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By Kristin Lewis
Long lines are more than just a nuance of good technique. They’re one of the most essential qualities a dancer can achieve. A gorgeous line of the body extending in space makes even the most basic steps affecting: Just think of the “Shades” scene from La Bayadère with its series of simple arabesques. If you weren’t blessed with naturally long proportions, don’t worry. There are ways to elongate what you do have, from fine-tuning your full-body awareness to moving bigger in class. Chances are, you have more length in you than you think. Here are some do’s and don’ts to help you find it.
Do be aware of your body in space. Whether moving or standing still, dance as though you were extending in every direction. Lengthen your neck from the base of your skull, keep your shoulders down, and imagine that your limbs can reach the rafters. “Think about the infinite possibilities of the line you are making—not just the physical body but the space around you,” says Arturo Fernandez, ballet master at Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet in San Francisco. “It sounds esoteric, but it’s true––you are as long as you can envision yourself being. Remember that you’re communicating ideas, not just doing steps, and those ideas should be enormous.”
Do play with the geometry of your lines. When dancing on the diagonal, experiment with both sharp and flat angles. In tendu croisé devant, for instance, which angle seems to truncate your limbs? Which adds length? Also pay attention to the parallels your limbs create in space; parallel lines appear longer. For example, in first arabesque, extend the arm in second toward the back to match the working leg, rather than holding it directly out to the side.
Do fully extend your legs. “High-placed legs make everything look longer,” says Melissa Hough, a principal dancer at Boston Ballet. It’s perfectly acceptable to open your hip slightly to achieve a 90-degree (or higher) arabesque. Hough also recommends standing in tendu, rather than B+, when possible. In addition, opt for a more open attitude.
Do keep your chin up. Your head is an extension of your torso, just like your arms and legs. Instead of always dancing in the mirror, which keeps you looking directly at yourself, finish your lines by lifting your chin and upper chest, and focusing your gaze beyond your fingertips.
Don’t slouch, even during moments of stillness. If your shoulders round and your chest caves inward, or you sink into your lower back or tuck your hips, you’ll seem shorter than you really are. Instead, use oppositional forces to create length in your spine: Imagine your body pressing into the floor while simultaneously lifting to the ceiling. “The idea is not to create an illusion, but to explore your own physical capabilities at every moment,” says Mary Lisa Burns, director of education at the Merce Cunningham Studio in NYC. Use the mirror to experiment with how subtle posture changes can lengthen or shorten you.
Don’t bulk up your body. On many body types, bulky muscles shorten lines. If you lift weights, develop longer muscles by opting for less weight and more repetitions. Yoga and Pilates can also help you identify and open up tight areas of your body.
Don’t ignore the transitions between larger movements. Maintain the energy of each phrase by fully dancing every step. As Burns says, “A whole phrase can look less expansive because it’s dying in the middle—dropping its energy, its focus, or its intention.” In other words, creating a lengthened look is not just about a 180-degree split in a jeté. It’s also about the transition steps that take you into the air.
Don’t move small. If you move under yourself, you’ll seem short and timid, so travel as big as you can. “The longer your steps, the better,” says Hough.
Don’t stop short. Finish each position before moving on to the next. Can you lift your leg an inch higher at the last moment? How about extending another inch through your fingertips? These small touches can have a huge effect.
Kristin Lewis, the former managing editor of Dance Spirit, is a writer in NYC.
Photo by Erin Baiano.