Anyone who's browsed this site for a while might have noticed relatively-frequent references to "barre" exercises. These are, of course, not the same as "bar" exercises, which typically involve the transfer of liquid intoxicants.
Definition: The barre is a wooden pole affixed horizontally to a (usually mirrored) wall and used for stability during basic technique training, warmups, and exercises in theatrical dance classes.
The ballet class always starts at the barre. And what happens there? In ballet, dancers move through a series of actions which are, to ballet, as words are to spoken vocabulary. These actions involve plié, relevé, arabesque, and attitude positions - among others, but these are the ones I'll focus on here.
- A plié is, basically, a squat: lowering the body straight down as the knees bend. It is done in all of the basic foot positions of ballet. A ballroom dancer, who does not need to use advanced degrees of turnout, might not choose to employ all positions; but doing these exercises correctly and mindfully is just as good for any dancer's body as it is for the ballet dancer.
- A relevé is a lift onto the balls of the feet. It again is done in all of the basic foot positions.
- An arabesque is an extension of a leg behind the body. It is generally done from first or fifth positions.
- An attitude is an extension of a leg in front of the body. It is generally done from first or fifth positions.
- In first position, the heels are together and thighs turned out so that the toes point away from the body's center line. An advanced ballet dancer will have turnout of between 50 and 90 degrees. (A ballroom dancer can be satisfied with 30-45 degrees, as there is no benefit to ballroom dancers from more turnout than that, and in fact it can destabilize your movements and create unattractive lines. Don't train your body to automatically default to an action that is not going to serve your dancing!) The turnout must happen from the thighs. In fifth position, the toe of one foot is behind the heel of the other foot, with the same degree of turnout as achieved in first position.
Ballet class (which many professional dancers take daily throughout their careers) is, at a certain point, not about "learning" these actions but about keeping them fresh in the body. The purpose of doing barre exercises is to keep the body perfectly in tune to generate the movements required by the dance. How, exactly, is this benefit conferred?
- A series of plié exercises strengthens the entire kinetic chain of foot, leg, hip, and core. Done mindfully, the plié series develops a habit of correct body mechanics that protect the joints (including the vulnerable knee) by recruiting the optimal teams of muscles to generate and decelerate the forces of movement.
- A series of relevé exercises strengthens, in particular, the foot and ankle assemblies, enabling the dancer to better control their balance, and to more accurately direct their movements. Holding a balance in relevé also strengthens the core, and particularly the muscles of the pelvic floor.
- A series of arabesque exercises improves the flexibility and strength of the hip, back, shoulder, and neck (because the correct posture for an arabesque is an upright posture), and strengthens the buttock and thigh (hip extensor) muscles.
- A series of attitude exercises improves the flexibility and strength of the hip, back, and trunk, particularly the deep abdominals, as well as strengthening the thigh (hip flexor) muscles.
All this wonderful benefit from a practice that can take as little as ten minutes! It's my belief that a regular barre practice is one of the factors that enables me to dance as freely as I can.
Please note: I do not have an actual barre. I use the kitchen counter.
My personal practice includes the following barre exercises.
- Developpé from attitude in first position. Standing in first position, perpendicular to the barre, bring one leg up to hip height straight in front of hip, contract front of thigh to lock knee, turning out thigh to 30+ degrees; holding the leg up with the abs, bend and straighten the knee ten times. Repeat on other side.
- Extension to attitude in first position. Standing in first position, perpendicular to the barre, bring one leg up to hip height straight in front of hip, contract front of thigh to lock knee, turning out thigh to 30+ degrees; raise and lower the straight leg, pausing at hip height for 2-3 seconds before lowering, ten times. Repeat on other side.
- Extension to the side in first position. Standing in first position, facing the barre, shift weight to left foot and point right foot, turning out thigh to 30+ degrees; raise right leg to hip height and lower; ten repetitions, then change sides.
- Extension to arabesque in first position. Standing in first position, perpendicular to the barre, shift weight to foot closest to barre and release other foot, pointing it to the back. Straighten working leg and lift as high as possible without tipping the body forward. Raise and lower ten times, then turn around and work other side.
- Demi-plié and relevé in second position. Standing facing the barre with feet shoulder-width apart and thighs turned out, lower the body straight down between the knees just to the point that knees are over the toes, then straighten legs and continue pushing through the balls of the feet to relevé. Repeat ten times. ("demi" means "half." This is a good goal to shoot for; anything deeper and you need a coach. Really. You do.)
Tips and Tricks:
You should take your plié only to the depth that you can achieve with your knees and toes lined up and with your heels on the ground. When your heels start to come up, you are exceeding the extensibility of your Achilles tendon. Quit it.
Why? It's good to increase extensibility if you can - but that should be addressed separately.
The turnout of your toes should be taken only to the point that you can keep your knees and toes lined up. If your knee is inside your toes, you need to bring your toes closer to your body's center line. This is something to work on, but turnout is properly achieved by rotating the thigh to the outside, not by forcing your feet into a duck-walking position.
When lifting a leg into an extension, always lift from the heel. Really. Stand there and release a foot and point the toe forward, contracting the thigh muscles to lock the knee. Now lift the heel. Imagine there is a string attached to the inside of the heel, and pull that string up. This is going to force your leg to rotate out, giving you your "natural" degree of turnout. Keep the heel lifted as you raise the leg and magical things will happen to the shape - and function - of your leg muscles.
"Hip height" above indicates where *I* take the leg. If you are just starting a barre practice you might not be able to get here, or you might not be able to get that high more than once. Find a height that you can lift to with good technique: body stable, not clutching the barre (or countertop), no bending or tipping, and do ten reps at that height. Work your way up to ten reps at hip height. This takes more strength than some might think; why else would pro dancers do it every day?
It also takes extensibility, which needs to be developed by other means than just kicking as high as you can. That way lies, if not madness, at least a very strong likelihood of tearing a tendon.
DO NOT lean forward to the barre in plié. If you are leaning forward, you are taking your weight out of alignment. Go down only as far as you can go with a perfect, vertical posture.
DO let your back arch in arabesque. Keep your lower abs engaged to protect the spine, but if you can keep your trunk upright while lifting the foot up from the back, go ahead and let the spine arch to allow your foot to go higher. DO NOT tip forward. If you tip the body forward as your back leg comes up, what is actually happening is that you are stretching the hamstrings of the standing leg, NOT using the working leg.
Turnout in arabesque will allow your back foot to come up higher, especially if you allow your hip to open. By that I mean, the pelvis can actually rotate to release the working thigh to a greater height. It is not required to keep the pelvis squared to the front in arabesque, and doing so will limit your foot height.
Turnout was created specifically to lengthen the visual line of the leg. Using turnout correctly presents the top of the foot to the audience when the leg is lifted, making the foot an extension of the leg. Without turnout, a dancer presents the side of the foot to the audience, showing them a clunky little club at the end of the otherwise graceful leg.
The same principle applies in ballroom when we use the "inside edge" of the foot. It creates visual continuity of the leg line, as well as providing some of the unique leverage that we use in ballroom dancing. But that's a whole 'nother 1500 words!