Passé, Retiré, Développé à la Seconde – Level Hips?
Since I started writing and participating in social media dance discussions, I have aggressively and consistently avoided this topic. Recently, this topic reared it’s head once again in the guise of an innocent post that was worded as follows:
“ à la seconde extensions: hip up/open or hip squared?”
The original author then went on to explain how she had been trained and what she occasionally sees in other dancers. The overwhelming consensus in the responses to this query was that the hips should be squared and level for both Retiré and for the extension of the leg to the side. Some of the responses included the atomic need to lift the working hip when the extension to the side is significantly above 90°. In nearly every response, the reason given for “squared” or level hips was: “This is how I was taught.”
Well this was NOT how I was taught.
For most of my performing career my ballet teacher was Madame Gabriela Darvash and Mme Darvash had some very different ideas about many of ballet’s technical points. And every one of her ideas had a REASON behind it. Here is what she taught on this particular point:
If a dancer stands in “Retiré” with “square” hips, and you draw a line from the center of the head to the center of the standing hip to the center of the standing foot, that line will form (for most dancers) a slightly obtuse angle.
If that same dancer “pulls up” in that standing hip as much as possible, then the line from the head to the standing hip to the standing foot will be a straight line like a flag pole, with the leg in Retiré out to the side like that flag.
How will the dancer balance better: with the body forming an angle or with the body lined up in a straight line? (In a straight line!) And if the balance is better, the turns will be better and the technique will be stronger and the dancer will be freer to be more expressive. This always made sense to me, this always worked for me and this is what I pass on to my students. Mme Darvash went on to explain that the idea of level hips is a misinterpretation of the word “square”. She told us that when Mme Vaganova said “square” she meant square FRONT rather than twisted and she never intended the hips in Retiré to be LEVEL. I can not attest to the veracity of this last statement. I wasn’t there. I’ve never trained in Russia. Mme Vaganova died ten years before I was born. Now methods and ideas change (this is why the Vaganova Academy has no published text book) but according to my teacher, this is what Vaganova taught; at least during the time that she trained in Russia.
Students (especially beginners) need ONE WAY to train. When they are acquiring their technique they must have one way to work and they must trust their teacher. I trusted Mme Darvash. She had produced many great dancers who were principals in some of the world’s great companies as well as many brilliant dancers on Broadway. And at the beginning of my career I believed that EVERYTHING she taught was RIGHT (and, consequently, if another teacher taught something differently, they were in my mind obviously WRONG).
As I continued through my performing career, my nine year absence from the dance industry after my retirement from the stage, and began my teaching career I held firmly to the the belief that everything I learned from my teacher was CORRECT. But as I continued to study and train, even though I was now a teacher rather than a performer, I was frequently coming up against new ideas. For the most part I pushed back, KNOWING that what I was taught was right. But over time I came to realize that some of Mme Darvash’s ideas and teachings were being replaced in my mind, in my work and in my teaching by new ideas. Ideas that had a REASON behind them and ideas that were working in my body. But this particular concept of Retiré and Développé à la Seconde has never changed for me. I have never been able to dance better with square hips. I have never been presented with any reason why square or level hips work better. And “That is how I was taught” will never be a good enough reason for me.
I do not ask that my readers agree with my ideas on Retiré and Développé à la Seconde. I know that most of you never will. I am not out to change anybody’s mind and I am most definitely not looking for an argument. I only ask that you think about WHY you teach what you teach. The most exciting part of the work for me is the exploration. “That’s how I was taught” is not a good enough reason for me. The deep exploration of “why” has made me the teacher that I am and has given me a thrilling and continuous source of wonder. And I hope, that from my small and insignificant corner of the ballet world, I can share that source wonder with you.