Lindsi Dec in Kyon Gaines' M-Pulse (by Angela Sterling)
You’re at the ballet, and a dancer catches your eye. She’s got strength, charisma and a beautiful movement quality—but there’s something about her that bothers you. Then you place it: Her hands! Her wrists are floppy and her fingers stick out all over the place. Small as they may be, those bad hand habits change the whole feel of her dancing.
The way you use your hands in ballet can make or break your line. The cardinal rule—hands should enhance your dancing, not distract from it—is simple enough. But getting just the right look can be tricky. Read on to learn about how different techniques use the hands, and how you can overcome the most common bad habits.
George Balanchine trained his dancers to have rounded and delicate hands. “He would have people hold a little ball so that the palm of the hand would round rather than stay flat,” says Kay Mazzo, co-chairman of faculty at the School of American Ballet. “When the fingers opened from the ball, he wanted them to open like a flower.” In the Balanchine style, all five fingers should be seen, not stuck together, and never held straight or stiff. There should be energy coming from the fingertips and life throughout the hands. In arabesque, stretch your fingers to the limit and elongate your line.
In the Vaganova style, the hands are placed so they follow the natural line of the arm. “The thumbs should be curved and softly touching the second joint, not the first joint, of the middle finger,” says Martin Fredmann, artistic director of the Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C. “The fingers should be separated but not all spread out. It’s a beautification of what’s natural, not an exaggeration.” Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) follows a similar model, but prefers a long line from the shoulder to the fingers, with no broken wrist. Cecchetti teachers prefer curved fingers in demi-seconde, as if you’re holding the edge of your tutu.
Albertson and Bramaz in In the Night (by Linda Hervieux)
All of the styles agree on one point: The hands should be expressive. “Most students forget there’s something beyond the wrist,” Mazzo says. “Always think of your hands as alive.”
Most ballet dancers have had to overcome some kind of bad hand habit. Getting your hands right can take just as much time and effort as getting your pirouettes right. Lindsi Dec, a soloist with Pacific Northwest Ballet, says her hands are a constant struggle for her. “I have one hand that’s more tense than the other, so it looks like a pancake,” she admits. “It’s hard for me to think about relaxing it and being strong in my legs simultaneously.” She focuses on initiating her arm movements from her back, not her fingers, to ease the tension in her hands.
Sometimes a little thing like nail polish can help make you more aware of your hands. When Dec first joined PNB, she even borrowed then-principal dancer Patricia Barker’s rings to wear for class. “They helped me think about my hands a bit more in center,” she says. If you don’t want to wear jewelry or paint your nails, imagine a tingling sensation in your fingertips, which will help you remain conscious of them.
Tricia Albertson, a principal with Miami City Ballet, struggles with another common problem: floppy wrists. “I have to work hard to think of my hand as an extension of my arm,” she says, “so that every line finishes with the fingertips.” She’ll often go through a variation marking the legs but doing the arms full-out, concentrating on maintaining the line of her arm through her wrists and fingers. To avoid flapping her hands during fast steps, like petit allégro, she’ll try moving her arms and legs at different tempos. “I half-time my arms so my wrists don’t respond to the jolt of each jump,” she says.
The best way to develop good hands is to be aware of how you’re using them right from the beginning. “Even when you’re starting your preparation at the barre, think about how you’re holding your fingers,” Mazzo says. “It doesn’t come automatically”—but it will, with practice.
(From left) Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland (all photos by Erin Baiano)
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Imagine attending American Ballet Theatre's prestigious NYC summer intensive, training among classical ballet legends. Imagine taking the stage at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals, competing against some of the country's best contemporary dancers. Now, imagine doing both—at the same time.
Welcome to Madison Brown's world. This summer, she's in her third year as a National Training Scholar with ABT, while also competing for NYCDA's Teen Outstanding Dancer title. (She's already won Outstanding Dancer in the Mini and Junior categories.) The logistics are complicated—ABT's five-week intensive overlaps with the weeklong NYCDA Nationals, which translates to a lot of cabs back and forth across Manhattan—but Maddie is committed to making the most of each opportunity. "I love contemporary and ballet equally," she says. "While I'm able to do both, I want to do as much as I can."
Maddie has an expressive face, endless extensions, and a quiet command of the stage. She dances with remarkable maturity—a trait noted by none other than Jennifer Lopez, one of the judges on NBC's "World of Dance," on which Maddie competed in Season 2. Although Maddie didn't take home the show's top prize, she was proud to be the youngest remaining soloist when she was eliminated, and saw the whole experience as an opportunity to grow. After all, she's just getting started. Oh, that's right—did we mention Maddie's only 14?
There's a story Kate Walker, director of dance at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, TX, loves to tell about Emma Sutherland, who just graduated from the program. "We were watching the students run a really long, challenging piece," Walker recalls. "Several kids couldn't quite make it through. But Emma did make it all the way to the end, which is when she walked up to us faculty and very politely asked, 'May I please go throw up?' "