Penché is a challenging movement that requires both strength and flexibility. Dancers often focus on training flexible hamstrings to get high extensions and splits, but are lacking in strength, especially when the hamstring is lengthening or doing an eccentric contraction, like the standing leg of a penché.
The first step to training a penché is to gauge the general strength of the hamstrings. Have your dancer start lying on their back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor near the pelvis and hands by their sides. Lift the pelvis off the floor into a bridge and hold for a count of five. The hamstrings are shortening, or concentrically contracting, to do this. Ten repetitions should be easily done without much effort. To challenge the hamstrings more, students can try a single-leg variation of the same exercise.
An easy and fun way to train control with the hamstrings is to have your students stand on one leg in front of a chair and slowly lower themselves to sitting. It’s harder than it sounds—most people will plop down at a certain point rather than controlling the descent. The lower the chair, the harder it is.
These concentric exercises will help the hamstring become stronger, but students will also need to train their hamstrings eccentrically to prepare them for the specific requirements of a penché.
Have your student begin by lying on their stomach, with one knee bent and a one- to five-pound ankle weight on. Then, very slowly, have them straighten their leg towards the floor. They are training the hamstring to control a lengthening contraction.
For the next variation, have the dancer place their arabesque, or back leg, on a chair or physioball and slowly reach towards the floor with the opposite arm. Don’t expect them to actually touch the floor at first. They should only reach as far as they can smoothly maintain their balance. The other leg will not reach up into an arabesque but stay on the chair. This is also surprisingly hard to do well!
Now it’s time to put all the pieces together and actually have your students train their penchés, away from the barre, by lifting the back leg into arabesque (which is a concentric contraction for that hamstring), and then slowly flexing at the hip into the penché (an eccentric contraction for that hamstring), maintaining good upper back and arabesque alignment.