If you thought standing in first position was hard…. try moving in ballet. Moving in ballet looks easy, due to all of the painstaking and financially draining years dancers train before getting an elusive contract. In ballet the first thing you learn is plié, but because I have not mastered the art drawing a plié (it looks like a squatty ugly troll at the moment) I have skipped to tendu. Formally a tendu is a battement tendu, but it in ballet world… tendu is tendu. In ballet, every vocabulary step is based on four basics: plié (build), tendu (stretch), relevé (press), and coupé (rotation). Master these four things and the basic positions and you can basically break down any ballet step. So, what is a tendu? Defined by the ABT curriculum it is the following:
A battement tendu is the commencing portion and ending portion of a grand battement and is an exercise to force the insteps well outward. The working foot slides from the first or fifth position to the second or fourth position without lifting the toe from the ground. Both knees must be kept straight. When the foot reaches the position pointe tendue, it then returns to the first or fifth position. Battements tendus may also be done with a demi-plié in the first or fifth position. They should be practiced encroix. (ABT DICTIONARY)
If you have no clue what that is… well, don’t worry- it is a horrible definition, and really poorly explained. Ignore, well all of that. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have even used that. That is awful. (Sorry American Ballet Theatre) If you did it their way, you would be in this choppy awful position. For those of you who are ballet dancers, imagine sliding your body from fifth to fourth without shifting your weight… Hahaha. You would look like a LEGO person trying to dance.
So, a tendu is the stretching/reaching/lengthening of the full leg. This being from the hip joint to the edges of all your toes. Typically, a tendu is done from first or fifth at barre, but can show up randomly in centre combinations. Tendus can be done in all positions, in any direction, and at any speed on either straight legs, in plié, or randomly in a Russian class on relevé. Tendus work/exercise/strengthen both the standing leg (the leg that is not doing the work aka tendu) and the working leg (the leg that is doing all of the moving aka the tendu). Ideally, as you tendu both knees are straight, but there is a lot of give in that sentence. Now that you are in a fifth position, you have to get to the tendu position, and in order to do that, you have to kind of know your body a little more than the average Joe. So, here we go explaining tendu devant/ tendu front/ tendu to the front:
a. Starting in a solid fifth position, your core is centered between both legs. The weight of your legs are centered above your ankles but shifted into the balls of your feet. Unfortunately, even positions in ballet are never still and relaxed, they are always active.
b. From the hip join into the thigh, you use your turn out, or outward rotation to start spiraling down your leg, but in an upward sensation, into your calf and heel. (Think of your legs as barber shop poles.) This spiraling feeling then allows you to rotate your heel up and forward without bending your knee to start pressing the heel forward. (Forward being in front of your belly button/ center of your body, don’t go towards your toe, or some other ungodly open position. It is just ugly.)
c. As you push forward the femur head in your hip joint will be rotating away from your body keeping the tension in your hips, and allowing the femur head to slightly incline back into your pelvis. To build strength in the leg, you want to work isometrically, so you use the back of your leg to push down into the floor and into the ball of your foot. You want to keep your toes, and ball of your foot on the floor as long as possible in the tempo given. Using that downward pressure, you can use it to your advantage to press the heel forward even more. During this time your arch will start to form/pointe and you want to rotate up and forwards towards your final destination. (The little green dot). As this happens you want to keep the your body center over your hips and standing leg. Because you are working in two directions, your working leg should be/feel weightless. As the ankle gets further away from the body, your toes will start to have to reach, using the full range of motion of your arch, metatarsals and toes.
d. In theory, as you reach towards your final destination your foot becomes fully pointed, no crunch toes either. That is a ginchy foot waiting to happen. Here is the trick though to reaching your final destination. Only the outside tip of your big toe/shoe should touch your destination. This creates a slightly beveled look, also known as not sickling or having a biscuit. As the length of your leg is now on a diagonal, it ideally makes your line visually longer. Your working leg should be constantly reaching towards the destination and even further, while your hip joint works against it and pulls the muscles and tendons up into your crease.The top of your leg is basically pulling around into the back of your leg, and the back of your leg is reaching down at the diagonal. Tendu doesn’t have an endpoint, so you have reach as far as you can as long as you can, in the allotted tempo.
e. As you come back in towards homebase, fifth position, the action works in reverse. Instead of leading with your heel, you are now leading the movement with your pinky toe. Your ankle spirals back towards fifth position, and glides towards fifth. As you come back in your standing leg has to work even harder to make sure you can retain the length of the leg you achieved in the tendu. Additionally, as you come back into fifth this is where you don’t want to bend your knee, BUT if you are hyper extended, have muscle-y thighs, or baseball calves (none of these are bad), your working leg’s knee might need to relax to get into a solid fifth position. BUT WAIT! there is a way to avoid this. It is kind of a Balanchine thing, but when I am teaching, I only teach it to kids like 12+ who have the cognitive ability to think about this.
e. As you start to zip your thighs downwards, meaning the tops of your legs have to touch first, then slowly down the leg, you start running out of room. You just did all of that hard work to get length in your leg and work out your arch, and you don’t want to release the tension by just bending the knee… Or you do if you are super hyper-extended… But you have the option of slightly doing the smallest ever relevé so you can lift to close. As you lift to close, you are retaining the length and tension in your leg. And then you control lowering your heels at the same rate, this way you don’t clunk down like an elephant and lose all of the hard work you just did. If you aren’t for the lifting to close, as you zip your thighs down, you want to make sure your pinky toe touches the standing leg’s heel first so you know you are turned out, not sickled or in a funky random position. Then you want to press your heel firmly into the grown. It is still lifting to close but not as dramatic, or as much work on the standing leg.
g. Finally, you are finished as now your legs have completely spiraled and should feel taller than when you started. By the end of a slow tendu, or warm up tendu you should feel your legs starting to wrap into your crease, your calves rotating forward, and your hamstrings engaged. You should feel pretty tall and elongated.
If you don’t you could have done the following:
Gripped your quads: if you are a quad gripper, that is a hard habit to break. You need to work at a slower pace to correct the gripping. To keep your knee straight you use the back of your knee pulling upwards or downwards depending on how you feel your legs. Regardless, it is the same concept of the back of your leg lengthening. Another thing, if you are gripping in your standing leg, your weight is probably in the standing leg heel opposed to being centered over the foot.
Biscuit foot: In tendus… if you have any sickling, pronating or arch gripping, toe curling… you are not going to get the desired line you want.. You are also not working your foot properly, which probably means you aren’t working your leg properly.
Weight shifting: sometimes little kids have a hard time keeping their standing leg spiraling down into the floor to anchor their core and body weight… So sometimes as they tendu, their body weight shift into the working leg causing the quad to grip. Or vice versa, they shift into the standing leg heel causing their quad to lock and lower back to arch.
If you are mind blown by this… Start off slow… like not even in class… take time at home in the kitchen or your bedroom, and start barefoot. Feel the floor and how your legs work… Take your time to really develop every part of the tendu.
Side note, tendus can change drastically by the tempo of the music and style. In a Balanchine-sque class you are going to want to really define your destination point, and really define your fifth. This is also called stopping the tendu, or hitting the position, or quickly place the foot pointed and quickly place into fifth. The dynamic can also drastically change based on direction and if you are coming from a different position than first or fifth. And finally, my way of tendus isn’t the only way to tendu… Every school has their thought process… This is just how I teach tendus.