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Q&A1-21

1. How long will it be before I can go on pointe?

Every school has different requirements, but any school worth its salt will not let you start until you are at least 12. Some say age 11. If you are older, some schools require that you study for a year or more before beginning pointe. Almost all (including me) will require you to be taking at least three 90-minute classes a week.

2. How long does it take to get the splits?

Everyone is different. Some people were born with very flexible muscles, and they usually can do splits with no trouble at all. Some are born with tight muscles and have to work long and hard, maybe for years, to get them flexible. And there is every variation in between.

The upside of tight muscles is that they are often very strong. So you could have a great jump, but not so great extensions. And vice versa -- very flexible people can stretch in every direction and look beautiful doing it, but have to work really hard to get strength into their legs for jumping.

The main thing is, if you are trying to improve your extensions, you should stretch VERY SLOWLY and VERY CAREFULLY. Plan on this taking a long time, months, if not years. Don’t do stretches that hurt a lot -- you could get an injury that will end your dancing completely.

3. How long does it take to make a ballet career?

The common wisdom is, to attain real mastery of technique (that is not the same as making a career, but you can't make a career without it), you will need about 3 years at each level, beginner, intermediate, advanced: so, about 9 years. Some are faster, some are slower. For me it was about 12 years. You can shorten that time If you can find a good private coach to help push you ahead.

Making a career is a whole other ballgame, involving technical skills, luck, money, connections, and who knows what else. I suggest that at the beginning you think only about mastering the technique. At the same time, make as many good connections as you can, in class, special dance and musical events, and performances. These can help you in the long run. Sorry, I can’t suggest any fool-proof ways to bring you either good luck or money!

4. Do you teach basic pointe work to men?

I am happy to teach pointe work to men who qualify in length of training and demonstrable commitment to it. I am no stranger to men en pointe, as I danced with the small concert company, New York Ballet Players, that ultimately transformed itself into the all-male Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo, many of whose dancers have had extremely successful careers dancing on pointe.

5. I am 15. My local school says I am too old to start ballet training. Am I?

In my opinion, 15 is not too late to start ballet. Many schools think it is too late to start training for a professional career, and often will not accept a 15-year-old beginner. My advice would be: find a school that will!

For me, nothing is impossible, and if you love ballet the training will bring you great joy in your life, whether or not you have professional intentions.

You can help yourself by getting books, videos of class work, etc. -- these will not teach you to dance but may help you practice once you find a teacher. One very good book is "A Dictionary of Ballet Terms" by Gail Grant. The title may be a little different in recent editions, but the book is the same. It is a listing of all the ballet steps and positions and variations by the major schools (Cecchetti, Russian, English, French), and can be a big help in remembering the steps you are learning in class.

6. I’ve got a problem with turns. I always fall or get off balance. Also I still can’t balance well.

For good turns, just as for good balance, you absolutely must have good placement during the turn. That's not so easy, so you have to practice relevé passe until you can land in the relevé in one beat of the music with perfect placement, and hold it. That means a strongly held, straight-back, centered position. This may take a year to accomplish.

When you can do that consistently, the next step is to do the relevé for the turn exactly as you did it without the turn. Don’t change it. Also make sure you are not leaving one arm behind you -- they both should be in front of you throughout the whole turn.

7. I have two different teachers. They both told me what ballet's main focus is, except they're not the same thing. What exactly is ballet's main focus? Balance or flexibility?

Different teachers will emphasize different things. But good teachers should also be able to see what each student needs, and help them with those particular aspects. So if a teacher keeps talking about flexibility to a very flexible student, that's not very useful. But if a teacher sees that the same student is having trouble with balance, then she should talk to that one about placement.

The best thing is to learn everything you can. All ballet dancers need flexibility and all of them need placement; some naturally have one of these and have to work extra hard on the other. Your job is to learn what you need and put in extra work on those things, no matter what.

8. Why can’t I jump higher?

Are you using your feet and legs fully during the takeoff? At the top of the jump, your knees should be straight, your feet pointed. Are your hips well placed under you as you push? Also, timing is important -- remember that the push has to be fast.

9. Will going to ballet performances help me in any way?

YES. Look closely, soak up everything you can. Sometimes a company will also let you go to rehearsals for free -- look around, you can learn things everywhere.Try out the "monkey see, monkey do" method of learning -- watch somebody you think is really good, and then try to look like that.

10. I am 13 years old, 5'7", and 115 pounds. I have been getting dizzy during classes. I want to lose more weight. Is that possible?

I think you are about to get yourself into serious trouble. No, do not lose more weight. It will weaken your muscles and take away all your energy. See a doctor right now about your dizziness. If you are serious about dancing, learn what good health is and try to achieve it!

11. You know how your toes are supposed to point in ballet? Well mine don’t really. Are there ways to improve that? (My teacher keeps telling me to point my toes, every class, but I can’t.)

This is a hard question to answer. The short answer is, yes you can improve your feet, by working conscientiously on pointing them every day in class, trying to relax the top of the arch as you contract the muscles on the bottom of the foot. Try to avoid curling the toes under.

Every teacher should encourage you and help you to do that; but no teacher should suggest that you're not working hard enough, which I suspect in your case is simply not true.

However, even though everyone can improve their feet, not everyone can achieve really beautiful feet -- for that, usually, you have to be born with pretty good ones to start with.

If, as may be your case, you are born with fairly tight ankles and feet, you may eventually get a respectable foot position, but not a great one, and even that will take a lot of careful work and a long time, if you want to avoid injuring them. Accept the fact that you may have to work hard at least 2 or 3 more years to get them to look better.

As for a performing career: for some companies, the shape of the foot is of great importance; others are looking more for other qualities, such as stage presence, musicality, expressive movement quality. In looking for work, the dancer should research all the possibilities, and try to match his or her own abilities with the company giving the auditions.

12. My parents are concerned with the fact that I picked up on dance at a late age (12). Especially on the career options -- what are career options, outside of ballet performance, in the dance industry?

One great thing about ballet is the intensity of the discipline, which will help you in almost any career you choose. Some of those directly connected with dance training include the following (some, of course, will require extra training):

1. teaching dance -- to children, teenagers, or adults
2. fitness coach
3. choreographer -- for modern dance, ballet, all kinds of theatrical and commercial performances
4. competitive ballroom dancer/teacher
5. orthopedist/osteopath, a doctor with specialty in dancers' injuries
6. neuromuscular specialist such as Deborah Vogel (check out her site: www.thebodyseries.com/ask/index.html). You can subscribe to her newsletter; you can also ask her this question about dance careers).
7. dance historian -- on the web, look up subjects like "Baroque or Renaissance court dancing" "east European folk dances" "dances of imperial China", "classic Japanese dance" etc.
8. arts management -- working with dance companies as a business manager or fund raiser. These people are urgently needed to help keep dance companies afloat.
9. dance/physical therapist -- helping dancers recover from injuries, helping people strengthen physical weaknesses, helping elderly people maintain their strength and energy.

13. I'm having a hard time getting into 5th position, and have been told that I should work in 3rd position for a long time before moving on to 5th, to avoid injuring my legs. But one teacher has also told me that I must work in 5th position, that there is no such thing as 3rd position. What do you think?

I must say I agree with the well-known dance physiotherapist, Deborah Vogel, who says:
"To say that there is no such thing as third position is not only laughable, it is a dangerous premise. Through years of testing anatomical turnout I will say with confidence that third position is more appropriate than fifth for probably 50% of dancers. A bold statement – for sure – but one that is backed up by the injuries to the hips, knee and ankle joints that I so often see."
I encourage everyone to work in 3rd position at the beginning of training, and at least some of the time throughout your dancing life. It can enable an almost perfect hip placement, will help protect your knees, and in the end will make 5th position much easier to attain.

14. Whenever I'm working really hard to improve my technique, my teacher always says I'm not with the music. What can I do about that?

Whatever you do, you must do it with music, and each move should be precisely connected with specific musical beats. Ignoring the music while trying to improve your hip alignment, turnout, or anything else will simply end with awkward, uncoordinated movement, and the need to think all the time you're dancing.

The well-known neurologist Oliver Sacks explains it clearly in his recent book Musicophilia. According to a review of this book in the New York Times, Sacks writes about the “narrative or mnemonic power of music,” its ability to help a person remember long,  intricate sequences or retain great volumes of information.

He also speaks of power of rhythm to help coordinate and energize movement. This is why music can help push athletes to new levels.

By the evidence of my long experience in teaching, I can say he is absolutely right.


15. I'm a very active person: I take class 4 times a week, I play soccer on weekends and belong to a high school band, and attend concerts in the evenings. Still I'm 20 lbs overweight, and dieting doesn't help at all. What can I do?

My guess is that you're not getting enough sleep. Lack of sleep is one of the main reasons for overweight among young people. If you are serious about a ballet career (or any career) you have to give your body a chance to do its best. Sacrifices are necessary -- YOU CAN'T DO EVERYTHING. Clean out your schedule and insist on 7 - 8 hours of sleep every night (or add naps during the day). If you don't take charge of your life, you are setting yourself up for poor performance and disappointment.


16. I am a 14 year old at a serious ballet school. I have my right and left split and I am very close to getting my middle split. Yet when I do developees I can't hold my leg above 90 degrees either front or side. Why is this? What can I do to improve the height of my extensions?

Of course I can't say anything for certain without seeing you. But it sounds to me as though you could be unconsciously gripping your buttock muscles at the same time as trying to get your leg up -- in other words, working against yourself. To work efficiently, you should use only the muscles you need for each movement. Buttock muscles are not needed much for raising the leg to the front and side -- only to the back. Work to relax and soften and free up the hip joints when raising the leg to the front or side.

It also may be that your hip placement needs correction. If you sit back or sideways in your hips, it is harder to free up your legs. If this is the case, then it may be that your abdominal muscles are not working to keep your hips under you, or, for front extensions, the deep lower back muscles are not sustaining the right amount of arch in the lower back. Good hip placement comes mainly from a strong core -- the deep abdominal and lower back muscles -- working in good coordination with the rest of the body.


17. My teacher told me I have no natural turnout. How can I get turnout?

People without natural turnout can at least improve it.

Oftentimes, poor turnout comes from poor hip placement. Once the hips are aligned, the turnout will improve. Sometimes, the hips are not aligned because of weak or poorly coordinated use of the core -- abdominal and deep lower back -- muscles.This also must be addressed before turnout can improve.

Sometimes a school gives preference to the students who have naturally good placement and naturally occurring turnout. If this is the case, you may not get the kind of help you need. Look for a different school or a different teacher who will help you with these issues.

A student who is determined will find the help she needs. And ballet talent, in my opinion, is not all about the body -- it is music, and drama, and quality of movement. Students who have those qualities should be given the
chance to improve what they lack physically (within reason, of course). With the right help, they can become beautiful dancers.


18. I have tried pointing my feet everyday so there can be a strong arch. But it doesn’t seem to be working. Is there anything i can do to improve this?

I suspect you were born with rather tight feet, that don't particularly want to point. Although you can improve them to some extent, they will never look like those gorgeous feet you see in pointe shoe advertisements. Try not to compare your feet with theirs -- they were born with those feet (as you were with yours). A tight foot is often very strong, even without a perfect shape, and many people with less than perfectly shaped feet are strong jumpers and very strong on pointe.

Take some pictures of your feet from several different angles, and keep on working -- but carefully. Accept that they will improve, but slowly. Work to achieve respectable points, never mind about brilliant ones. After 6 months or a year, take the pictures from the same angles you used before, and notice the difference.


19. Every time I take pointe class, in about 1/2 hr I need to take the shoes off because they start hurting a lot. I feel I can’t advance because I only get to the barre exercises & not to center.

You didn't mention how old you are, or how long you have been on pointe, or how many classes you take each week. In any case, it is not a good idea to dance when you are in a lot of pain, and you are right to stop when you get to that point.

Normally, people begin their pointe training by doing just 10 minutes or so at the barre for several months, 2 or 3 times a week. This gives their feet time to get used to the shoes. I would not expect any student to do pointe work for longer than a half hour during the first year.

If you have been training a long time then you should look into the reasons you are still in so much pain. Maybe you have the wrong shoes, maybe the exercises in your class are wrong for your level, maybe your feet are not well shaped for pointe work -- which can sometimes be helped by special, slow, careful training. It is a good idea to see an orthopedist who has experience with dancers, and ask him/her what the problem might be.

19. How can I learn to pirouette without getting dizzy?

Every school should be able to teach you how to spot a turn. If your teachers don’t offer that information, ask them directly.

20. I’ve noticed I’m beginning to get bunions. What can I do about this?

The cause of bunions is not completely clear. Causes can be related to poor hip placement, which causes the feet to pronate and the weight to lean too heavily toward the big toe, or too pointy shoes or extremely high heels.

There is also, apparently (for some people), a strong genetic link. Hypermobility in the feet, which basically means unusually soft connecting structures, such as ligaments and tendons, can allow the feet to spread sideways. The first metartarsal then stretches away from the rest of the foot, causing the typical bunion formation at the big toe joint.

A good podiatrist might be able to advise you on products that will help your feet maintain their natural good alignment.


21. When I do the grande jeté, my front leg doesn’t want to brush and kick high (the air time is short), and the back leg doesn’t give much push. The grande jete looks more like grande glissade.

Probably you need to free up your legs in the hip joints. There are many ways to exercise this at the barre, especially in grande battement: Try to let go of the buttock muscles of the leg extending to the front or side. Gently stretch out the psoas muscle (right in front of the hip joint) and loosen it up when extending the leg to the back, keeping your ab and deep lower back muscles strong. Once you get this coordination going, try to do it in mid-air.


Now it's your turn. Send me a question. I'll answer as best I can. In return, I ask only that you send me a bit of feedback about any advice I may offer. This will help me refine my answers.

If you want an answer, don't forget to include your email!

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