Category Archives: uggghhh…technique
I’ll begin with a caveat:
This will be my first attempt at a BG-style breakdown of a basic technical movement, and goodness only knows if it’ll succeed. So, if this turns out to be even more confusing than the explanations already out there, feel free to feck it out the window and be after finding yourself a better explanation.
Pas De Bourée: Another of the Hardest Easiest Things
As a dancer, you’ll probably execute some or another flavor of pas de bourée more often than any other step in the entire canon of ballet (not least because it’s one of the ways that we all surreptitiously change our feet when we suddenly realize that everyone else is standing on the other foot, so to speak).
This means, ironically, that it’s probably the single most important step in the entire massive arsenal.
By the time you’ve been dancing for a few years, you’ll be able to do the most basic PdB so readily that you’ll find yourself using it to navigate your way through the press at every social function you att—
You’re probably already using PdB that way, even if you’ve never taken a single ballet class or, for that matter, seen so much as a single poster for a ballet.
That’s because the plain-vanilla PdB is a staggeringly pedestrian movement … literally, in fact.
Pas de bourée is very much an organized stagger-step. I’ve often seen its name translated as “Step of the Drunk,” and while I’m pretty sure that “Bourrée” in this sense refers to a social dance.
Then again, at its core, social dance is just so much fancy walking and organized staggering anyway, and we must acknowledge that social dance and drinking go almost as far back as drinking and the attendant less-organized forms of staggering.
Okay, But What The Heck Does That Mean?
In short, your basic pas de bourée is just a sidestep that changes which foot is in front.
TL;DR: your whole goal, basically, is to move one foot out of the way so you can put the other one in front (or in back, if you’re going that way) without losing momentum.
When you execute a little sidestep to stop your toes being squashed by the latest SuperPram or avoid tracking through something nasty, there’s a good chance that you’ll automatically execute a nice little PdB.
There are, of course, umptillion fancier versions, many of them specific to the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus, whose decline L’Ancien routinely laments (with good reason: the refinements of PdB are both useful and beautiful).
Forget about them for now.
There’s no point in trying to wrap your head around pad de bourée a quatre pas until you’ve quite mastered the bog-standard pas de bourée that ballet teachers often describe with the shorthand “back, side, front.” Besides, entire classes full of advanced and professional students who struggle with those rare and specialized versions (ask me how I know 😑).
So where, then, do we begin?
First, by pinning “back, side, front” to a convenient spot on a mental pegboard where it won’t get lost and in which we can completely ignore it for now.
“Back, side, front” is helpful once you’re basically familiar with what you’re trying to accomplish, but it’s also vague: do the individual terms of the equation describe which foot to move or where to move them?
If you think about it too hard—even as someone who’s danced for yeeeeaarrrssss—it’s easy to get it wrong. There’s not enough of the right information.
So we will, for now, bid adieu to “back, side, front” and get back to Fancy Walking.
Let’s try a mental experiment.
I apologize in advance to those of you whose brains don’t do the visualizing thing. You might want to read through this a couple of times, get a feel for the story, and then actually act it out, ideally somewhere in which your loved ones or co-workers won’t wonder why you’re shouting, “Oh, no! It’s Boris the Pug!”
Oh, No! It’s Boris The Pug!
Imagine that you’re in walking along, minding your own business. You’re pretty good at walking by now, so if I ask you, “Which foot comes after ‘left?'” you’ll probably give me a long look and say either, “What are you on about?” or simply, “Right.”
Presumably, you also thoroughly grasp that after right comes left again, and so on ad infinitum, or at least until you reach the coffee shop.
Now, imagine that as you’re walking, in mid-stride, you spot your neighbor Pat just ahead, to your left, walking Boris The Pug.
Boris is an enthusiastically sociable pug who is locally famous for crashing into his favorite people (which includes anyone and everyone in eyeshot). As a resukt, Pat keeps Boris on a shortish lead—but good old Boris is nothing if not determined, and all at once he’s wheezily lunging towards you in hopes of head-butting your shin with ecstatic glee.
You, however, don’t wish to be party to Boris’ next collision. First of all, Boris is a bit of a dribbler, and you’re wearing your favorite trousers (or skirt, or whatever you like). Second, Pat lives to recount Boris’ history of hilarious head-butting incidents, and although you like Pat, you secretly like Boris more, and you hope this once to spare him from being the butt—dare I say, the head-butt—of the joke.
So as you put your right foot down and Boris the Pug torpedoes himself towards the place where he expects your left leg to appear, you sidestep: you swing your left leg to the right.
Because this does funny things to your mass with regards to gravity, and probably also because you want to give Boris a little extra wheezing room, instead of swinging the left leg forward and right and setting your left foot down in front of your right foot, you swing the left leg a little to the back and right and set the foot down just behind your right foot.
Your weight shifts onto to your left foot, and then your right leg also swings a little to the right, so your left leg has somewhere to go.
Next, you put your right foot down, and now your left leg is free to swing forward.
Finally, you can put your left foot down in front of your right foot and resume the normal course of your walk.
Congratulations! You have spared poor Boris from becoming the subject of yet another embarrassing collision story that Pat will tell at every neighbourhood soirée for the foreseeable future!
Oh. AND you’ve executed a pas de bourée in parallel (which is, I am led to understand, called a “grapevine step” in Jazz? But don’t quite me in that; my knowledge of Jazz is sketchy at best).
So that’s the size of it, really: your garden-variety pas de bourée. In the ballet context, you do this particular kind of PdB going sideways, with turnout, like so, assuming you’re beginning from first position:
- Shift your weight onto the right foot.
- Lift the left foot, swing it in behind the right foot, and put it down.
- Lift the right foot, swing it just a little to the right, and put it down.
- Lift the left foot, swing it to the right and put it down in front of the right foot. (If you’re doing the brushed version, it might very well feel like you’re brushing side to close front—another reason I’m putting a freeze on the “back, side, front” analogy.)
You do not, at this point, “do the hokey-pokey and turn yourself around.” That is absolutely NOT what it’s all about. At least, not unless your director tells you to, in which case all bets are off.
Anyway. Where was I?
Oh, erm, right.
Just like balancé, pas de bourée goes “right, left, right” or “left, right, left.”
If it attempts to do otherwise, it is forced to become a sort of mutant temps-levée, and nobody wants that.
In actual practice, you might either brush the feet out, then brush them back in (as you do in degagé) or crisply lift them. (The degagé version is usually taught first, probably because it feels more intuitive.)
In fact, you’ll often begin your pas de bourée with one foot already in the air, so the initial brush or lift is more implied than actual. You’re already there. You don’t have to close and then open again unless you’re specifically instructed to do so, because PdB is a linking step.
If a combination calls for tombé-pas de bourée (as so many do), and you’ve just tombé-ed onto your left foot, you’ll simply close the right foot (which is already in the air) behind the left foot, put your weight on your right foot, and so forth.
You’ll do this any time you need to change feet through a linking step without losing your momentum, but don’t need a glissade changée. In fact, it will very frequently be followed by a glissade changé, especially in that balletic equivalent of “shave and a hair cut, two bits” technically known as “tombé, pas de bourée, glissade, assemblé.”
Eventually you’ll discover that pas de bourée occurs at other moments, as well—sometimes even as a means of changing direction (tombé, pas de bourée, piqué arabesque has been known to occur, for example).
Even the fanciest versions (I’m looking at you, various flavors of PdB a quatre- and cinq pas), however, hew to the rule of “left, then right, etc” (or its equivalent, “right, then left, etc”) simply because we’re upright bipeds. The quadrupedal equivalent, the side-pass, is a fairly advanced dressage maneuver, presumably because coordinating twice as many legs is about fifty times as hard, so be glad you only have two legs.
This Was Really Long Though 😶
You’re right: it was. Just remember that pas de bourée will almost always change feet (ballet shorthand for “switch which foot goes in front”), and if you do it wrong you can cheat by surreptitiously coupé-ing one foot or just doing a little tendu, if you have time.
Of course, as soon as that becomes thoroughly hardwired, you’ll run into a teacher who throws in an occasional PdB without a change of feet, in which case you’ll find it edifying to know that basically everybody grits their teeth and prays when that sort of thing comes up, so don’t worry, it’s not just you.
- Reasonable enough, considering that the question suggests that I’m either profoundly intoxicated, deranged, an alien impersonating a human but not quite sure about the cookbooks t, or all three.
- Unless you’ve got a marching cadence running through your head, in which case you might reply, “Left … Left, right, left!” in which case, I don’t know but I’ve been told…
- Why a pug? Honestly, I have no idea. My inner world is a very strange place.
- The version in which you lift each foot precisely to cou-de-pied (which is usually short-handed as “coupé,” though technically coupé is an action rather than a position) while executing the whole movement on demi-pointe is called pas de bourée piqué, and if you want to see it in action, shows up in the female corps choreography in every Petipa ballet that I’ve ever seen.
- This is what makes “back, side, front” confusing. It’s telling you where to put your feet, but “back” and “front” are frequently used as shorthand for which foot in other contexts. It also doesn’t tell you where to start, which can be problematic, since either foot could end theoretically close back on the first count, but only one choice will lead you to end on the correct leg. There are few things as distressing as failing to change legs and proceeding to glissade directly into the person next to you.
First, a billion apologies. I set up a schedule and responded to it exactly how I typically respond to anything that’s more than I can handle: I missed a post, then balked at making the next one because I figured it would have to be really good, then just kept balking because I didn’t want to get myself back into something that was obviously kind of beyond me right now.
There you go.
I write best when I can be alone, and right now I have almost no alone time and I seem to spend 100% of the alone time I have doing laundry and dishes and otherwise trying to catch up on housework, which directly conflicts with writing since it involves using my hands. I’m not someone who can dictate into a voice recorder: my brain doesn’t work like that. If it did, I would probably be much better at actually talking to people, but maybe not as good at writing, so who knows.
Part of what makes it so difficult to write with other people around is that they don’t seem to understand that writing for me, requires a kind of uninterrupted focus that is literally impossible when someone insists on asking questions like, “What are you working on?”
Even if I don’t answer (which would be rude and would only invite even more questions), it takes my brain a long time to merge back into the stream. Likewise, the knowledge that I’m almost certain to be interrupted in this way makes it hard to establish concentration in the first place.
Today, we got out of rehearsal early, which is great for writing purposes. I also don’t have a rehearsal for The Other Thing I’m Doing (LBS’ Spring Collection), so I might even get some extra alone time tonight while D is at Trapeze and Acro (despite my fondness for combining them, these are two separate classes ^-^) … though I might go with him and do Acro instead. We’ll see.
Anyway. Add to the list of things I’ve leaned about myself this year: I might never feel 100% certain of myself during the rehearsal process, but once the curtain goes up it’s like I don’t know what uncertain means (except for the bit where I’m always vaguely paranoid that I’ll space out and miss my entrance).
Add also: I can enjoy the heck out of being a performer in an interactive game … but I’ll need a solid three days to recover afterwards. I could get through a multi-day run of that kind of thing, I’m sure, but the longer the run, the longer the break I’d need at the end. This past weekend was exactly that: Friday night, my Cirque company played the international spy collective in a spy game. Saturday, Sunday, and (to a lesser extent) Monday, I played, “Maybe if I squeeze my eyes shut hard enough the rest of humanity will disappear.”
I had a sore throat and a vicious headache on Saturday, so I used that as an excuse to spend most of the day in bed, aided and abetted by the fact that Actual Ballet Company wasn’t called for rehearsal and that I’d been exposed to Strep. Honestly, sometimes it feels amazing to do nothing for an entire day.
I came into this week feeling brighter and better rested than I have since … I’m really not sure when. My body hasn’t been running at 100% (as reflected in my worse-than-usual Petit Allegro), so I think I’m probably fighting off a cold or something, but dancing has felt pretty good. Except for Petit Allegro, and my inexplicable inability to do a balloté during a combination when it was just fine a moment before.
Or … well, not entirely inexplicable. I suspect that the balloté failure happened because we were running into it, and I have literally never done balloté from a run before in my life.
To make balloté work, you have to really brush the leading leg out as if you were going to do grand jeté, then snap it in through passé so it meets up with the back leg just as the back leg is at maximum height.
I kept running myself over, much as I used to do when running into Bournonville jetés. The result was more of a mutant pas de chat than a balloté, which was doubly annoying because balloté is a jump that I can usually do quite well.
Anyway, a mutant pas de chat is what happens when you try to balloté without brushing the leading leg straight out and jumping before you snap it back in. Or maybe more like a pas de araigneé morte.
There was also something that was supposed to be assemblé en tournant but became some kind of rotating pas de chat, so maybe I was just having a Pas De Chats Only kind of day. Except my actual petit allegro pas de chats were … erm. Not Good.
So that’s ballet for you. You never stop making mistakes, you just make fancier mistakes. You never stop having bad days, so you have to remind yourself that the bad day you’re having today would’ve been a fantastic day two or three years ago and a decent day last year.
- Like my lovely husband … to whom, it occurs to me now, I should explain all this, since he has this weird (but kinda sweet) policy of mostly not reading my blog because he wants it to be my thing.
- I can’t actually be more specific than that. Sometimes it’s 15 minutes; sometimes it’s hours. It Just Depends.
- Step of the dead spider. You’re welcome.
- I understand what happened there, at any rate. My thinking brain got ahead of my body, and I was thinking about the plié that was supposed to land the darned thing, and apparently attempted to plié in mid-air … because THAT makes sense! ^-^’
But first, inevitably, housekeeping.
So, it appears that I’ve chosen a terrible blog schedule. No big shocker there, really: we have long since established that I’m spectacularly terrible at figuring out how to manage time when left entirely to my own devices.
Given the opportunity to be fully in control of scheduling my own time and the requirement of actually making a schedule I’ll be able to follow, I would rather retire to a dark corner of a neglected closet and whimper. Nobody should be held accountable for adhering to a schedule concocted by a Golden Retriever with only the vaguest ideas about what’s important in life.
Control of my own time is fine; imagining how to block activities into that time? Ha. Surely, you jest.
So even though I’m only one week into the second half of our season, I’m scrapping my Monday-and-Saturday plan and starting over.
Partly, this is because I had forgotten that Saturday rehearsals run until 4 PM, but still entail being in class at 10, which means that Saturday is a very, very long day. By the time I get home, make dinner, and make at least a cursory effort in the general direction of cleaning up, the exact level of my mental capacity is Two Hours Of Half-Baked Attempts At Match-Three Games, or a similar period of reading something not-too-demanding and at least a little funny.
So, my apologies for banging out a terrible plan.
I think I’ll hold off for now on making bold prognostications about anything more ambitious than posting on Mondays, because Monday is the one day I actually have to myself, which means it’s the only day that I can write without (ahem!) Someone asking me annoying questions like, “What are you working on?” or “Is there any plan for dinner?” or “Do you smell smoke?”
I would really like to stick to a twice-per-week posting schedule. This might mean getting in the habit of bringing my tablet and bluetooth keyboard with me so I can write in the car on the way home or something, or posting (as I did the other day) from my phone during lunch break (though we have only 30 minutes, so we don’t all turn into statues). I’ll feel my way forward on that bit.
For the time being, I think I’ll refrain from declaring Monday’s posts to be strictly technical or otherwise. The Technical Note series is, however, one of my major goals, so that will probably comprise the majority of Monday posts. Go figure.
And now! On to the minutiae of the Hardest Easy Step, also known as balancé.
Balancé is, simply put, one of the most useful, frequent, and enjoyable steps in the entire canon of ballet technique.
It comes in any number of flavors (the usual forward, back, and to either side, but also en tournant in both “under” and “over” variants, etc).
It allows you to gracefully eat up time, change directions, show off your épaulement, and to actually feel and even look like you’re dancing, which (if I’m not mistaken) is kind of the whole point of ballet.
It is, unfortunately, also beastly hard to learn if nobody breaks it down sensibly (a trait shared with its close relatives, the prolific pas de bourrée clan and the waltz turn[2 again]).
I suspect that this boils down to the simple fact that all three of these steps involve three movements, while we humans have but two legs. On the other hand, almost evertyhing else in ballet (and especially petit allegro) would be thoroughly hellish with three legs, so we should definitely count our blessings. And, presumably, our legs (what has 64 legs and smells of Ben-Gay? The corps de ballet in La Bayadere! Thank you, I’m here all week … or, well, at least on Mondays).
Fortunately for us, both balancé and the waltz turn are also very frequently married to time signatures with a count divisible by 3 (most commonly 3/4 time)[3,4], with each movement of the step taking up one count.
Anyway, all too often, even good teachers don’t think to break balancé into its constituent parts for adult students, who (possibly because of the tendency to overthink things) often struggle with it.
So here’s how you break it down, according to a method taught to me by my friend, teacher, and mentor Brian Grant.
First: stand there in parallel. Exciting, right?
Second: march in place. SLOWLY.
You can speed it up later, but right now you want to march just fast enough that you can march rhythmically but with a fair bit of time between footfalls. Yes, this feels weird, and not even remotely at all like ballet, and definitely not like anything resembling 3/4 time … but we’ll get there.
Third: as you march, count out loud as follows: “1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3…”
For now, the stress goes on the 1. Don’t put the emphasis on the wrong syllable, as it were.
Each footfall gets one count. Suddenly, you’re marching in 3/4 time! Feel free to give that 1-count a good stomp. It’ll help with Step 6, and it’s also fun in a kind of “Monster Waltz” sort of way.
At this point, you’ll probably notice that the feet alternate on the 1-count. This is a useful observation as you continue to work on balancé and it supports another useful generality in the world of ballet, “What comes after left? Usually, right (and vice-versa).”
When you get comfortable with your rhythm, add an “And” after the 3.
The “and” does NOT get a footfall; it happens between footfalls. (This, btw, is why you want to march pretty slowly at first. We’re going to fill that “and” later on.)
Anyway. Fourth: turn your feet out and continue marching.
You’ll probably notice that stomp-marching in three while turned out makes your weight shift more noticeably than marching in parallel. Voilá—the rocking motion that characterizes balancé as a step! Now bring your feet into third or fifth position as you continue to march.
Sixth: this is the tricky part! Whichever foot is going to be next on the 1-count, brush it out to the side (just a little degagé here, not a grand battement) on the AND.
What should happen is that your weight follows that foot, so you’ll rock a bit more to that side, and the foot that hits the ground on the 2 closes either right behind or right in front.
Guess what else happens … you realize that you’re actually doing balancés!
If your weight doesn’t make it, or doesn’t make it all the way, just yet, don’t worry—you’ll get there. Your body and brain are busy negotiating the spatial relationships: “How do I step under myself without stepping on myself?”
The more you let your bossy, bossy prefrontal cortex take over, the harder this gets … so if M. Evolved Grey-Matter up front refuses to relinquish the reins, you might need to think about something else.
I suggest singing “Once Upon A Dream” as loudly as possible, partly because its tune is adapted from the Garland Waltz in Tchaikovsky’s score for The Sleeping Beauty and partly because if your neighbors still harbor any doubts about whether or not you’ve completely lost it, belting Disney tunes will definitely help.
You’ll notice that, in this post, I’m not actually terribly concerned about which foot goes first, whether the movement is avant or arriere, or anything ballet-technique-y like that. That’s because all those bits of data are variables of balancé.
You can add all that stuff with comparative ease once you’ve got a feel for the basic motor pattern of the step itself. It’s much harder to learn the basic motor pattern while trying to hold all those variables in your head.
If your teachers know what they’re doing with regards to teaching ballet for beginners, they’ll structure their combinations in such a way that you won’t have to think about which foot to brush. On the balance (see what I did there? :V), you almost never have to think about which foot to brush when you balancé. Generally, the choreography pretty much forces you to choose the correct foot. Once in a while, you might encounter an exception, but beginner’s classes shouldn’t put you in that position.
So that’s it: balancé not really “in a nutshell” (actually, rather the opposite), but broken down to its component parts and rebuilt.
I’ll try to do a video version of this as well, since this is one of the things that might actually be much easier to learn that way even for people who typically learn better by reading.
I hope this helps, and that if you’re currently struggling with balancé, you’ll soon come to love it as much as I do (it’s really one of my favorite steps … I’ve been known to get entirely carried away with the épaulement because I love it so much ^-^’).
And, as ever, never stop dancing.
- D doesn’t read my blog, so unfortuantely my attempt at Subtly Sending A Message is not going to work. I will have to actually Talk To Him Like A Grown-Up if I want to be allowed to write without interruption when we’re both home.
- Some people, including my AD, classify the traveling waltz turn as a species of balancé. I don’t, because the name “balancé” refers to the rocking motion of the step, whereas the traveling waltz turn is a gliding step. That said, I should really refer to Saint Agrippina: if she agrees with my AD, I will be forced to change my mind.
- You can use it in time signatures with even counts if they’re in “three-feel” and you do it quickly. And this entire argument is complicated by the fact that even 3/4 and 6/8 time are typically phrased into 8-counts in ballet choreography … oy vey.
- We’ll leave off with the infamous “pas de bou” out of the equation for now, since it is no slave to time singature and in fact often occupies only one beat.
- Fast balancés can be executed in one or two counts, but that’s sort of Moderately Advanced Topics in Balancés, and That’s Another Post.
- For our purposes, either is fine. In practice, you’re usually aiming for the “center” of your balancé to be fifth position, but you’ll get there eventually.
- Note that I’m not defining “help,” here. Interpret appropriately depending upon your individual neighbors.
“Let’s start at the very beginning: a very good place to start.”–Oscar Hammerstein II, “Do-Re-Mi” (from The Sound of Music)
Every now and then, L’Ancien reminds us that “fifth position is a lifetime study.”
And he’s right, of course–our bodies are constantly changing, adapting to the demands of our lives both inside and outside the studio.
I think the same can be said for first position. It’s simpler than fifth, but with fifth it forms the foundation of ballet technique.
If you think about it, all of ballet is built on the foundations of first and fifth. Second position grows directly out of first; third is preparatory to fifth; fourth, correctly executed, grows out of fifth (or, in the case of open fourth, third, but That’s Another Post).
As dancers, we spend a lot of time focusing on fifth, and less on first. But every rond de jambe, passe parre terre, and battement en cloche depends on passing through a true first position. So do a million other steps that build upon them.
Moreover, if your placement is off in first, you cheat yourself out of your best fifth … ask me how I know, heh. You also reduce your own ability to work efficiently through your feet, your turnout, and … basically, everything.
There’s a reason that first position is, you know … first. A stable, well-placed first position sets you up to succeed in second, fifth, and fourth. But what, exactly, even is a stable, well-placed first? Let’s kick off this series by dissecting first position with the tool that is an adult ballet student’s best friend and worst enemy—the rational, critical mind.
We tend to think of ballet positions from the feet upwards.
That makes perfect sense, really. To the untrained eye, the most noticeable difference between first position and, like, just standing there is that in first position, the toes stick out sideways instead of straight ahead (or, well, more or less straight ahead). Show the average untrained human a picture of first position, and that’s what they’ll notice first because, frankly, it’s kinda weird.
That said, turnout isn’t just about style. It’s a functional adaptation (though ballet technique in the modern era carries it to a stylized extreme). Among other things, it lets you gracefully slip sideways without tripping over yourself. It allows you the shift your weight sideways to bring the hip in line with the ball of the foot. It activates a broad array of muscles that stabilize you during balances and turns. It also makes you look fancy as heck, and who doesn’t want to look fancy?
First position is where we find our turnout. Fifth may be where we maximize it, but first is its home base.
Unfortunately, left to our own devices, our methods of feeling our way into first position are, all too often, wack. That’s the technical term, people. Work with me, here.
If you show a grown person with no ballet training first position, and then say, “Do this,” there are two highly-probable outcomes*.
*There aren’t the only possibilities, just the ones I’ve seen most.
First, there’s the classic “inside out” approach: for whatever reason, a certain percentage of otherwise intelligent human beings will attempt to emulate first position by touching their toes together and winging their heels out to the sides like a four-year-old who really, really needs to pee.
Obviously, this is wrong.
Second, there’s the “right but wrong” approach, which is probably(???) more common. This is the one where the would-be-dancer–or your Dad, or your Cousin Pat, or whatever poor schmuck you’ve roped into this experiment–rocks back on their heels and rotates their toes out to the side. This, too, is wrong, but for much subtler (and more persistent) reasons.
Given that this is a ballet blog and that you’re here, you can probably figure out why the “inside out” approach is wrong (though it does get one thing right–it usually forces the subject to pour weight into their toes).
But what’s so wrong with the other way?
The other way–the “right but wrong” way–pushes all of Cousin Pat’s weight into her heels. And while you do need some weight in your heels, you really don’t need that much.
Really, you need just enough weight in your heels to keep touching the ground. If you keep too much weight in your heels, you will find it much harder to work through your feet correctly, your weight will fall in the wrong places, and, perhaps surprisingly, you’ll block your own turnout.
I’ve realized that this is going to take a couple of posts to really dissect, so for now I’ll close here. Next time, we’ll take a closer look at the problems outlined above and how to solve them. I didn’t actually mean to write a dissertation on first position, but you know … ballet. What are you gonna do?
This week, I did some stuff well, some stuff really badly, and a lot of stuff somewhere in between. I nailed the overhead press lift. I didn’t fall over, drop anyone, or knock anyone else over, nor did I kick the audience in our show last night (it was in our building’s performance space, which is more like a ballroom kind of thing, so the audience sits in chairs along the wall).
To be fair, I would have to have REALLY messed up to kick the audience, as I’m mostly in the back in the stuff I’m in right now.
I’ve made a deal with myself. I’m a trainee, really; a company apprentice. So I’m here to learn, and I have a LOT to learn. Every time I’m tempted to make an excuse, then, I stop and ask myself, “Okay, so X is a thing that’s getting in the way. How can I solve that problem?”
I am still shy in person: like many introverts, I have trouble getting to know new people most of the time, and especially when most of them already know each-other. I’ve been letting that get in my way a little. This week, I decided it’s time to step up and ask about the choreography when I haven’t caught something or don’t remember something. So far, nobody has rolled their eyes and gone “O FFS HOW DO YOU NOT KNOW THAT?”
I have trouble processing spoken language, especially when I’m doing something, and especially especially in a big, echoey room. It’s just a function of how my brain works. There’s a bit more of a delay for me than for most people between when someone says something and when my brain works out what it was they said.
In class, I can deal with the echoey room part by standing closer to Mr D when he’s giving us a combination. In rehearsal, sometimes he tosses choreography at us from across the room while we’re standing where we finished the last bit, so I’ll have to work out a different strategy for that. I think just asking my fellow dancers is a good way to go; often, they have similar questions. Sometimes we just all look at each-other and shrug.
I’m … erm … moderate at remembering choreography.
I’ve realized that I’m worse at remembering choreography in group pieces than I am in other situations because you can’t not look at people (when there are 20 of you in a circle, you have to use your eyes if you’re going to avoidd kicking each-other in the face). When I’m looking at my fellow dancers, I tend to automatically follow them, and things don’t always make it into my long-term memory for some reason.
This means that I need to review like crazy on my own either in the studio or at home. Fortunately, I have video of the main thing I’m working on remembering.
Steps-wise, for some reason, it’s still the petite Sissones that do my head in. And, of course, knowing that makes me nervous, which prevents me from picking up the petite Sissone combinations correctly. Feck.
So obviously I need to practice the hecking heck out of petite-allegro stylie Sissones on my own. Ditto brisées. Other stuff is mostly coming together on its own, including fancy grand allegro things that I don’t know I can do until I’m throw into the deep and and just do them.
I need to come up with a strategy for sticking a pin in parts of dances that I don’t have when I’m reviewing and I don’t have video. Historically, I’ve dealt with those bits by getting stuck, which only trains you to get stuck. I queried one of my fb ballet communities for suggestions, and one of the best was coming up with some kind shorthand and writing down the choreography as soon we learn it (or at any rate as soon as possible). I think that will help, and it will also hep me understand where I’m missing bits.
Double tours are progressing, though I sometimes get frustrated and start doing them like I’m angry and then Mr D says, “Easy …. easy.” But I’m remembering to spot them more reliably (it occurred to me that it’s impossible to count your revolutions if you don’t spot!) and to go Full Pencil most of the time.
I’m also remembering to jump from the ground up, which is a function of working on snapping into Pencil Mode. In case you’re wondering, attempting to disconnect your upper body from your lower body and toss it into the air under its own power doesn’t actually improve your jumps.
Repeat to yourself, “THE LEGS LIFT THE BODY.”
Like all jumps, double tours begin with pliés. Everything squinches down to load the sproings, and then the reaction of the loaded sproings launches the jump from the ground up. You let the legs lift the hips (this was a David Reuille thing). Then you let the hips lift the body, in part by keeping everything attached and not turning into a slinky.
I’m going to have to get with someone who is relatively fearless about partnering and work on assisted turns, because I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING.I would not have expected to be like, “Yah, the lifts are the easy part,” but actually they kind of are? I mean, as long as your partner doesn’t turn into a sack of potatoes. Lifting even 120 pounds of potatoes is about a billion times harder than lifting even 150 pounds of dancer.
On the other hand, I have rather a lot of experience lifting other humans and absolutely none spinning girls in pointe shoes around with my hands. I’m afraid I’m going to knock someone over. On the other, other hand, Mr D announced after Friday’s parade of all the boys spinning various girls in pointe shoes that we’ll be working on that a lot more. Also, I think I’ll be ordering the other half of the set of books on partnering of which I for some reason only have volume 2, which very reasonably assumes you already know how to do the basic stuff.
Also, I suck at the promenade version of the same, for the same reasons.
But I guess that means I can’t actually get worse at it, so there’s that?
If I was less shy, I would just ask S or C or L, all of whom know more about this whole partnering thing than I do, having actually been formally trained in it instead of just experiencing the patchwork of, “Here, do this,” and occasionally, “Oh, and you do it like this!” that makes up my partnering background ^-^’
I’m also working on solving problems like: I have sound upper-back flexibility, so why does my cambré derriere suck a lot of the time? Mr D demonstrated to me that I can basically fold myself like a napkin if someone just runs a hand up the underside of my arm, so … huh. I think the problem is that I get tense and wind up working against myself, so I’m going to have to figure that out.
Also, I need to get my head coordinated with everything. It’s still a bit intermittent, whereas it needs to be automatic. I need to train it so I don’t have to go, “Oh, yeah, use your head” (in the ballet sense ^-^’). Ditto my arms, which are getting better but still sometimes forget to do anything.
So there you go. All I have to do is learn the rest of how to be a professional dancer by the middle of December. No pressure ^-^’
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. This is easiest to feel in a second-position grand plié, possibly because it’s really important in terms of stability.
- 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.
- 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.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.
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.
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 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?
- 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.”
- 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
- 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?
- 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, but it’s only now that I feel like I understand what the hecking heck I’m actually trying to accomplish.
- 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.
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 to discuss this in class several times, and have realized that there are several factors involved, one of which is my shoulder and back.
- Which is to say, been forced on pain of receiving The Look…
I mean, think about it. How do you a fouetté? 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!
- 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.
- 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.
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 is another part of the reason that my turns are so bleeding inconsistent.
- …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.
And I don’t mean like, “Hey guys, what’s up?”
I mean, like, seriously—what even is “UP,” anyway?!
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.
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.
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.
So! Disregarding the fact that the construction crane is A] in the Don’t column and B] illustrating an entirely different point, here, it actually makes an excellent illustration of a further point.
- …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.