Ballet Lessons: Don’t Neglect the Transitional Steps
When I talk about transitional steps, I often devolve upon the example of the floor exercise in women’s competitive gymnastics.
It’s a handy example, because most of us have watched gymnastics at one point or another (even if only in the heat of Olympic fever) and floor exercise is, in some regards, the easiest apparatus for the uninitiated observer to understand.
What isn’t as easy for the uninitiated observer (or even for many experienced observers and extensively-trained gymnasts) to understand is why some gymnasts just look so much better than others — so much smoother and more polished.
More often than not, the secret is in the transitional steps.
Historically, American gymnastics training programs have focused on training skills and little else. The skills themselves may be brilliantly executed, technically precise, and powerful: but technically perfect skills alone do not make a beautiful, exceptional routine.
For beautiful, exceptional routines, the Russians tend to lead the world: and there’s a reason for that.
The Russians train the bejeezus out of the skills, but they also dance.
When you watch a top-notch Russian gymnast doing her floor exercise, it isn’t a series of tumbling runs, balances, and isolated skills loosely linked by half-hearted shimmies. It’s a single, coherent entity from start to finish: a choreographed dance that happens to feature explosive, difficult, highly-technical gymnastics skills.
The difference, in short, is the linking steps: all of those apparently non-essential moments that take the gymnast, judges, and audience from Point A through Point Z.
Even in moments of stillness, the best Russian gymnasts continue to dance — just as ballet dancers are dancing even when they’re standing in B-plus for fifteen minutes while Odette gets her swan on.
So much of ballet happens in the transitional steps: the ones that carry the dancers from pique arabesque to entrelacé, or from tour lent to dèveloppé ecarté avant.
For the dancer (or gymnast), transitional steps serve important preparatory roles: think of precipité and failli, which essentially never appear on their own outside of the lesson, but which precede so many important moments in performances.
For the audience, transitional steps serve as the visual links that join the more dramatic steps of the dance into a cohesive whole.
As such, they’re extremely important: but often, as dancers, we neglect them in preparation.
One of the reasons — in fact, I would argue, the main reason — that great Russian gymnasts’ floor exercise routines look so beautiful is that they don’t neglect the transitional steps.
Russian trainers don’t treat dance as an afterthought; they school their charges in using transitional steps and maintaining line throughout their movements. As a result, the Russians’ floor exercises continue to be gorgeous (and they essentially own the sport of Rhythmic Gymnastics, which depends even more heavily on dance than does floor exercise in Artistic Gymnastics).
One of the reasons that American gymnasts’ floor exercises, even when technically perfect, are rarely as beautiful is that American trainers do tend to treat dance as an afterthought. Many gyms, in fact, don’t actually teach dance as a discrete element at all. Instead, they do their best to “work it in” when teaching routines.
As a result, their gymnasts’ performance suffers.
The same goes for dancers: so often we devote all our time to learning what we think of as the big, important steps — at the expense of the transitional steps that link everything together into dance.
We do this in life, too.
So often, we’re so eager to get on to the Next Big Thing that we fail to adequately prepare. With our eyes on the far horizon and our feet moving forward in the now, we stumble over pebbles and fumble through our preparations.
Often, the Next Big Thing suffers as a result — it may succeed, but perhaps not as well a it would have if we had paid attention to our preparation; if we had learned the transitional steps and used them well.
As dancers, when we learn choreography, we do well to focus on ingesting and interpolating that transitional steps — not only will they allow us to execute our big, technical steps with elan, but they help us remember the dance. Each transitional step becomes a cue; common transitional phrases (tombe-pas de bourreé-glissade…, for example) become “hooks” we can use to get ourselves back into the dance if we get lost.
A good glissade or chassé allows us to gather momentum, place ourselves, and load our springs (via plie) in order to execute those high, brilliant, explosive jumps we all love.*
*Worth noting: Sometimes, choreography starts with transitional steps.
The past two weeks, we’ve been working a combination in Ms. B’s Killer Class that nominally starts with temps de flèche, but really starts with a coupé tombé that transfers the weight and loads the springs, allowing us to blast the temps de flèche off like we were launching from Cape Canaveral.
An effective tombé to fourth or second makes a square, quiet place from which to launch a turn, or three turns, or five turns.
These are basic steps, mostly learned in the first year of class: but, like everything else, they are critical, essential, and never perfected.
Wise dancers continue to work on transitional steps as long as they continue to dance.
We can all take a page from that book: the same principle applies to life in general. We should pay attention to our transitions; work on them; prepare them.
In the end, they’ll make our big moves smoother, cleaner, and more brilliant.
Today’s post is inspired in part by my own tendency to neglect the transitional steps in favor of the big ones, my attendant quest to freaking well stop doing that, and the fact that I’ve realized I’m in a transitional period in my own life right now and should be paying attention to the transitional steps instead of just going, “Man, when do I get to the part where I get to do coupe jeté en tournant en menage?”
Or, you know. The life-outside-ballet equivalent.