We start with plié at the barre not just because it underpins all movement in ballet, but because it happens to be one of the most efficient ways to warm up the entire body. It is not a movement isolated to the legs; even without any accompanying arm movement, it requires engagement of the hips, back and core muscles.
To plié correctly, the bending and stretching of the knees have to be continuous and smooth, both in demi-plié (half knee bend) and grand plié (full knee bend). Think of an elevator which never stops: the moment it gets to the bottom it starts its ascent, and the moment it reaches the top floor it starts to drop again (to the terror of the passengers trapped within.) Should you pause in the middle of executing a plié, the muscles around the ankles, knees and hips have to grip in order to hold the position, which is inherently unstable because all these joints are flexed. So you are not truly warming up the muscles but stressing them inappropriately at the beginning of class.
Throughout the plié you want to feel the feet pressing firmly into the ground, the toes long and arches lifted. I tell the younger kids that they need to be able to park their Hot Wheels in the arch under the foot; if the foot starts to roll forward and they flatten that arch, that vintage Hot Wheel will be history.
The first action in a plié should be an outward rotation of the thighs rather than a sinking in the knees. Most teachers will remind you like a broken record to keep-your-hips-in-line-with-your-knees-in-line-with-your-2nd-or-3rd-toe. Maintaining this alignment and turnout from the hips rather than just turning out the feet is key to protecting the joints from undesirable torsion.
I like to start pliés in a wide 2nd position, which allows you to keep your heels firmly grounded into the floor throughout the movement, and to get to your maximum turnout with easier flexion in the hips. It is also easier in 2nd position to keep the pelvis level and to maintain a vertical spine, without “tucking” under. Tucking engages the glutes and restricts the range of motion in your legs. It also makes you look like you just got off a horse. The muscle group you want to engage is the DOR (deep outward rotators), a smaller set of muscles underneath the glutes. These are the muscles that you need to rotate the thighs outward and keep them rotated.
In 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th positions, the heels stay on the floor in demi-plié but have to lift off the floor toward the bottom of the grand plié, then you have to conscientiously push them back down into the floor as soon as you begin your ascent.
A common error is to leave the heels up until the knees have almost fully straightened – this is akin to the airline pilot who forgets to lower the landing gear until the plane has almost touched down – not so much an aesthetic problem as a failure of technique, as the air traffic controller might say. The Achilles tendon does not get adequately stretched, and the bad habit carries through to centre work: heels that tend to pop up off the floor. Dancers who fail to correct this often move across the floor in a kind of demi-pointe limbo, never quite on top of their toes but never flat on the floor either.
Many students get used to performing pliés at the barre at a fixed tempo, usually on the slow side, but I think it’s a good idea to mix it up occasionally and execute them at uncomfortable tempos. Performing them slowly – really slowly – allows you to focus on the isometric quality of the plié, your muscles actively resisting the movement downward then actively resisting the movement upward. It is very strengthening to perform pliés slowly, as you work harder to recruit the muscles in the backs of the legs, especially in the ascent. At slow speeds it’s also easier to focus on keeping a strong core, pushing “navel toward spine.”
On the other hand, performing pliés on the fast side emphasizes the smooth, continuous quality of the movement and helps get rid of any jerkiness or tendency to sit at the bottom of the plié.
The elevator image also helps to remind you to keep your spine vertical, your tailbone pointing down to the floor, as you descend. Another helpful image is to imagine you are encased in two narrow plates of glass, and as you go up and down you need to make sure that no body part touches the glass in front or behind.
For the more experienced student, imagine that you have to execute a pirouette from the bottom of your grand plié. You will quickly realize whether your back is straight or not, because there is no way you can spring into a pirouette from 4 inches off the floor if you are tipping even the slightest bit off-centre. (Pirouette from grand plié is an old exercise from the Italian and Russian Schools, a step taught mainly to men but rarely used now; it is still a great drill to drive home the importance of pushing against the floor, of actively resisting gravity from the depth of the plié.)
Physical therapists are not big fans of grand plié in any position, and most especially not in 4th position, which can produce too much torque in the joints if you are the slightest bit out of alignment – and most people simply are not built to stay perfectly square in 4th position. Which is why some teachers today skip grand plié in 4th position altogether.
Demi-plié in 4th position however is never omitted; it’s a very important step as it is the most common preparation for pirouette, the key to temps lié and many other linking steps.
Suzanne Farrell said “the plié is the first thing we learn in ballet and the last thing we master,” the main challenge being to keep our torso properly aligned, our legs fully turned out from the hips, and our heels pushing relentlessly into the floor as we bob up and down like a well-oiled elevator in a Hitchcock thriller. To complicate matters, we are usually asked to coordinate our arm movements with plié and the most common port de bras taught today involves bringing the arm down from 2nd position to low 5th (bras bas) then lifting it to 5th front and opening to 2nd position. This is a 20th century invention that unfortunately encourages the back and shoulders to drop forward.Teachers can modify the port de bras to help keep the torso lifted throughout the plié; my favorite port de bras for grand plié is to carry the arm from 2nd to 5th high on the descent which helps to engage the back correctly. Other solutions, especially for beginning students, are to place the arm in 2nd position and leave it there, or place the hand on the shoulder with the elbow lifted throughout, or float the arm out from low 5th to demi 2nd (a low 2nd position of the arms) during the descent and float the arm back down to low 5th during the ascent.
I’ve always found pliés to be the most challenging exercise at the barre, no matter how simple the choreography, but this has the benefit of forcing the mind to focus quickly, to leave behind the distractions of the everyday world, and mentally take you where you need to be for class.