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  • Jennifer Milner

Back to Basics

I recently had the chance to observe Layla Amis teaching a master class, and at one point she said, “Listen, in ballet, every single step comes back to just one of five movements: the plié, the relevé, the tendu, the rond de jambe, and the passé retiré.

Which is true, and also incredibly mind-blowing.

Intellectually, of course, I’d always known this: ballet technique is built painstakingly from the first plié to the last reverence. But when I really stopped and thought about that, I realized - Ok. I’d better make sure my dancers are getting these five steps right.

Going back to the basics can feel like a demotion, like you’re being kicked back to baby school. But making sure your tendu is good -- that you work through the floor, that you lengthen the leg, that your toes don’t curl under -- is no easy feat (feet! hah!) and something you’ll be perfecting the rest of your life. The quality of your tendu will inform everything in center from your petite allegro to your adagio and even, yes, your pirouette. And when you begin moving into faster, more complicated steps in center, you don’t have time to think through every necessary step for a good tendu. Instead, you rely on muscle memory, on what you’ve ingrained into your body.

So you better make sure what you’ve programmed in is good quality!

In August I spent a few weeks working with one of my professional dancers on hiatus. We check in every summer and see what bad habits have started to creep into her technique, trying to head off injuries before they happen. During one private we spent twenty minutes working on getting a correct tendu, and at the end of a slow, painful combination she wailed, ‘Tendus are HARD!”

Only if you do them right.

Or another example: a new dancer took her first private with me and said she wanted to work on pirouettes. “How’s your passé retiré?” I asked. “My passé is fine,” she dismissed impatiently. “I want to work on my pirouettes. My weight shifts too much and I take too long on the first revolution.” I gently steered her back to her passé work, spent ten minutes on it (hint: sometimes it’s the hamstring), then watched as she went from a double to a quad pirouette right there, much to her sheepish delight. (See video here of my work with a different dancer, to witness how a little hamstring work will put a snap in your passé.)

What’s the point here? Going back to the basics and giving them a once-over is something every smart dancer does periodically. It’s as basic as your ABCs, but you can’t write complicated words if you don’t know your letters. Take time to dig into those building blocks with your coach or favorite teacher, and you’ll be surprised at how much the rest of your class improves! Clean up your single leg relevé, and suddenly your fouetté turns work better. Invest time in your plié quality, and your grande allegro will improve by leaps and bounds.

Don't have access to one-on-one work? Lisa Howell at The Ballet Blog offers incredible resources, from short insructional videos to easy-to-read books that break down how to work on turnout, or how to go back to basics to figure out your front developpé. Her books are available on her website as well as places like Amazon. Progressing Ballet Technique is another great option, that will work slow, specific exercises designed to get you using the right muscles the right way for basic ballet steps. PBT has a DVD or online download to do at home if you don't have access to those classes.

Videotape yourself doing basic moves and watch them critically - or better yet, buddy up! Getting feedback from a friend can really help you find your "right" placement. Nothing can replace a careful, objective eye giving your technique the once-over.

As dancers, we’re all about seeing how far we can push our bodies. Is there any limit? Three, four, five, eight pirouettes! Can that entrechat quatre become an entrechat six? Will I push that balance hold at the end of the variation from 7 to 14 seconds? We’re constantly looking to make it harder, showier, more technically difficult.

But you know what’s really difficult to do well? A plié.

Dancers in videos:

tendu: Gillian Fitz @gillian_fitz

passé: Caroline Love @carolinealove

full disclosure: I have no affiliate links here, and make no money off The Ballet Blog or Progressing Ballet Technique. I just think they're great!

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