grounding us and conversely launching our spinning bodies into the air. It was magnificent.

I will definitely be going back again; this ballerina has some more good old pliés to do.

John Pennington’s modern dance class is held every Saturday from 10:30-12:30 at ARC Pasadena. The class costs $10. More information here.

Emmaly Wiederholt is a professional dancer and dance writer. She trained at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance and performed extensively for Malinda LaVelle's Project Thrust. She also started Stance On Dance, an online dance blog with essays, interviews, art, funny tidbits and more. Emmaly will be a weekly columnist for Neon Tommy, reviewing dance classes she tries out in Los Angeles. You can contact Neon Tommy columnist Emmaly Wiederholt here or follow her on Twitter here.



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