Once your students have passed through the pre-ballet program, you can begin to work with them on a classical ballet posture and body placement. Remember the importance of taking time, and not rushing on the basic principles of vocabulary and rhythm, as well as proper posture and alignment. Keep these fundamentals at the forefront throughout all ballet class work.
With that in mind, what can we expect from our older students?
The first and most important lesson in ballet:
Stand tall, reasonably straight, with your weight balanced correctly over your feet.
- Stand evenly on the triangle of the foot, weight evenly distributed between the two feet. Two thirds of the weight is on the balls of the feet, one third on the heels.
- Feet must be correctly aligned with the knees in all movements, with insteps lifted to form the arch.
- Legs are turned out at the hip joints.
- From the waist, pull tail downward, and stomach upward.
- Pelvic bone held is level and square.
- Shoulders are relaxed, shoulder blades flat against the back.
- Arms are relaxed, slightly rounded.
- Neck is stretched gently upward, and is vertical.
- Head is lifted, and moves independently of the neck.
- Eyes look ahead, with expression.
When the body is centered within the lines of gravity, it takes less effort to stand, and movement becomes easier. For some, this new way of standing may take some getting used to. But encourage your students that their bodies will adjust to it, and eventually feel at ease and alive when they stand correctly for ballet.
The total picture of a dancer: legs, arms, head, hands, feet, expression, can be compared to a chord on the piano, with all of the correct notes striking at the same time.”
Feet must not roll or sickle; knees must point the same direction as toes.
This is taught with demi plié. Students must not turn feet out further than their knees (legs) can go. The demi plié in second position is sometimes helpful in teaching use of the sartorius and outward rotators for turning out the legs. For those who find this concept difficult, help them with pliés and rises, done in the parallel position.
Hips must be centered over the supporting legs, or leg.
This concept is taught with the “transfer of weight” exercise (See Ballet 1 Curriculum Book). Later, you may explain the concept of hips and shoulders making a rectangle which must have “square corners” and which must balance over the leg or legs which are being stood upon.
Another way to help: Have them stand facing the barre in second position. Then they shift their weight over the right leg, pointing the left foot. Their hips must center over their right legs, and remain level. Shift to 2nd, then to the left leg, checking the centering of the hips in each of the three positions.
Knees are pulled up when straight.
This can be taught with leg lifts and rises, and used in battement tendus. Eventually it will be applied to sautés. They must not confuse the straightening of the knees with the incorrect throwing back of the knee joints.
Movements are isolated
In grand battement devant, only the leg moves. In sautés, the legs do the jumping, the rest of the body is quiet. In port de bras, the arms move independently from the shoulders.
Special Rule For Knees and Feet:
When the heels are off the ground, the knees are straight; when the knees are bent, the heels must be on the ground.
This enables the leg muscles to do their intended jobs during jumps. The calf muscles throw the dancer into the air for sautés; they do the work of lifting the heels and the weight of the body in rises and relevés.
The muscles on the front of the lower legs control the landing from sautés, and the coming down from rises and relevés. These “shin muscles” should be used during demi pliés, and when landing from jumps. If heels pop up, they are not being used.
An exercise to help the shin muscles learn to work and strengthen:
1- Demi plié and stay down.
2- Lift toes off the floor, keeping everything else the same. You can feel the shin muscle tighten slightly.
3- Relax the toes to the floor.
4 Straighten from the plié.
Use of the shin muscles is taught with demi plié and rise. Be sure the two sets of leg muscles truly do take turns, and do not overlap their efforts.
This coordination of the two opposing sets of lower leg muscles produces good ballon in a dancer. If the above rule is followed in all adage and barre movements, it will help the allegro to be smoother and more graceful.
Hips Must be Parallel to the Floor
Hips are either perpendicular to or parallel to the barre; and must face squarely forward of the dancer without twisting or turning. To get correct advanced placement, the student must go through the absolutely square beginning placement for several years. This builds correct muscle use.
Practicing Correct Posture
Port de bras is a good place to practice holding the body muscles correctly. It is important that posture be held correctly during battement tendus, as this exercise tends to train the muscles and to stabilize the basic placement. A tiny movement of hips in tendus will lead to larger errors in larger movements, and to more difficulty with balance in the center.
When the leg lifts to the back (arabesque), the hips will tilt to face the floor, but still remain absolutely parallel to the floor. In order for this to happen, the shoulders must move forward and lower, as the back assumes a curved position due to the tilt of the pelvis.
Beginners should exaggerate this forward motion of the body until it is well understood, and until the upper and middle back areas are strong enough to begin to help lift the leg. Under no circumstances should a young student try to remain in the basic upright posture while lifting the leg to the back.
It is not really the exact “position” that we are after in ballet, but the correct and most efficient use of the various muscle groups.
When this concept is understood, teachers do a much better job of preparing students for advanced work. They do not allow beginners to strain for an “advanced line” before their muscles are strong enough to do it correctly. It takes a few years for the turnout muscles to strengthen sufficiently to actually do their share of the work in lifting the leg, for example, in an arabesque.
To require the student to lift the leg to their maximum ability before these muscles are fully trained causes other stronger muscles to take over and do this work, leaving the turnout muscles to get continually weaker by comparison. Lifting too high too soon can prevent correct technique at more advanced levels.
Finding Their Best Posture
Have the student stand with feet parallel, two thirds of the weight on the front half of the feet, and one third on the heels. Arms are relaxed, head is straight and level. They need to feel as tall and in balance as possible.
Now, lay your hand, flat, gently on top of the student’s head. Ask the student to not change her posture at all, but to try to keep her head in contact with your hand. Lift your hand very slowly, about a half inch, perhaps a little more, for as long as the student can pull up taller.
I used this activity in my last class and found it to work so well for my 8-12 year olds. They really grasped the concept of posture and lengthening. Use these guidelines with your ballet students and see what a difference they can make!
- Use of Feet and Turnout in Pre-Ballet
- Posture Checklist for Ballet Students
- 7 Basic Principles of Classical Ballet
- Progressing Into Ballet Technique