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While something as 'simple' as a Tendu gets taught very early on in most ballet schools, and is one of the core movements of all ballet steps, it is one of the things that is often poorly understood. This article breaks down all of the components that makes up the perfect tendu.
The truth is, that A LOT of dancers do not understand the intricacies of the basic movements in ballet. Often when students start dancing very early on, they learn the basics at the level that they are capable of learning at five years old. Obviously the ‘building block’ steps such as a Plié and a Tendu often get taught in a very simplified way. This is fine for a five year old, but over the next few years of a dancers training it is so important that these ‘basics’ are relearned with more and more specificity. If these steps are not revisited again and again, to really master them, the student will often struggle to progress once the steps get harder.
Getting these basics right is absolutely essential as dancers get more serious about dancing and move into the higher grades, and especially as hours of dancing are increased. Any faults in basic technique often result in the niggly foot, knee, hip and back issues that many dancers experience.
Interestingly, in my experience, I have actually seen students who have come to ballet later in life (whether this is at 12 years old, 21 or 35 who actually master these basic fundamentals that are the key to injury prevention better than many students who have been dancing since they were three! This seems to be due to the fact that they are focused on “getting it right” to “catch up” with their peers.
There are many parts to the perfect execution of a Tendu, and I will explain them as best as I can here. If you can grasp all of these minor details, this will set you up for just about everything else in your dancing.
The Core Ingredients in Performing a Perfect Tendu Are:
1. Mastery of subtle, dynamic core control
2. Awareness and endurance of your standing leg turnout muscles
3. Control of the position of the supporting knee
4. Articulation of the ankle and mid foot
6. The ability to maintain length in the toes while fully working the ball of the foot
Add a beautiful port de bras and smile to all of that and you have the perfect tendu!
The following article outlines what to, and what not to do in for each of these areas.
1. Mastery of subtle, dynamic core control:
The tendu, in my opinion, actually starts from deep in the core. The deep stability of the pelvis and spine is essential to being able to maintain stability on the standing leg. Without a stable base, you will have no base to work your turnout from (think of a crane trying to operate off a base of jelly!) which will result in the loss of your turnout and twisting in the knee of the standing leg.
Now this core stability is not the kind that you get from doing sit-ups and crunches or plank type exercises. These common abdominal exercises train all of the outer ‘global’ muscles (which are important in their own right) however they are not the ones you need for a Tendu. The core stability that is needed is a subtle, dynamic stability which is able to be maintained for a long period of time. This is described in many ways by dance teachers, such as “pulling up” or “hollowing” the tummy, or as “feeling your center” but many people overdo it and start to look stiff and wooden.
Anatomically, it is a very subtle activation of your pelvic floor, deep abdominals (Transverses Abdominis) and the deepest back muscles (including Multifidus and Rotatores). We have a whole New Approach to Core Stability program that explains how to find all of these muscles, and bring them into class.
The key to knowing that you are using the right muscles is whether you can breathe at the same time. Many dancers grip so tightly with all of their outer abdominals (that attach to the bottom of the ribs” that they cannot breathe. Therefore, the contraction only lasts a few moments, and cannot be maintained during movement, and especially in higher level exercises. There is a video we have made called “How to Hold your Tummy and Not Your Breath” that you can watch HERE.
2. Awareness and endurance of your standing leg turnout muscles:
Once you have mastered the core control you now have a base to work your turnout from. Most dancers have heard about the six deep external rotators that are our true turnout muscles, however when I ask students to point them out on a muscle chart or demonstrate any specific exercises for them, they struggle...
It is essential to know the difference between your standing leg turnout muscles, and the turnout muscles that are used for controlling the leg en fondu and en lair (This is covered in detail in our Training Turnout Course). Quadratus Femoris (QF) is the muscle that is best placed to turn out the femur in a standing position. We work a lot on isolating rotation of the femur using QF without contraction of the outer gluteals in order to ‘wake up’ these muscles.
Once you have found these turnout muscles, you must learn to use these muscles when standing and working in class. One of the best progressions is exactly what you have mentioned, floor barre tendus. This is a great way you practice endurance of the core and standing leg turnout, as you focus on the articulation of the foot and ankle. Make sure that the feet are kept about 10cm off the floor to challenge your core control, while still keeping the legs in the correct alignment. For a full and detailed Floor Barre, as well as exercises for center work that you can do without being in standing, check out our "Will I Ever Dance Again?" program. This is certainly not just for dancers who are injured, and is perfect for really understanding how to improve range and control in Adage and Allegro.
3. Control of the position of the knee:
Many people with hypermobile, hyper-extended knees find it difficult to control the position of the knees when moving from 5th position into a tendu. It is sometimes tricky to find the mid-point between feeling ‘bent’ and over straight. The aim is to get a lengthened feeling in the leg, as though you are actually trying to create space in the knee joint. It is important not to “pull back” into the knees, and even the traditional instruction of “pulling up” can often create too much tension and build up of the quadriceps. The quadriceps are definitely active, just not bunching.
Many dancers with hyper extended knees tend to sit with their weight back on the heel, and then shift the hips out to “get the weight over the supporting leg”. This makes it very difficult to work in and out of 5th position.
The cue that I find works best is if the supporting foot is kept in the “Tripod Foot” position (as in The Perfect Pointe Book) with the feeling of going into a very small rise. Imagine that you are lifting the heel bone off the floor, but the skin is still touching! This means that you will be automatically lifted out of the leg, and this position, combined with good turnout and core control allows much more room for the working leg to move in and out of position. This should also remove the feeling of twisting that you are getting in the knee. Also, if you practice the Floor Barre Tendus the way I explain in the WIEDA program, then you should feel a lot less twisting in the knee.
4. Articulation of the ankle and mid foot:
Finally we move onto the foot and ankle! It is important to be working through the foot correctly to gain all of the benefits of the exercise, and prepare the foot for later in the class. Exercises like “Pointe through the Demi pointe” from The Perfect Pointe Book are excellent mastering the action of plantarflexion at the ankle before pointing the ball of the foot (metatarsophalangeal joints).
Practice your Tendus in parallel in the beginning to ensure that you can control core and the position of the standing leg while working the working foot through its movement. You should be focussing on getting full plantarflexion of the ankle before you start adding on the toes. Glide the foot forward, with a feeling of stability in your center and lengthening the leg from the back of the hip to the ball of the foot. Make sure that the both knees stays lengthened throughout, and the movement is smooth. Our Advanced Foot Control program takes it to a more detailed level and explains the exact anatomy of a dancers foot and how to improve each aspect - with your background, you may find this very interesting.
When working on your Tendus in turnout, cues such as “lead with the heel” are designed to encourage and maintain turnout of the working leg, but do make sure that the hips to not twist towards the working leg when practising this. You should have an awareness of working the turnout evenly on both legs throughout both phases of the movement.
When drawing the foot back to 5th position, cueing to pull the little toe back helps maintain turnout of the working leg, but take care not to twist the foot. If you are elevated on the supporting leg, there should be enough space to draw the foot in to close cleanly (No wiggling of the hips or bending of the knees!)
5. The ability to maintain length in the toes while fully working the ball of the foot:
As you will know from having many of my resources, the control of the muscles in the ball of the foot is one of the most important factors in preventing foot and ankle injuries, and Tendus are a great way to practice this. The secret is to incorporate the “Doming” exercise from The Perfect Pointe Book into every tendu you do in class. Check out the following video on “How to Correctly Perform A Tendu” to watch this in action.
Take special care not to let the toes curl under when fully pointed. This is especially important for the big toe, as this can cause many problems if overused. The following video explains why!
After working on all of that, the actual effort that is put into a Tendu should be very minimal. It is in the subtle activation, isolation and endurance of all of the components mentioned above that will really transform your dancing. My rule of thumb in this kind of work is to use the least amount of effort required to effectively perform the movement. As you practise over time, this effort will become less and less!
I hope that this all makes sense, and helps you master your Tendus!