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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.

Can You Manege It?

Today, L’Ancien gave us a manège, beginning with:

“That corner (downstage left) is the lonelinest corner. Dancers avoid that corner … make sure you travel through that corner.”

Then four of us stood at the points inside the circle (or well, technically the oval) whilst the other for manèged their way around via piqué turn, piqué turn, tombé-coupé-jeté en tournant, tombé-coupé-jeté en tournant, jeté en tournant, jeté en tournant, jeté en tournant.

After the first run, L’Ancien did not actually lay himself down upon the floor in the depths of his despair, but he probably wanted to, especially where I was concerned. There was a lot of WTF in my run, and I knew that, and I hadn’t figured out how to fix it by the time I made it around the Loneliest Corner and back to where I began.

Basically, it started well (I can do nice piqué turns in my sleep, at this point), but fell apart during the tombé-coupé-jeté. In short, I knew I needed to collect all 18[1] of my feet together, then stab the coupé foot into the ground and brush the other foot to launch the jeté. Only I couldn’t seem to get all those freaking feet together at the right moment, so I kept doing … ergh, I don’t even know what, but it was wrong. At least it turned in the air, I guess?

  1. Okay, so technically only two, but if you’ve ever had a bad run of tombé-coupé-jeté en manège, you know what I mean.

What I had done wrong—what everyone, apparently, had done wrong—was that in addition to wearing red shorts (after having been informed that L’Ancien is NOT fond of fire engine red, which I remembered halfway through barre, to my great chagrin), I was attempting to tombé-coupé-jeté from second.

Like, that is to say, instead of chassée-ing through the face the direction of travel, I was … erm … sort of chassée-ing à côte and then … I just … don’t even know what. But it was wrong.

Basically, the result was that instead of coupé-ing to the back of the inside leg as I turned, I was … just flailing the outside leg around like an idiot … and then attempting to reel it in and somehow jeté from, like, the world’s worst fourth position.

The entire correction was this:

“Face the direction you are traveling. And also use your eyes.”[2]

  1. L’Ancien is almost certainly VERY TIRED of telling me to use my eyes.

Amazingly, y’all, this SOLVED. THE. PROBLEM.

Tombé-coupé-jeté (and/or chassée-coupé-jeté) is one of my favorite steps, but one that I’ve struggled with ( nobody really diagnosed my previous problem—that I was doing some kind of crazy sissone instead of an actual jeté—until I finally asked David Reuille what I was doing wrong, LOL).

It has been really hard for me en manège, which is unfortunate because t-j-c-en-m is in almost every men’s variation ever.

Today, the second run wasn’t exactly spectacular, but it was technically sound … like, “Oh! There are my feet, right where they need to be, doing what they’re supposed to do!”

It wasn’t super high, and it probably wasn’t beautiful, but it was at least acceptable.

So! To sum up my thoughts on tombé-coupé-jeté en tournant:

  • FACE THE WAY YOU ARE GOING.
    • This is almost always something you should just do anyway, unless you’re doing Balanchine. For some reason, B-Technique is all about making you do piqué turns (and every bleeding thing else) en face. WTF, Mr. B?
  • The basic process of the step is:
    • Tombé onto the inside foot
    • Coupé the outside foot to the BACK of the inside ankle to initiate the turn
    • STAB dat coupé foot right into the floor as you
    • BRUSH the jeté foot straight the heck out
      • DO NOT ROND THIS LEG
      • I MEAN IT
      • SERIOUSLY
      • DO NOT ROND
      • DON’T DO IT
      • YOU DO NOT NEED TO ROND THIS LEG
      • If you’re doing the rest of it right, the momentum you’ve established will turn you in the direction of travel; if you rond the leg, you’re probably going to find yourself with your back to the audience
      • That will be embarassing and make your ballet mistress very sad
      • You don’t want to make your ballet mistress sad, do you?
      • adult alone black and white blur

        You do not want to make your ballet mistress question her major life choices. You just don’t. (Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com)

  • Don’t stress out. This step is complicated, yes: but like many things in ballet, once you figure it out it’s kind of easier than it looks. I mean, perfecting it is still hard, of course, because ballet. Oy.

Anyway, there have been times in my life that I’ve managed to mash my way through t-c-j[3], but it’s only now that I feel like I understand what the hecking heck I’m actually trying to accomplish.

  1. Of note: if you read that post, you’ll notice it explicitly states that you can tombé to second to add extra power to your jump. You can, BUT! BUT! BUT! YOU MUST STILL pivot through to face the direction of travel before you do the rest, unless you’re traveling on a straight-line diagonal (that is, NOT en manège).

Anyway, by the end of class, I actually felt like I knew how to do tombé-coupé-jeté.

Which is good, because on Tuesday I start company class at an Actual Ballet Company, where it seems I will actually be dancing this season, and it’s not terribly unlikely that I’m going to need it.

technical notes: devil turns again

I mean chaînés, of course. Everyone loves chaînés sooooooooo much, amirite?! They are The Actual Best[1]!

  1. At least I assume that’s why everyone goes, “uuugghhhhhh, whyyyyyyy” when it’s time for chaînés. Because that’s the sound of joy … right?

I’ve spent the past year or two trying to make peace with chaînés. It has, in fact, largely worked. Two things—learning that dudes usually don’t piqué into chaînés and that it’s fine to do your chaînés in fifth—led to some dramatic improvements.

However, somewhere along the line, I started losing all my momentum going into any run of chaînés.

Someday, I will look back upon this and laugh.

Chaines: Scourge of the Universe (you guys, I can’t believe how weirdly applicable this is, given that I made this graphic in like 2015 2014)

Not cranking the turnout-brakes (read: that thing you do to halt your momentum if you have to finish a soutenu turn in sous-sus) helped, as in it prevented me from actually grinding to a halt after one turn, but it didn’t solve the problem entirely.

Today, though, Killer B fixed the remaining bit of the problem: she said, “You can piqué or chassée into your chaînés, whichever works better for you … but right now you’re tombé-ing in, and it’s killing your momentum.”

So I tried the chasséechaîné approach, and HOLY CRAP GUYS IT WORKED. Made my chaînés about twice as fast, in fact. (Which is good, because sometimes they were embarrassingly slow.)

Anyway:

AHHHHHH!!!! You guys, how did I go so wrong?!

not-how-this-works

basically applicable to my entire life at all times

Like, I remember BW giving me a lesson on chaînés as pertains to Men’s Technique, and that he taught me to not piqué into them … but at some point I decided explicitly that tombé was the One True Way.

(Evidently it is a correct approach, but not one that works particularly well for me: I tend to tombé into a deep demi-plié way over my front leg as if preparing for a sauté arabesque or something. Ultimately, that means that my momentum can go straight up or back the way it came, but not really forward except through pas de bourrée … I guess it would be useful if I needed to change directions straight into a series of chaînés, though.)

The waltz combination today was:

balancé (r)
balancé (l)
chaîné-chaîné-petit developpé to pas de bourrée
chassée 4th
turn en dehors
fourth
turn en dehors (land 5th, right foot front, or coupé through)
balancé (r)
balancé (l)
petit developpé to pas de bourrée
chassée 4th
rotation (fouetté à terre)
fourth
turn en dedans

I’m trying to figure out if I’m leaving out some waltz turns somewhere, or if they were in something else and I’m conflating my memories[2].

  1. very possible; this morning was a horrible slog through the swamps of badness: the struggle was all the way real[3].
  2. I even hosed up a simple sissone combination at the end of class, though at least I made it to the end of class without actually dissolving into a gibbering zombie. I almost checked out after the warm-up jumps, but I didn’t, because some part of my acknowledges that I work in dance now, which means there will be days that I have to get out there onstage even though I just can’t even.

Regardless, the chasséechaîné approach is a freaking lifesaver.

I was going to drop a YouTube video that shows this in here, but my exhaustive* one-minute long search hasn’t found one, so it’ll have to wait.

*yeah, okay, totally not exhaustive

Anyway, there’s today’s gem from class.

Guys: if an approach via tombé is sending your chaînés to an early grave (get it? tomb … é … early grave … harhar), try chassée instead.

Thursday! 

Moderately sucked at modern today. Ballet, on the other hand, was rather good, except for the part in which I misunderestimated my tendency to travel and lame-ducked myself right into the shelf-desk thing on which the music system resides.

Also, salient men’s technique bits: instead of B+, preparatory position for dudes is usually with the back leg straight (notable exceptions: Balanchine et Bournonville(1)); likewise, we generally chassé into hell turns  chaînes. I suspect that’s how I learned then as a wee bairn, in fact, because when I do then that way my body suddenly to the, “Oh, you mean these things!” instead of, “ABORT! ABORT!”

  1. Autocorrupt always tries to make this “Bidonville.” A bidon is a bottle, like an old-fashioned water bottle for bike racing. The idea of the magnificent Erik Bruhn arising from a school founded by someone named “Bottletown” never fails to make me chortle with unrestrained mirth.

BW has a gift for bringing out the best in his students—or at least in me. BB agrees, though. We both love his classes.

In other news, I’ve evolved an alarming tendency to do turns on autopilot, then think I haven’t done them and do extra turns. WTF even if that? I threw in an extra stepover, even.

In other, other news, I forgot my legwarmers, so BW lent me some of his. He described them as “fashion backward,” and we joked about how they look like they were knitted from a 1970s sofa, but they did the job just fine. 

Each Spring, sofherds guide the half-wild flocks down from the hills, where they’re shorn of their thick winter coats before returning to the range (via Pinterest).

I remembered to give them back after class. It feels weird, somehow, to hand someone a sweaty ball of legwarmers, though—which is in itself weird, as exchanging sweat-soaked hugs with other dancers seems perfectly normal. Maybe it’s the, “Oh, here, have some sweat to take home” angle that feels so weird.
Anyway, this is one of of the nice things about taking a tiny class taught by a friend. If you forget your legwarmers because your brain is full, your teacher can lend you his without making everyone else who forgot theirs feel unloved or whatevs.

Anyway, I’m quite tired and looking forward to my rest day tomorrow. 

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