Teaching Tips

Ask Deb: How Do My Students Get Maximum Relevé?


Q: I've been blessed with great feet and ankles, but when it comes to getting higher relevés out of my students with lesser feet, I'm stumped. Do you have any advice for achieving maximum relevé?

A: The height of a dancer's relevé depends on both the muscles that cross at their ankle joint and the mobility of their foot itself. Have your dancer sit in a chair and, one foot at a time, lift their heel into relevé. Do the toes bend to that 90-degree platform they'll need for relevé? What is the line of the ankle and foot if they sit on the ground with straight legs and point their feet? Can they flex the toes and keep the ankle elongated? These will give you an idea about the mobility of the foot and ankle. The bones need to align and move easily in response to movement. If they are able to easily go up into demi-pointe when seated and have a beautiful pointed foot in tendu, then the next logical place to look is at muscle strength.

The gastrocnemius is the main muscle that lifts dancers into relevé, but it needs to work in balance with the other foot muscles in order to not sickle or pronate. Many dancers are more concerned with flexibility than strength, when it comes to calf muscles. Research shows that strengthening the calf and foot muscles decreases the number of ankle injuries in professional ballet dancers. Twenty single-leg relevés on each leg is a good first goal to get to, both in parallel and in first position. Make sure they do it with good alignment, of course.

Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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