Disclaimer: my penché is not 180- at least not without me physically holding it there! But I am happy with where it is, for where I’m at right now. There have been things that I have worked on in the past which have helped to get it higher, so I wanted to share these here. 80% of this post is oriented around flexibility, simply because without the facility, it won’t matter how much you work the right muscles, the leg simply won’t make it! But the good news is once you have the range, you can raise your strength game to meet it. And no surprise, the more flexible you are, the easier it will feel to get your leg higher. Hooray!
So let’s talk how to improve your penché in ballet class. If you’re a ballerina and doing 8 hours of ballet a day, whilst a lot of work, getting that enviable 6 o clock line probably seems likely and highly achievable. That’s great! But what about those of us that aren’t able to do ballet class all day? Is there still a way? I think with some strategy, yes! We all want that beautiful line, and it’s also used in contemporary, lyrical and jazz. We are all born with a natural amount of facility- for some of us, legs for days extensions seem to come pretty easy, whilst for others getting past 90, can be a struggle. But regardless, many of us find we come along to class each week and our penché just isn’t getting, well, any higher. The good news is whatever your current ceiling of limitation, the advice below should help you with some regular practise and dedication break through to a substantially higher line.
The Basics- What And How Do I Penché In Ballet?
For those of you who are new to this term, a penché is derived from the French meaning to lean or incline. The dancer brings their leg into arabesque (leg is extended 90 degrees behind them, turned out.)
They then slowly allow the leg to move higher, inclining the body. The position is transitioned in and out of slowly with 180 being the ideal angle so that the dancer is standing on their supporting leg with their other leg positioned directly above them. Natalia Osipova executes this beautifully in the act 2 pas de deux of Giselle (see 1.15-1.27.) As you can see, a penche doesn’t have to be 180 degrees to be beautiful (although I’m sure she’s very capable.)
So before any betterment is embarked on, it is important to make sure these fundamentals are correct- cake before icing if you will.
1. It is the leg that initiates movement. Once you have gone as far as you can with you’re back upright, it is the leg lifting higher which causes the back to start to lower. Think of it like scales as one rises up, the other in reaction goes lower. Remember a penché in ballet is essentially a tipped arabesque.
2. You’re back and leg should be working in opposition- think of them being drawn towards each other like magnets.
3. Focus on reaching outward with your arm rather than down and keep your eye line looking out on the diagonal, rather than downcast.
4. Keep your weight forward, with pelvis well over the foot.
5. As in all things ballet, turn out baby! Especially that supporting leg.
So now we’ve got our bases covered, we’ll get down to getting that breakthrough. But first, let’s understand the problem. You’ve mastered the splits. So why is it we fail to hit that same picture perfect line while standing? Why when’s we attempt that penché in ballet class do we find ourselves falling short? The answer lies in passive flexibility. This is where you achieve and hold a position via outside force rather than your own muscular power. It is also known as relaxed stretching or static-passive stretching. A penché however is executed through an active stretch where the position is achieved and held through the strength of the dancer. Therefore strength and flexibility for this move must work in partnership with one another. The good news is that by increasing your passive flexibility, you can also increase your active flexibility which as a general rule will always be less. Therefore, to tackle this, we must go above and beyond what is needed. So now let’s get stuck into the short cut tools to get you closer to that 6 o clock penché. Remember that with this particular step, it is all about the small gains so focus on progress, not perfection.
Start Stretching In Over-splits
This one for me was a game changer! Because flexibility tends to be less with an active stretch, you need to allow more wiggle room. Please make sure before you attempt this, that you have a) mastered floor splits and b) are warm, to avoid injury. To start practising this find a thick book or a couple of cushions and place them under your front heel. Then resume stretching as normal. Once you are more limber and can deal with extra pressure, you can experiment propping your front leg against a sofa or even two chairs (one front and one back) but make sure they’re sturdy!
Practise Splits In Parallel
I know this is infinitely harder, sigh. But it will stretch your hip flexors and work your overall flexibility in a way that is more challenging than ordinary splits. This particular advice was given to me by an acro teacher once, and it’s did not fail to help.
Do The Splits Against A Wall
This will really give you leverage to push into the wall and use that passive resistance and gain purchase through pushing against the floor with your hands. It also means you are practising with a flexed foot on the supporting leg just as you would in a penché. You may also feel a decent stretch extending into your calf which you don’t get with floor splits.
Work That Back Flexibility!
So we’ve already discussed how when you penché in ballet your strength and flexibility must work together as partners. And likewise the same can be said of your back and leg flexibility. So there are a few things you can do to specifically target back flexibility in relation to your arabesque.
- The Cobra. This is a GREAT warm up stretch. Start by lying on the floor with your hands under your shoulders. Slowly push up, being sure to engage your upper back first, vertebrae by vertebrae. To do this, think of keeping your rib cage on the floor and looking up to the ceiling. Then go into the full stretch. By doing this you can fully work your back flexibility to it’s maximum.
- Try kneeling up with your legs hip width apart and leading with your head, transition into a back bend, grabbing your ankles. To increase the stretch, focus on pushing your hips forward and trying to get your hands to touch the floor space between your ankles. This stretch WILL make you feel heady, so doing three smaller sets is advisable.
- Standing up, extend the leg behind you in a tendu and cambre back (cambre meaning to bend.) This will allow for gorgeous lines and back extensions whilst also working the back flexibility on the correct side you need for your arabesque.
- Take things up a notch by getting into arabesque alignment with your back foot either resting on the barre or with the foot resting up against a wall. Then lifting the arm to 5th, cambre back as far as you can go.
- You can then experiment with doing elements of the scorpion in attitude, and then with a straight leg. You don’t need to be a gymnast to attempt this and gain the benefit. It’s not about executing a perfect needle. As long as you can feel a stretch and your back being worked, you’re on the right path. Remember- progress, not perfection.
Remember, it is very important after stretching your back that you stretch it the other way. The easiest way to achieve this is through child’s pose. This is one of my favourite stretches; it’s great for a breather and gives a moment of relief. I find back stretches the most demanding as they also require strength, so this relief can be necessary!
You can also lie on your back hugging your knees to your chest and roll gently from side to side across your back or round in a circle. This acts as a massage and can feel great on sore muscles.
The cat stretch may also be beneficial, as it allows you to oscillate between arching and curving your back. Whatever you choose, it’s a great time to recentre yourself.
The Strength Game
So as I’ve mentioned strength is the necessary counterpart to a successful penché. With regard to the strength that comes into play there are two main muscle groups involved when you penché: lower back and adductors (thighs.)
A great strength exercise is to stand facing the barre and go into a penché as you would normally. From there bend the back leg to attitude. Focus on the idea of reaching the toe over the head. This is more an intention rather than execution. As you straighten it, take care not to let the knee drop. By doing this you can work at getting your penché in ballet higher.
You can also try little pulses to get your leg higher, but make sure you’re warm if you try this!
Ultimately a penché is performed in the centre, so it’s important to start building that strength now. A good way to do this is to start at the barre, and then when your penché is at its maximum range lift your hand off and test your balance.
When you’ve gotten used to this, you can then try it in the centre. When starting doing penchés without the bar, it’s ok to not go to your maximum range straight away until you’re more confident, as this will allow you the chance to get used to shifting your weight, and the counter balance that needs to be in place, coupled with the strength to hold it there.
You can also practise putting your leg on the barre in arabesque, making sure that it’s at a comfortable height enough that you have enough facility left to lift it. Now try small lifts off the barre. I recommend starting with 10 and then build it up.
So that’s it! The things I have found most helpful to finally get that better line. As always, let me know how you’re getting on, and if there’s any thing you want to ask me, drop me a message in the comments- I’d love to hear from you!
In the mean time as always, keep dancing 🙂