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.