Getting airborne: Mastering the art of jumping
Arguably one of the most impressive movements performed by a dancer is the 'jump'. From Grand Jetés, Sissones, and Pas de Chats to Assemblés, Brisés and Entrechats, a well performed jump is not only a spectacular display of athleticism and skill, but a key criteria in the repertoire of any aspiring dancer. Unfortunately many dancers are let down by their allegro, whether it be from a lack of technique, elevation, preparation, strength, core, flexibility or a combination of these.
This fabulous article by Nichelle Strzepek from Dance Advantage addresses many of the key elements that make up a good jump and how you can go about improving in these areas!
Vertically Challenged: Improving Your Jumps
What’s the secret recipe that will improve your jumping skills?
For the most part the secret to jumping is not so secret, it is the same hard work that goes into most everything in dance: proper alignment, solid technique, and practice, practice, practice!
Not what you wanted to hear?
Sorry, but never fear, I can give you some pointers that will help you as you practice those jumps. I’m going to focus mainly on vertical jumping (sauté) in this post, although many of these principles can also be applied to traveling jumps or leaps, like grand jeté for example.
Proper alignment is key in quality jumping.
In vertical jumping, especially, it helps to imagine stacking your body parts (the head, the torso, the pelvis, the knees, the feet) on top of one another like stacking stones. When one stone is out of place, a horizontal element is added to an otherwise vertical force. This slows the jump and reduces its height.
What keeps the stones in alignment is a strong core. This does not mean you should be stiff like a pogo stick when you jump. The centre is strong and active so that the rest of the body can stay connected without added tension.
The quality of your jump is only as good as the plié that proceeds it. And, a quality plié is defined by not only the action of the legs but also by its supporting base (the feet).
The ankles (or, more correctly the tarsus) should not roll in or sickle before or during lift off and there should be a feeling of widening and lengthening through the feet and toes so that the whole foot (including the heel) is used for optimum leverage. For height and power, it may be helpful to imagine your legs in plié as a coiled spring ready to release straight into the air.
As the legs lengthen and the body is leaving the ground, remember that vertical height is greatly increased when the feet roll sharply through to pointed toes beneath the pelvis.
In the book, Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance, Eric Franklin encourages you to imagine your feet extending and piercing the sand beneath your toes as you jump into the air.
To strengthen the muscles of the feet, practice good foot articulation (like articulating syllables in a word, you want to articulate each action of the foot when “rolling through”) in tendu, dégagé (tendu jeté), other battement, and relevé will strengthen the feet for both taking off and landing in a jump.
A mistake many dancers make is bringing tension into the shoulders, arms, and neck as they leave the ground.
This tension is not effective in getting good height so, as a teacher, I try to re-direct my students’ focus to other parts of the body. To aid you in your sauté, I’m now going to pretend you are my students.
- When a rock wall climber is harnessed and attached to ropes and pulleys in order to get him/her off the ground, what part of the body is the harness supporting?
- Why do you suppose that is? (go ahead, think about it!)
- So, in order to get yourself off the ground let’s try to imagine a harness supporting and lifting the pelvis from underneath. The harness supports the pelvic floor. That is the web of muscle and tendons at the base of the pelvis between your sit bones (ischial tuberosity), tailbone (coccyx), and pubic bone. (see here for a glossary and some pics)
- Try jumping with this image in mind. Does it make a difference? (If imaginations aren’t enough, I have been known to have students lace their hands between their legs, one arm back and one arm front, and actually give themselves a lift as they jump. Sounds embarrassing? Maybe, but they don’t forget the image!)
I also like the image of attaching rocket boosters to your sit bones. This gives a nice idea of the downward force needed to shoot your body up into the air and, like the harness image, encourages the feeling of lift from beneath the pelvis. Try these images and see what works for you!
I’m sure your teachers have all cried out “Toe, ball, heel!” at least once during a jumping exercise. Articulating the feet is vitally important in landing a jump. However, the whole leg is involved and should arrive at the floor extended, rather than bent to provide the most cushioning.
Alignment should also stay in tact on the landing. Many student dancers seem to crumple as they land (making it harder to rebound into another jump if necessary). Maintain the alignment by feeling a reach through the top of the head (not the chin) through the entire jump.
Breath and Musicality
Practice breathing during jumps (particularly if you are doing a series of sauté).
You can decide which works best for you: exhaling on the jump or on the landing. Awareness of your breath will improve your height and help release excess tension.
Listen while you’re jumping to the timing and tempo of the music or rhythm accompanying your movement.
Try clapping in time with some music, making circles with the arms as your hands rebound and come back together. A beat is not just a “one” and an “and” but a whole space to be filled. Imagine filling that space with your jump and land and rebound on the downbeat just as your hands did.