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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.

Teaching Adult Beginners: They Grow Up So Fast!

My Sunday class is making amazing strides — their tendus, dégages, and even ronds de jambe looked so great this week.

I also experienced one of those great moments in which I grabbed a student’s leg and demonstrated how rotation and placement could help her A) keep her RdJs smooth and B) balance her arabesque, and then got to see that amazing thing where the light-bulb inside just clicks on.

And then she did it again, completely on her own, without my meddlesome, grabby hands 😀

That was the best part, and really the highlight of the day. Such a cool moment!

I also guided her into a first arabesque (really, I just offered her my hand so she’d extend her arm to the right spot) so she could feel how the working leg and opposite arm connect through the back and counter-balance each-other, and she totally got it.

(Also, her arabesque looked awesome! Her back is really strong and flexible, which really helps — thanks, aerials! Likewise, because she wasn’t fighting to try to get a super-high extension, she was rock-solid.)

Something I’ve learned through my own experiences returning to ballet and teaching:

New dancers don’t just find it hard to locate the center-line of their bodies when the working leg is to the rear.

They also (and perhaps more importantly) often find that working to the center-line seems a little weird, unnatural, and sometimes even scary … until they try it and it clicks!

For me, that light-bulb moment came when I realized that I could keep my turnout more easily and effectively in RdJs if I really got the working leg all the way back to the center-line, and then that the same applied to tendus. This happened more recently than it should have, if I were better at A) listening and B) applying corrections :/

Prior to that moment, I guess I kind of felt like I’d lose my turnout that way. Sometimes, ballet can be pretty counter-intuitive.

If you’re engaging all the (right) things, though, drawing the arc of the RdJ or the line of the tendu right freaking back from the tailbone lets you stay turned-out without lifting (or dropping) a hip.

(That, by the way, is the other part that’s hard for people: they feel like they need to lift that hip even when they don’t. Which, if they’re using correct technique and working within the ever-evolving limits of their own bodies, they shouldn’t at this level, or almost ever.)

This is still one of the best ways I know to gauge my own placement: if my working leg is taking too much weight in a tendu to the rear, or I’m hiking a hip in a RdJ en dedans, usually the problem is that I’m not getting my working leg behind myself.

Exception: if my pelvis is jammed — which happens with ridiculous frequency at the moment because Bodies Are Weird™ — I can’t RdJ without lifting the hip on the jammed side (very nearly always the right).

Instead, my working leg is usually kind of camping out in … I don’t know, 2.5-ième position? Working back to the center line by rotating and reaching generally resolves the related problems.

In some ways, and as much as part of me really hates to admit it (in part because I feel weird in third because I use it so rarely), I feel like this is a really good reason to teach adult beginners to work in third position before introducing fifth.

Then, when they come to tendu derrière  or RdJ derrière, they have to think about moving the working leg in towards the center line (by rotating the heel forward and adducting, of course, rather than just by unraveling the working hip, letting the knee point to the floor, and shoving the toes over), which creates the opportunity to feel the difference that it makes when that happens.

Working from fifth, new dancers often tend to let their legs turn in when they extend back (see above re: unraveling, etc.).

Likewise, they often finish an RdJ or point a tendu a little to the side when working from fifth with the working foot closed in back — possibly because early on that seems like the only logical way to get your foot out there.

Later, of course, we get better at pulling up through the pelvic floor and lower core (also known as “pulling up through the hips” :D) and placing our weight to keep the working foot free when it’s in back — but early on, really subtle core cues and weight shifts are anything but intuitive.

With a little hands-on guidance, the sensation of bringing the leg back to the center line through (for example) a rond, on the other hand, can become a powerful physical illustration.

I doubt my student, C, will soon forget what it felt like to “get it” any more than I’ve forgotten.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that she’ll be perfect all the time — but it does mean she’ll be more perfect a lot more of the time, because now she has a memory that connects body and brain through the awesome feeling of an “Ah-hah!” moment.

In other news, the class as a whole is coming on like a house on fire.

Today we worked piqué balances at retiré going across the floor, and so many of them were bang on. It’s really cool to see a group of new dancers experience the thrill of springing on to the supporting leg and being able to just hover there, perfectly balanced, then come down.

We gave them a simple combination: piqué balances at retiré along the diagonal, to the count of:

Brush up – stay – stay – stay – down up – stay – stay – stay – down up – stay – stay – stay 

(..etc. The number of piqué balances varied based both on the length of any individual dancer’s legs and how willing she was to really step out beyond herself.)

On the first run, we let them try it on their own. A few really nailed it, but several were shaky because, as is often the case, they felt unsure and tried to bring the supporting leg under themselves instead of launching themselves onto the supporting leg.

(Really, it’s kind of like throwing a BBQ skewer into the lawn — I’m not old enough to have experienced proper lawn darts, so I can’t say that’s exactly spot-on. Either way, that’s the image I should give them: your leg is a lance, and you’re spearing a reclining mammoth … or maybe something flatter, like a giant crocodile.)

1024px-Lawndarts

What could possibly go wrong? (1)

On the second run, we simply rolled out the very-most-basic partnering, offering them a hand on which to steady themselves. Most of them literally put no weight on the hand in question, but knowing it was there made them feel safe, and the piqued more boldly.

So, lesson of the day for me: hesitant piqué balances might be the result of a little bit of fear. With new dancers, a little hand-holding (or, well, hand-offering) can really help.

(With more experienced dancers, though, yelling works just fine :D)

Anyway, that’s it for now. Sadly, I won’t be checking in with my students next week, as I’ll be off in the desert, doing tendus in the pool (and then building a freaking enormous theme camp at Burning Man).

~

Edit: fixed a thing. I don’t know why I was thinking these piqué balances were at coupé. They were at retiré. We’re planning on teaching these guys piqué turns sometime soon.

Further edit: just so you don’t think my Sunday class is really, really perfect, we still have to remind them about thinking of plié as a continuous movement. Today I explained this as:

Don’t drop and pop — melt and … um … smelt. Yeah, we’ll go with “smelt.”

Thank dog that Aerial A backed me up on that mnemonic 😀

Further, further edit: They have definitely turned into a dance class. Before class today, several them were attempting to figure out pirouettes (and kinda-sorta succeeding: they were upright, weren’t falling over, and were getting around, but they weren’t turned out or spotting).

Kinda warms my heart a little 😀

~


  1. By Mushy [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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