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