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