Cinderella’s Courage & Kindness: teaching the classic fairytale ballet
courageous and kind always
winning the kingdom
While I’ve been immersing myself in this ballet story, I wrote the above haiku as part of my 2021 haiku challenge.
One of the world’s most classic, iconic and ubiquitous tales, the “Cinderella” ballet can provide an entrée to universal themes and concepts useful in life and interdisciplinary topics within and beyond dance.
Teaching fairytales in ballet classes with all ages teaches virtues, storytelling and expression, musicality, technique, movement skills, and choreographic repertory, ballet history, appreciation, and criticism. They are a rich source of exploration and learning!
I especially enjoy teaching and revisiting “Cinderella” in the fall, what with the theme of harvesting the fruits of her actions, the supernatural elements, and the presence of pumpkins for the fairy godmother to transform into a magical coach in some versions of the story.
I use the “Cinderella” ballet (and popular fairytales in general) in my teaching in so many ways, depending on the age of the group I am working with, what we are learning at that time of year and in the students’ cycle of learning.
“Cinderella” can be used to teach values and virtues, storytelling and expression, music appreciation and musicality, specific dance technique and movement skills, choreography and repertory, traditional dances, dance composition, ballet history, appreciation, and criticism.
Last spring I did a blog, podcast, and video about how I teach the ballet “Sleeping Beauty” which is now included in my “Ballet Stories” playlist on YouTube. I will continue to add further ballets as I research and write about them, so let me know what classical and contemporary ballets you’d like to learn more about in the future!
Teaching Virtues & Dance Ground Rules
“Have courage and be kind,” one interpretation of Cinderella’s lesson from her mother, is one of the best morals I can imagine for a fairytale. Knowing that life and success are going to require bravery and leaving one’s comfort zone, and that learning requires courage, I believe it is an important characteristic to develop in young people. As for kindness, or the activity of loving one another, it is the most important, life- and world-changing quality a person can have.
Cinderella is a person of character, demonstrating virtues of forbearance and compassion toward others, including family members, her stepsisters (who are unkind, even cruel to her), even strangers whom others may hold in fear, and other creatures like the birds or fairies who come to her aid.
These virtues are related to the ground rules that I share for dancing with students from 3 years old through adults, of course gaining in sophistication with age and experience. I originally learned these simple rules from Jonathan Sypert, with whom I worked as teachers of several educational organizations, including Steps to Success, Kaiser High School, and The Movement Center in Honolulu, Hawai’i. Especially TMC has a mission of creating good people through excellent education in the performing arts, so as we develop skills, character is always important.
The three ground rules are:
- Be Safe
- Be Respectful
- Have Fun!
What does being careful and safe have to do with courage? It is being wise and discerning in taking necessary, calculated risks. It is being observant and aware, remaining calm and responding appropriately to changing circumstances. It is also taking care of ourselves and others.
Respect and kindness also go hand-in-hand. Grace, friendliness, understanding, acceptance, compassion, honesty, and generosity of spirit all fall under this concept. Open-mindedness and embracing diversity, thinking creatively, solving problems, connecting, building relationships and community can all result from kindness and mutual respect. These shared values help create a safe environment for learning.
Cinderella maintains a hopeful and fanciful, with a wonderful life of the mind, dreaming and dancing, keeping a sense of possibility even in what appears to be an oppressive, abusive, toxic, cruel situation. We see her sometimes dancing alone with a broom, she keeps her fantasy alive, she hopes that maybe she can still attend the ball, even when it looks unlikely to come to pass due to many obstacles in her way.
Kind and brave Cinderella gives bread to the elderly lady who comes begging. It is portrayed in different ways in different versions of the story, but there is a common theme of others shrinking away in fear or distaste at the appearance of the ragged beggar woman, while Cinderella is the only one willing to engage with her. Cinderella is generous, having very little to give, she still finds a bit of bread to give to the needy woman.
Patient and compassionate Cinderella cultivates relationships with those she can, including the beggar, her father and stepsisters, even the birds. Ultimately, her generosity is rewarded, since the old woman turns out to be her fairy godmother in disguise, able to grant her wish to attend the Prince’s ball.
Teaching Balletic History & Appreciation
The classic Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets by George Balanchine and Francis Mason, though the language and ideas can be dated and in some cases downright sexist and offensive, is a wonderfully comprehensive resource on ballet history.
[Note: though there are many problematic ideas in Balanchine’s writing as well as in the fairytale and ballet itself, but I won’t go into great detail about them here, instead focusing on positive, learning-supporting ways to use a story that students are bound to encounter. I’m happy to engage about any of these critiques with you in the future, and critical thinking is key to my teaching, so let me know what gets your goat!]
Balanchine describes four major productions of the “Cinderella” ballet:
Version 1: “Cinderella” Ballet, Music by Sergei Prokofiev, Choreography by Rotislav Zakharov, Libretto by Nikolai Volkov. First presented by the Bolshoi Ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, November 15, 1945. (p.107)
Version 2, 2a: Presented in a new version with choreography by Konstantin Serveyev at the Kirov State Theatre of Opera and Ballet, Leningrad, April 8, 1946. A new production, revised by Sergeyev, was presented at the Kirov Theatre, July 13, 1964. This production was first presented in the United States by the Kirov ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, September 11, 1964.
Version 3: Choreography by Frederick Ashton. First presented by the Sadlers Wells Ballet of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, December 23, 1948. (p.110)
Of this production, Balanchine states: “Cinderella is a story everybody knows and in the past it has attracted a great number of choreographers–French, Russian, and English. This particular ballet on the story, however, is important for a special reason: it is the first classic English ballet in three acts, the first full-length English work in the style and manner of the great nineteenth-century classics. But Cinderella is entertaining as well as important. Here the familiar tale is embellished with dramatic and comic differences, with divertissements, and with the grace and warmth of the grand academic style.” (p.110)
Version 4: Staged and choreographed by Ben Stevenson. First presented by the National Ballet at the Lisner Auditorium, Washington, D.C., April 24, 1970. (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.115)
According to Balanchine, in reviewing this production of Cinderella in the British magazine, Ballet Today, Kay Rinfrette wrote: “Ashton’s Cinderella for the Royal Ballet influenced Stevenson’s ballet in several aspects. Like Ashton, Stevenson employs the English pantomime tradition by having the stepsisters played en travesti, and he excludes the stepmother who usually appears in Russian productions. Also, Stevenson omits the prince’s search around the world. Unlike Ashton, Stevenson changes the sequence of musical numbers in the ballroom scene to give the grand pas de deux, a traditional, formal structure (The adagio is followed by the man’s, then the ballerina’s variation.” (p.117)
“The adagio in the last act is less involved with fantasy, closer to a real-life love relationship. This meaning is understood by the choreography which includes thematic elements but in different combinations: there are fewer lifts, more terra a terre work […] Structurally, this adagio is the climax of the ballet, combining and reconciling the literary themes of fantasy versus reality and the choreographic motifs of floating lightness versus heaviness or a sense of weight.” (p.117-8)
“A beggarwoman appears, asking for alms. While the stepmother and the two sisters want to chase the woman away, and the father is too frightened to do anything, Cinderella turns and gives her a piece of bread.
Now preparations begin for the gala ball to which the family–all except Cinderella–have been invited. Dressmaker, hairdresser, dancing master, and musicians come to prepare the ladies. When everything is ready, they all depart for the castle, and Cinderella is alone.
Wishing to also be at the ball, Cinderella lets herself be carried away by unattainable dreams. She curtsies, as if before the prince himself. Suddenly the old beggarwoman appears again, but this time as Cinderella’s fairy godmother. She promises to make the girl’s dreams come true in gratitude for Cinderella’s kindness. The fairy presents the girl with a pair of crystal slippers and orders four fairies representing the seasons of the year to prepare and dress Cinderella for the ball.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.
The Ballet Companion: A Dancer’s Guide to the Technique, Traditions, and Joys of Ballet by Eliza Gaynor Minden includes several mentions of Cinderella, including the original ballet: “1893 Pierina Legnani, wearing special reinforced Italian-made shoes, and able to spot her turns, performs thirty-two fouettés on full pointe in Cinderella. Audiences are thrilled.”(The Ballet Companion p.294) and the Ashton production:“Cinderella (1948), Ashton’s first full-length original work, was made on Moira Shearer of The Red Shoes fame (Fonteyn was sidelined by an injury), and Ashton himself was perhaps the most hilarious Ugly Stepsister ever.” (The Ballet Companion p.259)
Favorite Resources for Teaching Cinderella to Children
The Favorite Ballets Coloring Book by Brenda Sneathen Mattox, describes a version of the ballet from 1893 from choreographers Marius Petipa, E. Cecchetti, and L.I. Ivanov with music by Composer: B. Shell. One picture depicts Cinderella holding a pumpkin while her fairy godmother conjures a magical coach:
“This ballet elegantly portrays the classic Perrault fairy tale of the gentle girl and her cruel stepsisters. Cinderella must stay behind when her stepsisters attend the King’s ball. However, Cinderella’s fairy godmother provides the girl with a coach to ride in, as well as a ball gown. (Favorite Ballets Coloring Book p.15)
There is a scene of the transformed Cinderella and prince dancing at the ball: “At the ball, Cinderella meets the Prince, who dances with her eagerly, charmed by her grace and beauty. But Cinderella must leave before her fairy godmother’s spell is broken. In her haste, she leaves behind one of her slippers.” (Favorite Ballets Coloring Book p.16)
And finally, a humorous picture of one of the evil stepsisters trying to force her foot into Cinderella’s slipper: “The Prince declares that he will marry the girl whose foot fits into the slipper. Many come to try it on, including Cinderella’s stepsisters. OF course, her stepsisters’ large feet don’t fit the slipper. When Cinderella tries it on, it does fit, and the Prince is delighted to ask for her hand in marriage.” (Favorite Ballets Coloring Book p.17)
A Child’s Introduction to Ballet: The stories, music, and magic of classical dance by Laura Lee describes the version with original choreography by Rostislav Zakharov and music by Sergei Prokofiev which was first performed in Moscow in 1945: “It has been a favorite fairy tale for hundreds of years, and for more than two hundred years choreographers have been making ballets based on it. This is the most famous one.” (A Child’s Introduction to Ballet p.75)
Lee summarizes the plot: “Cinderella sits by the fire as her ugly stepsisters get ready for the prince’s ball. It will be the finest party in the land, but poor Cinderella has not been invited. When a strange old woman comes to the door, the stepsisters are rude to her, but kind Cinderella offers her some bread. It isn’t until the stepsisters have left for the ball that the old woman reveals herself to be a fairy godmother. With a wave of her magic wand, the fairy godmother changes a pumpkin into a luxurious coach, and Cinderella’s rags into a beautiful gown. She waves to Cinderella as she leaves for the ball, but warns her that the magic spell will last only until midnight.” (A Child’s Introduction to Ballet p.75)
Lee also explains the use of performance en travesti to portray the stepsisters: “Ugly indeed! In England and America the ugly stepsisters are often danced by men in women’s dresses so they will look comical and physically ugly. In Russia, they are played by real ballerinas and only their behavior is ugly–not their faces.” (A Child’s Introduction to Ballet p.77)
How to…Ballet: A step-by-step guide to the secrets of ballet by Jane Hackett describes a version of Cinderella with music by Serge Prokofiev:
“When Cinderella’s nasty stepmother and stepsisters go to the prince’s ball, she’s left alone in the cold house. A fairy godmother gives Cinderella a beautiful dress and a carriage so she can go to the ball, too, but warns her that she must be home by midnight, when the magic spell will be broken. Cinderella dances with the prince, but as the clock strikes 12, she runs away, leaving her shoe behind. The prince searches for the beautiful girl who fits the shoe. He finds Cinderella, and they are married.” (How to…Ballet p.55)
Grimm versus Perrault Versions of the Cinderella Tale
Although the Perrault version more heavily influences both the ballet and Disney telling of the Cinderella tale, the Grimm version is another variant popular in many parts of the world. I am learning the German version, based on the Brothers Grimm, in Mein Buch der Schoensten Maerchen, which calls Cinderella “Aschenputtel.”
I do more of a comparison between the two major versions on the podcast and video, but I found a handy chart comparing plot points here.
Teaching Technique/Movement Skills, Storytelling & Expression
Creative Movement Fairytale Storytelling
When first learning to teach young children and students of all ages about Cinderella, I benefited greatly from guidance from the book Dance and Grow: Developmental Dance Activities for Three- Through Eight-Year-Olds by Betty Rowen.
I have created a playlist of tracks to accompany these and a couple other possible scenes including Cinderella’s waltz and the clock striking midnight: “Cinderella” Fairytale Ballet Story for Children / Creative Movement on Spotify here.
Rowen explains that, “The Prokofiev ballet music has some fine sections for dance accompaniment. The following scenes are good for improvisation.
Step 1: The ugly stepsisters argue and give orders to Cinderella. The suggested music is percussive and encourages children to do sharp, angular movements. The class might be divided into trios, two sisters and Cinderella, as they enlarge the pantomime of bickering into dance.
Step 2: When Cinderella is alone, the Fairy Godmother appears. A duet between Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother can be developed. Pairs of children can improvise to an appropriate section of the ballet music, which is lyrical. At the end of the duet, Cinderella is transformed from her ugly appearance to beauty. The pair dance together.
Step 3: Everyone rejoices at the wedding. A more formal dance, in promenade formation, might be introduced here for older groups.
Although many parts of the story need to be narrated, the selected sections offer opportunities to develop dances through improvisation and/or simple choreography.” (Dance and Grow p.84)
Teaching Classical Ballet Repertory & Choreography
With older ballet students, it is fun to teach specific variations and choreography, either full original or modified versions, such as the Fairies of the Seasons Variations, the Clock Scene, or Cinderella’s Waltz. They can also watch different versions of the ballet to compare and critique, and work on their own choreographic adaptations.
Grasshoppers & Dragonflies
Cinderella’s Grand Waltz
Teaching Musicality / Music Appreciation
If you want to listen to the Prokofiev Cinderella Ballet in full, that is linked here on Spotify or also available on YouTube or in other forms.
We return to Balanchine’s commentary for insight on the music from the composer himself, Prokofiev, as well as thoughts on the music accompanying several key scenes.
Quotes Balanchine, “Prokofiev wrote that he conceived of Cinderella as ‘a classical ballet with variations, adagios, pas de deux, etc. I see Cinderella not only as a fairy-tale character but also a real person, feeling, experiencing, and moving among us.’ The Russian composer began work on the score in 1940, but because of other commitments during World War II did not finish the orchestration until 1944.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.108)
Balanchine describes the first introduction of the theme for Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother: “The orchestra sounds a new, magical melody. The stepsisters hear it, too. Cinderella looks up expectantly, and into the room hobbles a hunchbacked woman in rags. […] Cinderella seems to welcome her. The old hag begs for money, and the two stepsisters go into a tizzy of silly fear, running away to the other side of the room.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.111)
Balanchine’s take on the dreamy transformation from grubby beggar to magical Fairy: “The harp is plucked gently, and again the eerie high, piercing cry that heralded the arrival of the old beggarwoman causes Cinderella to look up and smile. The music is magical, like the loveliness of a dream, it grows in volume as the lower strings sound a full, promising melody […] In a flash, the old hag is transformed into a lovely, kind fairy […] a beautiful creature dressed in a shimmering gown.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.112)
For the prince’s ball and once the spell is broken, Balanchine explains: “Cinderella and the prince lead the court in an ensemble dance. The music is a bright, sparkling waltz that gradually gains in sonorous force, and all the guests are caught up in the spirit of romance. Suddenly–as the walz gains relentless force, cymbals shimmer, and we hear the loud ticking of a clock–a flourish of trumpets announces the approach of midnight.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.114)
Other versions of the Cinderella Ballet
As previously mentioned, there are tons of classic as well as fresh and contemporary versions of the “Cinderella” ballet to explore. I look forward to hearing about what you discover.
One of my favorites that I saw for the first time on Arte TV here in Germany is Paris Opera Ballet’s “Cendrillon,” with choreography by Rudolf Nureyev and a golden age of Hollywood/1920s flappers-and-filmmaking twist on the classic “Cinderella” ballet where she is trying to get into show business rather than a prince’s ball at a castle. I talked about it a little bit in my blog for the final week of the Adaptive Adult Summer Dance Intensive, Week 4. For more about the full program that you can participate in anytime, check out the introduction and first-week overview.
Questions for Reflection
- What about the “Cinderella” story resonates for you? What rubs you the wrong way?
- What version of the story, ballet, or music is your favorite?
- What variation or choreography from the “Cinderella” ballet do you want to learn or create?
- What stories do you teach or revisit in the fall or seasonally?
- How are you celebrating the transition to Autumn?
Blythe Stephens, MFA & Bliss Catalyst
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A Blythe Coach: Dance Education & Coaching
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