Banish Bad Barre Behavior
Have you ever done a gorgeous développé at the barre while holding on so hard your knuckles turned white—then become frustrated when you fell over in the center doing the same thing?
Barrework is a key element of any ballet class. When you work at the barre, you’re building strength and refining movements you’ll build on later in the center. Unfortunately, pesky bad habits can creep up during this essential time and hinder your progress.
Your first line of defense is your teacher, who is there to offer corrections and suggestions for improving technique. “I generally think that ‘bad’ habits should not be addressed as bad,” says Diane VanDerhei, owner of INTUIT Dance Studio in Oak Park, IL. “It’s the teacher’s job to provide the feedback and imagery to produce an efficient way of moving,” she says.
While this may be the case, many habits can be especially hard to break—even with your teacher’s assistance. For those sticky situations, read on for smart strategies you can use to banish your bad habits forever.
Problem: “White knuckling”
Gripping the barre too tightly can work against you: Over time you may begin to rely on it too much and grow dependent on it for balance. “Use the barre as you would use a partner in the center,” says Lisa Lockwood, ballet teacher at Steps on Broadway in NYC.
Strategy: If you’ve done partnering work, Lockwood’s imagery is especially helpful. If not, picture how you would touch someone’s arm if you needed it for balance. Chances are you wouldn’t squeeze their arm tightly!
Also make sure you have the correct grip. Don’t grab the barre or allow your thumb to wrap around the underside. Instead, place your whole hand—fingers and thumb, keeping them fairly close together—lightly on top of the barre. The hand should remain relaxed, even during difficult exercises.
Problem: Using the barre for leverage
Regardless of whether you are pulling on the barre to force turnout, hike your extension higher or get more lift on grand battements, you are cheating.
This habit can cause bigger problems later, like underdeveloped muscles, improper alignment and less than adequate strength to execute movement correctly and with control in the center.
Strategy: VanDerhei addresses this issue by occasionally asking students to take their hands off the barre when she sees them using it for leverage. “I explain in very practical, anatomical terms what [using the barre to] force a difficult movement is doing to their balance,” she says. Try this: Become more aware of the exercises in which you tend to rely on the barre too much. During these instances, take your hand off the barre for a moment to test yourself. If you start to wobble right away, you know you need to reassess your dependence on the bar.
Problem: Sitting in your hip
Sitting in the hip means that you’re slumping your body weight down into the hip socket rather than lengthening your muscles to free the joint. Although this can sometimes make it easier to balance, it’s not proper technique. The habit often takes root when standing on just one leg and contributes to lazy legs that are not actively involved in the exercise.
Strategy: “I tell students to imagine that their feet are pushing down into the floor and their heads are pushing up toward the ceiling,” Lockwood says. “This creates that length in the muscle that pulls them out of the hip.”
Any time you lift your hand off of the barre to balance on one leg, think about your leg muscles lengthening and lifting at the same time so you aren’t just moving downward, but also moving up—and out— of the hip socket.
Problem: Looking down at your feet
This is a common habit for dancers, both at the barre and in the center, and can be difficult to break. Lowering your chin to look down can throw off your balance. It also interferes with the proper line of the body and can look bad when transferred from the studio to the stage! “I remind students that their head is the heaviest part of their body,” Lockwood says. “When they look down, their bottom sticks out.”
Strategy: Find specific places to fix your eyes during the barre exercises and concentrate on keeping them there as much as possible. The points shouldn’t be too high or too low; keep your head at a neutral angle—you don’t want to substitute one bad habit for another. It may help to imagine that you are in water up to your chin, and if you tip your head down at all, you’ll dip below the surface.
Problem: Going through the motions
Not actively engaging your body and mind during barre means you aren’t getting the most out of your practice time. Just marking the exercises isn’t enough to build strength. Strive to be aware of the muscles you are working to maximize your efforts.
Strategy: Think about the muscles being targeted during each exercise. Make sure you feel them engage specifically without tensing all of the muscles in the general area. “I talk about the relaxation in combinations,” says Lockwood, stressing that it’s
important not to have all of your muscles engaged simultaneously. If you aren’t sure which ones should work during a particular exercise, ask your teacher after class.
Problem: Standing too close or too far from the barre
Either of these positions will pull you off balance and out of alignment. Again, Lockwood talks about the barre being a partner in class and emphasizes that students should try to get a feel for the natural human space they would be comfortable with if someone were standing there. “Imagine that there is a person next to you, and if you think you are standing too close, then you probably are,” she says. Look for the telltale signs, such as scrunched shoulders and a deep bend in the elbow. If you are too far away, your elbow will be fairly straight, and your shoulder may even be dipping down as you lean a bit to reach toward the barre.
Strategy: Check the bend in your elbow to make sure it isn’t super straight or crunched; either is a sign that you’re in the wrong spot. Also, look to see if you are in line with other dancers at the barre who are about the same height as you are.
Lockwood points out that breaking bad habits can take a little time and patience. “If you’ve done something wrong for a long period of time, it can feel normal,” she says. “At first, change feels bad. The body doesn’t want to change but the brain has to override the body.”
You don’t have to let any of your past tendencies get the best of you during class. With concentration, determination and these strategies in tow, pretty soon you’ll have those bad habits banished forever!
Photo by Erin Baiano
What's more daunting than getting into your dream college dance program? Figuring out how you'll cover the costs of tuition, room and board, incidental expenses and more. Here's the good news: The right scholarship(s) can bring your dream school well within reach.
Look Around, Look Around
Scholarship applications are due between the fall of senior year and graduation time, so familiarize yourself with funding opportunities during the spring of junior year. And there are a lot of opportunities out there, says Kate Walker, chair of dance at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, TX. "A lot of school guidance counselors now have software that automatically matches you with scholarships," she says.
Seek out scholarships on your own, too. According to Walker, "a lot of corporations are required to have some community engagement, including offering scholarships, so research corporations in your community." Your parents' employers might offer assistance too, says Doug Long, an academic and college counselor at Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen, MI. "They might have scholarships you can apply for just because your parent works there."
Other sources of grant money you won't have to pay back (as you would a loan)? The YoungArts Foundation; competitions/conventions, like New York City Dance Alliance; and the university or dance department you're applying to. Even some scholarships aimed at athletes are open to dancers!
A winning scholarship application involves a fair amount of paperwork, especially if the organization requires you to show financial need. In addition, certain scholarships ask for the College Board's CSS/Financial Aid Profile, which gives the awarding organization a more complete picture of your family finances.
Other ingredients of a successful scholarship application include recommendation letters, a dance and/or academic resumé and an essay or statement of purpose. Treat these components just like college applications: Have multiple trusted adults proofread your materials, and ask for recommendation letters or transcripts long before deadlines.
A note for non-dance scholarships: Including objective measures of achievement can only help you. "List national recognitions, like YoungArts or other competitions," says Long. "That shows the scholarship committees that people at high levels have acknowledged you as an artist of quality." And don't forget who your audience is. "Especially in writing samples, make sure you paint a vivid picture for your reader," Walker says. "Don't assume they know about all the things—like barre every day—that we as dancers take for granted."
No award amount is too small to be worth your time and effort. As Walker says, "Don't pooh-pooh a couple hundred dollars in award money, because any scholarship is funding that you didn't have yesterday."
A version of this story appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "All Aboard the Scholar-ship."
Every ballet dancer knows the time, sweat, and occasional tears the art form demands. But many non-dancers are clueless about just how much work a ballet dancer puts into perfecting his or her dancing. So when the mainstream crowd recognizes our crazy work ethic, we'll accept the round of applause any way it comes—even if it comes via four men in tutus. Yep, we're talking about "The Try Guys Try Ballet" video.
Remember that fabulous old-school clip of dancers tapping in pointe shoes that Tabitha and Napoleon D'umo brought to our attention back in March? As we mentioned then, toe-tap dancing was actually super popular back in the 1920s and 30s—which means there are more videos where that one came from. And because #ToeTapTuesday has a nice ring to it, we thought we'd take this opportunity to introduce you to Dick and Edith Barstow, a toe-tapping brother and sister duo from that era who are nothing short of incredible:
Guess who's back? Back again? The Academy's back! Tell a friend.
After one day at The Academy, the All Stars have successfully taken the Top 100 down to 62. But their work is just getting started: Now they need to keep narrowing the field to a Top 10, ultimately deciding who each will partner with during the live shows.
We've said it before and we'll say it again: New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns is some SERIOUS #goals. Her strength and power onstage borders on superhuman. But what's extra magical about Mearns is that she really puts in the fitness and cross-training work outside of the rehearsal studio. And she's overcome her fair share of injuries. Which is why she was the perfect source for Vogue's latest ballet fitness story.