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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Determining type of pirouette


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In addition to the usual problems with balance, spotting, etc., I seem to have trouble figuring out which type of pirouette I am about to do. There appear to be 2^4 = 16 possibilities for an ordinary single pirouette: left/right, front leg up/back leg up, from fourth/from fifth, toward the supporting leg/away from the supporting leg. By the time I've worked my way through the decision tree from watching what the teacher or others did, the pirouette is over and I'm too late.


Does anyone have any hints for figuring out how certain kinds of pirouettes follow logically from the movements before them, and can anyone tell me if any of the 16 possible types of pirouettes in my system are impossible or never used, so I can permanently eliminate them as possibilities? Books are not much help since for any step they may illustrate only a subset of the variants that might actually be used in class.


In addition to general lack of coordination my sense of pirouettes has been affected by a teacher back in the U.S. who said "Every pirouette you ever do in your life will start with the weight on the front leg" (which has not seemed to be true in other classes, or else I'm doing those ones wrong) and also had us doing one and a half turns as a first attempt.


I know I should just stop thinking and mimic, and that sometimes works, but there are just too many variables and I tend to stop in the middle and go, "OK, right leg, from back, from fourth ... but which direction?"

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Pirouettes are so fickle aren't they? Here one day, gone the next... :(


I'm not sure if I understand your question though. Just do the pirouette that the teacher shows. What is this system that you are talking about? There are way more than 16 "types" of pirouettes, if you take into account not only retire, but sur le cou de pied, arabesque, attitude, etc... Maybe you're over-thinking it a bit?


"Every pirouette you ever do in your life will start with the weight on the front leg"


Well, this is not entirely true, an en dehors from fifth should start with your weight either completely between the two legs, or with the weight already on the back leg, depending on the teacher's preference. I'm only talking about the impetus of the plie from the legs in this case, the body weight should always be a bit forward and the upper back more than anything is really responsible for initiating the turn...but it gets a bit complex to explain and I'm not doing a very good job of it. But, yes, most turns do initiate with the weight forward. In New York, most, if not all, teachers teach a simple en dehors from a lunge position with most of the weight on the front leg. Having the weight centered in a small fourth position is considered somewhat old-fashioned and not as effective, though I have seen some students who appear to have been trained that way and who can still execute a decent turn. It's really just a stylistic difference.


I have a feeling you would be best offf to take your own advice and stop thinking about it so much. Are you a beginner? It sounds like you're just getting confused with the combination and trying to think you way through it. We adults tend to do this, but it doesn't really work too well with ballet. :angry:


A simple "trick" that I remember from learning pirouettes is to think "en dehor is out the door" that's your "outside" pirouette, away from the supporting leg.


If you tend to "mark" along with the teacher as they demonstrate, try just watching a couple of times and let it absorb and really look at the big picture...how all the steps link together. Conversely, if you normally watch, try marking. Everyone learns a little differently and it may take some practice to figure out what works best for you :dry:

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Hmm the pirouettes I've done have been from either fifth or fourth. The ones from fifth is with the back leg as supporting leg. From fourth we use the front leg as supporting leg.

I've found that the out the door/backwards/forward thinking doesn't help me. Most of us (before starting ballet) find the en dedans pirouettes the easier ones to do it is more intuitive to spin that way. So I merely think "difficult pirouette=en dehors which are taught first = unlogical = ballet is unlogical" (en dehors is always done before en dedans in rond de jambe :thumbsup: ) "easy pirouette = en dedans". To complicate the issue I have a bad turning direction and a good one. (My good one is clockwise) So I simply mix these two "easy" and "difficult" aspects together and it works! :blushing:

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I remember when I was a beginner, I had sort of the same problem as Diana180. My brain was wired to doing things from very specific positions and I never understood the rationale behind inside versus outside or en dehors verses en dedans. It was confusing to me and every time I thought I had it figured out, something would happen to reconfuse me. I’d also ask teachers for explanations, but always found those unhelpful.


The thing that worked for me, was really just time. I mean eventually I worked it out, probably just because I had experienced turning in so many ways in so many different classes.


I think that as we develop as dancers, we develop a kinesthetic intelligence. We see something and replicate what we see without much thinking. When we begin dance, we don’t have that kinesthetic intelligence developed very much so we rely on our thinking brain. And if anything goofs us up it is thinking too much about what we are doing.


So my advice is just to be patient, take more classes, and enjoy the process of learning. I guarantee that after your 2,000th ballet class you’ll know more about turning that you can now imagine.

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While I agree that this is definitely something that I couldn't think too much about without getting very twisted up, I can offer my own solution to this problem.

Rather than THINKING about the legs and direction of the turn, THINK about the arms/shoulders/head-spot direction (e.g. "Okay, I'm in X position with R arm in 1st, L arm in second, bring L shoulder to back of the room,") while merely DOING with proper leg and direction.


Of course I imagine many people would find this useless, but if your brain is wired anything like mine if I take care of the arms and head the turn takes care of itself.

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I think that one just really needs to understand the concept of en dehors and en dedans. Once you understand this, the rest is quite simple. I don't mean that executing multiple pirouettes is simple, but knowing which one you are doing and where you are going is simple.


Go back to rond de jambe. If you understand rond de jambe, which is en dehors and en dedans, then you can understand the whole theory of pirouettes. Anything that moves OUTWARD from your supporting leg is en dehors. Anything that moves INWARD towards your supporting leg is en dedans.


Very simple, really. Stand in 4th, right foot back. If you turn to the right, on your front leg as supporting leg, that would be away from the supporting leg, ie, en dehors. It would still be an en dehor if you started from 5th with right foot front and turned to the right, as the left leg is still the supporting leg, and you are turning away from it.


Reverse all that, and you have en dedans :thumbsup:

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As you are also from Finland, and as I seem to think about pirouettes in a similar way, I thought I might add some general rules about local practice as I've observed it in Finnish classes. If these seem to confuse you/run contrary to what the local teachers ask, please just ignore everything.


From your question I will also assume you are talking about releve pirouettes in retire position, so here follow the rules of general Finnish usage as I've observed and understood it:


0. All turns are, naturally, done with either leg as the supporting leg.


1a. Releve pirouettes in retire position en dehors (outwards from supporting leg) are generally started from working leg front in fifth, working leg back in fifth, working leg in second demi-plie or working leg back in fourth demi-plie.


1b. Releve pirouettes in retire position en dedans (inwards to supporting leg) are generally started from working leg (the leg that will rise to retire) front in fifth, working leg back in fifth, working leg in second demi-plie or working leg back in lunge (back leg staight) fourth demi-plie.


2. In each starting position weight is preferred to be evenly between legs or mostly/fully over the future supporting leg. This variable is dependent on teacher preference with a single exception: In lunge fourth position the weight is always over the front leg.


3. Unless otherwise explicitly stated, releve pirouettes in the retire position turn with the working (retire) leg in front.


4. Finishing position can be pretty much anything and must be remembered separately.


Pirouettes in positions other than retire and starting with pique action instead of releve go by different rules.


I hope this was helpful,



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Thank you, Päivi and others; that was helpful. I forgot about finishing position which increases the number of possibilities still further, and also about starting from second.


I have no problem with the French terminology even though I didn't use it in my original query and some respondents are thinking that's the problem. (It is certainly easier to explain than the answer to what I'm actually asking!) If someone says to me "we are going to do a pirouette from fourth, right leg back, back leg working, en dehors, finish in fifth with right/working leg front," I will know what they mean. The problem is they just say "pirouette" and do it and I have to decode all the elements visually in order to duplicate it myself. It was not so bad in the first few years when we only did one kind of pirouette at a time (in both directions) but now the number of pirouettes done and therefore number of ways to go wrong has multiplied alarmingly. We don't do the fancy arabesque, attitude, coup de pied pirouettes, and the arms are pretty standard so they don't tell anything to the feet other than which way you'll turn. Often it's at the end of a combination so there's no information about how the sequence would continue.


It seems unlikely to me that all 32 or 64 or whatever possibliities are equally likely to occur in dance combinations. Other human systems don't work like this; in music, for instance, once key is determined the notes occur with quite uneven probabilities. Most systems of options are unbalanced (all those phenomena we call by names like the 80/20 rule), or certain characteristics clump together so that every X is accompanied by a Y, or Y never goes together with Z, or never follows step X. I'm looking for that kind of information about pirouettes, so that they'll make more sense to me. Päivi's list was a good start.

Edited by Diana180
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certain characteristics clump together so that every X is accompanied by a Y, or Y never goes together with Z, or never follows step X


I'll venture to say that these "rules" as such don't exist, especially as you advance into upper level classes and choreography. The very best teachers IMO will purposely throw very quick changes of weight and direction in unexpected ways into combinations. There's no way a dancer could perform Balanchine's choreography, for instance, without this quickness and control over directional changes.

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Guest newchickDC

Yes, I totally understand your problem! I don't know if this issue is primarily among beginners (I don't know if you are one or not)... but you are clearly a verbal learner, not a visual learner. You probably prefer getting directions as a series of instructions rather than someone drawing you a map. YOu probably also are not able to remember how to get somewhere well a 2nd time if the first time, you got there by following another driver. You don't remember by visual cues, you remember them by words - words you organize in your mind in a sequence. You need to turn every combo into "driving directions" in your mind. Unfortunately there's no time for this in class! I am this way as well.


I'm a pretty new beginner, and I find myself needing incredibly detailed descriptions of how a step or combo goes in class or I'm just lost. Since I don't remember by just watching the teacher demo it once, I find myself too dependent on following other students once the combo begins. Remembering long barre exercises takes a lot of concentration, though I'm improving with this!


I don't know how this will resolve. I have to assume that in time, it'll just improve as your body develops muscle memory and you have to think less. I saw this happen when I got into salsa dancing years ago. Eventually, learning choreography became very easy, and my body instinctively could follow a teacher without much concentration. Ballet is a bazillion times harder and more complex than salsa and that's why I'm constantly discouraged and having to tell myself that I must be patient.


If you've been dancing intensively for years with no improvement, then I have no help for you! I'm hoping against hope that you're at least somewhat of a beginner, or else I'm in trouble right there with ya!

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Hello, Diana,


First I wanted to say thanks for stating so clearly a problem that

I suspect many of us have faced and, in my case, continue to



I reread your posts in this thread, and I am wondering if perhaps you

are a mathematician, or scientist or technical person. (I'm an electrical

engineer, and when I hear people describe problems in terms of

'decision trees' and powers of 2, my left brain wakes up :thumbsup: )


Why am I asking? Well because I know that the engineer in me has

asked myself exactly those same questions, in almost exactly the same

fashion that you describe. And it frustrated me in class, because our

teacher would demonstrate a complex combination, and not even

say if a pirouette he was doing was en dehors/dedans. And then,

adding in finishing positions, arm positions, and where-my-weight-is

made it even more difficult. This sounds like what you're facing, too.

And the more visually attuned students pick it up quickly, it seems to me,

because, well, they CAN. But for me, I need to "translate" what I see

the instructor doing into a description, and store that description in

my memory, quickly, so that I will know exactly what I need to do, when.

But I can flub it up, or spend so much time getting that part right that

I miss the next step, etc.


I know it will eventually become second nature, but I've needed something

in the meantime to help speed me toward that point.


So here's what I did. I got a couple of books, took the full-length mirror

from my spare room closet door, and spent an entire Saturday afternoon

working through all the possibilities I could find. I built a table on paper,

with columns for each variable (each arm, each foot, foot position, weight, etc)

and went from that to actually "doing" each one in the mirror. The idea was

to spend as much time as I needed to associate the feelings in my body

about where my weight and arms and legs were with the words and little

symbols on my chart, and what I saw in the mirror. It took a while, and

I need to repeat it now that a few months have passed, but it did make

a big difference in getting the visual/feeling part of me matched up with

the words and concepts.


I know, this is becoming a long post, but the point I wanted to make is that

it can be really helpful, and fun, to find a way to use your analytical skills in

service of the experiential, feeling, physical, "dancing" process. Music is the

same way, I think -- learning scales and chords and fingerings are great, but

the fun begins when those start to connect to your solo in a way that leaps

over the details (or, as lampwick points out, the "rules") into art.


So, keep turning!

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You're right, newchickDC, anything I have learned in dance, it feels like I accomplished by recording a little tape of instructions in my head and listening to the tape. If I have a set of pictures, like in the Ward Warren book, or someone shows the steps fairly slowly, I can record my internal tape. But it has to be slow and sequential. Sometimes now I can copy things from another body to my body instantly, and maybe one day I'll be able to do it reliably enough that it won't feel like a fluke.


I probably do need to do what DreadPirateRoberts did and work through the possible combinations myself with a mirror and notes. That's an excellent idea. I would then find out which ones are so awkward that they're unlikely (something I was trying to ask here, though I see lampwick's point that teachers might well use them as a learning challenge).


Incidentally, it may be that that teacher said, "Every pirouette from fourth lunge will start with weight front," which would accord with what Päivi said, and I didn't remember the "from fourth lunge" part because it was all new and my brain was full.


(DPW, I'm actually a linguist although in a past life I earned a degree in engineering. One of the reasons I started ballet was because I wanted to learn how the system worked and what dance had in common with other human systems, such as music and language and (not really human) mathematics, crystallography etc. It didn't occur to me until about two years in that I might actually try to learn to do ballet correctly/"well" for an adult and that that was doable and worth doing - I have a long record of failures in athletic endeavors and did not expect any accomplishment here. But I was curious about the system, the combination patterns and rhythms, how teachers and choreographers think, and my body was there doing the stuff because it had to be. And then of course I got hooked.)

Edited by Diana180
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