Introducing the Ballet Barre

For our youngest dancers, the barre should be kept a mystery. Little girls rush into their first ballet class and all they want to do is hold on to that barre. It’s a fun part of being a ballerina, but sadly, many teachers don’t realize the detrimental effects of introducing kids to the ballet barre too early in their development. Students ages three to seven will learn how to hold themselves, balance their weight, and maintain correct posture much better if they are kept away from the barre.

Here are some reasons why you should wait to use the barre in your pre-ballet classes, along with some helpful tips on how to introduce it when your students are old enough.

Why Wait to Use a Ballet Barre?

1. Young ones haven’t even learned to stand still.

If you don’t already know this, you will soon learn it. Young dancers will sometimes spend their entire first year of ballet just learning how to sit up, stand up, sit down, and stand still. These basic skills can sometimes be very difficult for preschool-aged children to master. They just don’t have the patience to stand for as long as it would take to do a series of warm-up exercises at the barre.

2. Alignment is crucial.

The youngest students know that their heads must stay on top of their shoulders, but that’s about it. Shoulder-to-hip alignment will develop slowly, but may take two or three years for preschoolers to fully grasp. When you put this age group at a ballet barre, you are not allowing them to learn to develop their abdominals to align their bodies for themselves. In fact, you’re reversing their learning of shoulder-to-hip alignment by adding this unnecessary element and having them reach up to a barre, which will throw off their shoulder alignment.

3. Distraction can be a struggle.

We mustn’t forget the most obvious reason for not using a barre: it’s a really easy distraction for preschoolers. Keeping their hands to themselves and standing still without fidgeting are already hard enough. When you add the ballet barre, they are now constantly dealing with the strong temptation to hang or pull on it throughout the whole class. This makes it much harder for them to focus on what they need to be doing. Listening to their teacher and following instructions is already a challenge for them; let’s not make it harder.

4. Balance will take longer to develop.

The ballet barre helps the dancer balance while performing highly technical and challenging barre work. For advanced dancers, it is a way to allow the dancer to zero in on their footwork without having to worry about balance. The barre is there for them in that situation. It’s already hard for the older students to not depend on the barre for balance. When they’re young, they need to learn to develop that balance on their own. Giving them a barre too early will create a heavy dependence on it and thus prevent the natural development of balance sans the ballet barre.

5. They must learn to dance alone first.

For the younger dancer, it is much more important that they understand the concept of balance without assistance first. Have them stand at their own spot on the floor. Allow enough space between them and the next dancer. Watch as they attempt to gain control and balance of their own bodies with their hands on their waist, and you will see why having them reach up to a ballet barre would only make things harder for them.

Using the Barre Effectively

A beginner-level class of students aged eight and older can use the barre, but it should be very limited during the first few months. Their sense of balance should first be established without the barre. Equal use of the tiny muscles holding the vertebrae in correct alignment is disturbed when a barre is used too much or too soon.

When I first introduce the barre to my eight-year-olds, I teach them:

1. How to move barres around the room.

In my opinion, free-standing barres are the best way to teach your beginners how to dance at the barre, since they can see themselves in the mirror and center themselves in the room. I tell the students to sit down on the floor by the mirror. Then I ask for two volunteers to be my examples. I ask them to stand at each end of the barre and then I say, “Standing on the same side of the barre, cup your hands under the bottom barre and lift the barre six inches off the floor at the same time.” I will often tell them to look at each other and say, “Ready, now” or “1, 2, 3, now” so they lift it at the same time. I then teach them to walk slowly to the center of the room and put the barre down gently at the same time. We then go over how to make sure the barres are straight, and how to adjust them.

2. How to stand at the barre.

The first thing students need to learn is that there is such a thing as “too close” and “too far” from the barre. I face the barre, put two hands on it and show them an example of standing too close to the barre. “If I’m too close, I can’t straighten my arms without losing my balance.” I demonstrate this for them. “If I’m too far, I can’t bend my elbows without losing my balance.” I demonstrate again. I then explain how a perfect distance from the barre is when my elbows are relaxed and I can both bend and straighten my arms without losing my balance. Note that beginners should be using two hands on the barre to start.

3. How to position their fingers on the barre.

This will be different across the techniques, but I teach that the thumb stays on top of the barre. The fingers should rest gently on top of the barre and the palm of the hand should not be touching it. Whatever style you prefer, make sure you have this discussion with them, since they will tend to grip the barre. Their hands should be at shoulder-width and their elbows should be relaxed. It will help if you show them the wrong way to do something first and then have them correct you once they’ve learned it.

4. How to treat the barre (and how not to treat it).

I teach my students that leaning on, hanging on, or even resting elbows on the barre is not acceptable. In between exercises, they should take their hands off the barre and put them down or on their waist while listening to instructions. It’s about respect. They must learn to respect the barre and the dance space.

If these things are discussed early on, you will find that they develop a respect for the barre and will learn to use it more effectively as they grow. Maturity plays a huge role in this ballet concept. When your students are able to listen and follow instructions, control their own bodies, and be consistent, learning how to dance at the ballet barre will come naturally.

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Work cited: “Ballet Arts for Young Children: Level 4” by Ruth Brinkerhoff, © The Ballet Source, 2020.

Level 4 Ballet Curriculum


Eugenia says

I've had a different experience teaching my little ones (5 yo) at the barre. First we talk about how to get in position. Tummies in, shoulders down, chins up, hands lightly on the barre: these are the 4 things they have memorized. Then we play the "barre game" where I play the music and they go dance in the center of the room. Once they hear the music stop they have to run back to their spots at the barre and get in position. I correct whoever has forgotten to put their tummy in, and then we do it a few more times.
I tested their balance the other day by doing all our normal barre activities in the center. They were able to keep their posture the way we talked about at barre, and completed all the "combinations". I think the key is in holding the barre lightly. I tell them the barre is our friend and we don't want to choke our friend. :) However, good points here and I will probably start doing a "center barre" more often.

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