Category Archives: technical notes
*(Or, really, hit that dimmer switch. )
Just a quickie today.
I’m sure someone has told me this before, but today something that Killer B said really struck home.
When you’re balancing en relevé (and at various other times; I’ll try to remember to explore this idea in much greater depth at some point), you can help your adductors and deep rotators with their job by letting the glutes (especially those pesky maximi that think they’re responsible for absolutely everything) relax a bit.
Turn on the adductors; dim the glutes.
The gluteals are huge and super strong–so they easily overpower the smaller muscles. Curiously, this makes it much harder to balance in turnout.
It makes a great deal of sense if you just think about sous-sus: if your glutes are firing all of their guns at once, they’re kind of pushing your legs away from the center line. The adductors aren’t strong enough to overcome them, so we tend to either be unstable or comprise our turnout to place our legs in a position from which the glutes can push them towards each-other.
If you relax the glutes substantially (but don’t completely let them go) while keeping the adductors, deep rotators, and pelvic floor powerfully engaged, you stabilize your hip without compromising your turnout.
In fact, you might find a few more degrees of turnout than you thought you had (no promises, but it happens).
Of course, all this depends on your nervous system having figured out how to consciously feel and activate (or deactivate) those various muscles.
Still, this was enlightening to the degree that L’Ancien’s “grand battement starts in your back” was. Relinquishing some of the fearsome grip of my glutes made my balances better instantly … and it also improved my plié, which led to better petit allegro. I did a random entrechat six today in a combination with dancers’ choice on the beats, and it felt like nothing.
Right now, I’m a glute-clencher by habit. I’ll be retraining this consciously for a while. Eventually it’ll replace my current habit … and then I’ll discover some other awful thing, because that’s ballet for you 😛
Anyway, if you, like I, am a bendy person with ridiculous hip mobility, I hope this helps.
L’Ancien often uses stories to illustrate key lessons. Today, he told us about a dancer who came to South Africa (where L’Ancien was dancing at the time) after the Chernobyl disaster because the world’s best research center for radiation sickness was there. This dancer from Kiev joined the company, and for six months L’Ancien watched his beautiful grand battements, mystified by how he was doing what he was doing.
And then one day it became clear: this man from Kiev, a principal dancer in his home country, initiated his grand battement from high in his back.
It didn’t begin, as all too horribly often it does, in the hip. It didn’t begin in the heel, or in the middle of the pinkie toe of the free leg (which is definitely NOT where your grand battement should begin).
It began in his back. The impetus pushed down from just below the shoulder blades, which both lent great energy to his legs and kept his back high and open.
Study this in second, L’Ancien told us, as he always does, Study everything in second; the en dehors and the balance are already there, so you never have to think about them.
Try it a couple of times, he said.
So we did.
It’s amazing what simply thinking about something a little differently can do. When you begin by sending your impulsion down through your back, not only does your chest stay high and free and open, but you don’t do abominable things with your pelvis.
I’ve realized I often short-change my own jumping power by dumping my pelvis and allowing my lower back to turn into a slinky, which absorbs some of the force that should drive me into the atmosphere. If I can jump pretty high whilst jumping that badly, I should be able to hit the ceiling if I just freaking well do it right.
I suspect that the same principle applies: begin with your back.
Now that I think about it, this reminds me of a principle in classical horsemanship: a horse can’t properly collect himself if he doesn’t know how lift his back.
We often think of this as bringing the hindquarters underneath, but it begins in the long muscles parallel to the spine, around the ribs, and in the core. In order for to collect his hindquarters beneath him (and to lighten his forehand and eventually lift it off the ground), a horse must lift his spine just a little—not so much he arches like a cat, but enough to make room and connect his whole body into a single piece.
In ballet, if we want our legs to go up, we must first send the impulse down through the back and through the heel.
I’m going to try to remember to ask L’Ancien about this next week—that is, whether I’m correct in guessing that this concept is also applicable to turns and jumps. Ballet is modular like that.
It’s an exciting thing: something that feels like a key to a few of my stubborn ballet problems (double tours, I’m looking at you).
Today L’Ancien said my posture is much better. That’s a huge step in the right direction.
Sometimes I feel like his goal as a teacher is to take us all apart, shake out the extra screws and pieces of gum and paperclips that accumulated while we were initially being assembled, and put us back together as more perfect dancers.
I, for one, am totally down with that.
Have I mentioned that this is a man who has been dancing for more than 50 years? He’s been dancing for more than 50 years.
To L’Ancien, we’re all beginners.
I get this question a lot.
That and, “How long did it take you to get your center split?”
The answers are, in short, “Very little, in any formal sense,” and, “About two seconds.”
There’s an assumption among dance students that work is the great equalizer.
That assumption is largely correct—and yet it doesn’t mean that individual variations in innate ability do not occur, or that enough work will overcome all of them.
Most human beings will never achieve a center oversplit. This isn’t because they won’t work hard enough, but because they have normal human pelvises that don’t allow it.
Many human beings will never achieve a even a full center split, in fact.
The center split may be the least malleable feat of flexibility. Unlike the front splits, which simply extend the natural range of motion of the average human hip joint complex, it is enormously dependent on genetics. Even early training exerts only a small degree of influence, as far as I can tell. A full center split requires both soft-tissue flexibility and unusual hip sockets. One is amenable to training; the other might possibly be very slightly amenable to rigorous training at an age at which most children’s parents are much more concerned with basic skills than with the potential eventuality of flat center splits.
I don’t think the group of human beings who have center oversplits is very large. Even though I move in ballet and cirque circles, I can count the examples I know personally on one hand with fingers to spare. And that’s counting myself.
In short, the same characteristics of the hip socket that give us the required range of motion also make us unusually prone to hip dislocations (upright bipedalism a harsh mistress).
Back in the day, a dislocated hip was almost certainly a good way to get eaten by the nearest predator (or otherwise eliminate yourself from the gene pool), thus greatly reducing the likelihood of passing on the genes that allow for extreme hip flexibility. In short, center oversplits are maladaptive in an evolutionary context, and thus exceedingly rare even though we’ve largely decoupled ourselves from natural selection pressures (though it would be interesting to see where we stand in another hundred thousand years or so).
So often in Western culture, we equate talent—that is, raw, innate ability —with virtue.
This tendency may be at its most visible in the movement arts: professional training selects for people who both possess innate ability and who work hard, but it’s the innate ability that the average person-on-the-street cites: “Wow, she’s so talented!”
The phenomenon of TV talent shows hasn’t helped. So often, the word talent is right there in the title: America’s Got Talent. It’s too easy to conflate the rocket-to-stardom modality with the myth of talent.
From Algeria to Zimbabwe, successful …Got Talent competitors work their butts off (or, in the case of dancers, on) to make the most of whatever measure of innate ability they have—but we see only the five minutes or so that they command the stage in each episode, unknowns to the public at large. They appear to emerge fully-formed, replete with the armor of their art, from the foreheads of the judges.
It’s too easy to ignore the work and sigh, “If only I was that talented!”
But it’s also too easy to fall into the opposite camp, which discounts innate ability entirely.
There’s a familiar impasse that one encounters if one sticks around long enough as an adult ballet student to reach a fairly advanced standard of training.
Newer students admire your talent and/or your work ethic—and then they ask you how they can learn to do the thing you’re doing with such ease (or, at any rate, apparent ease).
Most often, you can truthfully answer, “Work your tuchas off, take class with these three instructors, make three classes per week your bare minimum, and you’ll get there sooner than you think.” You can even gently guide the ones who want the results associated with setting ballet on the front burner without having actually done so. Sometimes this means helping them discover for themselves that they love dancing, but are really just there to have fun, and aren’t actually going to prioritize it enough to make the kind of progress they want (at least, not in the timeframe they’re imagining). Sometimes it means helping them give themselves permission to front-burner ballet.
- This last bit is pretty specific to adult students, who mostly seem to expect everything to take longer than it actually will. Kids can be very much the opposite.
Yet, sometimes, you’re forced to formulate on the fly an answer that gently conveys the idea that no matter how hard they work, their feet aren’t going to look like yours, because your feet are the result of a serendipitous confluence of genetic traits polished by work, or that they’re probably never going to nail a flat center split because their hips aren’t arranged in a way that allows for it. To say, in short: “I don’t have these feet because I’m a professional dancer. I’m a professional dancer because I have these feet … or, well, partly, anyway.”
The challenge, then, is figuring out how to explain the complicated ratio of talent to hard work—that, for the most part, hard work matters much more. It’s mostly at the highest levels (particularly in companies with very specific ideas about how dancers’ bodies look) that both hard work and talent matter almost equally: to dance for ABT or the Royal Ballet or the Kirov, one needs both in almost superhuman doses. Talent alone is certainly not enough, but hard work alone won’t do it, either.
And, then, even at the highest levels, dancers acknowledge that talent is distributed capriciously. Nobody gets it all, in part because some of the genetic gifts associated with success as a dancer (qv, those incredibly mobile feet and ankles everyone wants) actually make technique harder. Every dancer with beautiful feet can point to some other part of her body and say, “Yeah, but…”
As kids, we’re often given the impression that talent is everything. American culture is flush with fictional stories of raw, undeveloped talent that is miraculously discovered and immediately transported to the upper echelons of artistic success. That model sells, and fits in the with fairytale mode of instant transformation that colors so much of the media we market to children.
The downside is that, too often, this means talented people feel like they don’t have to work that hard. Vexingly, there are even some points at which this is true: I don’t really work on flexibility, for example.
- I work on its opposite: strength. A couple weeks without calf raises, and the mobility of my ankles makes one-foot relevé balances beastly hard.
Worse, it can create the impression that a lack of exceptional talent means one shouldn’t bother. This is also fundamentally untrue. The world is full of professional dancers who began with average measures of everything but the motivation to work (not to mention their sublimely-talented peers whose motivation led them to leave ballet). They may not be dancing at the Kirov, but they’re certainly dancing in your local company.
Although the ballet world is full of talented late-starters like Copeland and Hallberg, none of them owe their success to talent alone or even primarily. They are, to a person, incredible workers first and foremost. BW came to ballet very late—but his success owes in no small part to the fact that he does sixteen turns after every class, trains in ankle weights, attends to every detail fastidiously, and simply works like the world depends on it.
And yet: he’s tall-but-not-too-tall, physically beautiful, and gifted with hip mobility equal to mine.
His work is devoted to improving what is already a very fine instrument. His work will probably take him farther than mine does—in part because he actually does work harder than I do, but also because he’s taller than I am (but not too tall). Perhaps it shouldn’t matter, and perhaps at some future time it won’t—but right now it’s a matter of course that ultimately a principal dancer is by default a prince, and we imagine that the prince should be tall and regal. Someone of my middling height and middling talent (as compared to the range of professional dancers, rather than to the population at large) might be Seigfried at Backyard Ballet Theater, but never at PNB or ABT, even if I hadn’t taken a long break from dancing.
I should say that I’m not bitter at all about this. I would never in a million years complain about being asked to dance Seigfried or Albrecht or Cavalier (though, like, couldn’t he have a name, y’all?), not least because I love partnering and the princes get almost all the most tender, most beautiful pas de deux.
But give me, any day, the fireworks of the Russian dance, the simmering sensuality of Arabian, the aerial grace of Bluebird, or the wild abandon of Le Corsaire’s famous slave. Give me the corps part I danced last year in Orpheus: a mad, sensuous, pyrotechnic demon of the shadowy depths. Give me the ridiculous athleticism of the peasant pas in Giselle (two very, very long passages of balls-to-the-wall balletic redlining jammed into a lively pas de deux).
It is to these peripheral roles that I’m best suited both by temperament and by physical aptitude. I don’t begrudge the lack of lofty height that will mean I only ever dance Prince What’s-His-Name at summer programs and if all of the taller guys at Podunk Ballet simultaneously come down with flu.
Ultimately, part of becoming a dancer is accepting your limitations.
BG will be the first to tell you he has biscuits of the highest order: but then he’ll show you his carriage, his élan, and his ballon.
BW explained to me the downside of our shared extreme hip mobility: we work twice as hard doing turns in second, for example, because we have to use our muscles to hold ourselves together where other dancers can rely on their bones to do much of the the work. My flexibility, in fact, means I’m prone to dancing like a slinky.
In the grand scheme of things, whether or not you have a center split means less than whether or not you know how to work with what you’ve got.
I don’t stretch very much because the last thing I need, as a dancer, is looser joints. I have a center oversplit because I’m a mutant with an unstable pelvis.
I’m not a dancer because of either of those things. I’m a dancer because the only thing I really want to do is dance, and because I’m lucky enough to be in a position that allows me to apprentice myself as I’m doing now in professional jobs that pay only intermittently. I’m a dancer, in short, because I dance.
This isn’t to say that I my body is not an advantage. It is. I do no one any service by saying otherwise.
But in the end, it’s top-dressing.
If I’m auditioning and my only competition is a physically-similar dancer with the same degree of training and the same work ethic but a body that’s not quite as purpose-built for ballet, there’s a fair chance I’ll come out on top. Give that other dancer a year or two more training or a work ethic comparable to BW’s, though, and my edge vanishes.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying this:
Don’t worry too much about your center split. You might never have one.
If you want to dance, that’s almost never the deciding factor.
Worry instead about your training and your work ethic. If you’re feeling unmotivated, figure out why and how you can hack your motivational system to work around it (concrete goals work for me; an upcoming show works better than anything).
Ask yourself, in the words of the British rowing team, “Does it make the boat go faster?” If it doesn’t, find a way to put it aside. Come back to it later, maybe: but know that later on it might not seem so important.
Know your weaknesses, and work on them within reason: but not at the expense of knowing and honing your strengths.
Ballet is too hard to spend time and energy making it harder.
I mean chaînés, of course. Everyone loves chaînés sooooooooo much, amirite?! They are The Actual Best!
- At least I assume that’s why everyone goes, “uuugghhhhhh, whyyyyyyy” when it’s time for chaînés. Because that’s the sound of joy … right?
I’ve spent the past year or two trying to make peace with chaînés. It has, in fact, largely worked. Two things—learning that dudes usually don’t piqué into chaînés and that it’s fine to do your chaînés in fifth—led to some dramatic improvements.
However, somewhere along the line, I started losing all my momentum going into any run of chaînés.
Not cranking the turnout-brakes (read: that thing you do to halt your momentum if you have to finish a soutenu turn in sous-sus) helped, as in it prevented me from actually grinding to a halt after one turn, but it didn’t solve the problem entirely.
Today, though, Killer B fixed the remaining bit of the problem: she said, “You can piqué or chassée into your chaînés, whichever works better for you … but right now you’re tombé-ing in, and it’s killing your momentum.”
So I tried the chassée–chaîné approach, and HOLY CRAP GUYS IT WORKED. Made my chaînés about twice as fast, in fact. (Which is good, because sometimes they were embarrassingly slow.)
AHHHHHH!!!! You guys, how did I go so wrong?!
Like, I remember BW giving me a lesson on chaînés as pertains to Men’s Technique, and that he taught me to not piqué into them … but at some point I decided explicitly that tombé was the One True Way.
(Evidently it is a correct approach, but not one that works particularly well for me: I tend to tombé into a deep demi-plié way over my front leg as if preparing for a sauté arabesque or something. Ultimately, that means that my momentum can go straight up or back the way it came, but not really forward except through pas de bourrée … I guess it would be useful if I needed to change directions straight into a series of chaînés, though.)
The waltz combination today was:
chaîné-chaîné-petit developpé to pas de bourrée
turn en dehors
turn en dehors (land 5th, right foot front, or coupé through)
petit developpé to pas de bourrée
rotation (fouetté à terre)
turn en dedans
I’m trying to figure out if I’m leaving out some waltz turns somewhere, or if they were in something else and I’m conflating my memories.
- very possible; this morning was a horrible slog through the swamps of badness: the struggle was all the way real.
- I even hosed up a simple sissone combination at the end of class, though at least I made it to the end of class without actually dissolving into a gibbering zombie. I almost checked out after the warm-up jumps, but I didn’t, because some part of my acknowledges that I work in dance now, which means there will be days that I have to get out there onstage even though I just can’t even.
Regardless, the chassée–chaîné approach is a freaking lifesaver.
I was going to drop a YouTube video that shows this in here, but my exhaustive* one-minute long search hasn’t found one, so it’ll have to wait.
*yeah, okay, totally not exhaustive
Anyway, there’s today’s gem from class.
Guys: if an approach via tombé is sending your chaînés to an early grave (get it? tomb … é … early grave … harhar), try chassée instead.
Wednesday evening, Señor BeastMode gave us a really useful note for improving our turns.
It goes like this:
Before your free foot (the one that gets pulled up to passé) leaves the ground, rotate the heel forward. (This works from 5th as well, but I thought that would make a very cluttered diagram.)
That’s all. Simples! Basic ballet technique, amirite?
…Only, it would seem that I wasn’t really doing it before—because as soon as I added that in consciously, my en dehors turn improved shockingly. It wasn’t bad before, really, but this detail makes for reliable, clean, controlled turns.
Also makes en dedans, already my stronger turn, even nicer.
In the diagram, I’ve drawn both rotation arrows for clarity, but you probably won’t have to think about the supporting leg (that’s the front leg, except when you’re turning from 2nd and everything gets kind of ambiguous). If you don’t keep rotating the front leg, you’ll wind up with some kind of crazy jazz turn.
If you do have to actively think about rotation of the front leg, think about rotating both heels forward as you launch.
In short, this approach makes you skip the weird bit where the free leg doesn’t have clear instructions beyond “open the knee; passé” and can become wibbly as it leaves the ground. It also forces you to actively engage all the turnout muscles.
This approach worked well enough that BW was actually impressed with my turns last night. Coincidentally, it also helps with passé balances that don’t turn, even from fifth.
Next up: brisées demystified, if not quite rendered
easy-brisée easy-brizayzay easy-breezy.
Like, seriously, after a lifetime of being horribly confused about brisées, I can now do them devant & derrière, closing to 5th or to coupé, thanks to BW’s explanation (and to the fact that he made us do literally a million … okay, literally at least 36 brizayzays at each of our most recent classes).
Last week, or maybe the week before, I was watching Killer B do turns in class and had this revelation about her back.
I don’t quite know how to explain it: her back, like, goes straight up and down, like the proverbial elevator car that probably everyone’s ballet teacher has harped on about at some point when teaching relevés. Nothing changes. Everything just spins together, lovely and open, on an invisible axis (seriously, she spins like Baryshnikov).
I thought about how that would feel, physically—the back open and traveling straight up and down—and decided to try to work on achieving that feeling.
But what really made me get it, to be honest, was last night’s modern class.
We did and improv at the beginning that was all about different qualities of movement. We began frozen in concrete, wiggled first one part, then another free, then the concrete slowly transformed into thick, heavy, sucking mud. Eventually the mud gave way to buoyant ocean water, where we could swim and float. Then, slowly, we reversed the process.
Later, LWF gave us a visual that related (in a way) back to that: she asked us to imagine holding two heavy buckets of wet sand, and to feel them pulling our arms and shoulders down and open even as we allowed the back-tops of our heads to grow taller.
This made perfect sense to me, because it’s exactly the way I accomplish that kind of thing in real life. There’s something in my nature that refuses to look downtrodden—so when I’m asked to carry heavy buckets (or suitcases, or what have you), I engage through the lats and traps and so forth but let my chest and shoulders stay open, and I reach for the sky with the place where my occipital and parietal bones come together while keeping my head level.
Anyway, I did that last night (though for some reason, in my mind’s eye, the buckets morphed into suitcases?), and suddenly everything started to make sense.
This morning, Killer B said halfway through our Fondagio®, “Wow, your back is completely different today! What are you thinking about there? Keep doing it!”
I was able to tell her that it was, in fact, her back I was thinking about (and managed to do so without losing track of the combination too badly).
She then said, “You have so much more freedom in your eyes, too!”
And I said, “Oh, that’s Bruce!”
…Which got a chuckle from everyone who’s ever taken class from L’Ancien.
So, anyway: for me, the best answer for my back has been a combination of Killer B’s amazingly beautiful turns, the suitcases-full-of-sand image, and also Señor BeastMode’s instructions to pull up my suspenders (which counters my tendency to stick mah booty out) and to be strong.
I think the suitcases-full-of-sand thing might have a pretty universal utility. We’ve all carried heavy stuff at one point or another.
The weird part was how strangely observable the difference was.
Usually, you change something critical to your technique, and it’s so infinitesimal that your teacher will only catch if it she’s using that special eye on the back of her head* under the light of a super blue blood moon and walking widdershins around the Grave of Giselle or something. Usually, it’s clear that you’re dancing better, but not quite as clear exactly a how.
So, anyway, there you go. If, like me, you’re a Leaner, a kind of Overaged Teenage Sloper, you might give the suitcases-full-of-sand image a try.
In other news, K and I worked through a partnering thing after class, and since BG was there he gave us some pointers. By the time we got done, it was looking really great.
I also pulled off this beautiful, controlled, super-high developpé à la seconde en relevé completely at random while thinking out loud with my body about a note that BG gave. He looked at me and said, “Just like that!”
I don’t actually do that developpé there, but I think I use it later in the piece, so I’ll have to keep it in my back pocket … Or stuffed into the waistband of my dance belt (wouldn’t be the first thing I’ve kept there :P).
For whatever reason, I feel like I’m growing by leaps and bounds (gahhhhhh, sorry) as a dancer right now. It’s a good feeling, after working so long just to come back from the surgery and regain what I lost while I was on the bench.
*Speaking of this … I’m teaching a workshop at PlayThink this year. Do you just wake up one day with that extra eyeball? Because I might need it.
L’Ancien is away this week, so HD made a guest appearance in Advanced Class.
I let her know early on that I wasn’t 100% sure I’d make it through class, but I would probably at least get through barre.
In fact, I hung in there until it was time for jumps, when I chose to call it a day. I’m much, much better, but I’d say that I’m really at about 60% of my typical capacity, and with the BDSI audition and the start of rehearsals for the Culture of Poverty piece looming next weekend, it made sense to start getting tuned in again but also not to risk injury.
Speaking of the Culture of Poverty, I made B cast, which is great. I don’t think I would’ve made the cut for this piece last year: stylistically, AS is a very different kind of dancer than I am, and while I’m confident that I’ll absorb the movement style and vocabulary over the course of the rehearsal process, I know that in auditions I still have a tough time setting aside the mantle of ballet.
Anyway, back to class notes. At barre I found myself reflecting on a thing.
Background info: I’m a little taller than Killer B (when I stand up straight 🤔) and a few inches shorter than TM, who stands behind (and then in front of, and then behind…) me at barre.
My legs, meanwhile, are about as long as TM’s, so he’s quite a bit longer in the torso than I am. Killer B’s proportions are much like mine. Both that said, both Killer B and I have higher extensions than TM (who is quite a beautiful dancer and doesn’t actually need to be able to scratch his ear with his toes; he’s naturally princely and looks a lot like Steven MacRae).
I think it harkens back to something L’Ancien said a few weeks ago: you work with the body you have, and every body has different strengths. Like L’Ancien, TM has deep hip sockets, which means that high extensions and the quick, fluttering beats that make petit allegro sparkle don’t come as readily to him.
- In fact, they have almost exactly the same build.
Meanwhile, I—with my irrefutably square shoulders and profoundly elastic back—will have to think harder about how to create a lovely, unbroken line through my upper body and arms. Oh, and will spend the rest of my natural life quietly muttering, “Pull up your suspenders,” since that analogy makes me stop swaybacking like a retired dairy cow.
Which is a round-about way of saying this: in ballet, almost everything can be a blessing or a curse.
My feet are what EMM (who has finally joined advanced class!) calls “roundy feet,” which means that both my feet and my ankles are extremely mobile. They can do profoundly beautiful things to the lines of my legs, and ultimately they’re really good for banging out solid balances … once I’ve managed to stack all those piddly little bones correctly, and if the muscles agree to do their job.
But I will be challenged for my entire life to keep them strong enough to counter their natural elasticity, and the beauty of my arches is a completely moot point if I’m not quicker in petit allegro than my friends with less “roundy” feet.
A half-baked point is a half-baked point, and getting feet and legs like mine fully straight and pointed is actually rather a lot of work.
TM’s feet are nice, if not quite as fancy as mine, and he consistently makes them look good. At the end of the day, that’s really what matters.
It’s not about having the perfect body for ballet: there’s probably not a single asset that comes without a price (my thighs, y’all—they might make my grand allegro pop, but they also make my 5th position suck sometimes).
It’s about making the most of what you have.
True, there are some traits that seem to be perpetual winners in the ballet world (TM’s incredibly graceful shoulders; my “roundy feet”). But for every working dancer with an aristocratic neck and feet like bananas, there’s a stocky little dude with biscuits who has learned to make the most of what he’s got.
In fact, probably ten, because ballet ultimately belongs to those who work the hardest, and often those who work the hardest are the ones who feel that they have something to overcome.
One last thing. Today, it occurred to me to think about why we move slowly, painfully through fondus even though we still have to get there and show the world that moment of breathing stillness (the “picture,” as it were).
What we’re doing is building strength and endurance.
Yes, you can piggyback on momentum and flash-developpé your leg to the level of your eyebrow—but that doesn’t matter in that moment when you emerge from a soutenu through a graceful, elastic fondu developpé into a balance effacé devant and must then hooollllddddd for a rubato breath before you dive into tombé-pas de bourré-etc.
If you try to throw your leg there—that is, to simply harness momentum—you will find it difficult to muster control, and either you’ll fall out of the balance or you’ll fall into the tombé and make yourself late.
I can’t say I didn’t already know this, exactly? I mean, I know we’re not supposed to just throw our legs—even a jeté requires connection and control.
But somehow today it occurred to me that I need to remember the feeling of the balance between control and momentum; that I am eternally training my body to do things it would probably rather not do with muscles that would probably rather do something else (regardless of the fact that my body is both very biddable and highly suitable for ballet, ballet insists on using muscles and joints and bones in rather creative ways).
L’Ancien often makes us do grand battement with slow counts on the down: half a count to hit the apex and show the free leg, then a full count down—controlled all the way, through tendu. It’s the classic, “And ONE! And two. And THREE!…” in which the entire action of the upstroke happens in the blink of an eye. You could, in fact, count it faster and make it, “And ONE! two, three, four and TWO! two, three, four and THREE!…” but almost nobody counts like that in ballet because it would make our heads explode and screw up the phrasing•.
- This is a challenge when I dance to a piece I’ve played, sometimes—often, for ballet purposes, we count at half the time signature, transforming 6/8 into 3/4 or 4/4 into 2/2, then divide everything by instinct into phases of 8 or 6 counts.
Anyway, back to ballet-standard counts. So in this slow-descent exercise, the first “And” is just a breath. The free leg shows at its apex a split second later. The rest of the count is spent carrying the free leg back down, rotating the supporting leg against it the entire way.
The descent is infinitely important: it strengthens all the things; it teaches us to counter one leg with the other. It allows us to really figure out how to lift out of our hips so we can close in a clean fifth.
It also looks really cool. There’s something superhuman about an entire ballet class snapping their feet up to face level, then thoughtfully returning them to the ground.
In aerials, when we’re not yet strong enough to overcome gravity doing a skill going up, we practice the reverse skill—that is, the same skill coming down.
Can’t do a smooth pullover mount on trapeze? No problem. Drape yourself over the bar, fight your way into a handstand, and roll down as far as you can before you just drop. Each day, you’ll get a little further. Soon, you’ll find that when you try your pullover mount, you’ve nailed it.
Barre is basically the same kind of thing. Every time you close with control or choose a slower, smoother (and possibly lower) developpé, you’re making yourself stronger.
Full disclosure: sometimes it’ll hurt more when you’re doing it, and sometimes it’ll hurt a lot the next day.
But that’s ballet for you.
It takes a lot of grueling work to become a magical bluebird that flits weightlessly through the air, y’all.
“The dance is in the stillness between the steps.”
I’ve been trying to think of a way to think about this ever since I returned to dance.
That’s it, guys. Right there ^^
Without the stillness, dance is just chaos. In modern, sometimes chaos is the goal—but even in the most chaotic moment in the most chaotic ballet, you’re always showing the audience a series of living stillnesses.
This is why, even at the barre, the moment of full extension in tendu is important, but so is the moment when you stand in fifth.
The stillness between the steps is where ballet lives and breathes.
Incidentally, this is why my group had to do the first grand allegro twice: we didn’t really show the arabesque in the air in our temps-levée arabesque.
We thought we were getting there, but we weren’t. We were still moving through from point A to point B instead of reaching through the stillness of the arabesque as we soared
We also got called out for not really jumping: I have begun to suspect that L’Ancien would rather see me really jump and be a little late than not really jump and be exactly on time. I’m built for big jumps. I should really use them.
Anyway, we fixed ourselves on the repeat. I have no idea what my TLA looked like because, for once, I was using my eyes correctly.
After class, L’Ancien said to us, “You’re completely different dancers than you were even two weeks ago.”
And then he said these three beautiful words:
“Very, very good.”
That is the best possible way to close out a ballet class on your birthday.
This afternoon and evening: trapeze class, audition, dinner, party.
I tried to write a post this morning.
In fact, I wrote a post this morning. Like, 1,500 words’ worth of post.
And it was, honestly, probably a little boring.
I mean, it was exciting to me. I wrote about the fact that I seem to be getting over this sinus thing now (huzzah!). I wrote about last night’s class (great correction for my arms: elbows in front of shoulders; fixes things a lot, w00t!). I wrote about last night’s rehearsal (BG set more of our dance! I get a cool solo bit!).
I wrote about this weird ballet dream I … actually, there’s no way I’m going to compress Post-Apocolyptic Warehouse Summer Intensive and the ensuing Dance Belt Crisis into a parenthetical phrase. I think that’s probably an entire post in and of itself, but I’m not writing that one right now.
See, I realized that I really wanted to get around to writing about some BOSU videos, and my earlier draft was just WAY TOO LONG, even for me. So it will very possibly languish in my Drafts box forever, and in its stead, here’s the post I promised you with some BOSU arabesques.
This video begins with a very slow rise at coupé.
It’s not terrible: my elbows could stand to be a little more lifted, and my chin is drawn back a little—in short, I’m drawing back into myself as I fight for my balance instead of drawing up and forward.
If you give it a pause at 0:16, you can see this. I’ve just started to sort of get with the program, press forward, and lift the back of my neck a little bit, but my my jaw is still drawn back.
I’m lifting my arms, here, in a way that draws my shoulders forward, which pushes my sternum back. There’s definitely room for this particular movement pathway—but it’s in modern dance, rather than in ballet, and you use it when you want to contract rather than lifting.
Because my weight is distributed in a kind of weird, snaky pattern, I can’t bring my free leg up slowly and with control.
This costs me when I begin to unfold around 0:22. Between 0:22 and 0:24 I’m forced to redistribute my weight rather abruptly. As such, this phase takes about half as long as it should: I kind of throw my leg and catch it, instead of carrying it smoothly. My arms can’t keep up without unbalancing me, so they’re late to the party, sweeping through to first arabesque when the free leg has, in effect, already arrived.
At 0:26 – 0:28, however, I sort myself out fairly substantially. My right arm is a bit far back and a bit high, but I manage to carry my sternum forward, untuck my chin, lift the crown of my head, and the free leg floats up just above 90 degrees.
The interesting thing about this recovery is how effectively it restores control. I’m able to recover my weight evenly and return to and hold a the first arabesque at 45 degrees on relevé. As I reach to allongé, though, I lift my gaze by lifting my head back, which unbalances me. It doesn’t exactly knock me off my leg, but I do think the close and dismount could have been better-controlled had I lifted my gaze up and forward instead.
This all illustrates one of the really important points L’Ancien frequently mentions: your head is one of the heaviest parts of your body. Its placement matters immensely to the success of your balances.
There’s more wiggle room, so to speak, in first arabesque at 90 degrees because of the way your weight is distributed. In fact, it can be helpful to pull the upper body back a bit when you’re working at 90 degrees en relevé. This particular arabesque is successful because I’m drawing my back and my leg towards one another, allowing the leg and body to pivot freely around the hip of the supporting leg.
This is the result:
Progress from here on arabesques will depend, for me, largely on figuring out how to engage my core and back in such a way as to allow more freedom to lift my sternum.
Progress on balances in general—especially those that aren’t counter-balanced—will require me to keep working on carriage of my head, arms, and chest.
This second video is shot from a slightly different angle and involves a different approach: I step into coupé derièrre, then immediately begin to rise to retiré.
My placement looks a little better here: if you watch my arms, you can see that I begin by rotating the humerus—in other words, lifting the elbow—without disengaging my lats. My neck, sternum, and back remain lifted and open. After 6 seconds floating in retiré, I begin to extend.
This is where things fall apart a bit. I start to carry my knee back, but then I lose control of my turnout and the knee briefly dips.
If you pause the video at 0:20, you can see part of the cause of the problem: my right shoulder is no longer connected to my left hip, so to speak. Instead, I’m extended along a long diagonal that begins to pull my weight towards the outside of my supporting leg. The free leg scoops downwards, then lifts again, in an attempt to compensate.
The resulting balance (though it’s really pretty) is really looks more like the middle of a reversé: I suspect that if I drew my knee in to attitude, the balance would be forced to pivot.
On the upside, I’ve done a much better job keeping my back up, here, Partly, that’s because I was “warmer” in this video; but it’s partly also the result of experience. I’d been experimenting with these for roughly half an hour when I shot this, as opposed to maybe five or ten minutes when I shot the first one.
Because of the angle of my back, the arabesque in this video looks a prettier than the one in the first video. That said, I’m not entirely sure it’s actually a better balance. I thought it was until I sat down and really looked at these in depth.
Now, I’ve concluded that the first one, though it’s more awkward at the outset and never quite matches this one in terms of beauty, is probably technically better: in short, my control is better through the latter half of the exercise.
So there you have it: my nitpicky examination of a couple of BOSU arabesque videos. What did I say I’d do next, fondus?