Technical Tricks of the Trade: Advice from an Amateur

25 Sep

You’d be surprised what you can learn from a set of new eyes, even when they may not be the most experienced.  The fact that people read this blog has given me an inflated sense of ego, and I feel impudent enough to offer some advice when it comes to taking class.  I believe that our flaws shape our perceptions, and as someone with bad feet, bad turnout and no natural flexibility, I’m always looking at how people use such things.  One of the teachers at Pacific Northwest mentioned how Maria Tallchief, who doesn’t have the best feet, would go crazy when dancers with great feet didn’t use them.  This entry shall be an amalgamation of various things the teachers I respect the most have told me and is perhaps geared towards the late starter or beginning/intermediate dance student.  For the accomplished dancer or teacher, there’s a good chance you have something better to do!

If you’re a late starter, fret not.  A late starter is someone who may start at the age of fifteen or sixteen and the good news is you’re NOT a late starter at all.  Many a fine dancer began their training at this age (particularly guys) and went on to professional careers.  One of the best examples I can think of is Melissa Hayden, a celebrated Balanchine muse, who started at fifteen…and you didn’t get to be a Balanchine muse if you didn’t have special qualities!  Hayden was every bit the technical virtuoso on pointe that other dancers who trained from an early age were and she had incredible passion—her true tour de force.  Another great dancer who started at fifteen is Thiago Soares, a current principal with The Royal Ballet, so even in this modern era can one start in their teenage years and achieve the highest ranks possible in dance.  So really, if you’re around this age, don’t call yourself a “late starter,” and think of it as a “delayed start” instead.

If you began past the age of twenty like I did, NOW you’re a true late starter (in my case, 23, so ANCIENT starter).  Professional aspirations are probably unrealistic, but that’s okay because if you’re anything like me, you just love to take class and dance.   Sometimes we’re not taken seriously because we don’t have those possibilities but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to achieve certain things like a double pirouette or a higher leg extension.  However, the approach is perhaps a little different with adult ballet and I will share what I’ve learned, in terms of the four goals that seem to be common:

I want MASSIVE amounts of turnout!

Your knees and hips are screaming—STOP.  Your turnout will improve with continued barre practice.  What people don’t realize though is that it isn’t necessarily how much turnout you have, but how you use it.  I always cite the example of one of the differences I noticed between the corps de ballet of the Bolshoi and The Royal Ballet.  The Bolshoi corps would all line up in perfectly turned out fourth positions but when they went up on pointe, wa-waaaah their legs actually turned in!  This inward rotation was actually very distraction because then they force their turnout on the way down, creating even more extraneous movement.  The Royal Ballet corps, on the other hand, had dancers who were not 180°, but moved in and out of a fourth or fifth position they could use, without extra rotation of the legs.  The cleanliness and efficiency supersedes less-than-180° turnout.

I want to développé SUPER high!

Ah yes…the ever-coveted high leg extension.  This is something like many that I have yet to achieve myself but I will tell you something a teacher told me that BLEW. MY. MIND.  There’s this idea that we need to develop the flexibility and strength to hold the leg up high to the front or to the side, which is true—the problem is once the flexibility is there, we think “strength, strength, strength!”  This actually promotes gripping in the quads and picking up the hip (which you don’t want to do) because you’re thinking about “lifting” the leg…but ballet is SO mental and this is the big dirty secret that I’ll never forget her telling us: The degree of extension that requires the MOST strength is…NINETY DEGREES!  Why?  Because that is when your leg is furthest away from you, and thus the weight is furthest away from you!  Behold, the power of common sense!  So then, how to get the leg above 90°?  She told us about her training and how she spent many months working below 90° at 45°, working only on placement, using the barre more and shifting her weight as little as possible.  That allowed her to train her muscles to extend properly and after the experiment was over she could développé to 120°.  Conclusion?  Getting above 90° is MENTAL.  Think about it (seriously).

I want a HUGE penchée arabesque!

One of the biggest myths in ballet is that every penchée needs to be ginormous and approach a full split.  Wrong!  The most important thing to keep in mind is the connection between the back and the leg, and the line it creates through the hips.  Lots of beginning students try to hike the leg up but then drop the torso, which is not pretty and doesn’t develop the strength in your back you actually need.  If penchées are new to you, start out with little tiny ones and think of the foot taking you up while the torso stays as upright as possible.  Here’s one of the big dirty secrets about penchées too…most of the time, I find getting into it to be the easiest part—it’s getting out of it that’s much more challenging.  A good penchée goes down and comes back up without shifting the foot and rolling around on it.  I used to try to penchée and my leg would literally go nowhere and what worked for me was actually learning to place myself in as square an arabesque as possible.  The Balanchine arabesque, which in my opinion flattens out the three dimensional quality of an arabesque by opening the hip didn’t improve my line at all because I don’t have the turnout.  When I stopped trying to do that and focused on squaring up my hips and rotating from the socket of my standing leg, slowly but surely I greatly improved my penchée…on one side.  My right side hasn’t figured it out yet, but there is a world of difference on my left!

I want to do 2983573982421903821 pirouettes!

Yeah, me too.  Here’s the deal with pirouettes…different things will work for different people, and chances are you will get an onslaught of various corrections.  My advice here is to remember as many as possible because even if you can’t get your body to physically achieve every correction every time, it’s very much a “checklist” sort of thing, and you’ll often find that different corrections will work for you on different days.  A lot of corrections teachers gave me of course made sense and I would try to do what they were asking but didn’t quite “feel it.”  You’d be surprised at how some corrections may make much more sense weeks, months or even years later.  A long time ago one of my teachers was always telling me to “feel wide in your back,” but only now, just the other day I actually FELT it and BAM! Triple pirouette (I’ve been chicken and sticking with doubles lately).

Hope this helps, from a fellow ballet class addict!  Let me know how this all goes…unless it makes stuff worse, then don’t sue me.  I can only hope to pretend to SOUND like a real expert.

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5 Responses to “Technical Tricks of the Trade: Advice from an Amateur”

  1. robin October 4, 2010 at 3:22 am #

    well done steve. you are really quite clever 🙂 great advice all the way around. interesting the turn out bit w/ the bolshoi…. something i want to keep an eye out for now!

  2. Serina July 27, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

    I was just wondering where you take classes. I was a late starter at 16 an want to really enhance my abilities. I’m 19 now, & don’t know of many places I could go that will give real training for a late beginner of dance/ballet. Thanks!

    • youdancefunny July 27, 2013 at 7:41 pm #

      Hi Serina!

      First off, thanks for commenting and kudos to you for sticking with ballet!

      Good training for adults can be hard to find, and depends a lot on where you live, as ballet is typically available in larger cities with major companies. For example, Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle and Boston Ballet in Boston have two of the best adult programs in the country. However, other cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and New York have a great variety of options not necessarily affiliated with a company. I don’t know what level you’re at, but Boston, Chicago, San Fran, and NY in particular would be the best options if you’re at a beginner level and want to progress slowly towards advanced classes.

      Another option is to take classes at a university that has a dance program. Some colleges have classes for both dance majors and non-majors–it depends on the school and it’s worth looking in to, though it may be more expensive. The advantage here though is that you may not have to necessarily move to a big city.

      Bottom line, if you’re really serious about training, there’s a good chance you may have to move to a big city or take ballet classes at a college. It’s important to take class often (I generally took class 4 times a week–though I’d have done 5 if I could’ve afforded it), and also experiment with a variety of teachers to see who does the most with your learning style, which is more important than how often you take class–focused, GOOD work, for less time is better than countless hours of crap.

      Hope this helps!

      • Serina July 28, 2013 at 10:55 am #

        That was such great advice! Thank you so much for all that you said. I actually live in Ohio, so New York may be the closest.. Although I saw some tempting studios in Cali, of course! I think you’re right, serious training can be difficult to find, and the recreational studios around here just won’t cut it. I don’t have any experience outside of my current dance studio, (mainly younger kids & occasional adults taking tap) but I think I’d want to start at a more beginner based level and work my way up, then see what i can do with it! I considered going to college for dance but I wasn’t so sure I’d make their tough dance audition to enter. That is a good idea though! I’ll look into those places you mentioned!
        I love your blog! Thank you again for your help : )

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Technical Tricks of the Trade: Advice from an Amateur (via You Dance Funny, So Does Me) | BalletScoop by the ClassicalBalletTeacher - September 25, 2010

    […] You’d be surprised what you can learn from a set of new eyes, even when they may not be the most experienced.  The fact that people read this blog has given me an inflated sense of ego, and I feel impudent enough to offer some advice when it comes to taking class.  I believe that our flaws shape our perceptions, and as someone with bad feet, bad turnout and no natural flexibility, I’m always looking at how people use such things.  One of the teac … Read More […]

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