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.
Yesterday, I posted this picture of my “Itty Bitty Cambré Committee” cambré derrière:
I shot it in our bathroom, and I wasn’t exactly attempting excellent technique, but I figured I’d go ahead and make an example of myself anyway.
- My usual cambré derrière is pretty deep—like, shoulderblades-parallel-to-floor deep, basically. This is, more techically, a really bad high release. My modern teacher would poke me in the ribs.
- To wit: it’s surprisingly hard, actually, to hold the mobi in one hand and execute cambré derrière with the other arm en bas, or wherever the hell my arm actually was (maybe I left it in the other room?). I should at least have gone for what BG calls the “Margot Fonteyn,” with the free arm in a nice, languid romantic fourth.
You can’t see much of my back, here, but I can tell you based on the fact that my ribs aren’t locked down that I’m doin’ it rong.
That said, I’m not going to focus on my back (in no small part because so little of it is visible): instead, I’m going to focus on One Weird Trick… erm, I mean, one key point about cambré back that I’m demonstrating all the way wrong, here, and that’s this:
Avoid The Dreaded Noodle Neck =:O
When you first start learning cambré back (formally: cambré derrière), your teacher will almost certainly tell you to bring your working arm to fifty-third … I mean third … I mean fifth … ah, feck it, en haut and to turn your face towards its elbow before you begin to bend your back.
This is not solely because it looks cool, though it does. In fact, turning the head towards the working arm serves a practical purpose—it’s mostly a preventive measure.
What, then, does it prevent?
Glad you asked. What it prevents, my gentle reader, is the dreaded Noodle Neck.
“Noodle neck” may or may not be a technical term I laboriously translated from the Russian (шея лапшой … okay, okay, so I just ran “noodle” and “neck” through Google Translate and swapped the order because Assumptions About Grammar). Regardless, it’s a kind of “indicator species” fault that suggests a whole litany of problems further down the chain.
Simply put, it refers to the habit of letting one’s neck arch (or “crunch”) when performing the cambré back.
As you can now easily see thanks to my use of Ultra-Modern Technology, in the photograph above, my neck is definitely arched (Even though my head is turned! I’m talented, y’all.).
- AKA MSPain(t)
Instead of continuing to pull up through the crown of my head, I’m flopping languidly about like the heroine of some outdated romance novel, presumably waiting for the nobell laird to decide he’s had enough of murdering the MacAuleys and come ravage me instead. Or, um. Something like that.
Not to say languidity doesn’t have a place in the art of ballet. It totally does. If you’re not sure, the next time the Bolshoi does La Dame aux Camélias in its HD broadcast series, you should really go see it. The Bolshoi really knows how to get its languid on, and there’s a lot of opportunity for “languiding” (as a friend of mine from CirqueLouis calls it) in that particular ballet.
However! In cambré derrière, one must languid judiciously. It’s poor form to let the head dangle, and besides, it usually means you’re not really engaged all the way down (QV my embarassingly-splayed ribs).
Noodle Neck is also often a sign that one is attempting to initiate or artificially deepen one’s cambré by crunching the neck rather than lifting up through the full range of motion—which, in my experience, usually results from not actually knowing how to execute cambré derrière in the first place.
If you’re wondering what cambré derrière should actually look like, here:
There may be some small measure of Noodle Neck happening, there, but overall it’s quite a good cambré derrière.
You’ll notice that our intrepid danseur‘s ribs aren’t sticking out like jocks at a fandom convention, and that you can draw a smooth arc from his hip through the top of his head with no precipitous drop-off near the top. There is no “crunching” at any point along the way—speaking of which, a “crunch” most often shows up in the lower back or the neck (or, distressingly, both at the same time). I, on the other hand, like to crunch at the point right where the ribs end, because I’m special.
Both BG and BW would, of course, yell at notre danseur mystérieux for letting his hips drift forward of his feet—but it’s better, in cambrés as a whole, to drift forward than backward.
Ultimately, although turning the head to look at the elbow is a useful shortcut when one is beginning to learn cambré derrière, only technique will prevent Noodle Neck.
What, then, is the technique in question?
Simple (HA! note that I did NOT say “easy”):
You should not, at any point, cease to lift through the very tippity-top of your head (or, if you will, your “cheetah eyes“). Sure, if you’re flexible, you can do a full-on back bend just by flopping over backwards—but a floppy backbend is a recipe for injury in the long run. It also isn’t ballet.
“Lift,” by the way, is really shorthand for “Engage All The Things!”
Cambré derrière looks like it happens from the top of the head, but the engagement involved runs all the way down to the floor.
The action of lifting comes primarily from the muscles of the core. (Sadly, though mine continue to try, the eyebrows have little to do with it.) There is not, in fact, an invisible hook in the top of your head; rather, you’re technically pushing up rather than pulling up. It just looks and feels like pulling up. As such, I find it helpful to think in terms of lifting rather than pulling.
LWF describes the action of high-releases and cambrés derrières in terms of roller-coaster cars on a climb: the are lifted smoothly, each car drawing the next in its wake. All the cars remain connected, and they move together smoothly up the track.
You definitely do not want the lead car (that is, your head) to fall off the track. That’s a good way to get sued.
How, exactly, you wrangle all of this mentally in order to achieve the right process may vary—but I’ll be happy to blether on about the mental image that works for me (the one that I patently did not execute in the picture above):
- Lift through the top of the skull whilst sending the weight down through the heels (or, if on demi-pointe, through the appropriate metatarsals and toes)
- Lift the sternum (without letting the shoulders creep up)
- Keep lifting THROUGH THE CORE until there is nowhere to go but back
- Convincing the sternum to act independently of the shoulders is one of the most difficult challenges for many new dancers. Unfortunately, I have yet to figure out an effective way to explain in words exactly how to achieve this feat of human dexterity.
Because the human body is shaped the way it is, if you try to lift UP as you send your weight down, you will eventually be forced to bend your back through a smooth curve.
It’s that or tear yourself into two pieces, which never actually happens in ballet classes. Or, well … hardly ever.
So, in review, here are some things to know about cambré derrière:
- Connect from the top of the head right down to the flooor
- Send the weight DOWN
- Lift the spine UP starting from the top of the head (NOT the back of the head)
- Allow the body to carry itself over an imaginary roller-coaster climb
- If you notice a point where you’re “crunched” in your spine, it usually reflects a point at which you’re disengaged in your core
One last note: a really deep cambré derrière demands both flexibility and strength. If you’re bendy by nature, but not particularly strong, do not be surprised if your cambré derrière is quite shallow at first.
This doesn’t mean you’ve lost your flexibility; just that you have a good teacher who allows you to take your cambré derrière only as far as you can support it correctly.
Don’t despair. Depth will come with time, as you develop the strength to support your inborn suppleness.
If, on the other hand, you’re strong but stiff, you will probably develop greater flexibility over time, but you probably won’t be surprised if your initial cambré derrière is nothing to write home about.