Technical Saturday: First Things First
“Let’s start at the very beginning: a very good place to start.”–Oscar Hammerstein II, “Do-Re-Mi” (from The Sound of Music)
Every now and then, L’Ancien reminds us that “fifth position is a lifetime study.”
And he’s right, of course–our bodies are constantly changing, adapting to the demands of our lives both inside and outside the studio.
I think the same can be said for first position. It’s simpler than fifth, but with fifth it forms the foundation of ballet technique.
If you think about it, all of ballet is built on the foundations of first and fifth. Second position grows directly out of first; third is preparatory to fifth; fourth, correctly executed, grows out of fifth (or, in the case of open fourth, third, but That’s Another Post).
As dancers, we spend a lot of time focusing on fifth, and less on first. But every rond de jambe, passe parre terre, and battement en cloche depends on passing through a true first position. So do a million other steps that build upon them.
Moreover, if your placement is off in first, you cheat yourself out of your best fifth … ask me how I know, heh. You also reduce your own ability to work efficiently through your feet, your turnout, and … basically, everything.
There’s a reason that first position is, you know … first. A stable, well-placed first position sets you up to succeed in second, fifth, and fourth. But what, exactly, even is a stable, well-placed first? Let’s kick off this series by dissecting first position with the tool that is an adult ballet student’s best friend and worst enemy—the rational, critical mind.
We tend to think of ballet positions from the feet upwards.
That makes perfect sense, really. To the untrained eye, the most noticeable difference between first position and, like, just standing there is that in first position, the toes stick out sideways instead of straight ahead (or, well, more or less straight ahead). Show the average untrained human a picture of first position, and that’s what they’ll notice first because, frankly, it’s kinda weird.
That said, turnout isn’t just about style. It’s a functional adaptation (though ballet technique in the modern era carries it to a stylized extreme). Among other things, it lets you gracefully slip sideways without tripping over yourself. It allows you the shift your weight sideways to bring the hip in line with the ball of the foot. It activates a broad array of muscles that stabilize you during balances and turns. It also makes you look fancy as heck, and who doesn’t want to look fancy?
First position is where we find our turnout. Fifth may be where we maximize it, but first is its home base.
Unfortunately, left to our own devices, our methods of feeling our way into first position are, all too often, wack. That’s the technical term, people. Work with me, here.
If you show a grown person with no ballet training first position, and then say, “Do this,” there are two highly-probable outcomes*.
*There aren’t the only possibilities, just the ones I’ve seen most.
First, there’s the classic “inside out” approach: for whatever reason, a certain percentage of otherwise intelligent human beings will attempt to emulate first position by touching their toes together and winging their heels out to the sides like a four-year-old who really, really needs to pee.
Obviously, this is wrong.
Second, there’s the “right but wrong” approach, which is probably(???) more common. This is the one where the would-be-dancer–or your Dad, or your Cousin Pat, or whatever poor schmuck you’ve roped into this experiment–rocks back on their heels and rotates their toes out to the side. This, too, is wrong, but for much subtler (and more persistent) reasons.
Given that this is a ballet blog and that you’re here, you can probably figure out why the “inside out” approach is wrong (though it does get one thing right–it usually forces the subject to pour weight into their toes).
But what’s so wrong with the other way?
The other way–the “right but wrong” way–pushes all of Cousin Pat’s weight into her heels. And while you do need some weight in your heels, you really don’t need that much.
Really, you need just enough weight in your heels to keep touching the ground. If you keep too much weight in your heels, you will find it much harder to work through your feet correctly, your weight will fall in the wrong places, and, perhaps surprisingly, you’ll block your own turnout.
I’ve realized that this is going to take a couple of posts to really dissect, so for now I’ll close here. Next time, we’ll take a closer look at the problems outlined above and how to solve them. I didn’t actually mean to write a dissertation on first position, but you know … ballet. What are you gonna do?