Teaching Tips

When and How to Introduce 5th Position to Your Students

Students at Houston Ballet Academy. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet

To an untrained eye, fifth position might look simple and easy. But the iconic crossed position of the legs and feet proves to be one of the most challenging classical ballet positions for dancers to do correctly, and for teachers to introduce properly.

At Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, teachers take a hands-on approach. "We rotate the tops of the backs of the legs forward, so students understand how those muscles should work," says Darla Hoover, associate artistic director. "We put their body in the right position while pointing to areas they need to hold. It's a constant narrative. You can't just slap them into fifth and call it a day."

Some leading schools differ in their philosophies about how and when the position should be taught. But they all agree that dancers need strength, good alignment and careful guidance to ensure that they find their best fifth.


What defines fifth position?

In classical ballet, fifth position is most simply defined as standing with the feet turned out so the front foot's heel touches the back foot's toe. But depending on the style and teacher's preference, there could be slight variations. Hoover describes fifth as "no space between the feet" and crossed so "you can't see the back foot when you're looking at the dancer from the front." At Houston Ballet Academy, lower-school principal and children's ballet master Beth Everitt says that when dancers are able, "the heel should fit in the divot between the big-toe joint and the bunion."

Some schools prefer a gentle fifth, more like third position, for students with little rotation or strength. "It needs to be ideal for the student," says Dalia Rawson, executive director of the New Ballet School in California. "When you have a student who can do a full-crossed fifth position, that's the aesthetic that professional companies are looking for. But when you've got a recreational student, it's got to be what's best for his or her body."

When to introduce fifth

Hoover's first-year students learn fifth position almost immediately. "We teach first and second positions facing the barre and move into fifth right away to do demi-pliés," she says, referring to the curriculum developed by Marcia Dale Weary. "When they're young, they're so malleable. We get them to have stiff knees in fifth and find those seat muscles right away."

Rawson teaches American Ballet Theatre's national training curriculum and introduces fifth position in primary levels. "When dancers are approximately 10 years old and start working with one hand on the barre, we start doing more in fifth," she says. "Steps such as changement and assemblé are examples of vocabulary that we use at that level."

Everitt's 7- and 8-year-old students work in a gentle fifth until they are able to activate their turnout. "Then they continue sliding past third into fifth, feeling the legs cross like an X with the back knee hidden behind the front knee," says Everitt.

While these approaches have different timelines, they all stress the importance of making sure dancers have correct alignment and good control over first position—first.

Enforce (don't force) turnout

To help students feel their turnout muscles, Everitt might ask them to do demi-plié in fifth. She takes the seams of their tights and pulls in opposition as they slowly straighten their legs. "They have to understand that the backs of the legs need to be activated," she says. "I always tell them to make their best fifth, but if they are forcing their turnout or cannot sustain their rotation, then it isn't their best fifth either." Hoover encourages teachers to look for signs of forced turnout: bent knees, a tilted pelvis and pronated arches. "That's an injury waiting to happen," she says.

At some point, when the dancers are older (about age 14) and have developed solid technique, the last degree of turnout might come from the bottom of the leg. "The knee will probably not be exactly over the middle of the foot to achieve that professional line," says Rawson. "We all like to pretend it doesn't exist, but it's a true thing. It should only be a final touch and something that happens once everything else is healthy, strong and in alignment."

For most dancers, fifth position will always be a work in progress. "I try to encourage dancers to explore what they may not know is possible," says Everitt. "It's kind of like a wet towel. You wring it out once and think you've gotten all the water out, but the more you work at it, you find you can eke out another drop."

Music
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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