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Perfecting the Penché

Introduction

The Penché is a dance step requiring excellent hamstring mobility but also very good eccentric control. Finding the missing element for each dancer is essential in developing the best program for them to improve. Some people lack the neural mobility to allow a clean transition into the forward bend, so we much first look at the neural mobility on both sides. In some cases, the performer may have the mobility in the supporting leg when unloaded but struggles to control the descent into the penché, resulting in an ungainly collapse at end range. Furthermore, some performers can lower into range but are unable to bring themselves back to standing or maintain turnout control of the supporting leg.

How to work through the program

There are many different elements that combine to create the perfect Penché, however this program is going to focus mainly on maintaining turnout and eccentric control on the standing leg. Watch through each of the videos in each section carefully, and then progress through each of the three phases of training, only progressing when you can perform each of the exercises in the phase well. At the end of each stage, make sure to re-film your complete penché so that you can see your progress.

In order to get the most out of this program, please resist the desire to skip to the end and do all of the higher level work first. Please make sure you that you go through all of the videos in sequence, because this will give you a real understanding of all the foundations that need to be developed to support your penché. The program is specifically built in layers to give optimal progress. 

First of all, Download the workbook for each Phase  so that you can record your progress. This PDF contains reminders of each exercise and tracking sheets to mark your  progress. You can remain on any stage anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months, depending on your starting point. 

Anatomy of the Penché

Before we start the program it helps if you understand a little about the anatomy of the hip, pelvis and spine during a penché. Understanding the various muscle groups and bony structure around the hip, as well as the difference between Concentric and Eccentric muscle contraction will help enormously with this program. Learning anatomy is much easier when it is directly applicable to what you want to achieve.  It is also important that you have a good understanding of why you need to be so specific with the exercises before you start working on the program.

 

The first phase of this program is all about assessing your current range, and introducing gentle, intelligent mobilisers to create the freedom of range needed for an effortless penché. Learning which mobilisers are important for you as a dancer to free is the range is important, as you want to carry over the most effective ones into the next phase. We also introduce the Adult crawling sequence, which will be progressively worked on through the stages. 

Assessment

Film your current Penché

The assessment process begins with filming your  current performance of a penché. Use this footage to analyse any issues in the complete movement, but also to assess your progress as you move through the program. Get a partner to film you performing a slow penché from each side, as well as from the front, and from behind. Make sure to wear a low back leotard, or crop top, to allow assessment of the spine. Also make sure to be barefoot to assess your foot control. 

Straight Leg Raise with Flexed Foot

One of the most critical areas to look at before adding in any loaded training is to assess and improve the neural mobility in the legs. This helps allow a pure translation of the pelvis forward on the supporting leg, which is one of the major flaws in dancers who struggle with performing a penché. If the nerves are not sliding well, this will interfeer with achieving your full range. Make sure to test the Straight Leg Raise with a relaxed foot, a flexed foot, and also a flexed foot in turnout, as these three tests can show very different results. 

Assess Waiter Bow

The other element we must assess is how well you can control the position of the spine when flexing the hip and we do this using the Waiter Bow exercise. Many dancers 'fake' flexibility in their legs by allowing the spine to curl when they fold forward. Make sure to maintain a true neutral spine, with the low back extended and the upper back flexed. If you are unable to do this, then this must be worked on specifically before adding any loading to this movement (Phase 3 & 4). 

Mobilise

Mobilisation of the tissues that allow a full forward fold while maintaining neutral spine requires neural, fascial and muscular mobility. These must each be dealt with in order, as if you simply stretch the hamstrings when it is actually a neural issue, then this will not be very effective. The mobilisers in this section are all targeted at unlocking common catchment points that inhibit neural sliding. Your aim is to identify which points are the most effective for you, so that you do not need to do all of them in every session. Try each one, and reassess your Straight Leg Raise or Waiter Bow movement in-between, so see which ones you like the most.

Suboccipital Releases

The small muscles deep in the back of the neck actually connect into the Dura, the covering of the spinal cord. If there is a lot of tension in this area it can create tension in the entire nervous system. Tension can build up here if you have been spending a lot of time on a computer or your phone, and let the chin poke forward. It can also get tight in this area if you sleep on your stomach, with your head on a pillow, as the neck will stay in extension and rotation for a long time during the night. 

Piriformis Release

Using a tennis ball to release trigger points in the Piriformis Muscle can help improve your neural mobility by releasing its clamping effect over the Sciatic Nerve. Please remember to only go to a 3/10 level of discomfort, and that it is an internal process of consciously releasing the tension, rather than a massage.  If you always seem to build up tension in this area, you may be gripping too hard with your turnout muscles, and might need to work on more subtle and specific activation of the various turnout muscles for different tasks. 

Deep Calf Massage

The deepest muscles in the back of the calf have a very close relationship with the Tibial Nerve. If you have been clawing your toes when pointing the foot, sickling your ankle or simply doing a lot of pointe work, this area can get very tight. Gentle massage of the deep inner calf can help to hydrate and nourish the tissues, and prepare them for the Deep Posterior Compartment Release which comes next. Again, take note of any specific areas of tension, as this may indicate issues with your basic technique. 

Deep Posterior Compartment Release

The posterior compartment is a thickened fascial sheath, and contains the Flexor Digitorum Longus (FDL), Flexor Hallucis Longus (FHL) and Tibialis Posterior Muscles. It also houses the Posterior Tibial Nerve, as well as the Tibial Artery and Vein. Tension in this area can cause a restriction in neural mobility, as well as a reduced plié depth. Tension in this area is often experienced as a deep pulling deep in the back of the lower leg, behind the knee or down into the inner arch with the Waiter Bow or Straight Leg Raise tests.

The Dancers Slump

The Dancers' Slump is a wonderful way of getting the entire nervous system gliding, however, make sure to have very little sensation when performing the glide. You should not feel any tugging or pulling at all. The key is to find a point of flexion that has a little tension when the chin is tucked and the feet are flexed, but that can be released when either of these is removed. If you are unable to find a point of flexion where this happens, go back to review the other catchment points. 

Reassess Straight Leg Raise and Waiter Bow

After each mobilisation technique, and once you have worked your way through all of the mobilisers, make sure to reassess your mobility with both the Straight Leg Raise (especially with a flexed foot in turnout) and the Waiter Bow. Your aim is to find the perfect collection of mobiliser, for you, that give you freedom of movement in this direction. Spending some time on this section will provide the space needed for the subsequent phases of this program. If you still feel a little restricted, but it is more of a spread area, rather than a line of tension, the Hamstring Mobilisers or Thoracic Mobilisation sequence may help. 

Hamstring Mobilisers

If you still feel a little restricted, but it is more of a spread area, rather than a line of tension, the Hamstring Mobilisers may help.  These are not strong hamstring stretches, but are more dynamic mobilisers designed to increase hydration in all the tissues that surround the hamstrings. When doing these mobilisers make sure that the tension is felt around the back of the thigh rather than in the calf. Try the multiple variations to access all parts of the hamstrings.

Thoracic Mobility Sequence

If you are still feeling restricted after all of the neural mobilisation techniques for the legs, you may need to turn your attention to your upper body. This Thoracic Mobilisation sequence is great for helping to free up the joints, fascia and muscles in your ribcage to allow you to breathe a little more easily. It’s also amazing how much this sequence affects your general flexibility into a forward bend, a cambré or back bend, and the mobility of your Straight Leg Raise test.

Adult Crawling #3

“Adult Crawling” is a great exercise to help develop connections in the Anterior Oblique and Posterior Oblique slings which normally get developed when babies learn to crawl. If a baby misses out a significant period of crawling for any reason, this may affect their natural deep core stability later on in life. Feel free to assess yourself to see which level you can do well, but focus on perfecting #1,2 & 3 in this phase.

Phase Two - Isolate

Isolation exercises are a very important part of any strategic technique enhancement program. Correctly identifying any weaknesses in the deepest stabilising layers of the back, pelvis and hip can make an amazing difference in the quality of your adage. A missing element at this level can lead to over-recruitment of the bigger miuscles when you move on to the integration, function and load phases. Work on the exercises in Phase 2 for at least two weeks before moving on to Phase 3, even if they feel easy. This Phase also includes some assessment and mobility exercises from Phase 1.

The full exercise list for Phase 2 includes:

  • Self assessment of your penché
  • Assess Straight Leg Raise
  • Own releases and mobilisers as required
  • The Dancers Slump
  • 4 point Sitbacks
  • Turnout at 90 degrees
  • Mini Squats
  • Waiter Bow - simple double leg
  • Thoracic Sliding #1
  • Adult Crawling #3 & #4

4 Point Sitbacks

This is a good test for the endurance and control in the deep back muscles, and is especially good for hyper-mobile individuals. Initially, this exercise may be done with a pole along the spine to get an awareness of maintaining neutral. Common mistakes include allowing the tail to tuck under, or sinking the upper back into extension, and the pole allows greater feedback to correct your placement in the early stages.

Turnout at 90 Degrees

This exercise helps isolate the deep rotators that help with controlling the rotation of the leg at 90 degrees. This is helpful for supporting the leg devant, but also for maintaining the turnout of the supporting leg when the pelvis is leaning forward. Make sure to have the foot and leg resting on someting supportive, and to continually monitor the areas of tension with your fingers. 

Mini Squats

This exercise helps ensure that the lowest part of the Glute Max is awake and ready to go. Many dancers use this muscle too much for turnout, while others dont use it at all. It is very important in controlling the forward tilt of the pelvis on the supporting leg, as in a penché. Make sure that the spine stays in neutral, and that there is a triple flexion - Hip, Knee and Ankle - for maximal mechanical advantage. 

Simple Waiter Bow

Make sure to include a simple Waiter bow in your program for Phase 2. Begin with double leg version with soft knees,m and progress to doing it with straight (not hyperextended) legs. Once you have mastered this, progress to adding a few repetitions in a turned in and turned out position to train all parts of the hamstrings. 

Thoracic Sliding #1

There are many variations of this exercise, but in Phase one the aim is to work on perfecting the first variation. Make sure to keep the lowest ribs on the ground, and the glutes and hamstrings relaxed. The neck should remain long, with a regal tilt to the head. Make sure to kepp the chest wide and avoid straining the neck. Especially note not to push the stomach out to extend the spine. The deep abdominals should caonnec t in to support the spine as you extend. 

Adult Crawling #4

In Phase 2 you can progress to version #4 of the Adult Crawlingf Sequence. Make sure to fully rotate the ribcage in both parts of this exercise, but keep the head and eyes facing forward. Make sure to keep the legs in parallel, especially when taking the leg to the back, as it often drifts into an attitude position for classical dancers! Feel free to do any number of repetitions of variations 1-4 in this phase. 

Phase Three - Integrate

The Integration stage is where you start tying things together. This stage is all about developing new muscle patterning to override your old habits and motor programs to transform your dancing. Each exercise is carefully chosen to incorporate elements of the previous isolation exercises and start working deeper into range. Please keep in mind throughout this section that none of these exercises should cause any pain or discomfort.

Phase 3 starts to combine the mobility created in Phase 1 with the isolation found in Phase 2 and starts to bring in some more complex movements. If ayou progress too quickly through Phases 1 & 2 you may struggle with some of these exercises. If needed, drop back to review the provious stage if this happens. It is better to achieve everything really well, rather than areally quickly!

Loaded Double Leg Waiter Bow

This ‘Waiter Bow’ exercise takes the movement that we were doing with the ‘4 Point Sit Back’ and brings it into standing. One of the biggest issues I see in dancers is the tendency to tuck the pelvis too much in order to try and get the leg higher. When you do a full développé devant you will add a slight tuck of the pelvis, however if you are tucking to get to 90 degrees or just a little bit higher, you’ll never get much higher than that. 

Cushion Squeezes with Leg Extension and Rotation

This next exercise adds in extension and rotation of the leg to the original Cushion Squeeze exercise. In all of these exercises we focus on deep, subtle coordination around the hips rather than building brute strength. You don't want to build up too much bulk around the hips, but instead want to feel a deep, subtle connection in the hips to help support your extensions to the front.

QF Endurance in 4 Point Turnout

This exercise is designed to build endurance for maintaining turnout to the front, and is also an excellent exercise for your arabesque. Many dancers struggle with endurance through the shoulder girdle in the 4 point position so take care with the placement of the upper body. Also focus on maintaining a subtle doming of the palm and fingers to protect the wrists. 

Prep for Penche

This exercise is a great way to activate the Anterior Oblique Sling (AOS) which is an important dynamic, functional connection between your inner thighs and your opposite oblique abdominals. An effective AOS can really help you control your gesture leg during extensions to the front, as well as help effectively stabilise the supporting leg when on one foot.

Thoracic Sliding #2

Before going into the Standing Iliacus Suck it is a good idea to go through the version in lying. Perform a couple on each side to reactivate the Iliacus before trying to recruit it in standing. Remember that Iliacus works subtly to draw the thigh bone back into the hip socket to give you more control of the leg en l’air and help offload the superficial hip flexors.

Adult Crawling #5

“Adult Crawling” is a great exercise to help develop connections in the Anterior Oblique and Posterior Oblique slings which normally get developed when babies learn to crawl. If a baby misses out a significant period of crawling for any reason, this may affect their natural deep core stability later on in life. Even if a baby does have a good period of crawling, it is important that we continue to strengthen the cross patterns later on in life.

Prep for Penche

This exercise is a great way to activate the Anterior Oblique Sling (AOS) which is an important dynamic, functional connection between your inner thighs and your opposite oblique abdominals. An effective AOS can really help you control your gesture leg during extensions to the front, as well as help effectively stabilise the supporting leg when on one foot.

Thoracic Sliding #2

Before going into the Standing Iliacus Suck it is a good idea to go through the version in lying. Perform a couple on each side to reactivate the Iliacus before trying to recruit it in standing. Remember that Iliacus works subtly to draw the thigh bone back into the hip socket to give you more control of the leg en l’air and help offload the superficial hip flexors.

Reassess Straight Leg Raise

“Adult Crawling” is a great exercise to help develop connections in the Anterior Oblique and Posterior Oblique slings which normally get developed when babies learn to crawl. If a baby misses out a significant period of crawling for any reason, this may affect their natural deep core stability later on in life. Even if a baby does have a good period of crawling, it is important that we continue to strengthen the cross patterns later on in life.

Function

In the Functional section we take all of the elements from the previous sections and bring them all together to develop the patterns of movement needed to give an effortless nature to your adage. Once the correct mobilisation of the area is achieved, you have isolated each necessary muscle group, and integrated the patterns needed, the functional exercises should become a whole lot easier. Our aim it to get past the conscious activation of all of the previous exercises, and become “unconsciously competent” in all of the elements, to allow you to have seamless technique, while focusing on your artistry and the story that is being told. After all, isn't that the whole point of dance?

Waiter Bow - Loaded Offset Stance

Once you have mastered this exercise, it is really nice to do when you are warming up in the morning before class, to help activate and wake up your deep stabilisers in a functional way. It helps develop functional activation of your Quadratus Femoris (QF) without over gripping other muscles around the hips. Adding on a beautiful Port De Bras to this exercise really highlights whether you are gripping on with outer abdominals or if you have found the connection to your true core. For this exercise I like using a big Swiss ball, however you can use a smaller ball placed it behind your sacrum keeping the upper back off the wall.

Développé Devant in Lying

This exercise is very good way to refine your technique and correct any ‘cheating’ habits that you may have used in the past in an attempt to get your leg higher. Performing this exercise on the ground allows you to create a new movement pattern which is much more focused on centralising the hip, finding your deep rotators and flexing the hip using your Psoas Major. As there is less effect of gravity on the working leg, you can learn how to subtly coordinate the correct muscles around the hip to place the leg in a good position, so that when you return to standing it is much easier..

Thoracic  Sliding #3 & #4

This is a nice exercise to do with the foot on the barre to practice your pelvic control. When moving into standing many dancers tend to habitually tuck their pelvis under. Many of us were taught to use this position in an effort to activate our turnout and deep core muscles, however in reality the tucked position encourages gripping of the outer gluteal muscles and inhibits the deep spinal stabilisers. This exercise helps you practice your deep back control and pelvic stability in standing, combined with the placement of the leg in front.

QF Transfer with Port de Bras

Once you have mastered this exercise, it is really nice to do when you are warming up in the morning before class, to help activate and wake up your deep stabilisers in a functional way. It helps develop functional activation of your Quadratus Femoris (QF) without over gripping other muscles around the hips. Adding on a beautiful Port De Bras to this exercise really highlights whether you are gripping on with outer abdominals or if you have found the connection to your true core. For this exercise I like using a big Swiss ball, however you can use a smaller ball placed it behind your sacrum keeping the upper back off the wall.

Adult Crawling #6

This is a nice exercise to do with the foot on the barre to practice your pelvic control. When moving into standing many dancers tend to habitually tuck their pelvis under. Many of us were taught to use this position in an effort to activate our turnout and deep core muscles, however in reality the tucked position encourages gripping of the outer gluteal muscles and inhibits the deep spinal stabilisers. This exercise helps you practice your deep back control and pelvic stability in standing, combined with the placement of the leg in front.

Développé Devant in Lying

This exercise is very good way to refine your technique and correct any ‘cheating’ habits that you may have used in the past in an attempt to get your leg higher. Performing this exercise on the ground allows you to create a new movement pattern which is much more focused on centralising the hip, finding your deep rotators and flexing the hip using your Psoas Major. As there is less effect of gravity on the working leg, you can learn how to subtly coordinate the correct muscles around the hip to place the leg in a good position, so that when you return to standing it is much easier..

Penché Assessment

Ironically, once you get to performing your adage in class, you want to let go of thinking of all the specific muscles and elements that we have been working on. Try to feel fluidity of movement, and a light quality to your movement, like your leg is being held by someone other than you. The work that you have done in the rest of the program will start to shine through when you relax and work with the music.

If dancers try to control their adage too much it can become very stiff and wooden. This also contributes to a lot of the excessive contraction and loading that dancers feel around the hips when working en l’air. If you are to focus on anything, remember to breathe, to connect with the deepest sense of core stability, and generate every movement from your centre. It may help to do some gentle hip mobilisers before working on your adage, but make sure not to hang out in any deep hip flexor stretches as this will inhibit the very muscles you need to use.

Putting Together Your Program

Once you have worked your way through the program and are starting to discover which parts of the program are important for you, it is important to organise a set program for you to work on. Always start from the beginning, from the mobilise section. Even if you have pretty good range it is a good idea to do the mobilisation exercises for at least 2 weeks to ensure that your range is free in all directions. See if you can work out a program that you will follow for at least 1-2 weeks, before adding in additional exercises. Each dancer needs to work on different elements, however a suggested guideline is outlined below.

Downloads

Assessing Range

Mobilise

Isolate

Integrate

Function

Putting Together Your Program

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