Let's discuss pirouettes. Everyone's favorite thing to do, right? When little kids come to class for the very first time, they always want to spin around and around because it's so much fun. As adults, we associate multiple turns with superior dancing skills. Both kids and adults are right: turns are fun and they do mark a dancer as skilled.
Unlike most other aspects of ballet, good pirouettes are a product of physics, not philosophy. The emotional core of a dance, the connection of dancer to audience, can be conveyed through expressive gestures and facial movements. Turns, however, are strictly virtuosic. When a ballerina does 32 fouettes, we applaud the technique not the passion, although certainly her passion for dance forced her to practice those pirouettes!
There are so many ways to teach turns, so many hints different people give that I don't proclaim to have the absolute best way to turn. Honestly, each person requires different critique and usually in person. That being said, there are certain things that are necessary in order to turn properly:
1. A sharp head spot.
Practice for beginners: stand in front of your bathroom mirror, hold your own gaze, then begin to twist your shoulders to the right and continue walking around yourself, snap your head back to the mirror as quickly as you can and then go in the opposite direction. Try not to lift your head in a circle but keep it level as your shoulders and body twist.
Practice for intermediates: perform a series of increasingly fast chainee turns across the floor, keeping your arms in tight and your feet in fifth position. This will help get your head around fast and isolate it from your shoulders.
2. A fast passe.
Practice for beginners: stand at the barre or a chair that is balanced with weight so you can press down on it. Holding the barre with two hands, stand in fourth position with your right foot in back, do a deep demi plie, then very sharply, bring the right leg up to passe (a retire position) with the toes under the front of the left knee. Hold for two counts and then put it back down to the back. Do this several times and then repeat with the left. When you feel stable during those 2 counts, try the same exercise but release the arms from the barre and pull them to first position. Always try to hold for as long as you can without tipping over.
Practice for intermediates: in the center, do half turns from fourth position. Stand in fourth, take a very deep demi-plie, then lift the leg to passe, balance and land facing the back of the room with the leg behind you, and gently lower it to the floor in demi plie. Then do the same from the back to the front. By doing only 1/2 turns you will be forced to concentrate on the leg pulling up very quickly so you can balance and not on the turn itself.
3. A strong port de bras.
Practice for beginners: pushups. I'm serious! Beginner students have a tendency to let their arms hang by their sides or curl their shoulders in as they turn. They need to feel the energy from their back muscles through their arms to their fingers. This suggestion comes from a teacher I admire, Melissa Waters, who does the same with her young students. Face the barre, about 2 feet away, feet in parallel. Place your hands on the barre as if they were in second position, then do very slow pushups. This will strengthen your back muscles and your biceps, but also will isolate those back muscles so you feel where your arms need to be controlled.
Practice for intermediates: keeping your arms in a wide second position, perform chainee turns across the floor and slowly bring your arms in to first position as your turns speed up. You will feel the muscles in your back bringing your arms in, instead of your shoulders. This is the feeling you want to have as you pirouette - that your arms are being controlled by your back.
This is just the tip of the turn iceberg! There are many, many other things to keep in mind during turns. I will probably revisit this subject again and again. Questions?