Ballet & Modern Dance Foot Positions & Spatial Intent
“After the in-place alignment, the teacher reviewed the plié and relevé series. The dancers performed the movements radiating out into the dimensions of the room or stage and projected them through the forward wall and out into the imagined audience and further out to the back of the auditorium. Open pliés were pressed out into space, and closed positions were performed from the ‘in place’ positions.”
– The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique**
Last week I talked about anatomical dimensions and spatial planes, body shapes and positions expressing these dimensions. Of course there are endless positions of the body, but today I am speaking specifically of classical ballet foot positions and related modern dance foot positions from Nikolais-Louis Technique. My podcast on the topic is “027: Ballet & Modern Dance Foot Positions and Spatial Intent.”
Regarding the various classical ballet schools and the positions of the feet, in her book, The Ballet Companion** Eliza Gaynor Minden states that: “The syllabi of the major schools of ballet evolved as they traveled or underwent reinterpretation. Disciples can disagree, and disputes can arise over what the Cecchettis of the world really intended…The major schools of ballet all use Beauchamps’s original positions of the feet and, for the most part, the same French terminology. All maintain ballet’s traditions of courtesy and dignity; all prize grace and elegance. On the most fundamental aspects of technique there is no disagreement.”
In the future, I’ll also be discussing how the major schools of ballet disagree about the naming and performance of various positions and steps, but in classical ballet as well as some modern dance techniques, the positions of the feet are formed with externally-rotated or turned-out legs from the hip joint. In the resulting shapes, the heels more-or-less face one another on the floor, while the toes reach out at some degree away from one another to the sides.
In ballet, “perfect” turnout is 180 degrees, or “flat” to the side in first position, resulting in a “shoebox” fifth position. HOWEVER, it is not necessary or advisable for most people to try to produce these precise shapes, especially early in their training!
There’s a lot more to say about turnout in ballet, dance, and other techniques, but a few of it’s key results are stability in standing in closed and open positions of the feet, and as Gaynor Minden describes: “Turnout enables the dancer to move easily from side to side, to jump, and to pose without ever turning away from the audience […] Turnout is what enables a dancer to raise the leg elegantly to the side without displacing the hips or torso.”
Turnout is helpful in dancing to the extent that it is functional. Forcing it is ultimately not functional, and can also lead to knee or other injuries the likes of which I have experienced myself. Building balanced strength and flexibility is important to turnout or external rotation of the legs as well as to all of our movement possibilities, and rotation is an important concept, especially to classical ballet but also to modern and other dance forms.
I implicitly understood, from years of practice, the import of pliés in all of the positions of the feet, but their significance became more explicitly clear to me when I took Modern Dance with Betsy Fisher at the University of Hawai’i. Having performed with the Murray Louis Dance Company, Fisher incorporated the technique into her teaching, especially featuring key ideas about space and shape, including the dimensions and planes I previously spoke of.
I’ve followed up that practical technical training and experience with reading from the book Fisher recommended, The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique. Here we see the connection between the spatial dimensions and planes and the foot positions and movements of the body in dancing: “Since the dimensions of the body were the first principle to be explored, it was essential to establish a ‘room architecture’ and forward orientation, and to maintain this throughout the class. Once the architectural forward orientation was established, the body could then be related to it. This was also the beginning practice of stage directions.”
Then, once spatial orientation is established, the body is thoroughly warmed up, including a plié series which is “based on the dimensions of the body and their extension into space. First position: in place vertical up and down, second position: width sideward R. and L., third position: in place diagonal, fourth position: open diagonal, fifth position: in place, sixth position: depth, forward-backward. Between open positions, return to vertical (in place) with proper arrival of arms and legs in closed positions, so the action goes from in to out–closed to open, in place to spatial.”
– The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique**
Now there are some variations in the naming of these positions and those of classical ballet, this is a text of modern dance that I am quoting in this case, but there is a strong connection and logic of Beauchamps’ classical ballet positions and the Nikolais/Louis ones (notably a wider “open” fourth position than classical ballet), and I think the rhythm of alternating closed and open positions when one performs plié in each position in a row is an interesting shared feature.
Each position appears differently to the audience, and each prepares us to move in different directions and in different ways, so we practice plié, the ultimate preparatory movement in ballet, in each shape. If you want to learn more about and practice the movement of plié, I have a related podcast and YouTube video called “Powerful Plié” on the topic.
In the sphere of yoga, there is certainly function and significance to each stance and posture as well, and I will continue to explore these and share connections with them in the future. I find it fascinating how each technique carries both proven functional effectiveness and cultural and historical significance.
I don’t know about you, but I feel like I deserve the holidays coming a little earlier this year, and so I’ve already begun to get out a few decorations, snack on the Santa-shaped chocolates and such that area already in stores, and listen to some holiday tunes. Of course, I’m always planning music and themes for my upcoming classes as well. In that spirit, this week’s Playlist is all music from “The Nutcracker” Ballet, with the tracks arranged in an order I have found conducive to using them for ballet or dance class exercises from warmup and barre exercises through centre. I hope you enjoy it!
In the future I will continue to explore the ways our body positions, shapes, orientation and movements function in dance. Until next time, I invite you to experience these spatial ideas in your next plié and trip through the positions of the feet in ballet, dancing, or other functional movement.
DISCLAIMER: A Blythe Coach recommends that you consult your physician regarding the applicability of any recommendations and follow all safety instructions before beginning any exercise program. When participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in this exercise or exercise program, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself.
** I have included links to recommend some of my very favorite books and as a reader, lifelong learner, and academic I hope you enjoy my suggestions. These are Amazon Affiliate links, and if you purchase them I also stand to receive a percentage, cool!