Tips for Ballet Teachers | Winding Up & Shoulder Tension in Pirouettes

Photo by Ingrid Werthmann

by David Arce

A clean preparation is crucial in pirouettes, whether en dehors or en dedans. To combat the bad habit of “winding up” the preparation port de bras (to gain force for more turns), try this.

Students prepare for the turn in a lunge or plié in fourth, one arm in first position, the other in second. Tell them to stabilize the arm in second (the one in danger of winding up) as they relevé into a passé balance, and then as they try a single turn.

If students are still winding up after these verbal cues, give them a tactile cue: place your forearm vertically just behind the arm in second. If students wind up, they’ll touch you and realize it. (Usually they are focused on the turn and don’t know they are winding up.)

This tactic also works if students wind up with the arm in first. Place your forearm in front of the arm in first; if students open into second during the preparation, they’ll run into you.

Pirouettes are exciting, whether it’s our very first single in class or a multiple in performance. With excitement comes tension, which, when harnessed in the correct muscle groups, can make or break the pirouette.

There are many schools of thought on preparing, turning, and finishing pirouettes. But here’s one universal rule: avoid tension in the trapezius muscles, which can hinder the head from spotting. To avoid this, tell students to lift their chests (engaging the pectorals) while pushing down their shoulders (engaging the latissimus dorsi muscles). This creates a strong base in the upper body, but leaves the neck and head free to spot.

When arms are in fifth, pay extra attention to shoulders lifting; remind students to move their arms in port de bras from the elbows, not the shoulders.


David Arce is artistic director of Juline Regional Youth Ballet and a teacher at Juline School of Dance in Modesto, California. He trained at Ballet Yuma and San Francisco Ballet School and danced 12 seasons with SF Ballet.