Improve Your Fouettes

November 5, 2008

It’s been haunting your dreams since you could say the words “Swan Lake.” It’s a rite of passage, a moment of exhilaration, a sign that you’ve been elevated from one of the pack to
leader of the pack.

What is it? A fouetté—32 of them, to be precise. Mastering this feat takes hard work and solid training. Here are some pointers to guide you on your quest for flawless fouettés.

Schools of Thought

In Russian-style fouettés, the working leg opens directly à la seconde with a plié on the supporting leg, then whips into retiré for the pirouette. In other approaches, the retiré toe beats from the back of the knee to the front in the turn. Another method in America is to open the working leg devant with a plié on the supporting leg, rond de jambe to à la seconde in plié, and then bring the working leg into retiré as you relevé and turn. Some teachers, like Franco De Vita, principal of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in NYC, prefer the relevé to happen in à la seconde, rather than retiré.

Placement and Strength

Placement is the first requirement for solid fouettés. “The student needs a strong plié with the knee over the toes, not rolling,” says Carter Alexander, head of faculty at the Miami City Ballet School. “She also needs stability in the hips to put the leg where it needs to go.” Shoulder blades should be down and open, with the neck long.

Strength is the second requirement. Dancers must be able to do multiple relevés on one leg. At Pacific Northwest Ballet School in Seattle, Marjorie Thompson has students do consecutive relevés moving from fondu coupé to relevé passé. “You need strength in the relevé leg so you don’t pound that heel into the floor. It has to be controlled, otherwise the dancer starts to look like a war horse,” says Thompson.

Core and upper back strength keep the torso secure and aligned. Weaknesses in these areas lead to “pumping,” where the shoulders round forward and the hips tuck in plié, and the back arches in the relevé.

One common mistake is to drop the working leg in rond de jambe. In most styles, it should stay at 90 degrees. Practice at the barre: Relevé retiré, plié développé devant, rond de jamb to relevé à la seconde, and retiré. Repeat this 8 to 16 times, relying on the barre as little as possible.

Rhythm and Coordination

Once you learn to coordinate the spot, the arms opening with the working leg, and the relevé, it will be easier to execute successive turns. Use the music to get the rhythm in your body, and don’t stop after just two or three turns, even if your technique is less than stellar at first. “Fouettés can be done with the accent up or down, but the best thing is to follow the music,” De Vita says. “Once the movement is there, we try to clean it. But if you try to be perfect in the beginning, you’ll do two or three and stop and never get the right rhythm to do 16 or more.”

Goal Setting

Start small and be patient. Don’t expect to be able to do 32 overnight. Bodies mature at different rates. Some dancers simply don’t have the muscle strength to do dozens of fouettés—especially if they’ve just had a growth spurt—while others will be able to do them right away. At the JKO School, De Vita often lets the dancers do as many fouettés as they can after class. You can do the same. After class, try doing three. Each week, add one or two more. Before you know it, you’ll be doing 32.

Multiple fouettés are high-pressure, and some dancers get psyched out. But once you can do one or two, doing 30 more isn’t a big deal—as long as you have the stamina. “It’s a repeated step, so it actually isn’t that difficult,” Alexander explains. If you find yourself getting frustrated, it’s probably more productive to walk away. Return to the studio the next day with a fresh perspective.

“I always say the secret to turning is turning,” says Thompson. “Students get so worked up. Don’t defeat yourself before you get going. I don’t let dancers continue in a way that is not technically correct, but you have to turn. Just relevé and go.”

The Next Level

These days, it isn’t enough to do just 32 fouettés. Search YouTube (or!) and you’ll see triple pirouettes, changing spots, fancy arm variations, and turns that travel across the stage (on purpose). These embellishments will come naturally as you get comfortable with the basic turns.

The Finish

Nothing can ruin 32 perfect fouettés like a kamikaze landing. At the end of your last turn, lift your working leg higher through passé to slow down, then shoot it far out behind you into a big fourth position. To finish in plié fifth position to soussus—which is a bit trickier—bring your arms to bras bas in the plié, then engage your core and inner thighs as you soussus with the arms coming through middle fifth to high fifth. Your flawless finish will bring the audience to its feet!