Trouble Shooting – balance, breathing and focus
“I was not on my leg today”. Have you ever said that? Or how about the performance where you felt as skitterish as Bambi on ice? You can blame it on the slippery floor or the new shoes, but what can you do to prevent such situations.
We have all experienced those moments when you have had the feeling that “today is not my day” and you felt like everything was destined to go wrong. Those moments almost always include wobbles, wiggles and in the worst-case scenarios, wipe-outs.
Start by asking yourself, “what does balance mean to me”. Is it the holding of a fixed position for an extended period of time? For example, being able to stand for hours on demi-pointe with one leg raised in a pose? Or, of finishing a pirouette and being able to stay up on demi-pointe?
Many dancers, especially in ballet, when you talk about balance, have immediately an image of a held pose, that inevitably, involves as little contact with the floor as possible and being either on demi-pointe or full pointe. It almost always associated with something fixed or held, with as little movement as possible.
The awareness you have of your sense of balance is not being able to hold it for an extended period, but of being permanently aware of it and to be able to find it quickly. Always remember, balance is an action, it involves movement.
Your sense of balance lies in your inner ear. Yes, your eyes play a role too, but often the role of the inner ear is neglected.
Prof. Jason Beechy, Rektor Palucca Hochschule für Tanz Dresden
Begin with some simple exercises. Stand in first position in the center and close your eyes. With your eyes closed, and with an easy breathing rhythm allow yourself to breathe in your nose and out your mouth several times. Try this also in second and fifth position. How does this feel? Does it change your awareness of which muscles are active? Did you fall over? Wobble? Where is your energy flowing? Are you using excess tension or gripping your muscles? What is your relation to the floor? Are you aligned and working in a harmonious manner? Be aware of all the myriad of tiny movements always happening in your body with your circulation, heart-beat and breathing.
Next, try this with other simple movements, do some pliés with your eyes closed, or some rélévés, work your way slowly through some basic movements and really become aware of your sense of balance. Repeat exercises from your last class with your eyes closed to feel the difference.
Next, with your eyes open, become aware of your focus. Your eyes play an active role in balance. Make sure you have a clear focal point, which can be especially difficult to find when you are on stage looking out into a dark auditorium. In such situations, be sure to find an exit sign, object or light that you can use to spot.
Working with this awareness from inside. Are you allowing yourself to breath? You should not be holding your breath nor forcing it either. Feel what happens to your body as you breath, the expanding of the lungs and rib cage. Try also to repeat exercises while deliberately holding your breath to see just how much you need to let your body breathe.
Your sense of balance will improve greatly by repeatedly trying to do a piqué into arabesque and directly be on balance in the center, than by spending hours at the barre trying to let go of it with your body already in a position that you found while in contact with the barre. Your balance lies in how you got there from the preparation, the action preceding the pose. Try also to go purposely off-balance, to have a sense of the counter-action.
Working with your balance, try to combine these elements. Make sure there is a clear flow of energy in your body and that you are letting your body breathe so there is a flow of energy through your complete body.
Finally, when you bring all of these elements together, don’t let it become overly complicated, it needs to become a second nature. When you are dealing with a slippery floor, or new shoes or you are in a stress-full situation, by keeping your focus on yourself from the inside, rather than on the outside elements, it should really help you to remain sure-footed and on balance.
Remember, your body wants to be on balance. Even when you do fall, our natural instinct is to catch ourselves. Try to let your body do this as you dance, as often our body is smarter than we think.
Have you ever had that sinking feeling, when in a grand allegro combination the other dancers seem to fly by, and hover in the air while you have made a resounding thump landing before the end of the phrase? Or how about running out of steam before the allegro part of class? Or feeling the music is just too slow or too fast to work for you?
What percentage of jumping lies in an easy naturally coordinated jump and how much can one learn? Are some people just born “natural jumpers” and others not? Just how much strength and stamina is required in relation to an efficient coordination?
Some dancers eagerly look forward to the allegro part of class as it is the culmination of all the elements that have been worked on, and offers a chance to soar around the room, defy gravity and later, on stage, to dazzle the public with the ultimate in technical feats. This can be especially true for men.
Other dancers dread the allegro elements, why is this? It is not so common with allegro that fear comes into play as it does for turning, when this is your weak point, but with jumps it is often a feeling of self-defeat or of inadequacy.
From an anatomical and coordinative point of view, jumping is a very natural and inane concept for the human body. What does it involve and where does it begin? Is it about being strong and weak?
It begins in the brain. It is an idea, a concept. The reasons can be different, to escape, to reach, to achieve something. It involves a clear idea, aim, thought, or reflex, some of them deeply embedded in our subconscious. When an object is hurtling at you at high speed it is human nature to run, jump or duck out of the way. Just as with very good news, a natural reaction is to “jump for joy”.
Can you work with this idea as you dance? Ask yourself as you jump are you working with a natural reaction? Do you have a clear idea and concept? Or are you focused on one isolated part of your body? Are you only focused on the height of your jump and perhaps neglecting your preparation or landing? Are you connecting your plié to the other steps? Are your arms helping you? Are you allowing yourself to breath?
Often, more in ballet, than contemporary and modern dance, I see dancers actually working against themselves here. They are trying to jump but from such overly turned out or static positions that they hinder their own flow of movement. Sometimes, I see people holding their breath, or not using their arms to help. The focus lies too much on a stylised form rather than the flow of movement.
Higher, bigger, faster, farther, all of these corrections are helpful, but they also represent very relative ideas. Try also to work with imagery to see what effect this has for you. If you have trouble travelling imagine you are being chased by something, pushing away from a “hot” floor, landing like a cat, landing on thin ice. There are many visual images that can translate through the body.
If you place a basketball on the floor it won’t bounce back. But, if you work with a clear idea, of exactly how high you want the basketball to spring back to you, or in which direction you wish it to travel towards, you must send this energy first down into the floor so it will rebound to exactly the height or in the direction you wish. It requires a great deal of judgement and control. This is the same thought process for every preparation and plié action both before and after a jump. Analyse your preparations to see if they are really helping or hindering you. As you push off for the jump, be very aware of which muscles are active. Are you gripping, over tense, or perhaps not using your arms to help you? It has much more to do with coordination and efficiency than brute strength or force.
Another aspect that comes into play is the balance between artistic, aesthetic and athletic. If dancers could do as athletes and focus on the purely physical elements, they might achieve greater results on this level. But when the physical act is an expression of an artistic idea, it places a whole new range of criteria. You can’t scream or yell or pull the grimaces that athletes do when they are purely concentrated on beating the stopwatch or jumping that extra centimetre higher or farther. You must achieve the athletic aspects, within the desired aesthetic and all with artistry.
When working on specific technical elements in dance, try to approach them from an idea and a feeling of jumping, rather than from a series of static poses that must be achieved. For example, learning a grand jété en tournant or entrelacé, are you focused on a series of positions that you illustrate as you execute this movement, or are you focused on the spiral dynamic that is necessary?
Another example is an “entrechat six”. If you try to actually think about all of the six leg movements, you will need to have a jump as big as Superman. Yes, beat with the whole leg, but try to think about just the front leg going “back and back” or the leg that started at the back going “front and front” or the rhythm of doing a “change and entrechat quatre”, or “And-A-One” rather than counting to six. Experiment with several ideas and thoughts to see what might work best for you – as it requires a very individual understanding.
As you work in class, be sure to be aware of building and connecting, so when you arrive to the allegro you have been working towards this with efficiency. Some dancers work so hard at the barre, they are tired by the allegro, that will not work on stage!
Remember also – you should never hear a jump. A bigger jump doesn’t mean more sound effects; it actually requires even more control. Go and watch some cats play – they often have huge jumps and almost always, soundless landings.
Trouble Shooting – Pirouettes & Turns
On a recent trip I was waiting in a departure lounge and there was a group of young figure skaters waiting for their plane. These children who looked no more than twelve years old consistently marked out fiqures and tossed off perfect double tour en l’aires effortlessly – the boys and girls alike. I was speechless. They had no fear. Perfectly coordinated they were doing steps that many ballet dancers struggle with even after years of training.
Turning, both on the ground and in the air, is one of the most fragile technical aspects in dance. Very often when nerves hit in a performance or class, the turns are the first technical aspect to fall apart.
What exactly is a turn? Is it simply a position that rotates or is it the resulting action of an élan? Where does it begin and what can one do to ensure a greater chance of your turns working?
If you ask someone why their turn didn’t work you will hear all sorts of answers. From I wasn’t on my leg, I was back, I didn’t spot, it was my bad side, I was nervous, etc. Ask someone who just completed a turn successfully why it worked and often they will crack a smile and are not able to explain it. Some might put it down to luck others are not quite sure why it worked. Unfortunately not everyone has such a natural sense of turning.
Start with the idea of what a turn is in your mind. It is an action, a spiral, a rotation that involves the mind and body. A turn is a feeling. Think about actions such as turning a page in a book, or turning around a corner, there is a reason, a thought and this results in an action.
If you have trouble turning, I would suggest to go back to find the basic feeling of turning. Try to work on a spin board or even on a slippery surface with socks on to get the feeling of turning. See just how much force you really need, or don’t need. How strong a sense of your centre, you require, where is your axe, your centre of gravity and can you find a feeling for élan and momentum.
On a slippery surface you will see just how little force you require, it comes down to almost a feeling of a boat with a strong wind it the sails on a smooth ocean, a turn should just sail around. Especially for turning on pointe, where there is very little friction, you need very little force.
Experiment also with various types of turns, on one leg, on two legs, travelling turns, try to focus on the feeling of turning as this is often the key aspect that gets lost when trying to execute more complex turns.
In ballet training, where a great deal of focus is given to having clear positions, this turn feeling can be left out and it is then even harder to bring this turn feeling back into a static position, it can make it overly complicated.
Ask yourself how do you feel as you turn and what do you think about? Are you worried it might not work? Anxious, or do you enjoy it? You must conquer any feelings of fear or panic to control your turns, actively think as you go around. Take a clear push off, and find a rhythm to your turn. Some people have a slower natural rhythm and others much faster – they are both correct, just make sure you are aware of your natural rhythm so that you can adapt and control this to the desired musicality.
Try to keep this feeling in all turns, be it simple pirouettes en dedans or en dehors, all the way into fouettés and grand pirouettes. Every rotation requires the same quality, think not of turning “one, two, three” but rather “one and one and one” as this gives a turn rather than a spin.
Turning in the air, such as saut de basques, or tour en l’aire requires the same feeling. Often the rhythm in aerial turns needs to be faster and you can’t do as many rotations as when you are doing a turn in which you have contact with the floor. But just as all turns, you require a clear push off and controlled landing.
As a teacher, you can see immediately in the preparation if the turn will work or not, as it has all to do with how you begin and where you initiate it from. You can also spot the look of fear in students’ eyes that will not help them.
Make sure that with every turn you do, actively choose when and where to finish – otherwise the turn will choose for you and it might not be what you want!
Prof. Jason Beechey Rektor Palucca Hochschule für Tanz Dresden
Photos: Bettina Stöß
Published in dance for you magazine 2009