A Blythe Coach

Pleasing & Powerful Pliés in Ballet & Dance

“There are two strong energies involved in the plié: gravity and the human psyche’s willpower.” (_The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique_ p.87)

Please, Please Pliez Me

I had long heard that “Plié is the first thing you learn and the last thing you master,” but had to look up who said it and adultballerinaproject.com says it was Suzanne Farrell, a famous ballerina whom I admired as a young dance student.

It’s one of the most amazing things to me that in ballet, as with other highly-sophisticated techniques, you can continue to learn new things about technique and artistry your whole life. The training never ends, no matter how “advanced” or masterful you become. 

So it is with Plié. On the one hand, it’s just one of many steps a ballet dancer must learn, but it is also integral to modern dance and mastery of movement in general. All athletes could benefit from a little Plié in their lives. Squats are also excellent training for the legs, but they are performed totally differently, using the muscles and alignment than a classical ballet Plié. 

In her book, Basic Principles of Classical Ballet, renowned ballet pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova states: “Plié is inherent in all dance movement. It is to be found in every dance pas, and therefore particular attention should be paid to it during exercises. If a dancer lacks plié, her performance is dry, coarse and devoid of plasticity.” (p.17)

Although I don’t presume to provide an exhaustive account, this article focuses on the subject of the plié movement in ballet and other dance forms. I also refer to two YouTube videos about the technique, Pleasing & Powerful Pliés, and Podcast episode 014: Powerful Pliés, also linked below.

In my capacity as dance educator I will continue to share new sequences, information about sound technique and artistry, and resources on an ongoing basis.

Podcast 014: Powerful Pliés

Powerful Pliés Video

Plié with Port de Bras Video

The Pleasing Plié with Port de Bras video adds arm and head movements

Plié is Functional Movement

Eliza Gaynor Minden defines the term in The Ballet Companion as: “Plié means ‘fold’ or ‘bend’; in ballet it is to bend the knee or knees of your standing leg or legs. The barre usually begins with demi- and grands pliés, but just because they are first doesn’t mean they are simple.” (p.128)

They are a powerhouse, like a coiled spring full of potential for changing level, direction, and path through rising, sinking, jumping, turning, and landing with integrity and quiet control. Plié as an exercise creates balance and control, strength, and plasticity in the muscles.

We work slowly at first to refine alignment, build muscle control and tone, develop coordination, and stretch, then move more quickly through Plié while dancing complex choreography.

In the Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet, Gail Grant elaborates on function and application: “Bent, bending. A bending of the knee or knees. This is an exercise to render the joints and muscles soft and pliable and the tendons flexible and elastic, and to develop a sense of balance. There are two principal pliés: grand plié or full bending of the knees (the knees should be bent until the thighs are horizontal) and demi plié or half-bending of the knees. Pliés are done at the bar and in the centre in all five positions of the feet.” (p.88)

Rory Foster stresses that “Plié (bend) is the most important movement we have in ballet. Practically every step begins and ends with it–we simply could not dance without it. The plié is a movement, not a position; it is what a dancer moves through in order to get into the next step or directional change. Feeling the plié is very important, but getting stuck in it is another matter.” (Ballet Pedagogy p.40)

Plié & Spatial Intent

In the modern dance space, Nikolais/Louis have unique insights into the expressiveness of plié that have added nuance and sophistication to my experience of the movement: “The plié series 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 p.88-9)

For more about space in ballet and dance technique, I suggest my blog article, The Body in Space – anatomical dimensions, planes, and posture in dance & life.

Demi Plié Technique

Demi Plié begins with equal distribution of the weight through the soles of both feet (a one-legged knee bend or Plié is called Fondu), with approximately a third of the weight over the big and small toe joints and heel. Length is maintained through the spine, with the pelvis in neutral alignment, core engaged. The knees slowly bend until the limit of keeping the heels on the floor, then knees slowly extend to return to the starting position.

As the knees bend, they track over the middle toe, so whether the dancer is in a parallel or turned-out position, the angle of external rotation in the hip, knee, and foot matches. This means the dancer is not twisting in the knee or ankle joint, but stabilizing a rotation from the hip joint, the safest technique for producing turnout. For more about turnout and external rotation in my Truths About Turnout video!

Nikolais/Louis explain quality and musicality: “There is movement during all the time allotted for the down and up. There is no arrival on the first beat and holding for the rest of the time. The time value of the plié and rise is legato and continuous.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.87)

Grant describes how to correctly perform demi plié: “The bending movement should be gradual and free from jerks, and the knees should be at least half-bend before the heels are allowed to rise. The body should rise at the same speed at which it descended, pressing the heels into the floor… All demi-pliés are done without lifting the heels off the ground. In all pliés the legs must be well turned out from the hips, the knees open and well over the toes, and the weight of the body evenly distributed on both feet, with the whole foot grasping the floor.” (Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet p.88-9)

Vaganova adds a pointer about the angle of the knee and foot: “Particular attention should be paid to the upper part from the hip to the knee. The knee should always be bent in the direction of the toes. That is so the knee is over the foot.” (Basic Principles of Classical Ballet p.18)

Going for Grand Plié

Grand Plié bends the knees further bringing the pelvis lower, possibly between the knees with the thighs parallel to the floor at the lowest point, with spinal alignment and neutral pelvic alignment intact. 

In 2nd position, the heels stay in contact with the floor, but in all other positions (parallel, 1st, 3rd, 4th, & 5th) the heels will peel off the floor once the limit of Achilles Tendon and calf muscle flexibility is reached. The heel should smoothly lift just as much as necessary to continue lower, and on the return trip up to standing the heels reconnect with the floor as soon as they are able with alignment intact, pressing firmly to stand tall. 

Vaganova shares exceptions to the heels lifting off the floor rule: “In the grand plié in the second position or the fourth position ouverte (feet in the first position but separated by the space of one foot) the heels do not rise off the ground.” (Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet p.88)

Foster describes a minimal lift of the heels during grands: “In grand plié, the heels (except in second position) should lift only as much as they have to, and then press into the floor as soon as the ascent begins.” (Ballet Pedagogy p.40)

Even at the bottom of grand Plié, the legs and core are engaged (never “hanging out” in the joints or bouncing around), as if ready to spring up into a turn or jump, and the torso is vertical with a neutral (level) pelvis, and the toes are long on the floor.

Upper Body in Plié

Plié is largely a movement in the lower body, so as beginners we start with establishing posture in the upper body (as also described in this posture article and this stability and integrity article) and change in levels through sinking and rising in the legs only, adding coordinated arm and head movements later, as in the Pleasing Plié with Port de Bras video above.

Perfecting Plié

Improving your plié performance requires solid understanding of the technique and ongoing practice. Gaynor Minden provides a list of further tips for “Getting the Most Out of Plié:

  • Work your turnout properly from the hip, and maintain the alignment of your ribs and pelvis.
  • Be aware of all ten toes on the floor, and of controlling your ankles and knees so they don’t roll in.
  • Keep your heels on the floor at all times during demi plié; during grand plié lift them at the last possible moment going down and replace them as soon as you can coming up. Lift them as little as possible. In second position the heels remain on the floor.
  • A word from two legendary ballet masters, Enrico Cecchetti and George Balanchine: Don’t sit at the bottom of your plié; start the ascent immediately and keep the timing consistent: if it’s two counts going down its two counts coming up.
  • Plié means bend, but the straightening and stretching of the legs is even more important than the bending. Rrrrrrresist! Do your pliés as if moving through peanut butter.
  • Grands pliés in fourth and fifth positions really challenge the control of the turnout, so they are sometimes omitted from beginners’ classes.” (The Ballet Companion p.128)

Cautions about Plié

All conscientious pedagogues warn about potential mistakes and dangers of such an important technique. Foster lists such pitfalls as: “Common errors: sitting at the bottom of the bend and going too deep. The pelvis should stay slightly higher than the horizontal level of the knees (never below), and the movement should be a smooth, continuous, even movement on the descent and ascent.” (Ballet Pedagogy p.40)

Nikolais/Louis echo the concept of equal distribution of the weight and issue a caution about shifting weight in certain positions: “The body weight is centered between both feet at all time (sic), with hips squared off to forward. The plié is done with the weight equally divided on both legs. The tendency in fourth, fifth, and sixth positions is to shift the weight on to the back leg. Correct this imbalance.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.88-9)

Vaganova warns against “sitting” at the lower point: “Upon reaching the extreme point of the plié in the down movement, the pupil should not remain there even for a moment, but should immediately begin to straighten up. If a pupil remains ‘sitting’ in a plié, she not only does not improve the energy of the muscular drive and the elasticity of the whole leg, but, on the contrary, the legs–the levers of the jumps–acquire a sluggishness.” (Basic Principles of Classical Ballet p.19)

Some anatomies are born more adept, and we would be wise to exercise care and not overdo it, cautions Vaganova:

“People who are naturally endowed with a talent for the dance have a very pliant Achilles’ tendon, and the leg easily forms an acute angle with the foot. Others have an Achilles’ tendon that bends with great difficulty. In such cases it is necessary to begin a struggle with nature, and here we must exercise great caution and consideration. Therefore, if the feet of a pupil who finds it hard to plié should begin to hurt, especially the ligaments, it is best to refrain for the time being from working on her plié, and return to this work later and do it gradually and carefully.” (Basic Principles of Classical Ballet p.18)

Effective Barre Training

Plié is a critical component–no, the MOST critical component– of a full ballet barre training, and once you’re getting the hang of it, the next step is to combine with warmups such as “Planking Pleasures,” “Sweet Leg Swings,” and “Plush Paralleleves” and ballet barre technique exercises such as “Tempting Tendus” and “Saucy Sautes” for a short but effective core and lower body exercise program for dance. Or join or continue a full-length barre or ballet class in-person or online.

If you’d like support in designing your own training program or accessing further resources, I’m more than happy to help 🙂

Rory Foster summarizes the benefits of plié in a nutshell:

“As a beginning exercise, it consists of a complex set of motions that enable the dancer to feel movement of the entire body, especially when it is done with port de bras/cambré. It establishes the initial feeling of posture and placement–the center line of gravity (the plumb line)–and it incorporates movements of the ankles, knees, and hip joints, the release and rotation of the legs (turnout), and the alignment of the torso over the legs and feet (base of support). Incorporating stretches going forward and sideways (flexion), backward (extension), and circular (rotation) simultaneously enables the spine to become warmed, stimulated, and stretched.” (Ballet Pedagogy p.40)

Related Resources from Blythe

7 Movements of Ballet Playlist
Elements of Dance Playlist
Ballet Barre Playlist
Wonderful Warmers Playlist

Sources Cited

Ballet Pedagogy: The Art of Teaching by Rory Foster
The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden
Dictionary and Technical Manual of Classical Ballet by Gail Grant
The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique by Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis
Basic Principles of Classical Ballet: Russian Ballet Technique by Agrippina Vaganova

Let’s connect by email or on Instagram @ablythecoach, I would love to hear your perspective! 

Blythe Stephens, MFA, Bliss Catalyst
she/her or they/them
Creator of A Blythe Coach: dance through your difficulties and take leaps of faith into a joyful, fulfilling life

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