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Juilliard Dance

Published: August 1, 2008
Category: technique

Improving your plie

By Rachel Straus

Like a recipe for quality of life, Risa Steinberg’s description of a good plie combines a philosophical approach, a touch of physics, and common sense: “It never ends. Once you know it’s going to help you do something better, you’ll love it.” She believes that the most constructive plies are passionate and voluptuous. “It’s a very juicy yawn.”

The word plie comes from the French verb plier meaning to bend. But don’t be fooled by the word’s deceptive simplicity: plier in dance terms is as powerful as the verb to fly. When improved upon, plies will make your dancing soar.

Steinberg, a Limon teacher on faculty at Juilliard, developed a beautiful plie by exploring its beginnings: “I ask my dancers to move the flesh away from the groin.” That image immediately starts opening the legs. It creates an unforced release of energy, which fosters a three-dimensional sensation. “The plie,” she says, “floats out. You don’t just go down.” The knees track over the second and fourth metatarsals and the front of the ankles widen as a result of the weight change. “The pelvis remains buoyant,” she says, “like two dangling Christmas balls.” The brunt of the work should stay out of the knees to avoid injury.

A good plie, says Steinberg, “is an action, not a position.” In her class, Steinberg continuously vocalizes plies. “A plie is a ‘Whaaaaaah.’ It’s not an ‘Eh,'” she says. Steinberg sees the plie as connective tissue: “The plie is the ‘and’ of the English language. It’s the movement that takes you from one thought to another.”

Eric Franklin, founder of the Institute for Movement Imagery Education, offers workshops around the globe combining anatomical expertise, imagery work, and movement analysis. He says a successful plie “takes the center of the body down and up along the plumb line in an efficient manner.” There should be no bracing, tension, or excess effort. During a plie’s descent a dancer must release both hip joints, and allow the sitz bones to move apart. If a dancer doesn’t widen the pelvis on the way down, “it will tuck and the hip joints will tighten.” On the plie’s ascent, “Feel your weight equally on both feet, allow the upper body to ride up on the strength of the legs, and let the sitz bones come together.”

These points may sound straightforward, even easy. But improving the plie isn’t like popping your body into a microwave. It requires, says Franklin, a specific image to get the brain and body to coordinate the movement–and that takes some thought. “Imagine,” says Franklin, “a flying carpet under your pelvis. In plie the magic carpet carries your pelvis down and lifts it back up.” This image, he says, will decrease the legs’ work. “Visualize sand pouring out of your knees, heels, and toes as you plie,” to reduce gripping. To develop the quality of your plie Franklin suggests imagining moving through the music as if it were a substance.

Ballet teacher Elizabeth Corbett, who danced with William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt and the Joffrey Ballet, sees the plie as both the ground zero of classical technique and the master teacher of body mechanics. “Every plie is different,” says Corbett. “To start, become aware of the contact between your foot and the floor.” As you move through the plie, this will heighten your awareness of weight transition and minimize strain on the body. “If you can find weight transition fascinating,” she says, “a plie to a soutenu can become an exciting event.”

When students begin their plies, Corbett pays close attention to the fit of their shoes: “Are they so tight that you can’t spread out your foot? That could limit your movement.” As class progresses, each plie needs a fine-tuned approach: “Are you landing softly like a cat by going through your ankle, knee, and hip, or are you grabbing your muscles?”

Corbett’s supplementary exercises for improving the plie include the Downward Dog (the inverted V-shaped position practiced in yoga); stretching the calf muscles on wedges (triangular-shaped, inclined foot-boards); and working with therabands, which increase range in the joints. Corbett also uses wood rollers to stimulate the bottom of her feet. But Corbett emphasizes that the greatest teacher for improving plies is the foot’s weighted contact with the floor. “When my students feel the floor, they are no longer looking away in detachment,” says Corbett. “All of a sudden their eyes are sparkling.”

Rachel Straus is a freelance writer based in NYC.

Copyright 2008 Dance Magazine, Inc.

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