It can get pretty tedious standing at the ballet barre, dutifully pounding out tendus and releves. So, what's the point? You need to build strength in the lower leg so you'll have more stability and greater control. When you leave the barre and head to center stage, you can't afford to have a weak, wobbly base of support. You can get the calf and ankle strength you need by using your time at the barre wisely. Stay focused and milk those basic barre exercises for all they're worth.
Get to the studio early and warm up before class begins. Fire up the muscles in your calves, ankles and feet by prancing lightly around the studio for five minutes. Once you've woken up your lower legs, move to the barre. Eliza Gaynor Minden, author of "The Ballet Companion," suggests standing in parallel first position with a tennis ball between your ankle bones. Grasp the barre lightly and rise slowly onto releve 10 to 15 times. This is a great way to warm up your calves and ankles and find your center of balance.
Stay alert at the barre. Be aware of how your feet, ankles and legs are positioned and how they move through space. Work carefully and deliberately. Basic exercises -- including plies, releves, tendus, degages, rond de jambe and frappes -- are your opportunity to really focus on your leg from the knee down. Think of the floor as a source of resistance; press all your toes into the floor when you brush the foot outward or draw it inward.
Acknowledge and act on your teacher's corrections. When she points out errors in your form, her goal is threefold: she wants to help you build strength, prevent you from forming bad habits and protect you from injury. If she points out that your ankles are rolling forward or backward -- common errors -- take note and try to adjust your alignment. Constantly remind yourself to keep the ankle of your standing foot lifted.
Work through your full range of motion when you point your foot or rise onto releve. Pointing the foot begins at the ankle and continues through the ball of the foot and toes. When the foot is fully pointed -- or plantar flexed -- your calf is in a shortened, or contracted, position. That means it's engaged and working hard. When you rise onto releve, lift the heels as much as possible, without allowing the heels to roll forward or backward.
Avoid gripping the barre too tightly or leaning toward the barre. Shifting your body weight toward the barre means you're relying too much on it instead of letting your calves and ankles do the work. Gaynor points out that resting your thumb on top of the barre instead of curling it underneath prevents you from gripping it too tightly.
Stay after class and put in extra time at the barre. Work slowly and patiently through a simple but effective eight-count tendu combination. Stand with one hand on the barre and your feet in first position. Tendu to the front, lower the heel to fourth position, point the foot, flex, point, close into first position and demi plie. Repeat to the side, back and again to the side. If you have additional time, face the barre and perform a series of slow releves, echapes and jumps in first and second position.
- Dance Advantage: Your Blueprint for Better Balancing
- The Ballet Companion; Eliza Gaynor Minden
- Dance Magazine: Pre-Pointe Conditioning Exercises
- Dance Magazine: Advice for Dancers
- Proprioceptive, or balance, training can boost your calf and ankle strength. Stand on a small cushion or other unstable surface, raise one foot slightly off the floor and close your eyes. As you try to maintain your balance, the muscles that stabilize your ankle will work hard to to keep you upright. Add to the challenge by rising onto releve.
- Note your body's warning signs and slow down if you feel fatigue. If you're tired, you're more susceptible to injury.
- Don't attempt pointe work before you have the necessary leg and ankle strength.
Judy Fisk has been writing professionally since 2011, specializing in fitness, recreation, culture and the arts. A certified fitness instructor with decades of dance training, she has taught older adults, teens and kids. She has written educational and fundraising material for several non-profit organizations and her work has appeared in numerous major online publications. Fisk holds a Bachelor of Arts in public and international affairs from Princeton University.