Christine Winkler mid-pirouette in Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Boiling Point (by C. McCullers)
Ah, pirouettes. They’re delicate little operations. Nothing beats the rush of finishing a set of solid multiples, but even the smallest mistake can keep you from nailing that triple. With many variables to think about—placement! timing! spotting!—it’s easy to feel frustrated when you’re tackling tricky turns. DS spoke with a team of pros to help you identify and fix common pirouette mishaps.
Help! I can’t get it all coordinated!
If your pirouette feels like a washing machine spin cycle, chances are you’re suffering from a lack of coordination. Roberto Muñoz, ballet program director of the Colorado Ballet Academy, often sees dancers anticipate pirouettes en dehors by turning in the supporting foot before even taking off. That causes them to open their working hip and shoulder as they continue around, dragging their port de bras behind. “Their arms never catch up with their hips,” he says.
Instead, try to arrive at your passé position immediately by simultaneously springing to relevé and bringing the arms in to first. Focus on keeping the supporting leg turned out, and initiate the turn by pushing off the back toes. Hold your core in one piece—from shoulders to hips—and think of your arms as the steering wheel guiding it around.
To feel the connection of your shoulder to your ribs and hip on the supporting side, Atlanta Ballet dancer Christine Winkler recommends practicing single pirouettes from fifth position en face (landing fifth back), since that preparation is more compact than the preparation for pirouettes from fourth. “You feel like you’re pulling in rather than going around,” she says.
Help! I can’t spot!
An indecisive, lethargic or overeager spot can easily throw off your pirouettes. First and foremost, determine where you’re spotting before you turn—changing mid-turn is a recipe for disaster. Pick a specific object or point in the room to return your eyes to each time. “Your focus is so important,” Winkler says. “Know what you’re looking at and commit to it.”
Some dancers disrupt the momentum of their pirouettes by spotting too slowly, whereas others whip their heads around with too much force. Bo Spassoff and Stephanie Wolf Spassoff, directors of The Rock School in Philadelphia, tell their students to pay attention to the musical rhythm of the spot, and to think of each rotation as a pearl on a necklace. “The necklace is a whole made up of distinct, individual pearls,” says Wolf Spassoff. “Likewise, each pirouette should have a clear identity, defined by the spot—one, one, one—so you get the full picture of each turn.”
The Rock School’s Rachel Richardson prepares for a pirouette. (by Tiffany Yoon/courtesy The Rock School)
Help! I can’t keep my balance!
Whether you tend to lift your working hip, sit in your supporting side, or throw your upper body back, poor alignment will surely knock you off balance. “Body alignment and strength are key to turning successfully,” Spassoff says.
“It’s not enough to think ‘pull up,’ ” he continues. “What does pulling up mean?” Of course, square hips and shoulders, rock-solid abdominals and a strong supporting leg are vital. But he also recommends analyzing pirouettes from a physics perspective. What forces are necessary to maintain your balance?
To stay on your leg, think of opposing energies going up and down as you relevé, like a bow and arrow. “Push down into the supporting foot while at the same time lifting the passé foot,” Spassoff says. As you press down, think of growing taller to avoid sitting in your hip. “A lot of dancers never reach the full height of their pirouette,” Wolf Spassoff says. “If someone came and poked them in the supporting side of their derrière, they’d grow two inches!”
Help! I can’t turn on pointe!
Pirouettes on pointe create a whole new set of problems. For one thing, that tiny platform means less surface area and a lot less traction. “You don’t need as much force on pointe as you do in slippers,” Muñoz says, “so you have to adjust accordingly.” Winkler recalls pulling in from 32 fouettés with extra punch during a performance, hoping to finish with multiple pirouettes. She ended up on the floor, sitting and spinning in her tutu. “I was doing some sort of breakdancing thing,” she remembers, laughing. “I used too much force, and it wasn’t timed correctly.”
Many dancers approach pirouettes from pointe more tentatively and
consequently arrive in passé too late. “You immediately have to get to the
full height of your passé,” says Wolf Spassoff. In addition, try not to give in to the clunkiness of the pointe shoe box. “Think of a quick, light toe coming right under the center of the body, and pull up and out of the shoe.”
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
Summer intensive auditions can be nerve-racking. A panel of directors is watching your every move, and you're not even sure if you can be seen among the hundreds of other dancers in the room. We asked five summer intensive directors for their input on how dancers can make a positive impression—and even be remembered next year.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.
We always love a good halftime performance. And we LIVE for halftime performances involving talented kids. (Fingers and toes crossed that Justin Timberlake follows Missy Elliott's lead and invites some fabulous littles to share his Super Bowl stage.)
So obviously, our hearts completely melted for 5-year-old Tavaris Jones. Tavaris may have just started kindergarten, but during Monday night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the Detroit native danced with the panache of a veteran pro at halftime.