A Somatic Perspective on Ballet

I’ve returned from TCU where I annually teach an intensive course for their freshman dance majors.  What a pleasure it is – (and what an amazing new facility they have after massive renovations last year!)  My good friend, Elizabeth Gillaspy is a professor of ballet at TCU consented to sit down and allow me to tape a conversation with her.  The first are her thoughts for new ballet teachers and the importance of exploring teaching methods and ideas beyond ‘look like this’ – which is understandably the most common way we all began in our early ballet education.  (The clip is approximately 10 minutes, so it will take a minute or 2 to load)

[jwplayer mediaid=”1226″]

This second clip is discussing how important it is to explore the ballet form from a somatic base.  This conversation took place because of my appreciation of how Elizabeth can take young adult dancers and so lovingly help them make changes in their technique.  It is hard to rework patterns of turning out from the knees down, or muscling your way through an exercise – and Elizabeth does it beautifully.  Here are some of her philosophical thoughts on how looking at ballet as a somatic practice.  Be patient, as it is about 10 minutes it will take a few moments to load!

[jwplayer mediaid=”1228″]

11 replies
  1. Esther Juon
    Esther Juon says:

    Thank you both for this fantastic interview! Fabulous! I just wish the ballet world would embrace this kind of teaching more. I sometime wonder how much talent is lost because of the old traditional teaching practises. Is there a book on the subject that you could recommend or better still have you written a book on the subject?

    With many kind thanks,


  2. Jennifer Jackson
    Jennifer Jackson says:

    Beautifully articulated – thank you Elizabeth.
    I love the way that somatic perspectives indicate the ‘on-goingness’ of the exploration of ballet AND the body. Thank you for highlighting that and the reflective virtuous cycle. The body evolves and informs our understanding – understanding evolves and informs the body. And practice has its own inner life force. Ah – wise body! listen!
    Re literature: I’ve written (a while ago) on the topic and although the thinking – and mybody! – has moved on see Research in Dance Education, 2005, 1/2. My dance and the Ideal Body: looking at ballet practice from the inside out.
    All best Jennifer

    • deborah
      deborah says:

      Hi Jennifer! Elizabeth shared that article with me saying it was very influential to her. It was wonderful! Thanks for writing it!

  3. George Ou
    George Ou says:

    Speaking of turnout from the knee down, lots of ballerinas have up to 90 degrees of rotation below the knee socket. That is, they can keep their hip socket rotation at zero and turn the foot out 90 degrees from knee and ankle socket rotation.

    Here’s a visual example of Diana Vishneva in La Bayadère

    Vishneva is showing around 80 degrees rotation below the knee which actually makes me cringe. I’ve had a student show even more in this exact same position and they can apparently do it with impunity. So much for this foolish notion that turnout is only from the hip socket. Virtually every high level dancer uses some knee socket rotation to some degree. At best, mine is 45 degrees and I only use half that to be safe. This is most present in a fully crossed 5th and 4th position.

    The important think for a dancer is that they understand what their own safe limits are. Ultimately it boils down to common sense and that if something hurts, you better know why it hurts and what adjustments you need to make to make it stop hurting (without pain killers of course).

    • deborah
      deborah says:

      Hi George, I have seen many professional dancers who because of starting dance from a very young age created tibial torsion for themselves with pushing the feet out more than what they had at the hip – they then looked like they had extraordinary turnout even when they didn’t have 90 degrees at the hip because of this. Also… when the knee is bent there is rotation of the tibia – as Vishneva is showing in the picture – its dangerous to think they could/should take that into their standing position. I so agree with you that dancers need to always pay attention to what their bodies are saying!

  4. George Ou
    George Ou says:

    Good point on the rotation from the Tibia/Fibula pair of bones similar to the two bones in the forearm. That probably accounts for most of the rotation and it doesn’t actually come from the knee socket.

    80 degrees rotation below the knees is dangerous if 80 degrees is the maximum structural limit. If her absolute limit is 90 degrees, then she’s not stressing anything. If I tried to do 45 degrees in that position, I’ll probably tear my knee because my structural limit is closer to 40 degrees max and functional limit is 26 degrees (yes I measured that precisely) which is generated by muscle and not by external force.

    Below the knee rotation is quite commonly used in the standing position especially in 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th position. Take a close look at any dancer holding close to 180 turnout in 5th and it is becomes apparent that they must be using some rotation below the knee. The closer the legs are to each other (even worse when crossed), the less the hip socket can rotate and the rotation below the knee can accomodate. As the legs separate e.g., tendu, passe, seconde, etc, the hip socket rotation easily increases to 90 degrees for anyone who is naturally flexible or anyone who works at it.

    Standing rotation below the knee is probably less dangerous than that position that Vishneva held because people typically use 30 degrees or less. Vishneva was using 80 degrees in that position which makes me cringe. Anyone using that close to their maximum rotation below the knees puts a huge load on the front inside knee ligaments. This is extremely dangerous when dancers land in plie with their knees going front while the foot goes out to the side. But if the dancer understands that their hip can rotate more on plie and they take advantage of this, they can keep their knee over their toes.

  5. George Ou
    George Ou says:

    My knee hurts just looking at that, I’m not joking and it’s actually aching right now. There’s so much leverage on that knee socket that it’s easy to tear the ligaments.

    But I’ve seen a 9 year old girl that could do even more than that Vishneva and she actually hit 90 degrees rotation below the knee socket. I think it has to do with the structure of the tibia and fibula and the spacing between them. If the spacing is high, then the twisting of the tibia and fibula can be high. If the spacing is tight, then there is minimal twisting. This is probably the same mechanics of the radius and ulna bone in the forearm, except my forearm can rotate close to 180 degrees when I flip my hand back and forth. The relative spacing between the radius and ulna is very high compared to the spacing between the tibia and fibula.

    I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that if a dancer uses knee socket or ankle socket rotation, then the knee and/or ankle will be damaged. If the rotation below the knee comes from the tibia and fibula twisting around each other, then it’s as natural as flipping the hands and no damage will occur.

  6. Dawn George
    Dawn George says:

    Wow. What a treat to listen to this interview! I have been teaching for a long time and sincerely hope that this is the new direction of teaching ballet. Thank you so much, and I agree with Esther…when is the book coming out? 🙂

    Many thanks to you both,


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *