Teaching ballet to young students often means working their bodies from the bottom up: feet and legs first, followed by the torso, arms and head. But at what point should you start introducing épaulement, or “placing of the shoulders”? For many teachers, this is a gray area. Épaulement is considered both an essential part of basic technique and an artistic finishing touch. How and when to teach it depends on each student’s age and level of training. But whether you’re working on épaulement for the first time in class or writing it into your curriculum, a consistent and thoughtful approach can help students develop a natural and expressive use of their shoulders and head.
Build It In
Teachers should introduce épaulement once students can execute basic positions en face, or facing the barre, and are ready to start working in croisé and effacé. (Usually students will reach this level of training by age 9 or 10.) “Introduce it at barre and increase its complexity as the student develops,” says Michael Chernov, co-artistic director of the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet in New York. “If you do all of your barre exercises en face, you’re going to have trouble adapting to épaulement in the center.”
To begin, Chernov suggests that students start facing the barre in fifth position. They can rise, make a 45-degree turn to the corner and lower, putting themselves at an angle to the barre. “Using that turn is an important part of developing épaulement,” he says. “Then you can start exercises based on that slight turn.” Have intermediate and advanced students do a combination with one hand on the barre and the torso a quarter turn away, to effacé: three grands battements en croix with the legs, using épaulement in each direction. “Change from one angle to another,” explains Chernov. “By varying your orientation at barre, you make the person move their supporting leg. That develops their feeling of en dedans or en dehors.”
Joseph Giacobbe, director of the Giacobbe Academy of Dance in Louisiana, focuses on simple combinations in center to reinforce épaulement. “I give a battement tendu exercise starting fifth front with the right foot,” he explains. “Tendu side, and move the head away from the working leg. When you close fifth back, the head ends over the front shoulder. Keep changing feet and épaulement.” Giacobbe has young dancers repeat this exercise with passé, as long as they can support themselves on one leg without falling. “Go slow so they can think about when the body is changing,” he says.
During petit allégro, he suggests keeping the arms low, en bas, to focus on the angles of the head and shoulders: “When you give too much port de bras, they forget to use épaulement. You lose the third dimension of the body, and it just looks flat.” As students advance, by age 12 or 13, they should be working in croisé and effacé throughout class. “If you insist upon it enough, they get used to these positions and feel how the head and shoulders relate to the rest of the body,” says Giacobbe.
Take a Theatrical Approach
Épaulement can also be reinforced through imagery. “When you’re in croisé, incline the upstage shoulder so your whole body tilts a little bit, as if there was a light shining on you,” says Chernov. “Imagine that you’re trying to feel more of the sun and you want to be warm.” GKA students are encouraged to feel like they are emitting light as well, constantly changing the arc of their épaulement as they switch from corner to corner. “That way you’re seeing all the different facets of the person’s body,” he says. “Dramatically, it opens them up more.”
As students work on épaulement, they should also pay attention to their gaze. Slightly lowering the eyes or lifting them just above the horizon line can create different forms of expression. “The focus of the eyes has to be built in,” says Chernov. “It helps ensure that your head is always in the right place, even when it’s constantly moving. The eyes determine everything.” DT
Julie Diana retired from Pennsylvania Ballet in 2014. She and her husband Zachary Hench now direct Juneau Dance Theatre in Alaska.
Petit Allégro Exercises to Develop Épaulement
At the Giacobbe Dance Academy in Louisiana, director Joseph Giacobbe gives the following combinations to introduce—and reinforce—the use of épaulement:
Échappés sautés, landing en face in second position and then croisé in fifth. “It’s an easy way to get younger students to change from corner to corner.”
Glissade changée to the side. “Keep moving in one direction, changing the head and feet.”
Alternate sissonnes over and under, moving sideways. “With the arms en bas, it’s very distilled and dancers learn to just use their bodies.”
Photo by Bridget Lujan, courtesy of Juneau Dance Theatre