Ballet Training
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I had a few weeks off, and I didn't practice my turns. Now, after being back for a while, I can't seem to turn like I used to. My teacher said it was a mental block, but I can't figure out how to push past it. —Devon

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Ballet Stars
Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy James Whiteside Presents.

On Wednesday, June 19, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival welcomes James Whiteside Presents to the outdoor Inside/Out stage. This will be the American Ballet Theatre principal's fourth time at the Pillow. He first came to the Massachusetts–based Dance Festival as a corps de ballet member of Boston Ballet in 2004. ("I was struck by the beauty of the place," he recalls.) Whiteside returned in 2010 with Avi Scher & Dancers and most recently with Daniil Simkin's Intensio in 2015.

Now, Whiteside is bringing a program of his own work, performed alongside muse and fellow ABT soloist Cassandra Trenary and actor/show maker Jack Ferver.

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Ballet Training
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Few turns make dancers more tempted to cheat than pirouettes from fifth, especially doubles. Colburn Dance Academy director Jenifer Ringer gives her tips for nailing them every time.


1. Have faith in your fifth: It's hard to trust that your fifth position will give you enough force to turn. As a result, Jenifer Ringer sees dancers "lean forward, stick their bottoms out or move their front legs so they're not really turning from fifth." Try practicing a clean single pirouette without cheating. "It takes figuring out," she acknowledges, but you'll add rotations "without losing the integrity of your technique."

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Viral Videos

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!

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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.

  1. Go back to basics. Make sure you've mastered the fundamentals of correct alignment before you go for multiple rotations.
  2. 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.
  3. Use positive thinking. Getting over the fear of turning and making yourself stay up on pointe to finish your pirouette is paramount to success.
  4. Up the ante. Do you fall apart during fouettés? Focus on your coordination and build stamina in your standing leg.
  5. 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:

Happy turning!

For more news on all things ballet, don’t miss a single issue.

Ballet Training
New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck prepares for a pirouette (still from the Water Dancer series, produced by Quicksilver)

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!

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Ballet Training
CPYB school principal Alecia Good-Boresow teaching class. Photo Courtesy CPYB.

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.

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Ballet Training

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.

Few things in ballet are more satisfying than the feeling of soaring around effortlessly in a perfect pirouette. Los Angeles Ballet wants to teach you how to nail that smooth sailing sensation every time. This Sunday, February 24, LAB’s monthly community day will include a free workshop on turning, taught by master teacher Ikolo Griffin (a former dancer with San Francisco Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem). Intermediate and advanced students and professionals are invited to spend an hour and a half studying the fundamental physics of turning to improve their spotting, turn faster and cleaner, and achieve consistency in both the pirouette's execution and finish. The class will take place from 12:45 to 2:15 at the Los Angeles Ballet Center, and it's only one of a full day of free dance and fitness classes. To pre-register, email ChanceToDanceCommunityDay@gmail.com. Learn more at losangelesballet.org.

 

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