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

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