Footwork of the Fourth Kind

There is an exercise that, thanks to the late, great George Balanchine, can predominate many ballet teacher’s barre work in a America. This exercise is called battement tendu, which literally means a stretched beating. It involves (in its most useful form) starting in fifth position, stretching the working foot out quickly and sharply between two down beats of music and then returning the foot forcefully back to fifth position on the down beat, all the while maintaining strict outward rotation of the legs and feet. The original intent of the inventors of this exercise was to warm up and work the feet as well as to learn and enforce moving to and from one of the five positions of the feet (mostly fifth) without varying from a perfectly turned out position. This exercise is absolutely fundamental to the correct execution of many ballet steps but it is missing something: the toes do not leave the floor. In almost all ballet steps the toes leave the floor. In jumps they obviouly do. Almost all preparatory steps require stretched feet to leave the floor. During a turning step on pointe the working foot lifts to a position and the standing foot springs about 1/8 of an inch off the floor before alighting on pointe. Adagio movemnents, where the working leg often lifts high, clearly requires the toes to leave the floor. We are left with a few reverences, temp lies, grand port de bras and male preparations for pirouettes where the working foot stretches but stays in contact. The question is, when there are ten exercises at the barre that should be done in every class, at least six exercises in the center, a minimum of six jumping combinations and eight pointe combinations all to be done daily (in a 1 1/2 to 2 hour class), how do you fit in four to six battement tendu combinations at the barre. The answer is that a lot of steps and combinations are sacrificed in order to do this. Mr. Balanchine was brilliant and developed a very unique and sophisticated style and technique that bears his name but there are flaws and holes in his method. His style was given the term “neoclassical” and it is important to understand that it is different from pure classical ballet. As with many brilliant people I believe that Mr. Balanchine was a bit compulsive and this (along with the fact that many of his early students did not have good “ballet” feet) lead him to obsess about battement tendu. Since he was such a monumental figure in the world of ballet and his most productive years were spent here in the U.S., his influence has lead to this over use of the battement tendu exercise in America.

So, what should a student do in place of 4 to 6 battement tendu combinations? They should do 1 or 2 battement tendu combinations and do 6 to 8 jumping/allegro combinations. Most teachers give only 3 jumping exercises. Jumping is far more strengthening for the feet (since you have to elevate your body into the air against the resistance of gravity), legs and cardio vascular system than pointing your feet at the barre can possibly be.

To break it down to the essentials, do more jumps and less battement tendu.


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