Turnout

Turnout: a word you will hear from your ballet teacher throughout class and throughout your dancing career. There are differing views on how to go about reaching your maximum turn out, and this can (or should) be a make or break it point when choosing a teacher. I would definitely steer clear of any teachers who demand perfect turnout. It is much safer to practice ballet with a teacher who has you work within your natural ability to turn your legs and feet outward, over time increasing your strength and flexibility to maximize your own degree of rotation in the hip.

Beware of forcing the feet into a perfect 180 degree angle in first or second position. If you must bend the knees to put your feet into a turned out position you are in for future knee, ankle, and/or hip injuries. The turnout should always be initiated at the hip. Stand with your feet together and parallel, pulling up out of the knees, and then slowly open the toes outward as far as you comfortably can without making any adjustments in the knees. This is your natural turnout. This is where you should work, and gradually your turnout will improve over time and with more training. Attaining good turnout is another reason most ballet dancers need to start when they are young and before the bones are ossified or hardened.

It’s important to learn how to work within your natural turnout. I try to teach younger students to imagine arrows shooting out of their toes when they are standing in first position, and to move their foot along this trajectory in tendu à la seconde rather than directly side. This will keep their hips in line and they can work on feeling the outward rotation of the inner thigh as they brush the floor with their foot on opening and closing. The same holds true when the leg is lifted en l’air as well. We should try not to sacrifice the “squaring off” of our hips and shoulders (both hips and both shoulders square to the front) in order to get the leg more directly side. It takes some time for dancers to learn exactly where “their” turnout is—where they as individuals should aim in order to keep the proper alignment.

The same is true when working front or back as well: work on your turnout but not at the expense of proper placement in the hips, shoulders, or ankles. A good teacher will know how to guide you into working on your turnout without hurting yourself or overdoing anything. Stretching exercises that utilize the power of gravity are most beneficial and least harmful. If you feel pain, you should lessen your turnout or stop. Ballet is not a natural thing for the human body, and I still think there’s something to be said for countries who screen their young for natural ability before allowing them to study ballet. In America, where many young girls take ballet at some point or another, it’s especially important to find a qualified instructor who will not cause any damage.

Therabands are very useful devices for aiding in stretching and strengthening your whole body. Many physical therapists employ them in rehabilitation after injury or surgery. Click here for information on how to use a theraband.

Any other teachers or dancers out there with comments about acquiring good turnout? Please leave a comment!

How to Improve Your Ballet Technique

ist1_8687056-ballerina-feet-on-pointe The best thing about dancing ballet is that you can always do things better.  Your technique, extensions, flexibility, strength, balance, and artistry can always be improved.  Daily ballet class is a wonderful place to work on stepping your skills up a notch or two.  It’s also nice to get inspiration from others in class who maybe already have triple pirouettes down pat, or can actually complete an entrechat six.  There are several things you can do to focus on bettering your own technique, one day and one combination at a time.

1. Set small goals. If you have a hard time keeping your insteps lifted, focus on just that for several classes.  It may mean lowering your leg a little in grand battement or rond de jambe en l’air, but it’s okay to sacrifice height for alignment and proper use of the feet.  If you aren’t using your feet properly, nothing else is going to get better either.

2. Listen to corrections that are given to anyone in class. Just because the teacher may not have singled you out doesn’t mean that what they’re telling someone else doesn’t apply to you as well.

3. Write down corrections after class in a notebook, and refer to them often. The more you are able to concentrate on applying corrections to your dancing the faster you will improve.

4. Mark. When the teacher is showing a combination for the first time, it helps you remember it better if you mark it with them.  The same holds true when you are in the center and watching another group perform.  Mark the steps in time with the music to cement the combination more clearly in your head.  Don’t, however, focus so much on this that you are unable to observe the other dancers.  Watching others is a great way to learn and improve.

5. Pay attention to detail. The most technically gifted dancers are the ones who pick up on everything.  There’s a lot to learn while a teacher is showing a combination.  You have to learn the counts, any special rhythms, what the feet are doing and where they close, and what the arms are doing, too!  Dancing is a lot of mental work.  It might help you to first watch a combination as it’s being shown to get an overall understanding of it, then focus on the pattern the feet are making and the counts, and finally focus on the port de bras of the arms.

6. Be efficient. Know when to use a lot of power and when to hold back and rest up a bit.  Not every movement needs the same kind of attack.  This will add nuance to your dancing as well as keep you in top shape.

7. Push yourself a little harder. As long as the teacher doesn’t specify that this should be a single pirouette and if others in the class are pulling out doubles successfully, go ahead and push yourself to do more than you think you’re able to do.  The worst that can happen is you fall on your face.  Big deal!  If you never try to push beyond your comfort zone, you’ll never move ahead.

8. Stay positive. It’s important to know that you aren’t competing with anyone but yourself in the effort to improve your own dancing.  So think of observing others as a way of inspiring yourself to do better rather than a way of feeling defeated because you aren’t there yet.  Small steps, day by day, class by class, combination by combination, will lead to better technique.

Ballet Class Etiquette

Ballet class etiquette is usually communicated clearly, and most dancers who begin as young children are taught the appropriate way to behave while in the classroom. Not only are rules—or etiquette—for class a sign of respect towards the teacher and the other students, they are necessary in order to progress through all the combinations that make up a full class. There is simply not time for a teacher to be reprimanding students or calling them back to attention every few minutes. However, you may begin taking lessons at a new studio or academy where the etiquette may differ from your former school, and it might be up to you to find out what the standard expectations are for students.

Dress Code

Many schools have a dress code. Quite a few require pink tights. This sounds easy enough, but there can be many variations: students are clever at turning a rule on its head by changing it enough to say they are following the rules, when actually they are not. You need to know if pink tights means footed, or if transitional tights, stirrup tights, or footless tights are acceptable. Sometimes a student will have on transitional tights—which, when worn over the toes are considered footed—and have them rolled up to mid-calf. When it comes to class, pink can probably encompass ballet pink, classical pink, light pink, or European pink. (Or, as it was in my case as a kid, white tights dyed into a pink that came from red food coloring!) For performances, most teachers will be painfully specific about what color pink they want and if they want the tights to be mesh, seamed, or seamless; supplex, cotton, nylon, or a combination of fabrics; Capezio, Bloch, or Danskin. To make it a lot easier, some teachers will tell you a style number to be sure you get exactly the right thing. The Danskin mesh seamed tight in style 32 is very popular, for example.

Along with tights, some schools will require that you wear a specific color leotard or a specific style: camisole, tank, short sleeve, or long sleeve. A lot of schools will not be too picky about style as long as you wear the correct color, or a solid color. Make sure you are wearing shoes that are acceptable as well. Usually this is left to the discretion of the dancer, but some teachers don’t particularly care for canvas over leather, for instance. Some want you to have a full sole rather than a split sole. Just be certain you know if there’s a preference, and make sure your shoes have the elastics sewn securely. Elastics that are tied behind the ankle or kept on with paper clips or safety pins are irritating to most teachers. You’ve been warned.

Hair and Jewelry

Hair and jewelry are biggies in ballet class. To be safe, I would say to put your hair in a bun with a hair net and plenty of hair pins and hairspray, and don’t wear any jewelry at all. Here again, there will be variations of what is acceptable at your particular school. You may be allowed to wear your hair clipped with a great big barrette so it doesn’t flop at all when turning, and it might be fine to wear earrings as long as they don’t dangle. Sometimes earrings that slip through without a catch at the back can fly out during grand allegro or turns across the floor, so use good judgment here. Click here to see a great video by dancers at the Anaheim Ballet on how to make hair buns. And a fun place to find ballet needs is at bunheads.com.

Behavior

Finally, we come to the behavior that is expected in class.

  1. No talking unless you have a question for the teacher (and questions are normally very welcome, especially in beginning to intermediate levels). This includes any kind of communication with others in class, so no miming or eye-rolling either!
  2. Do not chew gum, eat, or drink during class.Sometimes you may be permitted to get a drink between barre and center, but it’s typically best not to leave the room to do so.
  3. Do not arrive late. If you arrive during the plié combination you can usually catch up. Otherwise you need to check with the teacher to see if it’s okay for you to join or if they prefer that you just observe class.
  4. Do not yawn.
  5. Do not get impatient with yourself—this can be misinterpreted by the teacher who thinks you don’t care for their class or combination.
  6. If you have an injury prior to class, let the teacher know that you may not do everything full out.
  7. If you get injured during class or pull a muscle, let the teacher know. Get ice, if possible, and watch the rest of class from the sidelines.
  8. Do not always stand in front. Take turns.
  9. Do not always go first across the floor unless the teacher asks you to.
  10. Do your best and have a positive attitude.

Other things to note

I encourage readers to add to the list if you can think of others I omitted. Of course, cells phones and ipods are also not good to bring into class. A few pet peeves of mine when I was teaching included students who had to go to the bathroom (although there might be exceptions, just don’t do this every single class), students who wanted to teach the class or recommend steps, and students who wore sweats over their tights once class began. Again, if you have an injury and you need to wear extra clothing for warmth, get permission from the teacher prior to class.

The nicest thing about class is the end. I always thought it very appropriate when I was dancing that we would let the teacher know we appreciated class by applauding at the end. Some teachers will tell young dancers that they should “give themselves a hand” so they get into the habit of clapping after class, but I believe that this part of ballet etiquette is more a show of respect for the authority and guidance of the teacher.

Book Review and Giveaway: GIRL THROUGH GLASS by Sari Wilson

I was given an advance copy of GIRL THROUGH GLASS in December and finally picked it up yesterday, planning to give it a small measure of my attention for a couple weeks until I could finish it. To my surprise and delight, it captured my full attention and I consumed the whole book within 24 hours. It’s hard to believe this is Sari Wilson’s first novel—it is written with a wonderful literary style. She is able to put words to feelings in a way not many authors can.

Maybe it’s because I could relate to the story as a dancer, but I think it’s much more than that. I believe she’s an author I’ll keep an eye on, and whose work I’ll devour just as easily no matter the subject. Sari’s writing is a thing of beauty; her expressions are refreshing and original, such as when she describes Mira having her hair done by a woman who holds the bobby pins in her teeth. “The lady pulled and tugged and clutched at Mira. The bobby pins the lady gripped in her teeth moved up and down like insect antennae trying to communicate something dire.”

The flow of the book worked its magic as well, weaving the life of a young girl growing into a woman between scenes of the grown woman’s present day life until the two come together and the story is complete. Sari Wilson has created suspense that I wasn’t even aware was building until the truth of what happened to this girl became crystal clear. It caught me completely by surprise, in a very good way.

GIRL THROUGH GLASS by Sari Wilson is well done. She exposes the stark realities of the ballet world with an authenticity that will make real ballerinas nod in agreement, and delivers it in a beautifully written story about characters I came to love.

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Degagé

This degagé combination for the barre is nicely accompanied by Gill Civil’s music. I particularly like how it goes with number 10 for petits battements. The track is called All Aboard. This combination could also be done first with tendus at a slower tempo. I like track number 3 called Tightrope Walker for a slower tempo.

When using as a tendu combination, you could change the piqué to this: from point tendu front at count 2, lower ball of foot to work through the metatarsal and quickly lift to point tendu again (&3), brush through 1st to point tendu back on count 4.

5th position

1        Plié in 5th, arm to 5th en avant
2        Degagé front and straighten legs, open arm 2nd
3        Piqué front
4        Brush thru 1st to degagé back
5-8    4 Degagé back closing 5th, arm to arabesque
1-8     Repeat with inside leg
1-8     Repeat side, finishing with foot in 5th back
1-7     En cloche degagé bfbfbfb
8         Close 5th back
1-32  Repeat all from back

Pirouette waltz

Suggested musical accompaniment by Massimiliano Greco here.

You can also like him on Facebook here.

Pirouettes
R foot front 5th upstage L

1-2   Piqué to 1st arabesque, faille across
3       Piqué to 1st arabesque
4       Faille and temps levé on L with R cou de pied back
5       Balancé R traveling en arrière
6       Balancé L traveling en arrière
7-8   Tombé pas de bourrée to 4th preparation L front
1-2   Pirouette en dehors to 4th position
3       Detourné to point tendu R croisé devant
4       Close 5th position plié R front
5-6   Tendu R croisé devant place 4th lunge R croisé devant
7-8   Pirouette en dedans to 5th position croisé L foot front
1-16 Repeat other side

 

Awareness and Poise

Artists must be familiar with the mediums they use to do their work. Musicians playing wind instruments learn which keys to press to create a C and what they must do with their breath to produce variations in sounds. Painters usually work in many mediums and choose suitable ones for the piece, such as oil or acrylics or watercolors, pencil or charcoal, or use them in combinations. This is true for dancers as well. Dancers learn not only about anatomy, which is important if they are to understand proper alignment, but also about cause and effect. As they reach the age where they’re dancing en point or rehearsing choreography, dancers will quickly discover what will happen if they don’t take care of themselves.

  • If I don’t build up calluses on my toes then they will rub raw and bleed.
  • When I haven’t eaten all day I usually don’t have much strength or energy to jump in class.
  • Forcing turnout weakens my knees and ankles.
  • Rehearsing without properly warming up the muscles can lead to soreness and possible injury.
  • I have a hard time remembering the steps when I stay up too late the night before.

The list goes on and on of course, but this cause and effect gives us greater awareness about our own bodies and minds. I believe that knowing our limits (and that we do have them), being sensible about warming up, and eating a healthy diet among other things teaches us that this one body—the only one we will ever have—must be cared for if we want it to last.

Another thing dance gave me that has been applicable in other parts of my life is poise. Poise, to me, is much more than carrying oneself with assurance and grace. For me, it’s what happens before that outward manifestation. It involves calming the mind, putting away the worries of what could go wrong and bringing forth the positive thoughts about how you want to appear onstage. Once you quiet the mind and trust your body to remember the choreography, you step onstage and put faith in yourself. And believe it or not, you maintain faith in yourself until you’ve completed what you went out there to do. If you make a mistake, you must learn to train the mind to immediately forgive and forget, so as not to make a complete mess of what follows. Completing the dance to the end and not giving up somewhere in the middle is a good metaphor for whatever we undertake in our lives.

Learning the power of the mind, trusting in yourself, caring for and nourishing your body, and understanding that as humans we have physical limits and aren’t invincible—all of these are essential elements on the path to success and happiness, no matter what career you ultimately choose or what direction life takes you. And when life takes you down a path you weren’t expecting, these attributes will prove invaluable in dealing with whatever comes your way.