- Toughen up legs. The power of the posture is the standing leg, says L.A. jazz teacher (and former Cher and Prince dancer) Salvatore Vassallo. Prevent the standing leg’s knee from buckling by maintaining constant pressure into the floor, and building leg strength with balances in relevé. Take a few minutes after class to balance in coupé, passé (turned in and out), arabesque, and front and side extensions. Work up to 10-second balances on each leg.
- Don’t whack. Ginger Cox, a faculty member at NYC’s Broadway Dance Center and artistic director of LiNK contemporary jazz dance company, says a common mistake is “whacking” the movement: a dancer will kick the working leg too hard, resulting in a collapsed or rolled-in standing leg and too much pressure on the back. Instead, initiate the extension from a hinge in the hips. Support the back when arching, and keep the hips, shoulders and leg joints aligned. Also, remember that the head is the heaviest part of your body, so don’t throw it back too far or you may strain your neck or back.
- Practice placement. Many dancers think that the higher the leg, the better the layout. A remarkable layout, however, is clean and properly placed. Cox says that the ideal height of the leg is a high diagonal. Of course, the working leg can be near vertical if flexibility allows, but don’t sacrifice technique, placement and a straight working leg. “Don’t worry about how high the leg is or how arched the back is,” Cox says. “Go for line and shape; find the picture.”
- Exercise. Add exercises that improve flexibility and range of motion to your cross-training regimen. Cox suggests stretching in a front split, with a cambré back (arms may be on the floor or overhead in the V shape of a layout, depending on your strength) and working on your front extension at the barre with a cambré back. To build your backbend, hold a bridge position. When strength allows, add front extensions to the bridge. (Ask a teacher or trusted fellow dancer to spot you.) Another way to feel how a backbend in a layout should feel is to stand on both legs facing the barre and bend back. Feel your head go back last and come up last. Do it slowly, engaging your abs to support your back.
Laura Di Orio, a freelance dancer, has a BA in journalism from Fordham University.