Short Achilles or long Achilles, perfect 180 degree turnout or 45 degree turnout, your plié is what gives you fluidity in ballet. It gives you height in your jumps, force in your turns, and strength in your adagio to get your legs higher.
Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of every essential element of the plié, plus some common pit falls to avoid!
It is important to stand properly in plié with feet flat on the floor, whether you’re wearing leather flats or satiny pointe shoes—no pronating (bearing weight on the inside of the foot) or supinating (bearing weight on the outside of the foot).
Center your weight evenly over the ball of the foot; you don’t want to balance on the heels, as it will cause an alignment-disturbing shift every time you rise to demi-pointe or pointe.
Remember that you must always work on your turnout, meaning the angle between your feet in first position can be anywhere from 10 to 180 degrees, depending on how much natural rotation you have in your hips.
Once you’ve found your perfect position, make sure you’re keeping it in line when you plié by looking at your knees: They should align just between your second and third toes.
Principal Dancer, New York City Ballet
If your knees are jutting inward toward (or past) the big toe, you may be forcing your turnout from the ankles and need to reign in first position a little. If the knees are going back toward (or past) the little toe, you can probably turn out your position a little more.
The Hip Thing to Do
Imagine your hip bones are headlights: They should always be level with each other and shine straight ahead. Use the abdominals to shift the pelvis to this neutral position, tilted neither forward nor backward. This will help you go deeper into your plié.
To check your alignment, stand sideways to a mirror and go through every position and plié. You should have a straight line from neck to butt, without a curve inward or outward in the lower back. While the gluteus (butt) muscles should be engaged, gripping them too hard without proper abdominal support will cause you to “tuck” out of alignment, which, in turn, can throw off your plié and your entire class.
When your hips are aligned correctly, your turnout will come more naturally, too!
The Core of Your Dancing
Learning to properly engage your core can take dancers years and, sometimes, even decades. (Though if you’re a Pilates fan, it tends to come more easily.) The abdominal muscles are absolutely vital as they provide a stable center from which all movement originates. They also ensure proper pelvic positioning and preventing problems like a swayback or hunchback, both of which can knock a dancer completely off balance.
Imagine the pulling your navel back and in, through your gut and against your spine whenever you’re dancing. This exercise, called “navel to spine,” will teach you to activate your abdominals and create a stronger center.
A Call for Arms
No matter how focused you are on your lower half, don’t forget about the arms! While different teachers will tell you to do different things with your arms during pliés, the essentials will stay the same.
They should always be supported from the back, like wings extending from your shoulder blades. Whenever you move your arms, move them as though you were doing port de bras through peanut butter—strong and sticky, positively smeared with resistance. This will activate all the muscles in your back and upper arms, giving you a beautiful port de bras, not to mention the defined back muscles all ballerinas covet.
Proper head and gaze positioning is the final aspect of any perfect plié; the crown at the top of the layer cake that is the ballerina’s body. You may at times be given specific head postures or told to dimply gaze forward, but never let your head or gaze drop (unless expressly told to do so).
Hot Tip: Find Your Turnout
Not sure where your natural turnout falls? Stand with feet parallel and together. Rock all your weight onto your heels, and then turn out to first position. This is where your first position should always be! Rotating from your heels engages turnout from your hips, as opposed to (incorrectly) from your knees or feet.
Dropping the gaze below the horizon and not lifting the chin will cause the head to drop, which in turn, often causes the chest to drop. A dropped chest and head will disturb the necessary upright alignment and make everything tilt forward and down. This should be avoided in all ballet, but especially in turns and partnering—a ballerina who leans forward when lifted will fall forward and out of her partner’s arms!
Use Your Head
Keep these tips in mind on your way to class. Since pliés are one of the first exercises at the barre, it’s a surefire way to start things off right!
If you find yourself still needing some panache in your plié, work on it at home. The more you practice, the more you’ll build your muscle memory; eventually a perfect plié will come naturally!