Gillian Murphy

After a busy Easter Holiday with Dance Competitions, and the two fashion shows I choreographed for Sylvia Park in Auckland and The Plaza in Palmerston North, Term 2 of the school year has kicked off with lots of dance courses and workshops to attend around the country. 

I found myself jumping around and having a blast at the Phoenix Dance Workshop in Hamilton during the first weekend of the term. It was so much fun and I haven’t been to this course since I was a lot younger, and back then it was called L.A Danceforce. I went to the course with Sarah Boocock and our students from the Apollo Theatre School, and we all had a fantastic time traveling down in the bus, and dancing our little hearts out for hours each day. 

I was honored to be chosen to dance with the tutors in the lyrical performance at the end of the weekend, and some of our students were also chosen to perform in the funk, lyrical, jazz, and musical theatre performances for their age groups. It was so great seeing them get up there and go for it. 

The following weekend I attended the R.A.D Teacher’s workshop for the new Advanced One Ballet syllabus. This was another two days of full-out dancing for me, and I really enjoyed myself. 

The new R.A.D work is beautiful, it’s so much more ‘dancey’ and has room for expression. It’s definitely a performance exam that students will need to train hard on each of the various aspects within the exercises before putting the whole together. 

So to get to the point of this post, it was at these workshops that I found myself executing a number of Penchés, and I must admit I was feeling proud of my old body, being able to still do them at my age, and proud that I had been attending more and more dance classes this year, and doing more practice in order to facilitate my old body creating this rather sought after shape. 

Back in the studio, it also seems this theme is continuing, as Penchés are again popping up in all of the senior adage work – be it for ballet or jazz exams, and it really is a movement that requires a LOT of attention and practice in order to do it well. 

A common misconception I see, is that students tend to think the perfect line is all about the flexibility of the hamstrings. Yes, this is absolutely needed, but in order to sustain a gorgeous, ‘6 o’clock’ penché line, you need total strength in the supporting leg, and you need to be able to hold the hamstring of the supporting leg without locking back into hyper extension of the knee. This requires a tonne of strength which you won’t get by stretching without your weight on your leg. 

For example, sitting in the splits is all very well, but there is no work happening through the front leg in that position, as you are relaxing into it with no weight baring through the front leg. If you are training for a penché the best stretches are ones where you are still holding your body weight through the leg, such as…

Split up the wall  – place your supporting heel into the skirting board of the wall, your hands on the floor in front of you, and extend the back leg up the wall. Use your hands to push your pelvis into the wall and create the stretch down the front leg and keep your supporting knee pulled up tight. 

Downward facing Dog with extended leg to the back – Yoga postures where you are holding your weight are excellent for dancers to train strength and flexibility at the same time – From downward facing dog posture, extend one leg up behind you – first in parallel keeping the hips level to work on core strength. Do this on each leg. Then developpé one leg up as high as you can, hold and work to keep lifting the toes higher and open/extend from the hip. Make sure your shoulders, back, and core are held strong and the supporting leg is held in alignment and the knee pulled up tight. 

Practice Penché at the Barre and in the Centre – the more you do them, the better they will get. Remember the leg always moves first, lifting up to make a lovely elongé arabesque line before it initiates the movement of the upper body. Keep your body weight far forward over the ball of the front foot, you can think of keeping your hip bone over your shin bone, or look in the mirror and make a straight line up the back of your leg from your heel, to your knee, to your hamstring, to your sit bone. Whatever way helps you to think of keeping the weight forward will help you achieve a better line. 

As soon as you pull your weight back off your supporting foot it will lower your working leg!

Remember to recover your Penché you must try to leave your leg where it is and the back and chest lift first, trying to re-create the lovely elongé arabesque line you started with. Leave the leg high for as long as you can, and ‘sandwich’ your back up to the leg. 

One big thing to remember when you are holding your line, is not to drop the arm or the eye line too low. I think of reaching diagonally out to the other side of the room where I can see the skirting board, or the wing meeting the floor, the line your arm and head create are of absolute importance to make the Penché look good. It’s not just all about your legs. 

Hopefully this advice will help some of you working on this tricky movement at the moment. It’s a tough one to master but it feels so good when you start holding that balance strong. This one is something you can always work on, even when you are a professional you never stop working on perfecting your line. 

Let me know if you have any other tips, technique points, stretches etc. that can help get us all to that lovely ‘6 o’clock’!