Anne Zivolich, Natasha Adorlee Johnson, Maggie Stack (by Margo Moritz)
You’re doing a pirouette exercise in class, whipping out three or four turns to the right side. It feels easy (and fun!). But then the teacher makes you go to the left. All of a sudden, you’re an uncoordinated mess, struggling to squeak out a double turn. How can the two sides be so different?
One-sidedness is a problem that affects even the most seasoned pros. Maybe you jump higher off your right foot than your left; maybe you can touch your nose with your right leg but barely lift your left leg above 90 degrees. It’s weird—and frustrating. But there are ways to get your “bad” side to feel much better.
Know That It’s Natural
All people are one-sided to a certain extent. “We have an innate sense of coordination,” says Darius Barnes, who danced in the Broadway show Memphis. “Even little kids have sides that feel more natural to them.” Consider the way your body is structured. If one of your hips is tighter, for example, you’ll be less flexible on that side. If one of your ankles is hypermobile, it’s probably also weaker and less stable than its sturdy opposite.
Barnes knows that even though his sissones may feel better to one side, dancers "have to be comfortable being uncomfortable." (by Christine Jean Chambers)
Dancers like to work on things that feel good, but just because doing a mean you can ignore the other side. “When I was a young bunhead, I kept practicing things on my good side because it was fun,” admits Maggie Stack, a dancer at ODC/Dance in San Francisco. “But as I got more experienced, I realized the importance of nurturing the things that didn’t come as easily.” Barnes agrees: “You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Practice doesn’t always make perfect, but it certainly helps. Try working on your “bad” side first, like doing 32 fouetté turns to the left (if you’re a righty) before going the other way. You’ll be less tired and more likely to locate and fix any problems. Also, ask your teacher if you can start class with your right hand on the barre once in a while. You can give fresh attention to the left working leg, instead of always getting to that side last.
Try Something Else
If you’ve already been practicing things to your bad side, pat yourself on the back. But if doing so has left you frustrated, it might help to take a break and try something else.
Laura Graham, ballet master at Dresden Semperoper Ballett in Germany, suggests trying a class in a style outside your specialty to help improve your coordination. “It’ll let you find your natural sense of movement before you’re constricted by a specific technique,” she says. If you’re a ballet dancer, for example, take up tap or jazz. Their emphasis on rhythm and timing can be especially helpful for pirouettes: Frequently dancers have trouble turning on their bad sides because their spot is too slow, or because they’re not bringing their second arm around fast enough.
Cross-training can also help strengthen and equalize both sides of the body. “You learn how to balance everything out when you do a new type of exercise,” Stack says. She bikes to and from work every day and does yoga and Pilates at least once a week. Biking has helped her balance out her strength because of its even, repetitive motion. She focuses on engaging her abdominals and the muscles around her pelvis when she rides.
Remember that dance is partly an art of illusion. All dancers have weaknesses; the pros just learn how to hide them. Stack turns better to the left, for example, but you’d never know it. “I try to make my movement quality interesting even when I feel like something’s awkward,” she says. To disguise a troublesome step, play with the musicality or accents of a phrase. The audience might notice a quirky rhythm and not see that the step itself is a little bit off.
You can also watch other dancers to see how they’ve mastered your problem step. How do they approach it? If you can’t reverse a combination, do it next to someone who can.
In the end, remember that your best weapon against one-sidedness is confidence. Your left penchée might not reach the six o’clock mark you can hit on your right, but if you dance with conviction, nobody in the audience will notice.