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.

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Kyle Froman

Darla Hoover was at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet's studios running a rehearsal in 2014 with director Marcia Dale Weary. Hoover had just returned the day before from staging a ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia. Jet-lagged, she mixed up her words when giving a correction.

Weary took Hoover's hand and gently said, "Honey, you work too hard."

Hoover, and the students, had a good laugh.

"Are you kidding me?" Hoover replied. "You're the one who made this monster. There is no off switch!"

Weary founded CPYB in 1955, and it quickly became an internationally known school that has produced countless principal dancers. Famous for her high standards and tough work ethic, Weary instilled those qualities in Hoover, who served as associate artistic director at CPYB under Weary, as artistic director at Ballet Academy East's pre-professional division in New York City and as a répétiteur for the Balanchine Trust.

Hoover took over as artistic director at CPYB in the spring this year after Weary died suddenly, and while she's committed to continuing Weary's legacy, students have begun to see some of Hoover's vision as well.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix, has been called the Queen of Fundraising by colleagues. A studio owner and high school dance coach with over four decades of experience, Clough is known for her smart and successful fundraising ideas.

Now, Just For Kix has created a new online tool to help everyone tackle their fundraising goals, whether you're raising money for uniforms, extra classes, or to cover the cost of travel for your dance team's next convention.

Clough shared a few of her best fundraising tips, including everything you need to know about the new tool:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Jessica Kubat (center) with her studio staff. Photo by Vincent Alongi, courtesy of Kubat

Jessica Kubat's path to becoming a studio owner wasn't typical or glamorous or the product of a family business, handed down. When she opened MJ's House of Dance in Lindenhurst, New York, this past summer, she had just turned 40, was a mom of three, and had worked at two different studios long-term. Over the last two and a half years, she'd painstakingly saved up $25,000 and had gone to the Small Business Development Center at a local college on Long Island for help creating her business plan. Her area was moderately saturated with studios, so she spent considerable time planning what would set her school apart—live musical accompaniment, for one—and hired a marketing director nine months before the business even opened. It was a methodical, careful approach—Kubat calls it "the old-fashioned way"—to opening a studio, and it's paid off: She started summer classes with 75 students and is well on her way to reaching her first-year enrollment goal of 250 dancers. "When I turned 40, I decided that it was time to do something bigger," says Kubat. "I always wanted to own a studio—it was just never financially available to me."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by NYCDA
Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.

"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."

Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
From left: Daniel Novikov, Alla Novikova and Mishella Vishnevskiy at Blackpool 2018. Photo by NYC Digital Media, courtesy of Alla Novikova

Alla Novikova began her dance training at a ballroom studio called Edelweiss in Saratov, Russia, when she was 9 years old. She was immediately recognized for her natural talent and work ethic, placing third at the Russian Open just three months after beginning ballroom lessons. The lessons she learned at Edelweiss shaped her career and provided the foundation she needed to open her own ballroom studio: Work hard to prove that you're good enough to be here, and give honor to the experiences that brought you to where you are today.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Professions across the globe hold yearly conferences, and the dance industry is certainly no exception. Annual conferences exist for dance teachers, dance medicine professionals, dance educators and more. Taking the time out to attend them can be well worth your while for a number of different reasons. Let's take a closer look at four of them.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Father-daughter dance. Photo by Lisa Lee, courtesy of Dance Academy USA

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: How do you approach gender when teaching in 2019? When I was training, male dancers were encouraged to make their movement masculine, while female dancers were encouraged to keep their movement feminine. Today, gender has become much more fluid, and the line between masculine and feminine performance has blurred. How does that impact the way we should be teaching?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo courtesy of Z Artists Group

New York City–based pre-professional training troupe Z Artists Group, along with dancers from eight professional companies in the city, are joining together to combat gun violence with, "DANCERS DEMAND ACTION," a performance aligning art with activism at The Joyce Theater, this Monday, November 11, at 7:30 pm.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Infinite Flow

Last week, 2019 DT Awardee Marisa Hamamoto and her partner Piotr Iwanicki brought their boundary-breaking work to the "Good Morning America" stage in a segment highlighting her inclusive dance company Infinite Flow.

Infinite Flow is a Los Angeles–based wheelchair ballroom dance company (the first of its kind in the U.S.) that incorporates an equal number of disabled and nondisabled dancers, as well as a range of styles like hip hop, contemporary and other partner dances.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending

Since she was hired in 2006 to create a dance program at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, Jenefer Davies has operated as, essentially, a one-woman show. She's the only full-time faculty member (with regular adjunct support). Over the last 13 years, she has created a thriving program along with a performance company—at a school with fewer than 2,500 students—by drawing on her admittedly rare strength: aerial dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network

Savion Glover is one of the biggest names in the dance world, and perhaps the biggest in the tap world. The trailblazing hoofer's hard-hitting, rhythmically intricate style has fundamentally altered the tap landscape.

Glover is also a master teacher. But during his many years on the scene, he's never appeared regularly at a major dance convention. That is, until this season: Glover is now teaching at JUMP Dance Convention, scheduled to appear at approximately 15 more cities on its 2019–2020 tour.

We talked with JUMP director Mike Minery, himself a gifted hoofer, about working with a living legend—and how Glover is already changing the convention class game.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox