Dance Teacher Tips

How to Vary the Progression of Exercises at the Barre, and Why

Catherine Fowle's students at Juneau Dance Theatre. Photo by Ashley Concannon, courtesy of Columbia Ballet School

At Grand Rapids Ballet School in Michigan, ballet master Attila Mosolygo often changes the order of his barre combinations. One day, he might give an adagio before grand battements; the next, he'll save adagio for last. Like most teachers, he follows a general progression—pliés to start, strength-building battements or stretches to finish—but allows for variance to accommodate class level, timing and personal preferences.

A classical ballet barre is a model warm-up routine: It gets large muscle groups moving first and then progresses through a series of exercises that grow in speed, range and complexity. This start to class helps students find balance and work on fundamentals as it prepares them to dance unsupported in center. But that doesn't mean you need to follow the same script every class—especially if you want to keep your students engaged. "I don't think a specific way is better," says Mosolygo. "If dancers do everything the same all the time, they're less adaptable."


Create a prelude

Some teachers prefer to give pre-barre exercises as a means of focus for students. "In a primary or second-year class, I start them on the floor and have them point and flex their feet, maybe adding a little port de bras," says Anita Ashley, founder and director of Columbia Ballet School in South Carolina. Ashley has older, more advanced students face the barre and do some gentle upper-body stretches with simple tendus and demi-pliés. "It just takes about five minutes to get them mentally prepared," she says.

Mosolygo might also have beginner students start facing the barre, to establish good turnout habits. "You want them to learn what they're doing, and why they're doing it," he says. Starting in parallel with two hands on the barre, students can do a slow tendu front, rotate it out, return to parallel and slide back to sixth position. "Talk about posture and how the muscles should be working, and for what purpose," he says.

Build slowly

A classical ballet barre traditionally starts with a combination of demi- and grand pliés. "The plié is the most versatile step for a dancer," says Mosolygo. "It can be done so many different ways in preparation for nearly everything we do, such as petit allégro, adagio, men's partnering and women's pointe work." Instead of letting dancers use pliés for a "feel-good" warm-up, Mosolygo suggests paying close attention to make sure students are doing them correctly. "Pliés are both a stretching and strengthening exercise," he says, "that, when done well, will set them up for everything else."

After pliés, most teachers give a slow tendu from first or fifth position, followed by a faster tendu, then battement dégagé. "At that point, it becomes a personal preference," says Ashley. "Some teachers like to do fondu before rond de jambe à terre. I like to do the rond de jambe first, because it's a larger motion that doesn't require a lot of weight transfer."

Catherine Fowle, principal teacher at Juneau Dance Theatre in Alaska, will usually give students a low fondu at 45 degrees first, to focus on hip placement and turnout. "But with the advanced classes, we'll do fondu after rond de jambe à terre or maybe even after frappé," she says. "The young ones need time to get the right feeling before they build range of motion."

Vary the pace

Ashley likes to quicken the pace or change the meter of her combinations, so there aren't too many slow exercises in a row. "Give a slow rond de jambe with a generous port de bras at the end, and then do something that requires more speed, like battement frappé," she says. "It will stimulate the muscles." Then, Ashley incorporates larger movements like développé, grand rond de jambe and grand battements. "I like to get a petit battement in there for isolation," she says, "and a rond de jambe en l'air sometime after fondu, but I don't think there's a preferred order once you reach that point."

Ashley finishes every advanced barre with a series of slow relevés to make sure the muscles are being conditioned properly. Fowle might also have students jump, incorporating some relevés, for up to 15 minutes, if time allows. "We go over certain steps they'll be doing later in class," she says. "It's important to do them at barre first, especially if they've never attempted them in center."

There can be changes to the order of combinations, within reason. "It comes down to the teacher's preference, based on their own training and what they feel is the right way to do it, or what they've learned watching other teachers," says Mosolygo. "But each exercise should build on the one prior. It's not just an aesthetic quality you're working on—you're building technique from pliés up."

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According to Dr. Marshall Hagins, physical therapist for the Mark Morris Dance Group, there are really two things going on when you see forward head posture. First, the skull is projected forward in front of the body (as in when we look down at a phone). But then, because we are social creatures who want to see and interact with the world in front of us, the head rotates backward on the spine, thrusting the chin up and out. "The muscles in the front of the neck are short and relaxed," he explains, "while the muscles in the back, which are keeping the head from falling further, are lengthened and overworking." The neck muscles have a very high density of proprioceptors and the nervous system feedback is working to fight gravity all of the time, all of which can result in a levator scapulae that is overused and painful.

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Supine Head Float​

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1. Lie on your back, knees bent and feet planted, with a yoga block, or prop of similar height, under the shoulder blades. Let your head rest back into this big, chest-opening stretch, with your fingers interlaced, hands behind your neck so that your pinky fingers are against the base of your skull.

2. Float your head up to spine level, chin tucked in, hands helping to
traction your neck long. Use exhales to activate the abdominals and keep ribs heavy and soft while your head is up. Hold for a few counts and then rest back into the stretch.

3. Repeat several times, being careful not to let the chin jut forward.

*If you are ready for more, float the pelvis up to spine level along with the head. Keep the pelvis in a neutral, untucked position.

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