It’s your favorite tap class: The warm-up is over and it’s time to flap-ball-change across the floor. You’ve finally gotten the hang of moving forward when suddenly you’re asked to turn around and go solo for. . . THE PULLBACK. Dread creeps in and your feet cramp in preparation.
You’re not alone! I remember my first experience with pullbacks in Judy Bassing’s class at NYC’s Broadway Dance Center when I was 8 years old. I watched as each person attempted a solo demonstration. Although some dancers struggled at first, each one got better with Judy’s corrections. From this, it was clear: The pullback is possible!
So why is it so hard to master? Maybe because it requires a keen sense of coordination: jumping up, making clean contact with the balls of both feet, and finally, landing without any heel sounds. But since the pullback is the foundation of many other steps, it’s essential to get it right.
The basic two-footed version starts off in parallel, with legs shoulder width apart in plié, heels slightly raised and arms out to the sides. The step produces a total of two sounds caused by simultaneous toe taps only, hitting once on the brushback during takeoff, and then again on contact with the floor upon landing.
Although many tappers have difficulty with the pullback, once you get it, there are many other variations that can enhance your tap repertoire. So read on for the path to pullback perfection!
To begin, keep your weight centered over your toes, with your heels slightly off the ground and knees bent. Extend your arms to the sides, with elbows soft to maintain balance.
Quick Tip: Bounce in this position for a moment to feel your center. Pull up through your midsection, keep your abdominals aligned and think of your belly button moving toward your spine to create a slight crunch. As you bounce, let your back tilt forward slightly without releasing your form. Arms should stay relaxed to the sides, ready to release down in preparation for the upswing.
Common Mistake: Make sure your heels are only slightly off the ground. If you are too far up on relevé, it will be harder to control your movements.
The first sound of a basic pullback occurs on the way up, pulling up through your center, while jumping up and slightly back as your feet brush back on the floor, extending your knees. Make sure to keep the ankles relaxed!
Quick Tip: Find your personal “sweet spot” on the balls of your feet. This is the place on your toe taps at which you are able to get the clearest sound. This will vary for each dancer, and also depends on the type of shoe you wear. If you are having difficulty getting a clean sound, stand in front of a barre and hold on to it with both hands. Practice the takeoff to control your speed.
Common Mistake: Rocking back onto your heels to initiate the takeoff may seem to help, but it can actually force heel-drops and make it difficult to increase speed. A dragging sound is normal at first. Try to relax.
Your landing should be soft, absorbing the impact through your knees and allowing the heels to lower to the ground after landing—without adding an extra sound to the step!
Quick Tip: Keep your weight over your toes and your arms slightly extended to the sides to help control landing. Visualize a little pillow of air underneath each armpit to create a balanced stance while on your way back down. The movement should be smooth, and you should absorb the shock through your knees and then hips, as you return to a slight sitting position at the end of the landing.
Common Mistake: If you let go of your center or drop your arms completely toward the end, you may not be able to control your landing. This is important, especially if you’re moving straight on to another step.
Now that you have all the tools, take on the pullback with confidence. Most likely, you’ll be ready for a fancy single pullback (the same step on one foot!) in no time!
(From left) Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland (all photos by Erin Baiano)
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.
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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?
There's a story Kate Walker, director of dance at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, TX, loves to tell about Emma Sutherland, who just graduated from the program. "We were watching the students run a really long, challenging piece," Walker recalls. "Several kids couldn't quite make it through. But Emma did make it all the way to the end, which is when she walked up to us faculty and very politely asked, 'May I please go throw up?' "