Ah, the dreaded turn combination. If you panic at the idea of doing a double pirouette in class—let alone 32 fouettes onstage—there are definite steps you can take that will lead to more secure and beautiful turns, with greater confidence and improved technique.
1. The foundation for improving your turns begins with plies at the barre.
Make sure you’re reaching your knees to the side while dropping your tailbone straight down. Plies take work and you need to insist that you’re pushing into your full range of motion at all times. Squeeze all the way down to the bottom of your demi plie and when you hit the endpoint right before your heels begin to come off the floor, squeeze your butt and inner thighs back together.
The plie in its entirety should feel round, full, and with a sense of “down to go up,” like a spring you’re putting pressure on. You should never hit a lifeless position, hold it endlessly, and expect to have any innate momentum left to anything out of it. Instead, feel that your plies are muscular, endless, springy, and wide. They should be more than unstraightening your knees and definitely aren’t a rest step.
2. Pay attention to your supporting leg.
You should have weight evenly distributed on all five toes and the ball of your foot should be where your bodyweight is supported. Never let your weight fall back on your heel—that will make it difficult to change feet quickly, as well as cause you to grip in your hip flexor when lifting your legs.
Both legs are your working legs at the barre, not just the one that moves around during the combination. The standing leg should be fired, your butt should be activated, and you should feel your leg corkscrewing into the ground. This standing side is essential for your turns. It is the axis that you will be spinning on.
3. Every releve should be fully engaged with your heel forward and fully off the ground.
I’ve had a problem with students dipping down halfway to hold balances for longer, but it’s never allowed. The rule of thumb is it’s always better to come down early from a balance and not do some strange cheat with your ankle to continue holding it. Remember, dancing is an art form. It matters how you do it, not just that you held a position for a long amount of time. Every passe, arabesque, attitude, or even two-foot balances at the barre should be fully engaged, turned out, with legs squeezing straight. The upper body needs to be aligned, beautiful, equally energized, while cautioning against any tension in the neck, traps, hands or face.
That way, your body is coordinated and your muscles know what’ expected of them. Enforce the dynamic of being fully engaged at the top of a releve as well as feeling grounded, strong, and supported at the bottom of your movements while dancing. The “highs” need to be higher and the “lows” lower.
5. Don’t over- or under-cross.
In a typical combination such as a double pirouette from fourth position, make sure your legs are crossed enough so it’s directly opposite your fifth position. Make sure your body weight is 99 percent over your front leg, not in the middle. You don’t want your body to have to swing forward in the middle of a turn and have to guess where its center would be. In fact, before you even attempt the turn, double check that your weight is forward by lifting your back leg up into an arabesque.
With your weight forward on your front leg, assure that leg’s inner thigh is actively turning out. Your knee should be pointing sideways and not forward into the mirror. Your back leg can be straight or bent depending on the style of ballet your school or company prefers. As a Balanchine ballet dancer, I was taught from 13 years old onward to have a straight back leg. Balanchine’s philosophy was that it was prettier than a traditional “squat,” less obvious that it was a preparation for a turn, and in fact could move a dancer in any direction imaginable across the stage. Beyond that, it gives the look of length which is a huge dynamic and ideal in ballet.
6. Pay attention to your arms.
Make sure you’re holding them in an arabesque line with one stretched directly in front of you as the other one is reaching towards the side, palms down. The arms can also be rounded so the front arm is in first while the side arm is rounded in second position.
7. Everything needs to fire at the same time as you go into your pirouette.
You should sink to the absolute lowest demi plie you have as your arms reach front and side. The front arm immediately slices sideways and once it approaches the side, both arms squeeze into first position in front of your chest. This happens as the back foot immediately bursts into a perfect passe on the front of your standing knee. The little toe of your passe should be perfectly crossed to be held at the front of your standing knee. If you are doing pique turns, then your foot is going into a back passe but with any typical outside or inside turn, make sure it is a clean passe in front.
Try to hit the position before you’ve done a single rotation. That might not actually be possible but fighting to achieve it shows the audience a clean position that will go around and around—which is dazzling. If it takes almost a whole turn before that foot gets to the knee, it looks smudged and unimpressive.
I insist on active spotting in my classes because it builds true turning technique. The dancer turning shouldn’t have glazed focus each time their head spots around in a turn. They should be actively looking at their own eyes every time. This isn’t easy but it can be improved and drilled with every class. It not only sharpens a dancer’s eye muscles but also comes from the back of the skull, at the occiput.
Each time the dancer spots their head, there needs to be an obvious musicality they’re following. The rhythm of their turns varies on how many turns they fit into a fixed amount of time. The final revolution should look and feel higher than the first. This gives dancers a decisive, musical, elegant pirouette.
9. Think about the ending.
I can’t tell you how many dancers can do five gorgeous pirouettes and then just fall out of it carelessly. The last thing the audience sees is the ending and if executed properly, conveys that the dancer was in complete control the entire time. They could have turned a dozen times but chose to come down when they did. A clumsy ending looks like the whole step was a fluke and couldn’t be repeated. Also, the ending of the turn is often the beginning of the next phrase of choreography, so it isn’t a time to take a passive mindset.
There are plenty of places in the body that are energized, flexed, tensed, and engaged but the neck needs to be completely relaxed and able to snap around reflexively. If any anxiety and tension are apparent in the neck causing it to look gripped, I can guarantee you that the turns won’t be good. The shoulders need to be pulled back and down so the neck has optimal length and the head doesn’t feel restricted from hiked up shoulders.
As much as the dancer can focus on the rhythm and not the number of turns, the anxiety will be less and the pirouettes will be musical and beautiful.
*This post was originally published on March 9, 2018. It has since been updated.
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