How Yoga Helped My Ballet Stretches

At age 17, I could not do a split.  I worked HARD for YEARS to get a split, to no avail.  Those were years of pain and disappointment.  Nothing seemed to work.

In my 17th summer, I went to New York City on a ballet scholarship.  My mother went with me.  She discovered a Yoga Studio within walking distance from our rooms and encouraged me to take a class with her.

I tried a yoga class,  It was very peaceful and relaxing.  The Yoga teachers used stretching positions.  But instead of pushing and working at stretching, they relaxed into the positions.  They used breathing and mental imagery to help with relaxation.

I was a strong dancer and a hard-working student.  It was very hard for me to relax.

I practiced yoga exercises every morning and night.  Slowly my body released its tension.  Within weeks I could do a split!  Eventually, using relaxation techniques, I achieved a straddle (side split) and perfect turn-out!

To this day, I do Yoga exercises to stay relaxed and flexible.

Moral of the story:  Don’t “try” to strertch.  Don’t “work hard” at stretching.  Don’t “push”.  Just ease into your stretch.  Relax your breathing.  Let the stretch take you where it will.  If you feel your mind racing or your body tightening up, come out of your stretch.  Go back to it later.  Focus not on stretching, but on relaxing.

Enjoy!

P.S.  If you have any tips or tricks for stretching, share them with us by leaving a comment.  Thanks!

3 Reasons Dancers Should Stretch

Three ways stretching can help you:

1.  Stretching improves flexibility.

2.  Stretching  reduces risk of injury.

3.  Stretching reduces soreness.

Lets look at these ideas more deeply.

1.  More flexibility.  A few dancers are “noodles”.  They can twist themselves into pretzels.  They don’t need more flexibility.  Most of us are not like that.  Most of us need to stretch to get the freedom of good turnout.  We need to stretch to get the soaring arabesques and the effortless extensions that are so beautiful.

2.  Fewer injuries. Have you ever kicked your leg up with too much force and pulled your hamstring muscle?  Or maybe you fell and pulled something.  Dancers who are flexible are less likely to get these types of injuries because their muscles can handle the unexpected stretch.

3.  Less sore.  When you work a muscle hard or in a new way, it will often be sore for a couple of days.  For example, it you lift your leg to the front and hold it until it trembles, your thigh muscles (quadraceps) are probably going to be sore.  If you stretch them out right away, you increase the flow of blood to the overworked muscle and it will not be as sore.

Stretch gently.  Stretch safely.  But stretch!

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful.  My husband Ben and I have a lot to be thankful for this year.  Ben’s surgery was successful and his recovery is progressing well.  We are enjoying tremendous support from family and friends.  Life is good!

Help for Pique’ Turns – a Checklist

If your pique’ turns are “off”, go through this checklist for a quick fix.  Check these ideas out one at a time, fixing any errors you catch.

1.  Check your body placement as you go into your pique’.  Your upper body should lead slightly forward into the turn.  Don’t lean back!  Compressing your stomach muscles firmly will help to keep your body straight as you go into your pique.  When I turn, I imagine that my stomach is like a star, and it is contracting as if becoming a “black hole” 

2.  Check your step up into your pique’. Are you pushing strongly off your supporting leg?  Don’t “climb up” into your turn.  Spring into your turn, almost as if you  are going into a small jump.

3.  Check your leading arm. Are you flinging it out?  Some dancers don’t move their leading arm at all – they just leave it in first position.  That’s fine!  It’s also okay to open it a little as you go into your turn, but don’t “throw” it out.

4.  Check your following arm.  Are you leaving it behind?  Bring your following firmly into first as soon as you start into your turn.  Don’t fling it.  Just press it into first as if someone is behind you, pushing your arm and shoulder around.  Keep your following arm pressing forward and around during the turn as well.  It gives you a lot of power and control.

5. Once you are turning, check your placement again.  Keep your stomach muscles compressed.  (remember the “black hole”)  If you arch your back now, you’ll lose your momentum.  Your turn will wobble.  If you keep your body and your arms in position throughout your pique’ turn, you will spin easily on your axis.

    Good luck!   If you need more help, let me know!

    Out of Town

    My husband Ben is having an operation today, Aug 3.  I want to be with him throughout his week-long recovery.  I will not be near my computer, and so will not be writing to you for a week or two.

    Thank you for your attention and your comments.  I will respond to them when I get back.

    Looking forward to talking to you again by mid-August.

    Have a happy week!

    Love,  Ms Michelle

    Taking Corrections in Ballet Class

    Corrections in ballet are compliments! It means your teacher cares about you.   The teacher is saying, “I like you and want you to be a better dancer.”  If you get lots of corrections, pat yourself on the back!  You must be doing a great job!

    You have to know how to “take” corrections.  Getting the correction is only the first step.  You have to work on the correction to improve your dancing.

    Sometimes, if you understand the correction and your body is ready to change, you can apply a correction immediately.  That’s fun, to change and improve before your teacher’s eyes.

    But usually a correction takes time to improve your dancing.

    Here are some tips for using corrections to improve your dancing:

    • If you don’t fully understand a correction, talk to your teacher after class.  Ask for an explanation so that you can take the correction and use it.  I often have students ask me not only about the corrections I gave them, but also to clarify corrections another teacher gave them.  Sometimes I can give them a different point of view, which helps them to improve.
    • If you understand the correction, but your body can’t do it yet, talk to your teacher after class.  Sometimes a teacher can give you exercises or stretches to do at home.  You’ll be able to improve faster if you can practice at home.
    • If you understand the correction and can do it, but not consistently, then you need to practice.  Several things have helped me with practice:
      • Make a list of your corrections.  Before every class, read through the list.  Try to work on as many corrections as you can in each class.  Corrections are like weeds.  You pull them out (fix them) and before you know it, they’ve grown back!  Reading through your list helps you keep your dancing “weed free”.
      • Pick one single correction and try to work on just that one thing for the whole barre (warm-up).  I tried this over and over again.  I never fully succeeded.  The longest time that I could focus on one correction was three exercises.  But I still improved very fast.  Any amount of focus is better than none!
      • “Burn the candle at both ends.”  This quote usually refers to people who are working too hard and getting “burned out” or sick.  I use it to mean “Pay attention to beginnings and endings.”  Pick a correction to focus on.  Let’s say you are working on body placement.  At the beginning of each exercise, make your placement as good as you possibly can.  Then at the end of the exercise, get the best placement you possibly can.  Gradually the good placement at the beginning and end of the exercise will last a little longer and a little longer.  Eventually, both ends will meet in the middle and you will have beautiful placement for the whole exercise!
      • Pretend your favorite (or meanest) teacher is standing next to you while you do your barre exercises.  I did this when I took classes in New York City.  The classes are so big that you almost never get a correction.  I imagined my favorite teacher standing next to me.  His arms were crossed and he watched my every move, correcting every mistake I made.  Even though I got almost no corrections in New York, I improved rapidly!

    It is very important when you get a correction that you take it with a good attitude.  It is irritating to have your teacher tell you that you have to fix something.  Don’t let your irritation show!  Making a face and rolling your eyes tells your teacher that you don’t want or appreciate help.  I don’t think that is the message you want to send!

    Sometimes I have gotten inappropriate corrections.  A teacher once told me that my arm was wrong, and I knew that it was right.  Instead of challenging the teacher, I asked myself, “What did she see that made her say that?”  I realized that my back placement was incorrect and it made my arm LOOK wrong.

    Some teachers have a hard time pinpointing what is wrong, but they are still seeing SOMETHING.  So if you look at things through your teacher’s eyes, and try to see what she saw, you might be able to give yourself the correction.

    A teacher’s job is to help you become a better dancer.  If you take corrections well, you teacher will feel like she is making a difference.  She will want to help you more and more.  It is gratifying to a teacher to have a student who takes corrections well.

    Always smile and thank your teacher when your get a correction.  Then get to work on it!

    The more corrections you can apply, the more your dancing will improve.  Improvement is priceless.  It’s one of the things that keeps us all going!

    If you have additional tips, comments or questions, please click on “Leave a Comment” below.

    How to Do Double Pique Turns

    Double pique turns are not hard.  There’s a trick.  The trick is to increase the speed of your turn.

    A single pique and a double pique take the same amount of time.  The difference between them is the speed.

    You can try using  more force to increase speed.  But adding force to a turn will almost always throw it off.

    The best way to increase speed is to decrease the diameter of your turn.

    Imagine a necklace, a fine chain with a ballerina pendant on it.  Unclasp the necklace and hold the two ends, one in each hand.  Spin the necklace like a jump rope, so that the pendant is twirling around in nice big circles.

    Now pull the two ends of the chain outward.  What happens?  The diameter of the spinning circle quickly gets smaller and the pendant spins around very much FASTER!

    My husband is a rocket scientist.  Rocket scientists know a lot about physics.  I am always asking him questions because physics can really help with ballet.

    So I asked him about speeding up turns by decreasing the diameter.

    He said, “The polar moment of inertia equals mass times the radius squared.”

    Now, don’t get glassy eyed and go away!  There is a translation:

    If you decrease the diameter of your turn by half, the speed of your turn will be almost FOUR TIMES FASTER!!!

    Of course, other factors like friction and air resistance come into play.  But the bottom line is that if you use the SAME amout of force and make your turn SMALLER, your turn will spin FASTER.

    I explained that to a class I was teaching, and one of my students nodded her head emphatically and said, “Got it!”  She then did a single pique followed by a quadruple!

    I have never in my life seen anyone do a quadruple pique turn until this student did it!  How did she do it?

    You see ice skaters do it all the time.  They are turning slowly with their arms out.  Then they pull their arms in and their turns spin so fast, they are just a blur!  They simply decreased the diameter of their turn. (or as my husband would say, “They decreased their polar moment of inertia.”)

    I knew a dancer named Jimmy Capp.  He could do a 12-revolution pirouette!  We (the other dancers in the company) were always pestering him to show us his pirouettes over and over again.  He would start with his arms almost in second, like the skaters we talked about.  As he turned, he would gradually pull his arms in.  His turns actually sped up, so he was going faster on the twelfth revolution than when he started!

    Here are a few easy ways to speed up your turns and still keep good ballet form:

    1)     Tighten your stomach muscles:

    a)     If you’ve taken modern dance, you might be familiar with the “center”, your core abdominal muscles.  Think of your core abdominal muscles in terms of cosmology – the stars, the solar system, etc.

    b)     You can expand your “center” like the sun, radiating your energy outward.  Or you can compress it like a black hole.  (“A black hole is a region in space in which the gravitational field is so powerful that nothing, including light, can escape its gravitational pull,” says my husband Ben)

    c)     When you do a single pique turn, hold your stomach muscles with a normal amount of tension.

    d)     When you start into multiple pique turns, compress your stomach like a black hole!

    2)     Pull your arms in a little:

    a)     This one is tricky, because you don’t want to lose form.

    b)     Do your single pique turn with nice big round arms in first position.

    c)     When you start into a multiple turn, bring your hands a little closer together and bend your elbows a little more, so that the circle you make with your arms is a little smaller, but still within correct form.

    3)    Take a smaller step:

    a)    This trick is pretty easy.  This is the trick that my student used when she did her quadruple pique turn

    b)    Estimate the distance you step out for your single pique turn.

    c)     When you go into your multiple pique, take a shorter step.  This works REALLY well for double pique turns on pointe because it actually brings you more on balance at the same time that it speeds up your turn.

    4)    Don’t forget to spot!

    a)    When you do a single turn you spot once.  Your spot actually helps to bring you around on your turn.

    b)    When you do a double turn, you must spot twice.  That means leaving your head, then spotting, leaving it AGAIN, then spotting again.  In my mind, I always say, “LEAVE, TAKE, LEAVE, TAKE”  whenever I do a double turn.

    Good luck, and have fun with multiple pique turns!  Let me know how you are doing.  You can ask questions, too.  Just click on  “Leave a Comment”  below.

    What’s a Lame Duck?

    A lame duck is a pique turn en dehors. That doesn’t help much does it?

    Let’s talk about ducks.  Some ducks have had an unfortunate encounter with a turtle.  The duck is lucky to be alive, but in the struggle, she sometimes injures her foot.  I have occasionally seen a duck with an injured foot.  It can still swim pretty well, but when it walks on land, it has a really bad limp.

    Imagine that you are that lame duck.  Your right leg is permanently shorter than your left.  Bend your right knee and keep it bent.  Keep your left leg straight.  If you try to walk around like that, you will have a really bad limp!

    To do the “lame duck” pique turn:

    1. Step out on your bent leg (the right one).  Keep it bent.
    2. Now swing your straight left leg around like a peg leg in a pirate movie.
    3. Step up onto the straight left leg, keeping it straight.
    4. Pick up the bent right leg in passe’ front as you turn to the right.
    5. When you’ve turned all the way around, fall (tombe’) onto the bent right leg, which stays bent.
    6. Continue:   step up on the straight leg, tombe’ onto the bent leg.

    The turn has kind of a lopsided feel.

    Normally, these turns are done traveling on the diagonal.  Each step up and each tombe’ travel toward the diagonal corner.

    To see  a “lame duck” in action, watch this  YouTube video .   You will see eight “lame ducks” at the end of  the Rose Fairy Variation from “Sleeping Beauty”.

    The Fear of Falling

    iStock_000003640152XSmall“How do I get over the fear of falling when I do a pirouette on pointe?” one of my students asked recently.

    I rode horses a lot as a kid.  And, since I loved to ride bareback, I fell often.  The ground is a long way down from the back of a horse.  Once you get used to falling off a horse, falling out of a lift with a partner or falling out of a pirouette is not so frightening.

    But it is in our nature to fear falling.  The prospect of falling causes tension, and tension will REALLY throw off your pirouette.  And then you probably will fall!

    Some suggestions:

    1. When you are on pointe, you are taller, farther from the ground.  Get used to that feeling by doing lots of releve’ with a 2-count balance on each one.
    2. When turning on pointe, take your preparation from 5th.  You have less power (but on pointe, you need less), and you will be more centered in your releve’.
    3. Start with a few releve’ passe’ from 5th, then do just a 1/4 turn.  Do that until you are bored with it.
    4. Then graduate to a 1/2 turn and practice until it is boringly easy.  Then to 3/4, and finally to a whole turn.  You can continue on to 1 1/4, 1 1/2, etc.  I learned to do triple pirouettes on pointe by practicing this way.
    5. If you still can’t do a 1/4 turn on pointe, check a few things:  Can you balance for one whole second on pointe in pirouette position?  (you must.)  Are you using too much force to get around?  (don’t!)  Are you holding your arms in a good round first position?  (do.)  Are you “winding up” on your preparation? (don’t.)  Are you lifting your working hip when you pick up your foot? (try using a lower passe’ for a while.)
    6. If you work on all the details and still can’t do a 1/4 turn, have your teacher check your form.  Pirouettes are very delicate.  A stuffy head can throw them off!

    Good luck, and Happy Turns to You!

    “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference” ~ Winston Churchill

    Today I had the great good fortune to watch Gyula Pandi teach a large class of dancers.  The dancers ranged in age from 8 years to adult, levels ranged from Intermediate to professional.  Quite a challenge for a guest teacher!

    Mr. Pandi instantly won the hearts of his students with his lighthearted and joyful attitude.  Soon he had the younger dancers giggling.  The advanced dancers were flushed with pleasure.  Mr. Pandi’s attitude was infectous.  No one wanted that class to end!

    Mr. Pandi loves what he does.  And all he asks of his students is that they also love what they are doing.

    Years ago, I attended an intensive summer dance program.  Almost all of the teachers were wonderful.  But one teacher was totally without energy.  She would come to class, sit on the bench, and direct class in a monotone.  No corrections, no jokes, no explanations.  She was probably glad when class was over and she could go home and rest.  We, the students, could not wait for her class to end!

    Lighthearted and joyful vs. tired and uninspired.  Attitude makes a big difference!