Pre-Ballet is such an important and exciting level for your youngest students and for you as a teacher! The student learns to transition from creative work to more recognizable ballet vocabulary and the teacher has the opportunity to thoughtfully prepare and ready them for Beginning Ballet. With that preparation comes the important step of introducing and teaching turnout to your Pre-Ballet dancers. The following suggestions, helpful hints and exercises are designed to ease this transition and give your youngest dancers the skills needed to step into 1st position successfully.
Building on the Excitement
Your students will be very eager for the moment they are first allowed to stand with turned-out legs and feet. They may have practiced smooth and deep pliés, keeping their backs straight and jumping into the air with stiff knees and pointed toes as they learned sautés but until this moment, those steps were all executed in parallel positions. Now, they are ready to practice those steps like real dancers! Build on that excitement and make it a special occasion when it’s time for this introduction. Turning out is something earned through hard work and good focus.
Non-weight bearing exercises are a great way to teach the concept of turnout and allow them to safely feel the muscles to use while also having a clear visual of their legs and feet.
- Butterfly stretch – this familiar stretch can now be a reference point for your dancers as they explore turnout. Moving their knees together then open like a butterfly allows them to feel the outward motion from their hips rather than from the feet.
- Seated 1st position – have your dancers sit on the floor with their legs fully stretched in front of them. Make sure their legs are together. Rather than sitting up with a fully straight back perpendicular to the floor, instruct them to slide their hands slightly behind them. While resting back on their hands, remind the students to keep their necks long so they do not sink down into their shoulders. This angle allows them to visualize their legs and takes any strain or limitation caused by tight hamstrings.
With flexed feet, instruct your dancers to keep their heels together and open their toes wide enough to fit one piece of pie, then back together, then two pieces of pie and back together, and so on. As they continue through the exercises, increase the number or size of the triangle so the range of turnout expands into the form of a non-weight bearing, seated 1st position. Pick a triangular visual like pie or pizza that works for you and for your students. It’s also helpful to say, “heels kiss, toes away!” with each motion.
*Helpful hint – Hands-on: Before starting this exercise, go to each student one by one and place your hands on their legs. Rotate their legs so their feet open into their “heels kiss, toes away” 1st position. This helps them see the position of their feet but most importantly, feel the muscles in the legs responsible for rotation.
Strong standing ready position
Before introducing weight bearing 1st position, make sure your Pre-Ballet dancers have a strong understanding of basic alignment and posture. They must be able to stand tall with a straight back and engaged abdominal muscles before introducing turned-out positions of the legs. If they can hold their bodies and keep focus, the transition to the use of turnout will be much more successful. Use a verbal cue that works for you like “ready pose!”. This directs dancers to stand up quickly like a soldier with feet together and hands on the waist. Go through a checklist designed to help them create ideal posture and body awareness that may include some of the following cues: Eyes front, shoulders down, elbows forward, tummy zipped, bottom pinched, legs strong and stiff!
*Helpful Hint – Mirror: Always have them face the mirror so they can see themselves. This is especially helpful to later visualize the turnout of their legs and feet.
Introducing 1st and 2nd positions standing in the center
Doing this before taking them to the ballet barre develops a better understanding of posture, builds core strength, and teaches them to stand in turned-out positions without hanging or leaning on the barre for support. This should be done with their hands on their waist. Remind them of their ready position checklist. Repeat this for 2nd position. Be careful that 2nd position is not too narrow or too wide by teaching your students to put one heel under each shoulder.
* Helpful Hint – Word Choice: Use similar words and visual cues from the non-weight bearing exercise such as heels kiss, toes together, and two pieces of pie. Now you can add the concept of footprints to your imagery tools. Dip your ballet slippers in your favorite color of paint and place them into your first position. When you use footprints as a reference, remind them that the muscle around their knees, legs and hips turn their legs out. I pretend to put a wiggly eye sticker on each of their knees, so they always look sideways.
*Helpful Hint – Visuals: Have an advanced student come into your Pre-Ballet class to demonstrate how beautifully to stand in 1st and 2nd positions. Alternatively, show pictures of professional dancers illustrating beautiful use of turnout. You also can place actual stickers on their knees or inner thighs. They can look at their stickers in the mirror to make sure they are holding their turnout correctly.
To the Barre!
Once your Pre-Ballet dancers are standing tall, have learned their non-weight bearing exercises and are standing 1st and 2nd positions with confidence, they are ready to go to the ballet barre. Again, this is a very special and exciting moment, so build on that. Make going to the barre a reward and something practiced only by those who are ready, focused and strong! They will rise to the expectation and feel grown up. Teach them how to properly stand at the barre and outline good ballet manners and expectations. Be hands-on so they feel the proper rotation from their hips and the strength in their muscles. Their balance will improve with the use of the barre, which enables them to increase their turnout to a proper 1st position. Only introduce 1st and 2nd position in the first lesson at the barre. Once they understand the positions of the legs and feet, pliés, relevés and other foundational steps may carefully and responsibly be introduced.
By providing creative explanations and going through a thoughtful transition, your Pre-Ballet dancers will learn how to turnout correctly from the start and be ready for all that lies ahead in their ballet training. It’s a process well worth approaching with care and enthusiasm.