Curing your students’ bad barre habits
Ballet Students at Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy demonstrate good barre habits.
You’ve seen it happen: A student clings to the barre, leaning on it to get through a combination. Her shoulders and arms look tense and stiff. Then, when she gets to center, she has trouble holding her turnout or sustaining a balance. Her bad barre habits are crippling her technique.
Barre work builds a dancer’s technical foundation. “It’s the students’ daily touch with the basics,” says Lisa Collins Vidnovic, director of Metropolitan Ballet Academy in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. When done properly, it strengthens muscles, promotes alignment and prepares the dancer for more advanced steps. But abusing the barre can weaken your students’ dancing and affect the way they move in center. Here are some of the most common bad barre habits, why they occur and how you can help break them.
The Habit: Bad barre etiquette
The Reason: When young students begin ballet class, they want to swing on the barres or climb them like a jungle gym. Some students have trouble focusing at the beginning of class, talking and laughing during barre exercises. And older students might lean on the barres as they get tired waiting for their turn in center.
The Fix: “Right away, teach students that the barre is a serious tool,” says Abbie Siegel, school principal at Pacific Northwest Ballet School. “They’re not allowed to swing, climb or lean on it. Some barres are heavy, so it could be a safety issue, too.” If students seem to lack focus at the beginning of class, call attention to the fact that you’re starting. “Ask them if they’re ready and give them a moment to make that mental transition,” Vidnovic says. And remind older students that they should set a good example for the younger ones and avoid leaning on the barres between combinations.
The Habit: Standing too close to/too far from the barre
The Reason: Students might stand close to the barre to feel more secure, or too far if they’re self-consciously trying to use the barre less. Younger students might simply not understand where they should be standing in relation to the barre.
The Fix: To help your students determine the correct distance, begin by having them face the barre. Ask them to reach their arms forward in first position until their wrists touch the top of the barre. Then have them relax their hands and fingers, resting them on top of the barre, with elbows dropped toward the floor. You can use a similar method when the students are facing sideways; have them open their arms to second position, and then rest the hand closer to the barre on top of it. “The arm should be angled, slightly forward from the shoulder, and placed in the same relaxed position,” explains Cheryne Busch, principal instructor at the Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy. “The students should be able to see their hand on the barre from the corner of the eye.”
The Habit: Tense arms and shoulders (“wrenching”)
The Reason: Students will develop tense arms and shoulders if the hand on the barre is too far in front or too far behind them. “If their hand is too far back on the barre, then when they get into center, their port de bras will be too far back,” Siegel says. “That will affect their pirouettes, jumps and balance in adagio.” Students tend to have more problems with tense arms when they do advanced combinations and must transition from one side to the other. “If their barre arm isn’t relaxed,” says Busch, “they leave it behind and the transition doesn’t work correctly. Their shoulders and hips get out of alignment.”
The Fix: One simple change can cure many wrenching issues: Be very specific about hand and finger placement on the barre. If the thumb and fingers grip, the hand cannot move freely along the barre as needed. “The thumb shouldn’t be on the top or the bottom of the barre, but facing you on the inside of the barre,” says Siegel. This prevents the wrist from breaking and helps the students maintain a long line from hand to elbow.
If a barre has higher and lower levels, make sure that the students are using the one best suited to their height. “The arm should be lower than the shoulder, so the students open up across the chest and the back,” says Busch.
The Habit: Gripping the barre (“white knuckling”)
The Reason: When students lack core stability, they tend to use the barre like a crutch, clinging to it or leaning into it.
The Fix: Make sure students engage their stomach muscles and keep their weight over the balls of their feet. Have them test their balance often. Can they lift their hands off the barre in the middle of a combination, or touch the barre with just one fingertip? It’s also important to check alignment, says Busch. “If the students are relying on the barre to keep themselves upright, they’re not aligned correctly,” she says. Remind them that their shoulders should be placed over their hips and their hips over their baby toes. DT
Julie Diana is a principal with Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania.
Photo: Ballet Students at Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy demonstrate good barre habits; by Elias Alfaro/Art Institute of Houston North, courtesy of Houston