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How You Get There

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[1]. This is easiest to feel in a second-position grand plié, possibly because it’s really important in terms of stability.

  1. 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[2].

  1. 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.

art artistic bright color

They told me I could be anything, so I became a pencil. [Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com]

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.

Hi.

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.

A Very Brief Thought On Double Tours

Something I can’t recall just made me think about a jump we used in Orpheus. 

It was a variant on the barrel turn that traveled through the air: you launched yourself facing one direction, then tucked the knees as you turned in the air to face back where you started. That is to say, it resembled a barrel turn, but the axis of the turn was vertical (meaning that you execute it horizontally … this is all quite confusing, written out like this, isn’t it?).

The overall effect was that of gliding through space, pivoting as you go.

Which is, if you think about it, very like a tour as well, excepting the fact that tours don’t travel[1]. Or, well, they shouldn’t, and they try not to.

  1. Clearly, this is why the Tour de France is always in France[2] and not, for example, Costa Rica.
  2. The fact that it travels around France is completely immaterial, and if you disagree with me, you’re wrong, so there 😛

Anyway, I never had the least bit of trouble executing that given turny jump, which we’ll call a “floating barrel” because it amuses me. Indeed, it was quite easy enough to milk it for an extra revolution and a half, since you had a great deal of time as you sailed sideways through the air. 

What made executing that jump so painless was simply that one executed it as three basic steps:

  • launch
  • sail
  • turn

Just now, I realized that I have, in point of fact, probably been screwing myself out of a solid double tour by conceiving of it as this rather desperate one-step process:

  • jumpturnohg-d

It might, in fact, help immensely if I thought of it just as I thought of our floating barrel:

  • launch
  • then turn

I am going to have to try this. Between that and not throwing my head back (which has never improved anybody’s ballet technique), I’m hoping I’ve got this licked.

Finally, a Mostly-Good Class

mostly-dead

From The Princess Bride, via blatant heckin bamboozlery.

First of all: THANK FREAKING G-D. I have broken my week-long streak of disastrous classes, FINALLY.

Today in BW’s class, I was not a giant freaking disaster area.

I did not feel weak.

I did not forget every single combination (in fact, I managed to remember all but one of them, though for some bizarre reason I kept doing inside-out turns on one of them).

I did not feel horribly nervous or completely unworthy of BW’s tutelage and as such didn’t spend have the class talking, though I did ask several clarifying questions (another really nice thing about private class).

My legs didn’t fall off and my foot didn’t start screaming at me.

…Which is good, because it was, once again, the All Asher, All The Time show.

When you’re having a terrible week day, nothing will make you feel worse than a private class.

When you’re having a fairly decent day … erm … well, you’ll probably come out of your private class feeling fairly decent.

Today definitely fell into that zone: I can tell I’m making progress, but the goalposts keep moving, so I keep thinking I’m so bad at this one thing, but I also think, I’m way better at this other thing.

I wouldn’t say that I’ve got 100% of my strength back, but I’m also not sure that’s accurate. Were it accurate, I think the 8-8-4-4-2-2 grand battement would’ve killed me.

In case you’re wondering, that particular grand battement is fairly hard, but still not as hard as Rayevsky’s which, if I remember correctly, went: 8 front, 8 back-inside, 8 side, 8 back, 8-front inside, 8 side, EFFING DETOURNE, straight into the other freaking side. Honestly, I feel like I’m probably missing something in there. Regardless, it’s clear that Mr. R wants his dancers strong—and he teaches with enough precision to warrant it.

In the hands of an ineffective teacher, that combination could easily become a turnout-destroying exercise in futility, but Mr. R is one of those teachers who have 27 pairs of X-ray vision-equipped eyes arrayed all over their heads so they can call you out on failing to engage one wee finger of your deep rotators even when they’re looking at someone at the far end of the barre.

Edit: I suspect invisible eyestalks may be involved.

BW also teaches with that kind of precision. I am still totally in awe of the moment when he shot me exactly the right correction with his back to me and no mirror for guidance.

Anyway, I think I’m in that in-between zone: kind of between levels. I’m working on sustaining higher extensions and so forth, and that requires a greater degree of strength in the supporting leg. I’m working on cleaner, sharper, turns with higher turn counts[1], which requires a better spot and more accurate placement[2].

  1. …Though, today I was just having a remedial “don’t turn the wrong freaking way” kind of day. There were singles and doubles and one triple, and that was fine, since we were aiming for precision.
  2. …And a steady supporting leg, which in my case also comes down to strength—or, more accurately, the balance of strength, as do extensions. BW noted that, for me, the challenge is balancing the extreme mobility of my hips and the natural strength of my quads by strengthening the rotators and other muscles that oppose the quads. Basically, I need to work on my butt. Even more. And not ever do anything extra with my quads, period, end of story. He might not have actually said that second bit, but it’s kind of implied?

We also managed to get our petit and medium-ish allegro on, though we skipped entrechats this week. BW was pleased with my changements, which we’ve been modifying to improve my tours[3].

  1. This works because ballet is systematic and sequential: sus-sous balance begets soutenu turn and soubresaut, which in turn begets changement. Soutenu turn and changement together, combined with a strong plié, beget tours and then double tours (or, if you’re me, 1.5 tours >.<).

BW has a way of saying to me, when we are in the midst of Accidentally Private Men’s Class,We do this this way…” and then explaining some subtle point of men’s technique and what makes that subtle point important.

A solid double-tour requires that one’s legs squeeze together and stay there through the change of feet and through the rest of the jump, essentially because physics.

If you ever had the opportunity to play on one of those rotating tire swings as a kid, you probably remember that you could make it spin faster by tucking yourself into a ball or slower by stretching out and leaning outwards.

If you’ve done dance trapeze, lyra, rope, or any of the other free-spinning aerial circus apparatus that allow it, you also know that you can create insanely fast spin by making yourself into a vertical line that runs right up and down the vertical axis of the spin.

The same principle applies to tours: the closer everything stays to the vertical axis, the faster you can turn.

You can’t have your calves flapping around when you have to rotate twice around your own vertical axis before you land (facing the correct direction). That means you have to snap-squeeze your legs right the heck in from the tips of your toes to the tops of your thighs[4].

  1. …So if you’re a dude and you’re going to work on double tours, wear your best dance belt (and a smile, I guess?).

To build this habit, you do a billion changements in which you do not snap the legs out and bring them back (as pretty as that is), but instead sort of pivot them around each-other as you would in the midst of a soutenu turn[5].

  1. This is moderately counter-intuitive, because in a soutenu turn it doesn’t feel like that’s happening … but it is.

Anyway, that’s about all the braining I can manage tonight.

The funny part is that I remembered our medium-ish allegro combination, but still proceeded to do it wrong because my brain would not engage. It ended with assemblé back no change, assemblé changé. That assemblé back no change tripped me up soooo many times, because (like every dancer on earth) I do assemblé changé a lot more often.

In the end, though, I ran it until I got it right, which is another nice perk of flying solo in class. If you need to get a thing down, you can drill it ’til ya kill it.

Anyway, I’m taking an extra class tomorrow in honor of BG’s birthday, and then the usual assortment of weekend shenanigans, and then it’s onto my self-imposed Dancer’s Hell Week; my wee Choose Your Own Intensive.

You guys, I cannot believe it’s June already!!!!!!!

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