Part of what makes the spectacle of ballet so astonishing is the way dancers' bodies seem to defy the laws of physics. To the average onlooker, a ballerina can effortlessly lift her leg to her ear while balancing on her toes; she can soar so high it looks like she can fly. But in accomplishing these seemingly magical feats, there's actually little magic involved. Instead, they take a whole lot of hard work.

Even the most talented dancers aren't born with perfect ballet bodies. But no matter what you struggle with, there are practical ways to reach the maximum potential within your set of genetic limits. Instead of forcing your turnout at the knees or lifting your hip to yank your leg higher, use these techniques to reach your absolute best.

Tackle Your Turnout
Having a narrow range of turnout affects everything from your first plié to the last grand jeté, since every movement in ballet starts with the outward rotation of the legs. And this problem is made all the more frustrating by the fact that it's largely
determined by the hips you're born with. “Turnout is controlled by capsular laxity and joint orientation—how the femur bone is put into the hips," explains Megan Richardson, a senior certified athletic trainer and clinical specialist at PT Plus in New York.

To achieve your maximum rotation, start by finding proper alignment. Shannon Bresnahan, a teacher at San Francisco Ballet School, says the pelvis should be lifted and in a neutral position, so there's still a slight natural curve in your lower back.

Next, you need to locate the correct muscles—squeezing everything in your backside will actually limit your turnout. Instead, you want to strengthen the hips' external rotators. These muscles can be tricky to find, however. To help dancers locate them, Richardson tells her clients to make a fish face, and then mimic it with their other cheeks. “Everything around the rotators should be fairly soft," she says. “It's like a Jell-O mold: firm on the inside and kind of jiggly on the outside." To strengthen these muscles, Richardson has dancers practice rotating from parallel to turnout while wearing socks on a slick surface, like your kitchen floor.

Maggie Small, a dancer at Richmond Ballet, has found that making certain artistic choices can give the illusion of more turnout. Even things as small as doing a tendu derrière instead of B-plus can help hide the heel of her back leg.

Boost Your Balance
Trying to build up your balance? If you're struggling at the end of barre exercises, don't just keep wobbling: You haven't yet found the proper position. “Hold the barre, push against the floor to get to the top of your muscle tone and stretch upwards," Bresnahan says. “It doesn't do any good to wobble around."

Luckily, balance is highly trainable—even if it doesn't come naturally. “Dancers tend to be really visually dominant," says Richardson. “So to improve the fastest, practice by taking the eyes away." She advises balancing on one leg (in both turnout and parallel) for 30 to 60 seconds with your eyes open, and then closed. Once you feel strong enough, try the same thing standing on a pillow or wobble disk.

Emulating onstage conditions can also help. Face away from the mirror sometimes to feel where your body is in space, and play with darker or really bright lighting. “It will decrease your reliance on the eyes for balance," says Richardson. “And it trains the proprioceptors in your joints and skin, as well as the vestibular system (the area of the brain responsible for balance)."

Increase Extension
Every dancer dreams of floating her leg up to her ear, but time spent in the splits isn't enough to make it a reality. “Someone who can put their leg up there with their hand isn't necessarily able to développé it there," points out Richardson. “Extension requires both flexibility and strength."

And it's not just about the working leg: The primary area you need to strengthen is actually your core. “The first muscle to activate when we move our legs is the transverse abdominis (the deep abdominal muscle)," explains Richardson. To strengthen it, Richardson says, lie on your back with your pelvis in neutral position, knees bent, feet on the floor. Keeping your pelvis and ribs still, draw your stomach down to the floor and up toward your chest—think of drawing the pelvic bones together and scooping the abdomen into a “bowl." Holding this position, lift one shin up to tabletop position, then the other. Dip one foot down to the floor (moving your leg from the hip, not the knee). Return to tabletop, and repeat on the other side. Then place one leg at a time back down on the floor in starting position. Repeat that entire sequence, performing a total of two to three sets of ten.

Even if your extension doesn't reach much past 90 degrees, proper execution can still make it look striking. Bresnahan says to be sure you're really stretching the leg to its maximum from the hip to the end of your shoe. “Most important," she says, “especially if the leg isn't as high, is that the line of the foot is beautiful."

Jump Higher
Catching some air at the height of a leap is one of the greatest joys of dancing. The secret to achieving a jump like that is plyometric training. In this technique (which athletes across disciplines have used for decades to increase their force and speed), you allow the muscles to reach their optimum stretch in plié and then use the natural recoil to launch the body up quickly. “Jumping is the ability to produce really fast power," says Richardson.

The good news is that the 200-plus jumps you do every day in class already train your body in this highly efficient method. But it's the way you mentally approach those jumps that makes the difference. “As you reach the bottom of a good, healthy plié (with your heels on the ground), think of exploding up off the floor," Richardson says. You can also add plyometrics to your cross-training routine. Do two double leg hops forward in a row, traveling as far as you can. At the end of the second hop, jump up vertically as high as you can from both legs. Repeat this five times in a row, doing two or three sets total. To advance the exercise, go from one leg instead of two on the last vertical jump. Richardson emphasizes the importance of landing toe-ball-heel with your knees aligned over the middle of your foot, and making sure to keep your upper body still as you jump.

Limitations to your dancer DNA don't have to mean curtains for your dream career. Richmond Ballet's Small has succeeded by making sure her technique is grounded in performing steps properly and working with the best of what she has. “Keep persevering," she says. “Seek advice from people with more knowledge, because there's no substitute for experience."

































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Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet rehearsing for "The Sleeping Beauty" for the 2017/18 season. Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

Today the Pennsylvania Ballet's board of trustees announced the appointment of Shelly Power as its new executive director. Having been involved in the five-month international search, company artistic director Angel Corella said in a statement released by PAB that he's "certain Shelly is the best candidate to lead the administrative team that supports the artistic vision of the company." Power's official transition will begin in December. This news comes at the end of a few years of turmoil and turnover at PAB, including the departure of former executive director David Gray in June.

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Tiler Peck with Andrew Veyette in "Allegro Brillante." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy New York City Ballet.

"I was particularly excited when I saw my name on casting for Allegro Brillante in 2009," remembers principal dancer Tiler Peck. "Balanchine had said Allegro was, 'everything I know about classical ballet in 13 minutes,' and of course that terrified me." To calm her fear, Peck followed her regular process for debuts: begin by going back to the original performers to get an idea of the quality and feeling of the ballet and ballerina. "It is never to imitate, but rather to surround myself with as much knowledge from the past as I can so that I can find my own way," says Peck.

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Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcracker.' Photo by Rich Sofranko

Catching a performance of The Nutcracker has long been a holiday tradition for many families. And now, more and more companies are adding sensory-friendly elements to specific shows in an effort to make the classic ballet inclusive to children and adults with special needs.

While the accommodations vary depending on the company, many are presenting shorter versions of the ballet with more relaxed theater rules. Additionally, lower sound and stage light levels during the performance, as well as trained staff on hand, make The Nutcracker more accessible for those on the autism spectrum and others with special needs.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's performance will take place on Tuesday, December 26th, and they are one of the pioneer companies in presenting sensory-friendly performances of The Nutcracker (their first production was in 2013). PBT also offers sensory-friendly versions of Jorden Morris' Peter Pan and Lew Christensen's Beauty and the Beast throughout the year.

See our list of sensory-friendly performances, and check out each site for all of the details regarding their offerings.

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The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

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Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

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At just 16 years old, the Bolshoi Ballet's Maria Alexandrova already had the makings of a great artist. In this variation from Coppélia, she portrays the carefree Swanilda with blithe, youthful ease.

When she bounds on stage in her perky pink tutu, you immediately notice her legs–they just go on forever. In the first sequence of steps she keeps her jetés and développés low, but then the phrase repeats and she lets her gorgeous extensions fly. She sails through Italian fouettés and whirls around in piqués en manège that get faster and faster. While she nails all the virtuosic movement, Alexandrova also pays beautiful attention to detail throughout the variation. Even the simplest steps become something exciting, like her precise pas de bourrées beginning at 1:03 that sing with musicality.

Swanilda has been one of Alexandrova's signature roles throughout her career. For a fun side by side, watch her perform the same variation almost 20 years later in this video. Although Alexandrova formally retired from the Bolshoi in February, she still performs frequently in Moscow and internationally as a guest artist. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


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Ingrid Silva and her dog, Frida Kahlo. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

You're probably already following your favorite dancers on Instagram, but did you know that you can follow many of their dogs, too? We rounded up some of our favorite dog-centered accounts and hashtags to keep you pawsitively entertained (sorry, we can't help ourselves).

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Vladislav Lantritov and Ekaterina Krysanova in "Taming of the Shrew." Photo by Alice Blangero, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet.

If you haven't checked your local movie listings yet for this weekend, hop to it. The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema series and Fathom Events is broadcasting a performance of Jean-Christophe Maillot's The Taming of the Shrew to theaters nationwide on Sunday, November 19. (To see if it's playing near you and to purchase tickets, click here.) While the rest of the Bolshoi's cinema season features 19th- and 20th-century classics, The Taming of the Shrew gives audiences a chance to see the revered Moscow company in a thoroughly modern, 21st-century take on Shakespeare's famous play.

Aside from a limited run in New York City this July, American audiences have had little exposure to Maillot's 2014 production. To learn more, check out these two exclusive, behind-the-scenes webisodes below. Principal dancer Ekaterina Krysanova, who stars as the hotheaded Katharina, gives an intimate play-by-play of two major scenes in Act I. The first is her fiery rejection of three potential suitors (who all would prefer to marry Katharina's younger sister Bianca).

The second scene breaks down Katharina's first encounter with Petruchio (danced by the larger-than-life Vladislav Lantritov), the only man who seems to be able to challenge her. Here, too, we see the shrew's heart start to soften. (Don't miss her time-stopping attitude turn at 4:27.)

The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Series continues through June; for more details on upcoming screenings, click here.

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