Ballet Scene | Teaching Pirouettes

BalletSceneThe center, not the barre, is the optimal place for learning to turn

By Vanina and Dennis Wilson

If classical ballet instruction can be said to have a Golden Rule, it might be “Begin at the barre.” Classes begin at the barre, where students learn to perform a step competently before they attempt it in the center. Most instructors follow this rule in teaching pirouettes; standard instruction books such as Gretchen Ward Warren’s Classical Ballet Technique (pp. 141 and 177) advocate the practice of half-turns with relevé in retiré at the barre (while recommending that beginners execute one full pirouette in the center).

Note the position of Elle’s feet relative to the blue tape prior to beginning a half-turn pirouette. At this point her right elbow is roughly 7 inches from the barre. (All photos courtesy Vanina and Dennis Wilson)

Note the position of student Elle Wagner’s feet relative to the blue tape prior to beginning a half-turn pirouette. Her right elbow is roughly 7 inches from the barre. (All photos courtesy Vanina and Dennis Wilson)

Elle is beginning to rotate en dehors. The right foot remains in the same position relative to the tape mark on the floor.

Elle is beginning to rotate en dehors. The right foot remains in the same position relative to the tape mark on the floor.

However, we would argue that the “begin at the barre” rule does not apply to teaching pirouettes. We started teaching pirouettes conventionally at the barre but observed that students’ apprehension about catching the barre at the end of the move led them to neglect other aspects of technique, such as spotting or turnout. We also saw them make adjustments when closing the half-turn at the barre that resulted in sloppy closings of the same turns in the center.

These observations led us to question the conventional practice of beginning pirouette instruction at the barre. Even though this teaching method is “common wisdom,” more teachers may be avoiding it than many people believe. We have observed many ballet classes in which students did not perform pirouettes at the barre and have noted that Cecchetti- or French-trained instructors are less likely than others to teach this way.

However, we agree that learning the positions and moves in preparation for the pirouette should occur at the barre. These include the correct balance of the whole body, first on one flat foot, then on demi-pointe; the pulling of the working leg into retiré (the pirouette pose); and the relevé drills.

Elle has come approximately three-quarters through the half-pirouette and has caught the barre with her left hand. The middle of her right foot is now over the tape mark on the floor and her knee is already very close to the lower barre.

Elle has come approximately three-quarters through the half-pirouette and has caught the barre with her left hand. The middle of her right foot is now over the tape mark on the floor and her knee is already very close to the lower barre.

Elle has finished the half-turn. Note how close her knee is to the barre. If she holds her leg slightly too low, it will hit the lower barre; slightly high and it will hit the upper barre.

Elle has finished the half-turn. Note how close her knee is to the barre. If she holds her leg slightly too low, it will hit the lower barre; slightly high and it will hit the upper barre.

Elle has closed in fifth position, and her right foot now straddles the blue tape and her arm is too close to the barre. To maintain the distance she had at the beginning of the turn, she would have to adjust her feet when closing fifth position, an undesirable movement.

Elle has closed in fifth position, and her right foot now straddles the blue tape and her arm is too close to the barre. To maintain the distance she had at the beginning of the turn, she would have to adjust her feet when closing fifth position, an undesirable movement.

But if the barre is a place to acquire balance, it is not the venue in which to gain skill in turning. When it’s  time to start rotation on one foot on relevé, move your students to the center.

What’s wrong with teaching pirouettes at the barre? A major problem is that beginning the turn,  especially the  half-turn portion, of pirouette instruction at the barre may  induce unnecessary technical adjustments and create undue anxiety, resulting in flawed and sloppily performed pirouettes when students move to the center.

Technical adjustments
Students who are practicing half-turns en dehors or en dedans must move either toward or away from the barre a distance approximately the length of their standing foot. When they close into fifth position, this change in foot position requires an adjustment in order for them to remain a comfortable distance from the barre. By contrast, half-turns in the center require no such adjustment; but students accustomed to making them at the barre may continue to perform them out of habit.

Students may have difficulty shedding anxieties and bad habits acquired at the barre when they begin practicing pirouettes in the center.

In turning at the barre, students must make another technical adjustment, with their arms. Since they depend on the barre to maintain their balance, at the end of the turn they must open the arm nearest the barre in order to catch it before the end of the rotation. This habit becomes counterproductive when students move to the center, since there they should keep their arms still (usually in first position) during the pirouette, to prevent arm motion from disturbing their balance. Students who are accustomed to opening their arms to catch the barre may continue the habit in the center, resulting in unbalanced turns.

The importance of self-confidence
Early pirouette practice should increase students’ confidence in their ability to turn, but those who begin pirouette training at the barre may develop a fear of colliding with it or even with the wall behind it. This fear can cause the students to pull away from the barre, lose control of the turn, stop the rotation before its completion, and hold their working leg too low during the turn. The loss of control may create additional anxieties and result in a mental block that inhibits any rotation at the barre, and later in the center. Students may have difficulty shedding anxieties and bad habits acquired at the barre when they begin practicing pirouettes in the center.

Students may also fear failing to catch the barre at the end of the rotation, which can cause them to lose their balance or even fall (although the latter is rare). They need not only catch the barre but also do so properly, with the “catching” arm slightly forward of the shoulder. If the arm is too far forward or (more likely) too far back, students have to adjust their balance vis-à-vis the barre.

When to use the barre
More advanced students who have mastered pirouette basics can profitably practice some forms of pirouettes at the barre, especially in anticipation of partnering, with rotation finished on one foot in attitude, with a développé or even retiré. These students will be able to adjust their balance at the pirouette’s end so that they can hold the final position. Another useful form of rotation at the barre is the preparation for fouetté turns en dehors and en dedans, which permits students to better control the passage of the working leg à la seconde. This “suspension” of the working leg à la seconde results in pleasing-looking fouetté turns in the center.

Optimizing learning
Beginning pirouette instruction at the barre can inhibit the development of real turning skills and can easily result in more harm than good. The pirouette is an intricate, compound movement that joins several techniques into one application; instructors need not add obstacles by beginning instruction in a second-best place, where learning can be compromised.

However counterintuitive it may seem, the center is the best environment for the first crucial practice of the quarter- and half-turns that begin the pirouette, because it has no obstacles and places the student where the pirouette belongs. Sometimes, the best place to learn swimming strokes is in the middle of the pool!