2 3 Ballet Webb: September 2013

Monday, September 30, 2013

Arms and Water Towers


 

Closely related to geometry of ballet that I blogged about last week is the geometry, (or shaping) of the arms.  The curvature of the arms is actually quite simple – at least in form.  The shape of the arm is only a little bit different than a completely straight (but not locked elbow) arm.

 I usually have students stand and put their arms straight out to the side (like Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man).  I then ask them to relax the elbow just enough to allow the elbow to rotate and face the back wall.  I then show them how to rotate the wrist area slightly so that the palm of the hand faces more forward than downward.  There is a slight downward slope from the shoulders to the hand; i.e. the arm is not absolutely parallel to the floor.   The rule is this:  in a la seconde of the arms, the elbow is always higher than the wrist, but lower than the shoulder.

The arms in à la seconde should be placed slightly in front of the side of the body.  The image I use is this:  imagine standing on the inside of a giant water tower (an empty one!), and feel your back and arms pressing up against the wall of the tower.  This gentle curve of the arms is the correct one.

 

From the Big Blue Book of Ballet Secrets:

Secret #6b:
“In à la seconde and first (fifth en avant) position of the arms, the elbow is always higher than the wrist, but lower than the shoulder.”

 Link of the Day:

Quote of the Day:
“From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.”
-          Arthur Ashe

 

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Sunday, September 29, 2013

What Keeps Us Coming Back to Class?


Ballet class, and its clockwork dependability of barre and center work, is designed to train the body to perfect the execution of a large repertoire of steps and movements.  Class is done daily, throughout a dancer’s life, and this ritual, this repetition, provides an emotional grounding as well as assuring that a dancer’s hard-won technique doesn’t slide backwards. 

But given the repetitive nature of ballet training, how does one maintain the motivation and focus to keep it up year after year?  Probably an entire encyclopedia could be compiled on this subject, but it is one that has always fascinated me.  Is it the production of endorphins in the brain that keeps us “addicted”?  Is it the dependability of class routine in an increasing chaotic world?  Is it the pathway to achieving a dream?  Or is it simply pure love of the art form, and the joy we take in participating in it?  I suspect it is all these things, and more. Click on today's link for an article about how dancers are genetically different!  Perhaps that explains part of it.

So what does drive us?  Leave a comment on why you keep coming back – whether as a dancer or dance teacher.
 

From the Big Blue Book of Ballet Secrets:

Motivation Secret # 1a:
“Motivation comes from the passion within.”

 
Link of the Day:

 

Quote of the Day:

“The road to success is always under construction.”
-          Lily Tomlin



 
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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Dancers , Corners, and Imaginary Squares

 
One of the first concepts a dancer learns is the idea of an imaginary box, or square.  This square forms the basis of the geometry of body facings, whether the dancer is onstage or in the classroom.  I teach the “headlights” concept first (see previous post), so the students know that when they face a particular direction, both headlights should focus in that direction.
When I work with young children, I have them stand on pre-cut pieces of colorful paper (about 12 inches square); or I have them draw an imaginary box on the floor with their fingers, and then instruct them to stand in the middle of this “box”.  Then we go through the process of shining their headlights to the front of the box, the back, the side, and finally, the corner.
I explain that when a dancer isn’t facing front, they face the corner of their box, not the corner of the room or the stage.  For older dancers, I go on to explain that this serves more than one purpose.  First, it presents the dancer’s body from the best possible angle (the seat isn’t visible!); it makes the dancer appear to be longer and leaner; and finally, the angle of every dancer in the room will be identical – critical for corps de ballet work.
 
From the Big Blue Book of Ballet Secrets:
Secret # 5b:  “A dancer seldom faces the corner of the room or stage, but instead faces the corner of his/her own box, or square.”
 
                Link of the Day:
               
     Quote of the Day:
“The most solid stone in the structure is the lowest one in the foundation.”
Kahlil Gibran
 
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Friday, September 27, 2013

Headlights and Dancers


 

Essential to correct technique is what I think of as the geometry of ballet.  This involves how the body is placed in space, and whether the dancer is facing straight (toward the audience), or angled slightly.  A common image, and a very effective one, is this:  Imagine the hips having headlights, just like a car or truck.  These headlights always face straight ahead (or in the desired direction), and seldom twist. 

This concept is usually introduced with the dancer facing the barre, and later expanded to mean the proper “right angle to the barre” facing.  Later, when the dancers learn to angle in and out from the barre, the concept of correct, square, “headlight facing” follows them. 

 
From the Big Blue Book of Ballet Secrets:

Secret #5a:
 “ Imagine your hips as headlights on a car. Always keep them focused “on the road”.
 

                Link of the Day:
                http://dancers.invisionzone.com/

 

Quote of the Day:

 “How far that little candle throws his beams!  So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
-          William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

 

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Knees and Smiley Faces


 

When I work with beginning students, whether children or young adults, I talk about how knees have “faces”.  This is useful when describing multiple things.  Some of these include:  where the knees “look” in different positions (never at the floor!); how the “expression” changes when the patella is pulled upward (important for understanding a truly straight leg);  and where to place the working foot in retiré (in the “smile”, or in the “ear”).  The possibilities are almost endless. 

Although this may sound like something that can only work for children, it works equally well for older students and adults.  I believe education and fun are not opposites!  In fact, humor and fun images can actually heighten the ability to absorb and remember concepts. 

Our Link of the Day is a great article on turn-out from Dance Magazine.

 

From The Big Blue Book of Ballet Secrets:

Secret # 4b:  The “face” on the knee never looks at the floor.”

 

Link of the Day:


               

Quote of the Day:
"Talent is only a starting point."
- Irving Berlin

 

 

 

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tendu Paths and CD Cases


 

Yes, another tendu blog.  Now that the energy sensations and “slurping” action of the tendu have been discussed, it is time for another important concept.  How does one keep the leg turned out during the tendu?  Although turn-out should originate from the hip sockets (see the post on turn-out), here it helps to think about the foot and ankle.

When performing a tendu to the front (devant), the heel (ankle) leads the movement.  This should happen naturally if the legs are  rotating correctly in the hip socket.  To the back (derrière), the opposite is true:  the toes lead the movement – again this should be a natural reaction to the legs being rotated correctly in the hip sockets.

In à la seconde it becomes more complex. The tendu should follow the “hallway” created by the dancer’s first position, with an imaginary X marking the spot where the tendu ends (this is the same spot regardless of whether the tendu originated from first or fifth position).  Unless the dancer’s rotational capability is a perfect 180 degrees, the direction of the tendu and the imaginary X will not be directly to the side.  Instead, it will be slightly in front of side.  I demonstrate this using two CD cases.  I have the student stand in their best, correct first position, and then place one CD case on edge on each side of the foot.  Then I slide the cases straight out past the dancer’s toes, creating a “hallway” for the tendu.  I stress that during the tendu the dancer must focus on using the turn-out equally on each leg.
                                                                                                                                                                           

 
From the Big Blue Book of Ballet Secrets:

Secret #3d:  “When performing a tendu devant, the heel leads the movement.  In tendu derrière, the toes lead, and in a tendu à la seconde, the degree of rotational ability determines the path of the tendu.”




A great place to return to frequently is our

Link of the Day:




Quote of the Day:


“The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention.”
-          Richard Moss, M.D.
 
 
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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Tendu in the Sand


              

 
The most important step in ballet technique is plié, and the second most important is tendu.  A tendu hones the dancer’s ability to fully extend (stretch, point) the foot, before the foot ever leaves the floor.  As soon as the foot leaves the floor, the step is no longer a tendu, but instead becomes a dégagé.   This is because, by definition, a correctly executed tendu never leaves the floor – not even a little bit.

 There is always a downward energy “through the floor” as the dancer moves the foot from its original position (probably fifth or first), outward to a fully pointed foot, and back.  The sensation of pressing into the floor happens even before the foot moves outward.  This energy can be envisioned as what would happen if the tendu happened on the beach.  The foot would leave path or footprint (tendu-print?) in the sand that would be wide and deep at the beginning, and narrow at the end.    I call this sensation of pressing downward an “under circle” or “under curve” with my students.  It is used in many other areas, since it provides a firm grounding or stabilizing connection to the floor.

From the Big Blue Book of Ballet Secrets:

Secret #4a:

“A tendu never leaves the floor.  Otherwise it is not a tendu.”

Link of the Day:


Quote of the Day:

“Write injuries in sand, kindnesses in marble.”
-          French proverb

 

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Monday, September 23, 2013

Turn-out and Barber’s Shop Poles


Turn-out is a subject that could fill a book (or two).  Today I’m going to talk about the equal and opposite nature of turn-out.  That is, whenever the outward rotational movement of the legs from the hip sockets is engaged, that rotation should be equal.  In other words, each leg should rotate outward the same amount, or to the same degree.  As a corollary, this implies that a dancer’s turn-out is only as good as the rotational ability on the “weaker”, or less turned-out leg.  As mentioned yesterday, this rotation should never be forced from the feet, but should arise from the hip socket area, and only go to the maximum allowed by the dancer’s current physical (anatomical) capability.

To best achieve this goal, it is helpful to think of turn-out as being a constant, upwardly rotating sensation in the legs. This is non-stop, subtle, and continuous.  Over time, this “encouragement” from the muscles and ligaments in and around the hip sockets will increase the dancer’s turn-out.  Dancers can visualize their legs as two barber’s shop poles, their stripes constantly rotating upward, in opposite directions.

From the Big Blue Book of Ballet Secrets:

Secret #3b 
“Imagine your legs as two barber's shop poles rotating in opposite directions.”

 

 Link of the Day:


 

Quote of the Day:

“The spiral in a snail’s shell is the same mathematically as the spiral in the Milky Way galaxy, and it’s also the same mathematically as the spirals in our DNA.  It’s the same ratio that you’ll find in very basic music that transcends cultures all over the world.”

                                                                                                    - Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ballet, Passion, and Libraries


I was always fascinated with ballet.  One of my earliest memories involves watching some “ballerinas” on a local morning news program.  From then on, I was hooked, totally and completely.  But since my family  was unable to provide dance lessons, at least during my early years, I did the next best thing. 

As my students know, I am also in love with libraries.  That’s where I began teaching myself about ballet.  Sitting cross-legged on the floor (the dance books were located  on a bottom shelf), I satisfied (somewhat) my hunger to know everything possible about ballet and dance.  I didn’t learn the technique physically, of course, but I devoured everything I could about it in theory.  I learned the names of the steps, and the dancers, and the companies.  There on the floor of the library I also developed my love for dance history that continues to this day.

 I practically wore out the library’s dance books, until, at age fourteen, I was at last enrolled in dance classes!  I knew enough from my years of reading that the choice of a dance school was critically important, and I was fortunate enough to study with the best of the best at The Academy of Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  This is a big thank you to all those teachers!! 

A wonderful article on libraries was published many years ago in Victoria magazine, and I believe it should be posted in every library in the world!  The article is:  Passport to the Universe by Patricia O’Toole.  Here is an abridged version:
 

Link of the Day: 
 
From the Introduction of The Big Blue Book of Ballet Secrets:
“There are many paths to the destination of your dreams.”

Quote of the Day:
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
-          Eleanor Roosevelt

 

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Top Down Turn-Out


  

Turn-out.  Every ballet dancer wants more when it comes to turn-out.  I tell my students not to focus solely (pun intended) on the feet, but to concentrate on the muscular sensations created by rotating the femur in the hip socket.  For turn-out to be an effective tool in their "technique toolbox", it must originate from the hip sockets, and the feet simply become a reflection of what is happening above.

If the feet are forced into a turned-out position artificially (beyond the dancer’s current physical capability), injuries and/or joint damage can result.  Turn-out is part of ballet technique because it allows for a greater range of motion and a greater degree of movement control.  It also allows for a beautiful aesthetic:  like a breathtaking arabesque.  Thus, the goal is much broader than just "turning the feet out".
  

From the Big Blue Book of Ballet Secrets:

Secret #3a 
“Effective turn-out is created from the top down, not the bottom up.”

                Link of the Day:

 
Quote of the Day:

“Never let your feet run faster than your shoes.”

-Scottish proverb

 

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Friday, September 20, 2013

The Spine and Peanut Butter

 

It is “Fun Friday” and today I’m going to blog about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – but not about eating them.  When “pulling up” (see my blog post with this title), it helps to imagine having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in between each vertebrae of the spine, and to lift enough (from the top of the head) so that none of the filling squishes out.  The sandwich can be imagined as any kind – as long as the filling is of a squishy nature!

Again, this pulling up should follow the “slightly forward from the ankle” rocket angle alignment of the body discussed in my posts on “Posture” and “Rockets and Relevés”. 

From the Big Blue Book of Ballet Secrets:

Secret # 1g:
“Imagine a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in between each vertebrae of the spine.”

Link of the Day:
 
Quote of the Day:
“Laziness is nothing more than resting before you get tired.”
-          Jules Renard

 

 

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Plié is a Movement


One of the biggest problems with pliés is the tendency dancers have to stop or “sit” at the bottom.  This completely compromises the function of the step.  Since a plié is used to cushion landings as well as to propel jumps, turns, etc., it is essential to perform it in a non-stop manner.

One thing that can help a student feel the correct sensation is this:  bring a chair over to the barre and ask the student to do a grand plié in second position, but to sit down on the chair at the base of the plié.  They will quickly notice how everything drops and the posture compresses.  Then ask them to do the second half of the plié from their sitting position on the chair.  They will immediately realize how much harder it is to come back up after sitting down.

The video Link of the Day from yesterday’s post is a great example of a feline’s non-stop plié in preparation for a jump. 

From the Big Blue Book of Ballet Secrets:

Secret #2b:  A plié is a movement, not a position.


                Link of the Day:


 
Quote of the Day:

 “We need to set our course by the stars, not by the lights of every passing ship.”
-          Omar N. Bradley

 
 


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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Cats and Ballet


Cats and ballet go together like peanut butter and jelly.  The natural elegance and movement quality of a cat is fascinating to observe, and can be quite educational for a dancer.  In the above photo, the cat is exhibiting the “politely arrogant” (emphasis on “politely”) or “engagingly confident” attitude that should be present in a dancer’s demeanor as well (of course dancers would keep their eyes open).

I have two cats, and I love to watch them, especially in action.  The effortless preparations they use for their jumps, in particular, are nothing short of amazing.  If you have a cat, it is well worth your time to study their movements.  One of the most important things they can teach us is this:  They never “sit” or stop in a plié – something is always moving.  Their energy is being coiled…ready to pounce! 

Today’s secret from the Big Blue Book of Ballet Secrets is:

Secret 1f:  The dancer’s eye focus is slightly above eye level, with a “politely arrogant” expression.

 
Quote of the Day: 
 “Your best teacher is your last mistake.”

                -Ralph Nader

 
  
 

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Relaxed Toes

 

I’ve been blogging a lot lately about posture and alignment.  One common problem students have is clenching their toes.  This can happen when the dancer is simply standing, but it also happens when the foot is in tendu, or when one leg is extended in the air.  When the toes curl in an attempt to grip the floor, it is almost always a sign of improper alignment:   the toes are grabbing or holding onto the floor in an attempt to maintain balance.  When standing on the whole foot, the toes should be relaxed.

If the toes are curling or “crunching” in the air, it is usually an improper use of energy.  The dancer is “pointing” the foot too hard, instead of “stretching "or lengthening the foot. “Pointing” implies an inward, or shortened energy, while “stretching” refers to a long, extended feeling of energy that extends beyond the curve of a beautifully “pointed” foot.

Today from the Big Blue Book of Ballet Secrets comes

Secret #1e:  When standing with the foot (or feet) flat on the floor, the toes should be relaxed.

 

The Link of the Day:




 

 
Quote of the Day:
 “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore, Dream, Discover.
-          Mark Twain




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Monday, September 16, 2013

Rockets and Relevés


 

In a previous post, I talked about the alignment of a dancer’s body being “straight and slightly forward from the ankles”, which is Secret 1c from the imaginary (so far) Big Blue Book of Ballet Secrets.  This forwardness in the posture has been described as a “rocket angle”, since rockets are not launched into space in an exact, straight up trajectory.  (For anyone interested in rockets and how successful launches came about, I would recommend the wonderful, inspirational movie, October Sky). 

This forward angle of the body is necessary largely because of the skeletal structure of humans:  we weigh just a bit more on our back half, skeletally speaking.  Among other things, we don’t have a spine in the front!  If we did, it would be easier to hold our abdominal muscles in, but it would be extremely limiting to our flexibility!

The trajectory that dancers use whenever they relevé or jump should follow the line created by the slight forward alignment of the body.  I have my students stand so they can see themselves sideways in the mirror and thus observe the correct “rocket angle” in action as they jump or relevé.

 

Link of the Day:  The trailer for the movie October Sky:


Quote of the Day:

“If a window of opportunity appears, don’t pull down the shade.”

-Thomas Peters

 

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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Motivation Every Day


 

How do you stay motivated and inspired?  Teacher or student, what keeps you going through every plié, every arabesque, and every pirouette?  Do you recharge by watching dance videos, reading great books, or going out to dinner?  Do you do something entirely removed from the dance classroom, like building shelves or creating new recipes?  What makes you able to “embrace the day”?  Share your thoughts and ideas and perhaps you will help motivate another teacher or student.

For inspiration on embracing the day, here is a link to a great letter honoring teachers, written by Nelba Marquez-Greene whose  six-year-old daughter Ana Grace was killed in the Sandy Hook tragedy:


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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Balancing on One Leg


 
 
 

When a dancer balances on one leg, the alignment of the body changes slightly depending on the particular position the dancer assumes.  But for this example, I’m going to use retiré, since it is so frequently used – especially for turns.

When attempting to balance in retiré my students frequently fail to place their body weight completely over their supporting leg.  When I ask them why, they usually say something about not “sitting in their hips”.  (Once again I discover that my best teaching intentions have backfired).  So I try to explain that centering their torso over their leg isn’t “sitting”, as long as their hips are level with the floor and they are still “lifting” or “pulling up” correctly. 

The phrase that has worked best for me is Secret # 1d :

Place (align) the belly button over the supporting foot.

 
Posing for the above photograph is my cat, Chessie.  She was born with radial nerve damage in her left leg, so the lower part of that leg is paralyzed.  She gets around fine, however, on three and a half legs!  She often sits as you see her in this picture, with her compromised foot placed across her supporting foot (although her supporting leg is usually more turned-out).  Notice that her normal leg is effectively balancing and supporting her, by being placed neatly in the center of her body.  I often show this photograph to my students to illustrate the concept of correct placement when balancing on one leg. 

 

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