A SUPER high grand jeté is like magic. Audiences thrill to the moment when a dancer appears to float in the air at the top of the leap. “It’s an amazing sensation when you hover in the air. You get goose bumps while you’re up there,” says teacher and former dancer Margrete Helgeby.
“I remember one particular performance of Giselle… that feeling of hanging in the air. I had so much time that I had a look at the audience -- and I got goose bumps. That must have been in the late 80s and the memory is still strong.”
It looks incredible. It feels incredible. It is no wonder, then, that achieving “ballon”, that momentary illusion of being super-naturally suspended, high above the ground, is the holy grail of grand allegro. However, as Brenda Last, director of training at the British Ballet Organisation, observes, “there is no magic formula to getting into the air. It’s all about technique”.
Tim Storey (head of dance at the Victorian College of Arts Secondary School) says that developing a good jump has to start right at the beginning of class. “I think there’s a perception that if you want to improve your jumping, you should do lots of jumping. But I would say you need to think about the foundation of your work and your preparation.”
To understand how to improve the height of jumps, it is useful to know what happens anatomically. Perth physiotherapist Lisa Hutchinson, who specialises in dance injuries, gives this explanation. “The muscles that we use to jump are the anti-gravity muscles or the power muscles. These are the gluteals, which basically extend the hip; the quadriceps, which extend the knee; and the gastroc and soleus, which plantar flex the ankle [‘point’ the foot].
“As you move from a plié into a jump, you extend the hip, extend the knee, plantar flex the ankle.”
Hutchinson explains the mechanism that sends us into the air: “You stretch the muscle, like a piece of elastic, then let go and it goes ‘ping’. In order to create a power move, you need to create the maximum amount of stretch. So people that have a deeper demi plié, are, theoretically, going to be able to jump higher.”
But a deep demi-plié alone isn’t going to ensure fabulously elevated grand allegro. “There are a couple of other factors that affect the ability to jump high,” says Hutchinson. “There’s co-ordination – you need to time that explosive move. All the right muscles need to fire in the right order at the right time. Then there’s core stability. Think of a rocket launching.
The rocket is stiff and so, as the explosion goes, it powers into the air. Now imagine if the rocket was floppy on the top. You’d launch the rocket, but as it launched, it would wobble on top and lose energy in the wobbling process. Without core stability, you lose some of the power before you’ve even got up there.” Finally there is the role that the ankles and metatarsals play in pushing away the floor as they extend.
The ingredients for a high jump, then, are a deep, unforced demi plié, strength of the power muscles in the legs and feet, core stability and co-ordination. And all of these are learnt at the barre.
In terms of preparing barre work with grand allegro in mind, Storey recommends an emphasis on foot work. “To develop the thrust from the floor you want to put in a lot of working through plié into 3/4 point. It’s really nice if you can put in lots of little fast petit retirés, little fast petit dévelopés, so that you’re really articulating the foot, activating the intrinsics across the foot, getting the instep and the ankle strong. Then you can add the fondus for the strength of landing, and the grand battement for the force of the leg coming off the floor into the jump, particularly for grand jeté.”
However, all this is useless, says Storey, if the dancer does not understand how to hold their turnout from the hip. “If you’re in any way rotating the leg below the hip socket by using the floor as a force against which to push your feet, then you’re not preparing the feet, ankle and knees for allegro. If you ‘crank’ the feet out from the ankle, then chances are they’ll be pronating or rolling forward. This doesn’t allow the intrinsic muscles of the feet to actually work and you lose all of the strength you can develop from working the feet through the metatarsals,” he says.
“If you haven’t been developing the strength from the top of the leg, from the hip socket, when you jump off the floor you’re going to lose everything. And then, once you’ve lost everything, you’re going to land on something that hasn’t been trained to support it.”
In addition to barre work, it’s also important to ensure that jumping is a regular part of a young dance student’s training. “Lower body strength, as in from the hips down, increases incrementally in girls up to the age of 14 and in boys up to the age of 16,” says teacher Andries Weidemann (WA Academy of Performing Arts). “It’s really important that when children are very young they need to be jumping already. There should be an allegro section from the very first time they come into class.”
For Brenda Last it is also about comprehension: “You must know the fundamentals and the reason why you’re doing such a thing. Sometimes I feel that my students ought to do something which is beyond them, very difficult, because then they understand the reason for doing these other mandatory exercises.”
Returning to Hutchinson’s description of the rocket, it is easy to see the role the upper body and arms play in achieving height. “Again, it starts at the barre,” says Helgeby. “It’s knowing where your shoulders are in relation to your hips and knowing that this framework, while it’s malleable, is also strong. It’s knowing the trajectory of the arms, and that the arms can carry you through space.
“Students often unintentionally use their shoulders in an attempt to get off the floor but you need to slide your scapulae strongly down your back so there’s that sense of the connection [of the arms and shoulders to the torso].
“Even the air is an active participant: you gather it with your arms as they pass through bras barre and then imagine you push down on it to lift you as the arms arrive in arabesque.
Too often it’s all about the legs, and that’s a downfall. It should be holistic -- a whole of body experience.
” Last agrees. “You need muscle power,” she says, “but it mustn’t be isolated because you jump as a whole unit. As I’m always saying, you can’t allow your back to be like cooked spaghetti and your legs trying to do all the work!” Last also talks about the importance of the upper back in relation to breathing. “You cannot allow the back to go,” she says, “because your lungs are at your sides and they’re quite high up and you can’t allow those to be shortened. You need breath of air as you jump.” Helgeby concurs, saying, “When you do those really big sequences you do need to breathe, and co-ordinating your breath can assist you ability to increase the height of allegro.”
Once the back and shoulders are stable, the arms are free to work with the legs to lift the dancer into the air.
“Co-ordination of the arms and legs is important -- I always say ‘between the hands and the feet’, because it’s the extremities that create the picture,” says Weidemann. “In other words you need to get your hands at the top of the jump at the same time as your feet are at the top of the jump.”
Storey agrees. “How many dancers do we see who throw themselves up in the air and then we see the arms following? They’re not working efficiently. If they’ve got a nice big achillles tendon, they’ll be reasonably successful, but they won’t do the best they can do.”
Storey has a very specific method for developing co-ordination. “It’s that concept of trying to do the grand allegro almost without leaving the floor,” he explains. “So if we’re doing, say, a grand jeté en tournant, we do our three run preparation, slowly with long strides and then we do all of the action of the grand jeté en tournant with the arms, and the body and everything without actually leaving the floor, just passing the legs through and checking that the position of the legs is good for take off and landing. Then we’ll go back and jump it just off the floor. Then we’ll do it at 20 percent, then we’ll try it at 30 percent and maybe we’ll keep it there for a few weeks.
And then when I see that the dancer is strong enough to move on and start to really fly, then we’ll start to bring in those power muscles, and really push off the floor.”
Just as the shoulders and torso need to be stable, the pelvis also needs to be firmly and correctly placed to ensure that the legs can do their job. “If you’ve left your pelvis behind you and you’re not working up and forward on your legs, you’re going to have enormous difficulty trying to jump en avant in a grand jeté,” says Storey. “Again that comes down to outward rotation -- if you’re used to cranking your feet into an unnatural position then chances are you’ll have a lordosis in your lower back and your pelvis will be tilted backwards.”
Weidemann explains, “You lose a lot of force going up if your bottom is slightly back. It’s important for students to realise that when they jump, they should be lifting their hips up, not poking them back.”
It isn’t simply a matter of the pelvis being in the correct place though. It must also be held by the correct muscles – which takes us back to Hutchinson’s explanation about the anti-gravity muscles. “If you’re gripping your glutes [to hold the pelvis or turnout], clearly they’re not going to be as efficient when you try to use them for jumping,” explains Storey. “You should be using internal (‘tonic’ or postural) muscles for stance and the external (‘phasic’)muscles, the power muscles, for movement.”
With a correctly placed and held pelvis the legs are then free to power the dancer into the air. The plié or fondu preceding a jump should be deep and unforced, and the feet should push away from the floor, through the metatarsals.
Weidemann has several suggestions to build on these principles, beginning with one that is obvious but often forgotten. “When you get to grand allegro, the principle direction is up.”
Weidemann also talks about the use of counter-active forces. “It’s important to explain to students that we’re pushing down to go up. When you jump, the force goes down into the floor to push you up… so you’re actually going in two directions. From the hips up, you’re thinking about lifting up. At the same time, your legs are pushing down, pushing the floor away.”
The concept of getting the pelvis in the air can be applied to grand jeté too, says Weidemann. “Jeté means to throw, so what are you going to throw? You’re going to throw your front leg. The quicker your front leg can be, the higher your pelvis will go to follow the course of that leg and the more time you’ll have in the air to stretch the back leg and create the split you’re aiming for.”
Achieving height in grand allegro is heavily reliant on good technique. “Technique is not restrictive. Technique gives you space, it gives you freedom!” Last says.
But there is one more factor to consider, she says. “I think it’s very much to do with the personality of the person who teaches grand allegro. It mustn’t be a stale, boring subject.” Storey agrees. “It comes down to those things that you offer as a teacher, those motivational things. What images do you give to your dancers to help them achieve the extraordinary?”
Weidemann is a big fan of using similes to inspire students. “In grand jetés, I always like to scream: ‘Jump like the devil is at your heels!’” he says with a grin. “An image I give to students to encourage them to lift their pelvises into the air is ‘jump straight up like a bubble being sucked up a straw’.
“I also tell students to think of the jump as the heartbeat-spike on a heart monitor and the preparation as the plateau in between. So often the preparation bleeds into the jump and neither ends up being impressive. I find the heart-beat monitor image encourages students to travel in the preparation, but jump straight up in the jump,” explains Weidemann.
So, everyone agrees that technical skill is vital for a high jump, but the importance of capturing the student’s imagination can’t be underestimated. As Storey concludes: “Think of an albatross –how does it soar? Where does that come from?
It really is about transcendence.”
This article was first published in the December/January 2011 issue of Dance Australia