The Barre: Why It Might Be Time To Step Away...

               “Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd.  Without innovation, it is a corpse.” – Winston Churchill

            There are few absolutes in the world, but every dancer who enters a ballet class knows that he or she should claim a space at the barre because barre work is the first part of class.  It is at the barre that muscles warm-up, stretching begins, new movements are introduced, dancers acclimate to the space and neurological pathways, that will be called upon in the center, are established or reinforced.

            Therefore, barre work is an excellent way to prepare the dancer’s body for work that will be done in the center, isn’t it?  Not entirely, say research studies that have measured muscle activation in dancers performing exercises both with and without the barre.

         In a 2001 study published in the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, researchers found, that although there was no significant difference in muscle activation of the working leg during a développé devant, the muscles of the standing leg were activated significantly more when the développé was performed without the barre. (3)

            When Torres-Zavala, Henriksson and Henriksson studied professional ballet dancers in 2005, they found that the central balance point differed when dancers performed développé à la seconde with and without a barre. (2)

            In 2007, during a presentation given at the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science Annual Meeting, researchers spoke of a difference in muscles that were used with and without the barre when dancers executed rises to pointe from second position and pique retirés. (1)

            All of these findings seem to indicate that exercises performed at the barre may not be preparing the muscles and body for the work that is done in the center.  Dance physicist, Ken Laws, writes about dancers depending on the barre and using it to shift the torso farther forward in the arabesque position than can be realistically performed in the center.

            The barre should definitely be used in the warm-up, but dance educators need to be aware of the fact that it may not be as effective a place for preparing the body as has always been thought.  The barre is an important tool for focusing on the working leg, but teachers need to understand that stabilizing muscles are not being activated and that weight shifts at the barre are different from weight shifts in the center.

            Depending upon the focus of the class, perhaps, classes should not always warm-up at the barre.  Class can occasionally begin with traditional pliés, tendu and développé combinations in the center to help the dancer engage stabilizing muscles right away.  At other times the teacher may choose to design combinations that are performed partially at the barre and partially without holding onto the barre.  Additionally, cross training in other forms such as Pilates will help the dancers develop stabilizing muscles that might not otherwise be trained as often as gesturing muscles.

            The research that the field of dance science is providing can be invaluable in helping dance educators produce stronger dancers, but they need to be willing to use it.  It may mean departing from tradition at times, but sometimes change can be a good thing.

(1) Kadel N. & Couillandre A. (2007). Kinematic, kinetic, and electromyographic (EMG) analysis comparing unsupported versus supported movements in the ‘en pointe’ position. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science. 11(1), 23.
(2)  Torres-Zavala C, Henriksson J, & Henriksson M. "The influence of the barre on movement pattern during performance of développ." Proceedings of the 15th Annual Meeting of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. 2005, Stockholm, Sweden. Ed. Solomon R. &  Solomon J.  
(3) Wilmerding M. et al. (2001). Electromyographic comparison of the développé devant at barre and centre. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science.  5(3), 69–74.