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.
Two of my colleagues don’t take responsibility for remembering choreography. It wastes everyone’s time, and I end up reteaching them during breaks. How can I confront them? —Michaela
Not everyone is a quick study, so first take a moment to assess why your colleagues aren’t picking up choreography. Are they chattering incessantly, spacing out, watching the clock? Or are they earnestly paying attention? If they truly seem to learn at a slower pace, take a more compassionate approach. Suggest that they keep a notebook to write things down after rehearsal—this will allow them to recall steps more easily and to study on their own time. You can also offer to help them for a few minutes at the end of the day. Or, you can recommend that they ask the ballet master for a copy of the video—again, so that they can study on their own.
If your colleagues lack discipline and focus, however, you shouldn’t have to cover for them. Politely tell them that you’re unable to give up your break and that they need to be responsible for themselves. Without their crutch (you), they’ll be forced to pay closer attention during rehearsals. If they don’t, your ballet master will surely notice and they’ll have to pay the consequences. Some people have to learn the hard way.
What exercises will keep my toes from knuckling under when I’m on pointe? —Shannon
Almost every ballerina has experienced knuckling—I certainly did as a young dancer. According to Dr. Frank Sinkoe, a podiatrist who works with students at the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education, knuckling is usually a sign of weak intrinsic muscles, located in the arch of the foot. But it’s also a sign that you’re approaching your technique incorrectly. While on pointe, you should feel the muscles in your feet and legs pulling up and out of the shoe, not sinking down into it. Ask your teacher to monitor your placement closely to identify any technical weaknesses and faulty alignment. In the meantime, Dr. Sinkoe recommends these three strengthening exercises, which target different muscle groups.
Doming: This strengthens the intrinsic muscles. Sit on the ground with one foot flat on the floor. Slowly drag your toes back, keeping them straight and long (not curled!), creating a “dome” shape with your arch. Hold for several seconds and return to the starting position, keeping toes straight. Repeat 10 times on each foot.
Thera-Band exercise: Sit on the ground and wrap a Thera-Band underneath the ball of your foot, holding the ends in your hands. Point the toes, keeping them straight instead of crunched. Maintaining a pointed position, flex and point the toes against the resistance of the band, keeping them as long as possible. Repeat 10 times. This will also help strengthen the intrinsic muscles.
One-footed relevés: Holding on to the barre, stand in parallel on one foot. Relevé, reaching full demi-pointe in two counts. Slowly roll down in four counts. Repeat 10 times on each leg. This will help strengthen your calf’s gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, as well as the “stirrup” muscles, which wrap around the ankle and support the arch.
Another reason dancers knuckle is to compensate for unsupportive or ill-fitting shoes. If you suspect your shoe may be the problem, make an appointment with a professional pointe shoe fitter to find a better option.
Have a question? Send it to Pointe editor and former dancer Amy Brandt at firstname.lastname@example.org.