There are turners and then there are . . . well, people like me.
Who are people like me?
We are the ones who are brilliant at showing just how hard pirouetting is. We fall. We flail. We flounder. But eventually it clicks in and, while we will likely never be the rulers of pirouettes, we know our way around them. Our struggles to successful pirouettes have given us unique insight into what works for US. Of course, our tricks might not work for everyone but they were attained through blood, sweat, and tears (lots of them) and we hold these little tricks like the true treasures they are. They are the magic that makes our pirouettes happen.
If you ask ten different ballet dancers what the most important ingredient is for a strong pirouette you will probably end up with ten different answers. That’s because ballet sits differently on all of us. What works for the long legged ballerina is probably not going to be what works for the compact ballerina standing next to her. I mean, it will work to a degree because technique is technique. Every ounce of technique can serve all of us well. But if you wish to get to the nitty gritty of what is going to have a transformative effect on an individual’s pirouettes, you have to do some intense analyzing.
What works for me?
ATTACK—Pull the Pieces Together
(I am assuming the preparation is well placed and setting the dancer up for success. If the preparation is weak, the pirouette will be weak as well. BOTTOM LINE: Focus on the preparation before moving ahead.)
Like any step in ballet, there are pieces to a pirouette. When those pieces join together with coordination and strength, you end up with a completed movement. Add grace and individual voice to the mix and the end result is art.
In pirouettes, my priority is to pull the pieces together quickly. Attack them unforgivingly. But, in order to do this, we must first know what those pieces are. Here is how I break them down:
- Supporting Leg: Starting in the hip, and moving all the way down to the toes, all parts of the supporting leg must be doing their job completely. If this is not in place, the pirouette never reaches “pirouette” status. It remains in the dreaded status of “spin”. I believe we are all in agreement that spinning is about as ‘eww’ as it gets where pirouettes are concerned.
- Working Leg: Wherever the working leg is being placed in the pirouette it must always be activated in a way that helps the rotation as opposed to hindering it. This is most often found within the action of turnout and maintaining level hips. If the working leg fails at its job, the pirouette either topples or implodes.
- Arms: Whether the arms are pulled into first, up to fifth, or wrapped around our head, the movement of the arms must be initiated and held in place by the back. This ensures the shoulders remain in line with the hips thereby allowing the body to rotate in one solid unit. If the arms fail to do their job the pirouette, can still happen but it might look lopsided or awkward. Multiple pirouettes are not usually possible without this element in place. Pirouettes on pointe are certainly not doable with poor action of the arms.
- Core: The body must aggressively lift up out of the hips and into the twirl of the pirouette (I realize ‘twirl of the pirouette’ is redundant. But it offers a nice visual, so I like it.) At the same time, the upper body must shift in front of the position to counter the natural tendency to fall back into the circular momentum. If the core fails to do its job, the pirouette will fall to the side, back, or front.
NOTE: I am purposely leaving out SPOTTING. Of course, a clear spot is vital for all turns and should be taught with care. Because of the complexities of spotting, I am choosing to leave it out as I feel it deserves an article of its own.
These are the four pieces that go into pirouettes. The trick (or my personal trick) is getting these pieces to pull together simultaneously. If one lags behind, then the coordination of the movement is thrown off. Once coordination is gone, the movement has virtually no chance.
Getting students to attack these elements all at once with no hesitation is not easy. (And that is an understatement if there ever was one.) It is especially difficult for people like me who know turns just don’t like them. People like me: we overthink, we hesitate, we second guess. We sabotage. The fear of the pirouette is so real for us, it pretty much controls us. Flipping that control around and getting someone like me to realize the power is in their hands—to just attack it already—that requires patience coupled with ongoing insistence.
Once we choose to attack, we will probably fail. Because remember, pirouettes don’t like people like me. We have to choose again and again and again (and so many more agains) before we begin to see noticeable improvement. But sticking with this attack and remaining focused on only the necessary pirouette pieces will give us, not only passable pirouettes, but some really freaking good pirouettes!
Taste of Victory
More than that, it will have helped us to see that even the most frightening movement can be conquered when we pull our thoughts away from the BIG SCARY THING and turn them to the small reasonable pieces. Those small pieces are all things we instill in our elementary level students. By the time we approach pirouettes, students should be consistent with these elements. From there, the last piece is attack. Attack those small pieces, bring them together at the same time. Do it again. Do it again. And again.
And at last . . . a pirouette! Or three, or ten, or . . .