We’ve been working on developes and Cecchetti 3rd port de bra in class. To help my students cope with the physical demands these two things place on them we looked at some ‘conditioning’ (strengthening) exercises. My students requested I put them online so they could refer back to them during the week. So here they are. (Working from the feet up, as I learnt to do from the fabulous pilates instructor, Katie, at Encore Pilates.)
Feet push-ups – strong feet and ankles are vital for ballet. It’s not just the obvious stuff of standing on demi point or pirouettes, but stability in the supporting leg during things like developes. As the dancer advances and the exercises get longer, supporting leg stability gets challenged more and more.
With your body straight, neutral spine, tummy pulled in to spine, shoulders away from your ears etc etc (ie good ballet body), stand a metre or so away from a kitchen bench, lean forward so you’re supporting your weight with your hands on the edge of the bench like this.
Start with feet flat on the floor, legs in parallel (ie not turned out) literally rise up onto demi-point (keeping legs, ankles, and feet aligned properly) and lower your feet back down till they’re are flat on the floor again. Keep your body straight, you’re only moving your ankles. Well ok, you’re also working core strength and stuff, but the focus is on the ankles here! Keep good ballet form! You’re not just building strength, you’re building muscle memory, so you really want to create a memory of good technique, not bad. If in doubt, wait till next class and we can check your form.
Do with both feet together, and single legs, and do as many as you reasonably can and work up slowly from there.
(While you’re there you could do some push-ups with your arms, which is what the woman in the photo is actually doing! Focus on feeling the back muscles round your bra strap work hard. Or heck, you could just go eat some jellybeans 😉
Once this gets easy, stand on a stair with the balls of your feet just on the edge and your heels dropping down over the edge. Rise up to demi point and lower back down till your heels have dropped as far as your flexibility will allow you to. Do with both feet and a single foot.
I found this piccie to show what I mean. I totally never thought of doing these in turn-out position and turn-in position like in this picture, so I’m going to add those to my strengthening practises.
Turnout exercise – I showed my students the first turnout exercise from this fantastic youtube vid from the awesome Claudia Dean. And yes, I also got a few great cues from her too 😉
Hip flexors – working to the front (for develope devant) sit on the floor, legs out straight in front of you. Nice pulled up ballet body, neutral spine etc. Now simply lift – or try to lift one leg up, while maintaining your body and especially your pelvis in a neutral and vertically upright position. Repeat with the other leg. If this is totally impossibly, wrap a theraband round your ankle and foot and hold the ends up in front of your chest, and let it help you lift till you are strong enough to do it without.
Once you get the hang of it and are doing it correctly, it does feel a bit weird. You’ll feel as if you’re trying to pull your leg into your pelvis from sort of down on an angle right inside your pelvis, not just feeling it at the front of the hip. Again, you’re building muscle memory, not just strength. You’re learning which muscle to use.
I’ve tried this with legs in parallel, and in turnout. I can’t see it makes any difference to strengthening the hip flexors. But in turnout, I can engage all my leg muscles properly ie I can get them to be ‘pulled up’, and thus practise that as well. So I work both parallel and turnout.
To the side – this will help not only with the unfolding of the leg in 2nd but in getting to and holding the retire position.
If you’re flexible enough, sit with neutral spine etc and your leg out to the side. This is simulating 2nd position, so it needs to be right out to the side, not almost or half way. Do the same exercise as above. Use a theraband if needed.
If you just can’t get into that position, stand with good ballet posture (of course!) and keeping your hips still, lift your leg to the side with bent knee. Try to get the thigh above 90 degrees without shifting your hips.
Stretch out your hip flexors before working on develope derriere (to the back). Tight hip flexors fight against the leg going to the back.
Lower back and glutes – Improves arabesque and retires.
Firstly, stretch out your hip flexors, so they’re not fighting the lifting to the back. Don’t stretch more than 20 seconds, you’re not trying to increase range, just gently release what you already have.
Do the arabesque exercise that involves lying on the floor on your tummy. I need to get permission from Jan of Palmerston Ballet School, who taught it to me, to put it online, but we’ve done it in class, and can do it next week to remind you all.
This video is worth a watch to help you get the idea of what you’re trying to achieve. Relaxing the front of the hip really helps get into the position she shows on this video.
Upper back – Important for beautiful port de bra (carriage of the arms) and not giving yourself a tension headache from doing it wrong (!). Also important for keeping the upper back vertical in develope derriere, arabesque etc, especially when your leg starts getting over 45 degrees (though that’s not technically required for most of my students for a few grades yet).
I learnt this exercise from the tango teacher, Kelly, at Northern Tango, who learnt it at pilates!
Stand with your back against a wall, slide down it til your knees form almost a right angle as if you’re almost ‘sitting’. Flatten your spine against the wall, especially through the waist, and keep it flattened throughout the exercise. Make sure your shoulders are relaxed down and away from your ears, your collar bones nice and wide. Place your arms flat against the wall, hands facing out, upper arm straight out horizontal to the floor, elbow bent at 90 degrees so the lower arm is vertical.
Draw the hands up the wall. I couldn’t find a piccie of someone doing this against a wall but this gives you the general idea.
There are plenty more conditioning and strengthening exercises but I think these are great starter ones. I didn’t put in any ‘core’ stuff because that’s really a whole post unto itself.
I personally hated developes for years as they turned my quads into painful ropes *shudders*. Then suddenly one day, after plenty of pilates, I found them easy. And once easy, I could start to appreciate their artistry. Who knew a foot and leg could be so expressive?! It was a lesson well learnt!
In contrast, I’ve always loved port de bra. I naturally find these easy so have always been able to enjoy their artistry.
However, no matter how easy something is, or not, dancers still need to understand not only what muscles to use for the step, but for them to be strong enough to do the job well. This basic set of exercises will help my students not only be able to do developes and port de bra more easily, but to enjoy the artistry inherent in them.
Have fun with them and I am looking forward to seeing the improvements in class!