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Advanced Ballet

in Advanced Ballet, Ballet tips

Stability – The Foundation of Dance Training

It has been a few months now. I’ve gone back to slower, more beginner classes to strengthen my supporting leg, work on a better alignment of my body, a pulled up pelvis and a open, pressed down shoulders pointing to the back. I still have issues with my pelvis and ribs from time to time, and I’ve since discovered that it was due to tightness of my IT bands and quads.

I’ve been having fun videoing myself in the studio with friends, posing and taking silly dance pictures. Even then, it is a good practice because you increase your consciousness of what you’re doing with your body. One thing I’ve observed with my ballet eyes is that why my upper body and port de bras became nicer (except for an non-existent right elbow – AM working on it now), I’m not satisfied with my legs. They somehow look not 100% engaged.

Initially, I thought it is the issue of not straightening my knees. Even one of my best ballet friends who danced since she was a child told me so. Then I thought I was not lifting my pelvis enough. That is true, I can always go for 20% more than I thought was my maximum. I practiced again, and still I’m not achieving what I feel it is supposed to look like.


Stability – The Foundation of Dance Training

It all came to me in a eureka moment. I lack stability. My legs are not yet strong enough, perhaps my core too – to maintain that pulled up pushed down look of my legs, which affects everything above my legs, my entire body. And that is why, my upper body looks improved and better, but waist down, it doesn’t. Time to go back to the “drawing board”.

In a recent trip to Japan, my Japanese friend wrote in to her strict Japanese teacher to allow me join her Russian ballet class. That was quite the experience. Now I’ve been schooled in a mix of pseudo-Russian and pseudo-RAD style for the past 5 years of my intense ballet life. I was, of course nervous, because this teacher had graduated from the Leningrad Choreographic School, also named after the famous Aggrippa Vaganova. To cut the long story short, I survived the class, but was deeply intrigued by her Russian ballet training methods, which to me had a more 3 dimensional feel, with lots of pretty arms. I went back to my extensive collection of ballet books and deeply researched because I didn’t want to feel like a moron dancing if ever I took a Russian ballet class again.

In my obsessive research, I discovered the whole concept of stability. I mean I understood that we needed stability but I didn’t  know the extent of training to acquire it.  As I pored over my books and videos, I noticed that in the first few years of dance, there is strong focus on emphasis on training a dancer to have extensive stability. Stability is trained beginning with both hands at the barre, then with one hand. Then in the center, and later on demi-pointe. The exercises start out very slow and painful and then, it changes position such as croise, efface etc and eventually the speed of exercise get increased and the complicated movements vary (probably in the final few years of study). Acquiring stability seems that that is all the teachers of the Russian training method set out to do in the first few years of training. In their level 0, which is something like a pre-ballet class, teachers train students to strengthen their core, increase the range of their flexibility, turn of head, neck and upper body for epaulment and give lots of conditioning exercises.

Although, us adults may not have that kind of luxury of having ballet class everyday and being trained in that slow and boring way, there are still some things we can learn from these Russian training methods to acquire stability. I’ve also included some ideas which I personally use.

Daily training is essential to acquire stability

In the Russian training method, they believe that daily training is required to acquire a pulled up character and stability.

Though most of us can’t take a ballet class everyday, we can compensate this by being extremely conscious of our posture. When you’re waiting for the bus, or train, or in the shower. Stand in first position or in demi pointe and maintain a pull up of the pelvis and a conscious push down of the legs, as though you’re standing on a weighing machine and trying to ‘press’ it to get a large reading on the scale. You can try doing other things while maintaining this strong stability, such as shampooing or doing your port de bras. Even when I have a heavy backpack on my back, I try to maintain a neutral pelvis and pull up of my torso.

proper distribution of weight over legs (and transference of weight)

To be sufficiently stable we have to learn to be very acutely aware of where our “weight” is. Standing in first position, the weight has to be placed evenly over both legs. At the barre, you must check if your weight is centered, especially over one leg, thus, you shouldn’t be gripping the barre. We have to be good at knowing when to distribute our weight evenly over two legs or load on one leg. There are many exercises you can try to google/search on youtube to practice this transfer of weight from leg to leg, or from two legs to on and etc. Be very careful to maintain alignment and use maximum turn out at all times. Of course, this transfer of weight and proper distribution of weight is practiced in ballet class in many exercises without us realizing. Many teachers do this in tendu exercises in the center where you quickly alternate the supporting leg. The key for us here is to grow more sensitive to the acute transfer of weight. How to do it quickly or control the weight placement etc.

In the Russian training method, exercises are really slow, allowing students to check and feel their weight. They do a lot of poses towards at 45 degrees towards the barre and away from the barre and back to en face, thus forcing them to shift their weight and maximize their turn out in that process.

Whole foot barre exercises first, then similar exercises in center

Barre work is extremely important. Slow painful exercises are first repeated extensively then identical exercises are done at the center. The muscles are set in for stability and the greater test would to perform the same quality at the center. Without the barre, the bodies are required to work harder to find stability and balance.

These daily exercises are first done on flat (whole foot), and then proceeded onto center. Later on, maybe after 6 months, half the exercises will be done flat, and the other half will be done on demi-pointe. The same process will be carried on to center.

As the years of training go on, the speed and variations will increase, also incorporating port de bras, epaulment and poses.

adagio first before allegro

To acquire stability in the fullest way, the Russian training method believe that adagio training is far more important in early years of ballet training than allegro. They believe in slow execution of proper poses and positions allowing the dancer time to think, check and feel their body. As they develop the right coordination and their muscles fire correctly, they slowly increase the speed of adagio and incorporate allegro. However, that doesn’t mean that allegro is ignored, they do a trampoline-type jump from Level 0 and Level 1. In those, stability is trained as they bounce in the air. Their arms are maintained, neck long, maintainence of alignment, knees and feet stretched fully.

Demi-pointe training

Eventually, we want to achieve stability on demipointe. This will helps turns and all the poses and all the advanced stuff in ballet. In the Russian training method, students are first introduced to a low demipointe with the priority to maintaining their maximum turn out. That is because the Russian ballet teachers believe that after learning to be stable on flat (whole foot), the students cannot yet maintain full turnout on demi-pointe.

When training, their supporting leg is watched carefully, to ensure that it is bearing the entire weight (of the body) in a strongly stretched and turned out position. Of course, demi-pointe is first trained at the barre, because it is harder to maintain turn out in center and harder to be stable in the body and especially on demi-pointe.

 

Basic Conditions for Mastery of Stability

Thus, in conclusion, there are the basic conditions for the mastery of stability

  1. Correct distribution of the center of weight
  2. A pulled up body in correct alignment
  3. Intelligent transference of weight over the legs (one or both)
  4. Level hips
  5. Pulled up and turned out thigh of working leg

 

We are no longer children, so our brain power is much stronger. Thus, I believe we can improve our stability by first knowing and understanding the concepts of stability as listed above. Then practicing with the help of recording ourselves on video and in front of the mirror.

When working on your own, another great tip I’ve learned is not only to look at the physical form in the mirror, but also deeply feel the physical sensations of a pulled up assembled body.

In my personal conclusion, the next step in my progression is to acquire far more stability. I believe that as adults, we must work intelligently to save time. I plan to do very simple barre exercises at home, and then some center and also incorporate some nice poses and port de bras to develop classical ballet coordination while I’m at it. I’ll keep everyone updated! 🙂

in Advanced Ballet, Ballet tips, Beginner Ballet, Intermediate Ballet, Uncategorized

Pirouettes

I was helping my friend with her pirouette that day. She is a beginner adult ballet dancer, with probably about 10 months in with twice-a-week classes. Understandably, almost every adult ballet dancer I meet are obsessed, or rather, pre-occupied with how to improve their turns.

There is just that something about turns. Even professional dancers and semi-professionals themselves are always working out how to improve them in both quantity and quality.

Unfortunately in the adult ballet dancer’s world, we don’t really get access to slow, repetitious teaching thus, adult ballet dancers are seldom great turners, unless they have been recreational ballet dancers since young. I’m referring to those who has only picked up ballet during their adult years. That’s not to say that I’ve not seen adult ballet dancers nail their turns, doubles even. It is just that majority seldom went beyond a single pirouette. And they generally don’t execute them with quality.

As I was figuring out how to teach turns, I recalled my journey in learning how to do a single pirouette, how I did my first doubles and my accidental triples.

Then I had to do doubles, landing in an open position in an attitude, and how I learned to fouette.

I also remembered how I learned how to do a pique turn, and a lame duck, then all that in a maneage and eventually, I had to do all that en pointe.

I wouldn’t say I am a great turner or I have the most perfect pirouettes. I’m just sharing with you what I have learned, and what helped. I will also share the areas that I’m still struggling in.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

Strengthen your ankles

In my first few weeks of learning ballet, I couldn’t releve (stand on demi-pointe/toes) very high. I would get cramps in calves. My ankles will give way. My heel only slightly lifted off the floor. There is no way you can do a pirouette with your heels just slightly off the floor, unless it isn’t a ballet pirouette. There is a big sense of “up” and “high” in a ballet turn. How to strengthen your ankle? Do a lot of ironing-tendus – tendus where you iron your foot through demi-pointe with a straight knee.

Practice Balance

Exercise 1

My first ballet teacher would make us do a tombe or chasse pas de bouree diagonally across the floor into pirouette preparatory position in 4th, then releve with leg in retire. We did that repeatedly for 6 months. This balance is the crux of the turn. Thus, we should focus on the balancing on that leg for a long time, instead of focusing on the turning motion

Exercise 2

An exercise that really helped take away the intimidation of a turn is to do a quarter turn, then plie releve into another quarter turn and stay up as long as possible on demi pointe. Eventually, I would do a larger turning circle, like half, then full circle, then maybe full circle and a bit more, and eventually double turns.

Exercise 3

Start from 5th or 4th position, plie and then releve into pirouette position. Repeat on both sides for as many times as you can. This will help your body enforce that pirouette position into muscle memory.

How PULLED UP are you on your leg?

Be conscious of the pulled-up- torso from leg all the way to the hips to the head. Are you ‘sitting’ on your leg? I I thought I should explain what does this ‘sitting’ mean, since I’ve heard more than one ballet teacher yelling at their students. This ‘sitting’ means ‘slouching of the torso into the hip’. It is more common place than we think. I often like to look around at regular people (non dancers) in the train as I travel home, at how many people are ‘sitting/slouching’ into their hips on the top of their legs. The answer is – almost everyone. I blame our increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

Many adult ballet dancers were once these regular folks too – thus, there’s a lot of ‘sitting’/slouching action going on in ballet class, and they don’t know it. Who can blame them?

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a teacher who would shout “Supporting leg – MORE UP!!!!” which essentially translates to “STAND TALLER ON YOUR SUPPORTING LEG”. Your supporting leg has to feel as though it is drilling into the ground, and the result of that is the opposing action of your torso, a sense of pull up, and ‘growth’/growing taller, thus, you are more taut in that position.

NOW LISTEN, the pull up action of the torso has to be initiated by the pressing downwards pressure of the foot and the leg. The action of pressing down will cause the torso to grow upwards or what is known as pull up. If you think just about pulling up from the torso, without considering your leg, then what you get is that common ribs out look (sticking your ribs out), or an extremely tensed look with a raised shoulder and stiff neck.

Of course, this applying-downward-pressure-of-the-foot causes a natural opposing force of a pulled-up torso… has to happen without compromising alignment – i.e. tilt of the pelvis or curvature of the spine. The pelvis should be held strongly at neutral (with a lifted feeling off the legs) and you should think about making the spine as long as possible. TIRE BOUCHON, as teacher yells at me. It means corkscrew in french. These are the same opposing forces that happen as you open a champagne bottle.

You can practice this – ensuring that you are extremely pulled up in correct alignment in all 3 exercises for improving pirouettes suggested in the previous section.

Weight Placement

As a beginner dancer, we are less conscious of where we are placing our weight in. If you have just started ballet, you may not understand what I mean by “weight placement”. However, that is essential to ballet. It is one of the most important lessons we have to master, all the way up to advanced levels. Even the professionals are consciously feeling and searching for their weight placement.

What it is referring to – in layman terms, is where is most of your body weight is. If you’re wearing high heels, your weight is actually ‘back’ on the heels of the shoe. Thus, it actually throws your body alignment into a ‘sexier’ pose – your breast are pushed forward, bottom is stuck out, and you have a bigger curve of your lower back. If you’ve been wearing heels for a long time, then kicked them off in exchange for some nice comfy bedroom slippers, you’ll realize that you have to adjust your weight. Initially, you might feel your heels feeling sore, from too much pressing – a muscle memory carried over from high heels. As you adjust your pelvis and alignment naturally, your body is re-calibrating to put more weight over the whole spread of the foot.

In ballet, we must try to put our weight over the ball of our foot as much as possible. This will ensure a more taut body, and one that is more responsive to a wider range of dance movements and quick footwork.

We will also grow more sensitive to where we “place our weight” during movement in dancing, as we advance in technique. The more sensitive you are, the more you can control your body.

Similarly, we have to be more conscious of our weight placement in pirouettes, especially in the beginning, because we’re not so sensitive to our body yet. Ensure that most of your weight is at the ball of the foot before you releve.

The quicker your body understands how to place your weight dynamically, the quicker you will master your turns.

Spotting

Spotting is not a technique isolated to dancers. Ballroom dancers and other types of dancers have to have a good spot too, otherwise they look and are amateurs. Even ice skaters.

Spotting may be defined ‘whip of the head to the front, before the body turns to that facing’. It helps you prevent dizziness.

In my experience, learning how to spot correctly takes a long time. Or maybe I just didn’t get it as quickly as I should have. My spot is sufficient for a single pirouette, but insufficient for 2 or 3. My ‘2nd’ head is slow and my teacher nags and complains at me all day.

There is also spotting for Chaine, pique turns and lame duck.

There are several theories of how to learn to spot. I’m not sure which ones will work for you but you can try all of them!

Exercise 1

Stand in parallel position with hands on hips and face the mirror. Keep looking at yourself and slowly shuffle your feet as you turn your body away from the mirror. Keep looking at the mirror for as long as you can, then quickly shuffle back to face the front. So in other words, you ‘leave your head/face’ behind and then whip your head quickly to the front.

I had one teacher who told me to tie a pony tail then think about slapping my own face with my pony tail.

Some asked me to imagine being slapped as I turned around.

(Just a note: Some teachers disagree with the above methods and then to start arguing – but I’m not here to argue.)

Exercise 2

Look for a focal point and focus your eyes at that point as you turn. You don’t have to think about anything, you just are dancing and moving and trying to keep your eyes on that point at all times. Sometimes it could be a piano, or a water bottle on top of a piano.

Exercise 3

Look for a general large area, it could be a big grey door. Just remember to keep your face towards the door. I like to imagine that I have to show my face for the photographer to take a picture of. So if I’m doing 3 turns, I need to show my face towards his lens 3 times (I know, it’s so dumb but it works SOMETIMES).

Arms

Placement of the arms is important, not just to aid the turn, but it is also for visual aesthetics. Shoulders should be pressed down, elbows lifted, and hands at first position.

What is common in adult ballet dancers are – dropped elbows, arms not held by the back (thus wobbly), and also sometimes, the arms are not central to the body but lopsided to one side.  

I try to think about keeping my hands in front of my belly button. I still don’t have the arms I want in turns.

There are also different theories of how to use the arms in pirouettes.

Theory #1

From 3rd position arms, open to 2nd then bring both arms back to first as you execute the turn.

Theory #2

While the arm is in 3rd position, say, the right hand is in front of belly button, and the left hand is in 2nd position, move arm, leading from elbow, and keep it “moving” along with your body, and share that force with that left hand as you close into 1st position during the turn.

Theory #3

Assuming same arms in 3rd position, the right hand does not move at all, and the left hand is the one that uses force as you bring it into first during the execution of the turn

Regardless of which theory you use, if you can execute a nice looking pirouette, that is really all that matters.

The problem of too much arms

Some dancers use too much arms to force the turn, and as a result, the torso is twisted and the correct ballet alignment cannot be maintained. The twist in the torso works against you. It is almost be impossible to be pulled up correctly. If you do it this way, you might get by with one turn, but not with 2 or 3.

In that few occasions that I teach, I tell these dancers to turn without the arms. Then they are forced to compensate using other muscles (and break their bad habit) , and initiate the turn with their legs. In doing so, they sometimes find the correct pull up. The arms are really used for balance and some force for the turns, but most of the power of the turns come from the legs.

Advanced Technique

The nice turns are UNLIKE SPINNING. Spinning looks like when you successfully spin a coin, it goes round and round evenly.

Beautiful pirouettes have a nice ‘whip’ feeling to it. Like when you whip the air with a piece of ribbon. There is a kind of a stretch before it comes back.

Also, advanced dancers are not just pulled up and on high demi-pointe, their core is strong, arms are held, and their head and neck relaxed.

Before their final turn (say in doubles or trips or quadruples), they tend to pause for a moment in the air, and grow even taller, with a slightly lift with their entire body, hold their for half a second, before landing nicely.

Just something to think about.

My Pirouette Story

How I went from single to doubles to triples and landing in all kinds of positions

After about 4 months of ballet classes, my ankles were stronger, and I could do a sufficiently-high demi pointe during releve.

I was really confused by pirouettes from fifth position, the preparatory position from fourth, closing in 4th or 5th and of course was really confused by en dehor and en dedan. I remember trying desperately trying to figure it out at home. My advice: ASK A FRIEND in the studio! Some time will be needed for the coordination to kick in.

SINGLES

I remember my first attempt to turn. Of course, I didn’t spot, so I turned like a zombie (as though I had no neck and I was a big block of wood). That doesn’t matter, if you can sustain an UP, on your leg, I believe you’re halfway there.

My Japanese teacher I remember would stand at the corner and wave at me, smiling and calling my name. I would respond by looking at him and as a result, I learned to spot. HAHA! (Maybe you could get a friend to try that for you).

There was once on a very very good day, I was turning and nailing my single pirouettes. Your body will just know that it was a good one. My German teacher was proud of me and asked me, “do you know why you are turning well today?” I shrugged my shoulders. He said something that I would never forget. “It is because during the barre, you were on your leg (which means my weight placement was good and correct)”.

DOUBLES

But he was also crazy. He would constantly ask me to do doubles, even though my single still kinda sucked. Looking back now. I didn’t agree with most of the things he taught me, but one thing I have to credit him is that he forced me to do doubles, no matter how bad they were, or how I fell and sat on my bum while trying. He made me overcome the fear of doing doubles. After a few dramatic and spectacular falls, I quickly realized I was still alive. Still, I would caution you to be careful, especially those who have weak and extremely flexible ankles (lest you have a strain).

I remember the class where I did doubles. He purposely gave me a combination to extremely fast music, and in concentration to keep up with the music, I had no time to fear, and I just whipped around rather effortlessly. (Maybe that could work for you too.)

I smiled for the whole week long after that. Before bed, I would replay that moment and feeling where I first did my doubles.

TRIPLES

I remember both separate days where I did a triple pirouette. As usual, NOBODY SAW. It both happened in a small studio when we had a couple of minutes of our own to practice our turns. For one of the turns, I was at the right corner of the studio, in front of the mirror. I launched into a pirouette and then kept going and realized I turned 3 times. The same thing happened to me doing a double pirouette en pointe.

PIQUE TURNS, LAME DUCK

Spotting and facing/position of the body was very important. I will elaborate on what helped me technically another time. But , I remember watching a random video of a professional over and over again until I could figure out what his legs were doing. Same advice as above, as a friend to show you! At least, nail the coordination down so that the technique can settle in (or concurrently). Eventually I got this. In fact, I felt these turns are the EASIEST TURNS.

FOUETTES, TURNING AND ENDING IN AN OPEN POSITION

I needed a strong releve leg, a pulled up body, and correct placement. I needed to come back to the pirouette position, then lifting before ending it nicely, otherwise I can’t do all the above. Once I understood the technical requirements, and built up sufficient strength. It is all about practicing it carefully, not being slipshod in my work.

MY TURNING JOURNEY THUS FAR

I’m generally not afraid of turns, though am nervous with triples with different levels of comfort on different studios. I don’t beat myself up if I can’t turn because turning is not everything! As a beginner adult ballet dancer, I used to judge how good a dancer is by their turns. Now, being a little further along the way, I realize there is so much more to dancing and so much more being a beautiful adult ballet dancer than turns.

However, it is always fun to work on turns.

Lastly, to comfort and encourage all of you who might have a bit of trouble with turns, don’t worry! If you’re a female dancer, all you need are double turns. It is the men who are expected to do 4 and above!

 

HAPPY TURNING! Hope that my article helped a bit  🙂

 

Love, Seira

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in Advanced Ballet, Ballet tips

Building Strength & Stamina

In order to advance to learning more difficult steps, you’ll need to invest in strength and stamina FIRST. Or at least work on it concurrently. I also realize why professional and advanced dancers go back regularly to work in slower and beginner classes.

 

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After a few years of dancing almost everyday, including taking a couple of ballet exams, I was slim and toned. I was sufficiently drenched in sweat after every class. Every one was complaining I was too skinny.

I thought I was sufficiently strong, and my stamina in ballet was alright. At least that was what I THOUGHT.

I had greatly improved but I felt something was missing. I personally felt that I did not have a classical look. I felt something was off…. and I did not have the lifted look and ease of well-trained dancers. Even though I’m an adult ballet dancer – that was something I wanted! I WANTED that classical feel more than than say, doing some lukewarm fouettes en pointe. I rather be a beautiful dancer in beginners class than a jerky awkward one in advanced class. HOW DO I GET THAT?

So I went to consult every ballet teacher I know to help me with that. Finally one of them figured out my problem and he said to me, “You are not strong enough. “(Later he added, you need to work on your flexibility too – it is not enough. By now I can do all my splits cold – and yet it is not enough but I’ll save this story for another post.)

WHERE WAS I NOT STRONG ENOUGH? I was exasperated.

We did a slow basic class and it was soon clear to me that he was right.

 

WHERE WAS I NOT STRONG ENOUGH? I was exasperated.

We did a slow basic class and it was soon clear to me that he was right.

AREAS OF WEAKNESS

Here are some of the areas of weakness that I have, which may be common to the adult dancer too:

  • Weak supporting legs & core

I did not have the strength to sustain a ‘push down and pull up‘ on my supporting side for more than 10 seconds, lest last for the entire single barre exercise.

  • Weak hamstrings

I didn’t have enough stamina to maintain a full active stretch of the back of the knees during tendus or anytime the leg is activated. This is how the professional dancers move so cleanly with a sense of directed energy. They think of making the inner leg line long (instead of the ‘outside’ line – which results in bulky looking quads).

  • Weak core, abductors, hip-flexors, inner thigh muscles, foot, ankle,

I did not have the strength to fully point my leg in devant-front or derriere-back leg.

My favorite dream position is a beautiful ecarte leg line. Teacher quickly made me realize how weak my glutes, core and hamstrings are weak, as I cannot HOLD my maximum rotation and my maximum height/range.

Until now, the higher my ecarte leg, the less energy I have to send through all the way to my toes. It stops somewhere mid thigh. I have difficulty straightening my knee and stretching my ankle and arch.

  • Weak foot, ankle, insufficient stamina

I did not fully push the floor and point my feet fully in changements. Thus, in entre chat quartes, my feet doesn’t look strongly pointed but looks rather loose, even though supposedly my technique wasn’t so bad.

  • Weak inner thigh muscles

My inner thigh muscles are so weak to really squeeze them into a tight fifth especially in a releve in 5th position. My inner thigh muscles quickly failed when I do an assemble. After brushing out my back foot, I have to think of clapping my inner thighs to assemble the entire both legs in the air before landing. My legs are slow, it is not really ‘clapping’ and overall, there is a lazy look.

 

GREAT.

So, that means that if I wanted the classical look, I had to strengthen all this. No point knowing the right technique but not having the muscles strong enough to do this.

Because even if you understand, you are not strong enough to execute! Poor execution leads to bad habits and at the advanced level, you will soon realize you are unable to learn advanced steps because of both poor technique and lack of stamina. Even if you did manage to execute the advanced steps, you may not look ‘ballet-ish’ while doing it. This is what I personally don’t like. I mean everyone has different ballet aspirations, and I wanted a classical feel the most.

So here is what I had to do.Here is what I did and I am still continuing to do.

  1. Slow down considerably, be conscious of working purely.

 

I started to take slower classes so I can concentrate on building strength. Every slow plie and tendu, I’m forcing my body to push the ground and I’m lifting and standing as tall as I can. I realized I can sustain this longer and longer and now I can sustain it throughout barre.

Be conscious of working purely, and be aware of your areas of weakness. If your teacher keeps reminding you of the same thing, think about that during the exercise. I have a tendency of not straightening my leg in a rond de jambe jete, so I think about that. I also have a lazy left core, so I consciously exert more energy in pulling that side up.

2. Do conditioning exercises

I would mentally command myself to squeeze my inner thighs for a few seconds longer when I’m in fifth position both on flat or on releve BOTH BEFORE AND AFTER every barre exercise. I hold it a little longer than everyone else. I figure that with those few seconds, I am getting my inner thighs stronger.

I don’t always do this, but I should. I should do this set of conditioning exercises, taught by my teacher. It consists of scissoring action with my legs fully pointed in a set of 60.

Sit ups and reverse sit-ups always help. And planking too.

3. Practice rises and releves

I try to do them both at the barre and in center.

It helps activate your core, and you are training your body to be more sensitive to your center. It also helps to have a mental image, “TIRE BOUCHON” which is what Teacher always yell at me, which means corkscrew. It helps to send mental consciousness down to that leg to make it straighter than how straight it already is. Sometimes we have a false image of what our body is doing versus what it is actually doing. I tend to have a slightly bent knee and a insufficient pull up on my left side (my lazy side) thus my right pirouettes aren’t as good as my left. AND THAT IS ALSO THE REASON WHY I HOP during my turns.

4. Petit Allegro

Most adult dancers are not fans of allegro, because they are not used to moving as much as children. However, if you want to dance ballet, you should not sit out, otherwise, you’ll never have enough strength to go en pointe. You’ll won’t enjoy dancing variations because most of dancing is 80% (if not 90%) allegro!

That is why I love ballet teachers who incorporate lots of allegro in their classes.To me, it is one of the marks of a good teacher. Allegro combinations are more tedious to come up with compared to pirouette combinations. Some teachers make you turn all day long because it is easy and uses a lot of time.

My teacher got me started on what he calls an ‘endurance changement exercise’ (64 at least) which I felt I was at the brink of shin splints every time I did it. I USED TO HATE IT. I couldn’t fully point my feet before I reached halfway. I did them for a year. Now, I’m fairly comfortable with it. BUT then he started me on this horrible assemble combination, where I had to do about 20 assembles with the 2nd set incorporated with sautes (later on entre chat quatre). I’m still working on it, and I am still feeling that I don’t have enough to give fully what this exercise requires.

Strength and Stamina will come

However, I must say I am getting stronger. The other day I glanced in the mirror during open class (I don’t look these days and take class facing away the mirror) as it was an en face combination, and I was quite surprised at my assemble. It looked much better than before, and I’m starting to look at ease while dancing.

Dancing with ease – my goal.

So it made me realize, the only way to look at ease is to have both the strength and stamina, which is hard to get. It requires a conscious effort to be extremely focused, to not give in to tiredness or emotions, to work diligently and as purely as possible. It takes a sense of humility to go back to slower classes even though more advanced class is more exciting – and work work work.

Strength and stamina will come. By then you’ll be more ready to learn the advanced steps. I mean, everyone has different goals. Some dancers just want to dance in advanced class, not caring so much with details and that is fine too! However, if you would like to do a beautiful Brisé volé, you will need strength and stamina!

 

 

 

 

 

in Advanced Ballet, Ballet tips, Uncategorized

Pull up on that supporting leg!

Pull up, lift up, stand taller, push into the ground more….all these refers to that supporting leg.

I had no idea how much I had been “sitting” on my supporting leg, until I began to advance in dancing ballet.

Why I have labeled this post as an advanced post in adult ballet, is because, when you’re an adult learning in beginner and Intermediate ballet, there is so much to do. The focus will then be trying to learn basic positions and vocabulary, improve the coordination, remembering the steps and how to link them altogether. Learning the correct placement and establishing them into muscle memory may take at least a year.

Thus, a teacher may be satisfied with your less-than-pulled-up supporting leg, to help you through all that beginner and Intermediate stuff, just so you could dance. You may not have yet developed the ballet eyes to figure out what she means by pulling up of your legs. You probably can’t tell and feel the difference! However, once you progress to an advanced level, you would need this strongly pulled up lengthened supporting leg more and more, in order to be to learn and execute advanced steps.

It is amazing how much I had to go back to the basics, and work those beginner ballet steps with a much higher quality. I have to have a greater clarity and purity when I approach a basic step or position. I had to re-visit how I stood in bras bas position (preparatory position), re-place my arms in first, and in 5th position. I had to keep working on my tight 5th position. In fact, my teacher said, even as professionals, they never stop working to try to get a better 5th position, throughout their career.

I had to work on how I do my port de bras in seconde sideways towards the barre. My shoulders had to be kept down more, yet not compromising on the reach, keeping my elbows curved in a way that framed my head.

All these things I had to re-establish them into a higher standard and then set it in ‘stone’ into my muscle memory.

Establishing That Habit of a Pulled Up Supporting Leg

Conscious thinking must be done constantly before it comes a habit.

I have to constantly think about pulling up my supporting side, lest I sink and sit. I have to use my brain to command and activate those muscles, otherwise they won’t do it!

I have to do this enough times in order for this to become a habit.

Since I do not pull up my supporting side enough naturally, I have to still consciously think about this during ballet class.

What I’m Thinking About

when it comes to my supporting leg/side

 

  • Where is my weight? It has to be somewhere over my toes at the ball of my foot.
  • I have to ensure my pelvis is not tilted and remains square.
  • I not only have to push into the ground, I have to pull up on my leg…like opposing forces. It is a little bit like the action of uncorking a champagne bottle, the left hand pushes down, but the right hand pulls the cork up and out (except that this motion happens on all in your supporting leg)
  • Say I’m standing on my left leg, I also have to think about the pull up force going through the left side of my pelvis, through the left side of my ribs and the force going through the center of my body, while keeping my shoulders pressed down.
  • I also think about my glutes and all the muscles holding my turn out, because I’m working with my maximum rotation. I should work with my maximum rotation all the time.

 

Pull up should go BEYOND your leg

Maybe teachers should say, “pull up your supporting side” instead…

Though I have titled this article  “Pull up on that supporting leg”, the pull up action goes beyond your leg. The left side of your body should be pulled up too, and through center them in your imaginary center axis, so that you’re square in correct placement.

Some dancers’ think of only the leg, and that is why they can’t seem to stabilize their upper body. They forget to engage the core, but try so hard to keep their body still that they tense up their neck and shoulders.

It is also a push down into the floor

The ‘pull up’ force actually goes down into and under the floor, and is lifted through the pelvis, up the core and above. However, you don’t ‘pull up’ from the chest. The chest area remains relaxed and shoulders held.

This is my current struggle. I believe this is the reason why I sometimes hop WAY too much in my doubles and triple pirouettes. I do not have enough of the “push down” to pull up.  A ballet teacher recently said I looked like a Jack Hammer during my pirouettes. (HAHA! Though I was embarrassed, I didn’t take offense.)

Well I’m working on it. This stems also from my basic preparatory position when I’m standing at the barre. I mostly forget and just…stand (kinda sit) there. I must remember “push down and pull up” ballet visual like the uncorking of a champagne bottle. (note to self, note to self, note to self).

Those dancers who have had proper training usually don’t think about this, especially when trained from a  child. They already have it and they don’t seem to understand why us adult dancers struggle with this.

The arrows are where I think about to activate the muscles, the yellow 'lightning' is where I send energy.

The arrows are the areas I think about to activate the muscles, the yellow ‘lightning’ is where I send energy to mentally.

Gaining the Strength to Execute the Pull up

Most adult dancers understand this concept much quicker than children or teenagers. However, we may not yet have the strength and stamina to execute this pull up. You may be able to achieve this pull up for 1 second, but due to the lack to stamina, your leg ‘lets go’ and you end up ‘sitting on it’.

Don’t be discouraged. This is only natural.

I remember when I first had to ‘pull up’ my supporting leg, and ‘stand taller’ on it. I could only hold my maximum strength for about 5 seconds. That was simply standing still in preparatory position at the barre!

When I established some strength, I then had to increase this to be able to execute this pull up during plies and tendu exercises.

ballet supporting leg

I would collapse over the barre catching my breath like this but I won’t be smiling.

I remember being completely taken aback in surprise at how weak I was. I would collapse over the barre and try to catch my breath after each exercise (see picture). It felt as though my muscles were burning. My teacher would not let me do any exercises with my previous sub-standard pull up (actually I was sitting on my leg all this while unknowingly).

While training to gain the strength for this pull up of supporting leg, I literally dreaded and hated slow plies and slow tendus, because you’re forced to work purely and clearly. I remember hating those two exercises because of how exhausted it made me.

I also forced myself not to ‘let go’ and try to work in the purest way I know how during easy open classes (I went back to basic beginner class to do this).

However, after a month or two, I gained the strength and suddenly I realized I wasn’t collapsing after each exercise.

That doesn’t mean I have sufficient strength yet. I have to gain enough strength and stamina to last the entire barre and support me in center. I need it to become a habit, so that I can learn more advanced steps properly.

One Side is Usually Stronger

Although I am still working on gaining strength in both legs, I have noticed something. My right side is more pulled up than my left…naturally. If we had to do a balance in retire position, I would be able to let go of the barre right away if I’m standing on my right side. I take a longer time to find my center on my left side.

I’m sure it is different for everybody, but I particularly have a lazy left supporting side.  Maybe, it is just not strong as the right side. Thus, I struggle to achieve that pull up much more on the left.

My friends and I joke about our ‘weaker’ side. We all agree it is as though one side of our body has less nerves than the other side. I literally feel less nerves firing when I’m on my left side.

And that is why, my teacher tells me I’m more pulled up on my left pirouettes (because I’m more pulled up on my right side. It the right leg that I’m balancing on when I’m turning). It is no coincidence that I’m a left turner too.

Though I have to train both sides, I feel encouraged that at least I have something…a good side!

When should you be thinking about supporting leg?

That really depends on where you are in your technique.

I think about my supporting leg and supporting side throughout the barre particularly

    • tendus, glissades, jetes
    • rond de jambe
    • fondus (extra focus from me here)
    • adagio (extra extra focus!)
    • grand battements

 

These days, I focus mostly on supporting leg throughout the barre because I don’t have that habit yet. This is unless the combinations are more complicated and I have to think about  placement.

In the center exercises, I think about supporting leg especially during adagio and tendus.

Results of thinking and working my supporting side

I’m often surprised at how much better and more stable I am in the center when I’ve been disciplined to keep working my supporting side during the barre.

I never forgot what a previous ballet teacher said to me once. That one day, I was totally ON during center, especially during pirouettes, executing them rather flawlessly (for my standard). He said to me, “Do you know why you’re dancing with such ease today?”

I shook my head, thinking it was a stroke of luck.

He replied coolly, “That’s because throughout the barre, you were on your (supporting) leg.”

Wow. He actually noticed.

Always Working to Perfection

Though I’m a lot stronger on my supporting side than before, I STILL feel I have insufficient strength and stamina to carry me to the center. I still do not have enough to support what I need to do. But that’s just how ballet is isn’t it? We must always work towards that elusive perfection. Even for professionals, it’s normal for them to be dissatisfied with their pelvis placement, or arms, or 5th position or turns etc. Thus, they are constantly working it.

I don’t believe we should beat ourselves up when we’re not good enough like all those crazy misrepresented ballet TV shows. I like to see it as rather, having a humble attitude to keep working hard and keep improving.

Having a strong pulled up supporting leg not only is essential to be able to execute advanced steps, but dancing becomes more beautiful too. It simply looks a lot better. You can actually see the difference in energy in the dancing when there is a pulled up supporting leg.

With a pulled up supporting side, your core is engaged and you’re actually in more control of your body. Your upper body can actually relax, because it is being supported by a very strong base (your legs and core). That is how dancers look so relaxed and seem to be dancing with minimal effort. Funnily, I used to be so frustrated with the heavy tension in my face, neck and upper back. My body naturally tensed up because I had a shaking foundation to dance on. I now realize it is due to the disconnect of the supporting side: my legs and core and upper body was out of sync.

I am grateful that I get a chance now to work this part of ballet technique which I need. I can’t wait for it to become a habit, so that I don’t really have to think about it anymore!

🙂

Stretching before class
in Advanced Ballet, Ballet tips, Intermediate Ballet

Stretch Before Class!

In my book and in several articles like this one, I have said you don’t need flexibility to start learning ballet and that you will become more flexible over time. At some point however, you would probably want to be more flexible.  You’ll then increase your efforts to stretch in order to be more flexible quickly.

Stretching before class

So when do you stretch? For almost everyone, it just makes sense to stretch after class because you’re warm.

However, I do believe, for intermediate and advanced dancers, that it is vital to stretch BEFORE class.

This topic might be controversial…but I believe that dancers should stretch before class so as to be able to achieve maximum flexibility and range of rotation and height during class.

The stretching that is done after class fulfills a different purpose – that is to increase your flexibility – such as working towards a full split. The stretching before class is to ensure that you are fully able to work with what you have. To dance with the maximum height of leg you can ever do and turn out to the maximum rotation. If you don’t stretch before class…you probably would not be able to do that.

Let me explain.

If you’re like me, always trying to find express or ‘cheat’ ways to obtain the greatest amount of flexibility in the shortest amount of time (and probably least amount of effort) FOR AN ADULT nonetheless, you’ll come across many contradicting theories about stretching.

This is the main consensus.

It is generally believed that you shouldn’t stretch when your muscles are cold. You should warm up first before stretching. Thus, you shouldn’t stretch before class.

When your “muscles are cold” – it means either literally cold, or that you haven’t been doing anything that gets your heart rate up, even if you’ve been walking all day and landed in the studio just before ballet class.

Thus, many teachers would simply “warm” the students up by plies and tendus.

Many recreational dancers themselves wouldn’t really stretch too because they believe that they can warm up using the barre and then stretch before proceeding to the center exercises.

So bottom line, what is happening is that dancers are not warmed up or stretched to their maximum flexibility during barre and probably this carries on to center.

Maybe this is fine for an adult beginner, who may not have much range of flexibility yet. The teacher for beginner adults may not be as strict about a tight fifth position or maximizing your turn out as your plie or tendu.

However, as you become an Intermediate and Advanced dancer, you would want to maximize what you have. This means your flexibility, your turn out range, your inner thigh muscles’ strength ….and you can only do so if you stretch and gain maximum range BEFORE ballet class.

Always Work with Maximum Range

Why is it important to ensure you’re fully stretched to the point where you can use your maximum range?

  • Making the best of what you have

First of all, you want to maximize what you have, with whatever body God gave you. We may not all have perfect ballet bodies, but we make the best of what we have.

  • Setting the correct muscle memory

When you’re working using your maximum range, you’re training your body to work in one way, with one point of reference, instead of many different points of reference. This sets in a strong muscle memory. Working with your full limit is an easier reference point than anything in between..

  • Training your body to increase range

By working at maximum range, you’re also unconsciously stretching and pushing yourself to reach maximum potential. You don’t know how far you can go if you limit yourself by working with 70% of your turn out, or leg strength,

  • Safe practice

By stretching out, you’re also making it safe for your body to work. If you don’t “open your hips”, stretch your foot, or your hamstrings, you might be working them in a state of tension. If you apply more force to tension by forcing your hips open in a wide turnout before “loosening your hips and getting them warm”, you’re setting yourself up for potential injury.

Unless you have a gifted body with a loose, 180 degree turn out, you can come to class and stand in a nice tight fifth position. If you don’t, what you’re doing is simply turning out from your ankle. You might be overstretching its ligaments, and worse, your knees are not over your toes during plie…now as adult dancers, we don’t want to create less opportunity to dance, right?

Thus, it is important to stretch and open the hips, warm up the knees, ankle and foot…even your waist, torso, back and shoulders!

Professionals Stretch Before Class

Some people frown on stretching before class (because you are supposedly ‘cold’)…with good reason, I believe. Usually they had not been professional ballet dancers themselves.

It is true from science that there is more potential for injury if we do any high-energy activity (or stretching) when we are not warm.

Contradictory to what these recreational dance teachers advocate for are dance teachers who were professionals themselves …and who believe just the opposite. They often start their classes by commanding everyone to stretch and warm up into their splits.

My friends who graduated from vocational ballet school share the same sentiments. They complain to me when teachers tell them not to stretch before class (but stretch after barre). They say, “then how can I close in fifth or develop my legs really high? I will feel so tight in the hips that I will use more energy than usual!”

To them… to stretch = warm up

That is how they warmed up. They stretched.

These vocational school students, and professionals literally get on the floor in all sorts of positions (usually not into full splits right away) to release tightness in their glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, feet, arches, toes etc. Eventually they get into splits and over-splits.

Everyone has their own stretch routine to prepare their body for class.

To Stretch or Not To Stretch?

Before class?

My take on this is….

Yes, stretch. Stretch and get your maximum range before class.

This is especially if you’re dancing at an intermediate or advanced level, and have achieved a relatively good amount of flexibility.

But to be safe, especially, if you’re not really used to this or you don’t quite know your maximum range…do a slight jog on the spot or jumping jacks to get the body warm.

Then slowly prepare your body for maximum stretching…do small stretches first leading up to big stretches such as splits or over-splits. Do not shock your body. Shocking your body by diving into the big stretches first will just create a state of tension in your body and make stretching even harder.

Personal Experience

From personal experience, I feel it is more dangerous for me not to stretch before class. I’m firstly expending wasteful energy to try to get my legs higher and hold my stiff turn out wider. I’m also potentially injuring myself, twisting the ligaments in my knee or ankle when trying to work in a tight 5th position. I feel I’m fighting my own body and I do not feel as “free” in my movement. My body is also ‘asleep’ before class, and if I stretch it before class, it is more ‘awake and alert’ and thus more responsive to do whatever I mentally command it to do.

Also, in trying to become a better dancer, I realize the need for more hard-core stretching!

But Isn’t Stretching Before You’re Warm Dangerous?

So why do some dance teachers or science studies show that it is dangerous to stretch if you’re not warm?

First of all, if you’re a beginner at stretching or at exercise, you might not yet have developed the sensitivity of your body. You won’t be able to pinpoint exactly which part of your body feels tight, or stiff. You may not know where is your true range, or your maximum. By going doing some hard core stretching, you might over-exert and end up straining your body.

As a beginner, you’ll also won’t have full command of your body (yet). Your control of how deep to go is clunky and clumsy. You might lose a grip, slip and fall into a stretch position far deeper than you intended. That’s how many adult beginners injure themselves stretching. Thus, the risks of getting injured are far less when you are warm.

Thus, I believe these are the reasons why it is generally discouraged not to stretch before class…simply because you are not “warm” enough.

Conclusion:

I can’t tell you whether it is absolutely right for you to stretch before class. This is because every body is different. That’s why it is absolutely crucial to be sensitive to what your body is telling you.

As for more advanced dancers, I feel it is vital to stretch before class. If you feel you need to warm your body up, by all means do so…do that jog and jumping jacks. But yes, you do have to make the effort to stretch out everything before class!

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