Get Your Best Legs

It was August in New York City, and Paula Morgan was leading a body placement seminar at the 2014 Dance Teacher Summit. When someone asked for advice on addressing bowleggedness in students, the already energetic Morgan switched into high gear. She demanded an example body from the group of attendees; a bowlegged dancer volunteered and stood on the low stage.

With feet touching in parallel, her legs curved outward before joining the hips, leaving a long, almond-shaped gap from crotch to heels. Morgan coached her to imagine wrapping her muscles around her legs, engaging subtle outward rotation without moving the feet. She put a hand between the dancer's calves. “Squeeze my hand," she said. “Keep wrapping." She swiped her free hand along the demonstrator's tights to help her feel the direction of the rotation. Her calves closed on Morgan's fingers. The room erupted in applause. “What about knock knees?" someone asked, and the process began all over again.


In a relaxed moment, this dancer shows the full range of her hyperextension. While dancing, she gently engages her quads and keeps a little softness at the backs of her knees for a truly straight (and solid) standing leg. Photo by Quinn B. Wharton for Pointe Magazine

Having legs that don't look ideal for classical styles doesn't mean the end of enjoying class safely or successfully. Even dancers with hyperextended knees, which do create gorgeous ballet lines, need to build strength and control, or they risk serious injuries. While you can't change dancers' skeletal structures, you can help them understand their bodies and train the correct muscles for their strongest and most beautiful legs.

Morgan works intensively with dancers in the classroom to help them engage the correct muscles to achieve the alignment they're striving for, but she warns against using a standardized approach. “Just because it has a title and is a common problem doesn't mean it is always fixed the same way," she says. Furthermore, if a dancer is extremely misaligned, you should have them consult a doctor to ensure dance won't endanger the student.

For all varieties of legs, even those that are perfectly straight (meaning they can look slightly bent in extended positions like arabesque), Miami City Ballet physical therapist and director of dance medicine Kathleen Bower recommends strengthening core and rotator muscles. Here, she shares exercises that can help all dancers stabilize their hip and knee joints, while working toward correct leg alignment.

Side Leg Lift

Activates hip abductors—specifically the gluteus medius—on the side of the hips. Bower says you want these muscles, as well as abdominals, to provide stability in the pelvic area, instead of just squeezing through the glutes.

Photo by Emily Giacalone

Lie on your side with hips stacked one on top of the other and pelvis in a neutral position. Gently draw the lower abs toward the spine, and bring the top leg back into a very small extension, like a mini arabesque in parallel—the top knee should be lined up with the bottom heel. Flex the foot, keeping toes pointing forward. Resist the urge to turn out as you raise and lower the leg slowly. Keep both sides of the torso long; think of drawing the top hip slightly toward the foot. Start with 10 reps.

To find a neutral pelvis…

Low back flat on the floor, tucked pelvis. Photo by Emily Giacalone

Arched back, tilted pelvis. Photo by Emily Giacalone

Natural lumbar curve, neutral pelvis. Photo by Emily Giacalone

Lying on your back, bring shins up to a tabletop position. To test both extremes, first press your back flat into the floor, then arch it forward. Find the place in the middle where pubic bone and hip bones are on the same plane. Pay attention to which muscles are active here, then work on engaging the same muscles when standing.

Tip: Never tell a dancer to tuck her butt under while standing. Encourage her to find length in the spine while maintaining a bit of her natural lumbar curve.

Seated External Rotation Exercise

Activates abductors and deep rotators.

Turn out from here, using deep external rotators. Photo by Emily Giacalone

Sitting on the ground with legs stretched out in front of you, tie a resistance band snugly around your legs, just above the knees. Feet should be flexed, toes up; feel the sitz bones pointing down. Slide the legs open to second position parallel. Spiral the legs outward into a turned-out position. Think of a barbershop pole spiraling. If a dancer's using her deep external rotators to turn the legs out, her body will stay the same height. If she uses her glutes to turn out, her head will pop up toward the ceiling.

If you envy hyperextended lines…

Try this exercise for longer, straighter legs

The band engages legs to find a tiny bit of rotation in parallel. Photo by Nathan Sayers

Sitting on the ground with legs stretched out in front of you, tie a resistance band snugly around your knees. With flexed feet, think about lengthening through backs of knees and reaching heels across the room. Heels should lift a little and kneecaps should be lifting up toward the pelvis. Stay in that position as you point and flex the feet.

This is the same dancer from the top of the page, engaging her straight standing leg at the barre. Photo by Quinn B. Wharton for Pointe Magazine

Looking at Legs

A breakdown of common types of legs

Hyperextended Knees

What it looks like: In turned-out first, with legs locked, the knees come back and together, but there will be a space between the heels. These dancers tend to put weight in their heels, and their pelvis may tilt, giving them a swayed lower back.

The risks: When knees are jammed back this way, the muscles don't engage and the knee hangs on its ligaments for support. Once ligaments are overstretched, they cannot be retightened. Additionally, when the standing knee is hyperextended, it's difficult to stack the body's weight over it to balance or perform multiple turns.

What to do about it: Dancers should think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knees. Tell students to keep quad muscles gently engaged, and suggest they “feel the breath at the back of the knees." They can also practice sitting on the floor with legs out in front, straightening the knees without allowing heels to come up off the floor. This fires the quads and emulates what dancers should feel in a strong standing leg. Once they find a straight standing leg, the working leg can hyperextend for a beautiful line.

Bowlegged

What it looks like: In parallel first position with feet together and knees straight, there will be a gap between the knees.

The risks: Because of the skewed position of knees over feet, extreme bowleggedness can cause alignment issues in the feet. The main risk, however, is that students will try to force positions that don't come naturally to them, in an attempt to meet ballet's aesthetic demands.

What to do about it: Have dancers face the mirror and think about lifting through their abdominals to bring the pelvis to neutral. Then ask them to engage their external rotators, spiraling the legs outward so calves move inward to touch each other. Morgan has dancers think of knees facing straight forward, like headlights on a car.

Knock Knees

What it looks like: If a dancer is structurally knock-kneed, that means the heads of the femurs in the hip sockets are internally rotated, forcing the knees together and feet apart in a parallel first position. But if an otherwise normally aligned dancer is landing jumps in a knock-kneed position, it could be due to weak external rotators.

The risks: If a student—especially a young dancer—who is structurally knock-kneed constantly stresses her external rotation in an attempt to compensate for the condition, she could develop hip injuries or wear down the heads of the femurs.

What to do about it: Similar to dealing with bowleggedness, have dancers watch themselves in the mirror as they think about lifting through their abdominals to find a neutral pelvis. Then have them engage their external rotators, spiraling the legs outward from the hips down.

Straight Legs

What it looks like: When standing in parallel, there will be minimal to no space between the knees, and the kneecaps face straight forward.

The risks: These dancers often feel their legs aren't fully straight, because developed calf and quad muscles create an S-curve from hip to heel. These dancers tend to have better longevity and more power as jumpers, and they should never try anything that forces knees backward while striving for a more extended line.

What to do about it: For maximum straightness, stretch hamstrings while engaging the quads to release extra tightness behind the knee. If dancers are stretching on their backs, they should lift a straight leg, moving slowly through their full range of motion, instead of développé-ing the leg up and then stretching. They should engage the quads consistently while working at the barre as well, pulling up on the kneecaps, never locking the legs.

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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