Playing for ballet class tips #9: for ‘waltz’ read ‘mazurka’ for pirouettes

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Image of sheet music of a mazurka for piano Even though teachers often ask  for a ‘waltz’ for pirouettes on a 3, sometimes (in fact, most times) what works much better is a mazurka.   Not the character-type mazurka that you get in Swan Lake or Coppélia, but the ballroom type that is slower than your average waltz, and has a more marked three-in-a-bar as opposed to the swaying feel of the late Viennese waltz. In particular, a mazurka for pirouettes works much better if there are any balancés involved.

Don’t look to Chopin for this type, or to many of the early 20th century composers who wrote ‘exotic’ mazurkas on the model of the folksy ones, because these are fast, and have a hold on 2, they’re not very triple. You have to look to the popular sheet music of the 19th century, where ‘mazurka’ meant the ballroom kind by default. ‘Polka mazurka’, while a different dance, has the same kind of feel.  It’s closer to the three-step ländler type of waltz that you find in Giselle. 

It’s a curious thing, this, the way that a long-forgotten dance form gets embedded in the conventions of a contemporary dance class. I discovered this trick by accident, by playing one of these that I’d found online for class one day. Try some of the 1062 mazurkas listed at the American Memory Sheet music collection for your next pirouette exercise and I think you’ll see what I mean.  Go to the search page, and type in ‘mazurka‘. You’ll get a bunch of pieces back, some will be the folksy type with the held second beat – ignore those. Go for the ones called ‘polka mazurka’ or the ones which are rhythmically close to the polka mazurka, like the Falling Dew Mazurka for example.

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7 thoughts on “Playing for ballet class tips #9: for ‘waltz’ read ‘mazurka’ for pirouettes

  1. Morgan

    Thanks for this invaluable tip, and link to the website.
    This is the Mazurka chosen by Harriet Cavalli in her book ‘Dance and Music’ where none of the many excellent music examples are attributed to the composers which inevitably sends out all the wrong messages about the relationship between dance and music!
    Additionally, there are certain pieces which can be altered quite effectively into being this type of Mazurka eg. slow moevement of Brahms Sextet

    Reply
    1. jonathan Post author

      Thanks for the tip about the Brahms! Yes, agree totally about the Cavalli book – don’t understand why she didn’t attribute them to their composers. It would have helped people find more repertoire.

      Reply
      1. Morgan

        Infact, the Brahms is courtesy of Michael Finnissy who used to accompany ballet classes….he transcribed a number of pieces including the Brahms which i’d not immediately have assosciated with the dance class.
        However,it has the clear harmonic structure which you mention in some of your other posts.
        Another good idea of his, being the slow mvt. of Paganini’s 2nd Violin Concerto (lovely for Adage).
        I just notced that the un-named Cavalli Mazurka is in the same vein as the one you quote, but not the same.

      2. jonathan Post author

        Although I don’t know Michael Finnissy personally, I do know that both he and used to play for the same teacher, John O’Brien. Wonderful person and teacher, who I count as the person who taught me most about playing for dance.

  2. Constant

    Hi Jonathan. Great tip. Always a problem knowing what to play for pirouettes as the tempo can be sooo slow. Ditto on the Cavelli thing; perhaps there should be a Cavelli name that tune page as there are some good tunes but I don’t know what they are. All the Best

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