Editor’s note: The “Dance Dissection” series is created by students enrolled in DANC-270: Dance Kinesiology at Loyola University Chicago. As one of their culminating projects, small groups of students are required to select a movement in dance and create a photo essay describing it in detail based on content presented in the course. Please understand that this is an introductory course and students’ understanding of the body is just beginning. While we encourage comments and feedback, please frame your responses in this context.
by Allison Haussler and Tiana Thompson
A movement that is done very often in ballet and dance in general is the passé retiré. When done successfully, a passé retiré can not only be held for long periods of time in balances, but can also be used in various forms of leaps, such as pas de chats. Although seemingly easy, a well done passé retiré is a very complex movement and can take years to perfect. There is so much more to a passé retiré than just bringing one’s foot up to their knee — one must also take into consideration factors such as turn out, hip alignment, and the transfer of body weight.
In this essay, we will focus on a passé retiré on flat rather than on relevé, and bring our attention to the lower body. We will also focus on a turned out ballet passé retiré, which occurs in the coronal plane, instead of a parallel passé retiré, which occurs in the sagittal plane and might be used in contemporary ballet or jazz dance. Both are active positions since there is not an outside source holding up the working leg, the muscles are doing it themselves. A dancer generally has a greater range of motion in passé retiré than in an extension such as développé, because the hip and knee are in flexion, but a lesser range of motion than passive movements such as sitting on the heels. The flexion of the knee and hip leads to more range of motion with the hamstring acting as the limiting muscle in active hip flexion and knee extension.
This video shows passé retiré as seen in a pas de chat.
Working Leg and Foot
In the passé retiré itself, the working leg’s hip, knee, and ankle joints are in use. The muscles in the standing leg are engaged to aid in balance. The movement of the passé retiré can be considered both aerobic, using type one muscle fibers, as well as anaerobic, using type two muscle fibers. The type of muscle fiber used in a passé retiré depends on the speed of the exercise being done. If the passé retiré is in an adage or developpé combination, the dancer would be using slow twitch muscle fibers, but if the passé retiré is being used in an allegro combination, a pirouette combination, or even a variation, the movement would be considered to be using fast twitch muscle fibers. When bringing the working leg up to the passé retiré, the dancer should work through the foot instead of immediately pointing the foot from the ankle. Many dance teachers provide the image of “scooping ice cream from the floor” to help dancers understand this concept. This action of pointing the foot is known as plantar flexion of the foot and extension of the ankle. In a pointed foot, there is an increase in the angle between the superior surface of the foot and the anterior leg. In plantar flexion, the anterior talofibular ligament is taut, while the posterior talofibular ligament is slackened. Some posterior leg muscles that are used in plantar flexion are the peroneus longus, peroneus brevis, triceps surae, flexor hallucis longus, tibialis posterior, and the flexor digitorum longus.
The hip is a ball-and-socket joint which allows for movement in all planes. Lateral rotation of the leg allows the femoral head to move in the acetabulum as the working leg is brought upwards into the passé retire. An individual’s passé retire placement and form has a lot to do with the structure of his/her pelvis and femur. Compared to men, women have a bigger pelvic outlet, slightly tilted back sacrum, and the angle between the two ischium is greater than 90 degrees. Also, the ligaments that attach to the pelvis in the hip joint are usually more lax in a female body. These characteristics make it more common for biological females (rather than biological males) to achieve the ideal passé retire position. Another reason for less range of motion at the hip could be due to coxa vera of the femur. This means that there is less than a 120-degree angle between the head and the shaft of the superior end of the femur bone. It is common for dancers to acquire either an anterior pelvic tilt or posterior pelvic tilt in passé retire to compensate for a lack of flexibility and/or lateral hip rotation in their bodies.
The femur is attached to the acetabulum by the iliofemoral ligament, pubofemoral ligament, and ischiofemoral ligament. When bringing the leg to a passé retire, all three of these ligaments should relax in order to help provide your hip with a greater range of motion. The knee is a hinge joint, which generally only allows for movement in one plane. Because of this, whenever the knee is brought up to the passé retire, the knee itself is not (and should not) be creating turnout. Instead, the turnout should be coming from the external rotation of the femur.
Standing Leg and Foot
The standing leg in a passé retiré is turned out and straight. On a turned out standing leg, the foot is in abduction, because the toes are moving away from the medial plane. Although slight, the ankle is in flexion and the foot is in dorsiflexion because the angle between the anterior leg and the superior surface of the foot is decreased. In this flexed position, the anterior talofibular ligament is slackened, while the posterior talofibular ligament is taut. Alongside the talofibular ligaments, the tibialis anterior, extensor hallucis longus, and extensor digitorum longus muscles are working to achieve dorsiflexion of the foot which aids in stability of the standing leg. Because the standing knee is extended in this case, the gastrocnemius is relaxed. Furthermore, the majority of the weight should be on the ball of the foot of one’s standing leg in order to maintain balance in a passé retiré.
The foot is structured to support body weight and absorb shock, particularly through its arch. There are three main arches on the foot that provide stability and support: the anterior transverse arch, the medial longitudinal arch, and the lateral longitudinal arch. The hip on the standing leg should be laterally rotated and turned out. Turn out is achieved by the six deep lateral rotators (the piriformis, obturator internus and externeus, gemellus superior and inferior, and the quadrates femoris) in the hip as well as engagement in the gluteus maximus. The anterior superior and posterior iliac spines form a line perpendicular to the floor; the pelvis should not be tilted posteriorly or anteriorly. The leg should be pulled straight and the foot completes the turned out line by abducting or moving away from the medial plane. The ankle should be flexed and the weight should go straight down to be mainly focused on the ball of your foot.
This video demonstrates working through the foot in action.
A common mistake many dancers make when bringing the leg into a passé retiré is the use of horizontal abduction of the leg without lateral rotation of the femur. Another incorrect way to do a passé retiré would be when the hip is hiked and pitched forward. If this is happening, the dancer should think of wrapping her thighs back and behind, which can be done by dropping her greater trochanter towards the ischial tuberosity, also know as the “sits bones.” Another common mistake in a ballet passé retiré position is improper turnout. Many people think the gluteus maximus is responsible for turnout and think squeezing this will help. However, the gluteus maximus is a superficial muscle and squeezing it usually ends up causing the pelvis to tilt posteriorly which results in tucking. Many people also think the inner thigh muscles are responsible for turnout. Yet, the only way to achieve true turnout is by engaging the deep six lateral rotators and engaging the sartorius muscle. In a passé retiré, it is easy to lift the hip of the working leg, but this usually means the pelvis is tilted forward and can throw off weight distribution. In a position where one leg is off the ground, being “on your leg” is important to maintain balance and stability. In order to achieve this, the hip adductors are contracting, while the hip abductors are stabilizing.
There are many muscles involved in bringing the leg into a passé retiré. In the hips, the illiacus, pectineus, psoas major, rectus femoris, and tensor fascia latae are working. The illiacus and the psoas major are the primary flexors in a passé retiré. The illiacus runs from the illiac fossa to the lesser trochanter of the femur. The psoas major originates on the transverse processes of T-12 and L-5 and inserts into the lesser trochanter of the femur. The tensor fasciae latae aids in flexion of the hip. Muscles that aid in the turnout of this movement include the gluteus maximus and sartorius. The sartorius muscle runs along the groin and the side of the knee and can be seen clearly in many bodies while the leg is in passé retiré. This muscle originates in the anterior superior illiac spine and inserts on the medial aspect of the knee. The hamstring is another muscle that is actively involved in a passé retiré. These muscles contract and actively support the overall frame of the passé retiré position. Although the hamstring is not a limiting muscle in this position, it has the potential to become a limiting muscle when the movement extends into a developpé, particularly when a dancer’s hamstrings are tight. In situations where tightness in the hamstrings reduce the dancer’s range of motion in a developpé, the hamstrings can then become a limiting muscle.
Overall, while a passé retiré seems like a relatively simple ballet position, it is extremely complex. There are several factors that go into achieving the correct placement of the body and even more factors that allow a passé retiré to be building block for other more complex movements.
Calais-Germain, Blandine. Anatomy of Movement. Eastland Press, 2014.
Allison Haussler is from Cincinnati, OH. She is currently a sophomore at Loyola University Chicago double majoring in dance and psychology. She has studied dance for the past fifteen years and enjoys both ballet and contemporary styles of movement. In addition, she enjoys yoga and is both CPR and first aid certified.
Tiana Thompson is from Tokyo, Japan. She is currently a sophomore double major in dance and English at Loyola University Chicago. She has been dancing for about fourteen years, and enjoys various styles of dance, including ballet, contemporary, and modern.