Letting Go of the Barre: How to Keep from Falling Apart in Center

Students of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at ABT working at the barre (Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy ABT)

She just retired as a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, but as a teenager, Maria Chapman struggled to gain control of her flexibility. “I looked pretty good at the barre," she says, “but I was relying on it way too much, and focusing exclusively on what my legs and feet were doing." Without the barre's support, she became a wobbly mess. “It wasn't until I figured out how to use my back and core that I was able to be successful in center, too," she says.


If you work well at barre but fall apart in center, chances are there's a hole somewhere in your technique. But it can be hard to figure out exactly what the culprit is. Here's how to pinpoint and fix your bad barre habits so you can stand strong throughout the whole class.

Leaning on the Barre

The barre is like a partner: It's there for you when you need it. But many dancers overuse its support and become dependent. “You see this problem even with professionals," says Cynthia Lucas, artistic director of Marin Ballet in San Rafael, CA. “They're much stronger at barre than in center, and usually it's because they're relying on the barre too much."

To find out if this is your problem, first check your hand position. “Your thumb shouldn't be underneath, but on top," Lucas says. “Your fingers shouldn't be curled around like a claw." Avoid the “death grip"—that tight clench that makes your knuckles turn white. Instead, touch the barre with the pads of your fingertips, as if you're playing the piano. Test your balance every once in a while by lifting your hand off.

If you're having trouble letting go, take time after class to work out your core, which will help stabilize your whole body. Overdependence on the barre can actually weaken those critical core muscles. Franco De Vita, director of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, says Pilates and Gyrotonic classes can be especially helpful.

Standing Incorrectly

It's difficult to move in a balanced, coordinated way in center if your body isn't properly aligned—a flaw the barre can camouflage. “Even though the barre is there, you have to be able to stand up as if you're in the center," Lucas says.

Chapman suggests using the mirror and watching yourself on video to make sure that your shoulders are over your hips and your spine is straight while you're working at the barre. “My back used to shift in all directions," she says. “Once I figured that out, I learned how to control my body." And make sure you're not crowding the barre, which can skew your alignment. To promote proper placement of the arms and shoulders, “there should be one person's distance between you and the barre," Lucas says.

Forcing Your Turnout

You might be able to hold a forced perfect fifth position when you have the barre's support. But you definitely won't be able to hold it in center—and that can lead to all kinds of problems.

Rather than aiming for 180-degree turnout at all times, focus on working with your natural rotation from the beginning of class. “Ninety degrees is enough," De Vita says. “You don't have to push it." Make sure your pinky toes are on the floor and your arches aren't dropped forward. “If you're feeling pressure in your ankles or knees, that's a sign that something is wrong," Chapman says.

If you're used to forcing at the barre and are having trouble finding your natural turnout, Lucas suggests thinking about opposition. “That's how you hold true rotation—by feeling the resistance between right and left, up and down, from the tops of your hips to your feet," she says. “Push into the floor, rotate, engage your back, lock and load."

JKO School students in center (Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy ABT)


Dancer to Dancer
(From left) Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland (all photos by Erin Baiano)

Congratulations to Dance Spirit's 2019 Cover Model Search finalists: Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland! One of them will win a spot on Dance Spirit's Fall 2019 cover. Learn more about the dancers on their profile pages, and then vote for your favorite below. You can vote once a day now through July 15.

We also want you to get social! We'll be factoring social media likes and shares into our final tallies. Be sure to show your favorite finalist some love on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, sharing their profile pages and using the hashtag #DanceSpiritCMS.

Cover Model Search
Photo by Erin Baiano

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?

Keep Reading Show less
Cover Story
Amblin Entertainment

Steven Spielberg's much-anticipated remake of West Side Storychoreographed by Justin Peck, and starring a bevy of very good dancers—is in production, hooray! And that means it's finally time for us to get a look at the film's cast members in character. Let's break down the first photo from the project.

Keep Reading Show less
Dance News

Video

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Giveaways