Placement of Weight:
Where To Be Or Not To Be, That Is The Question
Many ballet teachers encourage their students to either hold the barre very lightly or let it go completely as often as possible. Their rationale is to prevent students becoming dependent upon its support in preparation for when they move into the centre. But for many, following this advice can lead to poor execution, create imbalances between essential muscle groups and can even lay the foundations for injury.
So should you be placing your weight over your heel or toes? How does this differ between 1st and 5th positions? In this article I bring together my training in the Vaganova, Balanchine, French and Maggie Black methods as well as my experience as a teacher of Pilates, Gyrotonic® and Yoga to explain what I believe you should be doing to avoid these problems.
I regularly see very hard working students who are committed to improving themselves, shift their body weight sideways over their supporting (or standing) leg toes in order to work without holding onto the barre.
But if we use the barre only as a very light support, why don’t we skip this part of the class and start immediately in the centre as it is done in contemporary dance classes? Because in ballet, we train in a completely different technique. Simplistically said, in contemporary dance the emphasis is on giving into gravity and in ballet defying it.
From my own experience and observation, shifting your weight and touching the barre only delicately, like the Queen holds a cup of tea, is giving a false sense of balance and accomplishment. You are more likely to 'sit' on your supporting leg, thereby putting the main stress onto the outer thigh muscles (rider trousers), shinbone and shin muscle, thus becoming prone to the very common shin splints. On the other hand, the inner thigh muscles, hamstrings and lower abdominal muscle are underused. You can test this by poking them with your finger and find them soft and squashy.
To get the latter group of muscles engaged and strengthened, I advocate firmly holding onto the barre and pulling yourself as high up as possible, to vertically align your sit bone with your heel. As your leg gains length, you will find there is enough space to cross your legs in 5th position. Your 5th will feel almost pleasurable. In addition, you have created space in your hip joint, allowing it to turn out more. The point where the hamstring attaches to the sit bone gets perked up. Not only is this the place where you maintain your turn out from, it also shapes and lifts your buttocks (my favourite benefit). It’s like doing ballet and Pilates in one.
How does one transfer this technique to the centre when one cannot hold onto the barre?
This is a very valid concern. Yes, there will always be a slight shift of weight, but the stronger your adductors (inner thigh muscles) become the less movement will occur, ultimately leading to the shift being invisible. By this time, your pelvis will be brainwashed that its foremost direction is upwards and only then, if absolutely unavoidable, sideways.
There are exceptions of course. You would train differently if you are going to perform a Balanchine choreography for example. Here the dancer always tries to create counter-balances and is constantly moving from one pose to the next. However for the 'normal' (adult) student, I strongly believe that working on evenly balanced legs will provide you with the best foundation in terms of gaining strength and practising healthily and safely. Once this is established, one can experiment with counter-balance but not before you have established a strong foundation.