In the February issue we talked about the importance of stretching the Achilles tendon in using the legs for jumping. But we must not forget the feet. Fully stretching the feet as they leave the floor is of utmost importance. There is no better way of strengthening the feet than battement tendu. The friction of the foot against the floor as it is pushed out to the point and back to fifth is very strengthening.
And then there is the soft landing. To strengthen the muscles behind the ankle just below the calf, have students rise onto demi-pointe in first position and bend the knees (demi-plié) while still on demi-pointe. Lower the heels slowly and then straighten the knees.
Only a few lucky dancers have natural elevation. Elevation depends on the Achilles tendon, the thigh muscles, the muscles at the back of the knee, and demi-plié. To stretch the Achilles tendon, this is a helpful exercise: stand about a yard away from the barre, facing it with both hands on the barre and the feet in parallel. Then, with both heels on the floor, lean forward. The dancers should feel the Achilles tendon stretching. For soft, controlled landings, a good demi-plié should be developed.
The eyes have it! In order to hold a balance or perform a good pirouette, dancers should focus their eyes on a spot. To show a sense of style in classical ballet, the eyes should follow a hand in port de bras. Looking down has the effect of losing communication with the audience. This is a most important aspect of performance. Whether the dancers are gazing at each other in a pas de deux or expressing sadness, happiness, or horror, the eyes tell it all.
In order for students to develop good balance, instructors must teach correct posture and placement right from the beginning of training. It takes many years of training to develop the strength in the legs and the back needed to balance on demi or full pointe. Start early.
To test for the correct balance on one foot, have students hold onto the barre, standing in fifth position, and tendu to second. Next, tell them to raise the foot about six inches off the floor and take their hand off the barre. Dancers whose weight is over the supporting leg will be able to maintain the pose. Repeat this test in demi-plié on the supporting leg. It becomes very obvious if the weight has been displaced.
Attitude, a pose that mimics a statue of Mercury, is difficult to achieve correctly. A good way to teach it is for the dancers to work in pairs. One performs the exercise and the other assists in getting the position correct. The working dancer should face the barre, raise one leg to arabesque, then bend the knee, stopping when the knee goes out to the side of the body. The partner should help to keep the knee aligned. The shoulders should remain square to the barre.
Next, have students repeat the exercise without the assistance of a partner. In attitude, they should plié on the supporting leg and raise the same arm (as the raised leg) to fifth, making sure that the shoulder of the raised arm is square to the barre. Extend the leg and close to fifth. Repeat with the other leg.
By Mignon Furman
A fouetté (short for fouetté rond de jambe en tournant) is a step of virtuosity. The first thing to be strengthened is the relevé. Before attempting fouettés, practice doing relevés on one leg 8 to 16 times. The next thing to understand and practice is the action of the working leg. The Russians take the leg to the side and do a petit battement movement around the knee before extending to the side. We take the leg from fourth devant through second before whipping it to the knee. Coordination of the arms is essential, along with the use of the head and eyes in spotting.
When practicing fouettés, work for a strong second position when taking the leg to the side. The leg must be well turned out and whipped sharply to the turning position (passé with the toes of the working foot on the front of the supporting knee). The side arm (the left arm if turning to the right) must not go behind the shoulder line.
Practice with the hands on the waist, using the left side of the body (when turning to the right) to move around. Do not use the shoulders alone. The body must be well held. The head must be used for a quick whip-around.
With the emphasis on high leg elevation, kids think that this is the epitome of technique. Teachers should explain that high leg elevation is only as important as other aspects of classical ballet, such as beginning and finishing movements in fifth position, a good demi-plié, clean pirouettes, well-stretched feet, and height on all jumps.
Attention to detail makes a step, combination, or variation complete. Footwork needs to be accurate, and arms should coordinate with the movement. Think about the beginning and ending of each movement. In class, have students hold the end of each exercise for a count of three before moving away. This is a very important lesson.
Oregon Ballet Theater’s Coffee Break With the Ballet is a six-week series where every day at 3pm visitors to the OBT blog can take a break from their daily routine and learn fun little ballet tidbits.
The series is running now through September, and each week, tidbits of ballet history, technique, photos, and videos will follow a different theme:
- Week 1: “B is for Body”
- Week 2: “A is for Arms”
- Week 3: “L is for Legs”
- Week 4: “L is for Lift”
- Week 5: “E is for Energy”
- Week 6: “T is for Tights & Tutus”
Every Monday in a new webisode, “The Sassyplum Fairy” will pay a visit to the employees of a boring, dull office and use her fabulous ballet magic to solve their everyday problems. Fridays will feature a Pop Quiz, where visitors can win tickets, dinners, coffee treats, and more.
Explore OBT’s first week of Coffee Break With the Ballet on the OBT blog at http://oregonballettheatre.wordpress.com/.
Beginning pointe work is always so exciting for young dancers. For teachers, it is a time of great responsibility. Every young girl dreams of dancing on pointe, but some children are not physically capable of it, struggling with a long second toe or ankles that aren’t flexible enough for the foot to maintain the proper position on pointe. Teachers must recognize such problems and direct students to helpful products (such as toe caps that minimize pressure on the second toe), require them to work on demi-pointe, or even direct them to another form of dance.
Pas de bourrée couru can look neat if the feet are well crossed and the lead is taken from the back foot. The movements should be very small and fast. Have students practice by standing on flat feet in parallel and shimmying the knees, then repeating the action on pointe (at the barre) with very fast movements of the feet. Do the same in fifth position before allowing students to travel. Bourrées should glide; think of Wili queen Myrtha’s opening solo in Act 2 of Giselle.
Unless we own or teach in a school that can audition and take physically perfect bodies for ballet, as teachers we have to work with students of all sizes and shapes. Therefore we cannot make only general corrections in class. Because of differences in students’ physical builds, corrections should be specific to the children who warrant them. Look at the child as a whole to see what has to be adjusted to perfect a movement.
In petit battement, the foot can be wrapped (“fishing” or “winging”) or fully stretched in alignment. Both ways are correct. Be flexible in your expectations. Rather than requiring all students to do the movement in a particular way when more than one way is correct, teachers need to have open minds about what looks best on each student.
Some young children find skipping very difficult while others just naturally perform the movement. To help those who struggle with it, teach them to march, lifting the foot with the toes pointed and the knee facing forward. Progress to three marches with a hop on four. Some children find it possible to skip once they’ve mastered marching and hopping on one foot.
Another way to help children learn to skip is to teach hops on one foot with the other foot lifted to the knee. To help with balance, have the children take partners. One child stands still while the other performs the hop, then they change roles.
Sickling inward is seen often in young children, especially in hops in attitude devant. To correct this, teach students to hop with the leg held straight out in front. Once they can hop correctly, instruct them to bend the front leg slightly, keeping the foot in alignment. Another problem position is passé. Have students push the heel forward to eliminate the sickle.
Sickling outward is also known as “fishing” or “winging.” Some schools encourage it, particularly when pointing the foot devant or in arabesque. The shape of the leg and ankle determines whether this position makes a good line, so teachers need to assess the elegance of the line in each student and not change what looks good. When pointing the foot devant the “fishing” or “winging” is governed by the flexibility of the ankle; on a dancer with flexible ankles it can look very elegant.
When teaching correct posture (stance), explain that the knees must be over the center of the foot, the hips in line with the knees, and the shoulders in line with the hips. Ask the dancers to walk as fast as possible with the weight over the heels, then with the weight forward. They will see that they move correctly and more easily when the weight is placed forward. Give younger dancers an image: tell them they should be as straight as a straw.
In a movement to the side, such as développé or grand battement, the working hip must remain aligned with the other hip. Instruct students that maintaining their turnout should keep the hips in correct alignment, except when the leg is lifted above 90 degrees. The weight must remain over the supporting leg.
Have the students lie on the floor in passé position, keeping the hips aligned. This will help them become aware of the “hinge” joint. As they extend the leg to second from passé, they will note the correct placement of the hips.
By Mignon Furman
Learning attitude en l’air is best done facing the barre. Have students stand slightly away from the barre, holding it with two hands. Have them raise the leg, derrière, and bend the knee slightly without altering the height of the knee. (A low position should suffice at the beginning.) As the height of the leg increases, the weight of the body moves forward. The shoulders and hips remain square to the barre.
When this has been achieved, tell students to raise the same arm as raised leg, to fifth position, being careful not to allow the shoulder of that arm to pull back.
More experienced dancers who have achieved a good attitude in the center can try a half or full turn promenade. Instruct them to pivot by making a small movement with the supporting heel (being careful that the supporting leg does not turn in). Caution them not to turn their bodies more quickly than they can move the supporting heel.
TIP #1 For Young Children
It is important for young children to practice the head movement, and to spot, before starting to learn pirouettes. Here is a useful way to achieve this: Have the students skip in place, turning the whole body and using the eyes to spot. They should turn one way for six skips, then spring with feet together, facing the front. Then have them repeat the exercise to the other side.
TIP #2 For Older Dancers
To teach the correct arm position in pirouettes: Have the student hold a pencil or another small object in the right hand at the beginning of a pirouette to the right. When the left arm closes in, the student should transfer the object to the left hand. The arms will then be closing in the correct position.
Teaching port de bras to two age groups
By Mignon Furman
Tip #1: For Young Children
To get the correct placement of the fingers, place a pencil under the dancer’s first (pointer) and ring fingers so that it passes over the middle finger. Make holding the pencil without dropping it a game. Use a point system—a chart placed in the studio, which shows points gained or lost, makes a great incentive. Awarding young students a gold star once they have gained enough points has a magical effect on getting them to work correctly. For this exercise, if the children hold the pencils successfully, they get a point; if they allow them to fall, they lose a point.
Tip #2: For Older Dancers
Explain that all port de bras require a circular movement. Even when moving the arms from first (fifth devant) to arabesque, the fingers lead in an outward circular movement. This gives a broader feeling to the port de bras and allows the dancer to use the music fully.