Ballet Turns – How to Do a Pirouette
How to pirouette is one of the most frustrating skills for a ballet dancer to master - especially multiple pirouettes. It's true they require perfect balance and control - but the real reason they're difficult is that most ballet students think of pirouettes in totally the wrong way.
I'm assuming you know the basics of a pirouette: from fifth position, tendu to the side or back, and lower into a plie in fourth position. From there, rise and turn on relevé with your foot in retiré. Right?
Actually, there's a whole lot of stuff wrong with that description! So let's break it down in detail:
Preparation for a pirouette is not a normal fourth position. Keep the fourth smaller, and have your weight more on the front foot. That way, you won't have to adjust your centre as much when you rise on releve, and you won't throw yourself off balance. You don't need to have your weight backwards, or need a deep plié in your back leg, because you don't use it to push you around - if you do, it'll only make you twist and ruin the turn.
Make sure you're square to the front and properly pulled up.
Now spring up on to relevé with your foot in retiré. Make sure it's a high retiré - and make sure it's not crossing over your knee (which is a legitimate position, but won't help you turn). Keeping the retiré high is part of creating momentum. If you let the foot cross the knee, there's a good chance the lifted knee won't turn out fully. Moving the lifted leg UP and OUT helps with the turn.
As you spring, whip your arm in sharply - that's what starts your turn. And don't forget to spot.
UP - not Up and Round
I've seen many dancers follow the above instructions carefully, and still not be able to pirouette. That's because they're not thinking about springing UP, they're thinking about springing UP AND ROUND. All that does is throw the body out of alignment, it doesn't help you turn.
The solution is to perfect your technique without turning first. Practice springing up into your pirouette position and holding the balance. Once you can spring into position and hit your balance immediately, you're 90% of the way to a good pirouette.
Nothing about your preparation changes when you add the arms. You don't need to twist your shoulder to whip your arm in strongly. And you still need to push UP out of your prep, not round. If you're properly centred and using your legs and arms properly, you may be surprised to find yourself turning without even trying!
Hold Your Shape
If you've ever seen a spinning top, you'll know that if you start it spinning in a perfectly upright position, it'll spin fast and for a long time - but if you start it even a tiny bit off-centre, it'll start to wobble and will fall over, sooner or later. The same applies to you!
To keep turning, you need to hit that perfectly upright, perfectly still position in the first split second of your turn - that's why it's so important to practice springing into your retire position over and over again. If you're still trying to get your toe in position half way round the first turn, you're toast!
If any part of your body strays from that perfectly upright still centre during the pirouette, you'll fall out of the turn. So the toe of your retiré must stay glued to the knee, not creeping down your leg in anticipation of the landing. Your core must be strong and your arms mustn't flop.
The only part of your body that should move during the turn is your head, which spots - and the more precisely, the better the turn.
Still Having Trouble?
If you're still struggling, it may be your strength that's the problem. If you're not secure on your foot, or aren't able to hold your turnout, then you won't be able to hold your center. Exercises for pointe work will also help with strength for pirouettes, because both are about lifting up and out of your feet.
In fact, I found pirouettes much easier when I started dancing en pointe. Pointe work is very good for improving awareness of your center, plus of course there's less friction with the floor.
Once you've got the idea of doing a single pirouette, don't be in a rush to execute double and triple turns - take some time to get used to the feeling of effortless turning first. If you try to go further too soon, you may fall back into the "push round" mentality and lose the progress you've made.