"Hopping on pointe is a bit of a weird feeling," says Karin Ellis-Wentz, head of pre-professional programs at the Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago. But, she adds, it's a skill advanced dancers need "because it's in so many variations." Here, she takes us through the techniques and exercises that help her students master this necessary trick.
Natalia Boesch is a writer and ballet teacher living in New York City. After receiving her training from the School of American Ballet, she danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and Staatsballett Berlin. She is currently Head of Primary Levels at Manhattan Youth Ballet.
Your teacher at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Marcia Dale Weary, recently passed away. What impact did she have on you?
I feel deeply indebted to her. She shaped my life's course, and I know that were it not for her, I would not be living out my dream today. She led by example through her remarkable commitment to her work, as well as her genuine kindness and generosity.
You were a trainee with San Francisco Ballet. What was that experience like?
It was an exposure to different schools of thought. We were mostly in the full-lengths, and watching run-throughs of Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote was revolutionary for me. But I was young and far away from home. That transition was hard. My body started changing. It wanted to be fleshy. Biology is cruel in that way. I desperately wanted to fit in, but it wasn't meant to be.
"People have so much fear associated with arabesque turns," says Peter Boal, artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. Here, he shares images and ideas to help you confidently master this advanced pirouette. "It's a real accomplishment when you can put it all together."
After growing up in Florida, how did you adjust to the climate when you moved to Winnipeg, Canada?
It was shocking. The winter is brutal! Now I know what to expect, but it's still a bit of a shock. I think the first day of snow was September 26th.
Do you have a go-to anecdote about company life?
Once we were on tour in Arkansas for Nutcracker. We got to the finale, and the music cut out. There was a womp-womp moment, the curtain came down, and we had to restart from the top of the coda. But the audience was excited they saw it twice—they felt like they got double their money!
Xiomara Reyes, head of The Washington School of Ballet, describes grand battement as "a very important base step that helps with flexibility, jumps and stability. It's the beginning of a grand jeté, the farthest push of your body in space and movement." Here, she shares how she works on this essential building-block step.
"In Cuba, everybody turns," says Caridad Martinez, a ballet faculty member at The Ailey School and a former principal with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Here, she walks us through the exercises and techniques that comprise "the Cuban secret" of pirouettes in general, and fouettés in particular.
Two legs in plié: The Cuban methodology teaches the fourth position preparation for turns with both legs in demi-plié. The benefits of this approach are speed and control, says Caridad Martinez. "That push of the back leg to passé, at the moment of relevé, makes it easier to generate more turns."
Finish up: For all turns, says Martinez, "we teach to finish on relevé, because that's when you really finish. Hold the position a little bit more—gluteus in and up, turn out the standing leg, open the knee and stay! Don't leave anything behind."
Spotting secrets: To find a more active torso, says Martinez, "have the sensation that you quickly bring your back to the audience." This "switch" of the torso propels you farther around, and with more energy. In addition to spotting with rhythm, try telling yourself "Back! Back!" You may find you effortlessly have the force for that extra rotation.
Round arms: "We keep the arms rounded," says Martinez of the Cuban method, though she notes that it's not incorrect to extend to allongé. She gives a simple exercise to help her students coordinate their port de bras in turns: Hold an object in your opposite hand (the left, if you are turning to the right) as you prepare. At the moment of the relevé, quickly pass the object to your right hand as you turn.
The progression: Following the Cuban training method, Martinez builds strength and coordination for fouettés systematically in class. "It's very important not to skip any steps," she says.
- Begin with consecutive relevés in retiré, both at the barre and in the center.
- "Then do that with a quarter turn, then a half. That is awful! But later you appreciate it."
- Progress to three consecutive full pirouettes, holding the leg in retiré as you plié between turns.
- Repeat the above, this time extending the working leg à la seconde with the plié between turns. Then add a beat, back-front, to the passé as you turn.
- Pirouette, plié á la seconde, pirouette is one way to fouetté. "When you have the coordination and the technique to control that, the next step is to go to the front and then seconde," says Martinez.
- Work up gradually, starting with three or four fouettés.
Options: As noted above, the working leg in fouetté may extend directly to the side with plié or rond de jambe from front to side. With rond de jambe, you have a further choice: You may relevé with the à la seconde and then turn, or open the leg in plié and relevé at the moment of the pirouette. "We use both," Martinez explains, depending on the choreography.
The twizzle: Rather than pushing off from fourth directly into a high passé, many students allow the back foot to linger on the floor as they begin to turn, causing the passé to over-cross and the standing leg to turn in. In fouetté, the consequence of this is that the working leg drops too low when it extends. "That leg does not come down," Martinez cautions. "Feel that you isolate from the hip to the knee, and keep that distance the same."
1. "Practicing balance—that is the students' homework," says Martinez. She suggests trying promenade on relevé at the barre, going en dehors with the leg in retiré and en dedans with the outside leg in cou-de-pied.
2. During fondus or ronds de jambe at the barre, Martinez works on the transition from plié attitude en avant into écarté derrière: "Extend the standing leg and get to écarté at the same time—that coordination is important when we are thinking about fouetté." Practicing attitude, as opposed to extending fully to the front, helps prevent over-crossing.
It's the complex transfer of weight that makes piqué turns en dehors—commonly called "step-overs"—so tricky. Maria Torija, director of the BalletMet Dance Academy, shares her ideas on how to successfully navigate these inevitable variation-ending turns.
What's in a name: " 'Step-over' is the American way," Maria Torija explains. But the turn has many names. "Vaganova calls it 'tour dégagé.' 'Lame-duck'—that's the English! Maybe we should go to the French. The Paris Opéra calls it 'tour piqué en dehors.' "
Walk the line: Whether you tombé front or side, Torija stresses the importance of precision in consecutive piqués en dehors. "Hold the passé until you finish the turn, and then tombé right in the path you're going, like on a tightrope." The leg doesn't extend to the front or side. That's a different step. "Tombé means you fall into it. It's a very quick motion."
All dancers have their go-to tension area: shoulders that creep up towards the ears, a hand that becomes a claw, or feet and ankles that grip. Yet "Just relax" can be the hardest correction to apply. We spoke with four teachers for their tips on releasing tension throughout the body—and how it's all connected.
A dancer's face is a frequent tension trouble spot, as eyebrows lift or furrow, jaws clench and tongues peek out. Hilary Cartwright, international guest teacher and creator of Yoga Narada, notices that, for many students, "all the tension goes into the face in their effort to achieve and please their teacher." Similarly, Seattle-based ballet instructor Stephanie Saland observes that dancers "demonstrate" their focus with their face instead of actually being attentive. "Does 'focus' mean bug your eyes and shove your chin forward to show interest, enthusiasm, volition?" she asks. "Or can you just be present and take the information in?"
Cartwright recommends taking a moment to "turn it around" and find your inner smile. "When you're feeling tense, think of something—a smiley face, your dog or cat—that brings back reality a little bit. Remember the good things in the rest of your life." If your inner smile turns into an outward one, even better. Smiling is a simple way to alleviate tension in your face and convey your joy of dancing.
Saland suggests visualizing a mask that's painted onto your face dripping off "almost in puddles down the front of your body." This relaxes facial tension and sends your focus inward. Remember that in class, sometimes, you can just make the effort without feeling that you have to project out.