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March 2, 2017

The Pursuit of Perfection

I heard a comment once from a young dancer after ballet class. Her mom asked her how class went and her reply was “Oh, I already know everything we did.” A professional at the age of 8? No, this youngster was simply unaware that dancers refine their movements over a lifetime of study. The steps you learn when you are young are the same steps you use as an advanced or even professional dancer. With each year of study, more technique is added and more refinement and all the details that begin to turn a dance step into a beautiful story.

I attended a lecture in England 20 years ago given by the (then) top ranked ballroom dance couple in the world. They had been reigning champs for 17 years and knighted by the Queen. As they lectured to elite dancers from all over the world, they demonstrated basic technique. It looked flawless. Breath-taking. Sheer perfection. The comment that stayed with me all these years was “We feel we have just scratched the surface of technique; we have so much more to learn.”

Ballet dancers feel the same. Dance is an art form. Just like in any art form, the pursuit of perfection lasts a lifetime.

Let’s take plié as an example. It means “to bend” in French. The tiniest dancers learn this word and associate it with a knee bend that makes a diamond shape. As they get old enough to use the ballet barre, dancers learn this is the first warm-up exercise. Then they learn plié is one of the seven main movements of Ballet and part of most steps.

Here are some of the technical points that are developed throughout the years of study:

  • Maintaining proper body placement while moving the top to the bottom of the movement and back up again
  • Maintaining turnout from the hips
  • Using resistance throughout the movement
  • Learning plié is a movement and not a position
  • Keeping heels pushing into the floor on demi-plié
  • Keeping heels on the floor in grand plié (2nd position only)
  • Pushing into the floor to rise out of plié
  • Correct positioning of the feet (not over or under crossing)
  • Distributing weight over all 5 toes without rolling in or out
  • Equal turnout on both legs
  • Adding the arms to the movement (correct positions of the arms, the elbow always pushing forward or up/the hand down or back, shoulders pulled down, adding the correct head movement to the arm movement, smooth transition of the arms from position to position, correct hold on the barre-slightly forward and light grip)
  • Using plié at the barre as a way to warm-up the body
  • Using plié in the center as a connecting movement
  • Using plié as the vital preparation and end to every type of jump (while maintaining all the other technical points)

It’s a lot to take in. All of the above points are supposed to become fluid and effortless so that emotion, intent, and focus can be added to make the movement tell a story. And let’s not forget that this story is told to music. Musicality must also be developed.

You can help your dancer by noticing the nuances they develop. Watch as their posture improves and their movements become more fluid. See the skills they learn. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of encouragement to acquire grace and poise.

When does a pianist stop practicing scales? The answer is never. There will always be another nuance that can be added to make the sound richer, more fluid, faster, lighter, stronger. When does a pitcher stop practicing his throws? When does a dancer stop practicing plié, tendu, rond de jambe, arabesque?               You get the point.

Dancingly yours,

Ms. Mary Ann