She just retired as a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, but as a teenager, Maria Chapman struggled to gain control of her flexibility. “I looked pretty good at the barre," she says, “but I was relying on it way too much, and focusing exclusively on what my legs and feet were doing." Without the barre's support, she became a wobbly mess. “It wasn't until I figured out how to use my back and core that I was able to be successful in center, too," she says.
In our "Dear Katie" series, former NYCB soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to be featured!
ABT's JKO School students in class
(Photo by Rosalie O'Connor)
In Act II of Giselle, the ballerina stands center stage and dances an adagio—without a partner. She has to control incredibly slow développés and arabesque penchées effortlessly, as if she’s floating on air. When it’s performed well, the solo creates a feeling of magic. The slightest wobble or shake, though, can ruin the moment.
Most dancers dread adagio combinations—they seem to go on for ages, and their sustained movements are exhausting. But adagio is also the foundation for some of the most beautiful, powerful moments in ballet. If you struggle with holding your extensions or have trouble keeping your balance, don’t worry! We gathered advice from leading professionals to help you feel less anxious when it’s time to slow things down.
Sometimes just standing is the hardest thing to do. Before you start an adagio combination, check your placement. “I see the most wiggling in center when students begin in a fifth position that’s over-rotated and not properly supported,” says Harriet Clark, a teacher at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. “They have to adjust before they can even lift their leg off the floor.” To keep from fidgeting, feel all 10 toes on the ground and engage your abdominal muscles. “That core support is really important,” Clark says.
Opposition will also help you stay balanced. Try sending energy down your standing leg while you lift through your torso. During extensions in second position, “remember to lengthen from underneath the working leg,” says Tina LeBlanc, who teaches at San Francisco Ballet School. “Don’t use the thigh muscles to grip.” If you’re still having trouble with stability, practice standing on a wobble board, or do some yoga poses—like the warrior pose sequence—to help you feel more grounded.
Holding High Extensions
It’s tempting to distort your body to get more extension. “Most young dancers focus on getting their legs as high as possible and lose sight of the big picture,” says Clark.
Concentrate on keeping your hips level during développés—but also think about your port de bras. “Holding your arms beautifully and without tension will give you extra support,” Clark says. Your legs will go higher if you let your energy extend out and beyond your toes and fingertips, rather than compressing it down into your torso.
If you don’t have the best extension, that’s OK! A low, correct développé is better than a high, improperly placed one. If you can battement to your ear but can’t hold it up there, try putting your leg on the barre and doing relevé balances with the leg in front, side and back. “When the leg is supported by the barre, it’s easy to get it turned out and stretched,” says Atlanta Ballet dancer Claire Stallman, “so you can focus on engaging the correct muscles to hold it.”
Students at American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School
(Photo by Rosalie O'Connor)
While it’s important to strive for long balances and high extensions, don’t forget about the artistry of the movement. Adagio’s leisurely pace gives you extra time to connect with the music. Think about phrasing your movements so you don’t appear stuck in any one position. “You want to create high points and low points, accents and moments of stillness,” LeBlanc says. “It needs to have texture.” During a long développé, decide how much, or how little, time you want to spend on each moment. Is there a flourish in the music that encourages you to arrive quickly at your full extension? Or should the focus be on your foot as it traces its way up your leg to retiré? “Try to create beautiful movement as well as beautiful lines,” Clark says. “It’s not just about the height of the legs.”
And if you’re feeling intimidated by a tricky adagio combo, remember: The worst thing you can do is hold back. Nervous energy often shortens your line and prevents you from creating full, beautiful shapes. “Just go for it!” Stallman says. “Use your head, neck and port de bras as much as possible.” Moving with breath and conviction will let you enjoy even the most treacherous adagios—and when you’re having fun, it shows.