Master proper classical ballet technique with these 5 keys

Hear from Julie Gill, Ballet Coach, on how she teaches the 5 keys to proper ballet technique to dancers of all ages and skill levels.

julie gill private ballet coach in denver

My beautiful and inspiring private coach, Beth Kurtz, inspired, taught, and instilled these lessons in me. She has been teaching them in New York City since 1977 and she has been passing them down to me since 2008. I have continued teaching them to her students and many more dancers since 2015 after an injury left her unable to continue teaching. 

This method consists of 5 keys

  1. Staying in center
  2. Square and level hips
  3. Detached legs and arms
  4. Musicality
  5. Individual practice

In working to master these 5 concepts, the student will also learn to manage hyperextension, properly use their core while dancing, improve turnout and extensions, and build strength and technical understanding to advance to higher levels of achievement.

No matter the level, all dancers must learn these principles. These are not often taught in training programs (and sometimes the opposite is actually taught), but if you study the best dancers, they have all figured these things out one way or another. Whether it was from experimenting in the studio, a wise coach, or observing the pros, these tenants must be discovered.

You'll notice the things that are not on here - stretching, flexibility, pain, and natural ability. These things are not necessary to achieve technical understanding. Now, to be a renowned ballet dancer is another story for another time and requires a separate kind of coaching, experience, and work. But for technique - anyone can achieve it; it's just physics. (And a lot of diligent practice) 

Who can benefit from mastering the 5 keys

For beginner dancers (Even absolute beginners!)

Beginner dancers should begin knowing these concepts. There is no reason to wait in order to explain and instill an understanding. The beginner dancer most likely won't be able to achieve these things for many months while they gain the strength and mobility to do so. But, they can often see the difference if you demonstrate it properly and improperly, and then as they work to gain an early understanding of the steps, will have the right direction conceptually to aim for.

The dancer will need to achieve a certain amount of flexibility, but not in the ways you might think. It is more of mobility that you need, combined with an understanding of where to hold and where to let go. For dancers who do little to no physical activity, this can be difficult in the beginning and must always be gentle.

For intermediate dancers

If you're having trouble achieving intermediate steps, like increasing your extension above 90 degrees, multiple pirouettes, brilliant grand allegro jumps, or faster footwork, it is very likely that some of these early concepts have been missed and must be revisited.

Extension is often an issue of not yet understanding proper turnout, hip placement, and leg detachment to build the strength and placement necessary to move up.

Trouble with multiple pirouettes often comes from not being able to sustain the core throughout the turn, not detaching the arms, or not staying in center. There is also a challenge of collapsing when landing the pirouette, which will present many challenges when moving onto repeated pirouettes or fouettes. Once these concepts are achieved, the multiple turns will become possible.

Brilliant grand allegro jumps require the utmost detachment of the legs in the air so that they have the illusion of flying or bursting up freely to the top of the jump. The core must absolutely be sustained on the landing in order not to collapse or thud, and to be able to move onto the next step.

Not being able to increase the tempo and achieve faster footwork is often an issue of not sustaining the core and turnout on the landings of the jumps. Once collapsed on the landing, getting back up for the next jump is very difficult. It can also be an issue of needing to build more strength in the feet to push off faster and more precisely.

For advanced dancers

Advanced dancers often have the facilities to achieve these concepts, but not the habits or the practice. After explanation during a few lessons, the advanced dancer can make great improvements, however since it will involve breaking many years of habits during complex movements, it requires constant attention and practice, and willingness to feel like you are taking a few steps back before you can leap forward. I have seen the introduction of these concepts take an advanced dancer from doing 1-3 fouettés on their bad side, to ~12 fouettés on that same side, just after 90 minutes of explanation, examples, and application.

It can be difficult to teach this to advanced dancers who have had years of opposite training methods. However, if an advanced dancer is struggling to move forward, you can work with them to understand that if their current ideas are not working, perhaps they should try another. If they hate it, fine, move on. But give it a try. Each dancer must learn from a combination of many different perspectives, teachers, and individual experimentation, taking from each place the things that do and don't work for them. While it can be seen as confusing to be exposed to many schools of thought, a dancer should understand that it is beneficial to try many different ideas. In a world steeped with tradition, dancers must keep an open mind. 

For other dance disciplines

In addition to ballet dancers, gymnasts, Irish dancers, and theater dancers can all benefit from ballet training to strengthen core, understand body movements, turnout, musicality, and grasp basic movement concepts. All of these pillars can greatly improve all types of dancers.

The 5 keys

1. Staying in center

What does it mean?

Hips centered between legs. From 3rd position, your hips will be perfectly centered between your legs. This means not sitting into the standing hip, and not leaning over the working leg.

Why is it important?

It allows you to turn out both legs equally against each other, drop the tailbone down and have level hips (more about this in a moment), and achieve balance and proper technique. If you fall into the standing leg, you'll be unable to achieve turnout and keep the tailbone down.

How to achieve it?

Strong core and turnout both legs equally at the same time, especially focusing on the standing leg. When the standing leg turns in, or the hip bones in the front sag downward (more on hips level below), you will collapse into center and won't be able to achieve maximum turnout or balance. Instead, pull up on the standing leg, level off the hips, and turn out both legs equally against each other. 

2. Square and level hips

What does it mean?

From all angles, front / side / back, the hips must be level and square. This remains true for tendu, degage, coupe, passe, and front/side extensions below 90 degrees. Arabesque is a little different, and the hips must begin to tip forward once the leg is about 6-10 inches off the floor.

Why is it important?

Not only will your tutu remain level, this is critical for achieving balance, strength, and turnout. When the hips are level,

How to achieve it

A big aspect of achieving this a strong core. It's more than a 6-pack, but moreso a combination of dropping the tailbone down (by relaxing, not squeezing) while simultaneously pulling up on the front of the hips. It is from this position that you will be able to stay in center (see above), achieve level hips, and detach the legs and arms (see below). 

3. Detached legs and arms

What does it mean?

When you move your legs or perform a port de bras, this should not disturb the placement of your center, hips, or shoulders. 

Why is it important?

When moving from 2 legs to one, especially on releve or pointe, it is critical to detach the legs and arms as to not throw yourself off of balance.

An example of this when it comes to moving the legs would be a fouetté turn. As the leg moves from the front to the side and into passe, this movement cannot disturb the placement of the hips or where the body is over the standing leg. The hips must remain square and level, and the body must remain in center. The leg can do its work without disturbing that placement if it is detached at the hip. 

An example of this when it comes to the port de bras would be a balance in retire with arms in 1st position, and then port de bras to high 5th. What happens quite often is that the movement of the arms takes the upper back with it, and then pushes the dancer backwards and off of their balance. Instead, move the arms without disturbing the placement of the back by detaching them at the shoulder.

You may be thinking that the concept of epaulment may be in direct conflict with this tenant, but in fact they work in tandem. Detaching the arms can still be achieved, as epaulment comes from lower, and is more of a twist in the spine. This should be initiated in the back and core, and the arms should still be free to move without distorting or pulling the upper body with it.

How to achieve it?

Firm up your core, and picture letting go and releasing inside of the hip and the shoulder. You must keep the rest of your body strong, but then know when and where to release and allow free movement.

4. Musicality

The music is a great tool for a dancer. Not only does it enable the dancer to achieve more artistry, but can also be a tool to use for achieving technique. For example, if the dancer often forgets about her core, she can use the music as a reminder, so that on the count of 4, she will engage her core. Or, if the dancer focuses on arriving at a perfect position on a specific count, this can give the movements a cleaner and more refined quality instead of slowing moving through space and never stopping at one position or another.

It is crucial that the dancer understand and use the music while dancing.

5. Individual practice and study

First, practice makes permanent. It is important that you practice individually many times between lessons. In our private lessons, we can introduce concepts and will work on them together until you understand them enough to work on them on your own. From there, you must work to solidify them in your own technique. Take them to class and apply them to your own exercises.

Second, keep a journal. After each lesson, record exercises that were challenging and the corrections that you received, and take note of corrections that others received in your group classes. Be sure to revisit these as your technique improves. You never know when a correction will be useful for you later. You can't always absorb what your teachers say in the moment, but through study and reflection, these corrections can be useful.

It is through awareness, understanding, practice and mastery of these 5 keys that any dancer or aspiring dancer can achieve proper ballet technique.