Ballet is hard. Really hard. No matter how ballet has progressed, the fundamentals of ballet have always stayed the same: turnout, pointed feet, and becoming something unattainable and unimaginable. Yes, these are the fundamentals, but the principals that ballet is based on have constantly changed throughout the decades to progress the technique. The first of these principles is plié. It is one of the first things you learn as a dancer. In the beginning, it is as simple as bending your knees and making a diamond.Then you learn to open your turnout, and finally it is the connection to the floor, the connection to tradition and the connection to a legacy that has been passed down from one generation to the next. So, the plié is not only the building block of ballet, but it also is the mental foundation of ballet.
From Issue 1 of A Ballet Magazine
No matter where you are in the world, no matter what time of day, no matter your socioeconomic status, if you take a ballet class, you will start pliés, unless a teacher gives you a random combination to warm-up your feet.
So, what are pliés used for?
Pliés are used to begin and end a jump, a turn, and basically every step in ballet. They are used to open the hips and facilitate turnout and to strengthen and lengthen the abductors. Pliés can be used to build strength in the hamstring, to stretch the Achilles, open the energy throughout the metatarsals, and open the body.
But more importantly, and the key to pliés, is the mindset that pliés set up for you. The plié clears your head, the outside world fades away, and ballet history starts to flow through your body. You see, pliés are a part of ballet history, and not just on the technical side of things. For generations, it has been a part of the tradition we enjoy so much. Plus, if you think about starting at barre, and the slight gesture of placing your hand at the barre, your hand is likely touching the imprint or sweat of generations before you. Think about it like this. Let’s say you go to SAB for the summer, and you are in one of the larger studios. Consider everyone who has touched that barre before you, stood where you stand, and now they are a part of ballet history. Think about the legends who grew up at Lincoln Center, or the standouts at your own studio who have moved on to accomplish great things. Sometimes, even inanimate objects have a history so inspiring that you are taken aback with awe.
Pliés for the Young Student
When you are younger, you think that the plié is the easiest of the technical vocabulary to master, but in reality it is quite difficult. Young students should really focus on alignment of the body, and really master the mechanic of slight movements (port de bras, plié, cambré, etc.), while maintaining their core.
Pliés for the Pre-Pro/Professional Student
For students who are in a higher program, the focus of a plié is to open your hips and start moving your joints. You should have warmed up prior to class, but if you aren’t there yet, then you really do use pliés as a warm-up. But, what you should focus on is the ability to gather and sustain energy from the body.
Pliés for the Professional
Once you are at a certain point in your career, pliés become the habit of life and just feel good. It is probably the only combination at barre that is easy and becomes second nature to you. But for you kids reading this, every professional uses pliés to warm-up the body and set the tone for their dance day. They will also pace themselves at barre, and work on the quality of their plié.
Pliés for the Mature Dancer
If you are on the mature side of dance, remember to thoroughly warm-up the body prior to taking class. The older we get, the more we have to preserve the body to prevent injury and to sustain dancing. Proper alignment really does become crucial for older dancers, especially where the knee is going in the plié. I always use my second toe as the guide of where my knee should be extending. With my demi plié, I also really try to make sure my knee goes slightly further than the length of my feet to get a really good stretch out of my Achilles.
Teaching Pliés: The David Way
Teaching how to properly plié is actually quite difficult. You can’t just say, “Bend Your Knees!” because some kid is going to bend their knees and out goes their rear, their ribs splay, and it becomes a hot mess. Truthfully, I actually don’t teach kids to plié in first position until age 8 or 9, when they can actually comprehend the fundamentals of the technique. With young students, I really try to maintain the integrity of the plié without messing up alignment by having them go under the barre and against the wall.
This only works if your barres are built into the wall and you have enough space for a dancer to go through. I am lucky to have the barres about 18 inches out from the wall but drilled into the floor- designed for stretching purposes and little kids. I have them do first position, backs against the wall, and as they plié I try to have them press their knees to touch the back of the wall. Honestly, I think I have only seen 4 kids do this naturally, otherwise it is like impossible — unless you have more than 180 turnout. But, by having them use this technique, and pressing the low back and full spinal cord into the wall, they are starting to learn how to build tension in the core, and feel the power of a plié coming from the hip. I also don’t really teach grand plié until they are 10 or 11 years old.
When they are older, they use one hand at the barre, (by now they have mastered grand plié facing the barre), but this time the focus isn’t just rotation and alignment, but coordination of the arm. I despise when people do grand plié and at the bottom of the grand plié their hands is in front of their crotch region; I think it’s ugly. So, I have my students delay the arm until they reach demi plié on the way back up.
Finally, when teaching pliés, there are various universal corrections to keep in mind:
Lateral Alignment through the spine, ribs, and hips.
The alignment of the movement, knees over toes.
Feet should be flat on the floor, toes spread, but arches must be lifted.
When doing the second part of a plié, coming back up, the top of your thighs should touch first and then like an upside down zipper come together, one tooth at a time.
Spiral the inner back of your thigh forward.
Don’t rush the music.
Don’t sit at the bottom of grand plié.
Pliés should never stop moving.