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).
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.