The Notorious Tours a la Seconde and Competiton Dance

One of the benefits of the Internet is that it affords us the opportunity to discuss our profession with a multitude colleagues all over the world. In addition to my blog, I am a regular contributor to a number of websites and teachers’ groups. And a topic that has surfaced a lot lately is the use and execution in Competition Dance of the notorious “Grand Pirouette a la Seconde”. This step has also been called “Tour a la Seconde”, “Turns in Second”, “A la Seconde’s”, and I once met a dancer who thought the step was named for its creator “Alex Seccond”. The following post started a discuss on this topic. The post was made by a very fine and accomplished ballet teacher who I have had the great good fortune to “meet” over the Internet, and subsequently meet in person. I want to say that I agree with what she stated, in theory…but art is never simply “black and white”. Here is what she wrote:

“May we please discuss tours a la seconde for a moment? As a ballet teacher, I tend not to spend a lot of time at competitions as I only have one girl competing in ballet right now, but I have done a LOT of observing this season. Tours a la seconde are traditionally a male virtuoso skill performed in a variation. The correct execution includes a turned out preparation, a fully engaged leg turned out from the hip at 90 degrees and arms that remain in the second position during the execution of the turns which are usually performed consecutively, with the leg turned out in retire on the pirouette that follows. What I am seeing is a gross abomination of said skill.”

The post spurred a long list of comments focusing on the following topics:

1) The origin of the step.
2) The correct execution of the step.
3) the correct preparation for the step.
4) The appropriateness of the step in Jazz combinations.
5) The appropriateness of the step for the female dancer.
6) The execution of the step while wearing only one shoe.

I think, that as dance professionals, we all can agree that the step is part of the standard classical ballet vocabulary, and there is a “correct” preparation and execution as far as the ballet vocabulary is concerned. However, there is a long tradition of dance steps originally created as part of a particular genre of Dance being absorbed into another genre of Dance (very often Jazz), and going through some changes during that process. Jack Cole borrowed quite a lot from East Indian Dance; and certainly did not keep it purely East Indian, Having spent many years under the tutelage of Luigi, I am most familiar with his work. His technique is filled with ballet terminology, and although the steps only barely resemble their “ballet cousins”, no one ever said that what he was doing was in anyway “wrong”. The terms glissade, dégagé, renverse, faille and many others were heard in his classes daily, but a ballet teacher would find very little in a “Luigi Glissade” or a “Luigi Dégagé” that resembles anything that is part of the ballet vocabulary.

When it comes to the “correct preparation” of the step, the typical ballet preparation for Grand Pirouette a la Seconde would be a tendu (usually to the side) closing back into a well turned out fourth position, both heels on the floor, demi plié, with (depending on the style/technique) the weight evenly distributed between the two feet OR all the weight on the front foot OR with the back knee straight. And this is how the step is taught. But it is not the ONLY way to prepare the turn, especially when the turn is part of a complex piece of choreography. That standard preparation is how the turns are usually executed in class; giving students a supportive preparation from which to accomplish the turn. But that is class and that is training. That is not choreography. Madame Darvash used to say “A dancer should be able to turn IN any position FROM any position. Luigi reported that his teacher Madame Nijinska said of her brother (the legendary Nijinsky) “He could do 10 pirouettes and you would never see the preparation”. The pirouettes that are part of Luigi’s technique are certainly pirouettes, but they bear little resemblance to a ballet pirouette. The “preparation” is usually a lunge to the side, the passé is parallel and the standing leg has a slightly bent knee/forced arch. Is it “wrong”? Not to me. Is it how the pirouette is done in ballet class? No. Is it a pirouette? Most definitely. So if Competition choreography employs a “different” preparation, why do we need to label it as wrong.

As far as the appropriateness of the step in Jazz choreography. My feeling is…if it works, then it works. I hate it when turns are used as a vulgar display of technical prowess. When these turns are part of a 19th century Men’s Variation, that’s pretty much what they are…a display. But in more modern choreography, if you are going to use them, in my opinion, they need to have an artistic purpose. An if you can find a way to make them work within the context of Jazz- Great! Jack Cole made East Indian Dance work within the context of Jazz. This is how art grows. And with respect to ladies performing the step…why not? We no longer tell girls they can’t play football, should we be telling them they can’t/shouldn’t execute a ballet step?

With respect to performing/competing with one shoe… It is not an artistic choice that I would ever make. But I recently was made aware of a piece that was choreographed for dancers wearing one pointe shoe and one stiletto heal. Another choice I would have never made.

Part of the disagreement seems to stem from the fact that teachers working in the pre-professional world, especially pre-professional ballet, want competition dance to work the way they work and do what they do. But much (not all) of competition dance is simply DIFFERENT. Not worse, not better…different. I see very little choreography in competition dance that would be “at home” on the Broadway Stage or in a Concert Dance Company. And similarly, a piece like Bob Fosse’s “Rich Man’s Frug”, brilliant as it is, would not do well at a competition due to its lack of technical difficulty despite its incredibly challenging artistic demands. And let me state, that when competition dancers come to Joffrey and join the pre-professional programs, they typically do very well. VERY WELL. There is an adjustment, for sure, but their discipline and training serve them well.

I am not part of the competition dance world, per se. I am, however, often invited to guest teach at completion studios with greater and greater frequency. Perhaps they feel they want to expose their dancers to something different, perhaps they feel it will give them a competitive edge, perhaps they are looking to help competition dance grow and evolve. After a full day at a beautiful school in Michigan, the teacher who engaged me wrote to me and told me that she started implementing some of what I taught the very next day. It’s not my place to tell the competition schools what and how to do what they do. It is my job to bring what I do to them. And perhaps it will influence what they do and perhaps it won’t. And perhaps one day there will be a new “Grand Pirouette a la Seconde” that is part of the vocabulary of competitive dance. It won’t be a ballet step. It won’t be worse, and it won’t be better. It will be something exciting and astonishing and unique to competitive dance.

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