It’s the end of the variation and you’ve just finished two minutes of jumping and turning that would make even a ballet superstar collapse from fatigue. But before you can take your bow and bask in the audience’s applause, you must do one final movement. Only this one requires you to jump and turn in the air at the same time: the dreaded double tour en l’air.
Even if you’ve never done this step, there’s no doubt you’ve seen it. Usually initiated from a fifth position, the male dancer pliés, presses off the floor, does two tight rotations in the air and changements—all before the audience has had the chance to blink. From Giselle to Theme and Variations, this step is classical ballet's equivalent to a period at the end of a sentence.
Why then does this common jump create so many problems for male dancers? Probably because it uses every inch of the body and requires coordination, power and even a dash of personality: There’s a lot to think about while spinning in the air!
Building the Base
No need to get overwhelmed. Instead, start with your foundation. Just like a rocket, a double tour cannot blast off without a solid base to launch from. No matter what position you’re going to end in—whether on the knee, in arabesque or on your head for that matter—the key to unlocking freedom in the air starts on the ground.
When I joined American Ballet Theatre, I analyzed the technical wizards around me who had successfully tackled the tour. One thing remained constant—the men with the tightest position in the air and the most solid landing took off from the cleanest fifth position.
While pliéing before a tour, keep the body lined up from shoulders, to hips, to feet. If there is too much weight on one foot or the other, you will have an uneven takeoff, sending you on a diagonal, rather than straight up. Likewise, if you hinge at the waist while in the plié or let your upper body dip forward, you’ll have further to go in order to achieve the correct position in the air.
One thing dancers often forget in a step as difficult as a double tour is to breathe through the preparation. As with any jump, the plié preparation should be as spongy as possible while maintaining the integrity of the position. Sometimes it even helps to let out an audible breath before the jump begins; a release of energy before the gathering of energy in the air.
The setup should take place en face, or facing front. Many men end up turning the body to effacé while in the plié in an effort to start the rotation while still on the ground. That’s cheating! Instead, think of preparing croisé and chances are you’ll end up en face.
Up, Up And Away
Once a solid preparation is established, it’s time to begin coordinating the relationship between takeoff and the position in the jump.
A turn in the air requires you to free up your spot and have a strong position with your arms, just like a turn on the ground. While the arms can be anywhere a choreographer dreams up, a simple first position is most common in the classroom.
Even though this position is thought to be a very round one a little above the navel, a double tour often requires closing the arms slightly to help keep the center of rotation tight. The exact position will differ dancer to dancer, but regardless of whether you over-cross your arms (if they are particularly long), keep the shoulders open.
Because of the speed of a double tour, it’s essential to get to the position in the air as quickly as possible. This includes initiating the spot immediately, switching the feet at the beginning of the jump—helping the energy turn in the air—and bringing the arms into a secure position. This must all happen simultaneously. Don’t jump straight up and then turn, because by the time you start rotating you’ll already be on your way back down!
As for your legs, make sure to keep the position crossed as in a soubresaut. From the moment you press off the ground, scoop the feet under and think of energy extending from the top of your hip to your toenails. Even though you’ll want to anticipate the landing, don’t bend your legs too soon or the classical look will disappear.
As soon as you land in fifth, it’s time to inject a little personality! Open the arms, palms up, to second position. You can even smile! Don’t be afraid to let out a breath and sink into a well-placed fifth-position plié that’s as luscious as when you began.
The most important thing to remember is to not get discouraged. I struggled for years with double tours and had many days when it seemed impossible to just jump straight up! At times like this, it’s best to take a breath and go back to the basics. Start by doing changements, then quarter turns, then half turns, single tours and ultimately the double, building confidence along the way.
With thoughtful practice, you’ll soon be executing clean doubles. You might even be like Julio Bocca, who I watched execute triple tours on stage in front of thousands. Then you’ll really have an excuse to be tired at the end of a variation!