So, quite some time ago I began a series of posts called “An Adult Beginner’s Guide to Ballet”. I work a lot with adult beginners and wanted to answer some of the most common questions people have when beginning ballet for the first time as an adult, or taking it up again after a long break. The first post was “Is Ballet Right For You?” and the second was “Choosing a Studio”, so I recommend clicking the links to read those posts before you move on to this one!
It’s been a long time since the last post in this series because things got a bit crazy and my blog had to go on the back burner for a while (which you can read more about here) so I do apologise for the delay, and I’m looking forward to getting more of these posts out!
So let’s assume you’ve been toying with the idea of taking up ballet, you’ve thought about the points discussed in my “Is Ballet Right For You?” post, and decided to go for it. You’ve looked at some studios and chosen one. Now what?
There’s nothing you really NEED to know before starting ballet; most people turn up and learn as they go along, which is great! However, being armed with some basic knowledge will help you to feel more at ease, and it will enable you to get the most out of each class right from the beginning. In this post, I’ll be going through some practical points as well as technique specifics.
- Know what type of ballet you will be learning
Although ballet technique is broadly the same worldwide, and not so different from the way it’s been practiced through centuries, there are different ‘schools’ of ballet, mostly relevant to their originating countries, and they vary in specifics as well as in style. No one method is necessarily better than another, they are just slightly different.
If you are learning the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) or British Ballet Organisation (now known just as BBO dance) methods, you will likely enter at a certain grade (like a music grade) and learn a set syllabus. You will have the option of taking an examination to pass the grade before moving on to the next one. Exams require extra lessons and will be at an additional cost, so keep this in mind, and check with your studio whether you can move up without taking the actual exam or if you will need to pass the exam to progress to the higher grades. The classes are in an English style, with very precise placement and set arms and heads, etc. Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) is very similar in this respect, but the style is more of an international than English style, and some of the names of positions are different.
Cecchetti is an Italian method of ballet and is very stylised, but again the basics are largely the same, there are just different ways of doing some steps and placement of the hands, etc. The same goes for Balanchine method, which is uncommon in the UK but popular in the USA, which has its own stylistic differences, such as a different preparation for pirouettes, etc. and fast, precise footwork. Russian method (Vaganova method) involves a lot of virtuosity (a lot of turnout, high extensions, and more jumps and turns) as well as freedom in the head and upper body. Meanwhile, the French style is much more relaxed and free-flowing. All of these latter methods tend to be free of a syllabus (the Vaganova method does follow an eight-year syllabus, but usually if exams are involved this will only be for children and young students progressing though their vocational training) but in rare cases your studio might hold their own exams.
Find out what method your studio teaches, as well as what your teacher trained in as this will influence them. Do a little bit of research about the specifics for a base knowledge (you don’t need to become an expert). You will pick up the style and terminology as you go along, but understanding your chosen method helps you to do it justice and honour its unique history.
2. Know the Logistics
Before you set off for your first class, know if you need to get there early to fill in any paperwork. Find out the cost of the classes and the payment method (do you need to bring cash?), as well as how you are going to get there and how long it will take. Make sure you find out if there is a uniform or dress code. Uniforms are rare for adult classes, but some might specify a leotard with pink tights and canvas shoes, for example, whereas others might let you wear any appropriate dance wear. Others might be happy for you to wear exercise wear as long as it is tight on the legs and you can stretch in it, and pair it with soft ballet shoes. The next post will cover dressing for your classes so watch this space!
One thing I do recommend is grooming your hair into a bun, french twist or similar style. Some studios will accept a braid or ponytail, but coming to class without properly styled hair for classical ballet shows a lack of respect for the traditions of ballet, and it will most likely get in your way (especially when you are turning) and ruins your line. It doesn’t need to be perfectly neat, but it does need to be all back from your face and secured up. There are lots of helpful YouTube videos on this subject, and with practice you’ll be able to do it with your eyes closed!
3. Posture and Positions
Posture in ballet is very specific, and the teacher won’t have time to go through it thoroughly enough with you in the lesson, so take some time to familiarise yourself with it. The teacher will likely not specify each position and movement either, as most of the class will be familiar with them. They won’t be expecting you to know it all, but rather to use your initiative and follow along as best you can until you start to pick it up. However, taking some time to prepare and to get used to the unique posture of classical ballet will help you to learn the technique properly from the start, rather than learning incorrectly then having to re-learn it later to avoid injury, which is difficult.
Please be wary of advice on the internet about this, as whilst I’ve been trying to find the perfect demonstration to include in this post, I’ve seen some inaccurate advice about posture.
Start standing normally with your feet hip-width apart. Let your pelvis tilt forwards so you’re in a thrusting-type position with your bottom tucked under, then tilt is backwards so that your bottom sticks out and your spine is curved- switch between these positions a few times then come to rest right in the middle. This is neutral pelvis; your lower back should be almost flat, but it will naturally have a very gentle curve. Then imagine someone is hanging a string from the top of your head and pulling up- you should grow tall without losing neutral pelvis. You will need to gently engage your abdominals and pelvic floor muscles to achieve this tall and stable position. Roll your shoulders back and down, without forcing them downwards or pinching them together at the back- they should be broad and flat across the upper back. If you’re thinking this is a lot to remember, then you’re right! But the more you practice this correct posture from the start, the sooner it will become second-nature!
Now we start to think about turnout, which is where it gets a little more difficult. To turn out correctly from the top of your hips (never turn out from the knees or ankles alone! It is possible and it is really bad for your joints) you will need to engage your LOWER abs, just below your belly button and above the pubic bone. In most people these are quite weak, so it might be necessary to develop strength there to use your turnout properly. Squeeze your bottom and move your feet into first position (see below). Your heels should be touching, toes pointing outwards, and pull up all throughout your legs so that your knees are straight. You should feel your inner and outer thighs working: imagine a barber’s shop spiral, and your legs spiraling outwards away from each other. You want to make sure your spine is still neutral and your shoulders are still in place. Imagine creating space at the front of your hip bones, moving them up away from the tops of your thighs, to get that area really flat and pulled-up. The pressure in your feet should be concentrated on three areas: the ball of your foot under your big toe, under your little toes, and in the heels (but more in the toes than the heels), with the arch of the foot engaged to prevent the feet from rolling inwards. Now lift your chin slightly and draw your ribs together slightly, and your posture should be perfect! This is not so much a position but an activity; your whole body will be engaged and this alone is quite tiring, before you’ve even begun to move.
Posture is a big thing, there is SO much to think about. You won’t be able to remember all these things all the time! But start every class by following these points to get into the perfect posture, then keep it in mind in every single thing you do, and you will be giving yourself the best possible chance to achieve beautiful technique in your classes. It’s easy to let your posture go, because many movements are easier if you cheat slightly (you might not even realise you are cheating), and it is tiring keeping it up throughout the lesson. However this will only come back to bite you when you move on to more advanced steps later and find that your weight is placed incorrectly to achieve them!
As for the positions of the feet and arms, and orientations of the body, I encourage you to study this page of the Gaynor Minden website, as it shows all of the positions demonstrated perfectly, with all of the different variations and different names specific to each method of ballet.
Ballet has a very specific terminology, mostly in French, and you will pick this up as you progress with your classes. You can find lists of terminology online if you want to study the correct names for steps (keep in mind the different schools use slightly different terminology for some steps and positions). You’ll want to start by familiarising yourself with demi plié/ grande plié, (a small and a large bending of the knees), tendu (stretching the leg away from the body along the floor with a pointed foot) and glissé (the same as a tendu, but the foot comes just off the floor and the movement is more dynamic).
Ballet is hard! You need to go in to your classes knowing that you have everything to learn, but that the challenge is really the fun of the whole thing! Don’t concern yourself too much about getting everything right all the time. Everyone makes mistakes, including professionals, and there’s no pressure. These classes should be a fun way to learn a new technique and to move your body, without the pressure that vocational students and professional experience. You have the freedom to learn at your own pace and improve as your schedule and lifestyle permits.
You will really benefit by arriving to class 15 to 30 minutes early to perfect your posture and to warm up (coming in a future post!). You should also write down notes and corrections after each class.
You don’t need to, but if you want to do some ballet-focused exercises and stretches at home once or twice a week, you will see those gains in your technique and you will improve faster. Ballet is great in that you get out what you put in: the harder you work, the better the results you will see and the faster you will improve. It is not necessary to work really hard all the time to be able to enjoy ballet as a hobby, but improving is very addictive! Soon you’ll most likely be wanting to come to extra classes and stretch at home! Embrace that and enjoy every second!
All Photos by Jake Owens Photography
I really hope that this has been useful to you, and more posts in this series are soon to follow! Next we’ll look at dressing for ballet class. Please feel free to comment any thoughts or questions!