Notes on Fifth Position

Fifth position: home base. This position can be the best feeling in the world, or it can be your worst enemy. It is painfully beautiful, gives you the longest leg line, and most of all it is the ultimate measure of turnout, placement and technique. The ideal fifth position is taking the feet in first position and overlapping them to create two parallel lines giving your legs two diagonal lines. As most teachers would say, “toe to heel, heel to toe.” This position creates a narrow hip line, and brings your body into the longest standing position of the body. But, it isn’t easy achieving this position.

Not only do you have to understand how the upper body works, and how the core lifts, but most importantly you have to understand how to use the backs of your legs (click to learn more) or you will get a distorted– heavy position; opposed to a long and light position.

You should never grip your quads in fifth. Truthfully, you should just never grip your quads. The inside of your thighs should lay extremely flat, and your knees should be facing opposite walls and pulled back. A good fifth position will have the knees crossing but not touching. This would be perfect 180 degree turnout and then some.

Fifth Position

5 THINGS YOU SHOULD JUST NEVER DO IN FIFTH…

1.One of the biggest mistakes most students make in fifth position… is when crossing into fifth they relax their core and causes the pelvis to tip forward. Students think it is a way you relieve pressure or cheat your turnout… You actually want to do the complete opposite. You should be so pulled up in the front of your hips that your fifth closes seamlessly. Additionally, you should be rotating from the backs of your legs to keep your pelvis supported, and lifting through your core to keep the pelvis stable.
2.Another pet peeve in fifth position is a relaxed front knee. It is this pseudo Miss America position that grosses me out. Not to mention, if you are relaxing your knee, you are probably using your quad in everything else and you are just going to get big thighs.
3.You should also never pronate forward or back. You should never force a fifth position, you are asking for knee problems. There is nothing wrong with having 150 degrees of turn out. The ideal is always going to be 180, but if you can’t achieve 180 with your hips rotation, knee rotation, ankle rotation without compromising alignment; then just stay where you are at. But keep cross training and stretching to eventually be strong enough to get to 180.
4.Don’t ever do open fifth. Always cross your fifth. This whole open fifth is awkward… Not to mention open fifth in pointe shoes is ridiculously ugly. Ideally, you shouldn’t see your back foot, but if your hips aren’t flexible enough to hold the position, keep working hard.
5.Fifth position should never ever be forced. Turnout can be stretched, but you work on turnout in pilates, gyro and yoga… You use barre and fifth to strengthen and lengthen the position. Forcing turnout causes numerous problems on the hips, ankles, knees, pelvis and lower back. So, again, just do it.


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Notes on First Position 


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Notes On: Getting Extension… to the side…

Extensions in ballet are everything… Well extensions are also everything on social media, but social media is a whole different post. But extensions in ballet… truly are everything… It is the difference between getting a contract and not getting a contract, it is the difference between being cast as Odette … or not. You get the idea, or at least I hope you do. My original post about tilting your hips has kind of come under a lot of fire, which is totally cool… Everyone is entitled to their own pedagogy and ballet ideals. But a lot of you have asked some questions, so I am here to answer some of them. In ballet… a la seconde or side or perfect side or whatever your natural turnout decides what side is… well it is really confusing and quite difficult. And truth be told, I had no clue what any of it really meant until I became a teacher…

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Side Action… first we have to determine what is side. For some schools- it is about the natural turnout and you draw a line from the second toe outwards (i)… Other schools teach that side is in line or slightly in front of your shoulder (ii) and some schools teach that side is behind your hip line (which only works if you are freakishly hypermobile or flexible, iii). This is all determined by turnout.

what is a la seconde a ballet eduation

 

Okay, okay… Now onto the good stuff… Getting your leg up. You can just hoist your leg up, you have to use the back of your legs. If your teacher is one of those sticklers for being square, which I totally don’t disagree with, you only have to follow a and b.

a-b. From passé, you rotate slight forward to an attitude position and lift your knee as high as it can go while your hips stay square. You have to seperate your femoral head while rotating it to get to this position. then you just have to extend the heel forward till your leg is fully extended. Yes, you use your heel as the guide of your extension, not your knee. If you are focusing on your knee… you get massive quads and can grip. You have to really use opposition to achieve the back of your legs. The oposition comes from really pressing your psoas and core downwards.

square extension what is a la seconde

c-e. I teach my students to start shifting their weight into their standing leg, and aligning the opposing hip. I tell them to use the full power of the backs of their leg to rotate forward, bring the leg even more slightly infront of their body allow the look of maximum turnout. Then bring the knee into the front of your armpit using your psoas, and pressing down through the student’s core to get the maximum stability and correct tension saving the hips. Then guiding through the heel, like the later part of a ron de jambe en l’iar. So instead of thinking of extension as a line, you have to think of it as a circular motion… like turnout… like everything in ballet. Use your hamstring to supply the support needed. But the higher your leg gets, the easier it should feel. It is simply physics, as the weight is now all shifted into your standing leg, freeing up your working leg.

f. Then, for those students who are hypermobile, and have mastered the ability to rotate the extension upwards, I let my students shift their weight even more into their standing leg, and then like a teetertotter shift their hips even more to get those last six inches of extension. Unfortunately, this puts a lot of pressure on the lower back, so you have to be strong and pretty advanced to achieve it.

more notes: Tilting your hips on the plane of turnout is not the same as lifting your hip. Lifting your hip usually reffers to your booty and pelvis tipping forward. You have to understand your hip anatomy in order to really understand turnout and a la seconde. You never want to lift from your quads. Again work from the back of your legs! If you don’t know how, read my notes on how to work from the backs of your legs. Your hips have to be really warmed up and stretched out before your attempt this… Don’t be one of those kids sitting in their room reading this and then just go try it… It is why barre is structured.

Diagram of hip for ballet


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Notes on Tendu… well tendu devant

TENDU BANNER

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:

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:

how to tendua. 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.)

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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.jpgd. 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.jpge. 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.

fge. 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.

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When in Doubt… Turn Out

when in doubt turn out ballet turn out

“Turn-out. Turn-out. Turn-out.”

“Use what you have.”

“I don’t see you even trying.”

“What was that? That wasn’t even ballet.”

All corrections we may have heard. Turn-out in ballet is the most important thing. I remember a teacher once asking me, “Is it more important to have straight knees or be perfectly turned-out in a tendu?”  My immediate response was something like, “Have straight knees so you can lengthen the muscle and work correctly.” I was then told I was wrong. Now as a teacher, I realize what she was talking about. In ballet, the most important thing is turn-out, it is the thing that makes ballet so difficult, and separates ballet from the rest of the classical dance forms. Turn-0ut is the outward rotation of the hip joint. The goal is 180 degrees (90 degrees on each leg).It is based on the stance in fencing. So, turn-out is the one thing that defines ballet. If you have biscuity feet, you can kind of hide it by turning out. But, what makes turn-out so amazing is that by properly rotating the leg from the hip, and using the muscles and tendons properly, it changes the shape of the leg. Which is why turn-out is the most important thing in ballet. Unfortunately, if you don’t have close to perfect turn-out… ballet might not be for you…

And no, it isn’t about just standing there in a nice turned out position… It is about dancing 100% of the time turned out. ABT’s Zhong-Jing Fang at the Prix de Lausanne. She won in 2000. Unfortunately, she is still in the corps… but that is some killer turnout.

Dancing turned out all the time puts a ton of stress on the legs, and can cause the ligaments to overdevelop and compensate for other ligaments. So, it is really important to get into pilates, or go swimming. Turn-out is ten times more important than body proportions because turn-out is the first deciding factor for the potential of a ballet dancer.