Black Magic: I’m a believer!

5 Sep

Um…hello. It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve written, and it probably has something to do with acquiring this second job, as I am still learning how to manage my time better and figure this mess of a schedule out. It has also been an incredibly long time since I’ve written about some of my personal experiences inside the studio as an adult student of ballet, because I actually couldn’t afford to go. These past few months of eking out my existence and being devoid of dance have been rough, and have even led to the development of some stress related symptoms like eczema and temporomandibular joint disorder (I’m pretty sure I get all the weird diseases). While I can’t dispense medical advice, I do think being able to dance again has had a lot to do with healing these conditions. We all know the benefits of endorphins released into the body via physical activity, and obviously I really needed that. The positive emotional effects of returning to dance almost go without saying—I feel complete and alive again. I’ve always been grateful for every opportunity to dance I’ve ever had, and I will continue to do so because being grateful for something—anything—feels (for lack of a better term) magical.

On the topic of not being one to dispense advice, I would like to completely contradict myself and discuss in depth some issues on technique I’ve been exploring. I’m not really qualified in any way to teach anyone anything about ballet and can only comment on my experiences with my body, and how they relate to how I observe ballet technique in others. Disclaimer aside, in this one of my nine lives in dance, I decided to reevaluate myself and utilize the methods of Maggie Black, passed onto me by Jessica Zeller, one of my teachers from when I was at Ohio State. Before I proceed, this is by no means an exhaustive compendium on what Balanchine may have coined “Black Magic.” In fact, when Jess taught us a class a la Maggie, most of it didn’t make sense to me at the time. That’s the funny thing about ballet though—if you’re diligent about filing away the information in your mind, corrections and new ideas can take months, even years to manifest in physical practice, and all of a sudden you’ll find a little voice screaming “EUREKA!” in your head when you find a ridiculously awesome balance on relevé during center and best of all is the realization that such a feat was no accident.

While I have no firsthand experience as to how Black taught, there are a few basic principles I learned that are applied to barre exercises:

  • Work within the line of your own turnout (no, really)
  • Create a straight line through the ankle and foot, so as not to sickle or wing (no, really)
  • Try to shift your weight as little as possible
  • Keep your legs low, doing all of barre never passing forty-five degrees (optional)

Okay, now for the breakdown. Lots of teachers will often tell you to work within the line of your natural turnout, but us students make it a bad habit to cheat a little anyway. Those of us who don’t have a lot of turnout are desperate for more, and those that have a lot will cheat to get to 180° just because they can. However, Black’s method is very grounded in the anatomical, and even if you can touch toe to heel in a fifth position on flat, it’s almost certain that the same level of turnout cannot be maintained in a fifth position on relevé. To what extent the turnout disappears is going to be more or less obvious on different bodies, but if you’re working outside of your natural line, it’s guaranteed to happen. Similarly, maintaining a straight line through the ankle is taught, but not always put into practice. I find shaping the feet to be very difficult for myself, as my feet are turned in and naturally sickled, but I see in many other dancers feet that are “winged” or stretched too far outward. Especially for pointe work, this surely creates an uneven distribution of weight on the toes and just like forcing turnout on flat affects the turnout on relevé, a winged foot can inhibit the use of turnout going from demi-pointe to full pointe. I think. I really don’t know for sure, but it’s a tendency I’ve noticed in dancers who wing their feet a lot. All of a sudden, instead of moving through the joints like hinges, there are all kinds of obstacles in extraneous movements. More and more, I think Black’s way of moving is to make it as simple and efficient as possible, very point(e) A to point(e) B.

As far as this shifting weight business, it’s tricky—for good reason! When you train this way at barre, you will have to actually USE the barre more than you probably have been. Many teachers will have us students use only a light touch at the barre, theoretically able to pull your hand off at any given moment, which is certainly one way to do it…however, I see Black’s use of the barre to be a transition into class, meaning, you’re supposed to use the barre because something has to awaken, or alert your body that you will be dancing. Using the barre and not shifting your weight in essence keeps the body very square, and your entire foot grounded into the floor, as opposed to just the ball of your foot when standing on flat. This not only gives you a stronger feel for where your weight is (after all, you need to know what it feels to have your weight going into the floor if you want to push off of it!), but I think it makes further logical sense because when you do shift your weight to one leg and onto relevé, your body WILL react and training squarely at barre helps to ensure that the shape that goes on top of it is a balanced one that minimizes unevenness. It’s genius really—use the body’s natural response to make dancing easier!

Now for this forty-five degree business…an extension at forty-five is highly underrated (and ninety is a bigger beast than people might think!). The purpose of keeping the legs lower is to zero in on rotating your legs and training the muscles to move correctly. I’ll never forget what Jess said, that she worked this way at barre for six months or so and at the end of her experiment, could développé to 120°! It’s commonly known that one can be strong and not flexible, and also that flexible people are not necessarily strong. Something that always baffled me though is that I’ve seen people who are quite limber, take class regularly, and yet they can’t get past that barrier of getting their leg above ninety degrees. I’m beginning to understand more that technique isn’t about increasing some prescribed combination of strength and/or flexibility, but teaching your body HOW to move. Now, I’m not foolish enough to expect the results Jess had because our bodies are different, but I’ve already noticed a laundry list of things that have been much better at center for me.

So why did I decide to start training this way? Well, I guess I should start with the purpose, which is that I really want to be able to do a nice, attitude turn en dehors, a criminally difficult maneuver that isn’t necessarily a flashy sort of step, but for some reason makes me completely unravel. Mind you, I don’t even need to be able to do multiple turns—a clean single is fine—but all attempts have ended catastrophically and it occurred to me that I have a terrible habit of letting my ribs come too far forward in attitude and arabesque. It’s one thing to do this in an adagio, or strike the iconic pose from Swan Lake, but it’s not working for turning, and makes it impossible to use my back for spotting. So, I’ve been really focusing on keeping my ribs in, in addition to squaring my body, and what I like about Black’s method is that it helps to create three-dimensional shapes. Much of the Balanchine/School of American Ballet influence I’ve been getting has a lot of opening of the hip in second and arabesque, but a lot of what Black’s method will do is have you bring the legs forward where you actually can rotate it, and the same goes for the arms. My second position of the arms has been too far out to the side, which is part of the reason why my ribs and chest kept coming too far forward, and bringing my arms forward has actually helped me to engage my back much better, again, thinking in terms of three-dimensional shapes instead of some of the splayed out variety. I keep saying 3-D because this is a hugely important (and logical) concept for me—a ball for example, balances perfectly even though it only makes contact with a tiny amount of a surface, while trying to balance a sheet of paper is virtually impossible. Hence, my obsession with really trying to keep square hips/3-D shapes is because I’m convinced placement is the secret to good balance.

I was mostly inspired to really work at this by one of my favorite dancers, Sofiane Sylve, who has perfect attitude turns. I shall compare her with another of my favorite dancers, Ivan Vasiliev who has excellent ones, but goes about doing them a different way. This is not to say Sylve trained under Black because she most certainly didn’t—only that my interpretation of Black’s teachings are helping me to understand the body line that Sylve produces. Visual first:

The evolution of the turn, with Sofiane Sylve (L) and Ivan Vasiliev (R). And yes, I intentionally chose snapshots from clips of them in practice clothes.

It’s not perfect, but I tried to capture them at similar moments in the turn. As you can see, Sylve does a lot of the aforementioned: square pelvis, lower leg, even back, all on top of a turned out supporting leg. Vasiliev has a more open line, which is a very Russian thing to do, and has his leg further out to the side in that mysterious “a la sebesque” line (or in this case “a la sebesquitude”). It creates the illusion of length and height, offsetting his torso a bit, but inhibits the turnout of his standing leg, and in fact he’s kind of rolling onto the outside of his foot, which if you have tapered toes (and I know I do), this is a death sentence that ends in a fall. Keep your leg behind you like Sylve (almost like a detached retiré) and you stand a chance. Both are acceptable ways of turning, and Vasiliev can certainly wind around five or six times (check out his Basilio variations to see what I mean), so it really comes down to what works for your body. I do find Sylve’s prettier though, even if she only does a double or a triple, I think she has the kind of technique that lasts with you, and doesn’t rely too heavily on momentum or having the beastly strength and flexibility Vasiliev does.

Well folks, this post is getting too lengthy so I suppose it’s “choose your own adventure” time. Just know that the teachings of Maggie Black (as passed down to me by one of her students) is not a miracle cure. Although I can say that after such a long break and a mere four classes of doing this, I’m dancing cleaner than ever, with better balance, and the most control I’ve ever had. Even wonky pirouettes I have an easier time saving, and just so you know, during a round of kitchen fouettés I even did a double attitude en dehors! Was my leg very low? Absolutely. Did I feel like a rock star anyway? Absolutely. Results not typical…but what do you have to lose?

Bring it forward. Keep it rotated.

40 Responses to “Black Magic: I’m a believer!”

  1. sionan September 5, 2011 at 7:41 pm #

    What an absolutely wonderful post!! I do I write that in French and not have spell check freak out?… My training was Russian and English.. I did the Elementary and Intermediate exams with RAD, but my earlier teacher in San Francisco was pure Russian.. and I can see and FEEL the difference in what you are describing ala attitude turns , the squaring of the’s nice to see your writing again, you have been missed..My website is still the works..;D

    • britt September 6, 2011 at 2:57 pm #

      I too am an adult ballet student (although I danced from age 3-18, with a 17 year hiatus). This was a super helpful post for me as I’ve been struggling with both turnout and extension. It’s sort of freeing to know that I can keep it low, and for 6 months! I think that’s the advice I’ve been looking for.

      BTW, I’ve seen you at PNB lectures before (you were the one asking very astute questions of Ratmansky and the only audience member to mention Bournonville…that’s when I matched you with this blog!). Are you going to the Wheeldon lecture? Any of the performances? I’d love to do a meet up before if you have the time/interest.

      • youdancefunny September 7, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

        I believe I will be going to the Wheeldon preview on Wednesday…I would like to go to the lecture too, but I may not be able to take too many days off work, and I’ll be going to the performance on Saturday. Maybe I’m not reading things correctly, but there doesn’t seem to be any mention of Wheeldon being at the lecture on Thursday, only the stage rehearsal, so if it comes down to one or the other I’d like to see Wheeldon in action!

        I’d love to meet up! Any opportunity to talk about ballet must be acted upon! Do you know which days you are going?

    • youdancefunny September 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm #

      Aw, thank you! I’m happy to be writing again!

  2. Louisa Lust September 6, 2011 at 6:46 am #

    Wonderful post! And what a marvelous job you did with capturing the dancers in action! Thank you so much. I’m a little bit lost re: the shifting of weight business at the barre. I thought we were supposed to get used to shifting the weight so we can do it automatically at Center. Can you elaborate a little more? Thanks!

    • youdancefunny September 7, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

      Definitely read Robin’s comments below (she was actually a student of Maggie’s, when a lot of ABT dancers were taking her class!).

      Basically, it’s all about even distribution of weight, and using the barre which teaches your legs to move independently of your torso. Also, one of the key concepts I find with this is that because the distribution of weight is even, the legs are learning to work equally, meaning, they are both turning out, especially that standing leg. I find a lot of teachers will remind you to turn out your standing leg, but aren’t always able to articulate how, other than to simply “turn out.” You’ll find working this way at barre makes your standing leg work much harder, and develop the control it needs to stay turned out when your gesturing leg is doing the pretty stuff. Just this morning I discovered one way to really feel this is to try a grand rond de jambe en l’air at forty-five degrees–do it first as you normally would, with the weight in the ball of your foot, and a light (or no) touch at the barre. Then try it without shifting your weight to one leg, keeping your weight in your entire foot, and you should need the barre for support (if you don’t, you’re probably not doing it correctly). I know I noticed a huge difference and the latter is much, much harder!

  3. robin (mahrobi) September 7, 2011 at 12:59 pm #

    being a maggie disciple myself i enjoyed this post immensely. i’m going to attempt to explain the weight shifting thing- the idea is to try to keep your weight evenly distributed between both legs (when standing in 5th or 1st) but when you tendu try to keep your weight where it is, (distributed over the whole foot, rather than shifting far over the toes or sitting in the standing hip) thus engaging (& strengthening) the muscles on the inside of the leg. yes, you will have to rely on the barre more- however it helps train your legs to be independent of your body (?) so that if you have to do a series of quick degages changing legs, for example, your upper body is capable of remaining still. i like to use the image of a newtons cradle where the balls on the outside move but the ones on the inside remain still 🙂
    once you get the idea of this at barre it makes center work so much easier because you can rely on your placement as opposed to “muscling” the movement. there are, however, teachers that disagree with this theory but speaking from personal experience it made a huge difference in my ease of center work.
    i have no idea if that makes ANY sense at all!
    & so now i must include my idol martine van hamel showing maggie’s theories to perfection- the ease of the opening turns is astonishing 🙂

    ps steve- i’m so happy for you that you’re back in class- hooray!

    • youdancefunny September 7, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

      Yes!!! I love how cleanly she moves, straight through the ankles and no distortion. I also find that Maggie’s method really teaches your standing leg to maintain turnout! Just doing a rond de jambe en l’air at forty five degrees at barre this morning made my standing leg shake like a leaf!

      And I am SO happy to be back in class too. 🙂

      • robin (mahrobi) September 7, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

        but in the long run grande RDJ in center will be that much easier!

  4. britt September 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

    Robin and Steve, where are you taking class? I’ve been taking PNB’s open class and studying at The Dance School in Everett (where I live). Sounds like I need your teacher!

    • robin (mahrobi) September 7, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

      well, i studied with maggie over 20 years ago in NY but now i teach ballet in new jersey. before maggie i studied at Cornish in seattle and one of my teachers there, frank bays, had also studied with maggie- however i believe he lives in california now! Pat Hon used to give an amazing adult class at cornish- i have heard that she’s retired, but i have also heard that she hasn’t retired so i’m not sure- might be worth checking out 🙂 she’s not from maggie but teaches basically the same placement 🙂

      • Karena September 7, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

        I’m a former Cornish person too–sadly Frank Bays first moved away, then a few years ago he died. I only took his class a few times as he moved just when I advanced into the level that he taught, but I still remember his teaching fondly (as well as his blue velour pants!) Pat Hon is still teaching, but mostly in the Cornish college program. I don’t think she’s taught a class available to the wider public for a while, which is really a loss. She was a huge influence and inspiration for me.

        That said, for people looking for good open classes in Seattle, there many options. There are excellent teachers at Dance Fremont, who definitely teach from a base of anatomical awareness and placement that works with your body’s own abilities–though not Maggie Black, they are certainly on that side of the spectrum. (Full disclosure, I often sub there, so I am not unbiased!) PNB open class is good for being left alone to do your own thing. And though I haven’t taken them, the ballet classes at Velocity might be worth checking out too, for a not-a-bunhead perspective.

        Also, it’s worthwhile to look up Stephanie Saland for one of her sporadically offered classes. She was a principal with NYCB and studied with Maggie Black. She incorporates influences from Balanchine to Qi Gong in her very experimental classes. In the past she has done very “Maggie” classes, then another day had us in a la sebesque (and when she explains it, it makes sense), and then another day incorporated yoga and Pilates exercises.

    • youdancefunny September 7, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

      I take open class at PNB too! I usually go on the mornings I don’t have work (twice a week) but I may try Monday nights for a bit…Stanko is teaching and I want to see what his class is like! Obviously, nobody teaches at PNB this way, I just choose to work this way at barre for myself. It’s pretty clear I’m keeping my legs low intentionally and the teachers don’t seem to mind.

      • robin (mahrobi) September 8, 2011 at 2:06 am #

        oh, i had not heard that frank had died, tho i often wondered. he was a wonderful & brilliant teacher and we were also good friends, i am so sad to hear it.

  5. britt September 7, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

    The Wheeldon preview is on Wed. I’m tentative on that. My tickets are for the first Saturday night, but I may need to change them. I’ll let you know if I go to the preview. I thought it was part preview/part lecture, but I could be wrong.

    Re: PNB open class, it’s hard for me to be consistent about going due to my schedule. I’ll look for you though! I’ve also heard good things about Westlake Dance Center in Northgate. I have two great teachers at The Dance School but the classes are often small in size. I love taking a big class with lots of people.

  6. Louisa Lust September 8, 2011 at 2:33 am #

    Thank you so much for your reply, Robin and youdancefunny! The tips are awesome. I tried with my portable barre at home today, and found myself working so much harder with the gluteal muscles–which I had neglected from the start. I find this way of training much better for realizing true turnout strength and intuitively I feel that this is a safer approach. I also tried the rond de jambe à l’air at 45 degrees (or maybe even lower). Boy, it was tough! But for the first time I managed to use the gluts instead of the front of the hip for holding up the leg. My psoas has been injured due to the wrong use of muscles. I think that this practice is going to help me retrain my muscles so that I can make use of the gluts much better than before. Hats off to you! I’m starting to see the magic in “Black Magic” now….!

  7. Jessica Zeller September 9, 2011 at 4:43 pm #

    Well, Steve, I just love it. And I love that you’re sticking with it–it’s certainly not an easy thing to do! I should clarify that the idea of working with the leg low is not something that I remember Maggie espousing in general–I think perhaps she just knew that it would work for me. I ask some of my students to work that way because there are just so many problems associated with trying to get your leg up, the most pervasive being that students try to reach high extensions and support them from the wrong place. They’re rarely centered, and they often rely on over-shifting the weight and hiking the hip. Rotation disappears, equilibrium gets wonky, and balance is impossible. I think Maggie saw that in me, and from 45 degrees I gradually increased to 90 and then it just went up. I had developed the centered, well-placed strength to support the extension efficiently.

    I do think it’s important to mention something about the context of her teaching, just because it’s so often taken out of context when we teach with her ideas today. She was teaching mostly professionals–no kids, and only a handful of teenagers. She didn’t have to teach comprehensively because almost everyone who came to her had already established their technique–you couldn’t take her approach and teach it to a class of 12-year-olds, for example, or they’d come out like a bunch of zombies (with beautiful placement!). Her vocabulary was very limited, particularly in contrast to the Russian syllabus. We did umpteen million tombé pas de bourrées in her classes, and all of the basic steps, but there were no reversals, nothing too rhythmically complicated, and we repeated everything two to four times over. In a sense, she worked remedially with established ballet dancers–those who needed to simplify what they had spent their whole lives building up, and had perhaps built to an unsustainable point. This is the same reason she was known for her success with rehabilitating injured dancers, and it speaks to the value that she placed on longevity in what is typically a short-lived career.

    So while her alignment concepts are brilliant, and while I advocate the use of her placement with every age group, I don’t know that it could be used as a complete course of training for ballet dancers. It actually makes me uneasy to think of her having her own technique, since I think her teaching was so entirely based on her individual eye, which can’t possibly be reproduced. We try anyway though, and we use her theories of alignment because they enable us to be stable, move freely, and articulate our artistry. I don’t think that I’d call it a Maggie Black technique or anything of that sort though. It kind of feels like sacrilege to think of it that way–she just taught ballet in the clearest, most classical way she could, to some of the best dancers in the world. She based her ideas on the work of a few of her own teachers and the three years she spent alone in a studio trying to get a hold on her own technique. It just took her unique mind and her body to do it–and somehow we all benefit. Amazing.

    Kudos to you, Steve, and thanks for the great post!!

    • youdancefunny September 10, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

      I’m so glad you weighed in, Jess! You could (and maybe someday should!) write a book on this. I’d buy an advance copy in a heartbeat!

      • Jessica Zeller September 10, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

        You know Steve, I didn’t really publicize it at the time, but now that you mention it, I did write an article for Dance Chronicle about Maggie’s work. She was kind enough to give me a long phone interview and talk with me about the article before it was published, so everything in there has been approved. If only she’d be willing to give me feedback on my teaching!

        Here’s the bibliographic info, if you’re so inclined: “Teaching Through Time: Tracing Ballet’s Pedagogical Lineage in the Work of Maggie Black,” Dance Chronicle 32.1 (2009): 57-88.

  8. George Ou October 28, 2011 at 10:07 pm #

    Vasiliev is a freak of a jumper, but his ballet technique has gotten atrocious over the years and he’s given up all pretense of turnout. He doggies his attitude turns to get as many turns as possible and he blatantly does turned in jazz pirouettes with foot behind knee and legs turned in and turns out on the landing. Most guys use this turned in cheat for double tours in passe, but Vasiliev uses this cheat even for normal piroettes.

    Sofiane Sylve ballet technique is pretty much impeccable. Putting them side by side in either a photo or a video is just embarrassing.

    • youdancefunny November 30, 2011 at 10:21 pm #

      I suppose I’m not as much of a purist, because I do still enjoy Vasiliev for his fearlessness among other things.

      Still, I never have to question what Sylve does with her technique, which makes her so blissful to watch!

      • George Ou November 30, 2011 at 10:43 pm #

        Vasiliev is a joy to watch for the reasons you mentioned, but I do wish he’d try to be a bit more classical. He would look even better.

        Sofiane Sylve is so exciting because she pulls off exiting turns with quantity and quality. She is one of the few people that actually puts the back attitude behind her body where it belongs during a turn. It’s difficult because during a turn, the hips can’t open out and tilt down to accommodate a high back leg. Her back attitude leg is 45 degrees to the back which is as much as possible with zero cheating of the hips.

  9. George Ou November 30, 2011 at 10:57 pm #

    When the pelvis is locked in the position of a straight & upright first position, it is impossible for 99% of professional dancers to get more than a 30-45 degree leg to the back. The pelvis and the femur bone is connected in a way that the pelvis obstructs the femur from doing directly back. This is why all arabesques at a minimum require the pelvis to tilt forward and/or open out to the side to let the femur out to the back.

    The problem for a lot of dancers is that they don’t even try to minimize this pelvic compromise and the end up doing an “a la sabesque” fake arabesque. That’s when the pelvis opens completely to the side such that the arabesque leg is effectively (relative to the hips) going out to the side. To make a good arabesque or back attitude line where you can still see the thin long profile of the stomach and torso from the side, the pelvic opening and forward tilt must be minimized.

    But for back attitude turns, dancers are trying to hold onto a perfectly held hip that they used when doing passe or seconde. That makes getting legs to the back nearly impossible, much less above 45 degrees to the back. The problem with nearly every professional dancer I’ve seen on video (even the winners of major competitions) is that they don’t bother pushing the leg back at all for “back” attitude turns. Sofiane Sylve is probably the only one I’ve ever seen look this good in a freeze frame for a back attitude turn, and even she is halfway opened to the back.

    Now this raises an interesting question. Is it possible to have the high 90 degree back attitude leg with minimal hip opening? Theoretically yes, but I’ve never seen anyone do it in person or on video and it is probably extremely difficult. Not only does it make the dancer rubbery when they most need to be rigid, it makes the turn larger which requires more rotational momentum.

    • youdancefunny December 1, 2011 at 9:18 am #

      My thinking is that it probably isn’t possible, because the torso would come too far forward o actually be able to use the back for spotting.

      I agree that the women often have problems with finding an attitude they can turn in, most often exposed in Odile’s variation. Another dancer who I’ve seen actually be able to control this a bit is Katherine Healy:

      What’s also interesting is that when men are doing arabesque en dehors for their Basilio variations, the leg is always low. I do like Marcelo Gomes’s attitude here in his Albrecht variation, where his foot leads the turn nicely:

      Even for Healy and Gomes it takes a revolution or two to find a centered line, which probably means a good attitude en dehors starts with a good rond de jambe that doesn’t pull the dancer off the standing leg. There are probably a lot of bad habits at barre when it comes to this, and the grand rond de jambe is something that really changes under Maggie Black’s way of teaching.

      • George Ou December 1, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

        For both Gomes and Healy, they’re doing it with a knee straight out to the side with a turned in working leg. See screenshots of your two video samples.

        Only the lower leg and foot are behind the body and it is effectively a “doggied” back attitude. But the thigh simply can’t be placed straight behind the hips and the hips need at a minimum to tilt forward and open out a bit, but that compromise makes stability during a grande pirouette difficult. On the Odile variation, most ladies will push the back attitude to the back for a nice finishing pose and few people will notice unless they see a freeze frame.

        This is a problem for even the best dancers like Leonid Sarafanov and Sofiane Sylve is probably the only one I’ve seen even get to 45 degrees to the back (not even 90) and 45 degrees off the floor. She might be able to get the leg higher and more to the back if she opens+tilts the hip slightly, but again there’s the stability issue.

      • youdancefunny December 1, 2011 at 10:32 pm #

        I don’t mind Gomes’s line because the knee still looks to be slightly behind him (though Healy less so). I think Acosta has a nice one too, in his Acteon variation. I don’t mind their lines because it doesn’t turn in the standing leg as it does cause Vasiliev to do.

        Though it’s not solely a French/Russian thing, I do recall discussing with some teachers the French attitude versus the Russian attitude, where the French essentially detach from passe and the Russians prefer the demi-arabesque (though this is not to say every French dancer has good turns in attitude!). Detaching from passe, every attitude to the back will be slightly turned in because nobody truly has 180 degree turnout at the hips.

        In the end it’s kind of pointless to search for the perfect attitude though! Some, like Sylve get very close but unless faults in technique are severely pronounced, I can’t say that slight adjustments and “illusions” have prevented me from enjoying a performance.

      • George Ou December 1, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

        Forgot the screenshot link to Leonid Sarafanov here.

      • George Ou December 1, 2011 at 10:57 pm #

        Gomes doesn’t have it more behind him; the frame caught him in a slightly more rotated position. If you look at Gomes’ torso, you can already see a small part of the front of his body which means his legs is going straight to the side. Gomes looks better because he’s thinner than Ivan and because he’s in costume, and because the camera is lower making the leg appear higher, but they’re more or less doing the same thing.

        These days, I don’t think you can characterize back attitude technique as a French or Russian thing. The Paris Opera is probably a bit more technical and the Russians a bit more dramatic, and both are elite.

  10. George Ou December 7, 2011 at 1:48 am #

    Ah here we go, Rolando Sarabia does a pretty nice job of back attitude turn. He manages to achieve a pure 30 degrees to the back which is nearly as impressive as Sylve.

    From this video

  11. d May 27, 2012 at 10:31 am #

    Love to see Maggie talk online.

    Maintaining a low leg is not the important part of a maggie barre. Maintaining a neutral alignment of the spine is key. Always standing up straight. Just stand. Not “pulling up”.

    A major concept of Maggie’s teachings is awareness. Honing a physical awareness that allows a dancer to locate and free up areas of tension. Focusing to move symmetrically, in one piece. In a sense, a physical meditation. A line of energy, a stream of light.

    What are the spiritual and philosophical implications? Tudor was a Buddhist. Is there a place for ballet in the yoga-sphere? For meditation in ballet?

    There are concepts behind Maggie’s technique that go far beyond placement or superficial ballet idioms of “90 degrees”. Through awareness comes connectedness, a purity of energy emanating from a dancer’s honest identity, allowing effective communication.

    • youdancefunny May 27, 2012 at 9:51 pm #

      I like the way you talk! Yes, the 45 degrees was something Maggie specifically gave my teacher, and I’ve chosen to take it on because I’m not an advanced dancer, and struggle a lot with range of motion. It’s interesting that you mentioned “moving symmetrically,” because that’s one of the things Maggie’s method has illuminated for me the most, that is to say, how much I lack symmetry and how my left side struggles in ways so drastically different from my right.

      And for me, ballet essentially is a religion–there’s ritual, theology, morality, worship of the sacred, and inexplicable divinities. I even find story ballets to be somewhat mythological, in the sense that they provide characters we can see ourselves in and learn from.

      • d May 28, 2012 at 4:01 am #

        don’t forget dogma

  12. George Ou May 27, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

    This concept of “your own turnout” in which dancers don’t work their working leg fully to the side is probably one of the worst things to teach. Everyone can lift their legs 180 degrees to the side even if they have zero ballet training and extremely poor flexibility. What they may not be able to do is point the working heel back without a lot of strength and flexibility training.

    The problem is that too many teachers demand that the heel not only points downward, but that it must point forward in seconde. This allows dancers to fake a much higher leg in a la seconde but it constricts the width and openness of the position and dancers are essentially halfway between front and side and it looks like they’re sticking the soles of their feet to the audience instead of making their pointed foot look like a proper “comma” when it is truly to the side.

    The other big problem with a fake seconde is that dancers never learn how to work with their legs to the side. This presents huge problems for Échappé, Fouetté, Pas De Chat, Glissade, Petit Jete jumps, and just about anything else that involves a leg to the side where cheating is impractical.

    None of the elite pre-professional schools will permit a fake seconde where leg drifts to the front. Here is a very proper example from Russia.

    Just about everyone can eventually turn the heel down when working to true side with enough training. Even if they initially can’t get the heel down or never completely gets the heel down, it is a lesser evil than never training to true side.

    • George Ou May 27, 2012 at 11:31 pm #

      Everyone can lift their legs 180 degrees (flat) to the side even if they have zero ballet training and (have) extremely poor flexibility. What they may not be able to do is (rotate) the working heel (towards the ground) without a lot of strength and flexibility training.

    • d May 28, 2012 at 3:31 am #

      makarova bends here knee every time she closes to fifth position. it’s interesting to note that makarova did work with maggie.

      • George Ou May 28, 2012 at 3:42 am #

        Nobody is exactly perfect when closing in a tight 5th position and what’s important is how a dancer looks when the legs are in other positions. How often is a dancer in 5th on stage? What’s more visible, the beautifully flat body and legs or the slight bend of the knees to make minor adjustments?

        The crossing of the 5th in flat is very artificial and not very useful for most things. 5th releve or pointe or in the air is far less crossed or else the toes are too far apart because they’ve overshot. If you use the over crossed leg position when one leg is out in tendu or passe or whatever, the standing leg hip socket has to shift over the ankle socket such that the standing leg is as close to vertical as possible. People who obsess too much about 5th and getting the weight over the balls of the feet end up sitting and it looks ugly. See this example:

    • youdancefunny May 28, 2012 at 9:33 am #


      Let me be clear in that while I encourage open discussion from readers, my blog is not a platform for promoting your ideas on turn out that I do not advocate. Different ideas work for different bodies which is why I’ve allowed you the space for sharing what you believe to be true, however, I will not tolerate further discrediting of principles that I value, in the interest of maintaining the integrity of my blog. I do not censor comments, nor do I have issues with disagreements, but comments that are provocative with no regard for my voice as a writer or potentially threaten the health of my readers will be filtered as I see fit. If you believe you have an understanding of training principles that exceed others including mine, I suggest starting your own blog.

      You’ve said your piece, and I do not endorse your training methods. Further elaboration is unnecessary, so consider this my only warning.


      • George Ou May 29, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

        Post or delete this if you wish, but I’m just going to say this to you and we can try to have a civil debate here, in email, or you can ignore.

        First of all, I actually argued with Dmitri Roudnev (who I’m in agreement with in terms of how to work a proper seconde with legs fully to the side) that he shouldn’t accuse the other camp of being dangerous. I told him that even though I agreed with him, it’s intellectually lazy to accuse the other school of thought of endangering students just like it isn’t good when it’s the other way around. Accusing a debate opponent as being “dangerous” is poisoning the well to civil and intellectual discourse.

        Neither school is any more dangerous to the other. Working legs directly to the side is possible for anyone without risk because there is no need to force rotate the heel to the front or even just pointed downward. You can stand in seconde position right? Do you put one leg in front of the other or are they directly aligned and pointing away out to the side? How is that any different from lifting a leg directly to the side? Of course they’re no different!

        This American (typically academia) philosophy is driven by the desire to rotate the heel more forward (past downward) to the detriment of getting the legs fully to the side. The problem with this is that too many ballet steps like Échappé, Fouetté, Pas De Chat, Glissade, Petit Jete, beats, and sissonne all require leg movement directly to the side with zero cheating. Dancers (typically adult students) who work diagonally front-side always have problems with these steps and they do the most awkward workarounds. They do their beats from fifth-to-fifth front-to-back like they’re treading water rather than have the legs go out to the side.

  13. d May 30, 2012 at 4:29 am #

    Classism is about logic and reason. The body is a machine, made to work in certain ways. It makes sense that a dance technique(Maggie’s) would use proper, anatomical alignment, which would allow for freedom of motion and a focus on the quality of movement.

    Not everyone has a great amount of turnout. If hips don’t rotate, resorting to forcing ones legs into a twisted shape can be detrimental to ones machine. Standing on a twisted leg is difficult and dangerous. Logic and anatomy show that certain methods of training are dangerous.

    I learned from maggie that anyone can do ballet. Those who don’t have the stereotypical ballet body can use her method to achieve a great deal. It truly is a reasoned celebration of the human body.

  14. Jessica Zeller May 30, 2012 at 8:12 am #

    One of the pillars of ballet technique is rotation. It has been described and analyzed in hundreds of different ways over the centuries, and at this point in history there seem to be two distinct sides of the argument as to how it is employed in the a la seconde line. It is false to say that the heel rotated under is typically an approach used in academe, since it appears in both the British and Danish approaches to training. It is, as George says, anatomically possible for everyone to move their working leg to the 3:00 position directly side, but at what expense? Either the working leg must rotate inward–or en dedans–and fundamentally disagree with ballet’s identity as an outward–en dehors–form, or the standing leg compensates and either the knee twists or the ankle pronates to maintain turnout. Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, knees twisting and ankles pronating are dangerous. Period. In particular, if we take the position of most Russian training, which is that everything in the class builds towards allegro, then we must consider that the twisting and pronation at the barre will eventually make its way into the landings of jumps. Unstable joints + impact = injury. The only situation in which this is not always true is with the hand-selected bodies in a handful of elite academies around the world: because the children’s bodies are so supple, they can be molded–to a degree.

    Ballet in its ideal form is symmetrical–we do exercises equally on both sides, and the right is supposed to work the same way as the left. In that light, the standing leg must be rotated to the maximum, with the toes pointing directly side, while the working leg is pointed to the absolute side a la seconde. There are few bodies in the world that can accommodate that in their natural rotation, which is why the most elite schools around the world hand-select their students from a young age. Part of the intense training of those young, soft bodies is stretching the natural line, or pushing to a certain degree to expand the natural. These are part of developing the facility–although we have little understanding of how such molding affects the dancer’s physical facility later on. For the vast majority of those engaged in ballet training around the world, however, and particularly in democratic countries where ballet training is freely available in varying degrees of professionalism, rotation does not come so easily. For the adult beginner, whose bony structures are no longer malleable, such forcing of the body into the ideal is, from an anatomical perspective, dangerous. While the compensations that many of them make may look awkward at first, particularly when it comes to the allegro steps that travel de cote, it is more a matter of coordinating the steps and refining the inner thigh support so that the step travels slightly forward along the line of rotation. It may not be academically perfect in the textbook sense of traveling side, but the step is still correct in that it is able to be executed with full rotation, balance, and coordination to the degree that the body allows. It could be asserted (and I do assert) that the step is incorrect if the student continually tries to use an idealized facility that they do not have, thereby making equally odd-looking and destructive compensations that destroy the balanced look and coordination of the steps.

    What “d” says is correct–Maggie allowed every body to enter into an otherwise ideal form by celebrating their natural structure. When I spoke with her, she acknowledged that many professionals she worked with didn’t have “perfect” facilities. But working with her concept of alignment allowed them to negotiate their centered weight and coordination in such a way that was perhaps more classical than if they had been attempting to force themselves into an impossibly ideal structure. Because in the end, as d mentioned earlier, it’s about developing an artist using the vehicle of the technique–or vice versa, manipulating the technique to facilitate artistry within the classical parameters.

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