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."

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Hi, dance friends. It is a strange time to be a person in the world, and an especially strange time to be a dancer. As the dance community faces the coronavirus crisis, a lot of you are coping with closed studios, canceled performances and competitions, and a general sense of anxiety about how your world will look going forward.

Yes, dancers are super resilient, and there's been a lot of inspiring community-building happening. #LivingRoomDances and Instagram dance parties and virtual ballet classes with the pros are wonderful. Dance can, and should, be a bright spot in the darkness. But that weird, empty feeling you have? It might be grief. The loss of the certainty of daily class, the loss of the promise of that big end-of-year performance—that's real. The dance studio has always been a safe place; it's especially hard not to have that outlet now, when you need it most.

We're here for you. We—and our friends at Dance Magazine, Pointe, Dance Teacher, The Dance Edit, and Dance Business Weekly—are doing our best to document the hurdles facing the dance industry, and to advocate for dancers in need. We're developing more online content that will help you maintain and improve your technique while you're at home, and process the mental and emotional fallout of all this upheaval. (You can keep up with the latest stories here.) And we're still making our print magazine. We have issues planned and shot, full of great dance stories and beautiful photos. We're not going anywhere.

We want to hear from you. Talk to us. Or dance to us. Or both. We won't stop moving, and you shouldn't, either.

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