Staying Power

Help students find balance on relevé.

Learn techniques to help your students balance confidently—even on one leg.

It’s easy to spot a dancer struggling to balance on relevé: Her ankles wobble, her torso shifts and she can’t hold her body in a steady position. But it’s not always easy to see why this happens, and how to fix it. Teachers need a toolbox of ideas to try with students who continually wrestle for control of their balances. Whether it’s a hands-on approach, a series of visual cues or use of imagery, there are different ways to help students achieve a solid relevé and stay there.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

As you assess a dancer’s position on relevé, keep an eye out for proper placement. “Usually the spine isn’t straight and the rib cage is open,” says Kelly Burke, artistic director of Westchester Dance Academy in Mount Kisco, New York. Maybe the dancer’s chin juts forward, her shoulder blades pinch together, and she can’t let go of the barre. Burke will then gently pull back on the dancer’s ears or bun until her head is in line with her spine. “Students have to understand that everything comes from alignment,” says Burke. “Then if they’re pressing their shoulders down and lifting up, they can go to relevé and stay forever.”

Shannon Bresnahan, who teaches at Contra Costa Ballet in California, checks for placement and also makes sure that students are stretching and lengthening their muscles to the fullest extent—without gripping or grabbing. “You cannot balance on wobbly legs and feet,” she says. “You have to stretch your legs from your hip joint and be completely pulled up in one unit. The whole body has to be lengthening.” Students should push down into the floor through their metatarsals and then up through the body, creating a counter stretch. “You have to have integrity in the muscle tone. Then the balance is solid.”

Verbal Cues vs. Body Language

Verbal cues might help a dancer correct problems mid-balance. Burke calls out reminders, such as: “Spine straight, rib cage closed.” Simon Ball, faculty member at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, tells students to keep all 10 toes on the floor (5 toes, if balancing on one leg) and to pull up through the hips. He also talks about maintaining a flow of energy to support the placement. “It’s more like a circuit than any one point,” says Ball. “They shouldn’t just put themselves in a position, but press down into the floor and pull up at the same time. It’s a full-body dynamic.”

For some students, especially younger ones who have less body awareness, hearing the information isn’t always enough. “They’ll tune out, if you talk too much,” says Bresnahan. “It’s physical. You’ve got to put them there.” Bresnahan walks around the studio lifting torsos, placing hips and moving backs. Sometimes she shakes the dancers’ arms and hands. “Anything to help them get the right feeling,” she says. She also has students imagine that their legs start from their rib cages, not their hips, so that they lift even higher through their bodies. At CPYB, Ball tells students to feel like they’re using their arms to pull down on cylindrical air ducts that run across studio ceilings. “Your back engages and reacts all the way to your core,” he says. “You can’t be stagnant when you balance.”

Finding Center at the Barre

If a student is just learning to balance, or struggling to find it, Bresnahan has them hold a relevé at the barre. “I have them get to the top of their muscle tone and strengthen that sensation,” she says. “Once they consistently do it in first position, fifth, passé and arabesque, then I let them balance. You have to build it up slowly.” Bresnahan starts class with sit-ups and push-ups to build core strength, and to emphasize the importance of correct alignment of the pelvis.

With advanced students, Burke occasionally gives barre in center to see if they’re using their natural turnout. It’s an eye-opening exercise to show students the importance of working correctly at barre. “If they’re cheating at barre and not holding themselves, they can’t go to relevé or do any number of pirouettes,” she says. “When you dance in center, you have to be able to find your balance in one second.”

Working on pirouettes, or other steps that require a transition from two legs to one, is an opportunity to discuss how using the floor helps with finding balance. “Feeling both feet on the ground is stability. The friction tells you where you are in space, and how far you have to transfer your weight in one direction,” says Ball. He adds, a successful relevé balance in any position depends on the push/pull dynamic of pressing into the floor as much as lengthening toward the ceiling. “You have to think that every piece of the body is engaged to create a defiance of gravity.” DT

Julie Diana Hench retired last year as a principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA in English and is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.

What NOT to Say

Though they’re well-intended, the wording of these common corrections may hinder rather than help.

"Hit the Pose." Dancers might throw themselves into a relevé, gripping their muscles to try to sustain a position. “It’s counterproductive,” says Shannon Bresnahan of Contra Costa Ballet. “They need to pull their muscles, not grab.”

"Just let go." If students let go of the barre before they’re ready, they wobble and lose the activation of the muscles. “They’ll never get strong that way,” says Bresnahan.

"Tuck your hips." “I used to say this, but then students overcompensate,” says Kelly Burke of Westchester Dance Academy. “You can’t balance forever if you’re even an inch out of alignment.”

"Push your shoulders back against your leg in arabesque." Sinking back will make students open their rib cage and lose their center. “When you pitch back, you lose the connection that comes from the stomach,” says Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet’s Simon Ball. “Lift through the stomach and hips.” —JDH

Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet

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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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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