Above photo: Francesca Hayward as Manon, photo by Alice Pennefather, ROH. My previous article, Why Do Ballet Dancers Turn Clockwise? explored a puzzling fact: ballet dancers overwhelmingly favor turning in the clockwise (CW) direction while athletes such as figure skaters, platform divers, gymnasts, aerial skiers generally spin counter-clockwise (CCW). In this article, I provide the prospective of two dancers who favor turning CCW, Francesca Haywood of The Royal Ballet and Cory Stearns of American Ballet Theatre for insight on their experience going against the ballet norm.
Ballet turning steps include pirouettes, chaîné turns, saute de basques, piqué turns, fouettés and Italian fouettés (generally for women), and pirouette à la seconde and tour en l’air (generally for men, click the links for videos of the steps from my YouTube ballet video dictionary). Dancers learn and perfect these steps in ballet class, which generally spans 90 minutes (as an example, see a class from The Royal Ballet for World Ballet Day). In class, the teacher leads dancers through various combinations, starting with barre exercises. Each combination is reversed so that a step that is performed to the right side of the floor is repeated on the left side so that dancers avoid being “one-sided.” Unlike figure skating, gymnastics, and other athletic activities that feature spinning, it is important that dancers are able to turn in both directions; a choreographer may create a work in which dancers on one side of the stage turn one way, with dancers on the opposite side turning in the other direction.
Although high level dancers can turn proficiently in either direction, most favor a particular direction. For most dancers their “good” side is CW and “bad” side is CCW. A dancer’s “good” side is revealed during solos, when difficult turning segments, such as fouettés for women and pirouettes à la second for men are performed.
CCW men are much more common than women. My guesstimate of the percentage of men that favor CCW is around 30%. On the other hand, a woman turning CCW on stage is as uncommon as a classical violinist playing left-handed. I came up with a list of CCW dancers from watching performances in New York and on YouTube. The list is not comprehensive, but provides some prominent names in the ballet world:
Men: Fernando Bujones (ABT); Jeffrey Cirio (ABT); Angel Corella (ABT); Cesar Corrales (ENB); Anthony Dowell (Royal Ballet), Gonzalo Garcia (NYCB); Vadim Muntagirov (Royal Ballet); Leonid Sarafanov (Mikhailovsky); Sergei Polunin; Faruhk Ruzimatov (Kirov); Daniil Simkin (ABT); Cory Stearns (ABT); Vladimir Vasliiev (Bolshoi)
Women: Francesca Hayward (Royal Ballet); Katherine Healy; Roberta Marquez (Royal Ballet)
The following are profiles of Francesca Hayward and Cory Stearns on their experience turning CCW.
The Royal Ballet’s Francesca Hayward is very unique in the ballet world. The young star, promoted to Soloist at age 22 and Principal Dancer at age 24 after dancing leading roles in Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Manon, and Romeo and Juliet, defies the ballet-world norm for women by turning CCW on various turning movements on stage such as pirouettes. This is shown in her lovely Royal Ballet Nutcracker solo at 2:10 when she does chaîné turns and demi saute de basques en menage (circle) CCW, a rarity in ballet.
Francesca, who is right-handed, describes her early training and why she favors CCW. “I naturally choose to fouetté, pirouette, and chaîné CCW. In my early ballet classes, my first dance teacher encouraged me to spin and see which side I felt dizzy more quickly. I decided I felt stronger to my left. I felt much less dizzy and therefore more in control of myself turning CCW.”
Francesca believes that early training may have a role in the CW dominance as some teachers may be insistent that CW turning is the “correct” way. “I find it odd that there are far fewer women than men who turn CCW. I think a possible reason for this could be that some teachers may not encourage their female students enough to experiment with turns to both sides when they first start practising pirouettes. If a pupil has started by only always turning to the right, then this will quickly become engrained in their neural and muscle memory. I think that once a dancer has ‘chosen’ a side to turn to, no matter how much they improve their turns the other way, it will always feel more natural, safer and stronger to turn to the preferred side.”
I have never been discouraged from turning CCW but I’ve always known that my CW turns have to be of a decent standard too.
Although she prefers CCW, Francesca turns CW in supported pirouettes in a pas de deux. Since CW is the convention from early pas de deux training in ballet school onward, the expectation is that the woman will turn CW. This minimizes adjustments and confusion, particularly important when rehearsal time is short or when there are last-minute changes to the cast. However, Francesca points out the oddity of this convention when the male partner favors CCW, such as The Royal Ballet’s Vadim Muntagirov.
CW turners can get by with less than proficient CCW turns because they are rarely performed on stage. Francesca points out that CCW turners must be proficient both ways. “I have never been discouraged from turning CCW but I’ve always known that my CW turns have to be of a decent standard too. In an audition, you may not always get the opportunity to show your CCW turns and you can’t make excuses for your CW turns as, unfortunately, CW turns are featured heavily in a lot of choreography. Most choreography is and has been made for CW turners so changing turns CCW can cause problems. Some choreographers do not even allow you to do so. For this reason I have kept the turns in many of the variations I have performed CW. I have been able to change them for some others.” However, members in the corps de ballet don’t have this option as their steps must be in synch.
For more detail on Francesca, see profiles in Pointe Magazine, Evening Standard, and The Guardian, in which critic Judith Mackrell raises the possibility of Francesca as the next great British ballerina.
Cory Stearns joined ABT in 2005 and was promoted to Soloist in 2009 and Principal Dancer in 2011, dancing a full array of principal roles with great elegance.
Cory favors turning CCW, along with fellow ABT Principal Dancers Jeffrey Cirio and Daniil Simkin. Cory recalls his early experience in turning and how he adopted a preference for CCW turns. “I remember being 9 years old and learning Fritz in the Nutcracker for my local ballet school on Long Island, NY. In the choreography, I had to pirouette to both sides during my variation, and I remember comfortably turning either way. I believe that what changed was when I started grand pirouettes à la seconde, probably around that same age, I had to choose a more comfortable side and I believe that I felt more stable on my right leg. I’m right-handed, so I always used my stronger right leg for kicking in soccer, which I played for many years growing up. In ballet, I felt more stable pirouetting on my stronger leg.”
I’m right-handed, so I always used my stronger right leg for kicking in soccer, which I played for many years growing up. In ballet, I felt more stable pirouetting on my stronger leg.
Similar to Francesca, none of his teachers discouraged him from turning CCW, but warned him that he needed to be proficient on both sides. “None of my teachers ever commented negatively or positively on which way I decided to turn, but I was informed that most male choreography was set for clockwise-turning dancers and so I’d probably find myself having to perform in pieces where I was forced to turn to my bad side. That has come true.”
Former ABT dancer Eric Tamm and co-founder of Ballet Mentor agrees that CCW turners must be proficient on both sides. “In a ballet company, all of the CCW turners were forced to practice and perform on their “bad side” since CW turners are so prevalent and dominate the room. Consequently, CCW turners tend to be good at both sides.”
On partnering, Cory’s first partners turned CCW so he had to make adjustments for CW partners. “Interestingly, my first two partners were lefties-most dancers refer to the direction they rotate as right or left instead of CW or CCW-and so I grew very comfortable partnering in that direction during pirouettes. It was only when I moved to the Royal Ballet School that I recognized how rare it was. I ended up having to re-accustom myself with partnering pirouettes and now I’m at a point where I’d have to consciously analyze how best to partner a left turner whereas partnering right turners is subconscious.”
“I don’t know why there aren’t more female left turners. Perhaps female dancers are more influenced by each other and choose a side instead of feeling one naturally? I was the only boy at my school when I had to decide and so wasn’t influenced by friends. I’d probably have chosen left anyway because I tended to go against the tide.”
Katherine Healy had a unique background prior to her ballet career, a figure skater who adopted the CCW turning convention of the sport before becoming a dancer. Prior to her training at NYCB’s School of American Ballet, she was a professional figure skater at age 11. She also appeared in the movie Six Weeks with Mary Tyler Moore and Dudley Moore. She then concentrated on ballet, winning medals at the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss, and IBC-Varna. At the age of 15, she joined the London Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet) as a senior principal dancer.
Katherine carried over her CCW turning from her early figure skating days to ballet. The video below shows her outrageous CCW fouettés from Swan Lake, with four, five, and even six pirouettes between fouettés.
I danced at Ballet Midwest, a non-professional ballet company, in the 1980s. As a left-hander, I remember the process of “choosing a side” in my early training, trying to figure out my strong side. My teacher didn’t really care, although she did warn me about putting too much focus on turning to one direction. Dancers should be able to perform steps proficiently on both sides, advice that I frequently ignored as I attempted countless CW pirouettes and tours to attempt to emulate my idol Baryshnikov (an effort that fell well short of the mark-but I had a great time trying).
As a left-hander starting out, I thought that I would be well suited to turning CCW as the right-handers in the company all turned CW. However, CCW was awkward for me. Like most kids, I played baseball and soccer, sports in which left-handers have CW movements. In baseball, a left-handed pitcher’s shoulders and hips turn CW in the follow through after releasing the ball with the left foot pushing off the ground. Likewise, a left-handed hitter turns CW throughout the swing with the left foot generating power. In soccer, a left-footed player turns CW after striking the ball. Like Cory, I felt more secure turning on my dominant left leg on en dehors pirouettes and turns à la seconde.
Part III Coming Soon
Why Do Ballet Dancers Turn Clockwise? is one of my most popular articles thanks to links on Kottke.org, Metafilter, and NationalReview.com, which have generated many thoughtful comments. The comments spanned numerous fields including physics, lateral preference, and even religion to explain why. In my next article on the topic, I will summarize the many comments and attempt to answer the question.