The ballet-barre, sometimes called just the barre, is a long, stationary handrail used in ballet dancing for warming-up exercises and practicing of techniques and principles. The barre is a standard feature of a ballet or dance studio. However, ballet dancers sometimes substitute a chair, desk, or other similar object when a barre is not available. The term “barre” also refers to those specific exercises performed at the barre—barre exercises. Overall, exercises performed with the barre are used as the foundation for all other ballet exercises, steps, and routines.
Beginning and intermediate ballet dancers use the barre frequently to learn the positions, apply the rules and protocols, and assist with breathing techniques found within ballet. For instance, during ballet routines performed with partners, beginning dancers often are instructed to use the barre to simulate support provided by a partner. For routines without partners, the barre is used as a support structure for inexperienced ballet dancers who have yet to develop a good sense of balance.
The barre also provides balance and stability to all experience levels of ballet dancers during stretching and warm-up exercises. However, experienced ballet dancers use the barre more for warming up and less for other purposes as they gain better control and balance with practice.
As the handrail and the exercise, both terms for barre are viewed as essential preparatory measures for learning and mastering ballet, which may take years to accomplish.
The barre, which is a French word meaning “bar,” consists of a horizontally positioned handrail and its support materials. It is approximately 1.5 in. (3.8 cm) in width, and is positioned at waist height to the ballet dancer—approximately 38 to 47 in. (96.5 to 119.4 cm) for the average adult ballet dancer. Sometimes two parallel barres—one high (for adults) and another low (for children)—may be used. The barre can be a permanent structure or a portable one. The permanent barre normally consists of a handrail mounted to a wall at a ballet studio. A temporary (portable) one may involve a handrail mounted to a free-standing support structure. Most barre handrails and support materials are made from wood, metal, or a combination of the two materials.
Performing exercises at the barre, referred to as barre exercises, begin by resting the hands on the barre for balance. Two basic positions are used on the barre. In one position, two hands are positioned on the barre while facing it. The upper arms are placed on the sides of the body, with the forearms directed forward and the hands positioned on the barre and either (1) in line with the forearms or (2) crossed at the wrists and centered in front of the body.
In the second position, one hand is positioned on the barre. For instance, the left hand is on the barre while the exercise begins with the right side of the body (the working side). Then, the ballet dancer places the fingers of the right hand, for instance, on the barre and forward to the body so the right elbow is bent and near the side of the body. This hand is moved forward or backward, depending on the exercise being performed.
The first exercise commonly performed at the barre is the plie (also spelled plié) because it stretches (warms) the muscles of the legs in preparation for other exercises. The basic action of the plie is the bending of the knees. Specifically, it can be done as demi plies, with the knees bent halfway, or as grand plies, with the knees bent completely.
The demi plie and grand plie begin while facing the barre with hands resting lightly on the bar and the feet in the first position—with the balls of the feet turned out completely, the heels positioned side by side so they are touching each other, and the feet facing outward forming a straight line. The knees are then slowly bent while keeping the knees over the toes. Then, the knees are bent halfway down without raising the heels off the floor. This is called the demi plie, and it is ended by slowly raising back up to the original standing position. However, for the grand plie, the exercise is continued (from the demi plie) as the knees are further bent so the heels rise off the floor. At the same time, the hips are on top of the thighs, and directly over the feet. This is called the grand plie. The exercise is ended by returning to the original standing position.
Other barre exercises include:
Other exercises performed with the barre include the dégagé (similar to the tendue but with the foot coming off the floor), frappé (the action of striking the floor with the foot), and fondue (bending and straightening both legs). In each exercise, different movements are performed and different muscles used.
In ballet, the barre is very important for warming up, developing standard ballet steps and exercises, and learning more complicated moves in ballet. Throughout ballet classes, students begin at the barre and often return to the barre for further practice and mastery of the steps found within ballet. The railing is essential for learning ballet because it helps dancers learn body control and develop strength, balance, flexibility, and precision.
The barre acts as a stabilizer (or support) for one side of the body so the other side (the working side) can learn the various steps in ballet. When the barre is used regularly in ballet as a balancing device, it helps to more effectively teach the various steps. This is so because the student can concentrate on these ballet steps rather than on the act of balancing and standing up.
By using barre exercises, the ballet dancer also is helped along in the process of developing proper technique, preparing for the “center”(what is known as choreography), and applying principles used in ballet.
Risks of injury with the barre can occur if it is not used properly. For instance, grasping the barre too strongly can cause white knuckle syndrome (WKS). Common symptoms of WKS include tingling in the hands and wrists, general colorlessness or paleness on the fingers, and pain and loss of sensation in the fingers.
In addition, positioning with respect to the barre is also crucial in ballet. If one stands too close to the barre, then the body can become misaligned. Likewise, being too far away from the rail can also result in becoming off-balanced or off-centered.
It is not wise to perform barre exercises if problems occur with the back, knee, or other parts of the body. Inform the ballet instructor before using the barre if such conditions are present. In addition, do not use the barre alone. Make sure a teacher is in the room to ensure the barre exercises are performed properly. As with any physical activity, check with a medical professional before beginning ballet.
See also Dance ; Stretching ; Warm-up and cool down .
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American Ballet Theatre, 890 Broadway, 3rd Fl., New York, NY, 10003, (212) 477-3030, Fax: (212) 254-5938, http://www.abt.org .
New York City Ballet, 20 Lincoln Center, New York, NY, 10023, (212) 870-5656, email@example.com, http://www.nycballet.com .
SHAPE America, 1900 Association Dr., Reston, VA, 20191-1598, (800) 213-7193, Fax: (703) 476-9527, http://www.shapeamerica.org .
William A. Atkins, BB, BS, MBA