Friday, April 8, 2016

What is the purpose of barre?

Yesterday during a class I was taking, a student asked a technique question of the teacher. Even though I knew the answer to the question, it was not my class so I kept my mouth shut.

(Note: this is exactly the right thing to do when someone else asks a question. Nothing. Say nothing. Even if you have the answer or think you do, stay quiet and let the teacher answer it. Jumping in with your response only invites others to do the same and soon, all hell has broken loose and the teacher has to get things back on track which is, frankly, a pain.)

Back to the class and the question...

Yes, I teach at this barre.
 Since this was an advanced class, many of us were wondering why this question was asked. Shouldn't advanced dancers understand technique, especially at barre? This led me and another student, a professional ballerina who also teaches, into a discussion about barre and its relationship to the rest of class and to performance. As we talked, we realized the student had asked a question that, regardless of its appropriateness or timing within the class itself, didn't make sense. We concluded that the person who asked it likely didn't understand the purpose of the movement she was asking about as it related to the greater picture.

It's important to understand why we do barre and what purposes it serves for later classwork and performance.

1. There is a sequence to barrework that warms us up, beginning with gentle plie exercises that warm up our hips for proper turnout, followed by slow battements tendus that help us articulate our feet and toes, all the way through core conditioning with grands battements and ankle strengthening with petit battements.

(This sequence is repeated in the center: from small to large, slow to fast, etc.)

So number one, barre is to warm up all our muscles and ligaments to reduce the occurrence of injury.

2. Muscle has memory. While ballet barre may seem repetitious, with arms and heads often held in the same positions all the time and most exercises performed en croix, we are teaching our brains to make connections - and later corrections - automatically, thus freeing us from having to think all the time. We don't need to think how to sousous, we simply do it. We don't think how to do grand rond de jambe. We just do it.

(Similarly, in the center, we often repeat sequences of steps such as tombe pas de bourree or glissade jete so they become part of our body's vocabulary and we don't need to break down each component.)

So number two, barre is to imprint vocabulary on our brains and bodies.

3. Preparation for center. This is, perhaps, the most important purpose of barre: to get us ready to do things unassisted. As I like to tell my students, dance is shifting your weight from side to side, forward and back, up and down. If all we did on a stage was work one leg at a time, the dance would be quite boring. So we use our time at the barre to get ready to change direction quickly, to shift our weight from one foot to another, to align our bodies properly so they don't fall when we don't have anything to hold onto.

For an advanced class, I might focus barre on very fast tendus or degages that have intricate patterns so the dancers are constantly shifting weight, which they can then apply to the quick footwork of petit allegro.

For a beginner class, I might ask them to hold balances en releve in different positions to strengthen their cores, feet and ankles, which will help them when they do an adagio combination or jumps.

Often when I take class for myself, I ask myself what the purpose of a particular movement is and where in the rest of the class can I apply it. Knowing the answer gives me renewed focus on the step so I get the most out of it.

I love barre.
Bottom line: don't just go through the motions at barre, assuming you know what a tendu is or how to execute a rond de jambe. Use it to establish your lines and find and strengthen your center so you can dance with confidence. Take the time to make mind-body connections so you can perform unfettered, so you can free your mind to express itself and explore choreography.

Happy dancing~

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