Starting as a ballet dancer, Marisa discovered flamenco in her 40s. Now retired, she enjoys sharing her knowledge of all things dance.
Barre exercises are the building blocks of ballet, but doing barre at home isn't recommended by many teachers. Without the watchful eye of your teacher, it's too easy for you to get out of alignment and start creating bad movement habits. So what can you do instead?
- Floor barre
- Strengthening exercises
- Enjoy dancing
A floor barre workout is the perfect solution because it's a straight translation of a standard barre session. However, you're doing the exercises without putting weight on the legs, so injury is less likely.
The floor is there as a constant safeguard and reminder. You can't stick your bottom out because the floor is in the way, and you'll know immediately if you lift or twist your hip because it will contact with the floor.
You're not fighting gravity, and you're not having to think about balance. That frees your mind to focus on other things, and you'll discover aspects of the movements you've never thought about before. It's a great opportunity to focus on rotation and placement. You'll build core strength (similar to Pilates, but in a more ballet-specific way).
True floor barre is based on a system called "barre par terre" created by Boris Kniaseff. I loved it and was very upset when I lost my precious copy of his book when moving house. But there are teachers still teaching the system according to his principles. Zena Rommett and Stephane Dalle are two teachers who faithfully reproduce his techniques.
Floor Barre Is a Reality Check
One of the hardest things about floor barre is that it's a reality check.
You're probably used to your teacher yelling at you to "keep your hips square", and maybe you think you're doing a pretty good job—but then you do floor barre, and discover you're struggling to keep both hips in contact with the floor.
The follow-on from that is that when you do keep both hips in contact with the floor, your rotation isn't what you thought it was.
You may think you've got a good turnout—until you do floor barre and realise you've been using foot pressure against the floor to force your turnout. With no floor to push against, your turnout isn't as impressive.
The temptation can be to give up floor barre so you don't have to face up to those disappointments. But the point is, all these discoveries are important. Once you've accepted these home truths, you're all set to improve.
As an encouragement to persevere is this article on How to Get Glorious Extensions.
On the subject of turnout, I'm sure you know how important it is. You may not know that it's especially important if you hope to progress to pointe work (or are already en pointe). When you're standing on your toes in pointe shoes, there is only a small circle of fabric anchoring you to the floor, so your legs will tend to rotate in unless you have strong muscles to hold them in turnout.
A strong, reliable turnout is good protection against injury and will make all other exercises feel easier. For that reason, including clams in your daily at-home routine is recommended.
The clip below is another good illustration of why you must take care to do all ballet exercises precisely. Clams are a common ballet exercise, and most students—and even some teachers—assume the wider you open your knees, the better. Not true! If you lift your leg too much, you stop using your turnout muscles and start using the muscles on the front of your leg. Using those muscles won't help you prepare for pointe, plus it will over-develop your thigh and create bulk which you don't want.
Exercises for Pointe Work
When it comes to pointe work, you need more than floor barre. Don't be tempted to go dancing around your living room in your pointe shoes, especially if it's carpeted—you could do yourself an injury. You'll find some good barre sequences for pointe on Youtube.
Theraband Exercises for Pointe Work
Resistance bands are a great addition to your pointe preparation because they're very strengthening if done the right way. Search on YouTube, and you'll find lots of videos showing a theraband exercise where you pointe your toe against the resistance of the band. I don't recommend it.
The trouble with that exercise is that it encourages you to curl your toes over when you point. If you get into that habit, it will cause a serious setback to your progress in pointe work, and it will take a lot of work to correct.
It's vital for pointe work that if you're going to practice pointing your toes, your toes are absolutely straight.
In this video, Lisa Howell explains why it's bad and shows you what to do instead:
While I don't recommend you dance around in your pointe shoes at home, I do recommend you dance. I don't mean "find enchainements on YouTube and practice them", I mean, "put on some ballet music and dance".
Technique isn't everything. As a dancer, you need to develop musicality and expressiveness. In ballet, we often get too focussed on getting the steps exactly right and maintaining our poise and gracefulness, and we forget to let our emotions run free and respond to the music. Now's your chance to remember why you wanted to dance in the first place. Enjoy!
© 2020 Marisa Wright