Ballet: The Hardest Easy Things

TL;DR: If you’re (still) struggling with pas de valse en tournant, balancé, or the mystery of what the heck to do with your head, don’t worry — everyone else probably is, too. Meanwhile, if you’ve got a solid double tour but still can’t pas de valse without tournant-ing into a jibbering idiot, don’t worry — you’re not alone.


The other day, during the lull in class between barre and center, I traipsed across the floor and tossed off a random cabriole that my classmates immediately remarked upon: “That was beautiful! Such lovely suspension!” and so forth.

Even I thought it was a particularly nice one. It just felt good — high and light and easy; as if I had all the time in the world to beat my legs before floating back down to earth. If it had been on a Bad 1980s TV show, it would’ve been accompanied that cicada-like sound effect (if your sister was ever obsessed with The Bionic Woman, you know what I mean.)

A few minutes later, we did an adagio combination with waltz turns, and that’s when the wheels came off.

And I don’t mean the training wheels, either. I mean all the wheels.

I specify waltz turns (pas de valse en tournant, if you want to be technical) because even I, with my apparently boundless ability to destroy the simplest linking steps (thanks, gymnastics*!), almost never screw up just plain pas de valse. But, predictably, I hosed up the waltz turns with the focus and dedication of a grand-champion hoser-upper. My waltz turns felt horrible and wrong and like at any moment I might actually fall on my face.

*While the best floor-exercise artists — I’m looking at you, every female Russian gymnast ever — make excellent use of dance elements and linking steps, American trainers tend to treat them as afterthoughts — even for the girls, but especially for the guys.

As an American gymnast learning floor exercise (my favorite discipline, though I was best at vault), too often you learn the explosive, dazzling technical elements more or less at the cost of linking steps. Generally, you run hard and fast for power, throw off a chain of technical moves, stick your landing, and then maybe dance a little. I think the fact that I trained in gymnastics for twelve years, but in ballet and modern for only about seven (not counting pre-ballet), still shows in the particular challenges I face in the studio.

That said, all that gymnastics training gave me great feet and really powerful jumps, and I’m now focused enough to learn to fix the rest, so I can’t really complain.

Internally, I wept in despair.

Okay — so, really, I internally cursed myself for still not having a respectable, reliable waltz turn, but “wept in despair” sounds better. Besides, in ballet, it’s easier to represent despair than just being really annoyed with yourself.

Anyway, none of my classmates remarked on that, certainly in part because they’re exceedingly kind people, but also most probably in part because many of them also suffer from a weak link in the form of the nominally-easy waltz turn.

I tell you this neither to boast of my reliably beautiful cabriole nor to beg sympathy for my reliably terrible waltz turns, but to illustrate the point that ballet, as a discipline, is full of easy things that are hard and hard things that are easy — or that can be easy, anyway.

The hard things that can be easy, I suspect, are often that way because they tap our innate talents and tastes.

For whatever reason, I’m good at jumps, even the more complicated ones. I suspect that it’s largely a function of power: my legs enjoy a pretty good power-to-weight ratio, so (except when I’m tired and half-baking it) I jump high enough to buy myself time to figure out what to do.

Likewise, all but a few of the most complex jumps and turns are fairly easy to very clearly visualize, and my mind is very visual — and you can feel yourself doing them correctly. Somehow, though, some of the most basic linking steps remain an impenetrable blur in my mental library of ballet videos until I actually learn to do them correctly.

Moreover, human beings tend to practice what they’re good at — so I have done thousands of completely random cabrioles, sautés, and jetés just about anywhere that there’s enough room (I am not ashamed to dance in the corridor or at the bus stop, and it probably keeps the creepers at bay), but nowhere near as many waltz turns.

Oddly enough, though, the hard-easy things seem to be pretty universal — everyone I know, including professional dancers and instructors, cites balancé, pas de valse en tournant, and what to do with one’s head (this last one comes and goes, for me) as things that shouldn’t be so bleeding hard to learn (okay, so they don’t all put it quite that way).

I suspect they’re easy in the sense that once you know what your body needs to do, it’s not hard to follow the pattern — but they’re hard to learn because the patterns are hard to explain and happen so quickly that it’s hard to see what’s really going on.

(Except for carriage of the head. That’s a whole different can of worms, and A Post For Another Time.)

I rarely did balancés right until Brian explained them in a way that even a rock could understand — explaining not just with words, but with his body (and ours), breaking the pattern down into sub-patterns so we could assemble them into proper balancés.

He did that, I should note, precisely because an entire intermediate class was horribly flailing through a bunch of balancés just when he happened to be watching. Not one of us did them right, let alone well: imagine a herd of sleep-deprived camels trying to balancé, and you’ve probably about got it — so Brian pulled the class to a screeching halt and said, “Okay, I’m going to show you guys how to balancé once and for all.”

In short, Brian had intuited that we had somehow all been more or less reliably faking it well enough for long enough to make it this far, but he was damned if we were going to make it as far as the next combination — or even the end of the current one — without learning to balancé right.

The best part? He explained balancé in a way that even I, with my spectacular inability to convert between the spoken word and visuo-spatial thought and back, could understand and even explain to a rock. It is now the one thing I can confidently teach other people how to do. Someday, when I’m one hundred and three, I’ll be teaching the kitchen staff at some seaside retirement villa to balancé like champs.

Since then, while I don’t always balancé beautifully*, I do at least always manage to perform the right motor pattern.

**It’s worth noting that I do them best, sometimes even really beautifully, when I’m not trying and thinking and focusing, but simply “playing” with dance — something worth remembering, I think, for adult students who may be self-conscious about doing exactly that.


For the record, the consensus of several reliable sources suggests that the only difference between balancé and pas de valse is this:

In pas de valse, your legs never cross.

On the balance (see what I did th… ugh, sometimes I can’t stand myself), it’s true. Beyond that, both steps are done in 3/4 time and follow an ABA pattern — either left, right, left or right, left, right.

One may be forgiven for assuming that having a reliable motor program for balancé would reliably translate to having one for pas de valse and vice-versa — but, forgiven or not, one would still be wrong.

There is no guarantee that one predicts the other, though — maddeningly — there should be, because usually one precedes the other.

Most of us, I’m pretty sure, are taught the pas de valse, then its en tournant variant, then balancé, then its en tournant variant. A fraction are probably taught both “straight” versions, then both en tournant forms (though probably not at the same time). A smaller fraction might be taught balancé first.

Regardless, the motor sequences are closely related (formally, one could say that balancé is an elaboration on pas de valse). Theoretically, they build upon one-another — but not if you don’t learn them right in the first place.

If what you’re doing looks more or less correct most of the time (and, especially, if you’re one of those perplexing students who pick up the difficult steps easily, but the easy steps with difficulty), you can go years without anyone fixing it — and this may be especially true if you do other things well.

I am convinced that my atrocious waltz turns have gone overlooked ever since I started dancing again in part because, on some fundamental level, it doesn’t make sense that I can do the things I can do, but not waltz turns.

The human mind is really good at deciding that if something doesn’t make sense (that it, if it doesn’t fit the well-established schema), it must not be true. I suspect that on more than one occasion some unconscious process in one of my instructors’ brains has concluded that I couldn’t possibly be that reliably bad at waltz turns and concluded that there must have been some mistake in perception.

And then, even if a teacher catches your mistake and gives you a correction, she may not do so in a way that addresses the root of the problem.

If she does, though — and if she breaks things down right — you may never go wrong again.

This, by the way, may be the best argument for syllabus classes for adult dancers: some of us may have forgotten the motor program for a given step; others may have learned it incorrectly and somehow never been corrected; still others may never have learned it at all. A syllabus-based approach, correctly implemented, builds progressively — teaching each step thoroughly before moving on to the next, then reiterating those lessons. This prevents newly-gained material from being lost from class to class.

Regardless, it has been comforting to learn that I’m not the only one struggling with some of the apparently-easy steps while almost effortlessly attaining harder ones. It’s comforting to know that ballet is, in fact, full of easy things that are actually kind of hard.

If I figure out how to apply Brian’s balancé lesson to pas de valse en tournant, I will add it to my list of future video posts (one can procrastinate much more effectively if one maintains a list of projects that one is putting off).

Meanwhile, I’m off to do the ballet laundry and clean the house, since the holidays have descended upon us with the ravening might of a pack of … um … time-eating … astral wolves or something?

More soon. Until then, beware of time-devouring astral wolves bearing gifts (and eggnog, and latkes, and what have you).

À bientôt, mes amis!

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2015/12/11, in balllet and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I love this. Can u please read my posts👍🏻

  2. Well after 15 years of doing ballet, I’m still trying to figure out the mystery of what to do with my head. I mean I *know* what to do with my head, but *my head* likes to forget 🙂

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