A Tutorial for Skaters and Dancers Alike
By Annette T. Thomas
Demonstrated by Laura Carolina Morelli, a master graduate of Ballet for Figure Skaters program and co-owner of “Skate to Soar” in Toronto, Canada
Just as in my previous article “The Importance of Plié”, Tendu (or Battement Tendu) is a fundamental part of almost every move we make – whether in skating or in dance. Plié is how we prepare, but Tendu is how we move. The genius of Russian ballet Methodology, Agrippina Y. Vaganova, said that it is the very foundation of the entire ballet methodology. Tendu means to stretch or tense – not just the foot or the knee, but to use the floor (or ice) as resistance in order to stretch and lift the entire body away from where we are to where we are going. In terms of physics or biomechanics you could say that Plié is the Potential energy, while Tendu is the Kinetic energy – so they go hand in hand and both exercises need equal scrutiny to master.
Good use of tendu is what enables a dancer to appear weightless in small jumps, turns and connecting steps across the floor, and a skater to push into the ice for a strong glide and fast footwork. A well mastered tendu gives both dancers and skaters aplomb for jumps, strongly pulled up knees, the ability to point the foot in the boot and beautiful well supported extensions (no need to lean away from the working leg!) Tendu corrects alignment problems from the hips through the ankles and so helps to prevent injuries – AND tendu also improves core strength as it requires the control of the entire body to execute properly.
And (again) just as I mentioned in the Plié article, most of us will say “Yes, tendu is good – you straighten your leg and you point your foot – it’s part of every ballet class, we know tendu”. We see every dancer on social media mostly showing you their hyperextended knees and “perfect” turnout – which is more about their flexibility than what tendu is really about – which is STRENGTH.
A closer look at the Tendu:
Most beginning skaters push off from their toe picks instead of the full edge of the blade which makes for a very weak stroke. Their free leg remains bent and “posture” is only thought about contextually from the waist up. In skating and ballet, you frequently see students bending the supporting leg in order to get the free leg higher – this shows lack of eccentric contraction strength through the whole body. In ballet often the student will shift the hips and bend the working leg knee to extend the foot in any direction and then bring it back in just as loosely; the exercise is done too fast and the intention becomes completely lost. In the case of tendu, learning to Love the floor, to push into it and use it” is equally as important as it is in learning to do plié correctly as resistance builds strength, balance, proprioception and mastery over the entire body through space and time. Resistance is applied both going out and coming back in so that the entire leg line is strengthened and stretched while encouraging good proprioception and turnout.
Let’s take a look at some of the fundamentals of tendu from a methodological and biomechanical perspective so that we can begin to feel it from the “inside out”.
It is important to understand that like plié, the exercise battement tendu is an action (not a position or pose) that goes in multiple directions simultaneously. To clarify – there are many poses *in* tendu but I am speaking here about the exercise itself. When practicing battement tendu from 1st position facing the barre, the supporting leg is pushed down into the floor with equal pressure on the heel, and big and little toes, while the working leg is stretched strongly and slowly away from centre. The torso simultaneously lifts up away from centre and the laterals, spine, iliopsoas, and quadratus lumborum lift the torso so that the pelvis remains square and in neutral. This action, when mastered, frees the working leg to move in any direction while keeping perfect balance and stability in the torso. The knee caps are pulled up strongly throughout, the heel is reluctant to leave the floor (part of the stretching of the back line of the leg and vital to good stroking technique), and the calf muscle becomes fully contracted as the foot strongly points at its final destination – front side or back, without putting any weight of the toes on the floor. Mastering these actions enables the entire body to be able to lift the leg without *any* counterbalancing and move in any direction, while maintaining a complete sense of “centre” and having the power and appearance of strong directional energy. To the viewer it can almost look as though the dancer is defying the laws of physics.
On drawing the working leg back into 1st position, the inner thighs and deep rotators isometrically squeeze together from BOTH legs – almost as if the supporting leg is equally moving to meet the working leg. Turnout is maintained throughout so that the legs and hips are trained to move in turnout at any given trajectory or plane of movement. When the tendu is completed with heels touching in 1st – the counts continue as the student continues to do the isometric squeeze of the legs in turnout. Because, in the Vaganova Method (which is what I teach) everything that is stretched is also strengthened within the SAME exercise so that every exercise is balanced within itself. Mastering these actions prepares the dancer or skater for fast agile movement, tight quick closure of the legs during jumps and faster spin entrances.
Once again, since correct body awareness and alignment (what Joseph Pilates calls “imprinting”) is so important to executing good tendus, they should be practiced on a regular basis OFF – ICE first so as to become second nature without the distraction of velocity or edges.
In Vaganova Methodology beginning level battement tendu is practiced facing the ballet barre in 16 counts each: 4 counts out, 4 counts hold, 4 counts in and 4 counts hold. This is to imprint the entire movement correctly into the mind-body connection, and to actually FORM the body, bones and muscles – just as physical therapy corrects alignment issues. But even before that, we have work to do on the floor. Both dancers and skaters will benefit from these exercises whether they have much or no ballet training – so, get a mat, take your shoes off and let’s get to work!
Exercise 1- Seated Turnout Flex and Point
Exercise 2- Lying on the floor at the wall on back (with repeat on stomach)
Exercises facing the barre in turn out:
Now try the demonstration exercises shown in Figs 1.1 through 1.5 working slowly so as to feel every muscle and body movement you felt on the floor. Work to the sides first in order to feel your turnout from the deep rotators, glutes and upper thighs.
Avoid resting on the supporting hip and “rolling in” on the supporting leg foot by pressing the big toe down into the floor.
Exercise with both skates on:
With your skates and guard on facing the barre or a counter top (chair backs are too low for proper alignment), try practicing battement tendu then slowly lifting the leg to 45∞ using all the same principles and counts as above. Take time to feel everything correctly.
Figs. 2.8 through 3.3 – full body from the front – one in tendu and one at 45∞ for each direction with both skates on
As a skater – combine this with plié on the ice and feel how much stronger your legs feel!
In Conclusion: Whether you’re a skater or a dancer – when you think “Higher, Faster Stronger” think Tendu as it all begins here.
©2022 by Annette T. Thomas and Prime Radiant Press LLC.
Annette T. Thomas is the Education Director of American Ice Theatre and author of Fundamentals of Alignment and Classical Movement for Figure Skaters”, “Lessons in Classical Ballet for the Figure Skater” and instructional video “Lessons in Ballet for Figure Skaters Level -1”. She currently teaches on-line certification courses in conjunction with American Ice Theatre, and The Ohio Conservatory of Ballet, and conducts workshops worldwide in her exclusive “Ballet for Figure Skaters”. Floor-Barre, and Russian Method Classical ballet.
For more information on teaching resources, books and my video, please visit: http://www.balletforfigureskaters.com/store/