Category Archives: technical notes

How You Get There

Today, I saw this lovely comment from a dancer named Andy, and I thought it deserved a more thorough reply than would really be ideal for the comments section.

Andy asks some really salient questions about developing technique. To be honest, that’s the main thing I’m doing right now (I mean developing technique: oy vey, there is so much technique you guys) … maybe it’s one of the main things we’re always doing as dancers, really. So, really, answering Andy’s questions will also help me think about how I’m doing what I’m doing.

Which, I hope, won’t immediately cause me to encounter the Centipede’s Dilemma ^-^’

Since I’m hitting the hay pretty early these days, which means finding my way to bed pretty early, this might become a brief series. Which might also tie into finally getting around to finishing my notes from the Contemporary masterclass I took an entire freaking month ago ^-^’

Anyway, here’s Andy’s comment in its entirety:

Hi, I just came across your blog today. I’m a guy getting more serious in my ballet training, and am interested in trading notes with you on how you have gotten better and improved, particularly at men’s technique. I am in St. Louis, and the men’s classes I have tried have mostly young teens starting out, so it was only the basics covered in those classes. I am coming off a knee injury and am focusing on building up the legs the right way (I had been rolling in on squats, plies, running without realizing it). I’d like to know how you progressed on turns, beats and tours. I can do singles but anything more than that is hit or miss, and I know I need more practice.

So here’s my bird’s-eye view thought: any men’s technique class is better than none, I think, and the longer you dance the more you realize it’s all just elaborations on the basics anyway. So if you have access to a men’s technique that you can take on the regular and it fits into the schedule and the budget, do it, even if it seems a bit too basic.

Even the most basic men’s tech class, if it’s being taught by someone who knows what they’re doing, will underline from the word go how the basics slot into the more advanced bits of men’s technique.

This is one of the things I really love about L’Ancien: he’s constantly saying things like, “A cabriole is just three grand battements,” and “Everything you do at the barre is preparation for allegro.” He even maintains that adagio is preparation for allegro. Which, I guess? But I have learned to love adagio for its own sake, and I prefer to try to keep a degree of distance between them, because I also love jumping so freaking much that I’m likely to let it spoil both my enjoyment of adagio and my performance therof.

Building up the legs the right way is a really solid start. So much of men’s technique is about big, impressive jumps. Every jump, no matter how large or small, depends on the power of the plié. Even grand jeté, which we tend to think of as beginning with a grand battement, can’t go anywhere if you don’t plié the back leg and sproing off of it.

Moreover, building up the legs the really, really right way involves working the hecking heck out of the adductors, which are absolutely critical to things like cabrioles, beats, and even double tours.

I’m still working on making my double tour, like, really reliable. I can generally do them now, but sometimes I still don’t manage the second rotation, especially if we’re doing emboité, emboité, emboité, double tour across the diagonal. Mostly the first one goes off soundly, they get muddly somewhere in the middle, and then I get myself sorted again by the last one so.

That said, my progress has depended on two things.

First, I’m using my plié more effectively both in my jumps and also at the barre.

Andy, it sounds like you’re already working on that. I’m sure you already know that the plié is both the power train and the shock absorber for every jump, and especially for big jumps like double tours, so continuing to work on using the legs correctly in plié will take you a long way.

L’Ancien always points out that you should take advantage of the fact that you have access to the greatest amount of hip rotation at the bottom of your grand plié, and that you should feel as if there’s one muscle connecting across the front of your plié[1]. This is easiest to feel in a second-position grand plié, possibly because it’s really important in terms of stability.

  1. I realize now that that’s a difficult idea to illustrate in words, so I’ll have to make some terrible illustrations later on and hope that they help.

Second, my adductor game is fierce.

I lamented at one point not long ago in a comment that “The adductors are not strong with this one.” I didn’t really mean they were literally weak—just that I wasn’t using them as well as I should be[2].

  1. Perhaps ironically, the strength of my adductors is partly a byproduct of my collagen disorder—my iliosacral joint likes to subluxate, and the exercise that I use both to fix it and to (one hopes) prevent it from doing so quite as often is great for the adductors 😀

Since then, I’ve really focused on improving how I use my adductors, and not just improving their strength.

I mentioned in my last post that one of the key points in actually managing to do double tours is to turn yourself into a pencil.

art artistic bright color

They told me I could be anything, so I became a pencil. [Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com]

This, by the way, is when you REALLY NEED TO TRUST YOUR DANCE BELT.

It’s not very hard to make yourself spin around your own axis once. Almost anyone can, for example, manage a crappy single pirouette (apparently not everyone can do wacky triples like I used to :P).

When you’re only going around once, it doesn’t really matter how high you are off the ground, or how straight your axis is, or how closely your body parts are aligned to that axis.

Somehow, though, when you’re trying to get around twice, all those things matter like crazy.

The first factor—elevation—can be achieved by a better-coordinated use of the plié, including that handy “one muscle connecting across the front” thing (this helps you to “…fire all of your guns at once and explode into spaaace,” as it were).

You develop that coordination both at the barre and in the little jumps and in increasingly high, tight changements (the double tour is, in essence, simply a changement that spins). High changements in which the legs swivel closely around each-other (as opposed to the primary Vaganova version, where you kind of strike outwards through the change) are a solid preparatory exercise for tours regardless of count. They also contribute to mastering the second factor.

The second factor—a tight, straight axis—depends enormously on your adductors (and a good dance belt, because seriously).

At the apex of your double-tour, your legs should be turned out and clamped tight from top to bottom. Ideally, you shouldn’t be able to pass so much as a piece of paper between them, though there are some guys whose legs are put together in a way that won’t allow them to clamp that tight. I married one. He isn’t a ballet dancer, but even if he was, he’d struggle with double tours even more than the rest of us.

(Conveniently, improving the use of your adductors will also make your beats a million times better. That exercise where you go second-beat-second-beat-second-beat-fifth is the flat-out best demonstration of this principle.)

Your core, back, and shoulders also have a lot to do with getting that second rotation in. I think this has, historically, been one of my difficulties making the jump (ugh, sorry) from single tours (or my infamous 1.5-tours) to double tours: I am a swaybacked little sumbee, and I have spent the past several months working on my posture basically nonstop.

And I do, by the way, mean nonstop. Not just in the studio, but everywhere. If you see some pretentious-looking jackwagon walking through the grocery store like he thinks his shopping trolley is a ballerina and they’re doing some kind of adagio pas, that’s probably me.

Hi.

Unless he’s like 6 feet tall and blonde. Then it’s probably David Hallberg, who I assume just looks like that anyway, because Ultimate Ballet Prince.

I find it really helpful to remember that anything that deviates from the vertical central axis of the pencil that is me is just wasting energy that could be helping me not wind up doing a 1.5 tour and landing with my face towards all of my fellow dancers and/or my back to my artistic director and/or rehearsal director and/or ballet mistress and/or the audience, if there is an audience.

Obviously, you don’t typically pull your arms in tight on a double tour, but it’s worth mentioning that ice skaters do when they do those octuple-duple toe loops and so forth. Likewise, a lot of guys do double tours with the arms en haut, which both helps you fling yourself into space and probably keeps them aligned to the central axis more effectively than carrying them in first.

That said, I generally carry mine in first (or something like it; it’s hard to tell what my arms are doing when I’m desperately trying to actually spot something specific so our AD doesn’t say, “BOYS! ACTUALLY SPOT SOMETHING WHEN YOU SPOT YOUR DOUBLE TOURS!”). If I pop them up en haut, there’s still a good chance I’ll overdo it, throw my shoulders backwards, and wind up swaybacked and facing the back again.

If you’re not hypermobile in the thorax and shoulder girdle, though, you might not have that problem.

Anyway, it is now officially past my bedtime, so I’ll close here, but consider this the first installment in a series.

Oh, and one last point: the thing that really started me in the right direction was finding a mentor who understood my body and didn’t think my goals were unreasonable (honestly, nobody has yet told me my goals were unreasonable, perhaps in part due to the fact that I have a lot going for me as a dancer, but more likely because I set fairly conservative goals).

I started taking what was nominally a beginning ballet class from BW simply because I wanted to take class from him (his body is not terribly dissimilar from mine, and he’s a fecking amazing dancer). Even before the period of almost a year during which nobody else ever came to his class, he made a point of building exercises that targeted the things I really needed to work on. Sometimes this meant adding variants in for me, since I was most often the most advanced student; sometimes it meant everyone else got to do grueling Vaganova exercises as best they could 😛

Regardless, what really made a huge difference was simply that he understood what it’s like to be someone who is both quite muscular and extremely flexible. By way of example: he knew instinctively that I would have more difficulty than average with turns in second because the extreme mobility of my hips means I have to work to stabilize them in both directions, where most guys just have to worry about not letting them turn in 😛

L’Ancien also has a profound understanding of my body, even though it’s nothing at all like his. He’s just literally been dancing and teaching and making dancers for longer than I’ve been alive. He has the ability to assess one’s capabilities even when one doesn’t have the ability to use them to their maximum effect, which is immensely helpful.

What I’m saying is: it doesn’t matter if you find a teacher whose body is similar to yours, as long as they understand how your body works and how you need to work with it to make the most of your potential.

Can You Manege It?

Today, L’Ancien gave us a manège, beginning with:

“That corner (downstage left) is the lonelinest corner. Dancers avoid that corner … make sure you travel through that corner.”

Then four of us stood at the points inside the circle (or well, technically the oval) whilst the other for manèged their way around via piqué turn, piqué turn, tombé-coupé-jeté en tournant, tombé-coupé-jeté en tournant, jeté en tournant, jeté en tournant, jeté en tournant.

After the first run, L’Ancien did not actually lay himself down upon the floor in the depths of his despair, but he probably wanted to, especially where I was concerned. There was a lot of WTF in my run, and I knew that, and I hadn’t figured out how to fix it by the time I made it around the Loneliest Corner and back to where I began.

Basically, it started well (I can do nice piqué turns in my sleep, at this point), but fell apart during the tombé-coupé-jeté. In short, I knew I needed to collect all 18[1] of my feet together, then stab the coupé foot into the ground and brush the other foot to launch the jeté. Only I couldn’t seem to get all those freaking feet together at the right moment, so I kept doing … ergh, I don’t even know what, but it was wrong. At least it turned in the air, I guess?

  1. Okay, so technically only two, but if you’ve ever had a bad run of tombé-coupé-jeté en manège, you know what I mean.

What I had done wrong—what everyone, apparently, had done wrong—was that in addition to wearing red shorts (after having been informed that L’Ancien is NOT fond of fire engine red, which I remembered halfway through barre, to my great chagrin), I was attempting to tombé-coupé-jeté from second.

Like, that is to say, instead of chassée-ing through the face the direction of travel, I was … erm … sort of chassée-ing à côte and then … I just … don’t even know what. But it was wrong.

Basically, the result was that instead of coupé-ing to the back of the inside leg as I turned, I was … just flailing the outside leg around like an idiot … and then attempting to reel it in and somehow jeté from, like, the world’s worst fourth position.

The entire correction was this:

“Face the direction you are traveling. And also use your eyes.”[2]

  1. L’Ancien is almost certainly VERY TIRED of telling me to use my eyes.

Amazingly, y’all, this SOLVED. THE. PROBLEM.

Tombé-coupé-jeté (and/or chassée-coupé-jeté) is one of my favorite steps, but one that I’ve struggled with ( nobody really diagnosed my previous problem—that I was doing some kind of crazy sissone instead of an actual jeté—until I finally asked David Reuille what I was doing wrong, LOL).

It has been really hard for me en manège, which is unfortunate because t-j-c-en-m is in almost every men’s variation ever.

Today, the second run wasn’t exactly spectacular, but it was technically sound … like, “Oh! There are my feet, right where they need to be, doing what they’re supposed to do!”

It wasn’t super high, and it probably wasn’t beautiful, but it was at least acceptable.

So! To sum up my thoughts on tombé-coupé-jeté en tournant:

  • FACE THE WAY YOU ARE GOING.
    • This is almost always something you should just do anyway, unless you’re doing Balanchine. For some reason, B-Technique is all about making you do piqué turns (and every bleeding thing else) en face. WTF, Mr. B?
  • The basic process of the step is:
    • Tombé onto the inside foot
    • Coupé the outside foot to the BACK of the inside ankle to initiate the turn
    • STAB dat coupé foot right into the floor as you
    • BRUSH the jeté foot straight the heck out
      • DO NOT ROND THIS LEG
      • I MEAN IT
      • SERIOUSLY
      • DO NOT ROND
      • DON’T DO IT
      • YOU DO NOT NEED TO ROND THIS LEG
      • If you’re doing the rest of it right, the momentum you’ve established will turn you in the direction of travel; if you rond the leg, you’re probably going to find yourself with your back to the audience
      • That will be embarassing and make your ballet mistress very sad
      • You don’t want to make your ballet mistress sad, do you?
      • adult alone black and white blur

        You do not want to make your ballet mistress question her major life choices. You just don’t. (Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com)

  • Don’t stress out. This step is complicated, yes: but like many things in ballet, once you figure it out it’s kind of easier than it looks. I mean, perfecting it is still hard, of course, because ballet. Oy.

Anyway, there have been times in my life that I’ve managed to mash my way through t-c-j[3], but it’s only now that I feel like I understand what the hecking heck I’m actually trying to accomplish.

  1. Of note: if you read that post, you’ll notice it explicitly states that you can tombé to second to add extra power to your jump. You can, BUT! BUT! BUT! YOU MUST STILL pivot through to face the direction of travel before you do the rest, unless you’re traveling on a straight-line diagonal (that is, NOT en manège).

Anyway, by the end of class, I actually felt like I knew how to do tombé-coupé-jeté.

Which is good, because on Tuesday I start company class at an Actual Ballet Company, where it seems I will actually be dancing this season, and it’s not terribly unlikely that I’m going to need it.

Today I Learned #2: Be A Fastback

Pinto-Runabout

Just maybe not a Pinto. Explosive gas isn’t a good look. (Via Wikimedia Commons, by Joost J. Bakker from IJmuiden (Ford Pinto runaboutUploaded by Oxyman) [CC BY 2.0])

How do you power your turns?

If you said, “By winding up my arms and then flinging them,” erm … really, that’s an entirely different post. I mean, I’m not sure how to break this to you, but, like…

…I mean, that might be a thing in some kinds of modern, but really, you don’t need to do that in ballet, and your teacher will yell at you a lot less if you stop.

Moving right along!

If you answered, “By turning,” you’re probably someone like me, who is much better at doing physical things than at thinking about physical things (and, like me, you might be prone to the Centipede’s Dilemma). I mean … like, to be entirely honest, if you’d asked me  a while back how I power my turns, I would’ve A] done some kind of turn in an attempt to figure it out, then B] shrugged and said, “Honestly, I have no idea.”

I have since had the opportunity[1] to discuss this in class several times, and have realized that there are several factors involved, one of which is my shoulder and back.

  1. Which is to say, been forced on pain of receiving The Look…

I mean, think about it. How do you a fouetté[2]? You basically flip your back around. First it’s on one side; then it’s on the other side. Your legs just, like, basically stay where they are, though the free leg has to turn over. Neato[3]!

  1. Not the en tournant/Black Swan kind. Just the, “Your toe is a key; stick it in the lock and turn it without actually doing a flip” kind.
  2. Sauté fouetté uses the same mechanics, btw. Ideally, your free leg should maintain a steady altitude, which looks pretty dazzling when done correctly.

 

The video above isn’t the best possible example, since you don’t even remotely need to be on pointe to do this and the mechanics allow you to start from a static balance (which would make for a much clearer video), but it gets the basic point across.  TBH, though, I searched for like 30 whole seconds and all the other videos I turned up were for fouetté en tournant. 

Obviously, it’s a given that flipping your back around is going to happen in any turn.

The funny thing, though, is that many of us never really bother to think about it. We get as far as holding our bodies together and then just … let physics take care of things, I guess?

Anyway, Mr. Reuille pointed out today (or was it yesterday?) that you have to bring your back around, and more the point, you have to imagine bringing it around faster for every single rotation within any given turn. So if you’re doing a triple, you’re not thinking, “One … two … three…” so much as, “One … two,three!”

In ballet turns, the back, shoulder, and hip travel together. (This isn’t always the case in modern turns, precisely—if you’re turning and spiraling at the same time, for example, the principle continues to operate along similar lines, but it feels very different.)

They carry the momentum of the turn—if you think about it, there’s a whole lot of mass there.

In an en dehors turn, the inside of the standing leg actively resists that momentum: otherwise, the free knee will happily collapse in towards the center, and you’ll wind up with one of those parallel jazz turns.

Which … I mean. They’re great, but they’re not ballet.

 

 

fosse-fosse-fosse

What? You thought there wouldn’t be a meme for that? Of *course* there’s a meme for that!

In an en dedans turn, the inside of the standing leg goes with the momentum, so the free leg resists against it. This is, I realize, another reason I’m better at en dedans turns than en dehors turns. The adduction is not so strong with this one. I’m working on it, okay?

Anyway, in either case, if you think about bringing the shoulder-hip complex around ahead of your spot, you might find that you get more and better turns.

Predictably, I do this well at some times and horribly, terribly, or not at all at other times. This[4] is another part of the reason that my turns are so bleeding inconsistent.

  1. …Combined with my bizarre back-leaning posture, wacko spot, and apparently counter-evolutionary preference for falling backwards rather than forwards … is this possibly a People Who Wear Glasses Thing, or is this just me???

At any rate, I ended class only owing Mr. Reuille 5 push-ups (for hopping out of a turn), which he kindly did not collect, and in the midst of receiving a correction did a very nice fouetté from first arabesque to attitude devant that resulted in a dead stable balance. And that owed largely to just bringing my ding-dang-darn back around faster.

So, like, there’s hope for even the worst parts of my ballet technique, I guess.

Anyway, if you’re having issues with turns that wobble or wander or just don’t have enough moxie, and you’re not sure where to find more chutzpah (did you know that chutzpah can be translated as “audacity?”), maybe you could try starting with this thing and see if it helps. Assuming, of course, that A] you’re snapping your free leg to a turned-out passé and B] you’re not leaning back like certain idiots who write blogs about ballet on the innertubes.

Merde, and let me know if it works out.

 

 

Today I Learned #1: What is UP, You Guys?!

And I don’t mean like, “Hey guys, what’s up?”

I mean, like, seriously—what even is “UP,” anyway?!

animal pet cute kitten

Upness. What is it? What does it mean? (Photo via Pixabay on Pexels.com)

So!

This week I’m attending Lexington Ballet’s masterclass with David Reuille of Apex Contemporary Dance Theater, which involves getting up at the mostly-unheard of hour of 6 AM, driving to LexBallet, actually functioning before 10 AM, and apparently learning all kinds of stuff.

Today’s corrections & insights from ballet:

  • I don’t actually know where the back edge of my foot is … or at least I didn’t until this morning. WTF, you guys.
  • When you go up & back to do cambré, ACTUALLY GO UP FIRST, duh (Mr. Reuille definitely did NOT put it quite that way, he was just like, “Oh, go UP first!” and he guided me up and over … totally different)
  • DON’T HOP OUT OF YOUR FRICKIN’ TURNS (once again, Mr. Reuille didn’t put it that way): see L’Ancien on The Standing Leg
  • Keep the pelvis neutral (that one was for errbody)
  • Saut de basque: brush to second while facing the back corner (this might not make sense by itself)
  • Emboité en tournant: UP on the coupé (again, might not make sense by itself)

…And from Modern:

  • There actually is a method to what you do with your arms in modern (again, a general but very relevant correction)
  • Difference between a contraction and an overcurve: shoulders go forward only in overcurve; in a contraction, they might move down, but they remain placed over the hips (again, general, but relevant)
  • Figure 4 turn: my arms always want to go the wrong way (this wasn’t a correction I got, just something I noticed)
  • Compass turn: don’t secabesque too far back (this one was specific to me; I’m not sure I applied it very well in the combination)

None of these points are entirely new, but the first one totally boggled me. Like, I thought I was going up and back, but in fact I was just going, like, back and back. Sometimes a small physical correction asplains things better than all the words in the world.

How long have I been doing this, like, back and back instead of up and back thing?

Oh, probably my entire life.

Oddly, this is probably one of the very, very few places in which gymnastics technique can improve ballet technique. To execute a good backbend from a standing start, you actually do have to reach up and then back. If you’re doing a backbend, you’ll probably do this automatically, because if you try to just flop over backwards, it generally doesn’t end well.

Apparently, though, even though I historically had one heck of a nice backbend (though I haven’t tried it by itself in ages), I never thought to bring that quality of upness into my cambré.

I suspect that’s a function of thinking about the end point rather than the beginning.

We often screw up attitude this way as well. We tend to think of bringing the foot to attitude, which makes the whole thing come out wonky. We lose our turnout in an effort to put a foot somewhere in space. If we just think about keeping the leg exactly as it is when à le coup de pied or sur le coup de pied (or, in shorthand, “in coupé”), then rotate and lift from the TOP of the leg (THE TOP, you guys—like, the hip, supported by the core), we get a nice attitude with turnout intact.

Anyway, so all of this has led me to the realization that I still don’t entirely know where up is. I mean, I do: obviously, it’s UP. It’s just like … um. I know more or less where Poughkeepsie is, but if I took it upon myself to drive there, I’d need a little guidance.

I also learned that my brain still doesn’t want to learn combinations (or anything else) before 10:30 AM.

Too bad, brain: you’re just going to have to get used to it.

Anyway, today wasn’t the best day I’ve ever had in terms of actually being able to dance. I particularly failed at sissones, not because I couldn’t sissone, but because I got the combination backwards and then worried about it so hard that it just got worse and worse. So much for, “Do something, even if it’s wrong.”

OTOH, I got a “Nice!” on my cabriole, but also the correction to strike sooner. Seems reasonable; I think my life would be easier if I didn’t wait like ten minutes to strike the bottom leg against the top leg.

Anyway, here’s hoping that I’ll be less confused tomorrow. I will DEFINITELY NOT stick myself on the world’s most awkward little speck of barre, where there’s both a bend in the barre as it follows the shape of the wall and also a whole bunch of taped seams in the marley. I will stand somewhere else entirely, because I will plan ahead and then not feel like I can’t move because class has already started.

Par L’Ancien: Everything Begins With The Supporting Leg

The past few weeks have been crazy and demanding and rewarding and annoying and full of challenges and problems and triumphs and complete, abysmal failures … but overall more triumphs than failures.

Last weekend, we were in Cleveland, where I took a masterclass with Hubbard Street Dance. The weekend before that was HappyBirthday. The weekend before that, I was up to my neck in rehearsals.

This week, I had two rehearsals and only two ballet classes prior to today’s. Last night I made my debut as an actor-who-gets-to-talk in the third chapter of Fabled Fragments. There was also quite a bit of physical theater, made significantly more challenging by the fact that I hadn’t had a chance to rehearse with the acres of voluminous fabric that I had to wrestle on stage.

Today it was back to class with L’Ancien after almost a month. His advice to me today (besides not staring into the mirrror and second guessing-myself so freaking much: “You’ve done this a hundred thousand times; you’ve got a good brain…”) was simply to focus on the standing leg.

In the midst of all this, I encountered a kind of revelation: the height of one’s extensions depends a great deal more on the standing leg than on the free leg.

Chances are you know that already. But for the like five people out there in the world going lolwut?, here’s an explanation.

Señor BeastMode (who has also moved on … everything is changing, you guys! … but who has left us with an excellent teaching staff for the upcoming year) used to remind us that:

Proximal Stability equals distal mobility.

Wise words, those.

They’ve greatly improved a number of things about my technique, but somehow I hadn’t really applied that maxim to my extensions in adagio.

Was I afraid that if I thought about my standing leg too much, I’d lock myself down? Maybe, but probably not.

Instead, like most people, I was thinking entirely about my free leg.

Here’s the thing, though: the free leg can’t be free unless the standing leg is rooted and solid from the ground to the top of your head.

Why?

Because to give the free leg the full measure of its freedom, the standing leg must be completely secure. Otherwise, the free leg has nothing to “hang from,” as it were.

Think about it: if you imagine a tree with a wiggly spot in its trunk (and only three branches, one of which is significantly larger than the other two, because evidently it’s not much of a tree) … wait, there has to be a better analogy.

Developpe-Crane

Remember this? I almost hope you don’t.

So! Disregarding the fact that the construction crane is A] in the Don’t column and B] illustrating an entirely different point, here[1], it actually makes an excellent illustration of a further point.

  1. …That is: when you developpé, you must first lift your kneecap as high as you can, then extend the free leg. You’re welcome.

A construction crane cannot do its job if its base and upright aren’t stable.

If it tried, the weight of its boom—that is, its “free leg,” if you will—would tip it right the heck over.

In fact, here’s what happens when you’re a boom crane and your standing leg isn’t secure:

…And while usually things aren’t quite that dramatic in the ballet studio (especially since we’re more likely to be wiggly in the hip than unbalanced at the foot and completely rigid the rest of the way up), the difference that a secure standing leg can make in the height of your developpé is.

Dramatic, I mean.

If your standing leg is solid, with a secure hip (this is my personal bugbear, by the way: I have loosey-goosey hips, and I will likely be fixing them for the rest of my working life), then your free leg has a fixed point against which to pivot and your entire body as a counterweight.

If your standing-side hip (or something else in your standing leg) isn’t secure, the muscles in your free leg will clamp down in an effort to hold things together. By extension, your extension will be less … you know … extensive.

This remains true, by the way, even when you reach a point at which it’s permissible to slightly open the angle of the standing hip in an extension de côte. You still begin by lifting the knee against a stable hip and extending; only at the very end do you tilt the body—as one piece, moving only in the standing-side hip—to further open the angle between the standing and the free leg.

Just as an aside, this is one of the reasons that penché must begin with the leg, and not with the back. If you begin by letting the back droop forward, it ceases to be meaningfully connected to the free leg and can no longer operate as a counterbalance.

You know this, I know this, everybody knows this … but I still do it wrong at least 40% of the time, so I’m putting myself on notice.

Anyway, L’Ancien gave me some ballet homework: hop on the YouTubes and watch the men’s graduation class of the Bolshoi Academy, and pay attention to the stability of their working legs and the way they use their adductors.

I’m not sure this is the one he meant, but it’s still a pretty solid example of exactly what he’s talking about. LOOK AT THESE RONDS, mothertruckers:

 

…And then roll it back to the beginning and watch the whole thing. There’s an instructive moment in which the guy on the barre at audience right (that is, on YOUR right, as the viewer) commits exactly the same sin I tend to as they take attitude: he has to put his heel down, because his standing leg isn’t stable (BTW, he looks amazing anyway), while the other guys just float there on the world’s most solid demi-pointes because they’re jerks.

Erm, I mean, because their standing legs are stable.

Anyway, there you have it: you want higher extensions? Great.

FIRST, stabilize the heck out of your standing-side hip.

THEN work on improving your active flexibility so the muscles of your free leg can work appropriately against the rest of your body.

Don’t be like me and do it the other way around, or you will also be like me in having to think about your standing hip like crazy for the rest of your natural life.

The rest, as they say, is commentary. Go and learn.

Turn It Off!*

*(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.

Technique: Grand Battement Comes From Your Back

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.

pexels-photo-97587.jpeg

Collection and Impulsion: necessary for horses and for dancers. (Via Pexels)

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.

How Much Do You Stretch?

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[1].” 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.

  1. 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[2].

  1. 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.

technical notes: devil turns again

I mean chaînés, of course. Everyone loves chaînés sooooooooo much, amirite?! They are The Actual Best[1]!

  1. 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.

Someday, I will look back upon this and laugh.

Chaines: Scourge of the Universe (you guys, I can’t believe how weirdly applicable this is, given that I made this graphic in like 2015 2014)

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 chasséechaîné 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.)

Anyway:

AHHHHHH!!!! You guys, how did I go so wrong?!

not-how-this-works

basically applicable to my entire life at all times

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:

balancé (r)
balancé (l)
chaîné-chaîné-petit developpé to pas de bourrée
chassée 4th
turn en dehors
fourth
turn en dehors (land 5th, right foot front, or coupé through)
balancé (r)
balancé (l)
petit developpé to pas de bourrée
chassée 4th
rotation (fouetté à terre)
fourth
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[2].

  1. very possible; this morning was a horrible slog through the swamps of badness: the struggle was all the way real[3].
  2. 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 chasséechaîné 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.

brizayzay

some notes on brisée (devant)

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