Working Toward Excellence in Classical Ballet

Working Toward Ballet Excellence

Once your students have graduated from the early levels of ballet training and move into a more classically directed ballet education, there are many principles to begin to implement in their classes. The small things create the difference between a student who is trained in ballet basics and a student who is working towards true ballet excellence. These are just a few of the ideas Ruth Brinkerhoff suggests teachers use in their classes of 8 years and up. Expect to see a difference after 3 months of consistency in these areas!

I. Arms for Classical Ballet

Arms speak for the dancer. The classic line should convey a feeling of -­ clean, free, open, strong, beautiful. Arms are a large part of the artistic effect of ballet.

We don’t put arms “somewhere” just to get them out of the way. They must enhance and compliment what the legs and feet are doing. Always use first position in transitions.

We learn the usual ways of doing things–learn the rules with understanding–then, as a choreographer, teacher, or dancer we can use the rules or knowledgeably break them in order to say what we want to say.

II. The Complete Ballet Class

Ballet class must be properly paced and arranged if it is to create real progress. Consider . . .

  1. Mental pacing for best learning.
  2. Physical pacing for best use of muscles.
  3. Artistic pacing to provide a sense of performing.
  4. Emotionally positive in nature.

It is not always desirable to follow the traditional model of ballet work. Consider the learning desired, and how it can best be accomplished. Give an adequate warmup, then teach something.

Overloaded brains cannot retain information, or sort it out effectively. Don’t try to do everything in every class–it is just not possible! Pace the class for best use of both muscles and brains. Alternate the use of the various muscle groups; alternate new and familiar movements and enchainements.

Responsibility for practice of things learned should rest on the student. Students age 10 and up should be expected to retain what is taught, to practice it on their own, and be able to reproduce it when asked without a complete session of reteaching. Eight and nine year olds can begin taking some responsibility. Teens must take responsibility for their own learning, once the lesson has been presented to them.

Have a single main objective for students to think about during an exercise; and when possible, a single main theme for a class, such as correcting the demi plié, fixing the arm positions, etc.

III. Accuracy in Performance

Accuracy in reproducing what is asked for only comes after many hours of work and practice. The performing art of ballet has no room for sloppiness or inaccuracies.

Simply knowing the choreography or the technique in the brain is not enough! The muscles must be thoroughly programmed to perform it correctly every time, so that the feelings and artistry of the dancer can be free to give the performance to the audience.

IV. Pliés, Relevés and Sautés

The goal is the properly coordinated use of the muscles in the legs and feet. Heels down after jumps is not the goal, but a result of the goal happening. A good, useful depth of the demi plié is also a result of correct muscle use.

In the lower leg, a balance of strength is needed. The calf muscles are stronger because they help get us up in the air, or up in a relevé. The shin muscles (tibialis) are the ones that let us down easy into the demi plié. They are the plié muscles. When coming down into a demi plié, the calf muscles must relax and let the shin muscles do their part of the work.

The purpose of grand pliés is to warm, flex, and gently stretch the dancing muscles in the legs. In all movements, but most especially in the grand plié, correct relaxation is just as important as correct effort.

Both the roll up and the snatching type of relevé are correct for pirouettes and relevés. The roll up type has been statistically proven to prevent many ankle injuries at the professional level. It is easier to do, and the safety factor seems well worth the small amount of extra study needed to find their balance.

V. Second Position

The exact position is irrelevant. The goal is to use the intended muscle groups. Positions are correct because the right muscles are being used in the right proportions and sequences.

The goal of classical training is always the correct muscle use, not the precise position, degree of outward rotation, or height of the extended leg.

For example: Do a grand plié in 2nd. Feel the relaxation as well as the tension that occurs in hip and thigh area. Now do a developpé in 2nd, duplicating this same muscle use.

VI. About Stretching

Muscles must be in use while being stretched if strength is to be maintained.

Best stretching is done by the opposing muscle groups–not by forceful means. Stretching while muscles are relaxed can be very dangerous. Holding a stretched position for very long does not activate or strengthen the muscles which protect from injury.

A better way is to keep the movement going, slowly towards the limit of flexibility, then slowly back to normal. Repeat, but no more than four times.

Keep the movement smooth and not jerky, so that the muscles gain the needed strength continuously throughout the range of flexibility. Holding a stretch position longer than about ten seconds is not necessarily a good idea. Stretch a muscle group to its limit of flexibility no more than four times in any one day.

Stretching, like strengthening, needs to be done slowly, producing noticeable results after about twelve weeks. Trying to force the flexibility will result in an overdevelopment (unnecessary enlargement) of the muscles involved, and probable damage to ligaments, muscles, and joints. The “stretch reflexes” are there to prevent injury—turning them off is not safe.

The basic ballet barre exercises are designed to increase flexibility gradually, and safely. Be patient. Muscles increase in flexibility quite naturally when they are aligned correctly, and used in ways in which they were intended to be used. Movement strengthens and movement increases flexibility. Both need to happen gradually, at the same time, for greatest effectiveness.

Each teacher will have to decide what is best for their group of students. Using these guidelines as a compass, determine for yourselves what things your students need most.

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Working Toward Excellence in Classical Ballet

One Response

  1. “The goal of classical training is always the correct muscle use, not the precise position, degree of outward rotation, or height of the extended leg” – that’s brilliant!! Thank you so much for all your articles, they are very clear and comprehensive. So helpful! I’m currently working with kids aged 7-10 for the first time I have my own class in this age range. I was wondering how to keep them motivated and improve their discipline at the same time? Thank you! Keep up the good work 😊

    Soly March 11, 2016 at 11:37 PM #

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