Training
Emily Giacalone, modeled by Elizabeth Steele of Steps on Broadway Youth Programs.

If you're feeling wobbly in adagio or wish you could hold your piqué attitude a bit longer, there are ways to assess and improve your balance. Try these four exercises, recommended by Heather Southwick, Boston Ballet's director of physical therapy.

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All photos by Kyle Froman for Pointe, modeled by Gwen Vandenhoeck of Ballet Academy East.


1. Rotator Activation

Kyle Froman

This simple exercise isolates turnout from the hips, says the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries' Emily Sandow. Lie on your back with legs in the air and feet flexed. Rotate from parallel into first position and back again, seeing how the upper leg rotates and the feet follow. Feel the muscles at the backs of your legs—where the elastic of your leotard's leg seam is—and your inner thighs engaging to make the rotation happen. Notice how you can turn out without using your bigger gluteal muscles.

2. Clamshells

Kyle Froman

Physical therapist Lisa Apple recommends doing this common exercise against a wall to prevent tipping the pelvis backwards or forwards. Lie on your side with your back and feet flat against a wall, both knees bent and the legs stacked. Open your top knee as far as you can. Hold this position before slowly bringing your knee down. Repeat until the point of fatigue and switch sides.

3. Hip Abduction with External Rotation

Kyle Froman

Still lying with your back against a wall, bend your bottom leg with your foot flat against the wall and straighten your top leg. Turn out the top leg and lift it slightly (like a small dégagé), keeping it firmly pressed against the wall. Progressively lift your leg an inch or two higher at a time, holding at each level for 1–2 seconds. Go as high as you can go without losing contact with the wall. Lower slowly with control, maintaining the turnout you achieved on the way up. "Holding your placement against the wall going both up and down is key for pelvic alignment," says Apple. Start with 6 reps per side, aiming for quality over quantity.

To reproduce this feeling standing, Apple recommends standing in parallel with a paper plate under each foot (or rotation discs if you have them) and rotating to first using the same muscles.

4. More is Not Always Better

Kyle Froman

Spending hours each day in turnout causes the external rotators to shorten, tighten and work less effectively, Sandow says. To maximize your potential turnout, balance stretches (like the figure four stretch and pigeon pose above) with strength work and spend time not turned out. "If you're taking class and rehearsing all day, walking turned out just leads to chronic overuse of those muscles," she says. "Plus, you're unnecessarily stressing the ankle ligaments and tendons." Try something as simple as walking in parallel.

All photos by Nathan Sayers for Pointe

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.

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Photographed by Nathan Sayers, modeled by Marisa Trapani of Ballet Academy East.

Just because the majority of ballet port de bras happens to the side or front of the body doesn't mean your back isn't working, too. In fact, a simple sweeping of the arms from en bas through second to fifth position utilizes a host of muscles throughout the upper back and shoulders, including the trapezius and deltoids. When these muscles aren't engaged, otherwise pristine port de bras can appear droopy and weak. Julie O'Connell, director of performing arts medicine at Athletico Physical Therapy in Chicago, recommends this exercise, called wall angels, to teach you to tap into proper muscular engagement. Try it before class, so you can easily recall the sensation throughout barre and center.

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