On Technique: Rond de Jambe en L’air, All Cocked Up
Fourth in a series of posts on the details of technique that focuses primarily on steps and aspects of dance that I’m struggling with. Take it with a grain of salt.
I find it helpful to write things out in an effort to get a grip on them. These aren’t so much instructions (though if they work for you, awesome!) as observations.
Today, during barre, I brought my leg to 90 degrees for a rond de jambe en l’air.
I kept it in the hip socket and began to trace an arc: avant, à côte—and then TB called out a general correction about keeping the hips level, and suddenly I realized that I was the joker with his working hip cocked up into his ribcage like a total n00b.
No insult to total n00bs intended, by the way. You spend your first couple of years in the ballet studio basically being a total n00b, hanging in there by the skin of your teeth and learning to feel your body in ways you couldn’t before. Sometimes your working hip is going to go walkabout, and that’s just part of the learning process.
Everyone was a total hip-cocking n00b at one point, including BW and David Hallberg and Misty Copeland. Probably even Balanchine, though we can’t ask him since he’s conveniently no longer among us.
But, really, by the time you’ve stuck it out long enough that they don’t give you side-eye* when you walk into advanced class, that’s a thing you’ve (mostly) learned how to control.
And, in fact, it’s something I’m usually pretty good at.
So what happened?
Approximately seven weeks of down-time, that’s what.
While I was busy being sick and then on break, my turnout muscles went, “Hallelujah! We don’t have to do all that work any more!” and got busy losing all the strength and refined control I’d just spent the past several months very consciously building(1).
- Muscles are great, but they lack foresight. Every time you take a break, they’re like, “Yeay, no more physical activity forever! Sedentary lifestyle, here we cooommmmme!!!!!” Basically, muscles are lazy little bastidges.
Now, this is a totally normal process.
It even kinda makes sense: conservation of resources, and all. If your body doesn’t have to keep a given set of muscles all super-toned and whatevs, of course it’s not going to waste resources trying to do so. Especially when the muscles in question are really only used that way by the 0.000012%(2) of the world’s population that’s insane enough to devote a jillion hours each week to ballet.
- Ignoble, D. (2017). Pure conjecture. Louisville, KY: Horse Hockey.
Likewise, when I raced bikes I learned that it’s good for serious athletes to take an off-season now and then. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, “sit on your butt and eat Cheetos for six months,” but if even Joe Friel says you can take a break now and then, get a little soft around the edges, that’s good enough for me.
However, seven weeks of essentially nothin’ isn’t precisely what the good Mr. Friel has in mind when he suggests taking an off-season, nor is it what your friendly local ballet master would, for example, recommend for dancers on the seasonal layoff after their Nuts are well and truly Cracked.
Anyway, it turns out that after slugging abed(3) for seven weeks, your highly-trained turnout muscles—the very muscles responsible for carrying your leg through rond de jambe en l’air at 90 degrees (or, really, any angle) without cocking a hip—aren’t quite prepared for their job.
- Or a-sofa, or what have you.
This is worth remembering.
Ballet technique is forged from an alloy of refined intellectual knowledge, rich connections in the somatosensory cortex and beyond, and pure raw strength.
Think of it like you might think of baking a cake: you need at bare minimum a given set of ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, fat, some kind of leavening agent. If one is missing, the end result might be edible, but it’s probably not going to be the cake you had in mind(4).
- If you haven’t encountered Cake Wrecks before, you’re welcome, and also I’m sorry. I’ll see you when you return to the surface.
In short, there might be days that your technique, for one reason or another, doesn’t come together.
If this happens to you, don’t panic. It will (almost certainly) come back soon enough.
Sometimes you need to rebuild strength; sometimes your brain is working so hard mastering a new skill that it can’t keep the existing ones performing as intended; sometimes you’re just tired and your brain and/or body go, “WHYYYYYYYY?”
Meanwhile, if you’re having trouble keeping your hips level, bear in mind that the same muscles that drive your turnout are essential to movements like rond de jambe en l’air, passé/retiré, attitude, and so forth (really, they’re essential to everything in ballet).
Rather than simply thinking furiously to yourself, KEEP THE HIPS LEVEL, KEEP THE HIPS LEVEL, LEVEL, LLLLLEEEEVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVEEELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!, if you’re struggling, consider concentrating on engaging the deep rotators to lift your working leg and move it through whatever radius is required(5). When you’re working on this, don’t worry about the height of your working leg: it’ll come.
- You can, in fact, experiment with this very movement while lying on the floor or whatever. Just, like, don’t try to go further than à la seconde.
If your deep rotators aren’t presently strong enough, the higher you carry your working leg, the greater the likelihood that the large anterior muscles of the leg (especially the quads) and core will take over, causing the hip to pop out of line.
Note, also, that even if your rotators are strong enough, if you extend your beyond your hip socket and allow the pelvis to creep forward on the working side, it will be hard to fully engage the rotators. That situation can also lead to a cocked hip.
So there you have it. And now I’m going to go soak myself in the bath and think about what to eat for dinner tonight.