Technical, erm, Monday: Balance, Say?

But first, inevitably, housekeeping.

So, it appears that I’ve chosen a terrible blog schedule. No big shocker there, really: we have long since established that I’m spectacularly terrible at figuring out how to manage time when left entirely to my own devices.

Given the opportunity to be fully in control of scheduling my own time and the requirement of actually making a schedule I’ll be able to follow, I would rather retire to a dark corner of a neglected closet and whimper. Nobody should be held accountable for adhering to a schedule concocted by a Golden Retriever with only the vaguest ideas about what’s important in life.

Control of my own time is fine; imagining how to block activities into that time? Ha. Surely, you jest.

So even though I’m only one week into the second half of our season, I’m scrapping my Monday-and-Saturday plan and starting over.

Partly, this is because I had forgotten that Saturday rehearsals run until 4 PM, but still entail being in class at 10, which means that Saturday is a very, very long day. By the time I get home, make dinner, and make at least a cursory effort in the general direction of cleaning up, the exact level of my mental capacity is Two Hours Of Half-Baked Attempts At Match-Three Games, or a similar period of reading something not-too-demanding and at least a little funny.

So, my apologies for banging out a terrible plan. 

I think I’ll hold off for now on making bold prognostications about anything more ambitious than posting on Mondays, because Monday is the one day I actually have to myself, which means it’s the only day that I can write without (ahem!) Someone[1] asking me annoying questions like, “What are you working on?” or “Is there any plan for dinner?” or “Do you smell smoke?”

I would really like to stick to a twice-per-week posting schedule. This might mean getting in the habit of bringing my tablet and bluetooth keyboard with me so I can write in the car on the way home or something, or posting (as I did the other day) from my phone during lunch break (though we have only 30 minutes, so we don’t all turn into statues). I’ll feel my way forward on that bit.

For the time being, I think I’ll refrain from declaring Monday’s posts to be strictly technical or otherwise. The Technical Note series is, however, one of my major goals, so that will probably comprise the majority of Monday posts. Go figure.

And now! On to the minutiae of the Hardest Easy Step, also known as balancé.


Balancé is, simply put, one of the most useful, frequent, and enjoyable steps in the entire canon of ballet technique.

It comes in any number of flavors (the usual forward, back, and to either side, but also en tournant in both “under” and “over” variants, etc[2]).

It allows you to gracefully eat up time, change directions, show off your épaulement, and to actually feel and even look like you’re dancing, which (if I’m not mistaken) is kind of the whole point of ballet.

It is, unfortunately, also beastly hard to learn if nobody breaks it down sensibly (a trait shared with its close relatives, the prolific pas de bourrée clan and the waltz turn[2 again]).

I suspect that this boils down to the simple fact that all three of these steps involve three movements, while we humans have but two legs. On the other hand, almost evertyhing else in ballet (and especially petit allegro) would be thoroughly hellish with three legs, so we should definitely count our blessings. And, presumably, our legs (what has 64 legs and smells of Ben-Gay? The corps de ballet in La Bayadere! Thank you, I’m here all week … or, well, at least on Mondays).

Fortunately for us, both balancé and the waltz turn are also very frequently married to time signatures with a count divisible by 3 (most commonly 3/4 time)[3,4], with each movement of the step taking up one count[5].

Anyway, all too often, even good teachers don’t think to break balancé into its constituent parts for adult students, who (possibly because of the tendency to overthink things) often struggle with it.

So here’s how you break it down, according to a method taught to me by my friend, teacher, and mentor Brian Grant.

First: stand there in parallel. Exciting, right?

Second: march in place. SLOWLY.

You can speed it up later, but right now you want to march just fast enough that you can march rhythmically but with a fair bit of time between footfalls. Yes, this feels weird, and not even remotely at all like ballet, and definitely not like anything resembling 3/4 time … but we’ll get there.

Third: as you march, count out loud as follows: “1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3…” 

For now, the stress goes on the 1. Don’t put the emphasis on the wrong syllable, as it were.

Each footfall gets one count. Suddenly, you’re marching in 3/4 time! Feel free to give that 1-count a good stomp. It’ll help with Step 6, and it’s also fun in a kind of “Monster Waltz” sort of way.

At this point, you’ll probably notice that the feet alternate on the 1-count. This is a useful observation as you continue to work on balancé and it supports another useful generality in the world of ballet, “What comes after left? Usually, right (and vice-versa).”

When you get comfortable with your rhythm, add an “And” after the 3. 

The “and” does NOT get a footfall; it happens between footfalls. (This, btw, is why you want to march pretty slowly at first. We’re going to fill that “and” later on.)

Anyway. Fourth: turn your feet out and continue marching.

You’ll probably notice that stomp-marching in three while turned out makes your weight shift more noticeably than marching in parallel. Voilá—the rocking motion that characterizes balancé as a step! Now bring your feet into third or fifth position[6] as you continue to march.

Sixth: this is the tricky part! Whichever foot is going to be next on the 1-count, brush it out to the side (just a little degagé here, not a grand battement) on the AND.

What should happen is that your weight follows that foot, so you’ll rock a bit more to that side, and the foot that hits the ground on the 2 closes either right behind or right in front.

Guess what else happens … you realize that you’re actually doing balancés!

If your weight doesn’t make it, or doesn’t make it all the way, just yet, don’t worry—you’ll get there. Your body and brain are busy negotiating the spatial relationships: “How do I step under myself without stepping on myself?”

The more you let your bossy, bossy prefrontal cortex take over, the harder this gets … so if M. Evolved Grey-Matter up front refuses to relinquish the reins, you might need to think about something else. 

I suggest singing “Once Upon A Dream” as loudly as possible, partly because its tune is adapted from the Garland Waltz in Tchaikovsky’s score for The Sleeping Beauty and partly because if your neighbors still harbor any doubts about whether or not you’ve completely lost it, belting Disney tunes will definitely help[7].

You’ll notice that, in this post, I’m not actually terribly concerned about which foot goes first, whether the movement is avant or arriere, or anything ballet-technique-y like that. That’s because all those bits of data are variables of balancé
You can add all that stuff with comparative ease once you’ve got a feel for the basic motor pattern of the step itself. It’s much harder to learn the basic motor pattern while trying to hold all those variables in your head.

If your teachers know what they’re doing with regards to teaching ballet for beginners, they’ll structure their combinations in such a way that you won’t have to think about which foot to brush. On the balance (see what I did there? :V), you almost never have to think about which foot to brush when you balancé. Generally, the choreography pretty much forces you to choose the correct foot. Once in a while, you might encounter an exception, but beginner’s classes shouldn’t put you in that position.

So that’s it: balancé not really “in a nutshell” (actually, rather the opposite), but broken down to its component parts and rebuilt.

I’ll try to do a video version of this as well, since this is one of the things that might actually be much easier to learn that way even for people who typically learn better by reading.

I hope this helps, and that if you’re currently struggling with balancé, you’ll soon come to love it as much as I do (it’s really one of my favorite steps … I’ve been known to get entirely carried away with the épaulement because I love it so much ^-^’).

And, as ever, never stop dancing.

Notes

  1. D doesn’t read my blog, so unfortuantely my attempt at Subtly Sending A Message is not going to work. I will have to actually Talk To Him Like A Grown-Up if I want to be allowed to write without interruption when we’re both home.
  2. Some people, including my AD, classify the traveling waltz turn as a species of balancé. I don’t, because the name “balancé” refers to the rocking motion of the step, whereas the traveling waltz turn is a gliding step. That said, I should really refer to Saint Agrippina: if she agrees with my AD, I will be forced to change my mind.
  3. You can use it in time signatures with even counts if they’re in “three-feel” and you do it quickly. And this entire argument is complicated by the fact that even 3/4 and 6/8 time are typically phrased into 8-counts in ballet choreography … oy vey.
  4. We’ll leave off with the infamous “pas de bou” out of the equation for now, since it is no slave to time singature and in fact often occupies only one beat.
  5. Fast balancés can be executed in one or two counts, but that’s sort of Moderately Advanced Topics in Balancés, and That’s Another Post.
  6. For our purposes, either is fine. In practice, you’re usually aiming for the “center” of your balancé to be fifth position, but you’ll get there eventually.
  7. Note that I’m not defining “help,” here. Interpret appropriately depending upon your individual neighbors.

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Getting along pretty well with bipolar disorder. 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 2019/01/21, in #dancerlife, balllet, it is a silly place, life, technical notes, uggghhh...technique and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Asher- Thanks so much for the help on Balance Say! I must say, your passing on the gift given you by Brian Grant is SO FREEEK’N appreciated. You know i am an adult learner of ballet, and i can’t figure out how a young man like you can have any idea how i tend to overthink each step. First is the visual learner paradigm, then there is the muscle “training,” and on top of that the compound multi tasking. E.g. last week my dance instructor had the nerve to ask me to think about my head positions while i did the proper port de bras, while i did the right stuff with my feet. Urrrrgh! Ok, so a bit more context here. Do you know how the cliche that there are business minds and artistic minds? Well, maybe i am testing that a bit. In college my major was accounting. I loved it. I love business. I also loved what seemed to me to be the simple “code” of accounting logic: all is always in balance. Debits always equal credits. Its funny how much math there is in the melding of music and dance, but i am still struggling to get my muscles in sync with that. After accounting i continued my training in law. So perhaps you can see how my mind is wired to analyse and sort and categorize and store information. Then add to that six decades of muscle memory, the last three decades of which have been spend doing little more than sitting at a desk, riding a bike, or swimming laps. My cardio may be ok, but, how would you say, the “diversity” of my exertions have been fairly single-track.

    So, after following your descriptions in this blog i have to tell you how great if feel. When i first read your blog i really appreciated how you focused on goals. So, only naturally, my goals are to nail down balance-say and pas de bourree. I have examined many a you-tube tutorial on balance[-say] and must i get lost and confused, largely due to the variations of the implementation of the step. Your descriptions and the progression of the “steps” was immeasurably helpful to me, and i know i went on waaaayyyyy tooooo long to describe my “condition,” but bottom line, i want you to appreciate how much you have helped me.

    As a mature learner of ballet, i really do love going to my evening classes after a day at my desk. Ballet requires so much concentration that i totally leave behind the distracting, and otherwise ever-present pressures of my office work. As i start to check off my basic goals of balance and pas de bourree, i will be able to start concentrating on developing other skills. for now though, epaulement must wait! (I know there must be a code to epaulement, and i really look forward to cracking that one, too!)

    Again, muchos gracias. Matt

    • I’ve been meaning to write a thoughtful reply to this for a bit, because it speaks a lot to my hypothesis that the analytical adult mind is at once an adult beginner’s greatest strength and greatest challenge.

      Let me begin by saying you’re welcome and thank you. I don’t actually quite understand what compels me to write about my adventures as a dancer, but it is really edifying and gratifying to know that I’ve managed to help someone ekse on that journey.

      I also have to say that I love how you’re bringing your analytical mind to bear in surmounting the challenges that the same analytical mind creates for you in the studio, along with the challenges of introducing novel motor sequences. It’s just such a cool demonstration of how powerful and flexible our brains are: here you are, using analysis to outsmart your natural tendency towards analysis: looking at different resources, figuring out which ones do and don’t work for you, and then (the most important step, maybe!) figuring out how and why they do or don’t work and kind of codifying that information so you can use it to continue to find useful resources.

      Thinking about how we think might be the best thing we humans have going for us, and it’s so cool to see it in action, here.

      Your observation about YouTube bigwigs illuminates one of the major snags in ballet pedagogy: ballet teachers are usually people who’ve danced since they were small, and people who’ve danced since they were small have usually succeeded in doing so because of a natural aptitude for learning in the ways that ballet is traditionally taught. There’s not necessarily anything inherently wrong with that (it’s true to an extent in every field), but it does create its own set off problems.

      Typical ballet teachers’ strength as dancers (and possibly as teachers of fellow dancers who also begin their studies in childhood) may well become their weakness as teachers: too often, those of us who’ve danced for a long time can’t imagine what it’s like to need balancé broken down beyond the level of “brush, step, step; brush, step, step.”

      It’s like asking your average person to explain how to walk: we think we know how it’s done, but we’ve done it automatically for so long that when pressed to lay out a set of instructions, we don’t really produce anything useful. Moreover, our learning process is inexplicit and nonverbal–we successively approximate a goal state, but without reference to an explicit set of instructions. (Which is probably for the best, because holy beck, upright bipedal walking is a breathtakingly complex procedure!)

      BG has an amazing gift for breaking down steps (he also taught me to understand the jump known as the “barrel turn” instead of just throwing myself at it and hoping for the best 😁). For whatever reason, he’s really good at boiling things down to a fundamental set of instructions that simplifies the right things and doesn’t gloss over the things that seem simple, but aren’t (like the fact that balancé is, at its heart, just fancy walking!).

      I’m trying to learn to teach in that same way: it’s an excellent tool to have in one’s kit, if one aspires to teach any kind of movement.

      I don’t know if I’ll ever be as good at it as he is–when I try to think about things explicitly, I’m not always great at identifying the most critical things.

      As for a code to épaulement, I’ll tell you two things: first, the explicit rules vary from system to system; second, that at their heart there are two key points.

      The first key point is one to forget about for now: it’s all about how the light plays off your face and neck. That’s what varies most from system to system–the central cultural “spirit,” if you will, is expressed differently, for example, in Vaganova (which takes its timbre from the Imperial Russian sense of nobility) to RAD (which takes its timbre from the buffet but also more cheerful British nobility) to Balanchine (which is influenced by Balanchine’s Russian origin, but also by the flash and glitter and chutzpah of the New York theater scene in which Mr. B’s company evolved).

      The second and much more important key is this: watch how happy, free-moving little kids use their heads when they’re skipping down the sidewalk (assuming their parents won’t take you for a creeper and call the cops 😬). The head and shoulders tilt naturally to counter the swing of the leg.

      That’s pretty much the essence of épaulement at its most distilled (and is probably no small part of why a couple of happy little kids skipping along together so often look like they’re dancing).

      Of course, there are more formal rules, but if you can find a time and place to skip or even just walk, then relax your head and shoulders and give them the freedom to swing, you’ll have the beginning of it. I think this is hard for adults not only because of muscle memory, but because working at a desk trains us to hold our heads unnaturally still, which in turn makes our necks and shoulders habitually tense.

      Incidentally, L’Ancien recounts the skipping thing as one of the selection criteria for children auditioning to enter the Royal Academy of Dance: no prior knowledge of ballet technique was assumed, but one major selection criterion was whether the kids moved their heads freely when asked to skip along to music.

      Also, your comment was definitely not way too long … Though obviously I’m prone to long comments myself 😁😁😁

  2. Hey Asher, I hope you are ok and dancing up a storm.

    • I am … Just not doing a great job actually posting ^-^´

      • I totally get you taking a bit of a break. I’ve been quite busy too, but just wanted to ck in. I can tell you put a huge effort into your posts. Your posts really are excellent, easy to follow, and chock full of great information. Your writing is excellent too, and i know that all takes precious time to accomplish. … … … So, thanks again for doing what you do. … … … Over the last 2 weeks we have received a total of some 26 inches of snow here in Washington. And its been cold too. I don’t know what i will do come summer time when my dance teacher takes a break. Sure i will get my miles on my road bike, but i will miss my regular dance sessions. Its pretty weird–Last night i went to bed worked up that i couldn’t re-enact our center sequences from yesterday’s class– i kept ending on an extra five count instead of the preceding eight. Then after going to bed i actually dreamed of dance while i slept. I am afraid this may be a chronic condition! Ciao for now. Matt

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