The pirouette is one of the most iconic ballet steps, and one that many new ballet dancers aspire to achieve. Jazz and contemporary dancers also perform pirouettes. The main difference between a jazz pirouette and a ballet pirouette is that jazz pirouettes are performed in parallel, and ballet pirouettes in turnout. The pirouette is a movement that continues to provide challenges to experienced dancers as well, because you can always strive for more turns, to develop by changing the positions of the arms, the gesture leg, and the way you finish the turn.
In this post, you’ll discover five tips to improve your pirouettes.
Tip 1: Build a strong foundation
When I teach pirouettes to beginners, we start with the retire, then build from there, adding in a plie before the retire, then adding the releve, then quarter turns, half turns, and finally a single pirouette. It takes time, and I’m looking to see the dancer achieve stability before proceeding to the next stage. The discipline of practicing releve retire, quarter turns, and half turns is useful for more experienced dancers as well as novices. This is because, once you know how to turn, it is actually more difficult to balance en demi pointe in retire than it is to turn because the centrifugal force of the turn helps to sustain you. Think of it like trying to stay upright on a bicycle while stationary. It’s much harder than staying upright while cycling.
A few years ago I created a video tutorial to teach this process to beginners. If you are new to pirouettes, I recommend using this video to take you through each stage, spending a few weeks mastering each stage before progressing to the next one.
Tip 2: Sustain the vertical axis
It is impossible to achieve multiple pirouettes without the ability to remain vertical. As soon as you tip in any direction, you’ll start to fall, and your natural reflex will be to do something to stop yourself falling, like bringing the retire foot down, or hopping. Focus your attention maintaining the vertical line as you descend into your demi plie and releve into the pirouette. Imagine the infinite vertical line that goes down into the floor through your supporting foot to ground you, and up through the crown of your head to lift you up.
It's also useful to think about ‘stacking’ your body parts, so that your head is above your ribs, your ribs above your hips, your hips above your foot.
Tip 3: Use the energy of the plie
A common mistake is to ‘sit’ in the demi plie preparation, by which I mean hold the demi plie position and then releve. Instead, think of the two phases of the plie (the bend and the stretch) as a single, smooth movement that rebounds like a spring. Think of your calf muscles like a rubber band that you stretch and that when you release it flies across the room. Tap into that elastic energy stored in your calf to give your pirouette more power. The rhythm or tempo of the music can sometimes make it tempting to sit in the demi plie. The way I encourage my students to overcome this is to pause en demi pointe, then lower down and rebound out of the demi plie smoothly.
Tip 4: Spotting
How can we discuss pirouettes without talking about spotting? As you probably know, the technique involves focusing the eyes on a fixed point or spot and then whipping the head around quickly to return the gaze to that point during each rotation. Your head and neck should be the last to start turning and the first to finish the rotation.
It is a common misperception that the main purpose of spotting is to stop you getting dizzy. This is not the purpose of the spot at all. Instead, the primary purpose of spotting is to increase momentum, especially during multiple turns. Even on a single turn for beginners, a sharp spot can make the difference between making a full revolution and not quite getting there. For more experienced dancers, the action of spotting maintains the energy and momentum of the turn. Of course, spotting also helps orient the dancer in space, so they know where to finish the turn. If you want to finish the turn facing the corner, you would spot the corner, rather than the front.
Focussing on the timing of your spotting can be helpful for slow pirouettes (or any turn). When performing a slower pirouette, it’s tempting to slow down the retire, but you need to still make the retire a quick movement. Instead, you delay the spot, whipping your head around at the last moment.
For those just learning to turn and spot, practice spotting while doing a more simple turn, such as just shuffling around in a circle on the spot, or doing a simple twist turn. Make to use your eyes to focus on the spot, and keep your head vertical. It’s tempting to allow your head to tilt so you can look at the spot for longer before whipping your head around, but this usually results in your head inclining, which throws you off your vertical axis.
Tip 5: Use of arms and upper body
Graceful arms are one of the most beautiful elements of ballet, but they are not just there for decoration. The arm positions and movements in ballet are always functional as well as aesthetic. In pirouettes, the arms play a vital role in momentum and controlling the speed of your turn. The standard arm position in pirouettes is first position, where the arms create a circle at around the height of your solar plexus.
Placing the arms in first position helps maintain a centred and aligned posture that helps stabilise and control the turn. Your centre of mass is more central, and this means you’re less likely to tip or fall off balance during the turn. Holding your arms closer to your body means you turn faster.
Typically, you prepare for a pirouette with your arms in third position. It is helpful, especially when aiming for two or more turns, to open out the arm that is in front of your body (so your arms are now in second) before bringing them into first position. I have found this technique to be a game changer in two ways. One is that when you bring your arms into first, you will turn faster (because your arms are now closer to your rotational axis). The other is that it means your shoulders have already started moving so both your upper body (initiated by your arms) and your lower body (initiated by your feet) are helping you to turn. By using your arms in this way, you will find the turn requires less effort, and you sail around with ease. Often, when a dancer first uses this technique, they are surprised and caught off guard by the speed and ease of their turn.
It's tempting to ‘wind up’ before a pirouette. The ‘wind up’ refers to twisting your body and arms in the opposite direction to the way you want to turn as a way to give you more momentum. Instead, the windup tends to throw you off your vertical axis. The pirouette, and multiple turns, do not come from throwing excessive force into the turn.
To sum up, pirouettes are quite complicated movements that require strength, control, proprioception, and coordination. Like anything in dance, there is a lot to think about, so don’t try to do all of these things at once. Work on different elements separately so that your body becomes adept at doing each of these things automatically, and then you’ll be able to do them all together.