Working with a 9-year-old student, Alexandra Koltun asks the young girl to face the barre. She reviews fifth position, demi-pointe with the front foot and coupé devant. "I separate all the positions, so the student understands each one," says Koltun, founder and artistic director of Koltun Ballet Boston. She reaches down to shape the girl's foot into sur le cou-de-pied, leaving the heel in front and gently squeezing the toes around the ankle. "This position will equip the foot with more strength," she says.
Depending on a ballet teacher's preference and style of training, sur le cou-de-pied (meaning "on the neck of the foot") may be incorporated into class at different times and in various ways. From steps like pas de cheval to frappé and développé, the wrapped position can be fundamental to a student's technical development. Or it can be used less often and as a supplement to cou-de-pied front and back. Either way, the value of the position remains constant as a tool to mold and strengthen dancers' feet.
From Two Feet to One
Once students achieve and maintain a solid fifth position, teachers can introduce the idea of moving from two feet to one. "I try to make them aware as soon as possible about weight transfer and the importance of the standing leg," says Aydmara Cabrera, director of Princeton Ballet School. "We talk about keeping the weight on the toes and establishing stability on the supporting side, which will eventually enable a stronger working leg."
Cabrera's students learn cou-de-pied (often called "coupé") first, ensuring that the dancers find their center while keeping the foot in the front or back of the leg, and are prepared for a pirouette position. "Then in our third level, we introduce sur le cou-de-pied," she explains. "The wrap is very useful to focus on turning out both sides, especially during promenades and balances, and strengthens the muscle on the outside of the lower leg."
Koltun also teaches coupé first, paying attention to the action of "scooping" the toes from the floor into a pointed position at the ankle. "The toes should go right to the ankle bone, like you're scooping up sand." She might also bring marbles to the studio and ask dancers to pick them up with their toes. "If the position is too low, the standing foot is not visible. You should be able to see the standing shoe and arch. Higher than the ankle bone, and it's not coupé front." Once they understand the proper position, Koltun will introduce sur le cou-de-pied.
"Like a Scarf Around Your Neck"
Jacqueline Cronsberg, former director of Ballet Workshop of New England, introduces coupé later, with fondu, and works on the wrapped shape as soon as dancers can do fifth position. "Sur le cou-de-pied is the perfect way to train the muscles and articulate the foot," she says. "You make the position with your whole leg, like you're wrapping a scarf around your neck. The knee starts the movement while the toes stay on the floor in fifth. Then they just slide up and around your ankle." Coming from the back, Cronsberg describes the same type of approach. "The inner thigh comes forward. Imagine your foot is behind you, and you're wrapping it around someone else's ankle."
Cabrera also uses imagery to help students achieve the right feeling. Dancers pretend they have Sharpie markers on their toes to encourage dexterity, or that their legs are mirror reflections of each other, showing equal turnout. "The younger ones also pretend that they are in a hot toaster, and the knee has to stay very far to the side to not get burned," she says.
Train the Toes
Sur le cou-de-pied helps build body awareness and muscle memory as students gain flexibility and greater control over their legs and feet. "It is a complete rotation from hip to toenail," says Cronsberg. "The earlier they can be trained to manipulate the foot, the more beautiful the instep becomes. The toes are often left out in the cold. The younger you start working on it, the better."
Some teachers prefer to use cou-de-pied devant and derrière throughout class and save the wrapped position for specific lessons on turnout and footwork, such as during petit battement or frappé. "The preference of the teacher can vary, as long as the end product is there," says Koltun. "The heel needs to come forward for classical ballet. That's what you need for any style of dance. Students have to be really clean and equipped to do it all."