Turns and spins may look effortless on stage, but the components that go into them are many, and sooo much more than just moving through space.
When I first started dancing, turns seemed like an elusive, unreachable goal. I knew nothing about the mechanics involved... and all too often, I found myself in classes where it wasn’t properly broken down, either. It seems that outside of beginning ballet classes, it’s just assumed that dancers already have the foundation technique or innate ability to execute a turn-or series of turns- and that’s simply not true!
To begin with, clean well-executed turns of any kind all start with balance.
Achieving and maintaining the center of gravity in the body is crucial to dance in general, and specifically for turning. This sense of stability activates three different parts of our physical bodies, and they must work together, constantly shifting and adjusting to make up the clean execution of turn technique.
The first is our vestibular system, located in the inner ear. Without getting too scientific, it’s the primary place that controls our ability to move our bodies. The vestibular system sends messages to our brains about kinetics, or the ability to fuse movement with balance. This is why people affected with inner ear problems or an ear infection often experience vertigo or dizziness.
The second is our motor control skills, which govern the interaction between our brains and our muscles, bones and tendons. The motor system sends cognitive information from the central nervous system to our musculoskeletal system, enabling us to perform every day movements and tasks…and to dance.
The third component is the ocular or visual system, which not only allows us to see, but registers depth perception and physical orientation. Of course, the eyes send info to our brains when we dance. It’s important to know that during a turn, unless you’re a crackerjack at spotting, your eyes won’t be fixed on a certain point, putting your equilibrium a little out of whack.
All three of these bodily systems work together as reflexes to aid our proprioception, or the sense of our physical body in space. A common example of the use of proprioception (or lack of it!) is the field sobriety sobriety test where an offer commands a potential offender to close their eyes while standing on one foot and touching their nose? A sober person can usually do this easily, but someone who is impaired or intoxicated cannot.
Ok, so now that you’ve got a little background, let’s move on to some exercises that will get you turning like a champ.
Develop Your Proprioception
In my classes, to demonstrate what proprioceptive orientation is, I ask my students to close their eyes, extend their arms, and stand on one foot for as long as they can. Some can do it for an extended time naturally, while others start to sway and waver… while sober! Proprioception works almost without any visual cues, it’s our body’s sense of “righting” itself. The good news is that by doing exercise better proprioception skills can be developed.
Improve Your Balance
Check and see where your weight is by rising slowly up onto the balls of your feet and maintaining the position for as long as you can. Notice where the brunt of the weight is. If it’s on the outside of your foot, towards the small toe, that’s showing a weakness in your ankles. This position is not optimal for turning, and it could potentially injure you. A “classic” Dancer’s Sprain occurs when the foot rolls over onto the outside edge, during dancing or any type of day-to-day activity.
Try this exercise to get your weight placed properly:
With feet just under your hips, rise up slowly onto the balls of the foot, pressing your toes into the floor. Keep your weight over the middle of each foot, and a little towards the big toe. Hold this position for at least eight counts, and slowly lower down to the floor. If you need to, use a ballet barre, a chair or even a wall or doorframe to maintain stability. Hold on as lightly as possible, trying to let your body do most of the work. Repeat at least four times, slow and steady.
Another exercise is to stand with the feet hip width apart. Pick up one foot- not too far off the ground- while making sure the foot you’re standing on has equal weight distribution between the ball and the heel. Hold in place for at least thirty seconds, before switching to the other foot. Repeat.
Strengthen And Stabilize Problem Areas
Even though we dance constantly, all of us are stronger in certain areas…and those areas over-compensate for where we are weaker. One of the most notoriously weak areas for many dancers (of all genres) is in the hip. My chiropractor taught me these strengthening and stabilizing the hips.
The first is to strengthen the calves. Stand on a staircase and lightly hold the railing, stand on one step with the toes and ball of both feet on the stair itself. Raise both feet to releve’ position, hold for sixteen counts, then as slowly as possible, lower the feet so that the heels are pointing downwards, towards the next lower step. Repeat at least four times. This will strengthen your calves and give a nice stretch to your hamstrings, too.
For he second exercise on the stairs, turn sideways to face the railing, holding it lightly, keeping the knees soft. Keep one foot on the step itself, and slowly lower the other foot towards the next step. If this is difficult, your hip is weak; you also might notice that one side is stronger than the other. Repeat the exercise on both sides at least four times initially, building slowly towards eight, then twelve repetitions.
Find Your Weight Placement For Turning
Practice each turn in its most basic form; even if you think you’ve mastered it already. This will help you with the “intention” of the turn, and burn it into your muscle memory. Do the turn in slow motion on flat feet, planting each foot firmly down onto the floor before taking the next step. Next, do the same thing, but with your eyes closed. After you’ve repeated these movements a few times, do the turn full speed and you should notice a marked improvement.
Engage Your Core While Turning
While we perform or rehearse, we are in dance posture: spine elongated, abs engaged, ribcage lifted, shoulders back and down. But sometimes in class or during solitary practice, we forget our posture because we are so focused on mastering technique. In order to execute a great turn, keeping dance posture is essential…and that includes keeping your core tightly engaged. This will provide you with far better bodylines, and provide an essential center of gravity.
Learn To Spot
Spotting keeps the dancer’s eyes and heads oriented in a certain place to alleviate dizziness and to enhance control during turning. The way it works is that a fixed focus for the eyes will help you to keep control and retain your balance. While the actual turn is happening, the dancer’s body will rotate at a certain speed… but the goal of spotting is to have the head actually get through the rotation a little more quickly, in order to control the direction of the turn or series of turns.
Spotting is simply the act of focusing on a certain spot while turning. To practice spotting, pick a location on a wall or the studio mirror, and practice turning very slowly, beginning and ending each turn with your eyes on the place you’ve picked as your spotting point.
If you practice these techniques, your turns should show a marked advancement in a fairly short time.
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