Dance History

Letter to the Editor from Alastair Macaulay: On Ballet's High Legs

The Mariinsky Ballet in Balanchine's "Rubies," photo courtesy Mariinsky Ballet

Dear Editor,

I've just read Emma Sandall's piece on hyperextension and the 180-degree position. It's intelligent, interesting, well-written. But there are a few mistakes and some misleading remarks. I can't resist writing the following.

1. If Guillem says Fonteyn said would have lifted her leg higher if she could, then that's what Guillem says.

But she's wrong. Keith Money's book "Margot Assoluta" (published in 2000) includes a photo of Fonteyn in rehearsal doing a seconde almost to shoulder-height: she told Money "I can get the leg that high—but it ruins the line." Fonteyn wanted level hips, something crucial to many ideas of placement but not discussed by Sandall.


2. Emma Sandall writes:

"This" (raising the leg above hip height) "was not an issue for dancers during the first couple hundred years of ballet's history. Decorum demanded that the leg extend no higher than the hip. Lifting it further revealed too much leg, and displaying the area 'down there'—the crotch—was taboo for women. For men, the issue was the suggested effeminacy (and hence homosexuality) of stretch over strength—an early-19th-century notion with residues to this day."

Does Sandall have any sources for these claims about the first two centuries of ballet history? It's ages since I researched this area, but (a) the women dancers of the mid-eighteenth century—when the gargouillade was invented—were obliged by the Paris Opéra to wear "caleçons de précaution"—safety underwear, in an age when women generally did not wear undies—to prevent the men in the audience from seeing their groins; (b) where on earth does Sandall hear reports of suggested effeminacy before 1900?

(A). Admittedly, the gargouillade reports are puzzling (Marie Allard is said to have established the step c.1750), since they raise questions of what skirts were worn for such jumps. But it seems likely that women were either hoisting their skirts with their hands, so that audiences could see what remains a tricky step today, or were sometimes wearing much shorter skirts than we see in illustrations. (Illustrations show the ballerina Subligny, who danced in the 1690s, in full-length dresses like a court lady; but the notation for one of her dances shows her doing a tour en l'air, and also shows her doing lots of fancy footwork that at least must have involved the skirts being lifted. It's very possible she wore lighter and shorter skirts for some dances.) There are three paintings by Lancret of Camargo dancing in the 1730s: the one in the Washington National Gallery has men on the ground who sometimes are thought to be voyeurs who may be looking up her skirts. And the institutionalisation of caleçons de précaution c.1750 shows that audiences were somehow used to seeing the groin area beneath the skirts.

B. I've never read of complaints of male effeminacy in ballet before the twentieth century. In 1840, Théophile Gautier—who generally abominated male dancers as coarse brutes who spoiled the loveliness of ballet—praised the legs and jumps of Jules Perrot. Gautier, as in his novel "Mademoiselle de Maupin," was quite interested in aspects of androgyny, as he also shows in his reviews of Fanny Elssler in male attire, but he never seems to bring up male effeminacy, even when he extols Perrot as "the male Taglioni;" or rather he seems not to think any such near-effeminacy is anything pejorative. I wonder when suggestions of male effeminacy came in. There were more male dancers in the nineteenth century, even in France after 1860, than we usually hear; they all seem to have been the opposite of effeminate.

3. Emma Sandall should be aware that hyperextension in ballet had two particular booms before our time, both connected to major political revolutions: the French in 1789 and the Russian in 1917. The writer Despréaux, who had been married to the star ballerina Guimard (who retired in 1789), wrote after her death in 1816 that ballet style had changed out of recognition since 1789-1790, with legs rising above hip height. (Ivor Guest quotes this in two of his histories.) There is plentiful evidence that ballet at this period became much more acrobatic and bravura in various ways. Illustrations of Auguste Vestris (whom surely nobody accused of effeminacy) show his seconde at hip height. The work of subsequent ballet teachers seems to have restored hip height as the gold standard by the 1820s. Then a similar trend to acrobatics occurred after the 1917 Russian revolution: extensions and lifts suddenly went much higher.


Balanchine seems to have invented none of this; he took his style from the Petrograd in which he graduated.

As Sandall remarks, another dance that employed acrobatics was the can-can. (Petipa is said to have taken a non-acrobatic step from it for "Paquita," though I know this solely from hearsay.) Massine put a can-can into the ballet "La Boutique fantasque" (1919), ending with the ballerina on the floor in the splits. We take this kind of splits for granted today, but the critic Mary Clarke told me how one aristocratic female balletomane c.1948 would see those splits in "Boutique" and remark "Can't be good for 'em!" I suspect it's no accident that Balanchine incorporated one such use of the splits into the Terpsichore-Apollo pas de deux in his "Apollo" (1928): for him, the splits were now part of "la danse"—but a relatively new part.

But again (some) ballet teachers led the counter-revolution against this new acrobatic tendency. Cecchetti in particular—or Idzikowski on his behalf (it takes better scholars than I to tell their writings apart)—wrote in the 1920s that legs should go no higher than hip-height; to raise the leg higher was to engage with acrobatics rather than art.

4. Emma Sandall writes: "Marie Taglioni lifted hers some more in the mid-19th century and bourréed across the stage on pointe."But there are surely no reports that Taglioni "bourréed" on point. Bourrées on point may only have come in with the blocked shoe later in the century; I know of no reports of ballerina bourrées until Pierina Legnani, whose bourrées in St Petersburg in the 1890s were compared to "strings of pearls" and for whose Odette and Raymonda bourrées became an important part of ballerina choreography.Did Taglioni lift the skirts more? The outline of the ballet dress changed with Taglioni; I don't know that hems rose. There had already been very considerable variations in ballet hemlines in the era 1790-1820.
5. It would be nice to know how high penchées went in Petipa's day. (It's actually remarkably hard to define "penchée". Is it determined by the angle of the torso, the front arm, the head, the eyes, the raised leg?)

Doug Fullington in Sandall's piece says the notation never asks for legs to go higher than 90 degrees. Alexei Ratmansky, in my "Sleeping Beauty" questionnaire ("Ballet Review", 2015), says Mathilde Kschessinskaya seems to have raised her leg to perhaps 100 degrees, though it's possible Petipa may have disapproved. But I wonder if it is true to say, as Emma Sandall does, "Ballet was about nimble footwork and showing elegant angles of the body and torso, better achieved with the legs below 90 degrees" (my underlining); I think Petipa's supported adagios show that 90 degrees was an ideal—not higher, not lower—for some positions.

6. To ask when the male penchée came in can involve a lot of research! In Britain, the male dancer John Gilpin was famous for extending legs above hip height in the 1950s. Nureyev's turnout and use of his legs were generally sensational in the West in the early 1960s; in their wake, Ashton began to develop the male penchée arabesque in his choreography for Anthony Dowell.
I spent a lot of time a few years ago investigating the male penchée in Balanchine. It's hard to pin down, but it seems likely to me that he only liked men to do penchée as a transitional or lunging position, never as a fixed one.

7. I know that Ninette de Valois disapproved of men lifting their legs onto the barre up till perhaps the late 1960s. The Royal Ballet School teacher Richard Glasstone has often recalled how there used to be an exchange of top male students between the Royal and Paris Opera schools: when the Royal sent Stephen Beagley to Paris c.1974, the French teachers suggested he should be encouraged to raise his leg to the barre more, but when Phillip Broomhead was sent c. 1980, the French teachers noted that things had now gone too far and he was now dangerously hyperextended.

8. The split jeté, the split penchée, the split grand développé all became part of the ballet vocabulary long before Sylvie Guillem. Ashton's "Trois Gymnopédies" ("Monotones," 1965) begins with a woman lying in a 180-degree split on the floor; she is then raised in that position ("like a chicken on a spit") and rotated on point. In one of his last ballets, "Varii Capricci" (1983), Ashton had the young Phillip Broomhead and Mark Freeman, as two of the ballet's four subsidiary young men, casually do split positions—one did 180-degree penchée, the other 180-degree splits on the floor. To my eye, those are instances where hyperextension can be poetic; Balanchine choreography has many more.

9. Nonetheless, Fonteyn's point about line remains. To this day, it's an issue in Balanchine choreography—at least around City Ballet and the School of American Ballet—whether dancers do (or should)! raise one hip seriously when extending a leg, especially to the side. I wish Sandall and Osterweis had discussed this.

Guillem was criticised, notably by Arlene Croce, for tilting the hips. She was a longterm guest artist with the Royal Ballet, where other dancers since her have raised the leg more or less as high, but with more precise placement of the hip and pelvis.
I find it interesting that the word "line" is seldom used about ballet today. When I arrived in the 1970s, "line" and "musicality" were the two top criteria for many critics. Did anyone praise Guillem for line? (Maria Tallchief told Arlene Croce that Guillem "has no middle," meaning no core strength.) Darcey Bussell, whose legs went higher than previous British ballerinas and who shared the top spot at the Royal with Guillem, was praised for line, though not remotely in the way that Fonteyn, Beriosova, and Sibley (darlings of the New York audience for many years as well as in London) were.

As I've said, I don't object to high extensions where the style makes it look poetic. I do wish there were more discussion about line and placement; and more discussion about what ballet becomes when those are not discussed. I'm aware that much of the above is beyond what Emma Sandall meant to discuss, but I think all of it is highly relevant. To discuss legs going above hip height without discussing hips remaining level is a central omission.

All best
Alastair Macaulay

The Conversation
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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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Dance History
In the 1987 television program The Ballerinas, Carla Fracci, here with Peter Ustinov, embodied nearly a dozen ballet icons, from Marie Taglioni to Tamara Karsavina. Photo courtesy DM Archives

The cover star of the January 1974 issue of Dance Magazine was beloved Italian ballerina Carla Fracci. She was adored by ballet fans in the U.S. for her guest appearances with American Ballet Theatre, and a bona fide celebrity in her hometown of Milan. But she nevertheless made time for her director husband and their young son, who often accompanied her on tour. "I don't like to be only ballerina," she told us. "I say: the dance—all right. I like it. I like my work, and I do the best that I can. But it is not 'all' for me...Most dancers are closed, in a way, because it takes so much to dance, the physique is under so much stress, that often they are too tired, even to read, or to go to the theaters, the museums, to hear music, to be with people. But you can't be a dancer without these things...You can't just close your eyes and go to the barre. You get lost in this obsession with the barre and toe shoes. Your life can be destroyed that way."

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