Technique Spotlight: Body Posture – Alignment

Where am I standing? How should I stand? And in which way am I going?

Alignment in dance is crucial, but it can be extremely confusing. I’ve been struggling with how best to introduce this material in our very short class periods, especially as the French terms used for alignment positions all sound somewhat alike (écarté, éffacé, épaulé…) and the actual difference between the positions can be difficult to grasp when one is first starting out.

As such, I’ve decided it best to break the topic up into three different elements: alignment, which indicates how and where you stand; direction, which indicates the incline of the body in a particular stance, and momentum, which indicates where you place your feet, extend your legs, and move. We’ll start in this post with alignment.

Ballet is a 3-D art. It uses the full space of the stage, and balletic movements are performed in a specific alignment of the body. Most of what we have done in class has been performed facing directly forward towards the mirror (en face). However, that is just one of the alignments that is available to the dancer. Many ballet schools use a series of specific terms to describe the alignment of the body during performance (though the terms differ dependent on the school or technique being taught). Most have eight distinct alignments of the body, practiced in a box or square manner with each point being numbered. The alignments that we will utilize most often in class are as follows:

  • Croisé means “crossed” in French, and can describe both crossed position of the feet (such as P3 and P5) as well as the alignment in which the leg is extended across the body.
  • En face means that the dancer is facing completely forward.
  • Écarté is an opening of the body, with the leg extended outward instead of across.
  • Effacé means “shaded,” and indicates that one arm is shading the body while the legs are opened. It’s sometimes described at the opposite of croisé.
  • Épaulé is “shouldered” (such as an epaulette on a military jacket, which covers the shoulders). Épaulement, in which the dancer looks towards or over one shoulder, is a common expressive technique which helps to heighten the emotional quality of the dance. In épaulé positions, the arm extends forward while the dancer faces over one shoulder. I will ask advanced students already familiar with épaulement to use it at the barre or en centre when working the corresponding form, but it will not be necessary for those in Basics or those beginning Intermediate with no previous training.

Many ballet academies will use a square or box marked on the studio floor to help students learn the different alignments, as is shown in this video from the Royal Ballet in the UK. I have seen some classes that use a large square of foam or linoleum in order to show students the different corners to reach with their feet.

cechetti-ballet-corners

Imagining a box on the floor can help the dancer to both correctly align the torso as well as maintain the proper direction for the leg and foot when performing movements such as the tendu.

For those looking for more detailed information, I highly recommend this great blog post from The Ballet Bag.

Next time, we’ll talk about direction!

Hello, 2017!

Happy New Year, Spartan dancers! I hope that you all had an enjoyable and relaxing winter break, and are ready to point those toes in ballet this semester.

Two changes to the spring schedule:

  • Ballet Basics starts back up TODAY! The class will be offered on Fridays in IM East, but we now have a new time. A number of students let me know that they had classes until 12:40 PM, so I was able to push back our class’ start time to 1:00 PM. I hope that this new time helps to better accommodate everyone’s class schedules.
  • Unfortunately, my schedule shifted this semester and I will be unable to offer the Intermediate Ballet class this spring. My apologies for this disappointment – I’m hoping that I will be able to add it back to the schedule next fall.

I look forward to seeing everyone at the IM East studio today at 1:00 PM for Ballet Basics! If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to shoot me an email. In the meantime, stay warm, stay hydrated, and enjoy the first week of classes! 🙂

~Kitty

Intermediate Ballet CANCELLED for 10/26/2016!

Hello Spartan dancers!

Some bad news, I’m afraid – I managed to pull a series of muscles in my lower back this weekend. I’ve been to the doctor and am on the mend, but not allowed to dance for at least a week while things heal. As such, the Intermediate Ballet class for this evening at IM Circle has been cancelled.  😦

Ballet Basics will continue this Friday with Scott (12:30 PM at IM East).

I hope to be back on my toes by next week, and to see everyone again in Intermediate next Wednesday! My sincere apologies for this inconvenience.

All best,

Kitty

Technique Spotlight: Piqué

Piqué in French means “to prick, or be stung.” A piqué movement in ballet consists of the dancer lifting the toes of the working foot/leg to “prick” the floor. We have engaged the piqué in two movements so far – at the barre in combination with the dégagé (disengaged) tendu in both classes, as in a turn in the Intermediate class.

The piqué turn is a traveling turn, and are usually performed in multiples (such as three turns in succession). In a piqué turn, the dancer lifts his/her leg into a strong passé and turns either on the demi pointe (if in slippers) or full pointe (if in toe shoes). Piqué turns are found in both the adage and allégro rhythms in ballet, and have also been adopted into other forms of dance, such as jazz.

Arms in the piqué turn typically move from second position to first position as the turn is performed – this helps both with momentum (so that that full revolution of the turn is completed), as well as keep the upper body upright (so that the dancer doesn’t fall forward or to the side).

Because piqué turns travel, it is very important to spot during the turn so that the dancer doesn’t become dizzy or disoriented. This video from BalletHub shows a dancer en pointe doing numerous piqué turns, and gives some great tricks for keeping the upright alignment in the turn. One aspect of the piqué turn that may differ dependent on style or school is the format for the passé – whether or not the toe is held in front of the knee (en dehors) or behind it (retiré/en dedans). Both are correct and have their advantages, but in our classes we are performing piqué turns en dehors (with the toe tucked in front of the knee).

do-ballet-piques-step-8

I find that this helps novice dancers to maintain an upright posture during revolution even if they do not have strong turn-out, whereas the turns performed in retire sometimes lead to the passé leg sliding out of position (and thereby wrecking the dancer’s balance) during rotation. This very detailed blog post from Dance Advantage discusses the different forms of piqué and shows some great examples of ways that piqué (both in barre exercises and in a turn) is utilized.

Piqué takes a lot of practice to master – the operation of lifting and controlling the toe as it pricks the floor is something that only repetition and exercise can secure. But it is a critical and useful movement in classical ballet, and one that every dancer should aspire to achieve.

Technique Spotlight: Pas de Bourrée

Whenever you hear the phrase “pas de…” you know you’re talking about a step. There are lots of different steps in ballet: some are named for animals that they imitate, such as the pas de chat (cat’s step) or pas de cheval (horse-like step), and some are named instead for the place in which they originated (such as the pas de Basque, which started off as a step from a courtly Spanish dance). This is the case with one of ballet’s most common and important traveling steps: the pas de Bourrée.

The pas de Bourrée is traditionally a quick traveling step, most often performed in the allégro rhythm. It evolved from a common three-step motion performed in French courtly dance. Pas de bourrée begins with extension of the first leg while demi-plié, closing the first leg to the second as both transition to relevé, extending the second leg to an open position while relevé, and closing the first leg to the second in demi-plié. This video from Maegin Woodin shows a good example in slow motion of how to do a typical pas de Bourrée. This step is so useful that it has also been adopted and adapted by other forms of dance, and is now commonplace in jazz and musical theatre as well as classical ballet.

pas-de-bourree

As shown in this video from the Royal Ballet of London in the UK, there are many different forms of this step, which is a core movement for crossing the stage. There is a piqué pas de Bourrée, in which the toes are picked up and prick the floor (piqué) during each step of the movement. There is also the pas de Bourrée couru or “running Bourrée,” in which the dancer travels on his or her toes in a crossed position (usually 5th position). One can also perform a pas de Bourrée en tournant by using the three-step motion to turn the dancer’s body (a very common application). As seen in the video, one can perform an entire piece that is nothing but different variations of the pas de Bourrée!

Pas de Bourrée is performed both to travel across the stage as well as an in-between step performed between turns, arabesques, and jumps. It is found is every piece of balletic choreography – I have yet to see a performance, even a short one, without a pas de Bourrée.

We’ll be introducing the pas de Bourrée in Ballet Basics this week, and reviewing it in Intermediate on Wednesday. Getting the pas de Bourrée right takes some practice, but by starting off slow and working up to more quickly paced steps, every dancer of every skills level can master this fundamental technique of classical ballet.

Technique Spotlight: Chassé

Chassé means “to chase” in French. The chassé is a typical traveling movement in which the lead foot is chased by the supporting foot. Chassé can be performed going forward, on a diagonal, or à la seconde (to the side). In this video, chassés from first to second position moving side-to-side are demonstrated, along with a chassé forward from 3rd to 4th position.

Chassés are a very simple and fun step to do, which is why they are typical taught in the first year of ballet classes (in the RAD syllabus, the French term “chassé” is replaced with the English term “gallops”). Chassés are used to quickly cross the stage, as well as performed as an intermediate step between other choreographic elements, including turns, jumps and arabesques. Chassés are always performed in the quick allegro rhythm.

We have been performing chassés in both Ballet Basics and the Intermediate class this semester, and balancing it with tendu par terre en croix (extensions of the leg keeping our pointed toes on the floor), sauté changement (upward jumps with changing feet) in 3rd positions in Basics, arabesques, and some quick footwork sur le cou de pieds (with one foot pointed at the ankle) in the Intermediate class. This versatile step is a great way to work the legs and travel the floor – and it’s just plain fun, too!

Though chasses always reminding me of something… 😉

Coconuts.jpg

 

Technique Spotlight: All About Feet

As discussed in an earlier spotlight, there are five standard positions for the feet. In addition, there are several different techniques used to position the foot along the support leg during steps, turns, and exercises at the barre:

Cou-de-pieds: “cut the foot” – a position in which the toe is pointed at the ankle of the supporting leg. Used as a starting position for different movements en l’air (in the air), including the traditional battement fondu.

cou-de-pied

Coupé: “to cut” – an active transition step in which the foot is pointed at the supporting leg just above the ankle. The coupé step can be performed in front of the supporting leg (devant/en dehor) or behind the supporting leg (derriere/en dedans).

coupe

Something to be aware of – the different schools of classical ballet often have different names and conceptions for the same kinds of movements. Coupé is a good example of this: in some schools of ballet, the coupé is actually performed closer to the knee than the ankle, and in others, the coupé is synonymous with a cou-de-pieds. In our classes, coupé will refer to a position of the toe about 4 inches above the supporting leg’s ankle.

Passé: “passed through” – a position in which the pointed toe is passing the knee of the supporting leg. It is also sometimes just referred to as a retiré. As with the cou-de-pieds and coupé, the passé can be performed in front of the supporting leg (devant/en dehor) or behind the supporting leg (derriere/en dedans). A strong passé is extremely important for turns – especially the classic pirouette (turn on one foot). This very good article from BalletHub looks as the different elements of a proper passé and gives some great tips for dancer improvement.

passe2

Each of these forms can be practiced either with the whole foot flat on the floor, or on the demi-pointe (en relevé). Passé especially is most often performed up on one’s toes, either on the demi-pointe in soft slippers, our on full pointe in toe shoes (as Laura DeLorenzo from the Ellison Ballet in New York is, below).

passepro

We will practice all of these different positions during our exercises at the barre, and will then utilize these fundamentals whilst performing steps and turns en centre.

Ballet, Weight(s), and Strength

So new research has come out showing the importance of continued (but not strenuous) strength training. Maintaining muscle is important for everyone as a way to stay healthy and fight excess weight gain, but it appears to be especially important for women, who generally live longer than men but are more prone to conditions that weaken the body, such as osteoporosis. NPR recently reported on how weight training can help women live stronger and better for longer. Strength conditioning is a common element of many different sports and fitness routines, and ballet is no exception!

Though ballet dancers may not hit the gym to work with barbells every day, the exercises that we practice in class help to maintain muscle condition and improve strength. In many ways, we use our own bodies as weights, especially to help strengthen hips, legs and feet. After all, that “toe lift” noted in the NPR article? It’s a rélévé! An important building block for turns and traveling steps, as well as a great way to condition and tone muscles from the toes on up.

Other commons balletic elements can help to improve strength: port de bras, especially in adage combinations and practiced slowly at the barre, builds muscles in the arms, shoulders, and upper body. Proper comportment (the carriage of the body) improves core muscles, especially abdominal muscles. Tendu and fondu condition the legs, and all those pliés? Great for hips, thighs, and the lower abdominals.

Many dancers (from beginners to the pros) will do additional strength training to help build and sustain muscle through the body, including workouts with light free weights, Pilates (which is great for both strength, coordination and flexibility) and additional forms of exercise, like swimming or jogging. The MSU Group Exercise and Recreational Fitness programs offer many different classes that complement ballet very well, so for those wishing to move a bit more, I highly recommend checking out the class options on campus. I find that working with small free weights at home for about 15-20 minutes each day helps improve my personal fitness and makes it easier to transition to more challenging exercises at the barre or en centre (especially when performing adage). That may seem like a short amount of time, but it builds up to better fitness in the long run. As Joan Crockford of the American Council on Exercise notes in the NPR article, “for general muscular fitness, one to two sets of 12-15 reps with a weight that feels challenging at the end is a good rule of thumb.”

An important thing to remember when conditioning (or really doing any exercise) is not to overdo it. This is one of the reasons we spend a lot of class at the barre: it allows the dancer to fully warm the muscles up while being supported. The barre is also an important tool to use while building strength incrementally through the application of proper technique. Slow and steady wins this race: practiced conditioning, done on a regular schedule and at a comfortable pace, will lead to a stronger body (and lessen the possibility of injury).

Bottom line: train often, train comfortably, and keep those muscles strong for as long as possible! 🙂

Autumn happy dance!

Autumn is my favourite time of the year – there’s something so uplifting about the chill in the air and the changing colours, especially in the many beautiful trees on campus. Just had to share this post from the American Ballet Theatre:

“What better way to celebrate the first day of fall than with Principal Dancer Marcelo Gomes alongside former Principal Dancer Julie Kent in Antony Tudor’s “The Leaves Are Fading.”

leaves-are-fading

Just beautiful! See you in Basics at 12:30 PM. 🙂

~ Kitty

Technique Spotlight: Plié

The word plié in French means “to bend.” A plié in ballet is a movement where the body dips towards the floor by bending the knees. It may sound simple, but performing a plié properly means carefully aligning the body and utilizing not only one’s knees, but also the muscles in the core, thighs, and feet.

plie1

A proper plié is a fully vertical movement – the bending of the knees makes the body go up and down. One of the trickiest aspects about pliés is not to allow the body to sway either forward or backwards, but to use the abdominal muscles to hold the body from the waist-up so that it is fully erect. The thigh muscles must be strong enough to bend the knees without pushing the body forward (or causing the dancer’s bottom to stick out!) This is one of the reasons that all dancers, from beginners to prima ballerinas, begin their exercises at the barre with a series of pliés in all of the different positions.

In our classes, we work to perform two types of pliés: the demi-plié, or half-bend (a small dip at the knees), and the grand plié, or big bend, wherein the body sinks downwards (sometimes causing the shoulders to dip below the level of the barre). We move through the demi-plié when progressing to perform a grand plié. With demi-pliés and grand pliés in 2nd position, we have an additional obstacle – working to keep our heels on the floor! In all forms of the plié, we must also remember to utilize the turn-out from our hip joints to keep our knees over our toes (a phrase that will be repeated in more than one ballet class).

knee-rotation-fig1

The plié is one of the most important movements in ballet – it is the basis for a number of jumps and turns, as well as a way to perform rélévés (coming up and down from our toes). Pliés provide strength to jumps and cushion to landings, as well as power to the beginnings of turns and spinning movements. As such, we’ll continue to open every class with a full round of pliés, and work together to make sure that this important fundamental is practiced in each class.