There is something mesmerizing about a dancer catapulting themselves onto one leg and turning two, three, five, or ten times. It’s sensational, yet not terribly rare. Ballet companies across the board expect dancers to have no trouble whipping out three or more pirouettes in class and onstage. Youtube videos of students facing off in pirouette contests, or prima ballerinas in the midst of a sparkling coda, instantly grab our attention. Feats like these make it hard to believe that merely rising to pointe for an instant was once considered an act of virtuosity.
No discussion of amazing pirouettes would be complete without Sofaine Sylve of San Francisco Ballet in an excerpt of The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitudes by William Forsythe followed her super-human fouettes from The Nutcracker coda:
For those of us who secretly rejoice in a successful completion of a clean double pirouette, this can all be incredibly discouraging. As a dancer who has struggled to capture the elusive coordination and sensation of turning, I have sought advice and tried countless approaches to ease my way in to this exclusive club of “turners”. I have been given all manner of images and tools, ranging from imagining being in a swimming pool of goo to floating on a cloud. Trying to think of every correction and tool at once resulted in my body becoming confused, and left me feeling frustrated. At the age of twenty-two, I have finally found strategies that work for my turns.
I have come to believe that my primary difficulty with turning was neglecting to place my weight entirely on my standing leg not only in pirouettes, but also throughout class. Starting with the very first plie and tendu at barre, I now think of my inner and outer thighs wrapping, spiraling around my bones, while occasionally removing one hand from the barre to test myself. Creating a solid standing leg did not occur overnight, and required me to learn an entirely new approach to turnout. Irene Dowd’s Turnout Dance, a series of turnout strengthening exercises, helped immensely.
The use of the upper body is equally important as strength and support in the legs. I have extremely long arms, double-jointed elbows, and very flexible shoulders. I was unaware that my arms passed beyond a second position during my preparatory plie, or crossed past a closed first position during my turn. Coordination of the arms can throw even a perfectly aligned passe position off balance, preventing success in multiple turns. When the arms are coordinated in the proper order, with the right amount of tension, you will turn. I know it is essential for my arms to remain within my peripheral vision during the preparation. However, there are many schools of thought regarding preparation of the arms for pirouettes, and it takes trial and error to find the method that works best for your body proportions. This can be very frustrating while other people in your class or level may have already found this coordination; just keep trying to focus on finding what serves you.
Ballet dancers are notorious for forgetting to breathe, and I am no exception. The muscles attached to the jaw are quite strong, and if gripped, can result in tension throughout the entire upper body. This tension can contribute to throwing off alignment and balance in a pirouette. Through years of experimentation, I have found that inhaling in the steps preceding a pirouette, and exhaling for the duration of a pirouette from preparation through finish, helps relax these muscles. Using one long exhale helps me keep a connection throughout preparation, turns, and landing.
Imagery is another helpful teaching technique for pirouettes, but can be very subjective. An image I began working with stemmed from sewing in the costume shop. I was placing thick elastics to attach a tutu bodice to the skirt, to hold the tutu and bodice together while allowing for flexibility and ease of movement. It simply allowed the two pieces to stay in a consistent relationship. I began to imagine that I had similar thick elastics sewn to the bottom of my rib cage, two in the front and two in back, that all attached to my spine, given that the spine is in the center of the ribcage. This image helped me keep my ribs and pelvis in a consistent placement. Once combined with a strong supporting leg, proper arm coordination, and breath, I began to execute consistent triple pirouettes.
When I was eleven, my teacher asked me to demonstrate a pirouette for the class; I thought I had done well. When I finished my pirouette, she told the class to never do a pirouette like me. I pinpoint this as the beginning of my hatred and fear of turning. While my friends experimented with multiple turns, I was afraid to try; I stayed at the barre, trying to perfect singles. Practicing turns at the barre is indeed beneficial, but the whole time I was practicing, I was punishing myself and telling myself I can’t do this! That is where I failed. If you are having trouble, don’t punish yourself or convince yourself it is impossible; just keep trying different techniques. It’s not that you can’t turn, it’s simply that you haven’t found the way that works for your body. Passion, expressiveness, and showing your love of dance often counts for more than any number of turns!
Marianela Nunez of The Royal Ballet performs elegant, clean, controlled turns in her stunning “Gamzatti” Variation from La Bayadere: