In movement studies, there are always opposing forces at work. Whether you're talking about ballet or baseball, the body needs to access different forces in order to propel itself in space or on the field, against another body or ball, one limb or the entire torso.
Today I want to talk about the opposing forces required for plie and releve.
Generally speaking, in plie, we go up to go down and in releve, we go down to go up. Confusing? Of course it is! It's ballet and everything is backward.
From the very first moments at the barre when we do a demi-plie in first position, we need to visualize our spines and head rising, rather than sinking.
Most students are taught to bend their knees to initiate a plie, but that is the last place the plie takes hold. Instead, the plie begins at the top of the leg, just under the derriere, starting with the rotation (turnout). Regardless of the extent of your turnout, that is where you initiate the fondu or bend of the plie. From there, the rotation opens the hips and continues down into the knees, which must bend in order to accommodate the increased rotation of the legs.
When you tell your body to "bend the knees" in order to start the plie, you are merely dropping your weight to the ground. There is no control and there is no hip rotation. In other words, it's not an active force but a passive one - allowing gravity to do all the work. Usually the legs will turn in, especially in grand plie, and then recovery involves gripping your quads and derriere muscles to return to a standing position.
Next time you perform a demi-plie, concentrate on the spine and head lifting up toward the ceiling while you simultaneously rotate your legs from the back under your derriere. Then, rather than letting gravity take you to the ground, relax the derriere muscles and control the descent with your inner thigh muscles until just before the tops of your legs and knees turn in. To recover to standing, engage the derriere muscles to pull you back up and resist the urge to grip your quads.
This will result in a much smoother and ultimately more useful plie.
Conversely, in releve, we want to visualize pressing the floor away from us with our feet and toes in order to lift ourselves higher.
Most students are taught to releve by lifting their heels, "go up on your toes!" But this is not the most stable position to maintain, especially when you want to do pirouettes or adagio. When told to do this, students will hop up to releve, rather than stretch themselves. They wobble all over the place!
A proper releve begins by pushing down. With your feet firmly on the floor, weight evenly distributed across the soles, start with your plie, then as you recover continue to push the floor away from you until your heels lift off the floor and your weight is now over all 10 of your toes.
Remember: a releve begins with a fondu (plie) while an eleve begins with straight legs and knees (think elevator).
If you think of your core initiating the releve rather than the feet lifting, you will find your releve much more stable. The entire body must lift, not just your feet. Core and calf strength, in addition to ankle strength, will help you maintain your balance while you are suspended off the ground. And if you can think about trying to keep all of your toes on the floor, including your tiny pinky toes, you will give yourself more surface area upon which to balance.
Hope these tips help you! Happy dancing~