By Jonathon Levy, Ballet Master & former Principal Soloist of Ballet Dallas.
Choosing a school for dance training can be a daunting task. In the United States, there are no guidelines or accrediting agencies for dance training, and that means anyone can open a ballet studio regardless of their background. If you desire training for yourself or your child, the primary concern should be for a long-term goal. Whether it involves professional career potential, a college degree program, or just a means of health and discipline, the training being offered will allow or inhibit every subsequent success in learning dance technique. The difference between adequate and inferior training is monumental, and will affect every opportunity that might present itself. A clear understanding of the fundamental components of professional training will illuminate the process of choosing the best training facility.
These are the essential components of learning and performing classical ballet: the tendue— the plié—the port de bras—aplomb (or stance; which includes extending, contracting, arching, and twisting); from these four the positional ideas can be formed and taught. These four ideas form the foundation of classical movement training, and incorporate rotation, elevation, and length (including lateral, and linear momentum; and the various qualities of movement, namely, gliding/sliding, darting, extending/stretching, turning, jumping, bending, rising). Cecchetti referred to these “qualities” as the seven fundamental movements of dancing. Current training methods have progressed far beyond the original concept of simply teaching students how to maintain and move between a set number of positions for the feet, legs, arms, head, and torso.
Today’s audiences expect not only emotional artistry; they demand physical prowess and skilled virtuosity. These higher standards in dance performance have affected how dancers are trained, and professional-level training is now considered equal to the methodology used for coaching prodigy athletes.
Throughout the history of dance, every dancer is judged by a triple aesthetic. First, the innate body structure; Second, the quality of skill demonstrated in combining the seven elements of biomechanical functionality with rhythm, and lastly, their artistic expression (including stage presence, personality, and interpretation). In essence, movement is the basis for all communication, because vibration leads to sound, and gesture communicates intent and direction. What makes dance an art form is the demonstration and expression of ideas, emotion, and personality through movement. Adequate training is a necessity because the level and quality of acquired skill in demonstrating each movement (in large) determines what is effectively communicated to an audience.
Stylized and/or artistic presentation can occur once the fundamental elements have been introduced and the body has acquired the strength to demonstrate both the positions and movements that these elements enable. If stylization is taught too early the result is affectation, or inefficient development of skill. Technique is the actuality of demonstrating the progression of movement with competency, linking positions and steps one to the next in accordance with the rhythmic pattern. Artistry is the elevating of these biomechanical elements to an expressive form of communication, allowing both dancer and audience to experience a related connection of enjoyment and meaning from the movements.
The tendue is fundamental to ballet technique, and should initially be developed laterally (in à la secondé or second position), then later forward and back. Beginning from first position to second, with pressure through the floor and length throughout the body, the tendue is the extension of the body focused or culminating with one leg fully elongated to the side (second), front or back (forth position – front/en avant or back/arabesque) while standing on the opposing leg. The tendue also enables and initiates the concept of rotation in training by establishing the dual dynamics of turn-out, the internal rotation of the leg in the hip socket, and the opening of hip joint by swinging the leg front to the side, and side to the back while extended— i.e. the lateral line created by opening the leg towards or away from the vertical center axis (right/left) along the horizontal axis of the body (forward/back) from the hip in relation to the floor. Turn-out should initiate the student to the concept of spherical space, both, within and around the body. Spherical space is the concept of overlaying zones of control from and through which movement occurs. This spatial awareness is increased with linear movement, and develops as the antecedent to advanced vertical and rotational movements.
Execution of the tendue begins with the body lengthening internally. An exertion of the muscles between the legs causes a pulling together; this enables the leg to pull in opposition to the vertical axis and along the floor to full extension (the standing leg in opposition to the working tendue leg). The horizontal lateral extension initiates from within the abdominal muscles through the inner abductor muscles, hip rotators, and hamstrings, that allow the leg to proceed in extending down and out “through the floor” with the full-foot firmly sliding on the floor in the direction of the release (front, side, or back). The heel is not lifted from the floor until the extension reaches a point approximating secondé position, (conceptually the foot and leg would continue extending outward “indefinitely” if not connected at the hip. The hip and standing leg act as an anchor, therefore prompting a weight shift vertically from two feet to one foot). At the point when the heel is allowed to leave floor, the demi-point or metatarsal arch (ball of the foot) continues the progression of extension in the same manner and direction on the floor extending until it also leaves the floor; thus allowing the toes to extend to full point.
In tendue, the tips of the toes remain in contact with the floor (extended without “crunching” or “knuckling”) while, the entirety of the body’s weight is distributed vertically over the standing leg. The standing leg should have been engaged in a lengthening manner on a full-foot placed in opposing rotation to the working tendue leg. This begins the establishment of stance (aplomb), and confidence will develop as strength and stability increase through repetition in training.
The entire body likewise is in extension—vertical through the spine, the pelvis in its natural horizontal position (as when standing erect on two feet). Abdominals lengthen (upward), oblique muscles engaged in a wrapped elongation outward with a lateral sensation, piriformis (the gluteal hip rotator) exerted to open the top head of the hip and thigh while the latissimus dorsi and spinae (the major back muscles) lengthen downward anchoring the shoulders and lower back without inducing any arching or “tucking”. The tailbone should be maintained and directed in its natural ‘triangulation’ towards the floor over the heel (if on one standing leg or between both heels when on two feet). The natural “s” curve of the spine maintained and lengthened, with the shoulders in-line vertically over the front-head of the pelvic bone. This allows a majority of the body’s weight to be gently centered over the balls of the feet, with only minimal weight on the heels for stability. The atlas bone of the neck should rest in a manner that allows for the head (skull) to be centered upon the spine (lengthening vertically from the line of the shoulders); the face slightly lifted looking forward, or appropriately turned.
There should be no épaulement (directional turning of the shoulders) in early training, so as to establish a sense of “front” regardless of body direction. At the barre, the arms should be relaxed, elbows lowered to eliminate tension, and finger tips resting upon the barre, (i.e. whether the body is facing the barre, or on the right or left side; and use the barre only to maintain a proper stance, this is important, therefore do not grip the barre).
The rhythm and/or musicality of the tendue, in eight counts using a 4/4 meter, four counts out and four in; counts two and five are when the demi-point arch is fully engaged, counts one and seven are when the foot is sliding with the heel engaging the floor (towards or away from the body), count three is when the toes are in full extended point (reaching to full length, not “crunched), and counts four and eight are when the extended position in tendue or the standing first position are being held, respectively. A slow to moderate tempo 4/4 (as in a march) with a minimum of sixty-four counts is needed for executing eight tendues in this manner. Repeated execution of the tendue in succession is necessary for strength, endurance, muscle memory, suppleness, etc… and the tendues are performed all with one foot and then all with the other.
It is important to realize that tendue is a movement to and from positions of the feet, and it must be developed with patience and accuracy in order to ensure rapid and continued development of the dancer’s technique. Once the initial tendue is accomplished with competency, the tempo and positional directions (front/side/back) can be altered, i.e. increasing the tempo and number of repetitions, as well as alternating the feet. This exercise may be used in the center (as noted above: switching feet right/left with each tendue or after two or four sequential tendues. This will keep the exercise from causing adverse tension in the body and joints or from becoming “boring” and cause a generalized ‘mental malaise’).
When this exercise is used in the center; the arms should be kept very simple, and in the very beginning the hands can be placed on the hips, or the fingertips can be placed touching the top of the shoulder (deltoid) with the elbows lifted and held open to the side. (Do not allow the shoulder blades to pinch together as this alters the posture adversely.) While this is a non-classical arm placement, it will assist in the placement of the upper arm by developing sufficient strength for when the arms are extended to second position (see port de bras).
It should be noted that a certain amount of body development is necessary for executing this level of training and therefore it is recommended for an age of six or above, at the beginner level. This meticulous style of beginning training is also good for rehabilitation from injuries, as well as for the refinement of professional technique, in that, an occasional slow tendue can be extremely valuable, especial when on-tour or warming-up on cold days/on-stage, or even on the first day (or two) back from a long hiatus (“long” meaning an interruption of training that has lasted more than a week).
Apply the same concepts to tendue forward and back, by replacing “second position” with ‘fourth’ front (en avant) or back (arabesque), and realize that the turned-out rotation must initiate the movement of the tendue by lengthening. The direction of tendue to the side should be direct, and in line with the standing leg. The heel/sole of the foot must face the floor in a side or second position tendue. It helps to imagine parallel lines drawn on the floor extending sideways: one at the placement of the toes and one at the placement of the heels (=) as a guide to ensure that the lateral extension is neither in front of nor behind either line. The goal is to reach an apex between the two lines across from the opposing standing leg (as in the shape of =>). Also for tendue front and back, the line is drawn forward or back from the working tendue foot (||) with the apex being the point approximating the center of the arch |^| in front of the original standing position. It is important to delineate between a first position tendue and a fifth position tendue, if for no other reason than it will affect the execution of rond de jamb a terre. There is a neo-classical concept of over-crossing the tendue leg; however, this should be avoided for beginners, if for no other reason than establishing effective placement and efficient rotation. Over-crossing requires more strength, more agility, heightened body awareness, and increased flexibility. It will be more thoroughly understood if taught as a progression from first position, to fifth position, etc… Over-crossing tends to cause a sitting in the hip unless initial body placement is adequately understood, and strong enough to handle the torque caused by the over-crossed extension. As for the use of five positions of the feet it should be recognized that we simply no longer use ‘third position’ – unless a child has a developmental situation requiring it (such as hyperextension or extreme bowing of the leg(s).
Knowing one essential component at this level will allow greater efficiency and competency in progressive training. It can also be a guide for evaluating where you allow yourself, or your child, to train on a daily basis.
 “A Manual of The Theory and Practice of Classical Theatrical Dancing” by Cyril Beaumont & Stanislas Idzikowski, original publication 1922, Third Edition 1947. London.
 Maestro Cav. Enrico Cecchetti, Ballet Master (Italy and Russia) 1850-1928.
 Prodigy athletics: elite sports training aimed at preparing young athletes for national, international, and/or professional level competition; see also Olympic training.
 Based upon the positions of the feet, second position is an open lateral placement of the feet and legs.