Dance Teacher Tips

The Story of How Ballet Legs Got Higher, and Higher, and Higher

Forsythe's in the middle, somewhat elevated uses the battement like an attack. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet

Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,

"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."

Guillem responded,

"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "

They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.


ballet legs

Sylvie Guillem changed the expectations of ballet dancers' extensions. Photo by Nina Alovert, courtesy of DM Archives

"There's always a sense that the virtuoso is bleeding over into a realm of inappropriateness," says Ariel Osterweis, a dance and performance studies scholar at the California Institute of the Arts. "Classical forms change due to virtuosos. Because they're not wholly rejecting a certain style or form, they're just pushing the boundaries."

The leg extension to the front, side and back is one of ballet's most recognizable, debated and gawked-at stances. The beauty and magic is in the unwavering, impassive squareness of the dancers' hips. Almost anyone can "get a leg up" through some contortion of the pelvis and physical strain. But a ballet dancer's leg extends as though entirely independent, their torso floating above it all.

Battement développé "is an example of the body truly blossoming," wrote Russian critic Akim Volynsky. For the body to blossom this way, dancers need good turnout, flexibility and strength that work in a highly coordinated way.

ballet legs

To this day, extension is seen differently on male and female dancers. Yet the standards among men are rising. Here, Edward Watson in Wayne McGregor's Carbon Life. Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy Royal Opera House.

This was not an issue for dancers during the first couple hundred years of ballet's history. Decorum demanded that the leg extend no higher than the hip. Lifting it further revealed too much leg, and displaying the area "down there"—the crotch—was taboo for women. For men, the issue was the suggested effeminacy (and hence homosexuality) of stretch over strength—an early-19th-century notion with residues to this day.

Dancers have often had to push the limits of social propriety to further movement expression. With her skirts lifted to calf height, Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo could perfect the entrechat quatre in the 18th century. Marie Taglioni lifted hers some more in the mid-19th century and bourréed across the stage on pointe. By the end of the 19th century, female ballet dancers were performing in shorter tutus and dancing a variety of virtuosic steps. Yet, the legs were still generally lifted only to hip height.

"In my experience, the highest leg height notated in Stepanov is 90 degrees," says Doug Fullington, the education programs manager and assistant to the artistic director at Pacific Northwest Ballet, who has reconstructed work of Marius Petipa from Stepanov Notation. "This doesn't mean the leg never went higher in practice. However, body mechanics change as the leg goes above waist height; one gains the ability to do certain things but loses the ability to do others."

He points out that the 19th-century ballet dancers were more compact, less flexible and less turned out than those we see today. Ballet was about nimble footwork and showing elegant angles of the body and torso, better achieved with the legs below 90 degrees.

High legs were for the circus or the nightclub where brazen cancan performers kicked to their noses and flashed their undergarments—pantalettes—with or without a crotch. These high kicks might suggest that you were loose, but equally that you were independent and powerful and not to be messed with—a sort of proto-punk attitude that made its way into ballet 100 years later.

Gradually during the first half of the 20th century, seeing women's legs, albeit trousered, became socially acceptable thanks to the "all-inclusive" labor requirements of political revolutions and world war. Women were included in the gymnastics events at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, showing off the strength and agility of female legs. Fashion reformers responded to a growing emphasis on athleticism throughout the culture with accommodating and practical styles for women, such as shorter tennis skirts and all-in-one, tight-fitting bathing suits.

A new realm of physical and expressive potential was on offer to the revolutionary choreographers of the period just as audiences grew hungry for the new and exotic (and erotic) from companies like Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Dancers' flexibility could be developed and exploited with fewer social restrictions.

ballet legs

Lauren Lovette and Herman Cornejo in Balanchine's "Rubies." Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Vail Dance Festival

A major change came from George Balanchine. "His modernist focus on form and the body (as opposed to narrative) created a shift in the way ballet-trained bodies conveyed meaning onstage," says Osterweis. His fast, fragmented movement generated an exaggerated focus on specific body parts, such as legs—their lines, height and speed.

Ever since, high leg extensions have abounded in contemporary ballet choreography. Everyone from Maurice Béjart and Roland Petit to William Forsythe, Wayne McGregor and Dwight Rhoden has pushed, contorted and extended dancers' legs for different effects and to mixed reviews. "I don't apologize for using the body in extreme ways," says Rhoden, "because I think that the work I like to do reflects the world around us, and we are in an extreme time."

With ballet companies' mixed classical and contemporary repertoires, and increasing audience expectations, it was almost unavoidable for leg heights in classical ballets not to follow the upward trend. Sure enough, a 2009 study showed that there was a steady increase in leg elevation angles of codified ballet postures between 1946 and 2004. The researchers also found that a group of ballet-naïve volunteers preferred the more vertical shapes to the earlier forms.

Today, hyperextended extensions are an expected part of most classical dancers' vocabulary. "Dancers stand at the barre their whole lives to improve their extension, to clarify their line, to amplify their form," says Rhoden. "We train our bodies to do many different types of movement; high extensions are just one way to show a heightened emotion or change in energy."

And it feels good. "From the dancer's perspective, when you can control where your working leg goes, and how you want to use it, there is that feeling like sexual power, but there's also a pure athletic and kinesthetic joy," says Osterweis. "What's interesting about the high leg as used by William Forsythe and Sylvie Guillem is that it's more of an attack and exclamation than a coy invitation." As such, it is hearkening back to those rebellious and independent cancan dancers of yore.

ballet legs

Diane Vishneva shows off lower legs in Alexei Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT.

However, some critics and audiences admit to feeling a bit weary of hyperflexibility on the ballet stage. One high-profile respite has been Alexei Ratmansky's reconstructions of Petipa's ballets. The lines are returned to soft, rounded shapes, knees are bent, retirés low. There's lots of épaulement, demi-pointe and fast footwork. The dances acquire more texture and the musicality Petipa originally intended.

Judith Mackrell, writing about Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty in The Guardian, described how the leggy Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Zakharova was transformed in this "new/old world" choreography: "Her body seemed to become physically rounder and…the more she restricted the height of her leg extensions, the more energy and lushness began to flow through her back and arms."

Mastering the 19th-century style—and its hip-height legs—still holds value. The more dancers absorb each phase of ballet's history, the richer the ballet-scape will be.

The Conversation
Unsplash

When it comes to running a thriving dance studio, Cindy Clough knows what she's talking about. As executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner for more than four decades, she's all too aware of the unique challenges the job presents, from teaching to scheduling to managing employees and clients.

Here, Clough shares her best advice for new studio owners, and the answers to some common questions that come up when you're getting started.

Keep reading... Show less
Unsplash

Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. The list goes on—and you have to decide not only what type of presence you'll have on each platform, but also whether you and your faculty will network with students and family members. How can you set boundaries for yourself and your faculty on social media?

The easiest option may be to prohibit these interactions entirely. At the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, staff and faculty may not "friend" or otherwise connect with current students or those under the age of 18 on social media, explains Gordon Wright, Harid's executive vice president and director.

At the Dance Zone in Henderson, Nevada, the handbook states that social media should be handled "in a professional manner." Owner Jami Artiga encourages students and faculty to share photos and tag the studio, but prefers not to "friend" kids from her personal account. "Of course, my son dances at the studio, and we have teachers with kids who go here, so sometimes the line gets blurry," she says.

Robin Dawn Ryan of the Robin Dawn Academy in Cape Coral, FL, also has a few students on her Facebook friend list, "but I don't put a lot about my personal life on the site," she says. She uses the platform more to keep track of what dancers and their parents are posting about the studio. "If they put up something they shouldn't," she says, whether that's a bullying post or an unflattering image, "I'll ask them to take it down."

Ryan tends to keep her social-media shout-outs generic: "So proud of this year's graduates!" and "Our dancers looked beautiful at prom!" That way, she can show support without spending hours online or worrying about missing any one student's achievement.

Dancer Health
Getty image

When ballet star David Hallberg sought out the medical team at The Australian Ballet to help him recover from his ankle surgeries, one of the things rehabilitation specialist Megan Connelly had him learn was to jump from his hips. By doing so, he learned to put less stress on his lower legs and feet and access the powerhouse group of muscles surrounding the hips, most commonly referred to as the glutes. While many parts of his rehab were particular to him, understanding how to properly engage the glutes is something many professional and pre-professional dancers can stand to gain from.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty image

Many a studio owner might agree that the idea of maternity leave is laughable. "So many people say, 'I was back after two weeks—we had a competition,'" says Meagan Ziebarth, a former owner who sold her studio two years ago. "If that works for you, and you feel great, wonderful. But I feel passionately that having a baby is one of the most transformational life events, and you don't need to put that kind of pressure on yourself and accept that that's the norm."

So how can you take the maternity leave you want and make sure your studio doesn't run itself into the ground? We asked three who did it for their best advice—including what they wish they'd done differently.

Be OK With Crazy

Suzana Stankovic and Natalia.

Suzana Stankovic
Wild Heart Performing Arts Studio
Astoria, New York
Enrollment: 500 (drop-in)
2 years in business

Suzana Stankovic signed the lease on her New York studio a mere 10 days before she gave birth to her first child. The space she'd been renting hourly for private and group lessons unexpectedly became available for a lease takeover, and, despite the timing, it felt like the right decision. "I said, 'This is happening for a reason,'" she says.

For the first two months after her baby was born, Stankovic recovered (she'd had a C-section). She held a soft opening in mid-November (2 1/2 months postdelivery) for existing students and officially opened her studio—with a drop-in class format—to the public the following January (4 months postdelivery).

  • Figure out your childcare. "It's the most important thing. You've got to figure that out, whether that means visiting daycare centers and finding one you're comfortable with or involving your entire family," she says. Stankovic's parents are retired and live near her, luckily, so they became her nannies. "That's the major reason I was able to do this," she says.
  • Expect to feel different after giving birth. "When I had my baby, and it came time to leave her and go to work, it was very, very difficult," says Stankovic. "I wasn't prepared for that. I was texting my mother constantly: 'Is she OK? Did she have her milk? Is she colicky?' It was hard to be fully present, initially. Be prepared for the effects of sleep deprivation and not eating well and the postpartum blues."
  • Have a support system in place. That's how Stankovic got through the roughest times, postbirth. "Have a friend or your husband or partner," she says. "And know that the very difficult times are temporary. They do abate. And if they don't, there are resources. There's help out there."
  • Be OK with crazy. "I would plan my lesson and do my combos in the shower," she says. "On my way to the studio, I'd finish up my grand allégro in my head. I'd send e-mails in the middle of changing her diaper—I'd write two sentences, change the diaper, write two more, then hit send." The result of so much multitasking? "I realized, 'Wow, I can do so much more than I thought I could,'" says Stankovic. "I'm ready for anything."
Dance Teacher Tips
International performer Joy Womack balances flexibility and strength to maintain her turnout. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

Turnout is one of the defining characteristics of classical ballet and the foundation of your technique, but the deceptively simple concept of external rotation can be hard to execute. For those born with hip joints that don't naturally make a tight fifth position, it's tempting to take shortcuts in the quest for more rotation, but you'll end up with weaker technique and a higher risk of injury. We asked top teachers and physical therapists to break down the meaning of turnout and offer safe ways to maximize your range.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Photo via @sparklethetinychi on Instagram

In our not-so-humble opinion, dancers and dogs should rule the world. So, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to hear that we are positively obsessed with all things that are dog and dance at the same time. Namely, puppies dressed up in tutus. OMG—so cute!

We couldn't keep our knowledge of this perfect combination of dreaminess to ourselves. So we decided to share with you some tutu-wearing dogs from Instagram that we will never get over.

You're welcome!

Get ready to experience a level of cuteness that is almost too much to handle, ladies and gentlemen!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
FreeVerse photography, courtesy of Quenga

As a hula instructor at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Hawaii native Kaina Quenga is committed to sharing the traditional dances and culture of Polynesia with the people of the Big Apple. Through training with famed kuma hula (master teacher) Johnny Lum Ho of Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua, Quenga developed a respect for and understanding of the artform that has carried her through the nearly 20 years of her professional career.

In spite of her success as a teacher at 92nd Street Y (she also teaches at Concourse House Day Care in the Bronx and Spoke the Hub Dancing in Brooklyn, and offers free classes in various parks around NYC during the spring and summer), Quenga never anticipated becoming an educator. "I really just lucked into it—I'm not a kuma hula," she says. One can only become an official hula master teacher when their own kuma hula bequeaths knowledge to them through a formal ceremonial ritual after years of training. "But when I came to New York, everyone kept asking me if I would teach classes. There was a need for it. So I started teaching the basics."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I'm an older dancer/teacher and have some pain under my heel bone and Achilles tendon. I feel it most in the mornings and when I'm walking down stairs. Would wearing teacher shoes with heels help me?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Carol Channing in the original 1964 production of Hello, Dolly! Photo by Eileen Darby, courtesy of DM Archives

The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.

Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.

Keep reading... Show less
Editor's List: The Goods
Getty image

Here at Dance Media, we think everyone's list of New Year's resolutions should include reading more 💁♀️. And aside from reading Dance Teacher magazine (which should, of course, be a resolution in and of itself), we recommend some seriously wonderful dancer memoirs.

Here are three interesting books we think you should check out (or re-check out) in 2019!

Share your favorite dancer memoirs in our comment section! We can't wait to hear what you're reading!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending

When it comes to Broadway, Becca Petersen does it all. Not only is she a swing learning multiple roles for Mean Girls on Broadway as well as understudy for the principal roles of Cady Heron and Regina George, but she also plays an administrative role as the assistant dance captain. When she's not onstage dancing one of the 10 different tracks she covers, or acting out two of Broadway's most notorious mean ladies, she's in the audience, taking notes in order to clean choreography in the next rehearsal. "Once the show opens and the creative team leaves, the dance captains, stage managers and associates keep things running," Petersen says. "I help teach choreography to newcomers when there is turnover and make sure the dancing looks good from day to day."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Joanne Chapman teaching turns (photo by Dan Boskovic, courtesy Joanne Chapman School of Dance)

Think back to your newbie dancer days. Can you remember your introduction to spotting? It might've involved staring hard at your own reflection in the mirror as you wrestled with your first pirouette. Or maybe your teacher had you put your hands on your shoulders as you attempted a series of half-chaînés across the floor.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Sponsored