Edward Villella wrote, “What’s so wonderful about ballet is that it’s mind-driven physicality. It’s almost a Greek ideal of body, mind, and form.” He wrote this because dancers understand that ballet is as mentally strenuous as it is physically strenuous.
Ballet requires the mind to be as sharp or sharper than the body, because must anticipate what is coming next in the music and in the movement. The entire time you are dancing, you are asking yourself questions, listening to the music, feeling the accents and prompting the body for movement.
It is important you are asking yourself the correct questions while in class. You do not want to practice wrong, as famous Jazz dancer Luigi warned against. Practicing incorrectly or sending yourself the incorrect messages will only hurt your dancing and potentially open you up to injuries. What questions should you be asking yourself while you’re at the barre and center?
What Aches Today?
Every day, we have a “new body.” What we mean by this is that you may have certain aches or tightness and that differs from day to day. From the very start of ballet class, you want to start your mental assessment of your body. What hurt today? What feels tight today? This knowledge of your body helps protect you throughout class and it always informs you on what to work on. For example, you know if you’re experiencing tightness in the quadriceps, that you may be pulling from the incorrect place. This tells you to focus more on inner thighs as you work.
Do I Feel Warm?
As the barre exercise progress, you should begin to feel incrementally warmer with each exercise. Ask yourself if your body is adequately warming up. How your body feels serves as a gauge of how hard you are working. As a reference, you should be sweating by degages and definitely sweating by rond de jambe. Assess where your body feels warm and where it does not, then mentally focus on sending energy and warmth to the corners of your body that may still feel cold. Engage those muscles, sending blood to them, and breathe into tight muscles. Warming your body up properly will help your dancing be better and stronger but it will also prevent injuries. See: Understanding Exercises at the Ballet Barre
Someone once said that dancers work just as hard as policeman, always alert, always tense, but see, policeman don’t have to be beautiful at the same time. -George Balanchine
How is My Alignment?
Check in with your body alignment. Are your shoulders and hips square? Is your pelvis anteriorly tilted? Are you tucking your pelvis too far in? Are your shoulder scrunched up, sending tension into your neck? If your answer is yes to any of these questions, you need to re-adjust. Standing in any of those positions will send tension throughout your body and it will make the movement more difficult. You will feel as if you’re forcing the movement.
Start with the top of your head and mentally check in all the way down to your toes. Make sure you understand what muscles you are engaging. For example, engage your back muscles in order to hold the shoulders still and the arm rounded. Engage your abdominals in order to find your neutral pelvis.
You also want to check your alignment while you are moving. For example, during a plie you want to make sure your knees are over your toes and not leaving forward. When extending the leg back to arabesque, you want to make sure that leg is behind you and not leaning out to the side. You also want to make sure your shoulders remain even. Constantly be aware and asking yourself: Where are my shoulders supposed to be? Where are my hips supposed to be? Where are my knees supposed to be?
Am I Breathing?
When our body is doing difficult work, we tend to want to hold our breath. We wrongfully think that holding our breath will harness the power we need to push a little higher or get us through quicker movement. But this is incorrect thinking.
Breathing helps send oxygen to our muscles, which we need in order to complete such physically demanding work. Learning when to inhale and exhale in ballet will help us harness the energy we need and it will naturally make the movement better. Remind yourself to breathe through each exercise, using the breath as a way to fuel the movement. We are not dancing under water, and we shouldn’t treat our bodies that way. Keep breathing. See: Breathing Exercises for Dancers
Is My Weight Out of My Heels?
While we are standing, it is easiest to shift our weight to our heels because that is our strongest position. It takes less muscles to keep our weight in our heels. But this is incorrect in ballet.
You must keep your weight out of your heels and shift it forward into your toes. This keeps your muscles engaged and it allows you to be prepared for any quick shifts of weight from one foot to another. Ballet teachers call putting the weight in your heels “sitting back.” It looks relaxed, and a teacher can tell your muscles are not engaged. You cannot “sit back” in ballet because your muscles won’t be prepared to do the work asked of them. Shifting your weight forward readies your body, prepares your mind and frees your body up for the quick shifts that happen constantly in ballet.
Am I Rotating From the Hip?
Hip rotation is so important in ballet. Think of your hip like a Barbie doll’s hip. Barbie’s hip rotates around in the socket. Your hip has the same power, and you need to understand how to use that power to your advantage. Forcing rotating from the knees will lead to injuries and potential surgery needed on your knee. Do not force your ballet positions of the feet if that is not your natural turn out.
To find your natural turn out, standing in parallel first position. From your hips, start to move your toes outward. Go as far as the toes will go, and when you stop feeling movement in your hips, stop. This is your natural turn out and it is where you should be working. Placing your feet in the position first will force you to rotate from your knees, which is bad. Constantly assess where your turn out is and where it is coming from.
Where is My Head?
Using the head and shoulders in ballet is called epaulement. It is what makes dancing beautiful and not simply just technique. It is the cherry on top of the ice cream. It is easy to forget epaulement while dancing because you are so focused on the exercise and executing it correctly. But, technically, the exercise isn’t complete without epaulement. Practicing where your head, shoulders and torso go is important to the wholeness of your dancing.
There are two fundamental positions of epaulement and those are croise (crossed) or efface (shaded). For crossed, the head should be toward the foot in front. For example, if you’re standing in fifth position facing the left corner of the room with the right foot in front, the head should be turned to the right shoulder. For efface, the head leans toward the opposite shoulder of the foot that is extended. For example, if you’re standing in fifth position facing the left corner of the room with the left foot in front (or extended), the head will be turned to the right shoulder.
Ballet takes massive amounts of physical and mental work in order to have everything done correctly, on time and beautifully. The questions mentioned above are a quick way to run down your thought process to make sure everything is in place. If you ask yourself these questions every class, you will see yourself start to understand your body and the movement more and more. With practice, you will become a stronger and more aware dancer.