American Ballet Theater is in the midst of Le Corsaire this week as part of the company's annual season at the Metropolitan Opera House. One of the ballet's most celebrated and challenging male roles is Ali, the Slave. Daniil Simkin danced the part yesterday and will do so again on Friday evening. A dancer who never seems to disappoint, Simkin is sure to pull out all the technical stops and dazzle audiences with his charisma.
What do you get when you mix a dizzying amount of pirouettes with Mikhail Baryshnikov? Pure cinema gold—and one of the most famous dance movie scenes of all time. In this clip from the 1985 hit movie White Nights, Misha combines his technical prowess with his effortless cool. Raymond, played by legendary tapper Gregory Hines, challenges Kolya, a Soviet dancer who has defected (played by Baryshnikov) to a bet. In order to take Raymond's 11 rubels, Kolya must do 11 consecutive pirouettes. It's a feat that even today's most talented dancers can't accomplish. But Misha, is, well, Misha. Check out his mesmerizing turns—and then practice your own. Happy #TBT!
Get to know the dancer behind the turns here. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.
If you only know one thing about Derek Dunn, it's probably his phenomenal turning skills. The recently promoted Houston Ballet soloist—and cover star of our October/November 2016 issue—can be found all over social media demonstrating his flawless pirouettes. Needless to say, we're amazed. That's why we couldn't resist asking him how he does it when he was in New York City for his cover shoot. Check out Dunn's personal pirouette tips in this exclusive video. Then hit the studio. Happy turning!
A beautiful pirouette is one of ballet's most elusive elements. Sometimes you float through multiple rotations and sometimes you can hardly balance on one leg. Here are some of our best tips for nailing your turns, every time.
- Go back to basics. Make sure you've mastered the fundamentals of correct alignment before you go for multiple rotations.
- Know that there's more than one right way to do it. Struggling to adjust to Balanchine-style pirouettes? Focus on shifting the majority of your weight forward over your front foot and extend your arms to find a long position.
- Use positive thinking. Getting over the fear of turning and making yourself stay up on pointe to finish your pirouette is paramount to success.
- Up the ante. Do you fall apart during fouettés? Focus on your coordination and build stamina in your standing leg.
- Get scientific. Understanding the physics of how pirouettes work can help you conceptualize ways to adjust your technique. This TEDx talk breaks down the physics of a fouetté into easily understandable terms:
Do you have tips for prepping a pirouette with a straight back leg? I’m dancing a Balanchine ballet and I’m having trouble changing my technique. —Liza
I was in a similar situation when I joined the Balanchine-based Suzanne Farrell Ballet mid-career. I had trained preparing for pirouettes with both legs in plié, so it was hard to get the hang of the straight back leg at first. But over time, I adjusted and actually grew to prefer it!
What helped me was to think of shifting my body forward each time I prepared so that the majority of my weight was over my front foot, instead of underneath myself on two bent legs. The arms help, too: Instead of keeping them classically curved, extend them, as if reaching out. Overall, your body should feel much longer in this position.
The best way to get the feeling in your body is to do it—a lot. Try practicing tombé pas de bourrée to fourth position across the floor from the corner, feeling your momentum moving forward each time you land. Reach your front hand out as your back leg reaches behind you to create one long, continuous line. Notice how different it feels. Try the same thing from fifth position, taking a tendu to fourth in both en dedans and en dehors preparations. With enough repetition, your body will soon do it naturally.
Suddenly, all I could see in the mirror was a fuzzy, dancer-shaped outline. I had accidentally rubbed out my contacts right before pliés and, frustrated, resigned myself to an unproductive two hours. As class progressed, however, something strange happened: I felt far more relaxed and placed. My balances at barre were steadier, I didn't have a single wobble in center adagio, I nailed every pirouette and even my jumps felt freer. Could the reason for this stellar class be that I wasn't depending on my reflection?
So much of dancers' training is through sight, usually with the mirror as an aid. From toddlers to top-ranked company members, nearly every hour of studio time is spent in front of the mirror, honing technique in class and perfecting choreography in rehearsal. Too often, however, the mirror becomes a crutch, and the very reasons you need it for your training can become detrimental. Luckily, awareness and refocusing can help break the habit.
A Helpful Point of View
There are plenty of reasons why the mirror is ever present in ballet studios. “It's a tool to get symmetry, to get perfect lines, to see the positions that you're supposed to make every time," says Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet school principal Alecia Good-Boresow. Each glance at your reflection is an opportunity to improve your technique. LeeWei Chao, a teacher at the Alonzo King LINES Ballet Training Program, sees the mirror as “a third person," an intermediary between the dancer and instructor. When your teacher corrects you, he says, you can use this third view to help apply it.
In rehearsals, the mirror is a necessary aid in setting ballets—especially, says Good-Boresow, in corps de ballet work: “With the mirror you can make straight lines, make sure that the shapes you're trying to create in choreography are visible to the dancers."
From Habit to Hindrance
Constantly staring at the mirror, however, causes as many problems as it solves. Good-Boresow calls dancers' tendency to rely on their reflections “mirroritis." While scrutinizing your image can help you self-correct and improve some aspects of your technique, it can be detrimental to your port de bras and épaulement. When your head and eyes are always focused on your reflection—likely favoring the legs and feet, Chao says—you aren't reaching the full extent of your positions. Your head placement won't match the reach of your lines, and arms become an afterthought rather than coordinated with the movement.
This lack of coordination is more than cosmetic. “If you use your eyes to find balance," Chao says, “you're not using your mind–body connection," and you'll lose stability when static poses become movement. To demonstrate his point in class, Chao will ask his dancers to do an arabesque. Many automatically look in the mirror to find their placement. Next, he'll have them try an arabesque turn. The line they created with the help of the mirror isn't there, and the turn is often unsuccessful.
The problems multiply when transitioning from studio to stage, where the mirror is replaced with the theater's “black hole," says Good-Boresow. Well-rehearsed spacing and traffic patterns devolve into minor mishaps at best—chaos at worst. Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Margaret Mullin often witnesses this when PNB Professional Division students are thrown into corps spots, as they're unaccustomed to using their peripheral vision. “When dancers have been relying on the mirror," Mullin says, “people can panic onstage."
In addition, when your movement is entirely based off your reflection, it's not coming from within—or projecting out. “You're robotic," says Good-Boresow. “You're not actually dancing." Waiting until you're onstage to make the adjustment is too little, too late.
So, how do you prevent your relationship with your reflection from becoming a dependent one? The most obvious way to gain stability and confidence sans mirror is to practice sans mirror. Both Chao and Good-Boresow will remove the temptation by closing a curtain or by asking the dancers to face the back of the room.
If the teacher doesn't provide this impetus, however, you have to break the habit on your own. When you must use the mirror to check your placement, Mullin says, don't just look for correctness and move on. Instead, pause and internalize what “correct" means on a deeper physical level, maybe even briefly closing your eyes. Sense where your limbs are in space, which muscles are engaged and which have feelings of length or opposition. This trains your muscle memory, allowing you to more easily reproduce the position without the mirror.
Chao recommends taking some cues from modern-dance training, which focuses less on how high the leg is or how arched the feet are. In modern, he says, “you learn how to move." Try bringing this mentality to daily technique class. Instead of obsessing over those last few degrees of turnout, focus on transitions, movement quality and artistry.
Finally, remember that the audience won't scrutinize your technique nearly as closely as you do. The whole point of using the mirror to improve your technique is to eventually take it away. In the end, it matters less how you look. It matters how you dance.
Up Close and Too Personal
When you dance in front of the mirror for hours each day, it's easy for flaws to become the whole picture. This daily self-criticism, Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Margaret Mullin says, may lead to insecurities, which can manifest in body issues and anxiety. Here are Mullin's tips for developing a healthy relationship with your reflection:
- Avoid instant gratification. Mullin has seen young dancers go to extremes—disordered eating, dangerous stretching techniques, et cetera—to try to achieve a certain ideal. Trust that the work will mold your body eventually; forcing it will negatively affect your health.
- Limit social media exposure. Instagram and Facebook profiles are curated to look picture-perfect. When you're walking around with that ideal in your pocket day in and day out, insecurities are likely to follow you into the studio. Save some “likes" for yourself.
- Expect change. “I looked incredibly different at 13 than I did at 14, then 15, then 19," Mullin says. She's even seen professionals' bodies change based on their current repertoire. Getting used to the idea of physical changes may help you accept them.
- Focus on fuel. “Don't let the demons in the mirror affect how you're nourishing yourself," Mullin urges. Yes, dance is an aesthetic art form, but it's also intensely physical. Talent doesn't reside in cookie-cutter bodies, and being thin is far less important than having the energy and strength to do what's required of you. —HF
“Turning is sometimes daunting for me. What helps me is to think of the resistance and opposition between my arms and my torso: I imagine an internal twisted band that tightens during my preparation, twisting one direction with my arms and the other with my body. The release is the turn."
—Carmen Felder, Carolina Ballet
Have a question? Click here to send it to Amy and she might answer it in an upcoming issue!
No matter what I try, I have trouble turning. What exercises can I do to improve my pirouettes? What should I think about when I’m turning? —Kiana, CA
Turns are tricky—there’s a lot of room for things to go wrong. For me, I’ve learned that I have to always make a good preparation, with square hips and shoulders and a substantial plié. Whenever my preparation is hesitant or sloppy, my turn is usually a mess. I asked Laszlo Berdo, a full-time faculty member at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, for his pirouette tips. “You want to think of the passé as a working position, not a resting position,” he says, comparing it to pulling a bow and arrow. “The supporting leg presses down into the floor, with the passé leg going up into the center. The higher the relevé, the stronger the balance.”
He also uses imagery to help his students. “Think of a pirouette as a spiral,” he says. “It’s a corkscrew going up towards the ceiling, with its highest point being the last pirouette.” This will help you pull up from your supporting leg.
Your port de bras can help you, too. “The arm opposite your passé is the working arm,” says Berdo. “It cuts through the circle.” Press the shoulders down, and relax your head and neck for a faster, more coordinated spot. Make extra time to practice your pirouettes during and after class. Ask a teacher to watch you to help pinpoint the possible reasons why you’re having trouble.
I’ve heard that running is bad for dancers, that it builds bulky quads and shortens hamstrings. I naturally build muscle quickly, and I’m afraid that if I start running, my quads will get too big. But I want to exercise more to lose a little bit of weight. What is your view? —Gabrielle, CA
I’ve tried running before and personally, I find it too stressful on my joints. Since dancing is already hard on my body, I prefer to do lower-impact cross-training routines, like Pilates.
While sprinters are prone to developing bulky thighs, Heidi L. Green, a New York City physical therapist and freelance dancer, says that 20- to 30-minute jogs on flat surfaces shouldn’t cause excessive muscle mass or tightness as long as you warm up properly beforehand and stretch afterwards. However, she agrees that running is hard on a dancer’s body. “Choose a better option,” she says, “like yoga, Pilates, swimming, the elliptical machine, riding the bicycle—something that’s not going to add additional compression on the joints and lower extremities.”
Green emphasizes that if you are trying to shed weight, the key is to add variety to your exercise routine, and if you don’t cross-train, start. “Otherwise,” she says, “your body is going to plateau.” Try weight training in addition to aerobic exercise. “Weight-resistance exercise is great for weight loss because it burns more fat,” says Green. “If you want to avoid bulk, do more repetitions with lighter weights.” Consult with a personal trainer to develop an individualized exercise plan that will help you reach your goals in a healthy way.
I’ve had trouble with my back for months. I’ve been going to the chiropractor to correct it but it just isn’t stabilizing. It’s so frustrating and heartbreaking because I’m 17 and don’t want this to hold me back from having a professional career. I’m icing, wrapping it when I dance, taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, etc. Is there anything else I can do? —Rachael, PA
It’s hard for me to give you solid advice without knowing exactly what type of back problem you’re having. Which makes me wonder: Do you know? Have you seen a doctor and gotten a proper diagnosis? I suggest you make an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon, ideally one who has experience working with dancers. Don’t be afraid of the word “surgeon”—that doesn’t mean you’ll need surgery. (I’ve been to an orthopedist countless times and have yet to go under the knife.) The doctor will give you a consultation and may order tests, like an X-ray or an MRI, to determine the source and severity of your injury. He or she may also prescribe medication to help your symptoms, or refer you to a physical therapist to provide treatment and exercises for your back.
Be prepared: They may advise you to take some time off, which sounds scary but could be what your back needs to heal. You need a strong, healthy body to become a professional dancer, so take the necessary time to treat your injury.
When I was at an ABT summer intensive years ago, one of my teachers told our class that the most thrilling pirouettes aren't the tazmanian devilishly fast spins, but they are the slow, smooth turns that look like they're effortlessly in control. This made a huge impact on me because up until that moment, I had always been trying to speed up my pirouettes to make them look more impressive—and also because immediately after listening to this bit of wisdom I performed my first quadruple pirouette on pointe.
This thought came to mind Friday night at New York City Ballet's performance of Swan Lake. For me, the highlight of the evening was Daniel Ulbricht as the Jester. I've always loved watching this boy jump: Just when you think he's hit the height of his jump his body seems to levitate a few inches higher. But I'd never really noticed his turns before. The Jester's choreography includes numerous pirouettes, and man, Ulbircht hit every one of them. I counted five rotations just about every time, but what was most awe-inspiring were his landings. At the end of his turn he would slow down to show the audience his passe for just a moment before quietly placing his foot down into a wide fourth position.
What made such an impact was the amount of control he had, making it look like nothing. An untrained eye probably would have thought it was easy. But the rest of us know that the calm, creamy quality of his turns is ten times harder to achieve than lightening-quick spins.