Getting the Point: How to Point Your Feet

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Dancer Allison Bartella’s pointed foot.

Ballet is about lines of the body. A pointed foot completes the line of the leg and can give the illusion of a longer, higher leg line. A beautifully pointed arched foot is also the quintessential hallmark of an accomplished ballet dancer. Pointed feet don’t just look better, they also help you dance better. If your foot isn’t reaching, your leg will have no energy, which makes it a lot harder to hold your leg up. Pointing your feet also helps you jump higher. But what is the best way to point your feet? Can your point improve? Is it possible to point your feet in the wrong way? Pointing in the wrong way can distort the line of the leg, or worse, cause damage to the tendons in your ankles. Let’s explore how to do it correctly.

Sit on the floor and put your legs together out in front of you. Sit up tall–use your hands on the floor to help support you. (Might as well practice sitting up tall every chance you get!) Reach your toes long away from you, lengthening the top of your ankles. The goal is to reach your feet long on all sides, like this

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Allison Bartella points foot

If you have high arches and pointing comes naturally to you, great. If your feet barely look different between when you point them and when you flex them, don’t despair. It may take some time, and we can discuss some things to do to help. First, a couple of no-no’s.

1. No sickling – Sickling is when the inner edge of your foot bends inwards. Like this:

Allison Bartella demonstrates a sickled foot for the camera.

See that sickle shape on the inner edge of  Allison’s foot? It’s not only an unnatractive line to the foot and leg, it can create alignment issues, cause injuries and other difficulties. Stephanie’s foot, pictured here:

Dancer Stephanie Shellooe’s pointed foot.

does the opposite of sickling – her foot naturally pushes forward at the ankle, creating a lovely line. Some people call this “winging”. Not everyone has this flexibility in their ankles and I’m not advocating that you aspire to point your feet like Stephanie’s. However, if you have a tendency to sickle, it may help to imagine the front of your ankle yearning forward as you lengthen your toes. I don’t want you to sacrifice lengthened toes to get this shape though, ok? That’s not the goal.  Ideally, you want your foot evenly reaching on all sides for the optimum health of your feet and ankles. After all, they are your foundation, and will affect the alignment of your whole body.

2. No scrunching your toes. Lengthen them out. If your toes naturally bend when you point, this is something to work on at home. With Allison’s foot, (even through her shoe!) you can see her big toe is very straight between her bunion and the tip of her toe. The joint of her big toe reaches long. Instead of bending. Isn’t that cool?

I’ll tell you my story because this is one of the most common dancer injuries, and like many dance injuries, it is avoidable. When I was growing up, my big toe scrunched when I pointed my feet. By the time I was in my teens, pointing my feet made an audible crunching noise in the back of my ankle. It wasn’t painful, it just seemed like one of those ‘weird dancer things’.

A few years ago between ballet, going running and wearing three inch heels to my day job, my ankles started bothering me. The backs of my ankles were painful and swelling and despite icing my feet in ice baths after class, they got worse. Finally, I asked Google.

I found a terrific website called The Ballet Blog, written by a physiotherapist for dancers who is based in Australia. Lisa’s article about FHL tendinopahy was exactly what I needed. I took her advice, and went to a doctor who confirmed the diagnosis with an MRI. Luckily, I was able to get physical therapy at Harkness Center for Dance. (They are great if you ever need a physical therapist.)

What had happened to my foot was the Flexor Hallucis Longus (FHL) tendon, which runs from the big toe under the foot and up through the back of the ankle, had gotten overused over time because of my bending my big toe, causing the tendon to thicken. As it passed through a narrow channel at the back of my ankle, it created so much friction you could hear it! Over many years, the thickened tendon began to cause pain and swelling.

If your big toe bends when you point your feet, remember it took many years for my foot to start having difficulties. But you can also un-learn this bad habit just like I did. You just have to stop squeezing your toes and instead, imagine your feet lengthening. It may take a little concentration. It helped me to use my hands to lengthen my toes as I pointed my foot. Your feet will begin to understand as you mold them with your hands. It is really more challenging for your brain. As you relearn, there are lots of intrinsic little muscles in your feet and ankles that can help do the work of pointing the foot, and Lisa’s video talks more about that. 

How can you improve your point?

As you work on your foot and your point, please be kind to your yourself and to your feet. This isn’t chinese foot binding, it’s the lines of your body and your body is beautiful. I’ve shown pictures of a couple of dancers who have amazing feet so we can all enjoy them, but not because I’m saying if you don’t look like them you are doing it wrong. If energy is going out your feet, then my dear, you are doing it absolutely right. You don’t need perfectly arched feet to dance ballet. You just need need the joy and the desire to dance. That is all ballet or any other dance form requires of you – no matter what anyone tells you. If your feet sickle naturally and it causes problems for you, it may be something you can talk to your doctor or physical therapist about. But gently working with your feet and doing some of these exercises can stregthen and stretch them a lot.

1. Massage the bottoms of your feet with balls can help release tension there. Stepping on the balls with them under your arches can also be helpful releasing the feet.

2. Using your hands to point your feet, massage and manipulate your feet can help release tension along all sides of your foot.

3. My teacher growing up told us to pick up marbles or pencils with our toes to develop the little muscles in our toes and arches.

4. She also told us to do ‘doming’ with our feet. Sit in a chair and put your feet flat on the floor and press down with your toes and lift your arches up as if making a little mouse passageway under your feet.

5. Another exercise is to lift each toe one at a time starting with your big toe until they are all up, then place them down again one at a time starting with your pinky toe, like you are playing the piano with your toes. Or alternate lifting your big toe and putting it down and then lift the other four toes and put them down.

6. Our teacher also had us press the top of our foot on the floor to stretch the front of the ankle joint. Stand and bend your left leg so that you can place the top of the right foot on the floor — the area above your toe knuckles around your metatarsals.  Straighten your left leg and push the top of your foot against the floor with the top of your foot to open your front ankle joint. Don’t just bend your toes down, the idea is to use the top of the foot to help open the front of your ankle joint. If you already have very flexible feet, this one my not be for you. As with all stretches, respect and listen to your body. 

7.  If you get cramps from pointing your feet, be sure to eat a lot of bananas and bend your toes back to stretch your arches. As your feet get stronger, they will cramp less.

8.  Finally, during class, imagine the tops of your ankles opening as you reach your toes long as if you are pushing something away with the top of your pointed foot.

I hope these suggestions and ideas help you work with your feet. Your energy should radiate out your feet reaching them very long. If you are doing that and your toes are reaching long and your ankles are not sickling, you are doing the right thing, no matter how you may judge them, and that really is the whole point.

~ Sarah

Empowerment – Three Small Ways to Build Strength for Ballet

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Have you seen the Wonder Woman movie yet? What are you waiting for? Not only is it a great action film, terrific story, with great touches of humor, but it is overwhelmingly gratifying to watch a powerful, feminine character triumphing. It left me feeling stronger than I’ve felt in a very long time. 

You need to be strong to dance ballet as well as to save the world. Last month I talked about ankle strength, but core strength is also key to ballet. I’m not just talking about engaging deep abdominals, but core hip and back strength as well. 

One thing that makes Diana Prince a great superhero is how she discovers her powers in the moment, reflexively. Strength in ballet is like that too. It is strong without hardness, or gritting your teeth or holding your breath. It’s a solid standing leg when doing a degage or develope or engaging your core in a pirouette. 

There are small ways to improve strength that can make a big difference to your dancing. In rebuilding my strength from being sick for two months, I came across this quote by Dali Lama that seems apt especially this summer: “If you are feeling like small things don’t make much of a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” Here then are three small ways to condition your body to become stronger. 

1. One minute plank. We do planks at my gym, Mark Fisher Fitness. Planks work your arms, shoulders, legs, butt, and abdominals. My goal this month is to start each day with a one minute plank. I did my plank today! How to do a plank: 

  •  Spread and flatten your hands on the floor underneath your shoulders.  If you feel pain in your wrists, put your elbows on the floor under your shoulders instead.
  • Stretch your legs back so that your body is in a line from your head to your heels and come onto the balls of your feet and press your one minute timer. 
  • Press your heels back, Lift your hips and squeeze your butt, tuck your hips under, and hollow your belly into your spine. Imagine you are wearing a belt and you are pointing your belt buckle towards your chin. Open your chest and widen across your collar bones. Breathe! Squeeze your butt and hollow your belly again! 

2. Stand on one foot. Since nearly everything in ballet is done on one leg, practicing standing on one leg with good pelvic alignment (like I learned in physical therapy) can help prepare and strengthen your hips and legs and core, and will improve your balance. In doing this you may notice one leg is more wobbly (weaker) than the other. Doing this every day will help even that out. The beauty of it is you can do it while brushing your teeth or doing the dishes or any time you are standing and waiting!

  • Stand with your feet parallel. Check that your pelvis isn’t tucked under or tilted back. Zip up your lower abdomen, stand up tall and transfer your weight to one foot.
  • Make sure your hips are level right and left as well as front to back. I’m working towards three minutes on each leg. 
  • Try it with your eyes closed which makes balancing a lot harder. 

3. Baby Cobra  If you’ve been to a yoga class, you may know this one already. It’s an amazing way to strengthen your back and abdominals. Yes, a strong back will also help your pirouettes. 

  • Lie on your stomach with your legs together, turned parallel, so that you feel your toenails on the floor and stretch your legs back behind you. 
  • Lift and hollow your lower belly away from the floor. Keep that abdominal support, so that you bend in your upper, not lower back as you do this. 
  • Put your hands on the floor next to your ribcage and peel your shoulders and chest up off the floor. 
  • Drop your chin to keep your head in line with your spine and lengthen out the top of your head and out your legs and feet. 
  • Come down and rest and try it again. The second time after you come up, take your hands off the floor and hold the position using the muscles in your belly and upper back. 

    By strengthening your abs, hips and back, you create an intrinsic strength that will help you balance, work better on one leg, hold your alignment, and be more efficient when you move. Take that out into your daily life and pay attention to how you hold your body. How you sit, stand, walk, cross or uncross your legs, (keep them uncrossed!) and on which shoulder you hold your bag (alternate!) makes a big difference when you get into the studio. Your body will get stronger by consistent positive actions and exercises even if they seem small, making you stronger and more capable to do all that is required of you in ballet and in the world. 

    ~Sarah

    Join me for ballet class! This Saturday, August 5th, 2017 ONLY, class will be held from 1-2:30 in the front studio, not 12-1:30 because of a leak in the back studio. Class donations start st $10 on Saturdays–half the price of a regular ballet class!!  I also teach Tuesday 7-8pm. $10 suggested donation. We are located at 380 Broadway, 5th floor. See you there! 

    ‘Break a Leg’ ~  Why Dancers Say ‘Merde’

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    Cast of Any Which Way Thou Wouldst Have It


    Tonight is opening night for a play I joined just over a week ago. It’s been a whirlwind last two weeks and I’m  excited for the opportunity to play onstage with my fellow actors.

    As you may know, performers are superstitious. I think it’s because so many things can go horribly wrong in a live performance with disastrous or hilarious results. Props that disappear, music that comes in wrong or late, costume malfunctions, dance steps missed, lines dropped, cues missed, the list is endless. A good show has to do with endless preparation, and a lot of collaboration with a LOT of different people. How it all comes together so beautifully is the magic of theatre, and perhaps a bit of luck. 

    When actors are going on stage to perform, it is considered bad luck to wish each other “Good Luck”, for fear of tempting fate, so the saying is “Break a Leg”. However for dancers, that prospect sounds too risky. I was always told that Ballet started in Paris and that was the reason for saying “merde”, which is French for ‘shit’. But its origin is more likely because in the vaudeville shows, the animals acts came before the dancers, and calling out “merde” to a fellow dancer was a warning not to step in it. 

    Please come see my show, and please wish me ‘merde’. 

    When Lord Harry Hackensack’s salacious afternoon diversions are interrupted by a visit from Madame Matriarch, a devious plot is put into play to quickly wed Young Thomas and Miss Gwendolyn so both will lose their inheritance and each other. To be sure the gossip gets out, Lord Harry invites the press “off the record”, along with a questionable “Captain” Roger to perform the ceremony. Roger and Gwendolyn’s “maid” of honor, Priscilla have instant chemistry and hilarity ensues. But once married and penniless, what will become of the idealistic couple? And who will end up with the inheritance? In a plot that whirls every character into a tangled intrigue of sex, gender, matrimony, and parentage, which way will it all end up?

    American Theatre for Actors at 314 West 54th Street, 2nd floor. Friday and Saturday and 8pm, Saturday and Sunday at 3pm. Shows run until July 23. 

    This weekend Only $9 on TDF: https://www.tdf.org/nyc/84/Available-Shows 

    Or for $20 (originally $50!) with the code SARAHD: http://anywhichwaythouwouldhaveit.com/ 

    Merde is french for poo, it’s true,
    The reason to say it is this:

    “Break a leg” is what actors say,
    For “Good luck!” will make it lacked.
    And though all dancers want good luck,
    They want their legs intact!


    If saying bad will make it good,
    And ballet began in France,
    Though what it means is not so clean,
    It’s what we say for dance.

    See you at the show!

    ~ Sarah

    Also hope to see you at the barre! I will be teaching Tuesdays 7-8pm (except for July 4th) and Saturdays 12-1:30pm 380 Broadway. Classes are $10. Just bring yourself. 



    Strengthening Ankles and Calves

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    Relevé means ‘to raise’. Photo © Sarah Schatz.

    Weak ankles can be a problem for a lot of dancers, and particularly if you have very flexible feet, your ankles may lack stability. Ankle strength can help your balance, can help prevent injuries, and helps dancers enormously with take off and landing jumps and turns.

    If you have weak ankles you may unconsciously hold yourself back because your foundation feels unsteady. I found this to be true of myself when I was recovering from an ankle injury. If my ankles felt wobbly, I didn’t feel confident going for multiple turns or relevés on one leg or even jumps sometimes. Maybe you’ve noticed for yourself that you hold back or dance tentatively or even overcompensate by tensing your shoulders or biting your lips. If you are insecure physically, it can affect you psychologically. The good news is, strengthening your ankles may help you become a better dancer overall.

    Here are some excercises to strengthen your ankles and calves. (Disclaimer – I am not a doctor or a physical therapist, I am a dancer and teacher. If you feel pain doing these exercises besides just muscle soreness, do less, go easy, or if you are injured, seek the advice of a professional.)

    1. Ankle Raises or Elevés  Hold on to a barre or a wall (or the kitchen counter) and put your feet together with the inside edges of your feet touching. Keeping your legs straight, press the balls of your feet down as you lift your heels off the floor as high as they will go (this is called an elevé-like an elevator) Then lower your heels evenly back down to the floor. Be sure to keep your feet and heels and legs together (if you can) as you do this. Think of your weight going right down between your first toe and second toes. This can help keep your ankles in alignment. Start with ten slow elevés. Going slowly and minfully is far more challenging than speeding.

    2. Plié Over Lifted Arches  Rise to the balls of your feet and keeping your legs together, bend your knees in a shallow demi plié. As you bend your knees, keep the arches of your feet lifted and your heels extending as high as they will go. Keep your ankles and knees together as you straighten your legs. Be sure your toes are relaxing on the floor. Bend and straighten ten times.

    Sarah Doudna

    Lift your heels as high as they will go. Don’t worry, your toes won’t let your ankle go too far – they are like a natural kickstand! Photo © Sarah Shatz.

    3. Heel Drop Bend your knees just like you did in the previous exercise but instead of straightening your legs, stay in that bent knee position, and lower your heels slowly and smoothly to the floor. Then lift your heels back up again as high as they will go with the same slow evenness. Try to control the movement of your heels as much as you can and move them smoothly without jerking. This exercise strengthens muscles particularly useful in petite allegro and other small fast footwork. Lower and lift your heels ten times.

    4. “Walking” in Place  Rise to the balls of your feet then lower your left heel, bending the right leg and coming the the ball of the right foot with your heel lifted as high as it will go. Rise back to the balls of both feet and reverse, this time lowering the right heel and bending the left leg. Continue to rise and lower one heel – ‘walking’ back and forth. This can a nice warm up for your feet. Be sure your heels ‘kiss’ as they pass – don’t let them separate out to the sides.

    Sarah Doudna

    To help align your ankles, keep your weight centered down right between your first and second toes. Photo © Sarah Shatz.

    5. Plie Releves  A relevé (which means ‘raised’) is like an eleve, but instead of with straight legs, releves start and end with a demi plie, but  it is also a rise up onto the balls of the feet or to the pointes of point shoes. Relevés are like the push-ups of ballet. They strengthen your legs, particularly your calves and ankles.

    To do a releve, demi plié. Begin to straighten your legs, and as you do, press the balls of your feet down and lift your heels off the floor, until your legs are completely straight and your heels are lifted as high as they will go. Then lower your heels to the ground as you demi plié. Relevés are done in all positions of the feet and on two feet or one foot. After doing some releves with your feet parallel, open your toes to first position and  repeat the releves in first position.

    Reminders:

    • Relax your toes and spread them  wide on the ground as you rise to the balls of your feet.
    • Make sure your weight is centered in between your first and second toes. If your weight is more in your pinky toes, you may be sickling your ankles. Line up your bones.
    • Remember that your turn out comes from your hips. In first position be sure to rotate your inner thighs forward and imagine your legs lengthing down out of your hips. At the same time, imagine your heels coming forward as your heels lift.
    • Alignment is key. Remember to lengthen your lower back towards the floor as you lift your lower belly in and up. Relax your front ribs and imagine a string pulling you up from the back of your head. Your upper body should stay lifted and not move around as your legs plié and relevé.
    • It may help to imagine you have a unicorn horn coming out of your forehead and imagine your energy going forward and up. This helps prevent your ribs from splaying and your weight from going backwards.
    • Be sure you are lifting your heels as high as they will go. Extend your ankles fully.
    • Relevés are like slow motion jumps, which also start and end in plié and have straight legs and fully extended ankles at the top of the movement. Releves are great preparation and training for jumps.

    Doing these exercises and doing relevés at the barre on two feet and one foot will improve your strength and stability for when you move to center floor.

    Now that you have worked them out, stretch your upper calves (gastrocnemius) and achilles – the tendon at the back of your ankle. Bring your feet parallel and slide you right foot back a foot or two and bend the front knee. Push into the wall or barre (or kitchen counter) to increase the stretch.

    Sarah Doudna

    Calf stretch – keep your legs parallel and keep your back heel on the floor. Photo © Sarah Shatz.

    Then bring your back foot in a little bit and bend the back foot as well to stretch the lower portion of your calf (soleus) and achilles. You can also get a nice stretch in you calves by lowering your heels off a stair step.

    Sarah Doudna

    Stretch for achilles and lower calf. Sometimes I need to adjust my stance to feel a stretch or even stick my hip out a bit. Photo © Sarah Shatz.

    Any question? Just ask in the comments below and let me know if any of this helps you over time. Stronger ankles makes stronger dancers. See you in class!

    ~Sarah

    Want to join us? Check out our schedule at http://www.liberatedmovement.com – all classes for only ten dollars!



    Don’t Freak Out, Just Dance!

    Dancers Brendan McGlynn and Sarah Doudna caught in a candid shot while dancing at Shanghai Mermaid Old Hollywood New Year’s Eve 2015.

    Have you ever been in a class or at an audition or out social dancing and you suddenly think all the other dancers are better than me!  You may be exaggerating, but yes, sometimes you may be (or feel like) the worst dancer in the room. What do you do? Don’t freak out.

    1. Remember you have just as much right to be there as anyone else, yes, even if you are the very worst one! If you are here to take class, or social dance, you paid your money, you have just as much right as anyone else even if you’re having one of those days when you think you can’t dance. If you are at an audition, you have just as much right to be there as anyone else, no matter what your thoughts tell you.

    2. Those people are all wearing the “right thing” and I just have this. Don’t leave the ball, Cinderella. Wear what you have, it’s going to be okay! If it’s totally inappropriate and possibly exposing, hopefully the teacher or a friend will let you know (or lend you a tank top or some safety shorts) before you embarrass yourself. If someone judges your garments, that is way more of a reflection of their own selves and their issues. (That’s true of everything other people do, incidentally.) Sometimes your favorite clothes are just in the laundry. Oh well! As you gain experience going to more classes, or auditions, or dances, you’ll get more comfortable and you’ll figure out what to wear, and what suits you best. Maybe you’ll invest in some ballet slippers or get an audition outfit that really shows you off, or find a red vintage dress with that perfect swingy flair. Too bad fairy godmothers don’t show up in real life with the exact right thing to wear. Imperfection suits you. Wear it proud!

    2. That girl just blotted her lipstick with her grand battlement devant!  Fancy tricks, high legs, are fine and dandy, but just because you don’t have that flexibility, doesn’t mean you aren’t a good dancer. Nothing beats well placed, lengthened, turned out legs, even if your calves aren’t up around your earlobes. Yes, work on your placement and challenge yourself to get your legs higher, but don’t let ‘lipstick legs’ over there ruin your experience.

    3. Screw that, they are typing us out by having everyone do triple turns and all I’ve got is a measly single!!! Stay proud, mama. You do you as strong as you can. Pull up like a rockstar, and knock that single turn out of the ball park. Smile like you have a secret. That secret may be “all I have is this lousy single turn, and this is ridiculous”. Yes, it’s totally silly to judge humans on their ability to do a stupid pirouette. But they’ll notice that girl with the stellar attitude, amazing smile, and terrific single turn and they’ll say, “Hey, maybe we can use her!” Auditions can be brutal to the self esteem.You never know. Don’t give up.

    No matter how you feel inside, how intimidated or scared or frustrated, no matter what you are or aren’t wearing,or what other people are doing or saying, or how amazing they are dancing, or how bad the music is; if life gives you an opportunity, and if you get the chance, and someone asks you, don’t freak out, just dance! 

    Starting Where You Are

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    Ballet dancers at Liberated Movement’s Benefit Bash on April 22nd. Dancers from left to right: Brendan, Arielle, Regina, Calvin, Kayla, Ilya, Diondra, and Claire (behind Diondra).

    April was an insanely busy month nailing down details for Liberated Movement’s Fundraiser, our Diversity in Dance Benefit-Bash. It went very well, and we had a great turn out (no pun intended). The three choreographed dances were very well received (Contemporary, Ballet and Hip Hop), they loved our unique Moving Statues piece that welcomed guests into the beautiful space. The swing lesson was a big hit as was the surprise flash mob at the end. Talk about diversity in dance! I was so proud of our dancers. We had a great crowd made up of new and old friends. It was an incredibly fun night.

    In the aftermath of the weeks of preparation, late nights sending emails after working my day job communicating with silent auction donors, dancers, attendees, and my phenomenal fellow organizers, plus teaching and rehearsing, it finally caught up to me and I got really sick.

    While I’ve been recuperating, I’ve been reflecting on getting better – how does one actually get better – at anything? Finally turning a corner towards getting better required me to fully accept the severity of my illness, take everything off my calendar, and put in some serious hours of sleeping. Perhaps getting better at anything requires that deep level of accepting where you are first. A full acknowledgment of your limitations without shame or guilt or judgement but with the full illumination of daylight and the acceptance and welcoming of a friend. “This is truly my turnout for good or bad,” without self incrimination, and without cheating or gripping. From this honest place, your improvement may be faster because you are starting where you truly are.

    Finding Your Balance and Letting Go

    Catching my balance for a moment has the easy satisfaction of catching a ball. It’s a suspension, a momentary win, an opportunity taken. It stems from a lengthened, fluid, effortful lift. It takes a quiet internal strength, but without tension or gripping. It also takes trust, letting go of control, and letting go of the barre! When my balance is on, it feels weightless, like a rising breath of air, and when it is off, it feels wobbly, uncertain, and totally frustrating.

    I fight to maintain balance in the studio as well as in my busy New York life. Recently, I came home to Hawaii to visit a friend and help her welcome her new baby into the world. Letting go here is less about releasing my hand from the crutch of the barre, and more about melting into the landscape, life with a baby, and her milk-drunk cuddles. Yet in ballet class, I found my balance here in Hawaii was better than it has been. Maybe it was my friend Annie’s class, or maybe it helped to let go a little.
    1. Set yourself up to succeed. While you are holding on to the barre, line everything up. Put your feet in sous-sus, in fifth position, in relevé, and start from the bottom up:
    relax and lengthen your toes along the floor;

    • lift your heels in relevé as high as they will go;
    • make sure your legs are straight and long;
    • turn your legs out from deep in your hips, with your heels yearning forward,
    • pull your legs together like a baby snuggling, with no spaces between, or like a ziplock bag, zipping up all the way together with no holes;
    • relax your tailbone towards the floor, as you lift your lower belly up;
    • press your belly button to your spine as if wearing your skinny jeans;
    • calm your frontal ribcage, knit it together towards your hip bones and make space in your back ribs;
    • relax your shoulders down away from your ears and widen your collar bones;
    • lengthen your head toward the ceiling;
    • reach your arms up into fifth position – notice I didn’t say “place” – your arms also have a dynamic lifted energy. In a balance everything reaches up and out!

    2. Before you let go of the barre lift more out of your hips by pushing down, reaching up and thinking happy thoughts of seeing friends, eating delicious pineapple or ahi poke, and Hawaiian trade winds. A balance is not total stillness, it has energy. Happy thoughts!

    3. About wobbling – sometimes in letting go of the barre, there is some wobbling. A little wobbling is okay, focus on lifting and breathing. If I am wobbling badly, either I’m not fully lined up properly, not lifting in my core, or I’m hardening and gripping somewhere. I breathe and try again. Sometimes wobbling can be because of lack of sleep lack of food, or emotional distress. I refocus on pushing down, lifting up, and try again.

    4. Breathing is not holding your breath-don’t forget to exhale too!

    5. Your mind can play tricks on you with respect to other dancers in the room. Don’t be fooled. You are just as glorious and wonderful and have all the capacity they have. Yes, you can balance. Fight for it! Yes it is possible. Believing anything else is a cop out. Let others challenge and motivate you, and make you work harder, that is what dance friends are for! But your ultimate competition is you, your body and perhaps more importantly, your mind. Don’t give up on yourself, and don’t let yourself off the hook either. Go for it!

    Now that I’m back in New York, mornings are no longer about burping the baby and her falling asleep on me to the music of mourning doves, a rustling brook, and the neighbors chickens. Letting go is about saying goodby to dear friends even as new exciting projects lure me back to the big city. But then again, it’s all about balance.

    ~Sarah
    One of my projects is a fundraiser to raise money for Liberated Movement, the studio where I teach. You should come! It is going to be held on April 22, 5-8pm at Blender, located at 27 West 31st street at Madison Ave. Get your tickets here! 

    Coming to New York? Come to my class! Tuesdays 7-8pm and Saturdays 12-1:30! 380 Broadway two blocks south of Canal street, buzzer #5. Only $10, yo!

    Falling in Love with Waltzing

    Photo by Natasha D’Souza via Flickr Creative Commons

    I’ve always loved to waltz. It is one of those moves that feels really good, like swimming in the ocean or falling in love. A waltz sways and moves, has grace and elegance, it always feels pretty. It’s so intimately connected to the music that when it’s right, it’s less about you dancing to the music than going inside the music, allowing it to dance you.

    Waltzing originated as an Austrian and Bavarian folk dance from the eighteenth century, and like all good things, was quite shocking to the upper classes in its day. Naturally the close embrace in particular was frowned upon. It subsequently became popular in Vienna, leading to the birth of ballroom dance. 

    While the step itself is simple, the necessary fluidity and ease of a waltz is what makes it difficult to master. (Why are things that require ease so challenging? Perhaps letting go is actually harder than holding on!) 

    A waltz is also one of the most creative moves in ballet, done in many different ways and directions and combined with a variety of other steps. It can be done side to side, front to back, turning, with legs brushing through. Who knew ballet could be so…sexy?

    How to waltz:

    • Start with music written in 3/4 time. Use Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker if you’re feeling traditional, or Prince’s Sometimes it Snows in April if you’re feeling oldschool (or you read this blog). Other good waltz songs are Nora Jones’s Come Away With Me or Edwin McCain’s I’ll Be. Recently one of my dancers introduced me to a beautiful Spanish song called Mi Ancla by Mindy Gledhill. In the song, she talks about being carried away by a red balloon but her lover is her anchor, mi ancla. This sweet little song captures the intoxication of being carried away by the wind or a waltz. 
    • Whatever waltz music you choose, you should hear a strong 1 count downbeat, followed by lighter 2, 3 counts. Take a moment to listen for these counts before you start to move.
    • Now stand up (no turn out, no pointed feet) and just sway to the music. Change your weight from your right foot to your left foot on each strong  1 count. Notice counts 2 & 3, but at first only move on the 1 counts. (I’m trying to get you to feel the music.)
    • Now add two smaller steps on counts 2 and 3. March in place for now. It is helpful to say to yourself BIG, little, little; BIG, little little as you are stepping. 
    • Now that you are easily stepping on each count, make your BIG step less about taking a venti sized step and more about stepping into plié. The emphasis should go downward. And then make your two little steps up on relevé, so now instead of just stepping on the beats, you are adding levels. Be sure your first step is flat on the floor, with your whole foot down on the ground, including the heel – just like a pedestrian taking a regular step – and bend your knee. The second two steps are up on the balls of your feet, in relevé. It is helpful to say to yourself DOWN, up, up; DOWN, up, up. If you get confused, take out the relevé and go back to BIG, little, little. Don’t turn out or point your feet or or think ‘ballet’ right now. Even if you get mixed up, keep going. 
    • Start to move around the room with your BIG, little, little, or your DOWN, up, up. Listen to the music. Be sure you are exactly in sync with each beat. Feel the music taking you with it. Play with expressive qualities as you move such as direction and gesture. (Extra credit for laughing at yourself, or at least smiling!)

    In ballet, we call waltzing doing a balancé. But the idea is the same, the point is to be smooth and effortless. Even if you’re an advanced dancer, sometimes a balancé can look awkward or can pop up. Do less. Stop pointing your feet for a minute and go back to the music, feel the wind in your hair and imagine sunshine and mountains. This dance was originated by Bavarian peasants in a gorgeous place on earth. Dance is about expressing life.

    Once you are feeling confident, try these patterns:

    1. Balancé Side to side: Step on your right foot to the right side, step behind your right foot with a small second step on your left and then step in place with the right foot for the third small step. It’s more like SIDE, back, front; or DOWN, up, down. As you take your first step to the right, sweep your left arm forward and across at rib cage height towards the right, with the palm facing down as the right arm opens to second position. Then as you finish the third step on the right side, your hands will switch so that as you step to your left the right arm sweeps across to the left side as you step to the left, SIDE, back, and front. Your upper body and head should also follow the swaying movement towards the right when you are stepping right, and towards the left as you are stepping left. 

    2. Balancé front to back: Stand croisé, on your left foot on a diagonal with your right foot free behind you in “B+”. Step a big step forward on your right foot, along the diagonal, bring your left foot behind your right, step up on relevé on it, and then step down in place on your right foot (FRONT, up, down); then step backwards along that same diagonal with your left foot, and bring your right foot behind your left and step into relevé on your right foot and then step back down on your left (BACK, up, down.) Your right arm will sweep up as you go forward into a high arabesque line, eyes and head looking up, following the line of the hand, and then as you go back, your right arm will sweep towards the floor, as you balancé backwards. My teacher used to say it was like picking an apple off the tree way up high and almost leaning back a wee bit as you balancé forward, and then bend forward from the waist as you balancé back, as if you are placing that apple into a basket on the floor. 

    3. Straight leg Waltz: This Waltz step turns in one complete rotation – half way around when doing the right side, and completing the turn when doing the left side. You travel along a diagonal towards the down right corner of the room. (I tried explaining this in detail but it didn’t work. I will find a video to show this and include a link.)

    Try this combination: 

    Start near the upper left corner of the room, two steps towards the center. Balance forward towards the down right corner of the room on a diagonal, balance backwards, turning towards your right, ending facing the down left corner of the room. It’s like a balancé front and back except the balancé to the back turns. Step into piqué back attitude on your right foot towards the downstage left corner of the room, arms in third position with the left arm high. Piqué passé along your original diagonal, toward the corner, followed by two piqué turns towards the corner and ending with a straight leg waltz. 

    Enjoy waltzing and let me know how it goes – hopefully up, up and away! 

    ~ Sarah


    I hope this helps, Malcolm! 

    Join me for ballet on Tuesdays 7-8pm and Saturdays 12-1:30. Only $10. I will be away in Honolulu from March 2-17 and returning the 18th. See you at the barre! 

    Plié … and the life lessons of bending

    Grand plié in first position. Photo © Sarah Shatz

    Bending is the fundamental start of all dance – perhaps of all movement. In ballet, we bend or plié to jump, to turn, to move. It is this action of the legs to recoil like a spring before a jump, or soften the landing out of one, that also prepares our bodies for every other more advanced movement in the entire ballet canon. Pliés are often the first excercise done at the barre.

    One could say bending or accepting is a fundamental principle of life, an ability that isn’t always easy. In life the challenges we face force us to confront the inflexibility of the mind (our minds, others minds). As difficult as the physical can be to change, our bodies are often far easier to lengthen, soften, and mold than the rigidity of the beliefs to which we (or others) stubbornly cling. Sometimes it is even the mind that keeps the body from bending! The body, however, can influence the mind; and by bending and opening the body, the mind will often follow. Staying open will help you in life as well as in ballet. A plié is not just a bend, it is an opening too –  the opening of your hips as your knees bend over your toes. Suitably then, it is done at the opening of class.

    Demi Plié (Half or small bend) 

    Put your feet in first position. Keep your head and shoulders aligned vertically over your hips and heels. Gently lift your belly in and up towards your spine as you bend your knees open over your toes, making a diamond shape in between your legs. Keep your heels on the floor.

    You will have reached the bottom or deepest part of your plié at the point where your heels can no longer remain on the floor. Push down into your feet to straighten your knees fully and you will have done one demi plié.

    Hint 1: Open your knees over your toes in your plié. If you can’t keep your upper body straight up and down and open your knees wide enough to align over your toes, you may need to bring your toes in a little bit for now. This just means you have more flexibility in your ankles than in your hips. Don’t try to do a 180 degrees first position with your feet at first. Turnout and openness in your hips will come. Having correct alignment is key.

    Hint 2: Keep your spine straight and don’t stick out your butt to get more turn out or a deeper demi plié. As your calves and achilles lengthen over time, your demi plié will naturally deepen.

    Port de bras: Teachers differ of course, but it is often customary to do a combination with two demi pliés in a row. Your arm starts in second, lifting slightly as you demi, eyes looking out over your fingertips, lowering to preparation or low fifth as you straighten. On the second demi plié, bring your arm up to first position as your head tilts away from your hand, inclined to look into your palm. As you straighten your arm floats back to second position. Alternatively, some teachers will have your arm start in preparation, float out to low second as you bend into plié, and return to preparation as you straighten.

    Grand plié (big bend)

    To do a grand plié (pictured above) in first or fifth (or fourth), start with a demi plié, then descend towards the floor allowing your heels to lift, until your hips and knees are level. (Your heels will naturally come off the floor, do not lift them more off the floor.) Continue to lift your lower belly in and push your heels down into the ground to recover back through demi plié and then fully straighten your legs.

    Grand plié in first and fifth positions are similar. Except in fifth position your feet should remain touching in a grand plié, with the heel of the back foot moving forward, gently encouraging the heel of the front foot to turn out.

    Timing: A typical grand plié will take four counts. Keep moving continuously though the movement and avoid sitting at the bottom of your grand plié.

    Second position is a little different because in second, your feet are wide enough on the floor that you will not lift your heels at all. In second position descend only until your hips and knees are on the same level (see below).

    Grand plié in second position. Photo © Sarah Shatz.

     

    Hint: In second as in the other positions, descend as if you have a wall behind you so that you cannot stick your butt out.

    Grand plié in fourth position is controversial – some believe it is bad for your hips. I did grand pliés in fourth for years with no seeming adverse reactions but recent tightness in the front of my hip flexors is exacerbated by grand pliés  in fourth and I’ve decided there may be some truth to that belief after all. I’m only doing demi pliés in fourth right now, but you do you. If you are doing a grand plié in fourth, be sure to keep your weight even on both feet.

    Port de bras: First port de bras with one arm: Your arm starts in second position. As you lower to demi plié, your arm lifts slightly, then lowers to preparation at the lowest point of your grand plié. As you rise out of your grand plié, your arm lifts to first position in the demi, and then opens to second as you straighten your legs. Sometimes teachers will have you reverse the port de bras. In this case, you will demi plié and your arm will lift to fifth position as you lower into your grand plié, then as you return to demi plié, your arm will lower through first position to preparation and as you straighten your legs, your arm will float back up to second position.

    I hope this helps your exploration of pliés. It’s a strange thing to try to describe in words a physical movement that is so engrained, so if you have questions, please ask. Stay open and keep dancing. Encourage others to dance too, that may we all learn to accept each other, accept ourselves, and to bend a little more.

    ~ Sarah

    Believe in the Possibilities

    Every dancer has an angel hovering overhead whispering ‘believe’!

    Here we are at that magical time of year when gifts are exchanged with wishes of peace on earth and the hope of a better new year to come. What a difficult year it’s been and not just politically. I have geared too many ballet classes around the music of singers who have passed on – an adagio to Prince’s Sometimes in Snows in April stands out, one among several great musicians who are gone (David Bowie, George Michael). We’ve lost several amazing actors too – just on Monday I was watching Singing in the Rain with my mother and marveling at the lovely Debbie Reynolds. This year has also been a very difficult year for many of us personally as well.

    Then recently at a friend’s suggestion, I read an amazing book called Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl in which he talks about his experiences surviving brutal Nazi concentration camps, how he survived, and why others did not. He explains how the torturous conditions became bearable only when one found meaning outside of oneself – when he could focus on his love for his wife, or work to recreate his manuscript that had been confiscated. Only then, by focusing on and reaching for something beyond himself, could he bear his own suffering. If you have never read this book, give yourself this gift! 

    I found great solace and hope in his book, not just for my life, but for ballet as well. (Dance is life after all). As much as Ballet is about the body and the physical, and can be very difficult, it is also very much about the mind – what we perceive to be our limitations, versus what we imagine is possible. 

    What I wish for us all in the new year is that we Believe. That we leave in 2016 the doubts, the “I’ll never get my leg high”, the “I’m not a jumper”, the “I’ll never be flexible”, letting all of that go. Instead, I wish for us to take hold of our dreams, like grasping the string of a giant magic red balloon. At first dangling, then embracing, and finally steering our dreams like we own them, and that they may be realized. That we greet each pirouette or pas de chat with a deep knowing that we are fully capable of the execution always focusing on the bigger picture even while we hone our skills more finely one at a time. It scares me to do this too – it feels safer to hang on to the familiar crutches of self-deprecation. But the adventures of 2017 are as yet unchartered territory. Dare yourself to believe it is all possible, and have a very Happy New Year. 

    ~Sarah

    Feel free to ‘like’ or comment or share this post if you liked it. Join me for ballet on Tuesday, 7-8 pm. 380 Broadway, buzzer #5. $10.