(Note: This article is written with the young dancer, beginning around age 5, in mind.)
“Let’s all stand in First Position.”
All students begin to move into position.
“Wonderful! Be sure your heels are touching.”
All students move their heels together.
“Well done! Uh oh. . . Looks like we have some bent knees. Let’s try to fix that. Remember, dancers want their legs to be long.”
Some of the dancers are totally getting it and others seem to be engaged in a wiggling war.
What is going on? What is with the wiggling? Do they need to use the bathroom? Are their tights bothering them? Are they bored?
No. It’s just their knees. Their knees are battling one another for space; pushing against one another, rolling over one another. This results in a whole bunch of wiggling.
This issue is not uncommon. In my experience, most younger dancers have either some degree of hyperextension or they haven’t grown into their knees, making their knees quite knobby. Regardless of which issue is in play, the end product is the same: knees that don’t have space.
What to do?
Create Knee Space
Upfront, I will say that not every teacher I have spoken to agrees with me, and I respect that. However, I have seen some excellent progress by using the following method for dealing with the knee challenge.
- Begin by having the students sit on the floor with their legs stretched out in front of them, parallel, feet together.
- Ask them what it feels like in their knees to have their feet together. Some will not understand why you are asking this because it feels totally normal to them. Others will immediately understand the question and state they feel pressure in their knees, or they feel their knees are knocking or pushing.
- This is an excellent time to explain how we are all different and understanding how our own legs are built will help us do ballet better. Also point out that no one’s legs are bad for ballet. We are just each different.
- To the dancers who have the knee challenge, tell them to separate their feet (keep the legs parallel) until their knees are just touching—not pressing on each other or fighting for space. Once you have helped them discover the gap they need in between their feet in order to have an even parallel position, have them turn their legs out to feel the turned out position.
- Practice turning in and out several times.
- Practice lifting one leg at a time and lowering back to the even position. Both parallel and turned out.
- Then take these exercises and do them standing. The goal is to help them memorize what it feels like to have their knees touching appropriately and not fighting for space.
This is the position they should work in. It can be tricky, and it can look rather odd, especially when you begin doing pliés and sautés. The larger the gap, the trickier this is. But working in this way helps their muscles dance in a balanced fashion. This creates less chance for twisting ankles and hips which, in turn, builds safer dancing.
Keeping Knees Safe
The above method is used to ensure hips, ankles, and the spine are balanced. But when you allow for hyperextension to live in all its glory, there is a real risk that students will sink into the back of their knees creating a different risk of injury altogether. Absolutely a thing we do not want.
Here are two things I have found help with this:
- I speak about lengthening the body, the back, the waist. Pulling the hips off the legs, the legs off the knees, the knees off the ankles, the ankles off the feet. There is an ongoing lengthening happening, and by doing this, they automatically are engaging their muscles which protects them from injury.
- I do not keep them standing still for long. Younger students need movement. I never have them in a still position for an extended period of time as this puts undue stress on their joints. I keep exercises on the shorter side and they are also done slow enough so the students can focus on the correct positioning of the legs while simultaneously lengthening their legs.
Give It Time
I have my students dance with this space between their feet until it is clear they have memorized how to do it, and their muscles are ready to take on the next challenge: closing the gap. They are typically not ready for this until age 9 or 10, and even then, I have them close the gap very slowly and am sure they are doing appropriate strengthening exercises (particularly for quadriceps).
I recognize this gap means their dancing can appear unrefined and have a less than finished look. It can also mean a group of dancers on stage will likely be all standing in 1st positions that do not match. This appears untidy, but my primary goal as a teacher is not a unified looking class. It is first and foremost a safe experience for the individual students. If this means a slightly unsightly performance piece, then I am fine with that.
In time, they will be ready to pull those knees up and tighten their 1st positions. Allowing them time to first feel a balanced and even standing position teaches them that the “look” of ballet is not as important as the execution of ballet when it comes to technique. It also teaches how the process of achieving something is just as important, if not more important, than the end goal. This method requires clear attention to detail and an individualized approach to dancing. These are all excellent concepts to instill in our dancers.
So if you notice your dancers wiggling about, maybe take a moment to look at their legs and see if there is some way you can help those knees find their own space and free up the student to do what he is there to do: dance.