Dear Dance Diva,
I’ve been dancing about a year and feel like I’ve made good progress. But I still struggle to turn without losing my balance. The people who seem to turn perfectly are the ones who had dance training as children. Does this mean I’ll never be able to do them well?
It’s true that what we learn in childhood (a foreign language, a poem, the multiplication tables) tends to come faster and last longer because our brains are hardwired to absorb quickly in our formative years. Memory—both the brain kind and the muscle kind—is stronger in youngsters. But it’s never too late to access the same knowledge and apply the same methods of learning—it just may take longer and require more effort to get anything to stick. As an adult dancer, that means you must make a solid commitment to practice and repetition if you expect turns—or any other dance technique—to improve and become habitual. The progress you make will be a reflection of how much work you put in.
Regarding turns specifically, there are a number of factors that come into play. The following are some of the key elements to consider, along with some potential practice methods:
1. Spotting: As most everyone knows, spotting—the ability to focus the eyes on one spot as long as possible as you are rotating—is the key to good turns. Without it, you are sure to become dizzy and disoriented, which in turn will ensure that you lose your balance or direction. Spotting means leaving your head behind as you begin to turn, while focusing on the place you want to return to. To practice, stand in front of a mirror on which you’ve placed a marker at eye level. Begin to rotate in a circle on the spot, leaving your eyes on the mark as long as possible (ie, your head will remain behind, ending up looking over your shoulder). When the degree of rotation makes it impossible to leave your head any longer– we’re not Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” for heaven's sake—let the head snap around and return the eyes to the marker as soon as possible. Your eyes must actually focus on the marker in order to avoid dizziness. Begin slowly and increase speed as your facility with the action improves and your disorientation diminishes. Be sure to practice in both directions.
2. Weight: One of the key reasons dancers lose their balance, when turning or otherwise, is because they have not centered their weight over the leg they are standing on. Every dance step that you take requires a complete weight transfer and re-centering of the body over the new leg (you should be able to balance on one leg after any step). Keep in mind that the larger your step, the harder it is to make the transfer and readjustment so during turns, keep your feet closer together to make the change easier. Practice by rocking from one foot to the other (without turning), pausing to make sure that you are completely balanced before you move to the other leg.
3. Balance: Dancers often blame failed turns on being “off balance” but in fact, being off balance is the result of a failure to center the body. That said, it doesn’t hurt to practice standing on one leg—on the floor or, if you’re good, on a Bosu ball—and holding the position concentrating on eye focus, core engagement and proper alignment.
4. Core Strength: Good centering comes from strong abs. Anything you can do to strengthen your core and back will improve your ability to turn as a complete unit. Be aware of engaging your core muscles when you begin a turn and lifting them up rather than releasing them at the end of a turn. Pilates classes are a great complement.
5. Alignment: When turning, it’s important that the body moves in one piece, with a vertical plumb line that extends from the crown of your head, through your upper vertebrae and tailbone, to your heels. Correct posture and alignment, with the chest forward of the pelvis, is critical for maintaining balance. To get the proper feel, stand against a wall with the back of your head, your shoulder blades, the back of your pelvis and your heels touching and your chest and chin lifted. Try to walk with the same alignment.
6. Arms: As you’ve seen with ice skaters, the closer the arms come toward the body, the faster you are likely to turn. If your arms are wide open or flailing, it will inhibit your momentum as well as your alignment. Practice starting your turn with arms open and bringing them in a circle in front of you (ballet first position) as you rotate, then opening them.
7. Force: Many dancers have the impression that a great deal of force is necessary in order to execute multiple or fast turns. In fact, they require remarkably little if the take off preparation and turn techniques are correct (see elements above). Avoid twisting excessively to “wind up” for a turn, which sets you up improperly before you even begin.
8. Foot and ankle strength: If you don’t have adequate strength at your base, it will be impossible to hold everything above together. Practice by holding a bar or chair and doing slow releves (rising to the ball of the foot and lowering to just above the floor), both in plie (bent knees) as well as straight legs.
9. Muscle memory: Your turns will never be consistent until the proper techniques have been incorporated to the degree that you don’t have to actively think about them as you turn. That means repetitive and ongoing practice—with and without your partner. That’s what it takes to turn intention into muscle memory.
10. Visualize: If you start a turn thinking of all the times you’ve botched one previously, you’re not likely to have a good result. Picture yourself turning like someone you’ve admired, with the proper posture, technique and finish. If you can’t imagine it, you’ll never be able to achieve it.
©Dance Diva (aka Carrie Seidman). Previously appeared in newsletters of the Albuquerque Dance Club (www.nmdance.com). Reprints by express permission of the author only.