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)."
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."
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."