Category Archives: uggghhh…technique

Bar Apparatus: Avoiding The No-Fly Zone

I don’t usually write about aerials technique because the potential for disaster is way too high, but today I’m making an exception to address one minor but useful point.

I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who more or less specializes in bar apparatus, but it can be translated to vertical apparatus (fabric, rope, pole, etc) with a little thought. It’s useful no matter what kind of junk you’ve got in your drawers, but particularly helpful for people with dangly bits.

At the studio where I train, there’s a segment of the human anatomy we like to call the “No-Fly Zone.” It’s the zone you really, really don’t want to land on, or roll over, or otherwise crush, spindle, or mangle. I think you get the picture.

Anyway! That said, a lot of moves all but invite you to do exactly that—vine climb, almost anything you do in horse, arabesque on the bar, etc.

The author performing arabesque on the bar in a 36" lyra/aerial hoop.
No family jewels were pulverized in the making of this pic.

If you’re like most aerialists, you’ll Land in your No-Fly Zone maybe once or twice, and then your body will figure out ways to avoid it.

That said, the ways our bodies work out aren’t always as efficient as they could be—hence this post.

So here we go!

Here’s a sequence of stills from a video I took on class this morning. The sequence is simply a transfer on the bar from a hooked knee on one side to a hooked knee on the other side.

The starting point: with one knee hooked, I’m reaching up to re-grip higher on the lyra.

In the photo above, I’ve just straddled up to the bar and hooked a knee. Because I began with my grip a bit low. This lyra hangs fairly high, and I was tired so I didn’t take a higher grip that would require a bigger pull-up. As a result, I’m bringing my hands up higher on the apparatus to give myself room later on.

Depending on what you’re doing, that step may or may not be necessary, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Pressing through the inner thigh while lifting with the arms.

Here, I’m beginning the process of rolling myself over the bar by pressing my top leg as I straighten it. At the same time, I’m using my arms to give myself a bit of lift.

It probably looks like I’m about to land right on my No-Fly Zone—but I’m not.

So technically this is a shot from the other side of this exercise, sorry.

Above (although I apparently grabbed the screenshot from the other side … oh well), you can see what prevents me from crashing in the No-Fly Zone: squeezing the extended legs together as if I’m doing an assemblé.

This allows me to control how high the bar can travel on my legs. At this point, my arms aren’t really taking much weight at all—they’re just helping to steer.

Again, other side, but you get the point.

Here, you can see how much control I have over where the bar goes. I’m squeezing my thighs together and using a moving very much like a soutenu to push it around relative to my body.

One quick note: this is easier to do on lyra than trapeze—on trap, you also have to manage rope tension relative to your movement. Same goes for rope, hammock, fabric, and sling: you can transfer this basic idea, but the mechanics are a bit trickier.

Ugh, this angle, y’all.

In this last shot, I’m transferring the bottom bar into the pocket of the opposite hip as I bring my head under the top bar. My No-Fly Zone is safely out of the way.

In short, what allows me to avoid a crash is pressing through a fully-engaged leg, then squeezing both legs (again, fully-engaged) as I pass over the bar.

For someone like me—someone whose pelvis is put together so there’s never going to be a thigh gap[1], but also a ballet dancer for whom this movement is inherently familiar—this is pretty easy to do.

  1. Seriously, even at my most underweight, 84 pounds at 5’4” when I was 13, there was no gap. My pelvis isn’t built that way.

For bow-legged aerialists (like D) and those with wider-set hip joints, it’s imperative to really cross the legs from the top of the thighs and squeeeeeeze.

This is one of many places where ballet training can be so useful for aerialists. The degree of overcross and engagement is almost identical to sus-sous, or to a strong assemblé.

In either case, the movement that you’ll use to pass over the bar without crash-landing is still very much like a soutenu turn. You’re squeezing the thighs as you rotate your hips.

In ballet, this turns your body; on lyra, it turns the hoop (on trap and other apparatus, the action varies, but the principle is the same).

Even if you’ve never taken a ballet class, if you’ve ever tried to hold something (a box, a bag, a curious dog that wants to run off and check out the neighbors’ dog) between your thighs while turning around to grab your phone, you’ve probably done this exact sequence on the ground.

You probably don’t want to squeeze your dog as hard as you’d squeeze the lyra, but the principle is the same.

One more note: take it as read that, sooner or later, you’re probably going to crash in your No-Fly Zone. Don’t take it as a sign of failure—it’s just how we learn. For many aerialists, it’s something that happens as we begin to feel more confident and to take risks.

And you’ll probably only do it once, maybe twice. Consider it a rite of passage in your #CircusLife. Trust me, we’ve all done that walk of shame.

Gratuitous straddle-down shot, because I’m proud of that straddle dismount!

Remedial Partnering: Strategies

I have no qualms about stating up front that my partnering skills are, well, roughly at the level that would, if this was a university class, require one of those 094-level classes (I can see it now: “Partnering 099: It’s Always The Boy’s Fault”).

I’m good enough at this point that I wouldn’t have to take “Partnering 088: Whatever You Do, Don’t Drop Her!” … but I’m definitely still rough around the edges.

Anyway, in the interest of offering some help to my fellow Remedial Partner…ers, here are some strategies that do and don’t work:

DON’T

  • stand too close
  • stand too far away
  • get nervous and slowly collapse closer and closer, drawing your partner into your collapse like the heavier star in a binary system, leading to a cataclysmic supernova
  • panic about every single turn, every single time
  • panic about any turn, ever, for that matter
  • trust me panicking really doesn’t help
  • go walkabout mid-promenade because your eyes are pointing the wrong way (I know this is groundbreaking info but amazingly a promenade should be a circle, not a square)
  • fail to communicate … partnering is basically sustained communication, ideally with fewer words but, you know, better to speak than to do something dumb
  • panic about penchés
  • panic about steps you were doing fine yesterday
  • fall into weight-sharing mode … weight-sharing is great, but it doesn’t work for a lot of ballet things
  • panic about … anything, really

DO

  • REMAIN CALM
  • feel out a good distance for various steps
  • learn how to be there on time
  • let your partner do her end of things
  • talk through your dances together
  • mark through your dances together
  • walk through your dances together
  • run all the things until you can’t get it wrong
  • but make sure to stop before you both get super tired
  • REMAIN CALM srsly it’s better to be Prince Valium than Prince Panic
  • be willing to swap a step out for something simpler if you’re on a deadline and you’re having a rough time—it’ll build confidence, and eventually you’ll get the harder step, but that way you’ll know you’ve got something you can take to the stage
  • COMMUNICATE! today we both kept going, “Okay that felt weird” from time to time, and discovered that what felt weird to one felt weird to the other (we’re also getting better at sorting out the why)
  • ask for help … we’ve been super lucky to have not one, but two very experienced coaches step in to help because they want to see us succeed. Asking for help is scary, but it’s such a good idea.
  • believe that you can do it … like horses, ballerinas can sense fear 😅
  • and, of course, REMAIN CALM

That’s it for today. I have still neglected to take any photos, so I’m sticking in a screenshot for the featured image 😅

Learn By Pas-De-Deuxing

Every once in a while, you have an idea and you think, “Well, this might be a terrible idea, but it might be a great idea,” so you give it a go.

When I asked my (ballet) partner if she’d like to do FSB’s Nutcracker with me, there was a certain degree of that feeling. Like: I at least had some partnering skills … but doing the Grand Pas was going to be a sink-or-swim crash course in lots of partnering skills, including ones I’ve struggled with in the past.

Anyway, we’re now a couple weeks into really working on things, and while I don’t want to jinx us by speaking too soon, I’m rather pleased with how well it’s going.

Bit by bit, I’m learning to do the things. Just as importantly, I’m learning how to troubleshoot my own partnering problems.

We had a rough day on Wednesday. The floor was terrifyingly slick, we were both nervous as a result, and things that had worked in the past suddenly weren’t working. Our excellent pas de deux coach was there, but it was only her second session with us, so she wasn’t sure what was up either.

Somehow, somewhere in the midst of the struggle, one of the steps worked, and I realized that the difference was that I simply wasn’t standing as close to my partner as I has been all day. It was near the end of our rehearsal, so I applied that thought to the bit we were working on, then tucked it away.

Yesterday, we didn’t rehearse because my partner had some stuff she needed to do. I washed the floors so we’d feel safer, then walked trhough the dance by myself to cement some chances we’d made to the choreography, then dragged myself home via 2 hours of ridiculous rush hour rerouting (this, of course, is why I try to avoid traveling at rush hour). I reminded myself to stand a bit farther from my partner.

Today, faced with a very compressed rehearsal schedule and a studio that refused to warm up (the thermostat was working, but the furnace wouldn’t turn on o.O), I applied my idea from the outset … and it worked!

In fact, there were things that only kinda worked before that suddenly worked pretty darned well [1, 3] simply because I stood a little further off.

  1. Even with both of us stumping around in warm-up boots[2].
  2. You haven’t lived until you’ve successfully done an arabesque promenade with your partner en pointe with warm-up boots over her pointe shoes.
  3. See: “Ballet: it’s easier when you do it right.”

Obviously, “just stand further away” has its limits–but I think it’s probably a useful idea for a lot of people learning partnering.

Our instinct tends to be to get closer. It makes an instinctive kind of sense: if dropping your partner or knocking her over is bad, you want to be close enough to prevent it, or to rescue her if it does happen. This is probably especially true if you’re a T-Rex and your partner is relatively close to your own height: like, I’m pretty sure part of my tendency to stand too close boils down to instinctively understanding that my arms are short, yo.

But, as it turns out, sometimes that doesn’t work.

Anyway, we both left today’s rehearsal feeling more confident about the adagio movement of the Grand Pas (there’s some partnering in the coda, but it’s nowhere near as long or complicated).

And I left feeling more confident in both my current partnering abilities and about my potential for being a good partner.

This whole process has also reminded me, yet again, that when I’m calm, I’m actually pretty good at learning choreography. And that I’m capable of learning in general.

I’m lucky to have, as a partner, a ballerina[4] who is kind, thoughtful, game, technically sound, and a fine teacher (and also a redhead … as someone who’s effectively a dark ginger myself, I’m quite partial to gingers!).

And we’re lucky to have the support of not one, but two good coaches, both experienced dancers with decades of performing between them.

I was very heartened the other day when E, who’s Coach #1, said she feels confident that we can do this, and do it well. Honestly, that reduced my ambient imposter syndrome level by quite a bit.

  1. And while this appellation has a specific technical definition, I feel comfortable using it here. Not only is she dancing a principal role and being a leader and stuff, she’s a highly accomplished dancer in her own right.

It’s a pretty cool thing to feel like you’re actually making real progress in the calling around which you’ve shaped your life. Which, in fact, I very much do.

Asking my partner to join me in this endeavour was a risk–but it was a good one, I think. I was hoping we’d both come out of it more confident and with a performance we could add to our CVs, and that I’d come out of it a more useful and employable dancer. Thus far, it’s looking like that’s the way things are moving.

Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to the next time we get a chance to dance without our warm-up boots[5].

  1. Which will be Sunday evening of this week. I can’t wait!

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!

In an empty studio, the author stands in arabesque a terre, facing audience left, with his left leg back, left hand on his hip, and right arm raised as if holding something aloft. Text above his head reads

This is my life now. How ’bout you?

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:

The author, mid-fouetté, facing audience right, right arm and leg extended back.

If you’ve taken a class with me, you’ve prolly heard me say TURN THE HIPS. I am now saying it to myself.

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.

Oy.

You know what the main cause of this subtle-but-powerful trainwreck is?

That’s right!

STARING.

INTO.

THE MIRROR.

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: 

STOP.

DOING.

 THAT. 

Here’s why.

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.

BUT.

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. 

Remember: 

In a proper arabesque, the hips and shoulders are SQUARE and LEVEL[1].

  1. 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:

The author, striding towards audience left while staring over his left shoulder with both arms held straight down.

… so sexy it hurttttsssss

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)!

Video: It’s Not Just For Insta Anymore

In ballet, as in life, there are things you know that you know, and things you know that you know but maybe kinda don’t really know[1].

  1. …And also things you know that you don’t know, and things that you don’t know that you don’t know, but … ugh, let’s just start with the stuff we supposedly know. I’m too tired for the, like, epistemology of epistemology right now.

Like, you know that what you do at the barre is important. Foundationally important. Literally everything in ballet, your teachers tell you, is founded on the work you do at the barre.

…And yet it can actually be kind of hard, sometimes, to really feel what that means.

If you’ve been dancing for more than, like, five minutes with good instruction, you’ve probably heard the maxim that everything in ballet is essentially an extension of plie and tendu (some add rond de jambe to the mix; others argue that rond de jambe can be included in the “extension of tendu” category … I think both arguments have merit, so That’s Another Post).

If you’ve been dancing for more than five years with good instruction, you’ve probably experienced that idea directly often enough that it has taken on gut-level meaning.

You have learned to feel that your grand battement is just a tendu at maximum amplitude; that a waltz turn is just a bunch of plies and tendus strung together; that even a double tour is basically a plie that stretches with a lot of oomph.

That does not, however, always translate directly to the complex movements you do once you leave the barre. Knowing with your brain is not the same thing as feeling with your body, etc.

And this is where video comes in.

I think I’ve written a couple of times about the thing that makes video such an exceptionally useful tool for me–specifically, my proprioception is weird because of Ehlers-Danlos, so I can’t always actually feel what my body is doing relative to itself. Video is the best tool I’ve found for figuring out the difference between what I feel like I’m doing and what I’m actually doing.

Sometimes, though, it’s also a goldmine for technique.

Case in point, this:

Never mind the caption–I was poking fun at myself because my eyes either looked or were closed in almost every screencap from this class.

I’ve been trying to make my body sort out the relationship between the Bournonville grand jete and … to be honest, basically everything. I mean, like, yes: of course I realize that it’s a prime example of “it’s just tendu and plie, but with a little chutzpah,” but somehow I still feel like my execution always cuts a corner somewhere.

The reason that I feel that my execution of the Bournonville jete cuts a corner is that it does.

Literally.

I’ve been so busy thinking about Bournonville jete being a leap that I’ve been completely overlooking the fact that the leap will take care of itself if you DO THE REST OF THE TECHNIQUE CORRECTLY.

Functionally, this means that instead of brushing and pressing my leading leg and using the combination of that kinetic energy with the potential energy stored in the plie of the second leg, I’m sort of frantically flinging my first leg and throwing my body after it, taking off before the leading leg can do its job (which is to set the height of the leap and then STAY THERE–that’s where control comes in), and generally bungling the entire procedure.

I’m flexible, so I come closer to getting away with it than someone would who can’t just throw a leg wherever, but it’s still not good enough.

(Ballet: it’s always easier when you just do it right, and somehow that never ceases to be completely shocking.)

So, the picture above isn’t technically of a Bournonville jete. It’s technically a picture of … erm. Some kind of enormous cloche? I’d honestly have to go back and watch the video again; my brain is so cooked right now I don’t even remember which exercise it was (it was before grand battement and after degage *shrug*).

BUT.

When I watched this video, I instantly and powerfully understood that this picture is HOW YOU DO a Bournonville jete, or really any grand jete, and make it count[2].

  1. Okay, full disclosure: my upper body shouldn’t start this far back in an actual grand jete, unless I want it the leap to travel straight up I guess? But that’s actually one of the things I need to fix in my grand jete: I often leave my body behind, costing myself both travel and elevation.

What I do remember about this moment was that it was a cloche through from back to front, brushing strongly through first and pressing the leading leg up (as if against a weight: that was JZ’s main correction for me on Thursday–which, by the way, is exactly the main thing I’m focused on improving in my dancing as a whole).

On the first side, I’d relied (as I always do) too much on momentum and not enough engaged strength: I threw the leg (to be fair, jete literally means “throw”) in a way that meant I was no longer in control of it. My leg was on one journey, and my body was on another–their destination was the same, but for all intents and purposes, the leg was taking the early express train and the body was taking a slightly later local. That makes it kinda hard to keep the movements connected, you know?

JZ said to me, “Less momentum; more strength–like lifting a weight with the working leg.” I applied the correction on the second side, and this was the result.

Even though I’ve done an exercise specific to grand jete that uses this motor pattern–done it in a few different schools, in fact (my childhood studio, LouBallet, the Joffrey, LexBallet, pretty sure Naples Ballet)–I’ve somehow never connected the exercise that I was doing in JZ’s class on Thursday with grand jete.

And yet, there it is. If I sprang off that deeply-loaded right leg, I would … well, okay, in this case, I’d crash directly into the wire storage rack that’s like two centimeters from my left foot o.O’

BUT, if I did that in, say, a proper ballet studio … okay, and if I kept my back a bit more lifted … the result would be a lovely grand jete. The position I’m in doesn’t really need to change (except for the fact that my upper body needs to be a little closer to my free leg); I would just need to kind of … let go of the ground. Just add a little spring[3]. And then sustain the leading leg by pressing it up, as if under a weight[4].

  1. In case you’re not familiar with the distinction, the Bournonville grand jete is done with the back leg in attitude. Obviously, for the … other version, I’d need a little more spring, to get that back leg all the way straight.
  2. I love that analogy, because it summarises everything I love about the way Roberto Bolle moves: his movements are always at once contained and free; controlled and fluid. There’s always a sense almost that he moves against the resistance of a thicker atmosphere than the one most of us inhabit. The idea of pressing into a weight helps me think about how to achieve that feeling without becoming tense and unfree.

Somehow, the video that yielded this picture has helped me understand what I am and am not doing correctly when I do grand jete. (And, in fact, that I’m doing almost everything in grand jete incorrectly much of the time, although sometimes I get it right by accident and something beautiful happens.)

It might’ve taken me another five years to figure that out otherwise, because it’s incredibly difficult to see yourself doing a grand jete or any other large, complex movement (trying to watch yourself in the mirror screws up the body mechanics). I certainly get corrections on my technique all the time (that’s just life as a dancer), but video makes it easier to sort out what all those corrections aim to impart.

In short: if you haven’t tried shooting video of yourself in class, I highly recommend it.

Obviously, in a normal class, you should ask permission first and make sure your classmates are okay with it (my experience has been that they’re usually either like, “Sure as long as I never have to look at myself in it XD” or “OOH YES CAN I HAVE A COPY PLS????”).

Likewise, video alone won’t replace the guidance of a good teacher.

But for me, video has become a critical tool for analysing my own movement and figuring out how to improve it.

At least, once I got over the natural desire to bury my head in the sand and never watch myself dancing again ^-^’

Class Notes, 07 January 2020

I’ve been thinking for a while about trying to make a habit of posting my class notes.

Sometimes they’re silly, and often they’re impossible to read, but I try to write down my corrections and other points that seem really helpful.

In that vein, here’s today’s:

A transcription (which I probably won’t include every time):

  • Engage! (Those arrows are pointing at the muscles to either side of the rectus abdominis. My friend SF pointed out that it looks like they’re pointing to the kidneys 🤣)
  • It frees up your hips 😶
  • Like, really frees them. 😲
  • Relax, it’s just turns 😑
  • Pull (and push) towards your standing leg!
  • That way, if you tip over, you can correct
  • Your free foot has to PUSH OFF so you’re centered on your standing leg

On that last note: you would think I knew that already!

And, I mean, I do. I did. I have. And yet!

I just realized I haven’t really been actively using the soon-to-be free foot as much as I should when initiating turns, so I’m not always pushing myself onto my standing leg as effectively as I could.

My focus at the moment is staying on my leg (or legs, as applicable) and really using the floor.

And also not allowing my arms to do ridiculous BS like they did today during our medium allegro, because ffs, arms 😑

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.)

I just can’t even with this. No part of my core is even a little engaged. I’m jello

Erm … That’s not where that goes. How embarassing.

Look at that standing leg. I dare you. That’s right: I’m serving up fresh horror just in time for Hallowe’en, Betches.

I didn’t fall out of this turn in the sense that I didn’t literally go splat. In every other way, though…

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 non-standard port de bras is intentional.


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 Nickelback  slinkyback!

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.

Onwards!

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—

Oh, wait. 

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[1] and say either, “What are you on about?” or simply, “Right.”[2]

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[3] 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:

  1. Shift your weight onto the right foot.
  2. Lift the left foot, swing it in behind the right foot, and put it down.
  3. Lift the right foot, swing it just a little to the right, and put it down.
  4. 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[4]. (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[5].

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.

Notes

  1. 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.
  2. 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…
  3. Why a pug? Honestly, I have no idea. My inner world is a very strange place.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Danseur Immobile

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.

So, yeah.

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[1] 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[2] 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[3].

There was also something that was supposed to be assemblé en tournant but became some kind of rotating pas de chat[4], 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.

  1. 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.
  2. I can’t actually be more specific than that. Sometimes it’s 15 minutes; sometimes it’s hours. It Just Depends.
  3. Step of the dead spider. You’re welcome.
  4. 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[1] asking me annoying questions like, “What are you working on?” or “Is there any plan for dinner?” or “Do you smell smoke?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First: stand there in parallel. Exciting, right?

Second: march in place. SLOWLY.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, as ever, never stop dancing.

Notes

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

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