Oregon Ballet Theatre's Jacquline Straughan (with Brian Simcoe) showing off her beautiful épaulement in Swan Lake (photo by Jingzi Zhao, courtesy OBT)

Why Épaulement Is So Important—and How to Develop It

It's in Odette's gracefully arched neck, the Lilac Fairy's regal bearing, even a contemporary dancer's extreme lines. The "it" in question? Épaulement—the nuanced positioning of the head, shoulders, and neck. Using your épaulement (which translates, literally, as "shouldering") does more than make your dancing prettier: It makes it better, richer, and more artistic. But achieving effortless épaulement is easier said than done, especially since technique classes tend to focus on the legs and feet.

Identifying Épaulement

Épaulement goes beyond the head and neck. "It's everything from your ribs, to your shoulders, to your arms, to your head tilt," says Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer Jacqueline Straughan. "It's vital to think of all those parts working together."

Just like the height of the leg, the degree of your épaulement can vary. In the Vaganova method, for example, "you can have basic croisé, little pose croisé, or big pose croisé, and small arms épaulement or big arms épaulement," says Kirov Academy of Ballet teacher Anastasia Dunets. You can also tailor these positions further depending on the role you might be playing. Juliet's open, expansive épaulement is very different from Kitri's sharp angles.

More Than the Icing on the Cake

Épaulement is subtle, which can lead dancers to mistakenly think of it as a finishing touch—something to add onstage, not to focus on during class. But Jenifer Ringer, former New York City Ballet principal dancer and now director of the Colburn Dance Academy in L.A., urges otherwise: "Épaulement can go such a long way in increasing your coordination and ability to accomplish certain steps." Straughan agrees. "The head is a substantial weight," she says. "When it's placed correctly over the supporting side, it helps with something as simple as a transition step." For example, if you're standing in B-plus about to launch into grand allégro, you'll be able to move more freely and quickly if your head's weight is helping with the impetus, rather than staying stiffly perched.

Think of your épaulement as movement rather than a static shape. Straughan notes that if you just tilt your neck and leave it there without letting the position move and adjust to what's going on underneath, you'll get tension, awkward angles, and cramping.

Straughan and Peter Franc in Nicolo Fonte's "Giants Before Us" (photo by Yi Yin, courtesy OBT)

Feel, Don't See

If you rely on the mirror to see if your head is complementing your line, you'll have difficulty reproducing the movement onstage. "Épaulement has to be a part of your dancing, so that when you get into a high-pressure situation, you can rely on the body mechanics that you've already built," Ringer says.

Internalizing correct upper-body movement also means knowing which muscles to engage. Strengthening your lats and upper abdominals will help you find more space and freedom to use your épaulement. Straughan suggests yoga, arm resistance exercises with a Thera-Band, or even some light weight-lifting to help trigger your lats and other upper-torso muscles.

Now Dance!

We all have bad days—those classes where nothing seems to be working technically. It's times like these when using your épaulement is especially important. "You're here to dance," says Ringer. "A lot of times just remembering your épaulement brings everything back into focus."

Even if you've nailed triple pirouettes and can jump like you're on a springboard, impressive pyrotechnics alone don't cut it in the dance world. "At the end of the day, we're not gymnasts, we're dancers," Ringer says. "We're creating art, and it should be beautiful and expressive. So much of that comes from épaulement."

A version of this story appeared in the April 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Get Your Head (and Shoulders) In The Game."

Latest Posts

Viktorina Kapitonova in "Swan Lake Bath Ballet" (photo by Ryan Capstick, courtesy Corey Baker Dance)

Please Enjoy the Quarantine Genius of “Swan Lake Bath Ballet”

That old saying about limitations breeding creativity—hat tip to Orson Welles—has never felt more relevant than in these lockdown days. Here's the latest brilliant dance project born (hatched?) of quarantine restrictions: "Swan Lake Bath Ballet," a contemporary take on the classic featuring 27 A-list ballet dancers performing from their own bathtubs.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Project 21 dancers (from left) Selena Hamilton, Gracyn French, and Dyllan Blackburn (Photo by Quinn Wharton; hair and makeup throughout by Angela Huff for Mark Edward Inc.)

How Project 21 Is Shaping the Next Generation of Competition-Dance Standouts

"I wish I had a better story about the name," says Molly Long, founder of the Orange County, CA–based dance studio Project 21. In truth, it's a play on the fact that she was born on the twenty-first of August, and 21 is her favorite number. "I was away on a teaching tour, the audition announcement was going live on Instagram the next day, and I desperately needed a name. Project 21 was just the least cheesy of the options I thought of!"

The fact that fans might expect the name to have some profound meaning speaks to the near-mythic status Project 21 has achieved on the competition and convention scene since its founding in 2014. Long's dancers are all wholly individual, yet jell seamlessly as a group, and are consistently snagging top prizes everywhere on the circuit. Each season brings a slew of new accolades, high-caliber faculty, and legions of devoted followers.

The industry has taken notice of the studio's unique ethos. "Molly gets through to her dancers in a special way, and they have this incomparable level of commitment to their craft as a result," says dancer and choreographer Billy Bell, who's worked closely with Long and her dancers. "That's what sets them apart—it's like a little dose of magic."

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

Enter the Cover Model Search