Back to the Barre

On Getting Back to the Barre: Pirouettes

I made it back to ballet this evening, despite the fact that I was struggling to walk for a couple of days after the last class. I’m hoping things will get easier, and it did feel a little easier today – I suppose only time will tell whether I’m right or not.

Some of the movements are coming back easier than others. The port de bras are so ingrained into my memory that my arms seem to move into the correct place without any concious thought on my part.

Some movements seem to be less memorable, and pirouettes are one particular area where I find myself struggling.

For the uninitiated among you, a pirouette is a turn, on one leg. The weight-bearing leg will be on demi-pointe (tiptoes, to you) or pointe, and the other leg will be held in one of the following positions (attitude, arabesque, or retiré). The sign of a good pirouette is a combination of control and power. The better, and more powerful one is, the more turns one can do before ending the pirouette, but control is important too – it’s no good being able to do a triple (completing 3 full turns) if you can’t control the end and make it look easy and precise, rather than wild and messy.

At the age of 18, when I last did ballet properly, I was able to do a pretty wild triple, but a nice, consistent solid double, but now I am barely managing a single, and more often than not it is exceedingly uncontrolled.

It’s a little frustrating to find it so difficult, but what makes it more frustrating is the fact that I know what is causing my problems, but it’s not a particularly easy fix.

You see, whilst the key to a powerful pirouette (which you need to turn a single to a double, and a double to a triple) is in your legs and your arms, the key to a controlled pirouette all comes down to something called ‘spotting’.

Basically, because pirouettes are quick, and involve spinning, they tend to make one a little dizzy. Obviously dizziness isn’t particularly conducive to grace or control, so dancers have a little technique (spotting) to solve that problem. You fix your eyes on a spot (hence the name) in front of you, and whilst your body begins to turn your head stays fixed on that spot, then as soon as it’s no longer physically possible to contort your neck any further (unless you have some owlish tendencies going on) you whip your head quickly round, fix your eyes back on the same spot, and wait for your body to catch up. It sounds highly complicated, and when you first do it, it feels pretty complicated too, but you practice and practice and practice, and it becomes second-nature. You start spotting without thinking, and before you know it you’re landing doubles with the greatest of ease.

Sadly, unlike the port de bras, I have apparently not retained this bit of body-memory, and so it looks like I’m going to have to learn spotting all over again. I think lots of pirouette-practice in my kitchen is on the cards.

In summary: spinning.

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  • Reply legalballerina September 28, 2012 at 1:36 am

    Don’t fret. I didn’t start trying to learn ballet technique, let alone spot, until I was 33 years old. If I can do it, you will certainly get back into the swing of things (no pun intended) in no time. You have the coveted “muscle memory”, which I lack. Smile. You are doing a good thing!

    • Reply ellidhcook September 28, 2012 at 10:15 pm

      Thanks for the comment, and the encouragement!

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