How to Spot in Ballet to Improve Your Turns

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Photo by Gabby Orcutt from Unsplash.com

When dancers turn, they keep their eyes focused on one location to avoid getting dizzy. As they rotate, their heads whip faster than their bodies, returning their eyes as quickly as possible to the same spot. This is what is called “spotting”.

If you’ve ever been sea-sick or car sick, you may understand how unpleasant being dizzy can be. In those situations staring at the horizon can help orient your brain and make you feel better. The reason we get dizzy when we spin around quickly is the fluid in our inner ears that controls balance continues to slosh around for a little while after we stop moving. This makes our brains think we’re still spinning, producing the feeling of dizziness. Spotting, keeping your eyes fixed when you turn, like staring at the horizon when you are motion sick, tricks the brain into thinking it isn’t moving. It may not keep you 100% dizzy free, but it will help, and the benefit is, spotting will help your turns immensely.

How to Spot

Stand and fix your eyes on a point in front of you. We usually practice this in the dance studio facing the mirror, and I tell dancers to spot their own eyes, but if you are at home, just look at something small that is at or a little above eye level, like a refrigerator magnet or the “12” of the clock hanging on a wall. Have your feet parallel a few inches apart, in “sixth position,” my teacher would have said. Start to march your feet so that your body is turning very slowly to the right but keep your head facing that magnet or clock (or whatever you’ve chosen as your spot point) with your eyes fixed on that point. When your body has turned so far around that your neck cannot keep your head looking over your left shoulder anymore, turn your head quickly to the right to look over your right shoulder and find that same spot point again with your eyes. Your body will not be facing forward yet – that is correct, your head will be quicker! Continue walking your feet and turning your body slowly until your body matches your head and all parts are facing your spot point. Did you do it? Don’t change your spot point midway through! If you don’t understand this, comment below and I will post a link to a video. Now that you’ve done it to the right, try it to the left.

As you practice spotting, it is helpful to keep your neck and head really loose so that your neck can turn. Spotting is not just in your eyeballs-your chin will be above one shoulder and then you have to turn your head so your chin is over the other shoulder.

Try keeping your chest open and even squeeze your shoulder blades together. You may find your neck is a bit easier to turn this way.

It’s also helpful to keep your head straight up and down and not let your head tilt side to side as you are turning. That way the fluid in your ears will only have one axis of dizziness with which to contend.

Pro-tip: If you are already quite good at spotting, try – during pirouettes – to spot yourself in the mirror using the eye of your standing leg. It’s a really powerful tip that can help your pirouettes.

Getting Un-Dizzy

If you get dizzy after crossing the floor in a series of turns like chaines or other turns, or even after one turn, even when you are spotting correctly, that is totally okay. This is a work is progress and so are you. You will get better at it, and your inner ears will also get better at adjusting to turning over time! In the meantime, here are some things you can do to quickly get un-dizzy so you can keep dancing:

  • Jump up and down three times staring at a stationary object. I imagine the fluid in my ears gets jolted out of it’s swooshing motion and gets settled back in place thanks to gravity, as a result of the three little hops. This method works best for me.
  • Another thing you can try is to place one hand, fingers together, vertically in between your eyes – splitting your face in half, from your forehead to your nose. I like this method too.
  • You can also put your hand horizontally underneath your eyes. I think this gives your eyes an imitation horizon with which to orient your brain, like staring at the horizon except in the dance studio.
  • Some people find that a few revolutions in the opposite direction works better for them. Try each one and see what works best for you – different methods may help you at different times.

Neck Range of Motion

Having good mobility and range of motion in your neck can also help your spotting. If you get tense in your neck like I sometimes do, you may not find that sweet, easy spot where you sail around and the whipping action of your head easily transfers down, giving your body a little added momentum each time you rotate. To increase the range of motion and reduce tension in your neck, try this:

First, turn your head to the right and left to test your range. One side may be more restricted depending on what shoulder you carry your purse, how you sleep and other factors. Place the heel of your right hand to the right side of your head. Turn your head to the right again, but this time use your hand to prevent your head from turning. You will be doing a lot of work with your neck and arm but don’t let your head move. After holding this for several seconds, release your head and try gently turning your head to the right again and see if your neck is a bit freer this time. Once you’ve done it to the right, do the left as well. You can also do this with lateral (ear to shoulder) and front any back movements of your head to release your neck. If you have neck issues or this hurts, just skip it or ask your doctor.

Like anything else, it takes a bit of practice and it takes reminding yourself to use your now-excellent spotting when it comes time to turn. When you relax your neck and focus your eyes, almost as if instead of serious dance business, it were more like playing in a grassy field on a summers day – that is when you’ll find the sweetest spot of all.

~ Sarah

Like this post? Be a subscriber! Why not? It’s free. Check out my older posts as well and let me know if you have any questions. I teach Tuesdays 7-8pm and Saturdays 12-1:30pm with Liberated Movement at Battery Dance Studios located at 380 Broadway, buzzer #5. Not ready to try it just yet, I understand. But read the post called All The Things I Meant to Say, and hopefully I’ll see you soon on the way to the barre.

Defying Gravity ~ How Dancers Get High

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Dancers from left to right, Julie, Melissa, Madeleine, Nicole, Cayo, and Ilya (behind) doing ceccetti changements

When dancers jump they invoke a quality that tricks the eyes. It’s as if they hang in the air, suspended for a moment, defying gravity before returning to earth. In ballet, that is an actual ‘thing’ and in French, that virtue is called ‘ballon’, which means to bounce or literally “like a ball”.

If you’ve ever bounced a ball, you might recall that feeling when the ball rebounds back up into your hand, nestling there for a moment before you give it another push. That same element happens when dancers jump. To me it feels fun, like soaring or bounding while sailing through the air. Here are some tips to help you get that same feeling of ballon.

1. Technically speaking, achieving height and the maximum air-hovering time in a jump takes three things happening in quick succession. Your preparation is a demi plié. You must go down to go up–and yet you don’t necessarily need your deepest plié. Most importantly, be sure your heels stay on the ground and that you are descending straight down in your plié, not pitching forward. This can happen if your tailbone is not pointing towards the floor in your plié. Read more about pliés here. Bending forward in your preparation before a jump can cause your body to arch back at the top. If you can go straight down and jump straight up, you’ll get more height and maintain more control of your body while jumping. Doing sautés without pitching front or back involves using your legs to jump instead of your upper back.

One exercise to help this is to try doing changements with your arms crossed over your chest and your hands holding onto opposite shoulders. It’s much harder to splay your ribs in this position and you may feel it in your legs more when you take off. 

2. When you push off the ground, actively press your foot into the floor heel-ball-toe. That added flick of pushing off the floor with your feet and toes into a pointed foot position will give you an added boost. This is why you need to be sure you don’t lift your heels in your plié, so you have use of your full foot against the floor. It is also one reason to get your heels down in between jumps. If you don’t put your heels down when landing, you will shorten your Achilles’ tendon over time, which can lead to injury. Using your feet as you leave the floor has the added benefit of giving you lovely pointed feet in the air! 

One way to drill this action is to practice pushing one foot at a time into the floor without jumping. Start in first position, press the ball of one foot into the floor lifting your heel, then flick your toes pointed, launching your toes off the floor. Then “land” your foot gently back on the floor starting with the toe, then ball, and finally your heel, back to first position. Landing through your feet like this will soften your landing. Once you’ve done a few of these ball-flick-/-toe-ball-heels on one side, switch feet.

3. The third thing that needs to happen – at the same time really – is to push. Imagine for a second that you are in a swimming pool. If you were to push away from the side of the pool, the extension of your legs as you shoved off would propel your body through the water. The same thing happens in the air. Push against the floor and straighten your legs to help launch yourself skywards. Some cross training with squats and lunges may help build strength in your legs.

One move I learned recently at my gym is particularly effective at strengthening legs. It is called the split squat jump. You start in a lunge with your front leg and back leg bent at right angles. Like this:

As you can see, I could be bending both my front and back legs just a little more – I’m a work in progress!

Jump straight up and land back in the same bent knee position. Try a few of these with the right legs front and then with the left leg front. You can also jump and switch legs in the air landing with the opposite leg forward. These split squat jumps will burn but they’ll make your legs feel super powerful and make ballet jumps feel easy in comparison.

Jumps often require straight legs in the air, but in the photo above, the dancers are purposely bending their knees to execute a changement in the ceccheti style, where the knees are bent and the ankles are crossed in the air. Whether you straighten your legs in the air or not, you absolutely MUST plié when you land!

Finally, visualization is a tool that can really help all aspects of your ballet technique. When you jump, imagine one of those super bouncy rubber balls. Jump as high as you can, and try to stay up in the air as long as you can, rebounding off the floor. I always tell my students, it feels so amazing to jump that way – it really is the best way to get high.

~ Sarah

Next week, Tuesday September 12th – one time only – class will be held at at Manhattan Youth Ballet at 248 West 60th street, Studio 4. Class will be an hour and a half in length for a $10 suggested donation. Take the ABCD or 1 train to Columbus Circle or the NW train to 57th street. See you at the barre!

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

If. you like this post or any post on this blog, feel free to let me know by likeing or commenting. (Naturally, if you don’t like them, don’t “like” them.)

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 or 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!