May-June 2013 | Classroom Connection

Speaking of Sickling

I am always mindful of how I use words, especially when helping students understand how to do a move or form a position. Because I teach from a wheelchair and do not demonstrate, it is my words a dancer must process to make or break development. In 21 years of teaching, the most challenging problem to address is a sickled foot.

“Sickles are gorgeous moons and handy as tools used to harvest wheat,” I say. “But they do not belong at the end of a beautiful, elongated leg following the strike of a frappé!” My dancers laugh, so I know they’re envisioning the image. To show it on the body, I have an offender stand at the barre and look in the mirror both in profile and en face while pointing the foot. I tell her to turn the sickled foot into the wing of a graceful bird.

Demonstrating with my hand, I simulate a sickle and a wing, tracing the outline of each as I describe which foot muscles are used and felt in each position.

A helpful exercise is to have students place a strap under the ball of the foot. Pulling both ends tight, they flex and point the foot, carefully maintaining proper alignment. Repeating this exercise often will strengthen the correct muscles.

I don’t encourage winging, but working the foot toward the wing direction from a sickle helps access the muscles needed and builds muscle memory for a non-sickled position. At first the dancers might experience some discomfort since the foot has been used incorrectly, often for quite a while. I tell them the discomfort means they are working correctly and will disappear with time.

Eventually, the dancers see the payoff, as they discover that they can relevé, piqué, turn, and sauté with ease on a properly aligned foot.

—Carol Crawford Smith


Use Space Wisely

Many studio teachers face the task of teaching students to move as big and full as they can when the studio isn’t large enough to accommodate them. Time and again, the students spend the first half of the combination dancing big and the second half doing their best to not hit a wall or a fellow student.

There are multiple ways to think of space. If the size of the studio does not allow the students to travel very far, focus on the use of the kinesphere, or a dancer’s personal space. Have students imagine being inside a bubble or a clear plastic gerbil ball. Instructing them to stretch to the edge of their kinesphere brings fullness to their movement, even when locomotion is constrained.

I often ask students to focus on each portion of a combination separately. They should practice the fullness of transition steps—for example, tombé pas de bourrée (emphasizing how the back leg propels the body forward—the “push”)—or focusing on lengthening the front leg (the “reach”). Students should also practice the larger elements of a combination—such as grand jeté—separately, paying attention to the height, momentum, exit after the leap, and details of the port de bras and focus.

If they are reaching as far as they can within their personal space—that is, fully utilizing their kinesphere—they can put the elements of the combination back together and dance fully, using all of the available space. They will have learned how to adjust the size of the steps in space while maintaining the rhythm, pattern, and a sense of far-reaching kinesphere.

For advanced students, having them arc at the end of a traveling combination to face the side wall also allows them to move big even in a small space. They can imagine performing on a stage that is surrounded by an audience rather than on a proscenium stage. (That little change might be difficult for younger dancers to manage.)

—Kerry Ring