Tips for Pirouettes

“I’m just not a turner!” “I’m more Odette than Odile.” “I hate pirouettes!”

All of these statements, while commonly heard among the rotationally challenged, are no reason a dancer can’t learn to perform a perfect pirouette. Whether turning up a storm as the vivacious Kitri or making smooth singles as a shade in La Bayadère, there are a few basic elements that can turn any ballet dancer into a pirouette master.

Here are seven simple tips that can help you solve your turning dilemma!

1. Beach Ball Deflation

While pretty arms are a must in ballet, dancers often forget that there must be strength behind the grace. Arms are especially crucial in pirouettes, as they act as a stabilizer and control stick for the centrifuge that is the upper body.

During a pirouette, the arms should always be level with the sternum—that weird flat bone that connects your ribs in the front—and right below the collarbone. One of the most common pirouette mistakes is to hold the arms in a low first position, which destabilizes the upper body and can make the dancer lose control quickly.

An Exercise for Proper Arm Positioning:

  1. Put your hand on your heart.
  2. Move the hand directly to the inside, so that it rests on your sternum. This is how high your arms should be (really!) during the pirouette.
  3. From there, extend your arms into first position while keeping your arms at the same, high level.
  4. Imagine that you are wrapping your arms around a beach ball. In fact, if you have access to a beach ball or something of similar size or weight, use it to guide your arms to the right position.
  5. Once in place, slowly squeeze the arms inward, as though you’re trying to deflate the beach ball.

This should put your arm in place for a good pirouette. By imagining squeezing the beach ball, you engage the muscles in the back and activate your arm muscles, which will help balance your upper body.

Hot Tip: Reign It in

Bringing the arms closer to the body as you turn allows for increased speed and momentum. You probably won’t need the extra pull for the first two turns of a pirouette, but pulling your arms in can help complete triple (or more) turns. Use this move sparingly: Too much force will knock you off balance.

2. You Need Your Knees

If your pirouetting body is a centrifuge, your legs are the table on which it stands; if the table’s legs are bent, the centrifuge will spin and knock everything over. This is why it’s vital to have strong, straight legs during your pirouettes.

Keeping your legs straight is a simple rule, but also one of the hardest to implement. The standing leg must be straight as soon as you come out of your plié to initiate the turn and remain unbent until the final spin has spun.

You have to train yourself to always be aware of your knees and how straight they are. Start before you even begin class by sitting on the floor and pointing and flexing your feet with super straight knees. Take this mentality to the barre the moment class begins and return to a totally straight position after every plié. This constant consideration will make the straight knees in pirouettes second nature.

3. The Passé Protection Program

While the exact passé position can vary between methods, the foot of the working leg must always be hammered, nailed, and glued to the standing leg—no matter what the position. As soon as the turn starts, you must immediately go, without hesitation, to the passé position. Imagine that your working foot is a razor; you want to slice all the way up to the knee, then dig in till you land.

4. Hit the Spot

Spotting is key in pirouettes, but sometimes dancers get so comfortable that they begin to neglect this super helpful skill.

If you can nail perfect singles and decent doubles, but struggle with anything more, go back and practice the basics of spotting: You must relax your neck, but keep your gaze firm and locked on a small spot slightly above eye level, with your head ever so slightly raised. Spotting anywhere below (or even at) eye level will cause the upper body to drop, ruining your alignment.

5. Prepare for Liftoff

Perfect pirouettes are the results of proper preparation. To ensure that you are preparing correctly, take the time to study your alignment in front of the mirror.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you fully turned out and lifted?
  • Are your feet flat on the floor?
  • Is the pelvis lifted with the hips even?

Neglecting just one of these aspects of form can throw off your plié, which will then throw off your whole turn. If you’re not sure after a self-assessment in the mirror, have a friend or teacher observe and correct you; or record yourself with a camera for closer examination.

6. Knitting Ribs

While Nikiya’s ribs splayed out in a cambré back as she lifts the deadly flowers is a gorgeous image, it’s also something that can really kill a good pirouette. Instead, you want your ribs to look completely flat: Not concave, but not sticking out. Your ribs should be compressed, giving the torso a flat line when viewed from the side.

Counter the lift of your hips and spine by exhaling as you plié to initiate the turn. As you exhale, imagine that you’re pulling your ribs inward, knitting them together. This activates diaphragmatic breathing, which engages your abs—a great way to stabilize your turn!

7. The Graceful End

So you’ve finally done it: a perfect pirouette. You spotted, engaged your back, closed your ribs, straightened your knees, and best of all, gave your teacher a reason to stop smacking her forehead. Don’t let all that hard work go to waste by neglecting the end of the turn.

As you finish the pirouette, lift up just that little impossible bit more before you slowly lower your passé and come down from relevé, directing your gaze out over the horizon. This will help you balance at the end of the turn, and create a far lovelier aesthetic than the common “THUD!” that accompanies a bad landing.

Practice Makes Pirouettes

Follow these few simple steps and practice them daily. You’ll be well on your way to turning triple fouettés in no time! After a little time and a lot of sweat, they’ll come as naturally as donning a tutu and tiara!

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