Teaching Tips

Teaching Inversions to Beginners? Here's How to Give Students the Strength and Confidence

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Going upside down can be scary. It's spatially bewildering, and young students who have spent their lives upright often lack the strength required to feel confident putting their weight on their hands. But, don't fret! There are safe and pleasant ways to build the muscle and the might for dynamite inversions.

#1 – Strengthen and mobilize the upper body in every class.

Consider all the work we do to articulate and warm the toes, ankles and hips. Apply that same time and attention to the fingers, wrists, shoulders, back and core. Yoga exercises, Pilates exercises and basic circling of the joints are all beneficial.

Favorite exercise: monkey crawls

Students cross the room crawling on hands and feet. Keep the pelvis at mid-level height.

Think pas de cheval but for the wrists—develop the hands through fluid shoulders and elbows. Allow the hips and spine to twist in order to feel the weight sink into each "step" of the hand.

#2 – Think and talk about alignment.

A sturdy inversion will be aligned just like a sturdy relevé. When we are inverted, the hands become the feet, the wrists become the ankles, the shoulders become the pelvis, the pelvis becomes the head and the legs become the arms. When the hands, shoulder girdle and pelvis are smoothly stacked above the plumb line, an inversion can feel easeful, and the legs are free to move from position to position.

Favorite exercise: wall-flowers

Handstand against the wall, letting the pelvis rest softly on the wall.

Bend the knees so that the femurs hang loosely from the socket.

Play with taking the pelvis off the wall and moving the legs around to find alignment.

#3 – Drop the head.

We teach dancers to lengthen the back of the neck in most balancing positions. This encourages the head to "float" above the rest of the skeleton and function as a counterbalancing action to the feet "rooting" into the floor. Likewise, lengthening the back of the neck while upside down allows the head to "dangle" and function as a counterbalancing force to the "floating" pelvis.

Fun exercise: say cheese!

Pair students up. Partner 1 sits cross-legged and smiling.

Partner 2 stands a few feet directly in front of Partner 1, facing away.

Partner 2 inverts and must smile back at Partner 1.

It's upside-down spotting!

#4 – Undercurve, undercurve, undercurve.

Beginning inverters often think that the best way to get upside down is to kick their legs up.

Instead, teach them to get their hips up by pushing from a deep undercurve. Think of it this way: Kicking the feet into the air to invert can equate to tossing the arms up in order to jump. To actually jump, we learn to push the floor away.

Favorite exercise: low-rider

Start on the floor with one knee down (toes tucked) and one knee up.

Reach three feet ahead with wide palms.

Push the floor away to land on the palms as the pelvis suspends over the head.

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.

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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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