When done well, a serene penchée can be magical. But while it's meant to look effortless, the extended arabesque is deceptively difficult to master, requiring control, strength and flexibility. DS talked to three professionals about the most common penchée problems—and how to avoid them.
New York City Ballet's Ashely Hod shows off her pristine penchée (photo by Jayme Thornton)
It's easy to fall out of a penchée, especially when you're wearing pointe shoes, which make it difficult to feel the floor. Achieving stability starts with good placement. To avoid falling backward, “you need to have your weight right over the ball of your supporting foot," says Karen Gabay, artistic associate and ballet master at Ballet San Jose.
As you lift your working leg, spread the toes of your supporting foot inside your shoe and engage your core, which will help you fight the wiggles. Gabay also suggests focusing your gaze out rather than staring at the floor, which can be disorienting. Have that “past your fingertips" feeling.
Dropping Your Back
If you pitch forward and drop your upper back as you penchée, you'll ruin the step's elegant line. Jessica Collado, a first soloist at Houston Ballet, thinks of leading with her leg to maintain the correct shape. “If you think of your leg pushing you forward while you resist with your upper body, you'll never get into a funky 'plank' position," she says. On the way back up, Collado does the reverse: She leads with her shoulder blades, resisting against them with her lifted leg.
Forgetting About Your Arms
Many dancers are so focused on the height of the leg that they ignore their port de bras. But poorly held arms can ruin your line and jeopardize your stability—especially the often-forgotten back arm. Gabay suggests picturing a partner supporting your back wrist as you move into the penchée to keep the arm from dropping too low or getting too far behind you.
Focusing on stretching both arms outward will create a feeling of opposition, which will in turn help steady you. “I like to think about sending energy out through my fingertips," says Miami City Ballet principal Tricia Albertson. “It puts me right in the center of my balance."
Sitting in Your Standing Leg
Shifting your weight back into your standing leg and hip might give you an extra inch or two of height in your penchée, but it's also a recipe for disaster. “The second you rock back on your heel and stick your bottom out, you'll start to lose control," Collado warns. Instead, think about lifting up on your supporting side and keeping your weight over your toes as you lean forward.
Opening Your Hip
This is another penchée no-no that, in theory, allows you more height and stretch. But distorting your line can actually make your penchée look less impressive. “Don't sacrifice your position just to get the leg up," Gabay says. “The key to creating the illusion of a deep penchée is to maintain a high-quality line"—which will let the audience see every millimeter of your true extension. Gabay recommends imagining a connection between your back toe and the opposing shoulder to keep your hips square.
Penchée Polishers: Three exercises that will help improve your penchée
“The Sphinx": Lie on your stomach with your legs stretched behind you. Prop yourself up on your elbows, with your palms flat on the floor, engaging your back and abdominal muscles. Keeping your palms and hips on the floor, do a series of slow “push-ups," lowering and raising your chest. “When you're at the top, look at the ceiling, take a deep breath, and imagine your hips dropping down," says Karen Gabay, artistic associate and ballet master at Ballet San Jose. “That lengthening will give you a more
Back-Ups: Lie on your stomach and lock your hands behind your head. Lift your upper body off the floor. Rock forward, lifting your legs; then rock backward, returning your legs to the floor and lifting your chest again. “Continue to rock back and forth in that position, feeling the connection between your back and your pelvis," says Miami City Ballet principal Tricia Albertson. You'll build strength in
your back and hamstrings.
Wall Assist: Albertson also likes to do penchées against a wall, positioning her supporting foot a few inches away from the baseboard. “I put my hands on the floor and lift my leg slightly off the wall, 10 times," she says. “It activates the muscles I'll need to hold
the position, and keeps me from sitting back in my standing leg."
(From left) Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland (all photos by Erin Baiano)
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Isabella Boylston in "The Bright Stream" (Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy American Ballet Theatre)
Beloved by ballet fans for her lucid technique and onstage effervescence, by her Instagram followers for the deftly curated photos and videos she shares of her glamorous life, and by fangirl Jennifer Garner for all of the above, American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston is one of the rare ballet stars who's achieved mainstream fame. A native of Sun Valley, ID, Boylston trained at the Academy of Colorado Ballet and the Harid Conservatory before joining the ABT Studio Company in 2005. She entered the main company as an apprentice in 2006, and attained principal status in 2014. In addition to her successes with ABT, where she dances nearly every major ballerina role, Boylston has served as artistic director of the annual Ballet Sun Valley Festival, which brings high-level performances and classes to her hometown. And speaking of famous Jennifers: Boylston recently appeared as Jennifer Lawrence's dance double in the film Red Sparrow. Catch her onstage with ABT as Manon, Odette/Odile, and Princess Aurora during the company's Metropolitan Opera House season this summer in NYC. —Margaret Fuhrer