“Stretch only as much as you strengthen.”
These words from Yana, my Ballet teacher, are what echo in my head after an Advanced Ballet class with the Artistic Director. At the time of the class, we were done with plies and cambrés to the back and instructed to proceed to the centre of the floor right after.
The instruction to get off the barre is met with cringe-worth glances exchanged among us dancers. From experience, in an advanced classical ballet class, the only barre work harder than the set syllabus is performing those same exercises without the barre`s aid at the centre of the studio. A painful and long adage(my new word for slow death) ensues and we are left with grande battements to get into allegro work.
Today`s emphasis is placed on gripping the outer hips and the glutes, important in ballet considering the amount of external rotation applied in almost every step. This grip, you see, does not come as easily to those of us who are more flexible, as the tendency, like Yana admits, is to let the top of the legs be loose, and not taut. It is that part right under the buttocks which when left unengaged, causes faulty technique in the dancer and a loss of turnout which are crucial for a variety of steps like relevé, Posé and sissone. Again, balance is the key, not overcompensation. Gretchen Ward Warren, professor of dance at the University of South Florida, says something similar in her book, Classical Ballet Technique: “It is often incorrectly assumed that turn-out is maintained by only contracting the buttocks` muscles. The hip rotator muscles–not the gluteus muscles–rotate the legs outward. However, the buttocks muscles are often used to stabilize the body in the turned-out position and can help the dancer to feel and control turn-out. These muscles should not be overused. The sensation of tightening should be felt at the top of the back of the legs–more underneath the buttocks than on top of them.Never pinch the buttocks together so that the pelvis is thrust forward (i.e. tucked under).”
We soon find out that it is only through constant engagement of the glutes and gripping the side of the hips, that we can access the turnout and stability required in our ‘problem exercise’ for the day- grande battements a la seconde on a rise. It is tricky due to the fact that unless you are engaging the right muscles strongly, you will kick yourself off-balance. Take a look at this grande battement demonstration by a student of the Royal Ballet School, UK. A tremendous force is applied through the legs, using floor pressure that allows the leg to lift off the floor.
Take a look at what grand battements at the barre look like:
Now, imagine applying that same force with no barre to use as a support. On demi-pointe.
Only the squeezing of the hips made sure that us dancers did not fall flat onto the floor. It essentially provided an extra ‘lift’, combining the mobility we already have, with stability.
Yana then explained to those of us who tend to sit into positions instead of gripping, that misusing extra flexibility comes at a price, mainly torn ligaments. Injury can arise from legs being thrown up the wrong way with no thought given to correct alignment or the right muscles to engage. It`s a recipe for chronic injury, every dancers’ nightmare. Ballet is one of a kind when it comes to athletic dance forms, combining the explosive power of a sprinter with the endurance of a marathoner at advanced levels, and the flexibility of, well, a ballerina. Apart from constant awareness in class, the same amount of effort spent in stretching needs to be incorporated into building the right muscles that will support your flexibility. Its also why you will always find some or all of our company dancers in the academy`s Callanetics classes that incorporate stretching and strengthening exercises into the fitness regime.
It is the kind of exercises that I have started to use in my daily ballet warm-up routine,as opposed to just stretching and jumping into class and relying on flexibility to get my legs up. Exercises are always followed by repetition over repetition. Rinse then Repeat.
Have you been strengthening more than you stretch or vice-versa?