IT IS July 2002 and I have travelled to Melbourne from Perth to see the Royal Ballet. It is the first time I have seen this renowned company, and also the legendary Sylvie Guillem. Fast forward eight years to 2010 and the first image that comes to mind, when I recall the exhilaration of watching Guillem live, is of her developpe to seconde, performed on pointe and held for a seemingly impossible length of time.
Of course, Guillem’s incomparable leg extensions are not solely responsible for her reputation as one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Many factors combine to make a beautiful dancer, and artistry and fluidity of movement are as important as immaculate technique. However, moments of extreme technical prowess definitely make us gasp. There is something magical about a gravity-defying arabesque or developpe a la seconde.
So, how are such lines achieved? With my memory of Guillem at the forefront of my mind, I embarked on The Quest For the Secrets of High Legs, hoping to discover the formula that would allow teachers and their students to achieve their best possible leg extensions.
The Quest took me to a variety of sources, starting with Andries Weidemann, lecturer in classical balletat the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), and Lisa Hutchinson, a Perth physiotherapist specialising in dance injuries. I then spoke to Dame Lucette Aldous, and her daughter, Tasdance dancer Floeur Alder. Lucette is highly regarded for her role as Kitri in Nureyev’s version of Don Quixote and continues to be an active practitioner and teacher of Boris Kniaseff’s floor barre in WA. Finally, I caught up with three staff members from the Australian Ballet School (ABS): Elizabeth Hewitt (exercise physiologist), Mark Annear Way (physiotherapist).
My first question was: “What is required of the body to achieve a high leg extension?” For Hutchinson, core stability is most important. “If you don’t have the muscles of the core on, you won’t get your legs up,” she states.
“If you are wobbly in the middle, you have no rigidity against which to create leg lines.” Annear agrees that core stability is vital, adding, “Strength and stability of the supporting hip/pelvic muscles is of the utmost importance.”
Once a strong base has been established, teachers and health professionals agree that range of motion at the hip joint is crucial to the height the leg can reach, devant, derriere or second. But flexibility alone is not enough. “Dancers need an abundance of both strength and flexibility to achieve high leg lines,” says Hutchinson, “and the strength needs to be developed within the range of motion of the extension.” The ABS staff also emphasise the dual importance of strength and flexibility: “Flexibility is required to be able to achieve the range of movement in the joints and muscles, i.e. the desired position of the body, and strength is required to sustain the position.
They are developed concurrently through years of training,” explains Hewett.
Of course, some bodies are better suited to achieving high lines than others. “To have beautifully high extensions, you do have to be born with the right genetic material,” says Weidemann. “A mobile hip socket helps a lot.” Hutchinson agrees, saying, “The lucky ones are those that are born flexible. It’s easier to build strength in a flexible body than it is to loosen up a strong but less flexible body.”
For those who are not naturally flexible to the degree to which they will be able to improve flexibility depends, to some extent, on whether it is the ligaments or muscles that are restricting the range of movement in the hip. “You can test this by getting the dancer to lie on their back with their legs in a ‘frog’ position. Push gently down on their knees and ask them where it hurts,” suggests Hutchinson. “If they go straight for the hip crease, then the restriction is probably ligament length. legs, it’s probably muscular and that will be easier to improve than ligament length.”
AND SO, onto the advice! How do we get those legs higher?
The importance of a strong core and stable pelvis should not be underestimated. Any exercises students are doing to improve leg strength and flexibility must be supplemented by exercises that strengthen the muscles of the abdomen and the pelvis. Assuming that the core is strong, it is then important to remember that a high leg line requires the muscles of the legs to be active while extended.
Therefore, dynamic stretching is preferable to static stretching.
“Bear in mind that the hip is a ball and socket joint, and you need to stretch it in the round,” says Weidemann. “You should stretch in a range of motion that will allow the leg to move easily from devant, to a la seconde, to derriere and back again. It’s all very well to train students to be able to do the splits in every direction, but they need to be able to have their legs to the side and, from there, be able to move into splits on either side.
What you are looking for is a kind of ‘mobility in the round’ rather than just straight line muscular flexibility. That’s something that teachers should be encouraging – with care – from a young age.”
As discussed earlier, Hutchinson highlights the importance of strengthening the muscles in the range of motion that strength is required. “You’ve got to get the leg up and practise holding it there,” she explains, “and that’s where a barre is useful. Get the leg up on the barre. Check that the alignment of the hips and pelvis is correct, and that the core is active. Now try to lift that leg off the barre without compromising the placement of the hips or pelvis! Even if you can’t actually lift it up, you’re going to strengthen in the range.”
This exercise can be conducted with the leg devant, a la seconde or derriere, but Hutchinson does warn that care must be taken to ensure correct placement is maintained. The ABS staff also talk about the importance of strengthening muscles in relation to use.
“Conditioning exercises need to be specific to the movement they are trying to assist, i.e. they should replicate the way the muscles will need to work in leg extensions for classical ballet,” says Hewett. “Well-trained Pilates teachers will know strengthening exercises based on the classic Pilates position ‘the teaser’, as well as ‘leg circles’ and, for back strengthening, exercises such as ‘dart’ which can be increased or decreased in difficulty as required.”
Weidemann’s tip for a high developpe is based on the understanding that the retire has to be lifted before extending the leg.
“When I ask the first year students at WAAPA to break down the stages of a developpe, they’ll say, ‘retire, then attitude, then extension’, and I’ll say, well the second stage for me isn’t attitude, it’s get your knee up,” says Weidemann. “I get them to stand in retire and lift the working knee as high as they can. Then I get them to hold the working leg with their arm under the knee, and just dangle the leg. At this point I check that their pelvis is correctly placed, and then I get them to extend the leg.”
Aldous and Alder also talk about using the arm to hold the working leg under the knee. “Holding the leg allows you to soften at the hip crease and drop the hip – as soon as you lock the hip flexors, that leg will never go up,” says Alder. The tension should all be taken in the lower abdominals instead. “The abdominals have to be engaged – the lower abs are really ‘in’,” adds Aldous. “If you get the angle of the thigh up, especially a la seconde, the femur sits down into the hip joint.”
Aldous’s top secret for high legs, however, is undoubtedly Kniasseff’s floor barre, a system of exercises conducted lying or sitting on the floor which are designed to increase core stability, and general strength and mobility. Given that Aldous, in her 70s, demonstrates various floor barre exercises to me with the agility of a dancer in her early 20s, it is clear that floor barre has much to offer.
Like yoga, floor barre is designed to stimulate circulation and lubricate the joints, which Aldous says is crucial when aiming to increase range of movement. “When joints are moving, it sends synovial fluid into the joints – it’s like you’re lubricating those joints,” she explains. An advantage of working on the floor is that it is easy to feel if posture is correct. “Lie down on the floor and do any leg extension and you’ll immediately feel if the placement of the pelvis is incorrect,” says Weidemann. In floor barre, the hands are also used to ensure correct placement. In exercises that take the leg a la seconde, one hand sits under the working hip while the other is placed on top of the supporting hip so that the student can correct the hips if they feel them rocking towards the working side.
In the absence of a floor barre, Aldous recommends yoga. “Yoga is what floor barre is based on. It stretches the hamstrings, involves the core muscles and uses the principle of increasing circulation prior to intense stretching and conditioning.” Aldous also suggests that students who are struggling with flexibility take a magnesium supplement.
Lastly, I ask : “At what age or stage should teachers be encouraging students to work for high leg lines?” ABS students work towards 90 degree extensions from the age of 10 but placement is always prioritised over height. All the experts agree that leg height depends on a student’s capabilities. If a dancer can maintain core stability and correct placement of the pelvis, when extending the leg at 90 degrees, then they are ready to start working higher, regardless of their age or grade. The same is true in reverse – if a student can’t maintain placement at 90 degrees then theyneed to be working lower. Although there is no single magical formula, much can be done to improve leg height. So, stick up a poster of Sylvie Guillem in your studio, and lift those legs!
This article was first published in the June/July 2010 issue of Dance Australia