Few things are as beautiful as a seamlessly executed grand rond de jambe: There's something majestic about the high arc of the leg from front to side to back (or vice versa). But many pitfalls line the road to effortless grands ronds, especially in the tricky side-to-back and back-to-side transitions. How can you make this difficult step feel as free as it looks?
Understand the Fundamentals
If you're having trouble with grand rond de jambe, step back from the barre and think about the step abstractly. Darla Hoover of NYC's Ballet Academy East and Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet has her students try a grand rond with their arms—a much simpler prospect than supporting the heavy weight of their legs in the air. She asks them to carry an extended arm from front to side, with their palms facing the ceiling, and then from side to back, keeping their palms up. “Your arm doesn't 'turn over' as you go from the side to the back, and that's exactly the feeling you want to achieve with your leg," Hoover says. Next, try a rond de jambe with your leg at 45 degrees. At that lower height, it's easier to preserve your turnout and push through the “hitch" that sometimes happens between à la seconde and arabesque. Imagine the underside of your foot as the equivalent of your palm in the arm exercise. “Think about leading with your heel and pointed foot," says Houston Ballet soloist Allison Miller.
In fact, you can prepare for grand rond de jambe from the very beginning of barre. Dmitri Kulev's students at the Dmitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy in Laguna Hills, CA, first learn the feeling of preserving turnout without “turning over" during tendu exercises. “I tell dancers to think of creating opposing spirals from both hips, so they're rotating the legs evenly, especially from side to back," Kulev says. “And we stress avoiding pronation in the supporting foot, which makes the entire supporting leg turn in."
Courtesy Ballet Academy East
It's Hip to Be Square
As you work up to grand rond de jambe at 90 degrees and above, resist the urge to go for your maximum height immediately. To create a beautiful sweeping arc, your leg should rise slightly with each change of direction—but not if that requires distorting your hips and shoulders. As Miller says, “If your body isn't in a classical shape, the leg's height doesn't matter." Avoid tipping your pelvis forward or back, lifting the working hip or twisting the standing leg to achieve height.
It's counterintuitive, but the key to staying square as your working leg gets above 90 degrees is actually your standing leg. Try this: Put your weight well over the ball of your foot as you do a grand rond de jambe. As your leg goes from front to side, strongly engage the supporting leg's turnout muscles. Keep rotating both legs away from each other as you move towards arabesque. You'll find your working leg feels freer when your supporting side is well grounded.
A strong core—the secret to so much of ballet technique—is also critical to properly supporting your leg in grand rond de jambe. Bracing your stomach muscles will keep you from gripping your hip flexors, which will allow your leg to move more smoothly from one position to the next and your pelvis to remain square.
You Can Do More Than You Think
Everyone's hip joints are different, but many dancers who think they're too stiff in the hips to execute an effortless grand rond de jambe actually have plenty of range. Most of the time, hitching through transitions happens not because of a lack of flexibility but because of a lack of strength. Hoover likes to get hands-on to show her students just how much range they have: She'll have them stand up perfectly straight, hold their leg in her hands and guide it around in grand rond de jambe. “When I'm supporting the whole weight of their leg, they can feel it traveling correctly and see the potential in their body," she says. “They'll say, 'Wow, my leg really can do that!' "
Ask a teacher or friend to try Hoover's experiment with you. If you find that your leg glides around easily when someone else is supporting it, focus on strengthening your inner thighs and hamstrings. Once your leg is well supported from underneath, rather than restricted by the gripping of your quads and hip flexors, a seamless grand rond de jambe will become much more attainable.