Don't Give up on Your Pirouette: How to Help Your Adult Ballet Brain Understand Rotation
The Advantage of Learning as an Adult
One of my core drivers for this blog is the fact that adults simply learn differently than children. And while we all have great and dedicated teachers, most of them are so good because they learned ballet as a child and had a career as a professional dancer. And that’s great. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I am grateful for teachers who have been dancing for a long time and have a solid amount of stage experience.
The other side of that experience is that these teachers haven’t lived through the feeling and challenges of starting ballet later in life.
Which is why, as adult ballet dancers, we have to not only be a good student, but we also need to become our own best teacher. I strongly believe that if we step into the responsibility of exploring our body, what works for us, and how we learn best - we will see much better and more sustainble progress in learning ballet.
And that, dear late party guests, is also the beauty and advantage of learning ballet at a more mature age! You have the ability to direct your learning. You are capable of what is called “meta-learning” - which basically means “learning how to learn”. Or to put it differently: You don’t have to rely on repetitions alone if you want to learn a certain skill - you can “hack” your learning to get more per every repetition. If you find that you are struggling and feeling stuck in certain areas, then that’s probably a sign that you need to approach that area from a different angle.
Sometimes, literally. (Hint: This short sentence foreshadows a bit what’s coming.)
In this article, I would like to lead you through a specific example for this “learning how to learn”. And help you become a better teacher to yourself. Let’s get cozy with a common problem, a typical sticky point for adult ballet beginners and intermediate dancers: THE PIROUETTE!
So grab your coffee, relax, and turn off your phone (unless you are reading on it - then there is flight mode). I can assure you that what you are about to read will be a completely different frame of reference (again LITERALLY - the foreshadows keep dropping) for pirouettes that you will not read and hear anywhere else. It will involve some physics/mathematics. Yes I will keep it simple. But ballet is all physics so why not get comfortable with it? (I got your back, honey.)
The Bitchiness of Pirouettes
When I started learning ballet, I was obsessed with pirouettes. I wanted to learn them so badly, not just a single, but double and triple, please. It was probably what I practiced the most after/between classes. (Can you relate?)
But they were a struggle. While I progressed nicely with most other things, pirouettes kept coming slow. And it was very much a one-step-forward-two-steps-back kind of thing. Very inconsistent.
Pirouettes have a bit of a special status in ballet. I have heard teachers say that you can control anything, except for pirouettes. You may have heard the term “natural turner” or “non-turner” to refer to someone who just gets pirouettes and someone who never will. Or the beloved “turning days”. Pirouettes are one of the most obvious things that let you distinguish a professional dancer trained from childhood from someone who started as an adult.
But why? And are pirouettes really the exception to all things neuroplasticity?
Then two things happened.
Why all humans are made for turning
First: In a rare moment of ballet maturity I gave up my obsession around pirouettes. Maybe I was far enough into the process to realize that pirouettes are not necessarily a skill in themselves, but the result of many things coming together. Strength, muscle speed, coordination, posture, plié, passé, spot, back control etc. So I decided to give myself as much time as my tall body needed, keep working on all the other things and aim for a clean, controlled single. And I would say I am still in that process.
Second: I went through a phase of reading all the books written by Moshe Feldenkrais. (Seriously, that guy. What a genius. If you are fascinated by the human body, learning, movement etc - absorb him. Not easy reads, but worth the time and sweat.). One thing I stumbled upon in his framework was his detailing of how much the human body was made to rotate, and how that was one of the main differences and advantages compared to other animals. It’s basic physics: The specific erect posture of humans has a very small moment of inertia around the vertical axis through the body’s center of mass. It means that the body can initiate and maintain a turn around that axis more easily than most other mammals. Which is EXACTLY the axis we are turning around when we pirouette!
In other words: The human body was made for pirouettes. Turning should actually come easy to all of us!
So why doesn’t it? Or why does it come easy to some and not to others?
Here is my theory. (It’s getting juicy now, so take another sip, use the bathroom and come back.)
Turning vs. Kind of Turning, in Simple Physics
There was a simple observation I had when I was doing and practicing pirouettes: Although it was supposed to be a turn, i.e. a rotation, it usually didn’t feel like it in my body. It felt more like my body was somehow moving around on a circular path to make that turn - but it wasn’t rotating cleanly around an axis. Kind of like this:
So that got me thinking about rotation vs. “kind of rotation”.
In physics, in classical mechanics, you distinguish between two types of motion: Translation and rotation. Translation means that you change the position of an object - like when you move your body from one corner of the studio to the opposite corner. Rotation means that the position remains the same, but you rotate the body around an axis, like in a pirouette.
So my turn essentially felt like little translations pieced together and forced on a round path!
Now let’s add some mathematics. When you describe the motion of an object, you are typically using coordinates. Let’s say you chassé through a diagonal, then you could map every point in your body relative to a coordinate system that is given by the walls of your studio. If we are looking at you from above, here is where you would be:
So you start with the top of your head at coordinates x1, y1, and you end up with your head at x2, y2. Makes sense? This type of coordinates is refered to as Cartesian coordinates, usually denotey by x and y. They are very square, as you can see, so perfect for mapping translational motion.
But physics also uses another types of coordinates - they are called polar coordinates. They are perfect for mapping - you guessed it - rotation, because each point is mapped by the distance from a reference point (called radius (R)) and and angle, let’s call it alpha, relative to a reference direction. So imagine you are looking at yourself from the top again and imagine you are a good way into your pirouette:
Let’s use a schematic view of this, now imagine not being in a kitchen, but in an actual studio:
Your nose was pointing exactly in the direction of the mirror when you started the turn (let’s make this our reference direction R) and the reference point is the top of your head again, or where your axis of rotation meets the top of your head. So at the start, your nose tip’s polar coordinates were (rn, 0) and after a good part of the turn they are (rn, alpha).
Now here is the thing. Mathematics gives us full freedom to use whatever coordinate system we want to describe a motion. There is no rule that you have to use cartesian coordinates for describing translation and polar coordinates for rotation. BUT - it’s a no-brainer. Physics is complex enough, so you want to keep the math as simple as possible. So naturally, you would use a cartesian coordinate system to describe a translational motion, and polar coordinates for a rotation around a fixed axis.
Why? Because the nature of polar coordinates has the rotation already built into it. When you use polar coordinates to look at the motion of a specific point (like the tip of your nose) during a rotation around a specific axis - one of your coordinates, the distance from the axis, DOESN’T CHANGE!
And, as a general rule, the more that does NOT change in physics and maths, the easier your life. (So in a sense, it’s like real life: There is enough change anyway, so you try to hold on to your constants.)
I mean, just imagine how ugly it would be to use cartesian coordinates for the same pirouette you were just doing:
See how NOT elegant this is? BOTH your x and y coordinates would keep changing during the rotation.
You’re like - ok, yes, whatever, how is this connected to nailing pirouettes??
How to Make Your Brain Spin
So here is the next step that I need you to make in understanding pirouettes right now. Let’s bring your brain to the party, very literally again.
Essentially, your brain is doing what my beautiful (haha, thank you) drawings above were trying to accomplish: It’s mapping your body’s coordinates, like All. The. Time. when you move. It keeps track of where you are in space, and where differents parts of your body are when you rotate. It’s like constant GPS firing, mapping, adjusting, remapping.
And here is the final pirouette wisdom bomb drop, the core of this framework:
You can get stuck in learning pirouettes because your brain is doing the equivalent of using the WRONG coordinate system to map your turn.
Or, a little different: You can think of the “non-turner”s brain as using cartesian coordinates to keep track of everything during a pirouette - while the “turner”s brain is mapping the turn in polar coordinates. So the non-turner’s brain is working twice as hard and still ends up with a pirouette that feels and looks more like a linear motion forced on a circular path (like that white cat above) - whereas the turner’s brain has a lighter load and comes out with a true rotation.
So the more educated question to ask now: But why do not all brains choose the more elegant coordinates?
Although I don’t know for sure, my guess is that it depends on how well someone can establish that fixed axis that is so required for a turn. Creating that axis depends on experience, posture, and proper muscle activation - you basically need to keep a good inner part of your body very still = your axis, and you want to keep the rest of your body as close as possible to that axis. Even a hyperextended back can mess with that.
And then it probably also depends on how much the body was exposed to rotating from an early age. My (admittedly very speculative) guess is that in Feldenkrais’ times, rotation was more part of your general life. Kids would naturally do turns during outdoor play and physical education, and dance was more part of the general culture etc. Not so much nowadays - or do you casually and frequently rotate around your vertical body axis except in ballet class?
I am glad you are still with me. This is profound, and I will explain how that has practical applications for improving your pirouette in a moment. But before, let me add that of course your brain is not literally mapping lists of x,y or r,alpha coordinates. The coordinates that I introduced are simply a model of how clumsy or effortless the brain determines where everything of you is when you are in motion. What this implies is that some brains are more efficient at doing it - while others have to make a more conscious effort of getting there, too!
So that brings us to: How can I use this knowledge for a free, practical pirouette upgrade?
Practical steps to help your brain figure out pirouettes
So the practical implication here for all of us turn-learners: You basically have to train your brain to switch from Cartesian to polar coordinates when you are making any kind of turn!
Here are the steps that I have started taking recently and that have made a difference for me:
Start with THINKING about this concept. Very conscious Thinking is a powerful trigger for neuroplasticity. If you are a physicist and this was just kindergarten for you - great. Indulge in what you know about rotational mechanics and polar coordinates. If you are not, and had trouble following, reread until you get it. Or email me with your questions. In your mind, see yourself from above (or below) and think about how your top of the head rotates (or your passé knee, if you look from below), and how the distance to the center of the rotation stays the same, not matter what you are looking at (=mentally imagining). Think about the switch from clumsy Cartesian to pretty Polar that is about to happen in your brain.
The key in switching from translations-on-a-circular-path to a true rotation is building and becoming aware of a strong axis. You need to understand that there is this long part of your body, from head to toe, that is actually NOT MOVING AT ALL during a pirouette. And it cannot move before, in the preparation. It cannot suddenly bend in your plié. Your axis needs to stay the same, no matter what. You need a very still center.
Having this idea of an indestructible axis will help you integrate your teachers corrections into a coherent picture. And that’s always helpful for the brain - to think big pictures, in muscles chains, rather than spots here and there. So “don’t bend at the waist as you plié”, “don’t hike up your hip in passé”, “keep your hips turned out in plié”, “keep the shoulders on the same level”, “extend your standing leg”, “maximum demi-point”, “push into the floor”, arm position etc: All these cues feed a strong axis!
Observe good turners in class. See if you can “see” their axis. I find that good turners keep their axis even if they fall, i.e. their axis may tilt (=it may angle towards the floor) - but it never disintegrates (=bends somewhere in between). Observing and feeling the observation in your body can also be a strong trigger for new firing patterns in the brain.
The last, and also the hardest step, is to start feeling your own axis. You start by just standing, becoming aware of it, and just mentally imagine that axis. You can then proceed to very slowly rotating on two legs flat, allthewhile trying to sense that axis part of the body that just remains still. The final move is to start looking/feeling the axis as you do your pirouette. It’s hard. You will forget, because as you turn, your brain feels like a black hole. It doesn’t matter. Just keep reminding yourself, even if it’s not during, but just before the exercise.
Generally: Mental practice is HUGE. We have enough evidence to know that your brain does not care much whether you actually do something or just imagine it. I mean, this is just such a cheap way of getting more repetitions, it’s almost like stealing. But then again it’s not, because your brain has an endless supply of repetitions to imagine. As long as you are alive, that is. For some of us even after.
So…..let’s wrap this up.
Be patient and enjoy!
First, a fair warning/reality-check: This is not a quick process. It may take months until neuroplastic changes occur and you feel consistent changes. And there is a chance that this way of looking at pirouettes simply doesn’t work for your brain. All you can do is give it a shot for some time, and see if it helped you. Especially if all else has failed you so far. And maybe you find out that you need an even different angle on this - which would also be a successful result of this process.
(I also want to add that building an axis is not the only thing that makes a pirouette. I would say it is a basic requirement. But of course you also have other things that will determine the quality of the turn: Mainly, how you accelerate different body segments into the turn and how you spot. But we’ll leave that for other posts.)
And last: Great job! This was maybe not the easiest food for thought, but you made it through. Thinking about stuff like this is a big part of becoming your own teacher. And not just any teacher, but your most supportive one as well. You can now turn your phone back on. Enjoy your time on the dancefloor!
Playing with this concept is already having an effect on my pirouettes. I can’t say if they are getting consistently better, but to me it feels like I understand better how to activate my torso in order to create a solid axis. I am so curious to hear whether this view on pirouettes was helpful at all to you? And if you start playing with it - please share your observations! What changes when you think “axis” and rotating around it? Please comment here, or on IG at @latetothepartyballet or email me at email@example.com!