The plié, meaning to bend, is inherent in all dance movements and is one of the essential techniques of ballet. The plié is a movement, not a position, that a dancer moves through to get to the next step.
As the plié is so important it is one of the first exercises executed at the barre. Why do we practice the plié? Why is it so important?
The plié strengthens the legs, increase turnout, and helps to feel your centre of balance. It warms up the entire leg. The fundamental role of the plié is to lower and lift the body’s centre with proper alignment. The plié acts as a spring to move the upper body vertically or to propel it through space. To plié is to practice your jumping legs.
If a dancers plié is not well aligned, all technique will suffer.
So let’s get a little technical! The plié incorporates the movements of ankles, knees, hip joints, the release and rotation of the legs (turnout) and the alignment of the torso over the legs and feet (base of support). The knee must always be bent in the direction of the toes, knee over foot. The shin draws an imaginary line through the ankle bone and straight through the feet. The centre of gravity must be aligned through the foot triangle, metatarsals from big to little toe, and heel. (For more information on the foot triangle, check out my other blog, Metatarsals!)
The hips must be maintained in first position throughout, the pelvis level. It is important to sense the weight equally balanced on both legs. We can compare the plié to an elevator, descending and ascending in the elevator shaft. Imagine being guided vertically up and down.
In a demi plié (half a bend), the heels must be firmly on the ground with pressure into the floor. You want pressure in a plié, not weight. In a grand plié, a dancer leaves their heels on the floor for as long as possible. The grand plié exerts great forces on the knees, which supports the body weight as you bend. When becomes impossible to stretch the Achilles tendon anymore, the heel lifts softly and gradually off the floor without pull. Press the heels into the floor, think of them sinking into the ground.
Upon reaching the extreme point of the plié in the downward movement, the dancer should not remain there, but should immediately begin to straighten up. If one remain’s “sitting” in the plié, it does not improve the energy of the muscular drive and the elasticity of the whole leg; the legs, the levers of the jumps, acquire a sluggishness.
Lowering to the extreme point of the plié should last as long as the rising and should progress gradually. The quality and dynamics of the movement should follow the feeling in the music. It requires musicality and great listening skills. A dancer wants to hit the depth of the plié on the correct count.
It is sometimes helpful to use creative imagery in order to help translate the language of music into the language of dance. You can imagine a rubber band attached from the top of the head to the floor. As the body descends, the band stretches. As the body ascends the rubber band returns to normal size. You can imagine a plié as lush and soft as if the legs are moving through whipped cream; or legs submerged in warm water. Imagine the knee as an eye, or a flashlight, shining to the other side of the room.
So much to the plié! It is a complex movement so typical of ballet. It looks effortless when executed correctly. Yet it takes years to master. The plié remains the most important of movements in ballet.