A teen jazz class at Broadway Dance Center in NYC practices balancing.
Nothing makes an audience go wild like a fierce pirouette sequence, and great jazz performers can make countless turns look effortless. But turning isn’t easy. Chances are you’re always working on improving your pirouettes—nailing that extra rotation or mastering a new tricky turn. Here, DS gives you the inside scoop on four types of pirouettes you’re likely to see in jazz class.
Basic Jazz Pirouette (Parallel Retiré)
For a jazz dancer, this turn is probably the first to come to mind when hearing the word “pirouette.” “The obvious difference between a jazz turn and a ballet pirouette is that in jazz we’re working in a parallel position,” says Ray Leeper, choreographer and executive director of NUVO dance convention. Another key difference is the preparation: While ballerinas prep for pirouettes in a turned-out fourth- or fifth-position plié, jazz technique usually calls for a preparation in fourth-position parallel. “But the execution once you start to turn is almost exactly the same,” Leeper says.
To master the foundations of a basic pirouette, Kent Boyd, commercial dancer and “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 7 finalist, recommends working on going from a preparation position to a retiré balance in relevé. “Try to hold the relevé position for a whole eight-count,” he says. Nan Giordano, artistic director of Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, includes a similar exercise in most of her beginning jazz classes, progressing from quarter to half to full pirouettes. “Once you master the mechanics of turning, it’s just a matter of how many rotations you can complete while maintaining that passé position,” she says. But don’t get so focused on getting in an extra spin or two that you forget about technique. It’s always better to pull off a clean double pirouette than a sloppy triple or quadruple.
Turn with an Extended Leg
Pirouettes in arabesque, attitude or à la seconde are especially popular in lyrical and contemporary jazz styles and showcase a dancer’s extensions. Turns with an extended leg are tricky, since part of your weight is farther away from your center, making it more difficult to stay on balance. Just like a pirouette in retiré, you should practice balancing in the position of your turn before adding rotations. “Really pull up out of your standing leg,” Boyd says. That engaged and lifted feeling will help keep you from teetering toward the extended leg. “No matter where the working leg is—in passé or extended—the engagement should be the same,” says Leeper. “Keep the weight of the shoulders in front of the hips, lift up in the waist and keep the tailbone long.”
Struggling with that double attitude or arabesque turn? Try speeding up your spot. Whipping your head around quickly makes multiple rotations possible by counteracting the effect of an extended leg slowing down your turn.
Seen in high-energy jazz and Broadway routines, pencil turns (also called compass turns) are executed with the non-standing leg pointed down toward the floor, with the foot hovering off the ground as you turn. To make this pirouette look polished and precise, pay attention to the step’s name—both legs should be straight as a pencil and (unless the choreographer instructs otherwise) your non-standing foot should be completely pointed. Unlike an extended-leg turn, a pencil turn is conducive to fast, multiple turns because your weight is concentrated over the center of your body. To avoid spinning too quickly and falling off balance, Giordano advises focusing on your arms. “Everyone forgets the arms when they concentrate on spinning quickly,” she says. “Feel your arms connected to your back right away.” When the upper and lower body work together, pencil turns look impressive and feel like a breeze.
In a ballet class, turns in the direction of the supporting side are called pirouettes en dedans, but in jazz they’re known simply as inside turns. Both retiré pirouettes and extension turns are frequently done to the inside. Pay close attention to your preparation when working on these turns. “Watch what your upper body is doing in the prep,” Giordano says. A pitfall for many dancers is twisting the waist and arms to one side to gain extra momentum. “When you ‘wind up’ you throw yourself off center,” Giordano cautions.
When it comes to pirouettes, there are no shortcuts to turning like a pro. Keep up with your jazz technique classes, but don’t be tempted to skip out on ballet. Giordano says applying your ballet corrections to jazz turns is essential. “Too many aspiring jazz dancers think they don’t need to take ballet, but good pirouettes come from the technique you build in a classical ballet class,” she says. Although they are part of a jazz company, Giordano’s dancers prepare for every performance with a full ballet barre. “In ballet,” she says, “you learn how to be centered over your leg and gain the strength in the core, back and arms—all essential components of a great pirouette.”