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.
Dégagé from First Position
By Marisa Dickens, Alexandra Ditoro and Nia Stanfield
Process not product
Often times in dance, dancers place more importance on aesthetics and achieving a certain look, dismissing the long term impacts on the body. Dancers sacrifice correct placement and utilize the wrong muscles in order to have greater turnout and high kicks, for example. It is important to examine movement in terms of anatomical structure to understand the proper muscular and skeletal processes. Only then can a dancer become more aware and move within their body’s structural capacity and prevent injury. This photo essay will closely examine a dégagé, one of the first steps learned in a ballet class, and provide an anatomical approach to this movement.
What is a dégagé?
A dégagé is an important movement in ballet because it plays a key role in achieving larger, more complicated movements like grand battements and leaps. Dégagé in ballet means to “disengage,” where the working leg “disengages” from the floor and away from the standing leg. As the leg lifts off of the floor, a dancer brushes his/her foot from either first or fifth position. Although this movement seems simple and easy, performing a dégagé involves multiple, intricate processes. The act of “brushing the foot” involves working through the feet. Articulation of the foot starts with using the back of the thigh to rotate the heel forward. The heel then lifts off of the ground and a dancer brushes through the ball of the foot using the toe, ball, heel method and eventually stretches the toes to achieve a fully pointed foot and straight leg. After the working leg is disengaged from the floor and away from the supporting leg, the dancer brings the leg back down by landing toe, ball, heel.
Ball of the foot
Pointed foot a terre
Pointed foot en l’air
Articulation of the feet aids in weight transfer. When a dancer brushes his/her leg en l’air he/she must shift his/her weight to one leg while keeping the shoulders, the hips, and the head in line with each other to maintain alignment, with the heel in line with the inner thigh. The standing leg during a dégagé seems to remain still; however, the dancer must transfer his/her weight to the ball of the foot. If he/she shifts weight back into the heel, it will cause a
loss of vertical alignment. As the dancer brings the leg back towards the midline, he/she must shift weight evenly back onto two legs. Back in first position, the dancer must maintain an even weight distribution on both feet through the three points of the foot, known as the three arches, which are the anterior transverse arch, the medial longitudinal arch and the lateral longitudinal arch.
Dancers roll out
Working or rolling through the feet is a concept often drilled into dancers during early classes, but forgotten about in the hussle of high kicks and quick combinations. In short, it can be described as an effort to refrain from simply raising the foot up and down in its entirety rather than taking the time to isolate different parts of the foot. In other words, “lift like a caterpillar,” moving the foot inch by inch. This gives the body time to fully adjust, redistributing each inch of weight to the standing leg and freeing the foot from its connection to the floor aesthetically.
In examination of the foot, we know that the calcaneus bone or heel should be the first to leave the floor and the one in most urgent need to return after a jump or relevé. After the heel has raised superior to the foot’s arch, the metatarsal can be pulled proximal to the medial plane by the superior and inferior extensor retinaculum, calcaneal tendon. At last the phalanges follow, bring gently jerked upward by the same groups supported by the posterior talofibular ligament, calcaneofibular ligaments, anterior talofibular ligament, superior fibular retinaculum, calcaneal tendon, long plantar ligament, fibularis longus tendon, fibularis brevis tendon, as well as all of the metatarsal ligaments.
Before performing a dégagé, a dancer needs to maintain turnout in first position. Turnout is achieved through the lateral rotation of the hips rather than forcing turnout at the feet or squeezing the gluteus maximus. The six deep muscles of the hip (piriformis, obturator internus, obturator externus, gemellus superior, gemellus inferior, and quadratus femoris) are inserted near the greater trochanter of the femur and function in lateral rotation of the thigh which keeps the turnout. This lateral rotation of the hips allows for a greater range of motion because the greater trochanter of the femur is rotated within the acetabulum, though one’s range of motion could be inhibited by genetic differences in the shape of the head and neck of the femur. This is important for the working leg. A dancer who has coxa vara, or a smaller angle formed by the head and shaft of their femur, will not have as great a range of motion as a dancer with a larger gap, or coxa valga (Figure 4). This is due to the blockage of the femur rotation by the anterior edge of the ball and socket joint during coxa vara rotation.
A common mistake in dance involves squeezing one’s derriere to help with turnout. Many dancers activate gluteus maximus and end up tucking their pelvises. The gluteus maximus is a superficial muscle that does not rotate the hips, but acts as an extensor. As previously stated, the six deep lateral rotator muscles help with turnout. The gluteus maximus primarily acts on the femur by extending, externally rotating and abducting it. The lack of turnout from squeezing one’s butt can also contribute to activating the leg from the knee down. To reach the full extension of the dégagé, a dancer needs to laterally rotate their hips and thighs. They need to brush from the floor while using their six deep rotator muscles. The heel of the foot of a dégagé should be rotated.
“Hips don’t lie”
When a dancer dégagés to the front from first position, his or her knee is extended while the hip is in flexion. The psoas works as an abductor and a lateral rotator in hip flexion. The iliacus, rectus femoris, gracilllis, sartorus, and pectineus are also all involved in flexion of the hip to help lift the leg off of the ground. The tensor fasciae latae which connects to the iliotibial band which connects to the lateral aspect of the knee also aids in flexion and rotation. When a dancer dégagés to the back from first position, the hip is in extension. An extended knee and lateral rotation of the leg allows for a little more range of motion and a greater hip extension than if the leg were to be medially rotated. A larger range of motion allows dancers to have larger grand battements or other movements like an arabesque. For a dégagé to the side in second, the hip is abducting away from the median plane. Since a dégagé originates from a turned out position, the hip is in lateral rotation allowing for greater range of motion in abduction. It is important to maintain turnout during this movement even though it does not require a large range of motion, because a dégagé is a preparatory movement for a grand battement. If a dancer learns to maintain turnout in smaller movements, he or she will be able to maintain his or her turnout in larger movements.
A dégagé utilizes all three planes of motion. If a dancer performs a dégagé devant or derriere, the movement takes place in the sagittal plane. Dégagé a la seconde takes place in the frontal plane. Turnout within the hip occurs in the transverse plane with lateral rotation.
A dégagé can occur in multiple planes because of the type of joints used to perform this movement. The ball-and-socket joint of the hip facilitates the dancer’s turnout, allowing for a greater range of motion. The knee, a hinge joint permitting mainly flexion and extension, remains straight. A hinge joint allows for the dancer’s knee to remain in one plane, and helps to keep the knee straight and lifted as she completes a dégagé. The hinge joint in the ankle is also vital. The ankle extends as the foot plantarflexes. Initially, the toes are dorsiflexed. As the last part of the foot leaves the floor, the toes plantarflex as the leg “disengages” to a 45-deg extension.
The expected movement quality of a degage involves brushing from the floor, so one can use the floor to help warm up the feet. A dégagé can be done slow or fast, but should always retain an articulative quality. A slow dégagé involves type I fibers because it is a low-intensity movement when performed at the barre in most cases. A dégagé serves as an introductory movement, preparing the body for larger movements like grand battements and glissades. When performing a dégagé, the body and muscles are constantly sending and receiving information. Static muscle action occurs in the supporting leg, pushing against the floor and maintaining length along the back of the neck and out of the top of the skull, along the dancer’s plumb line. Eccentric dynamic muscle action occurs throughout the working leg as it lengthens, involving flexion of the hip joint and extension of the knee joint. Concentric dynamic movement occurs in the bottom of the working foot as the muscles shorten to point the foot. However, a degage can initiate an explosive, fast type II fiber movement like a jump if the combination is fast. Sudden changes in muscle movement can alter the quality of a dégagé. Without full integration of the toe, ball, heel and turnout muscles, a dancer could lack fully pointed feet and lose turnout in a dégagé.
Feet bear most of the weight of the body. As a result, incorrect foot alignment can increase the likelihood of injuries throughout the body. A dancer’s foot position is crucial in both the standing and working legs of a dégagé. Pronation (Figure 6) and supination (Figure 7) of the feet can alter a dancer’s weight distribution and alignment. Pronation occurs when the foot abducts with plantar flexion. In other words, the medial longitudinal arch of the foot caves inward. Pronation puts the dancer’s center of gravity over the medial part of their knee and the medial part of their ankle. Performing a dégagé with a pronated standing leg can place greater strain on the knee of the standing leg, which can result in injury. When closing derriere to a first position with pronated feet, the weight will be distributed towards the medial plane, causing difficulty in shifting the weight evenly back on both feet. An everted foot (abduction, pronation, and dorsiflexion of the foot) in dégagé en face and derriere are beautiful, however closing to a pronated foot does not allow the dancer to evenly distribute the weight back onto the three points of their foot, making a weight shift difficult. Dancers who supinate or evert the foot are likely to be accused of sickling. Supination while standing in first position distributes the weight back and outward, causing difficulty with the transfer of weight in a dégagé.
For dancers with flexible ankles, the ability to pronate the feet into first position does not allow the knee to track over the second and third metatarsal. This creates the possibility for a knee injury, but also makes it to where dancers are not fully engaging their turnout. These subtle shifts in weight of the feet affect the speed of the movement and the position of the upper body. For proper support in the feet the standing leg should have weight distributed to the metarsals and calcanus with phallanges spread.
Figure 6: Pronation
Figure 7: Supination
It is important to take an anatomical approach when examining a dégagé because it emphasizes the complexities and interconnectedness of the parts of the human body. Understanding the complex mechanisms of the hips, feet and ankles can result in correct placement and better technique. Maintaining awareness of the body’s structure and inner processes can also create more bodily awareness in dancing, presenting a holistic performance. It is not enough to perform a movement, a dancer must understand it as well. The process of performing a dégagé is more important than the actual dégagé itself because the same process and muscle groups are used for larger movements. Focusing on the anatomical sides of movement ultimately elicits a stronger and more confident dancer.
- Calais-Germain, B. (2013). Anatomy of Movement (Revised ed.) Seattle, WA: Eastland Press.
- “The Arches of the foot.” TeachMeAnatomy, 24 Jan. 2017, teachemantomy.info/lower-limb/misc/foot-arches/.
- Featured photo by Flickr user Shari (Creative Commons)
Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Marisa Dickens is a sophomore dance and film double major at Loyola University of Chicago. She has been dancing for 15 years and loves all styles of dance especially hip hop and contemporary. Over the summer, she had the opportunity to travel to Italy and dance with the Mandala Dance Company along with teaching jazz and contemporary classes in her hometown. After college, she wants to travel abroad to learn different dance styles and choreograph. When Marisa is not dancing, she loves watching 80s movies and eating cake pops.
Alexandra Ditoro is a sophomore dance and journalism double major at Loyola University Chicago. She began dancing at age three in her hometown, Alabaster, Alabama, and has not stopped dancing since. Over the summer, she rehearsed and performed with Mandala Dance Company in Rome. Later next year, Alexandra will have an article published in Birmingham Parent Magazine. She has also written for the Loyola Phoenix.
Army brat Nia Stanfield is an undergraduate at Loyola University of Chicago majoring in Political Science and minoring in history and dance. She has made it a goal to learn as many dance styles as possible. She has been blessed to find a cultural and hip hop dance family in Chicago and perform with them at FACT, WOD, PRELUDE, and various other events around the city. From Heidelberg to Honolulu she hasn’t stopped dancing yet. In the academic world Nia maintains an internship with 42nd Ward Aldermanic Offices and continues to work with various refugee resettlement efforts.