FLOOR IT
Good things happen when ballet gets horizontal

By Joseph Carman

When dancer Christina Beskou was teaching and studying ballet at London Contemporary Dance in 1976, she sustained a knee injury that wouldn’t heal.

 

On holiday in her home country of Greece, she invited renowned Royal Academy of Dance teacher Maria Fay to join her. ”She asked me how long I hadn’t been doing anything,” says Beskou, ”and I said, ’A month. I have a lot of pain.’ ” Fay replied, ”OK, on the floor. Let’s do something.” 

Beskou thought the floor exercises would be easy. Wrong. But they got results. During a three-week period, she says, Fay ”taught me a classical barre on the floor, from beginning to end. She found a way to create new exercises. When we finished, my knee was perfect. I never had a problem again.” Not long afterward, Beskou started teaching floor barre exercises at her studio in Amsterdam, and she’s been teaching Fay’s method ever since. 

Why the floor? 

Barre-type exercises done on the floor, which sometimes include elements of Pilates or yoga, have numerous uses and benefits. In a supine position, using gravity to their advantage, dancers can feel the correct alignment of the body, particularly the spine, hips, and torso. They can understand the proper genesis of turnout in the hips, allow the muscles to lengthen and tone, and more easily coordinate the arms and legs. Floor barres provide excellent core strengthening by requiring stability in movement through the exercises. 

And, as Beskou discovered, floor barres provide a wonderful alternative for dancers who are working through injuries. The exercises can also serve as a warm-up before technique class or in circumstances where space is limited or barres aren’t available. And their organic structures are useful for most ages. 

Fay used the format of the classical barre as a framework and added exercises. ”Maria took the same regimen that you do standing up, except with flexed feet,” Beskou says. Fay included some Pilates core-strengthening moves, such as curling the torso as far as the lower borders of the shoulder blades while doing tendus en avant; and yoga stretches, such as back extensions, that coordinate port de bras with leg movements. 

Beskou’s typical floor barre for teenage ballet dancers starts with warming up all the joints in a supine position, moving from the head down to the hips, including spinal twists. This is followed by flexing and pointing the feet and turning the legs in and out from the hips. She then moves into a standard ballet barre sequence, working through pliés, tendus, dégagés, and ronds de jambe a terre. (Movements done to the back, such as tendu en arriere, are done while lying prone.) Stretches and abdominal and back-strengthening exercises, including isometrics, are next. For rond de jambe en l’air, Beskou includes a side-lying exercise with what would be the standing foot placed against the wall. ”I finish that segment with grand battements,” she says. “Then I go slowly into more difficult things like frappé and fondu.” 

When Beskou teaches ballet, she normally gives 30 minutes of floor barre followed by a full ballet class. A class consisting only of floor barre runs 60 to 90 minutes.

Beskou says, ”When I am guesting as a teacher for floor barre, I do 90 minutes because I am explaining a lot. With one hour, I don’t stop.”  

Both Beskou and Dalle normally use musical accompaniment for their floor barres, although Dalle sometimes jettisons the music and has his students focus on the breath. Beskou uses typical ballet barre accompaniment, drums or soft yoga-style music, or simply her voice, relaying the tempo while she offers corrections. Dalle, who prefers a pianist or recordings, sticks to particular tempos for the different exercises: 3/4 for adagios, battements to a march é rhythm, and codas for petite batterie. 

When and why 

Teachers of floor barre methods differ in their opinions about when to introduce the technique to children. Dalle says it’s fine for children to start his beginner classes at age 10; Beskou recommends rudimentary exercises as early as ages 5 or 6.