For Joshua Bergasse, who teaches theater dance at Broadway Dance Center in New York City, jump sequences are the highlight of any routine. That much was evident in a recent class—from the way his smile expanded and his energy rose as he explained a series of sautés ending in a huge, turning jump with one knee bent and the other in second position.
Bergasse is not alone in his preference. Powerful jazz, contemporary, hip-hop and modern jumps explode both in the studio and onstage. Fortunately, the basic jump technique students learn in ballet classes will bolster their large jazz jumps, making classical training a must for all students hoping to achieve impressive—and safe—ballon (air time). But, while the underlying elements are the same for all jumps, the extra layers of theatricality, dynamism and musicality make for different challenges in jazzier genres.
DT talked to top jazz and musical theater instructors to learn more about mastering jumps outside of the ballet world. (Ballet jump technique, was covered in-depth in "Joyous Jumps" in the September 2008 issue.)
From the Ground Up
Just as in classical ballet technique, a jump's ballon, safety and comfort are highly dependent on the quality of the plié that precedes it. In Bergasse's words, "It's simple: A better plié equals a better jump."
Chris Hale, a fellow NYC teacher and dancer, notes that only when the plié is deep enough can a dancer's legs reach the full, straight length necessary to create beautiful lines during a jump. "The plié is one of the building blocks of a jump, as are truly straight legs—not hyper-extended and not bent—that come from it," he says.
Rebecca Blanchard, a NYC-based doctor of physical therapy, adds that the plié following a jump is no less important; using the bend in the knees to its full extent absorbs shock. "A correct plié allows the tissue to stretch upon landing and creates a natural rebound, like an elastic band," she says.
Since jazz, musical theater and contemporary dance jumps are often more forceful than feathery, Michéle Assaf, master teacher at BDC and President of Tezoro Productions emphasizes this point in her classes. "You can't sit in the plié. Hit the plié and then immediately rebound," says Assaf. "It's 'and a' timing, as in 'and a jump', instead of 'one, two, jump.'"
When it comes to the switch leaps, barrel jumps and stags synonymous with jazz, strength is another essential factor. In addition to utilizing a proper plié, students can achieve the force necessary to execute these larger jumps by activating the inner thighs, hamstrings and abs. "The quads are the breaks and when the inner thigh is engaged and rotating forward, it cradles the entire jump," explains Hale.
Blanchard agrees that the entire leg and its cumulative strength of the whole legs helps a dancer achieve a great jump, noting that there needs to be balance between the muscle groups of the upper and lower legs as well as the foot and ankle to avoid over stressing muscles and joints. "Dancers also should not underestimate the importance of hip and core strength," she adds.
With strength comes control—allowing dancers to release tension while in the air, creating the illusion of suspension. Assaf refers to a photo of dancer Desmond Richardson in a huge jeté to back up the point: "When jumping is done correctly, you can't see the effort in the air, because all of it has been expended while pushing off from plié, leaving the jump to look like floating," she says.
Momentum and Style
Bergasse believes that once dancers have mastered the basic elements of a proper plié, adequate muscle strength and foot technique (rolling through the foot, not pronating or suponating upon landing), momentum is what sets jazz jumps apart from ballet more than anything else. "You need momentum to go high and have the swing of jazz or theater involved," he says. "Momentum builds like a wave, and in jazz, where you have license to use this force, you should."
To create this momentum safely, Bergasse suggests hopping or marking a jump until the placement feels comfortable before attempting it with full force. Then he helps students add elevation followed by momentum. “You can build on the layers until it's perfected, because the first couple of times you try a new jump your feet are tangled. You need to understand the placement and landing position first," he says.
Bergasse then warns students not to place their newly found energy incorrectly by traveling out, instead of up, on a non-traveling jump. Doing so in jumps like axles or sautés can be dangerous for knees and ankles.
Blanchard takes this idea one step further, suggesting that teachers not approach difficult jumps at all until small jumps that land on two feet are completely mastered. The time spent on working on these simpler jumps is also an ideal opportunity to check that students tracking their knees over the feet, instead of letting them fall forward.
Hale agrees that new jumps should be approached with restraint, even if that means taking the force down a notch until movement is mastered. Then, to maintain that control, he says that dancers should never “run at” the jump or fling arms, which leads to both sloppy movement and injury-prone situations. Instead, he suggests that dancers try to always move arms through first position to a pose when possible.
Just as momentum is more acceptable in jazz, stylish, twisted and unusual jumps can make more of a lasting impression than traditional choices that audiences have seen time and again. "A lot of people continue to choreograph jumps like big Russians, and that's fine," Bergasse says. "But I like doing a double stag, with an arch in the back, while turning, because in jazz and theater, you can!" Even so, style and details should always be a conscious choice, not a habit—and simple jumps should be mastered first. "A lot of dancers can't take the affectations they've learned out of their jumps," he says. "With so many different choreographers, styles don't always cross over. You have to be able to strip that away and adjust."
Fortunately, once these issues are addressed, the joy of jazz jumps is readily achievable. As Bergasse explains, "In big jumps you don't have to fight yourself. Instead, you find the momentum, and through it, you find your power." DT
Lauren Kay is a former assistant editor of Dance Spirit, as well as a dancer and writer in New York City.