Category Archives: technical notes
Today I took my first class with my company’s ballet teacher. She’s fantastic.
I particularly like her focus on strengthening the elements that are really essential to technique (her approach is very Vaganova-based; I think Ste. Agrippina would approve)
She also has a fantastic eye for the small-but-important elements that really solidify technique.
When we finished, she asked us what specific things we were going to remember from today’s class. Here are mine:
- *Really* connect the retiré, and connect it a little closer to the kneecap (I’ve been connecting mine about a cm or 2 too far towards the inside of the knee, which functionally means that a lot of the time I’m not really connecting at all, even though I THINK I’m connecting). Also, send the knee all the way to the side, and be a revolving door.
- In petit allegro, using pas de bourée en l’air can help you keep your legs contained. Basically, you tombé and close the back leg in a little assemblé, then do the “side, front” bit of the PdB. This gathers your power under you instead of sending you forward.
- In exercises battu, think about whether the beat changes or doesn’t change. If you pay attention to this when receiving the combination, you won’t find yourself desperately doing FeetMath en l’air
These are really elemental things—things that as dancers who’ve been dancing for years and years, we probably think we’re doing already.
It’s remarkable how much difference it can make when someone gives you an effective correction on one of these things.
Anyway, that’s it for today.
I am, of course, planning to steal these ideas and bring them to my students tonight, because part of becoming an effective teacher is cribbing things directly from other teachers who are themselves highly effective.
Nutcracker In September???
First, apologies for falling off the radar for a minute. The past couple of weeks have been, in a word, bizzzaayyyyyyyyy
Anyway! I’m back, at least for the moment.
Normally, at this point, my company would be a week or so into rehearsals for New Works, which is our usual first show of the year. Instead, we haven’t even started yet, because it’s #2020 and everything is CRAY.
Instead of a normal season, this year we’re doing Video Nutcracker Extravaganza! (that’s not its actual title) and … that’s it. Unless a miracle occurs.
So it’s September, we’re not even officially back in the studio until thw 28th, and I’m rehearsing Drosselmeyer all by myself. C’est “la vie 2020”, mes amis!
As ever, I’m recording video so I can fix myself. In that light, here’s an example of glaring hypocrisy in the form of me, dancing:
Okay, so: if you know that I’m mid-fouetté, here, this probably looks mostly fine at first glance. That standing leg could be a touch more turned out (okay, okay—it could be turned out at all), but the shoulders are down, engaged, and essentially square to the hips, and the lines are pretty nice.
Oh, and my feet are nice, because of course they are. They’re the only reliable part of my body. I mean, seriously, dat demi-pointe, doe. Dat arch 😍
Not too shabby, you might think.
Alas, friends! Were it but so!
Sadly, as almost-lovely as this moment is, in the very next second, I decouple my rib cage from my pelvis and failli without turning my hips all the way. Given that the next thing I have to do is run-run-tour de Basque directly across the stage, it makes for an awkward transition.
You know what the main cause of this subtle-but-powerful trainwreck is?
If you’re having trouble with arabesque, piqué arabesque, and fouetté arabesque, ask yourself, “Am I watching myself in the mirror?”
If the answer is yes:
We all want to see our arabesques, etc. We want to know:
- How high is my leg?
- What exactly are my arms doing?
- How are my lines?
Those are all good questions.
Staring into the mirror won’t answer them.
When we watch ourselves closely in the mirror, we create faults that might not otherwise occur.
We find ourselves arabesque-ing on an open hip, with unsquare everything.
We fouetté the upper body only 3/4s of the way and the hips only 1/2 way, and failli onto a parallel leg.
This is because the eyes lead the body.
If you’re ever skiing or riding a bike and find yourself inexorably drawn into the gravitational field of an obstacle, with which you then collide, congratulations! You’ve successfully demonstrated the very same phenomenon!
(Sidebar: Ugh. Sometimes it’s blisteringly obvious that I’m a child of the Participation Trophy Era and grew up with computers shouting things like, “Congratulations! You have successfully closed this file!”)
Likewise, if you find yourself riding a beautiful 20 meter circle on a dressage horse, it’s the same thing.
In the first case, you’re looking directly at the obstacle in an effort to avoid it, and because your body follows your eyes and your skis or bike follow your body, you crash into the thing you’re trying to miss.
In the second, you’re looking where you want your horse to go, and this subtly shifts your shoulders and hips in a way that tells the horse what to do. This is why good dressage riders and their well-trained horses appear to communicate through telepathy.
In the studio, the same principle applies. If you stare at yourself in the mirror, you’ll usually leave your hips and shoulders more open than they should be.
In a proper arabesque, the hips and shoulders are SQUARE and LEVEL.
- For arabesques above 90 degrees, it may be necessary to open the gesture hip slightly. This is why we first work on low arabesques: you must know the biomechanical rules in order to know exactly how much you can break them.
If they’re not, your body has to work much, much harder to maintain balance, placement, and turnout.
But, wait! There’s more! 😭
There’s another problem here.
If you look very closely at the photo of my fouetté, you’ll notice that I’m not in a crossed position. I’m in the infamous “secabesque,” with my gesture leg at like 4:00 instead of crossed to 6:00
This is because I failed to establish the position before making it move.
Just as it’s incredibly difficult to manage a clean, controlled turn from a preparation which your back leg is wide of the centerline, it’s nearly impossible to fouetté correctly if your preparation is wrong (and impossible to correct from there if you also stare into the mirror).
Here’s another example:
Technically, the Apollo jump is a variant of sauté-fouetté. While I can’t argue that this one doesn’t look impressive, I should’ve begun from a preparation facing de côte so at the peak of the jump (the moment captured here) my hips would be facing the de côte in the opposite direction, rather than en face. (In the Apollo jump, as opposed to a standard sauté-fouetté, you open the shoulders towards the audience and arch your body towards the gesture leg).
I should note that, in the case of the Drosselmeyer rehearsal pic, the fault is partly the result of not having actually decided whether an arabesque half-turn or a fouetté was a better idea here.
I have considerable leeway to modify this section of the rôle, where I’m Magicking All The Things prior to the Midnight scare scene, and I hadn’t yet clearly thought through the best way to accomplish this floaty change of direction.
The result is kind of a weird hybrid; a fouettabesque, if you will, that hasn’t decided who to be in life. I’ll have to try doing both—but not at the same time—and see which works better.
The photo proves the rule, btw, that a still shot can be beautiful even if everything that follows is it a complete mess. This is why we should try not to let Instagram get us down. With the exception of the occasional hilariously awkward trapeze video, I mostly post only things that look good, and even then, those pics don’t tell the whole story.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a video tells the truth (or, well, more of the truth: video, too, can be deceptive!).
This is why I highly recommend, if at all possible, taking advantage of the powerful tool that is your smartphone’s video camera.
Record video so you won’t be as tempted to try to watch yourself in the mirror. It’s also super helpful for understanding the difference between what your body feels like it’s doing and what it’s actually doing, which can be rather startling. It won’t replace that guidance of a good teacher, but it will help you dial in your technique.
And it’ll also grant you the gift of absolutely hilarious moments like this one:
Join us next time when, I guess, we discuss how to walk off the stage without looking like either a blithering idiot (my default) or a smoldering idiot (see photo above)!
A Tale Of Two Balances
Or, well … two pictures of one balance. Same thing.
Ballet, as I’ve mentioned before, is an art of ever-receding goalposts. You might also say that they’re ever-shrinking goalposts: smaller, and thus harder to spot, and thus harder to hit–but just as important.
This entire post will be devoted to what might seem, to someone who doesn’t dance, like a distinction of no importance–a goalpost minuscule to the point of vanishing. A mere quibble.
But, hang about! I’m about to explain why the differences between the two pictures at the top of this post, which seem nearly invisible until you spot them, but which cannot be unseen once you do, are incredibly important.
But first, let’s zoom in a little.
If you noticed that, in the right-hand image, I look like I have a potbelly, you’ve caught at least one! And since I didn’t go and stuff myself with pancakes between these two pictures–in fact, I didn’t go anywhere at all; they’re literally seconds apart during the same actual balance–I’m afraid I can’t blame breakfast.
So what, then, is the cause of this apparent potbelly?
On the left, the top of my pelvis is essentially parallel to the floor. My tailbone is reaching down without tucking under, and my ribs and hips are connected by the line of my core … or, well almost. If you look really closely, you can actually see that I’m not quite entirely pulled up between ribs and pelvis, which is part of why everything has gone pear-shaped on the right.
On the right, my tailbone is sticking out towards the wall behind me, and the top of my pelvis is pointing forward and down.
At any moment in a normal person’s life, this sort of thing isn’t necessarily a huge problem. It can predispose you to back pain, but other than that, it’s probably not going to interfere all that much.
At any moment in a dancer’s working life, however, it’s a huge hecking deal, because it opens the door for two huge problems:
- Instability: your balances, turns, and just about everything else will be both more difficult than they have to be and, ultimately, worse than they have to be.
- Turnout: with my pelvis angled forward, I’m actually blocking my own turnout o_O’
This second point is more important than it might sound. Turnout in ballet isn’t just decorative: rather, it’s functional. Ballet technique is built on the ability to hold turnout, and if your pelvis is doing wacky things that interfere with your turnout, those things become harder to do.
Let’s take another look at that picture, with a few more marks to illuminate things:
Let’s start from the bottom.
On the left, you can see that I’m both well over the ball of my foot (which is showing off the entire reason I have a job in ballet at all–that arch and instep, right there). If you look closely, you can also see quite a bit of the underside of my shoe, indicating that my turnout is working.
On the right, I’ve fallen backwards, so I’m having to work really hard to stay on a lower demi-pointe. My hips are no longer stacked over the ball of my foot, so I’m forced to hold myself together by muscular effort, instead of allowing bones and gravity to do their job.
Just as importantly, the underside of my shoe is barely visible. My standing-leg turnout is pretty much nil right there.
Moving up to knee height, on the left, my free leg is cranked out close to flat. I’m not at my maximum turnout (or at my maximum retire height … BW would yell at me if he was here ^-^’), but the turnout I’m using here is both respectable and sustainable (in the sense that it’s a degree of turnout that I can readily maintain throughout an exercise or a dance).
On the right, my knee has crept forward. This is the most subtle difference, but it’s there all the same. The angle of my pelvis is making it difficult for me to hold my turnout–blocking it not with bones, but with physics. The angles make it harder for my muscles to keep me positioned on my standing leg without rotating the legs inward.
From mid-hip through just below my arm, on the left, everything is basically one unbroken rectangle (except for a little bit of rounding at the front–a harbinger of things to come, I’m afraid). I’m actually carrying my upper body a little too far back, though not drastically so … or it wouldn’t have been drastic if I’d actually succeeded in keeping my core engaged.
On the right, I’m decidedly swaybacked, but since the shirt I’m wearing makes that hard to see, it winds up looking like I’ve got a potbelly. There’s enough arch in my back to make it very difficult for me to recover without first coming down from the balance.
Lastly, on the left, my eyeline is level. On the right, I’m doing what horse people call “stargazing.” (Interestingly, swaybacked horses do this just like swaybacked people do. It’s almost like all the bones are attached to each-other by muscles, tendons, and ligaments! ^-^’)
I can’t express how incredibly important a level eyeline is.
Heads are heavy, and if you lift your gaze too high, it tends to send your head and everything attached to it backwards. The result tends to be that the pelvis rotates forward and down in an effort to counterbalance the head.
That might not be a recipe for disaster when you’re sitting in an office chair (though, again, it does tend to lead to back pain down the road), but when you’re trying to pirouette, it most certainly is. If I tried an en dedans with the balance on the right as a starting point, I’d fold up like a cheap umbrella.
Anyway, I hope you find this comparison as illuminating as I have. Now I need to dash off and teach a few Zoom classes, so if you’ll excuse me…
Partnering: It’s Ballet, Asher
For the longest time, the number one correction I got in any dance context other than ballet was, “It’s not ballet, Asher!”
Now, I’ve finally come full circle.
After rehearsal, L and I have been working on partnering stuff together, since we both want to get better at it. This has led me to realize that the sheer volume of non-traditional partnering I’ve done has been tripping me up in a ballet partnering context.
A lot of modern partnering is based in weight-sharing. You can share weight concentrically or eccentrically—in short, by pouring towards or away from your partner or partners—but either option involves a kind of nonverbal negotiation of balance.
Unless you know your partner really well and you’ve developed a strong rapport, you begin slowly.
If you’re “weighting-out,” you tentatively pour yourself away from your partner, feeling for an equal and opposite pull.
If you’re “weighting-in,” you tentatively pour yourself towards your partner, feeling for an equal and opposite push.
It’s this push-pull dynamic that gives partnering based in weight-sharing its beautiful fluid quality. As partners learn to work together, they practice conversing in a language of shared gravity—moving smoothly and silently from “weighting-out” to “weighting-in” and vice-versa.
As they learn to trust each-other and to know each-other’s weight and movement styles, the negotiation process can become so fast and smooth that it becomes invisible to the audience, but it’s always there and it’s always the same.
This is not how ballet partnering typically works.
In ballet partnering—and please note that I’m referring to the traditional, gender-specific roles for clarity, here—the girl isn’t looking for the boy to answer her weight with equal weight. She’s looking for him to be a rock-solid foundation; a kind of balletic buttress.
If you’re used to weight-sharing, you answer lightening with lightening: when your partner gives you less of her weight, you give her less of yours. Likewise, you enter into a pushing dynamic gently: it’s easy to pour too much weight into someone too fast and to knock the whole structure over.
In a ballet context, if your partner feels that you’re supporting her too lightly she tends to respond by taking her weight out of your hands to protect herself. If you’re used to weight-sharing, you’ll automatically respond by lightening and softening your contact, because that’s the typical process of negotiation.
The thing is, that’s not how ballet partnering works at all.
In ballet partnering, the girl offers her weight with the expectation that it’ll be met firmly—as if you, her partner, are a living barre.
Chances are good that if she hasn’t worked with you before, she’ll be light in your hand, so to speak: it is in her best interest not to rely too heavily on you until she’s sure that you’re up to the job.
So, basically, the least useful signal you can send in that moment is exactly the one you’re most likely to automatically send if the vast majority of your experience has been in weight-sharing.
If you respond to the lightness of her touch by offering light support, because the instincts developed through weight-sharing make you feel like you’re going to knock her over otherwise, she’ll won’t feel secure, and withdraw. If her withdrawal leads you to automatically lighten even more, she’ll also withdraw further.
It won’t take long to reach a point at which you’re not a support, but an obstacle: something she’s trying not to whack with her knee or her leg when she turns, for example, but which isn’t actually helping her turn. Needless to say, if that happens, you won’t be able to accomplish much together.
Be steady and firm, and she’ll give you more weight, so she can do the cool stuff that ballet partnering allows. She’ll also be more likely to trust you when you lift her.
Once you get past the negotiation bit, of course, things work pretty much the same way: you don’t want overpower your partner. You just want to be steady and lend her just enough of your gravity and (where appropriate) your momentum or force.
- Even in lifts: you can lift another human using only your own strength, but most ballet lifts work best if you work together.
The real difference is that in weight-sharing, every movement or sequence of movements begins with and depends on a negotiation that equalizes gravity between the partners.
In ballet partnering, there is an initial negotiation, but it’s a different one. The girl silently asks, “Can I trust you to hold me up?” and the boy must answer, “Yes, I’m here,” or things aren’t going to work.
The remaining negotiation process in a ballet context is, as far as I’ve experienced, more about figuring out the physics of your specific bodies. How do you get yourself out of the way of her knee? How much liftoff does she need to help you get her into an overhead press lift? Where is her center of gravity? How does she compensate for your short li’l t-rex arms?
So, anyway, that was the breakthrough of the week for me. It’s one of those things that seems like it should be bindingly obvious—and yet I had grown so accustomed to the process of weight-sharing that I didn’t realize I was doing this unhelpful thing until this Friday.
I don’t know if any of this will be all that helpful to anyone who doesn’t share a similar set of circumstances to mine—but I hope it’ll be at least somewhat useful.
Class Notes, 03.03.2020
My penmanship is in “pretty, but not terribly legible” mode today.
“May +/ or August”
Possible masterclass dates.
“UP != BACK! CHOOSE UP!”
We did a lovely cambré, and after recovering I left my ribs a little too open and my sternum in a bit of a high release.
This does not improve one’s turns or one’s balances … Particularly not à la seconde.
Notes about back leg turnout (mostly relevant to barre and things like tendus, poses, etc—not helpful for turns, particularly):
- Recover it all the way*
- FAVOR it over front leg**
- STAY OFF THE HEEL/ON THE BALL
*I tend to be lazy about bringing my back leg fully into turnout when I close to fifth, because my specific combination of mild hyperextensions and huge calves makes it a bit more of a chore than is usual.
**By “favor it,” I really mean actually think about it. My front leg will take care of its own turnout reliably; I need to work on the back leg.
“Bring your tailbone (fouetté to arabesque).”
A lot of us were guilty of finishing a simple piqué fouetté without really bringing the pelvis with us today. I was over of them at least half the time.
“Hunger Arinn & Sefter Plié.”
This actually says, “Longer Arms & Softer Plié,” but you know. Looling for spit, etc.
“& still bring your head.”
It is always a good idea not to leave your head behind. This is especially true in ballet. That thing is heavy, yo, and since your brain’s in it you can’t just, like, take it off and leave it by your water bottle.
“Gliss no change x2, jeté pas de bourré x2, jeté assemble enrechat quatre x2.”
Mathematically speaking, I should really clarify that combination with some parentheses:
“(Gliss no change)*2, (jeté pas de bourré)*2, jeté assemble (entrechat quatre*2).”
I actually did this petit allegro right a couple of times. I mean, it’s not that complicated; it was just fast.
I’m getting better at keeping my legs under me so I don’t gallop off with myself (or over myself).
Anyway, that’s it for today’s class notes. My rehearsal notes are mostly about character development, since we’re mowing through Snow White wow effectively and I actually have time to think about that at this point.
Class Notes, Mid-January 2020
Today, for the first time in my life, Mr D called me up to demonstrate a combination in company class. I managed not to hose it up, even! (Thank goodness.) But that’s neither here nor there.
Anyway, I meant to post more notes last week, but got distracted, so here are some from the 10th and from the 14th:
My turns in 2nd can be … Erm. A little wild? My spot, for some reason, likes to wander when I’m doing these.
I’ll spot front, then off to the left corner, then back (BACK! As in, I somehow spot THE BACK WALL 😶), then who even knows where, then nowhere, then front again.
Turns in 2nd give you all the chances to spot the wrong things.
I think, honestly, it’s that I’m nervous about turns in second, and I’m usually busy concentrating on keeping my free leg engaged in a position that A] is a valid second and B] is possible to hold while turning.
(Clause B], btw, is the drawback to having crazy flexible hips. They don’t lock neatly into place; instead, you have to work your butt off to hold them steady.)
Anyway, the drawing on the bottom reiterates a point I’ve been working on FOREVER.
When it comes to turns, your body is one piece. If the linkage between hips and shoulders is anything but solid, you’ll have to work harder, and your outcome won’t be what it could be.
The shoulder and hip have to travel together … And that means the rest of each side does, too.
Okay, so “Soft and quick” was actually a correction for petit allegro … I think.
It definitely wasn’t for the Grand pirouette, which is what we were doing when I observed that Mr D’s demonstration of using the standing side of the body was, in short, kind of like the way you throw a solid punch.
I mean, he actually literally did an air-punch with that arm. (It looked hella metal, tbh.)
The power in a solid punch doesn’t just come from the arm. It’s the whole side of the body in one chain. The hip is heavily involved.
In Muay Thai, we learned to bring the hip as part of the strike. I say “strike” because the idea was critical to powering kicks as well: it’s a little different for striking with the leg (which is to say, the shin and the top of the foot) than with the fist, but the end result is the same: the entire side is engaged and acts as one unit.
I suspect that many of us don’t think about that with turns: or, rather, we don’t think about the standing side.
We should. It really significantly improves the quality of our turns, even if we don’t immediately see an increase in quantity.
If we’re already thinking about the free-side hip and shoulder coming around, thinking about the standing side as well should help us initiate the diagonal, contralateral activation pattern in the core that keeps body and soul … or, well, shoulder and hip … together.
Though you may have already guessed that I added it as an afterthought, the “…but gently” is also important. Since we’re not trying to knock anyone out in a ballet—or, not literally, anyway—there is such a thing as too much force.
Too much force can knock you off your leg or simply make it hard to stop turning at the right moment (and while facing the correct direction … just refusing to turn your neck again because you have to move on to the next step doesn’t actually kill your turn’s momentum very effectively).
Likewise, you need a kind of sustained explosion. You can’t just go, “BOOM!” and let the body take care of things.
Instead, you need something more like one of those really long rolls of distant thunder: maybe not L O U D, but strong the whole time. Steady.
Like, as Mr D said today (assuming I even heard this right) drinking a McDonald’s shake.
That’s probably a whole separate post, though.
In case you’re wondering about the bracketed note at the top (“[Listen with the ears … Keep the eyes tracking]”), it’s specific to a thing I noticed during a waltz combination. Mr D was giving me some corrections, and I totally fell apart.
This led to a lovely flash of insight in which I realized that when I’m trying to listen to something while dancing, I turn (or try not to turn!) my head in ways that wreak havoc upon my aplomb and last waste to my spot (and with it, my turns).
I have trouble processing language anyway, so I tend to stiffen up when I’m trying to listen to spoken words. I also kind of back-burner my vision when I’m listening to speech—it just takes a lot of clock cycles, so to speak. (Anyone who’s ever tried to speak to me when the TV is on or when I’m engaged in a visual task will know exactly what I mean.)
I’ve known both these things for most of my life, and yet I never realized how very specifically they apply to ballet classes until yesterday.
One last thing: in case you think my handwriting is usually as nice as it seems in my notes at the top of the second image, check out the bottom.
The notes at the top were written at a very leisurely speed. The ones at the bottom were my rather frantic attempt to record some of Oberon’s stage business.
Sadly, they’re actually fairly legible compared to my everyday handwriting … Basically, if I have to write quickly (which is to say, at a normal note-taking rate), it’s not going to be legible.
Ah, well. You can’t have everything, and if I’m forced to choose between legible handwriting and better turns, I’ll take the turns.
On Technique: How Not To Turn From Fourth
Okay, so my turns are often, erm, not horrible these days (probably because my AD is relentless in his quest to make us do six billion turns per class) … And yet I’m still entirely capable of making a complete hash of them from time to time.
In the interest of full disclosure, clarity, and the greater good, then, here’s a spectacular example caught on video in the wild today and translated into handy screenshots. (I am NOT posting the video. I don’t want to scar you guys for life.)
We’re not even going to talk about my arms. They’d just doing it for the attention, and we cannot reward their egregious behavior by acknowledging it. I haven’t been this disappointed since … Well, tbh, 2016, but … you know.
Okay, I will say one thing about my arms. See that first photo? Balanchine prep up top; Cecchetti downstairs. No wonder this turn failed. It was the balletic equivalent of a mullet … replete with hamberder hands.
I’m going to cry.
This turn was not assisted by the fact that there’s a divot in the subfloor under my standing foot, but honestly that excuses nothing. Without said divot, it still would’ve been a fugly turn. You could take it to a salon and give it hours and hours of mud wraps and so forth, and it wouldn’t do any good. Lipstick on a pig*.
*I mean … some members of the porcine family are quite handsome. But lipstick? They don’t really, like, have lips.
Here’s a less bad example, just so I can feel better about life
The gesture leg is attached. The supporting leg is … well, sort-of turned out. My core, like, exists. The balance is fairly straight up and down. And in the video it’s evident that I spotted this turn like a boss.
That last one was of the “effortless double” species. The MOST important factor, for me, is simply keeping my coreengaged. This prevents Slinky Back (would that it could prevent Nickleback), which in turn basically prevents EVERYTHING ELSE THAT IS WRONG WITH THE FIRST TURN.
So engage those core muscles, kids!
…And remember: only YOU can prevent
Technical Um, Sunday: Pas De Bourée, or More Fancy Walking
I’ll begin with a caveat:
This will be my first attempt at a BG-style breakdown of a basic technical movement, and goodness only knows if it’ll succeed. So, if this turns out to be even more confusing than the explanations already out there, feel free to feck it out the window and be after finding yourself a better explanation.
Pas De Bourée: Another of the Hardest Easiest Things
As a dancer, you’ll probably execute some or another flavor of pas de bourée more often than any other step in the entire canon of ballet (not least because it’s one of the ways that we all surreptitiously change our feet when we suddenly realize that everyone else is standing on the other foot, so to speak).
This means, ironically, that it’s probably the single most important step in the entire massive arsenal.
By the time you’ve been dancing for a few years, you’ll be able to do the most basic PdB so readily that you’ll find yourself using it to navigate your way through the press at every social function you att—
You’re probably already using PdB that way, even if you’ve never taken a single ballet class or, for that matter, seen so much as a single poster for a ballet.
That’s because the plain-vanilla PdB is a staggeringly pedestrian movement … literally, in fact.
Pas de bourée is very much an organized stagger-step. I’ve often seen its name translated as “Step of the Drunk,” and while I’m pretty sure that “Bourrée” in this sense refers to a social dance.
Then again, at its core, social dance is just so much fancy walking and organized staggering anyway, and we must acknowledge that social dance and drinking go almost as far back as drinking and the attendant less-organized forms of staggering.
Okay, But What The Heck Does That Mean?
In short, your basic pas de bourée is just a sidestep that changes which foot is in front.
TL;DR: your whole goal, basically, is to move one foot out of the way so you can put the other one in front (or in back, if you’re going that way) without losing momentum.
When you execute a little sidestep to stop your toes being squashed by the latest SuperPram or avoid tracking through something nasty, there’s a good chance that you’ll automatically execute a nice little PdB.
There are, of course, umptillion fancier versions, many of them specific to the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus, whose decline L’Ancien routinely laments (with good reason: the refinements of PdB are both useful and beautiful).
Forget about them for now.
There’s no point in trying to wrap your head around pad de bourée a quatre pas until you’ve quite mastered the bog-standard pas de bourée that ballet teachers often describe with the shorthand “back, side, front.” Besides, entire classes full of advanced and professional students who struggle with those rare and specialized versions (ask me how I know 😑).
So where, then, do we begin?
First, by pinning “back, side, front” to a convenient spot on a mental pegboard where it won’t get lost and in which we can completely ignore it for now.
“Back, side, front” is helpful once you’re basically familiar with what you’re trying to accomplish, but it’s also vague: do the individual terms of the equation describe which foot to move or where to move them?
If you think about it too hard—even as someone who’s danced for yeeeeaarrrssss—it’s easy to get it wrong. There’s not enough of the right information.
So we will, for now, bid adieu to “back, side, front” and get back to Fancy Walking.
Let’s try a mental experiment.
I apologize in advance to those of you whose brains don’t do the visualizing thing. You might want to read through this a couple of times, get a feel for the story, and then actually act it out, ideally somewhere in which your loved ones or co-workers won’t wonder why you’re shouting, “Oh, no! It’s Boris the Pug!”
Oh, No! It’s Boris The Pug!
Imagine that you’re in walking along, minding your own business. You’re pretty good at walking by now, so if I ask you, “Which foot comes after ‘left?'” you’ll probably give me a long look and say either, “What are you on about?” or simply, “Right.”
Presumably, you also thoroughly grasp that after right comes left again, and so on ad infinitum, or at least until you reach the coffee shop.
Now, imagine that as you’re walking, in mid-stride, you spot your neighbor Pat just ahead, to your left, walking Boris The Pug.
Boris is an enthusiastically sociable pug who is locally famous for crashing into his favorite people (which includes anyone and everyone in eyeshot). As a resukt, Pat keeps Boris on a shortish lead—but good old Boris is nothing if not determined, and all at once he’s wheezily lunging towards you in hopes of head-butting your shin with ecstatic glee.
You, however, don’t wish to be party to Boris’ next collision. First of all, Boris is a bit of a dribbler, and you’re wearing your favorite trousers (or skirt, or whatever you like). Second, Pat lives to recount Boris’ history of hilarious head-butting incidents, and although you like Pat, you secretly like Boris more, and you hope this once to spare him from being the butt—dare I say, the head-butt—of the joke.
So as you put your right foot down and Boris the Pug torpedoes himself towards the place where he expects your left leg to appear, you sidestep: you swing your left leg to the right.
Because this does funny things to your mass with regards to gravity, and probably also because you want to give Boris a little extra wheezing room, instead of swinging the left leg forward and right and setting your left foot down in front of your right foot, you swing the left leg a little to the back and right and set the foot down just behind your right foot.
Your weight shifts onto to your left foot, and then your right leg also swings a little to the right, so your left leg has somewhere to go.
Next, you put your right foot down, and now your left leg is free to swing forward.
Finally, you can put your left foot down in front of your right foot and resume the normal course of your walk.
Congratulations! You have spared poor Boris from becoming the subject of yet another embarrassing collision story that Pat will tell at every neighbourhood soirée for the foreseeable future!
Oh. AND you’ve executed a pas de bourée in parallel (which is, I am led to understand, called a “grapevine step” in Jazz? But don’t quite me in that; my knowledge of Jazz is sketchy at best).
So that’s the size of it, really: your garden-variety pas de bourée. In the ballet context, you do this particular kind of PdB going sideways, with turnout, like so, assuming you’re beginning from first position:
- Shift your weight onto the right foot.
- Lift the left foot, swing it in behind the right foot, and put it down.
- Lift the right foot, swing it just a little to the right, and put it down.
- Lift the left foot, swing it to the right and put it down in front of the right foot. (If you’re doing the brushed version, it might very well feel like you’re brushing side to close front—another reason I’m putting a freeze on the “back, side, front” analogy.)
You do not, at this point, “do the hokey-pokey and turn yourself around.” That is absolutely NOT what it’s all about. At least, not unless your director tells you to, in which case all bets are off.
Anyway. Where was I?
Oh, erm, right.
Just like balancé, pas de bourée goes “right, left, right” or “left, right, left.”
If it attempts to do otherwise, it is forced to become a sort of mutant temps-levée, and nobody wants that.
In actual practice, you might either brush the feet out, then brush them back in (as you do in degagé) or crisply lift them. (The degagé version is usually taught first, probably because it feels more intuitive.)
In fact, you’ll often begin your pas de bourée with one foot already in the air, so the initial brush or lift is more implied than actual. You’re already there. You don’t have to close and then open again unless you’re specifically instructed to do so, because PdB is a linking step.
If a combination calls for tombé-pas de bourée (as so many do), and you’ve just tombé-ed onto your left foot, you’ll simply close the right foot (which is already in the air) behind the left foot, put your weight on your right foot, and so forth.
You’ll do this any time you need to change feet through a linking step without losing your momentum, but don’t need a glissade changée. In fact, it will very frequently be followed by a glissade changé, especially in that balletic equivalent of “shave and a hair cut, two bits” technically known as “tombé, pas de bourée, glissade, assemblé.”
Eventually you’ll discover that pas de bourée occurs at other moments, as well—sometimes even as a means of changing direction (tombé, pas de bourée, piqué arabesque has been known to occur, for example).
Even the fanciest versions (I’m looking at you, various flavors of PdB a quatre- and cinq pas), however, hew to the rule of “left, then right, etc” (or its equivalent, “right, then left, etc”) simply because we’re upright bipeds. The quadrupedal equivalent, the side-pass, is a fairly advanced dressage maneuver, presumably because coordinating twice as many legs is about fifty times as hard, so be glad you only have two legs.
This Was Really Long Though 😶
You’re right: it was. Just remember that pas de bourée will almost always change feet (ballet shorthand for “switch which foot goes in front”), and if you do it wrong you can cheat by surreptitiously coupé-ing one foot or just doing a little tendu, if you have time.
Of course, as soon as that becomes thoroughly hardwired, you’ll run into a teacher who throws in an occasional PdB without a change of feet, in which case you’ll find it edifying to know that basically everybody grits their teeth and prays when that sort of thing comes up, so don’t worry, it’s not just you.
- Reasonable enough, considering that the question suggests that I’m either profoundly intoxicated, deranged, an alien impersonating a human but not quite sure about the cookbooks t, or all three.
- Unless you’ve got a marching cadence running through your head, in which case you might reply, “Left … Left, right, left!” in which case, I don’t know but I’ve been told…
- Why a pug? Honestly, I have no idea. My inner world is a very strange place.
- The version in which you lift each foot precisely to cou-de-pied (which is usually short-handed as “coupé,” though technically coupé is an action rather than a position) while executing the whole movement on demi-pointe is called pas de bourée piqué, and if you want to see it in action, shows up in the female corps choreography in every Petipa ballet that I’ve ever seen.
- This is what makes “back, side, front” confusing. It’s telling you where to put your feet, but “back” and “front” are frequently used as shorthand for which foot in other contexts. It also doesn’t tell you where to start, which can be problematic, since either foot could end theoretically close back on the first count, but only one choice will lead you to end on the correct leg. There are few things as distressing as failing to change legs and proceeding to glissade directly into the person next to you.
First, a billion apologies. I set up a schedule and responded to it exactly how I typically respond to anything that’s more than I can handle: I missed a post, then balked at making the next one because I figured it would have to be really good, then just kept balking because I didn’t want to get myself back into something that was obviously kind of beyond me right now.
There you go.
I write best when I can be alone, and right now I have almost no alone time and I seem to spend 100% of the alone time I have doing laundry and dishes and otherwise trying to catch up on housework, which directly conflicts with writing since it involves using my hands. I’m not someone who can dictate into a voice recorder: my brain doesn’t work like that. If it did, I would probably be much better at actually talking to people, but maybe not as good at writing, so who knows.
Part of what makes it so difficult to write with other people around is that they don’t seem to understand that writing for me, requires a kind of uninterrupted focus that is literally impossible when someone insists on asking questions like, “What are you working on?”
Even if I don’t answer (which would be rude and would only invite even more questions), it takes my brain a long time to merge back into the stream. Likewise, the knowledge that I’m almost certain to be interrupted in this way makes it hard to establish concentration in the first place.
Today, we got out of rehearsal early, which is great for writing purposes. I also don’t have a rehearsal for The Other Thing I’m Doing (LBS’ Spring Collection), so I might even get some extra alone time tonight while D is at Trapeze and Acro (despite my fondness for combining them, these are two separate classes ^-^) … though I might go with him and do Acro instead. We’ll see.
Anyway. Add to the list of things I’ve leaned about myself this year: I might never feel 100% certain of myself during the rehearsal process, but once the curtain goes up it’s like I don’t know what uncertain means (except for the bit where I’m always vaguely paranoid that I’ll space out and miss my entrance).
Add also: I can enjoy the heck out of being a performer in an interactive game … but I’ll need a solid three days to recover afterwards. I could get through a multi-day run of that kind of thing, I’m sure, but the longer the run, the longer the break I’d need at the end. This past weekend was exactly that: Friday night, my Cirque company played the international spy collective in a spy game. Saturday, Sunday, and (to a lesser extent) Monday, I played, “Maybe if I squeeze my eyes shut hard enough the rest of humanity will disappear.”
I had a sore throat and a vicious headache on Saturday, so I used that as an excuse to spend most of the day in bed, aided and abetted by the fact that Actual Ballet Company wasn’t called for rehearsal and that I’d been exposed to Strep. Honestly, sometimes it feels amazing to do nothing for an entire day.
I came into this week feeling brighter and better rested than I have since … I’m really not sure when. My body hasn’t been running at 100% (as reflected in my worse-than-usual Petit Allegro), so I think I’m probably fighting off a cold or something, but dancing has felt pretty good. Except for Petit Allegro, and my inexplicable inability to do a balloté during a combination when it was just fine a moment before.
Or … well, not entirely inexplicable. I suspect that the balloté failure happened because we were running into it, and I have literally never done balloté from a run before in my life.
To make balloté work, you have to really brush the leading leg out as if you were going to do grand jeté, then snap it in through passé so it meets up with the back leg just as the back leg is at maximum height.
I kept running myself over, much as I used to do when running into Bournonville jetés. The result was more of a mutant pas de chat than a balloté, which was doubly annoying because balloté is a jump that I can usually do quite well.
Anyway, a mutant pas de chat is what happens when you try to balloté without brushing the leading leg straight out and jumping before you snap it back in. Or maybe more like a pas de araigneé morte.
There was also something that was supposed to be assemblé en tournant but became some kind of rotating pas de chat, so maybe I was just having a Pas De Chats Only kind of day. Except my actual petit allegro pas de chats were … erm. Not Good.
So that’s ballet for you. You never stop making mistakes, you just make fancier mistakes. You never stop having bad days, so you have to remind yourself that the bad day you’re having today would’ve been a fantastic day two or three years ago and a decent day last year.
- Like my lovely husband … to whom, it occurs to me now, I should explain all this, since he has this weird (but kinda sweet) policy of mostly not reading my blog because he wants it to be my thing.
- I can’t actually be more specific than that. Sometimes it’s 15 minutes; sometimes it’s hours. It Just Depends.
- Step of the dead spider. You’re welcome.
- I understand what happened there, at any rate. My thinking brain got ahead of my body, and I was thinking about the plié that was supposed to land the darned thing, and apparently attempted to plié in mid-air … because THAT makes sense! ^-^’
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 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).
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.
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 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Note that I’m not defining “help,” here. Interpret appropriately depending upon your individual neighbors.