Attitude with Attitude
Apparently, the original inspiration for the attitude positions in ballet came from Giovanni da Bologna’s statue of the Roman god Mercury, sculpted in 1580. As with all things ballet, we came a long way since (fig.1)
Attitudes together with arabesques are amongst the most beautiful and expressive poses in ballet. Therefore, understanding how you can produce the best possible shape for your ability could significantly improve your ballet practice and performance.
What are the prerequisites?
The quality of your arabesques/ attitudes depends on a combination of the following anatomical factors:
flexibility at the front of your hip, i.e. psoas muscle
strength at the back of your leg, i.e. hamstrings,
strength and flexibility of your back
Most people’s psoas muscles are tight along with some weakness in the hamstrings. This makes extending and lifting the leg to the back difficult and ballet students tend to compensate this predicament by prematurely tilting the pelvis forward, often without engaging the abdominal muscles and thereby “breaking” the part of the back where it is the most vulnerable, resulting in unwanted compression of the lumbar (lower) spine. This can lead to chronic lower back pain and possibly injury.
Franziska at summer course, aged 17
How to do it better?
Visualise your psoas muscle. It originates at the lumbar vertebrae, then passes over your hipbone and finally inserts at the top of your thighbone (fig. 2).
Imagine this muscle softening and melting like chocolate or honey and let it run down from the front of your hip towards your knee. From there you want to initiate the backwards movement of your leg. Think of reaching your leg back and away from you rather than lifting it straight up. Keep your leg extended for arabesques or bend it to attitude by bringing the foot further behind you, not by pulling your knee sideways.
Although your pelvis is allowed to tilt forward to some degree once your leg reached its maximum height, it is crucial to engage your abdomen and to keep your upper back and chest must upright. A well-trained core and mobility of the back are necessary to be able to do so.
Eric Franklin describes the image of an arabesque position in his book Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance like this: “Think of the arabesque shape being supported by a hammock. Let the hammock create a perfect arc that extends into space."
One further key factor must be mentioned: the turnout. All ballet movements are facilitated and made easier by rotating the thighbone outward. Turning out releases the glutes (buttocks muscles), which when too contracted can obstruct the leg on its way up, and it also creates more space in your lower back, keeping the muscles and spine elongated and safe.
We could discuss many more relevant aspects, e.g. gravity and balance, the importance of the arms and shoulders, the role of eyes and the right mindset etc. but this would stretch the limits of this newsletter and maybe of your patience too.
The purpose of this article is to invite you to approach these beautiful yet challenging poses from perhaps a new angle and also to hint at what we are going to work on at the Arabesques and Attitudes Mini-Workshops on 13th June and 29th August.
If there is anything you do not understand or are confused about, do let me know. I will try my best to clarify and fill in the gaps.
image: Anatomography, CC BY-SA 2.1 JP creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons