Ballet Fundamentals: Discipline and Barre Work
Ballet technique is first introduced in the beginner levels with discipline and structure; an appropriate level of respect for authority and discipline is engrained from day one. At the base of ballet technique, there is a necessity for humility; ballet is a technique that is passed down by instructor to student, without an ability to digest critique and criticism, one will not be successful at a study of ballet. This criticism and critique will be offered by a set of instructors, so a level of respect must be learned for students to succeed. In the younger levels, this structure and mental toughness is taught through a military like approach to ballet class and ballet technique. In my case, a staff of Russian teachers were my first instructors. The decorum set by these teachers was rooted in the highest levels of respect for timeliness, physical presentation, hygiene, politeness, and ability to follow direction. If one was late for a class, the student was responsible for asking permission to join late and participate on set day. Often, the answer was no and an example of one’s tardiness was made; there was an emphasis on timeliness being a personal responsibility and it was made clear that the result of failure to arrive on time results in one falling behind the rest of their classmates. From an early age, it was made clear that the peers in your classroom were your competition, all of you are competing for continued placement at the School of American Ballet and ultimately for the scarce employment that one will find in the professional ballet world. Everything in these beginner classes is regimented, from the way one turns from one side of the barre to the other, how one is to stand and finishes a combination, how one is to thanks the instructor at the end of the class, etc. At the end of combinations, we were instructed to hold a final position until the instructor signaled we could be at ease. There was total control, often we were asked to hold our leg in the air, I can recall shaking and struggling to keep my leg airborne while wishing and praying that the Russian instructor at the front of the room would relieve us. Tears would be ignored, recognized only if to point out that we would get over our struggle and prevail stronger. Often the teacher would return students to their parents in tears, only to say that one day the student and parent would understand. Physical displays of exhaustion were not tolerated; yawns would result in one being sent to the water fountain to splash their face with water and requests to use the bathroom would be turned down with an emphasis on failure on the student’s part to plan ahead. “Class is one hour and a half, you must plan ahead”, was a common response to requests to use the facilities. While this basis for ballet technique may seem cruel and/or over militaristic, it is deeply rooted in the art of ballet instruction and technique. It is the discipline and personal sense of responsibility that is learned through this approach that matures young ballet students, those unable to conform are weeded out; such mental toughening is essential to finding success in the study of ballet, which is a study that requires laser focus, perpetual self-drive, and physical/mental perseverance.
Ballet technique is heavily rooted in the practice of barre work; the barre work is what develops the elementary skills on which the rest of classical ballet is based. The exercises performed at the barre allow for reinforcement and repetition of the basic movements in ballet; beyond building strength and virtuosity of the legs and feet, repetition makes technical feats automatic. Since the barre lends balance support to the dancer, it allows for repetition of steps in as close to perfect form as one’s bodyallows, building strength in hyper correct positions. This way, when the barre is removed, steps are as close to perfect as possible. It is essential that when steps are practiced at the barre that they are executed as a dancer, not as a pedestrian. Great detail is given to the posture one has at the barre, for it will carry over to the rest of their technique; one must stand erect with their chest held high, butt tucked beneath their torso, and the back of their neck long. This posture is rooted in having square shoulders, a square torso, and square hips; one’s body must be in equilibrium, not allowing one shoulder to be in front of the other or one hip to be in front of the other. This equal alignment is reinforced by stabilizing of the stomach muscles, a lifting motion is achieved by the tightening of the stomach muscles, one must be careful not to grip stomach muscles (like a crunch) but lift them. To enforce square execution of basic steps, bar work is taught behind the barre in the beginning levels. Steps are taught and performed with two hands on the barre, one’s body is in the space between the barre and the wall in which the barre is mounted. This method is used to ensure that one’s body is square and lifted; if the student drifts from this equilibrium position, their butt, shoulder, hip, chest, etc. will hit either the barre or the wall behind them, thus allowing for early stage self-correction.
Beginner ballet classes consist mostly of barre work if not entirely of barre work. In the case of the School of American Ballet, it is customary that beginner students don’t leave the barre for the first two years of their training. As dancers progress through levels, it is common that an hour and a half class can consist of an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes of barre work before moving on. Ultimately, by advanced training levels, the barre will be highly refined and be completed in a half hour to forty-five minutes’ time. It is at the barre in beginner classes that the basic steps of ballet are taught. After posture has been established, the Plié is introduced; plié in French means bent, so the motion of a plié is to bend the knees. Plié is the most important step in all of ballet because it is what begins, ends, and connects all steps. Through the plié, the five basic positions of ballet are taught and pliés are performed in four of the five positions at the beginning of every ballet class, beginner through professional. First position is when the heels of one’s two feet are touching with their hip rotation at 180 degrees, 90 degrees coming from each leg. Essentially one’s toes are facing away from each other, while their heals are kissing. Second position is similar to first position, but instead of the heals touching, there is space between the feet; the correct amount of space between the two feet is different for each dancer but can be approximated by the size of one’s foot. The correct distance between one’s two feet is found by an instructor splitting the difference between the amount of space between one’s two feet that is the size of their foot and the space that would be created if one were to draw a line directly to the floor from the side of both dancer’s hips. The correct space between one’s two feet, for a perfect second position, is individual and can be achieved with thesetwo metrics and the eye of a well-trained ballet instructor. Next is third position, one’s feet are again in full turnout rotation, with the heel of one foot in front of the other. The heel of the front foot sits directly in front of the arch of the back foot, touching, as to leave no space between the two feet. Forth position is when one’s front foot is about six to nine inches in front of the back foot, both feet are in full turnout rotation and one foot is directly if front to the other. If this position is to be viewed from directly in front of the dancer or directly behind the dancer, the appearance of one foot should be achieved; no heel or toe should be peeking out to the left or right of the dancer’s silhouette. Fifth position is similar to fourth position but there is no space between the front and back leg; both legs are in ninety-degree rotation with the toes of each foot ‘kissing’ the heel of the other foot. There is no space between the two feet and the appearance of one foot should be achieved. Fifth position is referred to by some ballet teachers as home base, this is the strongest and sturdiest position in ballet technique and because of this, numerous steps are performed from and to fifth position, it often is said that one should perform a step with the rest of their body, as though they have never left fifth position. When performing a plié in each of these positions, (1) one’s back should remain straight, not bending forward or arching back, as one’s legs bends and straightens, (2) one should keep their heels on the ground while performing a small plié and only lifting their heals when necessary in a big plié (grand plié), (3) one should resist the floor and lift up as their knees bend and push the floor away assembling their inner thighs as their knees straighten, and (4) one’s plié movement should be continuous, never stopping, while maintaining a consistent pace; no part should be faster and/or slower than the rest.
The next step introduced is the battement tendu and it is one of the most essential steps in the ballet technique. Battement tendu is executed in first and fifth positions, but the methodology to a tendu is the same in both positions; both a tendu performed in first and fifth are crossed. The motion of a tendu is to extend the leg out with a pointed foot and return it to the position from which it came. However, there is much to think about in this seemly basic motion. One must maintain the largest degree of turnout at all times during the outward and inward motions, one’s heal should lead the motion outward while one’s toes should aim to reach first or fifth before their heals do on the return motion. While the leg is moving out and in, one’s weight in the standing foot should be over the ball of their foot; it is as if one can lift their heal off of the floor at any time during the tendu. At no point during the tendu motion should the metatarsals of the food become relaxed, it is often taught that battement tendu goes through a demi-pointe, dropping one’s metatarsals to the floor, but this is wrong. It is as if the foot is always on its way to a full point from the moment it leaves first or fifth position. Battement tendu is always crossed; to the front, one’s toes should be directly in front of their belly button, to the side, one’s toes should be directly to the side of their body (neither in front or behind their hips), and to the back, one’s toes should be directly behind their belly button. Once again, while this motion is performed, one’s body must remain erect with their shoulders and hips as square as possible, with their butt tucked under, and their stomach muscles pulling up.
Jeté is the next step taught, since it shares a lot of similarities to the battement tendu. Essentially jeté is the same step as a tendu, in a tendu the toes remain on the floor but in a jeté the toes come off the floor; about three inches for quick jetés and about four to five inches for slow tempos. The jeté is essential for building the speed, foot dexterity, and strength for more advanced ballet steps; the speed at which one moves in and out of fifth position in a jeté prepares one to execute jumps such as assemblés and glissades later on. The same principles of a battement tendu must be observed when executing a jeté, such as maximum turnout, exact placement (directly in front, side, and behind), heels leading out, toes leading in, full point of foots instep, lifted torso, etc. What is emphasized in ballet technique, concerning the jeté, is that the leg shoots out quickly and arrives back quickly in fifth; teachers often shout “BAM”, “AND IN”, “FIFTH”, etc. to verbally exemplify the quality of movement one should achieve with their jeté. In ballet technique, it is taught that no matter how fast or slow the tempo/jeté is, one must be concentrated on having a light touch to the floor and one must take care to make no noise when closing in fifth from their jeté. Exercising the strength and control needed to avoid noise when closing from a quick jeté allows for a catlike quality later on, when closing from a large jump; no noise should be made when closing from a large jump in performance.
After jeté, the piqué is taught; often piqués are performed in combination with jetés. The piqué is performed out of fifth position and similarly to the jeté is performed directly front, side, and to the back of the body. The beginning of the movement is exactly like the jeté, the foot explodes out of fifth, but as the leg reaches the highest point of the leg extension, one stops their foot midair. The foot is held off the floor, three or four inches, for a moment and then instead of returning to fifth, the leg and toes are lowered to the floor in a sharp movement, lightly tapping the floor and then immediately the foot is lifted back up to three or four inches off of the ground. After this movement is performed the requested number of times by the instructor, the foot returns to fifth in identical form as the jeté. When performing a piqué, one must be sure to have both a strong standing leg and working leg, a correct piqué is achieved through a joint muscular effort between the two legs. It is important to remember that the accent of the foot striking the ground is up in a piqué, the movement is sharp always accentuating the return to the position with one’s foot three or four inches off the floor; special importance must be given to separating each piqué, never allowing the movements to blend into one another, each piqué is its own step. The mastery of the jeté is essential to every beginner ballet dancer, allowing them to develop the strength, clarity, and control to stop and start the leg at high speeds when in the air. This skill is essential to excelling at jumps such as cabrioles and glissades, as well as developing the inner thigh strength for jumps with beats.
Following piqué, the step that is taught at the barre is fondu, meaning to melt; execution of fondu incorporates many elements taught up to this point in the barre work. By using one’s demi-plié, relevé, coupé, and développé, a dancer begins connecting different technical ballet elements to produce movement that begins to look a lot like the movements they will do at center, onstage, and in choreography. In other words, an understanding and aptitude must be achieved with these given steps to move on to learning a fondu. It is often useful to teach fondu starting in fifth position; the step begins by moving one’s working leg into coupé, while simultaneously executing a demi-plié with their standing leg. There is an emphasis on the knee of the standing leg gliding over the foot; during the demi-plié, one’s weight must concentrated over the ball of their foot. It is emphasized, when learning this step that one should not let their standing leg roll in at the expense of achieving maximum turnout and that one’s plié should be continuous, not stopping and starting back up at any time. The depth of one’s demi-plié is determined by the tempo of the music with which they are executing the step, if the tempo is quick, the plié will be short, whereas if the tempo is slow, the plié can be low enough to release the supporting heal from the floor. Practicing fondu in differing tempos will develop the control and strength necessary to dance as quick and/or slow as choreography will one day require. From this demi-plié, both the standing and working legs should straighten, reaching fully extended knees at the same time. Regarding the working leg, the foot should be drawn up the working leg, towards the knee, before being extended to either the front, side, or back, turning out a little more as the leg is presented. Low fondus are executed in a range from presenting the foot to the floor all the way up to forty-five degrees; when executing a low fondu, the path of the working leg follows a similar action to that of a pas de cheval. This is to say that the leg moves in a similar circular motion except that it doesn’t go through a sur le cou-de pied. The action of a fondu should be a continuous plie that arrives in an extended line with both the working and standing leg, pausing in the extended position as though to indicate the completion of the step. Fondus that are executed to a high line are characterized by the working foot being presented to ninety degrees or higher and instead of using the pas de cheval trajectory, they are executed like a développé (see page 20). Like a développé, the standing leg will reach full extension before the working leg; the supporting leg reaches full extension while the working leg passes through passé, continuing to be lifted to higher levels of extension. When executing a fondu, one should focus on presenting their working leg exactly front, side, and back; extra turnout should be displayed as the working leg reaches each of these positions. While keeping these details in mind, care should be given to the timing with which one starts and finishes their fondu, arriving at extended legs at the right time with a standing leg that has no abrupt stop in plie and a working leg that goes through an exact coupé position (coupé should never be over crossed) is essential. It is also stressed in the execution of fondus, which are above ninety degrees, that when returning to coupé for consecutive fondus, one should keep their knee straight on their working leg, as the leg lowers; the knee of the working leg should not bend until it reaches a level below forty-five degrees, at which time the knee bends and the working foot returns to coupé.
After fondu, frappé is introduced to develop the control and speed needed to excel at jumps such as a jeté, which requires one to throw their leg out in a manner that is sharp and fast, arriving at a precise place in space. Also, the quick return to sur le cou-de-pied, within the execution of frappé, builds strength and coordination in the muscles of the inner thigh, which are necessary for execution of beats within jumps. The basic execution of a frappé is that the working leg is shot out from its originating position of sur le cou-de-pied, striking the floor on its way to continuing up and out, away from the body. The working leg reaches a height of a few inches off the floor, with a straight knee. The returning motion of the frappé is a recoiling of the working leg, the foot returns to sur le cou-de-pied in the most direct line while the working knee maintains maximum turnout, with the knee directly to the side of the standing leg. The striking of the floor in a frappé is characterized by being as strong of a contact with the floor as possible without producing a large noise. One method used to teach students how to strike the floor is to instruct students to imagine that there is a bug on the floor that they want to squish; this imagery requires of the dancer that they strike the floor hard enough to squish the bug but also with distinct accuracy, aa to indeed hit the bug and not the floor around it. The specifics of how one strikes the floor depends on the direction in which a frappé is executed, there are specific parts of the foot that are supposed to strike the floor. In frappé to the front, contact with the floor should be achieved initially somewhere between the side and bottom of the big toe, in between the tip and the first joint of the big toe. To the side, the initial frappé strike should be achieved within the same space between the tip and the first joint of the big toe, but more to the bottom of the toe. To the back, the initial striking point of the frappé is completely on the side of the big toe joint between the tip and the first joint of the big toe. At no point should the motion of a frappe allow the metatarsals to drop down, essentially going through a demi-point. The outward motion should have the appearance of an upward motion; teachers often make the analogy of frappé’s outward motion being similar to the peeling of a carrot. When peeling a carrot, one moves their tool away from their body in a quick motion, pushing their hand and tool upward and pulling their too and hand up when contact with the carrot is lost. This is the type of motion that a dancer should aim to mimic with their feet when executing a frappé, a sharp movement outward that finishes with a slight lift. When executing frappé, it is important to keep in mind that (1) the foot reaches either exactly front, back, and side, (2) that the knee reaches a fully stretched position with a fully pointed foot, (3) the foot lifts slightly when reaching the extended position, staying fully stretched as long at the tempo permits, that (4) the knee achieves full turnout when returning to sur le cou-de-pied, and that (5) the toes of the working leg are always engaged, never leaving a pointed position with the toes, going through a demi-point.
Ballonné battu is logically the next step taught at barre because it begins and ends similarly to frappé, originating and ending in sur le cou-de-pied, but has almost the exact opposite energy as the frappé; frappé employs an accent which emphasizes the outward motion with respect to the music while ballonné battu shows the accent that emphasizes the inward motion with respect to the music. The inward motion of ballonné battu is particularly helpful in cultivating the necessary inner thigh strength to execute beats within jumps, by requiring both the standing leg and working leg to work in tandem to recoil the leg quickly, the same muscle contractions used in jumps with beats is achieved. While one can in theory do a ballonné in all directions, the step is primarily executed to the side; from sur le cou-de-pied, the working leg is thrown with great energy to the side, achieving a height that is just above forty-five degrees. The motion with which the leg is thrown is direct, the foot creates a direct line from sur le cou-de-pied to the extended position; at no time does the working foot slide up or down the standing leg in sur le cou-de-pied and at no point does the working foot encountered the floor. Once the leg achieves an extended knee and pointed foot, directly to the side, just above forty-five degrees, the leg is instantly snapped back down to sur le cou-de-pied, using the hamstring to initiate the recoiling force. During the execution of a ballonné battu, it is crucial to keep the hips still, core strong, only allowing the working leg to move; it is this isolation of the working leg from the rest of one’s body that allows for beats to be achieved during jumps later on.
Petit battement follows ballonné battu and is a wonderful exercise for challenging the dancer to find stability on one leg. The quick movements of the working foot challenge the dancer’s balance and requires of the dancer continuous recalculation of their balance in space. It is this development of proprioception, when petit battement is practiced with the arms off of the barre, that helps a dancer to sustain multiple turns later on in the class; if a dancer is off of their leg going into a turn, they will be able to use the proprioceptive skills developed through petit battement to get on their leg! Petit battement starts in sur le cou-de-pied, holding one’s entire body still, the dancer moves only the portion of their working leg, below the knee, and moves the foot from sur le cou-de-pied front to coupé back. It is important to show a distinct beat when executing petit battement, the step should not look muddled or as though the working leg is scratching the standing leg; showing the transition from front to back is achieved by the leg moving out to the side and back in, the movement of a petit battement should be more of an out and in motion than a front to back motion. It is important to keep in mind (1) that the working knee is fully turned out to the side and kept still during petit battement, (2) that the beats go over the music (executing the beats as fast as possible, while still being clear), and (3) that the sur le cou-de-pied is at the ankle. Often the sur le cou-de-pied will creep up the standing leg while executing multiple beats and it is essential that the dancer resist this tendency.
Following petit battement, the next barre step that is taught is called rond de jambe par terre, referred to as “rond de jambe”; in French, rond de jambe par terre means circle of the leg on the ground. It is important for the correct execution of a rond de jambe par terre to keep the imagery of one’s leg making a circular motion that originates from one’s hip in mind, while set circle is being traced on the floor by one’s foot. Rond de jambe can be executed from a tendu side and from fifth position but is often taught from tendu second. By teaching rond de jambe par terre from a tendu second, the correct shape of half a pizza pie can be traced with the working foot/leg. From tendu second, the dancer initiates movement from high up on the working leg, starting with their inner thigh pushing their working heel forward. Ultimately the toe of the dancer’s leg moves straight forward; great care is taken to avoid one’s toes from being “over crossed”, the initial movement of a rond de jambe par terre should not point along the dancer’s center line as it does in a tendu. When executing a rond de jambe par terre, one should imagine that they are tracing a shape that is just shy of half a pizza pie. The working leg and foot continue to reach away from the body, drawing the curve of half of a circle until the foot reaches roughly three quarters of the way around the imaginary half circle. At this point, the foot moves through first position and repeats the movement for multiple rond de jambe par terre. When a rond de jambe par terre is executed en dehors, from the front to the back, one begins the movement by pointing their foot in an uncrossed tendu front and when executed en dedans, back to front, one begins the movement by pointing their foot to an uncrossed tendu back. One is taught to be conscientious of both the working leg and standing leg maintaining maximum turnout at all points; maximum turnout is achieved not only while passing through first position, but when the leg is tracing the pizza pie as well. It is stressed that one must be careful not to roll in on their standing foot and/or their working foot when passing through first. Allowing one’s foot to roll in, in attempt to achieve maximum turnout, will only prove to be a disservice because one’s stability while executing such a circular movement away from the barre will reveal itself to be unstable when rolling in. When executing a rond de jambe par terre, it is stressed that the working leg doesn’t swing without control; a rond de jambe par terre’s movement is achieved through the continuous fight to maintain full turnout with both the working and standing leg at all times during the tracing of a circle on the floor. It is this continuous muscle contraction that creates the forces that moves the working leg. To assist in this development of stability, it is stressed by instructors of beginner classes that one be vigilant about their body positioning and form, when executing rand de jambes. One must continue to hold their body with square hips, square shoulders, and a straight body, with the weight primarily over the ball of the supporting foot, no matter what point of the rand de jambe is being executed. This approach is essential for building torso control and core strength that allows dancers to change direction on the spot and turn on one leg multiple times! This control will be achieved if these key details are kept in mind when executing a rond de jambe par terre: (1) never cross your foot to the center line of one’s body at any time, (2) avoid rolling in one’s feet when passing through first position, (3) the accent step should be that the foot passes through first on the count in the music, (4) maximum turnout should be achieved at all stages of the circular movement, and (5) the body should remain straight up and down, with square hips and the weight of the standing leg over the ball of one’s foot.
Rond de jambe par terre is also practiced with a plie, to develop strength in the thigh of the supporting leg. When practiced with a plié, students are instructed to plié deep enough that the heal of their supporting leg comes off the floor; when a plié this deep is utilized, it is imperative to keep the knee of the standing leg tracking over the standing foot. If correct alignment is not achieved, the dancer will leave their knee susceptible to strain and tendonitis. Challenging one’s leg and core strength while executing rond de jambe par terre in plié is useful for developing the ability to execute full, big, and sweeping movements that require the working leg to reach far away from the center of the body. For instance, performing a temps lie or pas de basque will require this strength of the upper thigh, as will controlling the landing of a big jump and/or single leg relevés.
As rond de jambe can be done par terre, on the ground, it can be performed en l’air, in the air; when the leg is thrown in the air, tracing a large circle to the side of one’s body, the step is called rond de jambe jeté. The benefit of grand rond de jambe jeté is an increase one’s hip flexibility to all directions, which develops the dancer’s ability to reach maximum turnout in all positions to which the leg could possibly be lifted. Rond de jambe jeté also develops the dancer’s ability to be both explosive with part of their body and completely still with the rest of it. Grand rond de jambe jeté is often taught from tendu back, later it is incorporated into rond de jambe exercises. As the working foot passes from tendu back through first position, the leg gathers kinetic force by pushing down into the floor; as the leg/foot pass through first position, the leg explodes with energy, pushing the foot forward with the toes pointing as they do in a rond de jamb par terre. The gathered force throws the working leg in a circular arc that passes through à la second (the leg directly to the side of the body), through écarté back (the dancer’s body and shoulders are square, while the leg is lifted behind their body, turned out like it is in à la second), finally returning to tendu back. While the leg is thrown in a grand rond de jambe jeté, (1) one’s weight is primarily in the ball of their standing leg, (2) the leg is thrown, never overcrossing, with a calm held body, (3) the leg continues to turn out throughout the whole jeté, passing through écarté back, (4) the barre should be used minimally, it should never be held on to or pulled off of for support.
The next step taught is often executed in tandem with rond de jambe par terre and it is called the rond de jambe en l’air; this is a step that is especially important for developing stability in a dancer’s core and teaching the dancer how to get on their leg for turns. Rond de jambes en l’air can be done in jumps and mimics the movement of fouettés and a pull in from turns à la seconde. The rond de jambe en l’air is executed with one’s leg directly to the side at ninety degrees; one’s leg from the knee up should remain as still as possible while the foot carves out an elliptical shape in the air. When this step is taught to beginners, the tempo is kept rather slow and at its fastest, is given at a moderate speed; teachers emphasize the importance of the correct shape and resistance created by one’s body against the air when performing the motion of rond de jambe en l’air. Forcing one to do multiple rond de jambe en l’air at slow tempos builds extreme strength and control of one’s lower extremities and core. As the dancer progresses in their technique, rond de jambe en l’air is executed at faster speeds, which challenges one’s ability to fully execute the step with full technical accolade. The increase in speed challenges the dancer to keep the shape, control, and quality they achieved at slower speeds. Rond de jambe en l’air begins with the working leg in à la seconde, at ninety degrees, with the thigh parallel to the floor, and the knee straightened. When performing a rond de jambe en l’air en dehors, the working knee bends, keeping the thigh still, while the working foot traces an elliptical shape; the elliptical shape starts back and towards the standing leg’s knee. The working foot’s big toe scratches the working leg just below the vastus medialis oblique, the bump on the side of the knee. The elliptical shape continues, with a larger circle taking place in the front of knee, continuing to arrive back in à la seconde with a fully turned out working leg and with an accent that shows total control in placing the foot to the side. A slight pause before the next rond de jambe en l’air indicates that the dancer has finished a complete elliptical and is in command of their limbs. To perform a rond de jambe en l’air en dedans one reverses the movement; beginning with the leg at ninety degrees to the side, one bends their working knee, while tracing an elliptical shape with their foot from in front of the knee, brushing their standing leg’s knee, and completing the elliptical shape by returning the leg to ninety degrees directly side. When completing a rond de jambe en l’air, special emphasis is given to the care and phrasing with which one arrives with their leg to the side. Dancers are instructed to resist the movement at the end of a rond de jambe, as though to give a labored appearance when arriving back in the extended side position. By doing this phrasing, the appearance of control is given and one develops the strength to avoid jamming into this final position, independent of tempo given. This is a skill that comes in great use when one progresses to the professional level; having the ability to arrive in a position with complete control allows professionals to develop their own signature way of executing steps and give the illusion of ease. At the beginner level, many things are stressed when one learns rond de jambe en l’air, such as that maximum turnout/rotation being achieved, special emphases is given to maintaining full turnout in the standing leg, while the working leg executes the prescribed elliptical shape. By focusing on maximum turnout in both legs, rond de jambe en l’air will be sturdy in execution away from the barre. Also, there is great emphasis on showing the elliptical shape made with the working leg; one should be able to decipher the difference between a rond de jambe en l’air en dedans and en dehors from the fifth ring of a theater!
They next thing one learns is a series of adagio exercises, which are particularly helpful in creating strength and control to move around on one supporting leg. It is the strength developed through this set of exercises that allow for dancers to spin and turn on one leg; executing pirouettes and turns in various positions begins with adagio exercises. The steps that make up adagio exercises are the développé, arabesque penché, and attitude. Throughout the exercises of adagio, it is stressed that dancers test their balance by lifting their hand off the barre during the adagio combination. It is very common in beginner levels for adagio exercises to be repeated twice; the first time the adagio is executed, the hand is on the barre and the second time, the whole combination is completed with both hands off the barre!
Développé translated from French means to develop and more accurately it means a developing moment; développé is the step that is the process of developing an adagio position. Starting in fifth position, a développé begins by the foot of the working leg traveling up the standing leg; the working foot wraps around the ankle of the standing leg, starting with the toes and traveling through sur le cou-de-pied. It should seem as though the working foot peels itself off the floor and caresses the ankle. The working foot travels though sur le cou-de-pied and travels through passé, extending to an open position either directly in front, to the side, or behind the body. When the leg is extended out from passé to the front or back, the leg should move to the center line of the body as soon as the foot leaves passé. When the leg is développéd to the front, the position is en face, when it is to the side, it is à la seconde, and when it is to the back it is in arabesque. The body should remain quiet and square throughout the execution of développé, with special care given to keeping the hip down as the leg is extended front, side, and back. When the leg put into arabesque, it is appropriate to allow the hip to open slightly; keeping one’s hip completely square in arabesque is physically impossible!
When the leg is développéd to the back, in the arabesque position, penché is taught to advanced beginners; penché means to lean in French. Penché is an advanced balance exercise that increases the flexibility of dancer’s hips and hamstrings. Back strength is also developed through penché, which is critical to the execution of grand jeté and saut de chat jumps. Beginning in arabesque, the dancer is instructed to lift their leg as high as they can behind them, without allowing their upper body to shift further forward. When the back can no longer allow the leg to move higher, the dancer leans forward with their body. The movement of leading forward is initiated by the leg lifting to the back; the relationship/angle of the leg to back should not increase or decrease at any point during the penché. The dancer leans forward until their back is at a ninety-degree angle to their standing leg and one’s torso is parallel to the floor. When taught penché, teachers stress that the back not be allowed to collapse beyond the parallel relationship to the floor. It is often called diving into a penché when dancers don’t hold the relationship of their leg to their back constant; teachers can be heard screaming “DON’T DIVE” throughout beginner ballet classes. Ideally, the leg height achieved in a penché is one hundred and eighty degrees, although this level of strength and flexibility takes years to develop and cultivate.
Following a penché during adagio at the barre, often attitude is taught and practiced while balancing on relevé with the standing leg. Attitude is executed almost identically to développé, the main difference being that the leg doesn’t stop in a straightened position with the knee fully taught. Instead, the leg stops with the working leg bent and completes the développé motion to close back into fifth. Like a développé, attitude is executed to the front, side, and back; when the leg is in attitude front and side, the degree of the bend made by the knee should be about one hundred and forty-five degrees. To the back, the degree of bentness should be smaller, depending on each individual dancer’s shape and ability to turn out, the leg should be bent between ninety-five and one hundred degrees. When executing attitude to all directions, it is stressed that maximum turnout should be achieved in the finishing position; the ankle and foot should give a slight degree of extra rotation, which is initiated from the bend in the knee. When one does attitude, it is critical to achieve the correct angles within each direction or else an attitude can be mistaken for a poorly executed développé.
Following adagio exercises is the completion of barre with grand battements, an exercise which challenges the body’s ability to keep still while the legs move quickly to extremes. Grand battement is executed exclusively in and out of fifth position. The step is initiated by the leg pushing down into the floor and the knee straightening, this builds the kinetic energy needed for the leg to explode out of fifth position. When the force is built, the dancer throws their leg to the front, side, or back; special attention should be given to making sure the leg is in the dancer’s center line to the front and back. The leg should reach the highest degree possible by the dancer; the height of the leg is determined by how high the leg can go without bending and/or disturbing the equilibrium of the upper body. When the foot leaves fifth position, the heal should lead the leg out of fifth position and when returning to fifth position, the toes should lead back into fifth. Grand battement is essential for execution of large jumps in grand allegro at center; the explosive energy that is achieved through grand battement is what is used to propel one’s body into the air for big jumps. When the leg is thrown out, as it is in grand battement, the body follows the leg into the air.
As students progress from beginner to advanced levels, the steps that are described in detail above are merged in series of combinations designed to build strength, challenging the dancers both physically and mentally. Steps will be combined and tempos will be adjusted to create dancers that can respond to all different types of music and tempos; Balanchine dancers are trained in the specific techniques above and are known for being able to dance faster and slower than dancers who are trained in alternate methods. These exercises and positions prepare the dancer for center work, which is the beginning of dancing and choreography. While barre work may become quicker and more complex, the set of steps described above are the same steps that dancers of all levels practice daily. A barre is a dancer’s version of brushing their teeth; as brushing one’s teeth daily helps to maintain oral health and clean teeth, a ballet barre practiced daily helps to maintain clean technique and a healthy body for dancers.
Take these technique pointers to your next ballet class and don't forget to share them around the rosin box!
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