How Is the Vaganova System Different From the English RAD System?
Half a year ago I started taking ballet lessons from a former Russian prima ballerina. I have gradually come to understand the Russian method based on the Vaganova system, which has produced so many top-notch ballerinas on the world stage.

Not that I'm aiming to become a professional dancer--not at my age anyway! But it is a real eye-opener to study the Russian method and how it differs from the RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) system.

The RAD system allows very young students—as young as three years old—to perform what looks like dance movements. But it does not focus on training the strength and flexibility that would directly build the foundation for classical ballet. It is more about playing and moving along with rhythm. The demand is minimal. By contrast, the youngest students at the Russian ballet schools, such as the exemplary Vaganova Ballet Academy, are 7 years old—meaning, an age where they are ready to learn meaningful exercises in preparation for the rigor of classical ballet. The first-year students spend most of their time doing gymnastic exercises systematically designed to increase their core strength and flexibility, so that their muscles are strong enough and their joints are flexible enough to handle the specific requirements of classical ballet, such as the “aplomb” and turnout. These exercises are almost unheard of in Hong Kong under the RAD system!

The RAD system gives students (and parents) a sense of immediate gratification (and false impression) of being able to "perform," but this superficial way of training does not produce good dancers in the long run. The main focus is "doing the steps" (instead of the quality of the technique) and getting the certificates. As a result, you will find the majority of students trained under the RAD system to be unable to execute the basic steps with the right technique. The specific muscles for specific movements are not properly engaged. There is generally a flawed “ballet stance.” When you look at how the bottom sticks out when students perform their movements, or how their shoulders roll forward without engaging the shoulder blades, or how the heel is not pointing down when doing tendu back, it is not just a question of not “looking right” (and for that matter, most students and teachers seem to turn a blind eye on that!). Such flaws in the basic stance of classical ballet is the result of a lack of proper training in the very early stage, which is then carried forth throughout the subsequent years without correction.

The wrong look, or form, inevitably leads to the wrong use of muscles. Not only is this detrimental to the learning of more advanced steps going forward, but would also contribute to repeated strains and injuries as a result of muscle imbalance and compensation. This is in not the right way to train dancers. The Vaganova system is built in a systematic way and the emphasis is on the correct usage of muscles through its specific requirements, such as the angle between the leg and the hip, and the strict requirement for turnout. Through these demands, the muscles are properly strengthened and chances of injuries are actually reduced, contrary to popular misconception.

To parents and young children, the Vaganova system may look "boring" in the beginning because there is so much repetition of what seems to be simple “chores.” But it is much more systematic and contributes in every little step toward making a strong dancer. By contrast, young children taking RAD classes can easily get a “Distinction” on a piece of paper, and perform on stage what looks like a “dance.” Even up until the higher grades in RAD, the emphasis on “dancy steps” overshadows the importance of real technique. Everybody knows that few people actually fail the RAD exams. But getting a “Merit” or “Distinction” does not say very much about the real skills and talent of a student. Sure, there are occasionally a few students who stand out above the others due to their talent and physical attributes, but generally speaking, this kind of training lacks real substance, and in the long run, the majority of students will not be equipped to step on the highly competitive world stage.

To be a little more specific, under the Vaganova system, students learn very early on the proper positions on stage, namely, croisé and effacé, and are required to execute all center steps based on these directions. This compares with the RAD training, which requires most steps to be done en face, which is not commonly used on stage around the world because it presents the dancer in a flat and uninteresting angle. Another main difference is that all exercises are done both en dehors and en dedans. In other words, the direction of movements are done first in one direction and then repeated in the reverse direction. This trains the body’s coordination and the use of the brain properly so that the student can move in all directions with ease. The RAD exercises do not always require this. These are just some of the differences between the Russian method and the RAD system.

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