Or, well … two pictures of one balance. Same thing.
Ballet, as I’ve mentioned before, is an art of ever-receding goalposts. You might also say that they’re ever-shrinking goalposts: smaller, and thus harder to spot, and thus harder to hit–but just as important.
This entire post will be devoted to what might seem, to someone who doesn’t dance, like a distinction of no importance–a goalpost minuscule to the point of vanishing. A mere quibble.
But, hang about! I’m about to explain why the differences between the two pictures at the top of this post, which seem nearly invisible until you spot them, but which cannot be unseen once you do, are incredibly important.
But first, let’s zoom in a little.
If you noticed that, in the right-hand image, I look like I have a potbelly, you’ve caught at least one! And since I didn’t go and stuff myself with pancakes between these two pictures–in fact, I didn’t go anywhere at all; they’re literally seconds apart during the same actual balance–I’m afraid I can’t blame breakfast.
So what, then, is the cause of this apparent potbelly?
On the left, the top of my pelvis is essentially parallel to the floor. My tailbone is reaching down without tucking under, and my ribs and hips are connected by the line of my core … or, well almost. If you look really closely, you can actually see that I’m not quite entirely pulled up between ribs and pelvis, which is part of why everything has gone pear-shaped on the right.
On the right, my tailbone is sticking out towards the wall behind me, and the top of my pelvis is pointing forward and down.
At any moment in a normal person’s life, this sort of thing isn’t necessarily a huge problem. It can predispose you to back pain, but other than that, it’s probably not going to interfere all that much.
At any moment in a dancer’s working life, however, it’s a huge hecking deal, because it opens the door for two huge problems:
- Instability: your balances, turns, and just about everything else will be both more difficult than they have to be and, ultimately, worse than they have to be.
- Turnout: with my pelvis angled forward, I’m actually blocking my own turnout o_O’
This second point is more important than it might sound. Turnout in ballet isn’t just decorative: rather, it’s functional. Ballet technique is built on the ability to hold turnout, and if your pelvis is doing wacky things that interfere with your turnout, those things become harder to do.
Let’s take another look at that picture, with a few more marks to illuminate things:
Let’s start from the bottom.
On the left, you can see that I’m both well over the ball of my foot (which is showing off the entire reason I have a job in ballet at all–that arch and instep, right there). If you look closely, you can also see quite a bit of the underside of my shoe, indicating that my turnout is working.
On the right, I’ve fallen backwards, so I’m having to work really hard to stay on a lower demi-pointe. My hips are no longer stacked over the ball of my foot, so I’m forced to hold myself together by muscular effort, instead of allowing bones and gravity to do their job.
Just as importantly, the underside of my shoe is barely visible. My standing-leg turnout is pretty much nil right there.
Moving up to knee height, on the left, my free leg is cranked out close to flat. I’m not at my maximum turnout (or at my maximum retire height … BW would yell at me if he was here ^-^’), but the turnout I’m using here is both respectable and sustainable (in the sense that it’s a degree of turnout that I can readily maintain throughout an exercise or a dance).
On the right, my knee has crept forward. This is the most subtle difference, but it’s there all the same. The angle of my pelvis is making it difficult for me to hold my turnout–blocking it not with bones, but with physics. The angles make it harder for my muscles to keep me positioned on my standing leg without rotating the legs inward.
From mid-hip through just below my arm, on the left, everything is basically one unbroken rectangle (except for a little bit of rounding at the front–a harbinger of things to come, I’m afraid). I’m actually carrying my upper body a little too far back, though not drastically so … or it wouldn’t have been drastic if I’d actually succeeded in keeping my core engaged.
On the right, I’m decidedly swaybacked, but since the shirt I’m wearing makes that hard to see, it winds up looking like I’ve got a potbelly. There’s enough arch in my back to make it very difficult for me to recover without first coming down from the balance.
Lastly, on the left, my eyeline is level. On the right, I’m doing what horse people call “stargazing.” (Interestingly, swaybacked horses do this just like swaybacked people do. It’s almost like all the bones are attached to each-other by muscles, tendons, and ligaments! ^-^’)
I can’t express how incredibly important a level eyeline is.
Heads are heavy, and if you lift your gaze too high, it tends to send your head and everything attached to it backwards. The result tends to be that the pelvis rotates forward and down in an effort to counterbalance the head.
That might not be a recipe for disaster when you’re sitting in an office chair (though, again, it does tend to lead to back pain down the road), but when you’re trying to pirouette, it most certainly is. If I tried an en dedans with the balance on the right as a starting point, I’d fold up like a cheap umbrella.
Anyway, I hope you find this comparison as illuminating as I have. Now I need to dash off and teach a few Zoom classes, so if you’ll excuse me…
After a really quite good class tonight, I asked BW for some input on ballet goals.
After we tossed a few ideas back and forth (yes, the coordination/port de bras/artistry/épaulement idea got the nod), as we were looking for at least one really concrete thing, he said, “Balances—how long can you hold your passé balance?”
And I said, “Heh, erm, well … probably not as long as I should be able to…”
And he said, “Well … how about holding your passé balance with no hands on the barre for 8 seconds by the end of the year?”
And I agreed that that’s a good goal, especially since I can already do exactly that inconsistently. The idea is to be able to do it consistently … which will, in turn, help with, erm, turns (spotspotspotspotspotspot!!!).
This led to BW saying, “You should definitely be able to get there. You have the body for it.”
Which was awfully nice. It is really rather lovely to have the right kind of body for anything in the universe of classical ballet, in particular balances, since they’re so essentially to basically everything else.
In other news, tonight’s class was the first one since I came back that really felt good all the way through … Except maybe the part where I did second arabesque at barre with my supporting foot on an unused facial tissue that had escaped from my reserve … BW was like, “ASHER TURN OUT YOUR SUPPORTING LEG MORE HEEL FORWARD” and I was mentally like I’M TRYING BUT OMG IT’S SO SLIPPERY … but OTOH I actually did manage to turn that leg out, tissue or no tissue.
Everything was working together, coordination was coming along nicely, and I was finally able to detect the existence of those little muscles under my butt that make everything work like “Boom-ba-doomboom-boom-ba-doomboom…” um, sorry, wrong musical thought.
I’m nailing nice floaty doubles on the regular both directions at this point, and surprising triples out of the bush, so triples and quads will be back soon enough.
To be honest, even chaînés felt good tonight, and my piqués felt boss, though I got excited and got ahead of the music and had to reel them in. BW likes to run us through an exercise that’s just four piqués and four counts of chaînés on repeat, which is nice.
It’s simple, but allows you to focus on the most awkward thing in the entire canon of classical ballet, AKA chaînés. There’s a reason that you begin learning chaînés in your very first class and keep working on the for the rest of your dog-forsaken life.
I got the facings right on the tendu-et-turns thing every single time, too, which made me feel amazing, and my assemblés actually assembled, and I mostly managed to keep my chest and shoulders open. It also changed directions with a glissade, which makes me indescribably happy. I love following any kind of turn with a glissade, and this exercise ended with: single en dehors, soutenu turn, glissade.
I realized during today’s simple-but-hard (because only in ballet…) fondu that I’ve been releasing my shoulderblade at certain points in my port de bras. That might not sound like a big deal, but it’s shorthand for saying that I’m disengaging my lats and traps, thus closing off my own lines. Derp. Predictably, I do it because it feels like doing something, when in fact what I should be doing really doesn’t feel like doing anything. Which, because I am flexible, is basically how many things feel.
Lastly, I’ve got my really nice sauté arabesque back. For a while I kept sort of running over myself: then I figured out (thanks to a brief word with BG that was actually about cabriole, but the principle is the same) that I was trying to land my sauté arabesque by bringing my leading leg back under myself instead of letting my body follow its momentum.
This, in turn, led to doing this screwy thing in which I feel for the floor with my foot and halfway release my turnout. Blargh.
Needless to say, once I focused on letting the leg go where it was going, instead of trying to reel it back in, things got about a thousand percent better.
I’m trying to retain the lovely feeling of dancing that I caught in Killer Class yesterday. Thus far, I think I’m succeeding. Every time my brain starts to go THIS IS HARD AND MY BUTT HURTS, I go, “But we’re dancing!” (or should it be, “Butt, we’re dancing!”) and it makes me smile and I relax a little, which helps get my shoulders back out of my ears.
So that was class tonight, along with the first of my concrete ballet goaaaaaaaaallllllllls for 2018.
Third in a series of posts on the details of technique that focuses primarily on steps and aspects of dance that I’m struggling with. Take it with a grain of salt.
I find it helpful to write things out in an effort to get a grip on them. These aren’t so much instructions (though if they work for you, awesome!) as observations.
I’ve written a bit before about the often-ridiculous relationship between hypermobility, proprioception, and one’s extremities. In this post, I’ll take a closer look at that relationship—and especially on how it pertains to balances (rather than to balancés).
To sum things up, proprioception(1) is the vastly under-celebrated sixth sense that tells us, among other things, where in space our body parts are relative to one-another. It depends in part on stretch receptors that hang out in the muscles and joint capsules.
- Wikipedia actually has a pretty good article explaining what proprioception does, why it’s important, and how it works.
Hypermobility, meanwhile, is a catch-all term for conditions in which one’s connective tissues are more elastic than average. In dance, this is both a blessing (see: Woot! Extensions!) and a curse (see: OMG WHERE EVEN IS MY BODY RIGHT NOW?!).
This, of course, makes perfect sense if you think about it. Dance demands both a huge range of motion and highly-developed proprioceptive faculties. Hypermobility enhances range of motion(2), but it reduces proprioception(3).
Moar behind the cut, because this is really long!