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Par L’Ancien: Everything Begins With The Supporting Leg

The past few weeks have been crazy and demanding and rewarding and annoying and full of challenges and problems and triumphs and complete, abysmal failures … but overall more triumphs than failures.

Last weekend, we were in Cleveland, where I took a masterclass with Hubbard Street Dance. The weekend before that was HappyBirthday. The weekend before that, I was up to my neck in rehearsals.

This week, I had two rehearsals and only two ballet classes prior to today’s. Last night I made my debut as an actor-who-gets-to-talk in the third chapter of Fabled Fragments. There was also quite a bit of physical theater, made significantly more challenging by the fact that I hadn’t had a chance to rehearse with the acres of voluminous fabric that I had to wrestle on stage.

Today it was back to class with L’Ancien after almost a month. His advice to me today (besides not staring into the mirrror and second guessing-myself so freaking much: “You’ve done this a hundred thousand times; you’ve got a good brain…”) was simply to focus on the standing leg.

In the midst of all this, I encountered a kind of revelation: the height of one’s extensions depends a great deal more on the standing leg than on the free leg.

Chances are you know that already. But for the like five people out there in the world going lolwut?, here’s an explanation.

Señor BeastMode (who has also moved on … everything is changing, you guys! … but who has left us with an excellent teaching staff for the upcoming year) used to remind us that:

Proximal Stability equals distal mobility.

Wise words, those.

They’ve greatly improved a number of things about my technique, but somehow I hadn’t really applied that maxim to my extensions in adagio.

Was I afraid that if I thought about my standing leg too much, I’d lock myself down? Maybe, but probably not.

Instead, like most people, I was thinking entirely about my free leg.

Here’s the thing, though: the free leg can’t be free unless the standing leg is rooted and solid from the ground to the top of your head.

Why?

Because to give the free leg the full measure of its freedom, the standing leg must be completely secure. Otherwise, the free leg has nothing to “hang from,” as it were.

Think about it: if you imagine a tree with a wiggly spot in its trunk (and only three branches, one of which is significantly larger than the other two, because evidently it’s not much of a tree) … wait, there has to be a better analogy.

Developpe-Crane

Remember this? I almost hope you don’t.

So! Disregarding the fact that the construction crane is A] in the Don’t column and B] illustrating an entirely different point, here[1], it actually makes an excellent illustration of a further point.

  1. …That is: when you developpé, you must first lift your kneecap as high as you can, then extend the free leg. You’re welcome.

A construction crane cannot do its job if its base and upright aren’t stable.

If it tried, the weight of its boom—that is, its “free leg,” if you will—would tip it right the heck over.

In fact, here’s what happens when you’re a boom crane and your standing leg isn’t secure:

…And while usually things aren’t quite that dramatic in the ballet studio (especially since we’re more likely to be wiggly in the hip than unbalanced at the foot and completely rigid the rest of the way up), the difference that a secure standing leg can make in the height of your developpé is.

Dramatic, I mean.

If your standing leg is solid, with a secure hip (this is my personal bugbear, by the way: I have loosey-goosey hips, and I will likely be fixing them for the rest of my working life), then your free leg has a fixed point against which to pivot and your entire body as a counterweight.

If your standing-side hip (or something else in your standing leg) isn’t secure, the muscles in your free leg will clamp down in an effort to hold things together. By extension, your extension will be less … you know … extensive.

This remains true, by the way, even when you reach a point at which it’s permissible to slightly open the angle of the standing hip in an extension de côte. You still begin by lifting the knee against a stable hip and extending; only at the very end do you tilt the body—as one piece, moving only in the standing-side hip—to further open the angle between the standing and the free leg.

Just as an aside, this is one of the reasons that penché must begin with the leg, and not with the back. If you begin by letting the back droop forward, it ceases to be meaningfully connected to the free leg and can no longer operate as a counterbalance.

You know this, I know this, everybody knows this … but I still do it wrong at least 40% of the time, so I’m putting myself on notice.

Anyway, L’Ancien gave me some ballet homework: hop on the YouTubes and watch the men’s graduation class of the Bolshoi Academy, and pay attention to the stability of their working legs and the way they use their adductors.

I’m not sure this is the one he meant, but it’s still a pretty solid example of exactly what he’s talking about. LOOK AT THESE RONDS, mothertruckers:

 

…And then roll it back to the beginning and watch the whole thing. There’s an instructive moment in which the guy on the barre at audience right (that is, on YOUR right, as the viewer) commits exactly the same sin I tend to as they take attitude: he has to put his heel down, because his standing leg isn’t stable (BTW, he looks amazing anyway), while the other guys just float there on the world’s most solid demi-pointes because they’re jerks.

Erm, I mean, because their standing legs are stable.

Anyway, there you have it: you want higher extensions? Great.

FIRST, stabilize the heck out of your standing-side hip.

THEN work on improving your active flexibility so the muscles of your free leg can work appropriately against the rest of your body.

Don’t be like me and do it the other way around, or you will also be like me in having to think about your standing hip like crazy for the rest of your natural life.

The rest, as they say, is commentary. Go and learn.

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