Teaching the Plié

"Plié is the first thing you learn and the last thing you master." Suzanne Farrell

            In last week’s post, Using Your Muscles Differently, I discussed how changing the way we think about and approach movement can change the way muscles are activated and how they are used and develop.  This post will specifically address different ways that can be used to teach the plié.

     The French verb plier means to bend, which is clearly what dancers do when performing this exercise – they bend at the hip, knee, and ankle joints.  Since bending changes the level of the body, executing a plié has become synonymous with lowering, and dance students tend to release their weight into their legs.  This dropping of weight places tremendous pressure on the knees and also encourages dancers to release their muscles at the bottom of a grand plié and end up “sitting” in a plié.  Sitting occurs when the dancer relaxes into a squatting position at the bottom of the plié rather than using muscles to hold and stabilize the body isometrically before rising out of the plié.  In an isometric contraction the muscles  remain contracted and do not change length but simply hold a position.  The difference between isometrically holding the position and sitting in a plié can be illustrated by asking a dancer to perform a grand plié in a turned out first position and relax at the bottom of the plié.  The dancer should then be asked to rise about two inches from that position at which point he or she will feel muscles begin to activate and contract in order to hold the position.  The level where the contraction is felt is the point at which the plié should always stop and the lengthening of the legs should begin.

"sitting in a grand plié"
correctly executed grand plié

            Another way to prevent the weight from dropping into the joints of the legs during a plié is to think of a plié in a turned out position as a separating exercise instead of a bending exercise.  By focusing on pulling the legs apart from each other, the energy is sent out to the sides rather than down into the floor.  By thinking about pulling the legs back together during the rise out of the plié, the dancer can activate and feel the turn out muscles working to maintain the position.

            It is also helpful if pliés are performed slowly.  Quick pliés encourage the downward motion and weight dropping.  The imagery of separating the legs as if they were glued together, as if they were part of a piece of taffy being pulled apart, or as if the plié were occurring in a vat of peanut butter can also be used.

            Each dancer performs an infinite number of pliés in his or her lifetime.  It is imperative that dancers be taught to perform them in ways that place as minimal strain and stress on the joints of the leg as possible.  By simply thinking of the exercise in a different way,  dancers can be taught to perform healthier pliés that keep their knees much much happier.

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