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?

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 2019/01/04, in balllet, uggghhh...technique and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. NTM is a believer in hitting 5th and then going back to 1st once everyone’s placed.

    • I think that’s a really solid strategy for keeping people from sinking into their heels, though not one I’d use with brand-new beginners, because I suspect it would result in a lot of knee valgus O.O’

      Someday, I really must get myself across the pond and submit myself to the tender ministrations of your teachers. I suspect I’d learn a lot.

  2. Hey Asher- Great Pic- Looks like awesome fun. My class has three dancers in it, max. Carol has danced over 60 years, me about 10 weeks, and a 14 year old girl who has danced 6 years or so. Such is life in an isolated small town on the inland plain east of Seattle. If you ever get out to Seattle or Portland bring your bike. I will show you the best routes up to Paradise and Sunrise on Mt. Rainier. Google them for pics. Ciao for now, M

    • Thank you! Your class has quite a range, wow! It must be inspiring to be in a class with someone who has danced as long as Carol. I definitely feel that way about L’Ancien, who has danced for 50 years.

      • Yeah, Carol is awesome. She started at maybe 10 growing up in St. Paul where she was able to study under a Russian immigrant. When she got to college the dance company associated with the school was short of men, so they asked her to join and “play” the part. She went on to add costume making which took her to Broadway, then LA, then SF, dancing all the while. I am amazed my instructor has so much tolerance. Last night there were two of us in class. This wriggly 10 year-old girl dancing her third year,who by nature cannot stop moving all class long, and me, who at sixty, is just discovering how to make his body move. How the instructor balances the (vast?) differences in her student’s mobility, attention and experience is really something. What grace she demonstrates.

  3. Asher, I am thinking of signing up for the 2019 STP. That’s the annual bike ride from Seattle to Portland in July. If you haul your bike out here you could let me draft off you from mile 125 to 175, which is where i struggle the most. Maybe June Fourth would make sure we got a healthy pre-ride meal. Your quads, by the way, look like a sprinter’s.

    • That would be awesome, though I probably won’t be able to do it this year unless our finances loosen up a bit.

      You are correct: I definitely have a pretty decent sprint, and because I’m strong for my weight I also climb pretty well ^-^ I used to kind of specializing in crushing people on short-to-medium climbs, though sadly I absolutely can’t do that now, because if I do it takes me like a week to get my turnout back o.O’

      What I’ve found, for me, is that spinning in itty-bitty baby gears is fine, but cranking the big gears makes my quads hulk out and strengthens the muscles that oppose turnout, which in turn makes it very difficult for the turnout muscles to do their job to the necessary extent … which isn’t a huge problem unless your primary responsibility in life involves being a ballet dancer, in which case it’s awful ^-^

      I wish ballet and big gears weren’t mutually exclusive for me, though, because I actually quite miss battling it out on the hills with my bike peeps!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: