The careful, attentive ballet teacher should always pick up on the students who do not have correct alignment or do not have correct muscle use. The errors found should be addressed with the student for as long as it takes, as well as expounded upon in other areas of ballet technique (see “Avoiding Injuries with Correct Muscle Use”). Here are some great tips and specific exercises to help teachers work with their students.
Correcting Errors in Muscle Use
There are two areas of the brain involved in using muscles to create physical movement:
- Pre-Motor: this is where the action is carefully, with concentration, thought out as it is performed. This is where the movement is controlled while initial learning takes place. This is where the dancer consciously plans the movement.
- Motor: this is where the skill goes once the person can perform it quickly and smoothly. This is where the skill comes forward automatically, without thought, after the muscle response is learned. It happens automatically. It is what we call a “habit.” It usually takes about twelve weeks for the skill to get here from the Pre-Motor area.
When we see a wrong movement pattern, a wrong technique, the wrong muscle use is being repeatedly done by the student. It is coming from the motor area. It is an established response, a habit.
It usually takes from six to twelve weeks to change this established response. Knowing what is correct is only the beginning. Actually correcting it takes careful re-teaching of the muscles, and conscious re-planning by the student. (Learn more in “Coordination for Ballet“.)
No amount of concentration will instantly and permanently correct the error. If this is expected, the student may wind up thinking they cannot do it the right way. They may give up on ever trying to fix it. The teacher thinks they do not try. Both are wrong. No one is to blame.
Encouraging Correct Muscle Use
For best results, strengthen the “natural” or parallel use of muscles first, then strengthen in the turned out to a right angle position, and then in the dancer’s best turned out position. The parallel and right angle strengthening lay the foundation for the fully turned out strengthening.
Do some of each during the warm-up section of the class, or at the end of the barre. That will provide a secure foundation for strengthening in that person’s fully turned out position.
To motivate students to work on correcting their muscle use, tell them: “When a muscle takes over the job of another muscle, it becomes oversized and hard; not pretty, and not flexible. Among other things, it makes stretching harder.” Most dancers won’t want overdeveloped, non-flexible muscles!
Muscles That Do The Jumping
Experts say that “short tendons” are quite rare. The “heel popping” problem in ballet is usually caused by an incorrect use of the lower leg muscles.
Correct use of the lower leg muscles is what enables a dancer to jump smoothly, gracefully, and without strain. In many dancers the “plié muscle” on the front of the shin is very weak. The calf muscles take over the shock absorbing process of the demi plié, and the heels to pop off the floor!
The calf muscles are not the muscles that bend the knees, or perform the demi plié. Their job is to extend the ankle joint and point the feet. It is the muscle on the front of the shin (anterior tibialis) that flexes the ankle, performs the demi plié, & absorbs the shock of landing from a jump. Exercises which flex the ankle will help to strengthen the plié muscles, and lessen the tendency of the heels to pop when landing from a jump. (See “The Five Families of Jumps”)
Encouraging muscles to do the jobs they were designed to do will give greater strength and grace to the performance of all ballet movements.
Helping the Student Correct Errors in Muscle Use
How do we help a student change a bad muscle habit? It will take time. You may need to ignore the error during center performance for awhile.
Whenever possible attack the cause, not the result.
a. Have the student do only demi pliés, no grand pliés, until the incorrect habit is fixed. Have them do the demi pliés without shoes for the first few exercises at the barre. Then you can see and fix how the feet are behaving.
b. Feet need to be relaxed at the bottom of the demi plié! The student should be able to release the toes from the floor, thereby activating those shin muscles at the bottom of the demi plié. Then, when the toes return to the floor, they must not tense up, or curl.
Here’s an exercise to strengthen the use of demi plié in allegro. Face the barre:
1 Go down in demi plié and stay.
2 Bend toes up off floor.
3 Relax toes onto floor.
4 Keeping toes relaxed, straighten knees and turn out to 1st.
5-8 Repeat in 1st.
9-16 Repeat all in parallel 2nd and in turned out 2nd.
c. Here’s another exercise to help. Facing the barre in 1st position, and in 2nd position:
1-2 Slowly bend knees to well turned out demi plié.
&3-4 Sauté and land in the exact same demi plié, check placement.
5-6 Slowly straighten knees, keeping knees well turned out.
7-8 Battement tendu, lower in 2nd.
1-8 Repeat in 2nd, closing to 1st
1-16 Repeat all.
d. Have students stretch the calf muscles before and after the barre, after the adage, and after class.
e. Teach your students that the shin muscles must work while going down in a plié. The calf muscles must learn to relax and let the shin muscles do the plié and fondu actions. This will make their jumps higher, smoother, and safer.
Finally, if things don’t improve, or continue to not look as they should for ballet, you might want to suggest to the parent that they consult their doctor on whether or not there is a medical problem of some kind.
These exercises, as well as those from “Avoiding Injuries with Correct Muscle Use”, can help to prevent injury and produce lovely, placed, aligned dancers with clean, precise technique. It’s well worth the effort and time spent teaching these principles to your intermediate students.
- Avoiding Injuries with Correct Muscle Use
- Preventing Injuries
- Why Warmups?
- Body Placement for Ballet Students