Before we begin, here’s how to read this article:
This is not meant to be easy or entertaining reading. Because the subject is complex, intricate and multi-layered, this article is technical and tries to cover all the basics and all the details. If you have never thought of tendu as anything other than stretching your foot or pointing your toes, you’ll be in for a surprise.
Read it slowly and don’t hesitate to get up and try things out as you are forging ahead. This article includes some exercises that don’t require a ballet studio or even ballet shoes, you can do them wherever you are, from your bedroom to the check out line in a grocery store.
I am attempting to be precise and to the point in an understandable fashion, but you may have to stop, think and digest, and if so, please do. More of a study than a read, this is not about “read it and got it” but more about “read it and need to read it again”. You will never stop to practice tendu and you will never stop to need reminders about how it really works.
If you ever count the number of tendues and related movements that are part of your diet on a daily basis, you soon come to the conclusion that it is absolutely essential to execute them not just well, but nearly perfectly. “Faking” them or letting yourself get away with sloppiness just because it isn’t your day, will poison the well and impact all of your dancing.
Tendu is commonly translated as the stretching of the foot, however, that is not even scratching the surface. In the French language “je suis tendu” means “I am tense”, suggesting friction and nervous energy. While literate translations rarely make sense in technical terms, they do shed some light on their origins.
Of the three basic components in ballet technique, Plie (down and up), Releve (up and down), and Tendu (out and in), Tendu is arguably the most intricate as it not just addresses the shape of the foot, but also transitions between positions, toe/heel alignment and the “basic principle” of all movements “in and out” through brushing into the floor.
Brushing in Tendu
Tendu is the opening and closing of the working leg from and to a closed position (1st or 5th) to an open position (front, side or back) by applying downward energy. This means that the opening of the leg is not an action but the result of an action. The action is to push down with your working foot and pointing it into the floor, the result is the opening of your foot and consequently your leg. Just sticking your foot out to a given direction is not a tendu.
Most floors don’t have the habit of giving away, so eventually the pushing down will result in the foot sliding to the desired position. This is important, because it is exactly this friction, this downward energy, which makes tendu and all related movements work in the long run.
Don’t ever compromise or “fake” the execution of your tendues if you want to receive the full benefit of your training, no matter what the speed.
Unless you push down in order to open your foot, you are not brushing and if you are not brushing your tendu, your tendu can do nothing for you. Remember that ballet training is an interactive process between the vocabulary teaching your body and you absorbing and applying what the vocabulary teaches.
Brushing literally means to push the floor away and is one of the most important principles in ballet technique. I remember the hard wood floors in the studios of my school: There were actual grooves, left by generations of students before me, brushing their feet into the wood and making these dents. Just try to imagine the amount of force it takes to actually dig into a wood floor with your feet!
To truly understand the “Basic Principle of Brushing” to open or close your working leg in a tendu from a closed to an open position, try this experiment:
Place a small towel or wash cloth under your working leg foot. When you open your foot to either front, side or back, make sure to move the fabric with your toes out and in without losing it in the process or bending your knees.
Pushing down as an initiation of the movement will leave your foot no other option than to either slide open or to lift up. Ballet vocabulary can be classified into different families with their own underlying principles. Tendu is the foundation of everything that brushes out and in from one position to another. Coupe, for example, is the foundation for everything that lifts from one position to another, applying the same downward energy.
Tendu means to transform downward energy into an outward movement. While it looks like you are moving your foot in and out, it actually doesn’t work that way. Ballet technique is deceiving, most steps look different than they work and if you try to only duplicate what they look like, you will miss ninety percent of what they are.
Toe/Heel Alignment in Tendu
Shaping the foot correctly is a basic component of ballet training and also a basic function of tendu. Remember that the three essential components of ballet technique (plie, releve, tendu) are also your tools to train correctly. They are the “ABC” of the ballet alphabet and unless you know how to spell, you won’t be able to write.
When you brush your tendu, the correct alignment of your toes in relationship to your heel, and vice versa, will result in the correct shape of your foot and also train stability in your ankle for sustained balances in releve and, of course, on pointe.
An exercise for improving toe/heel alignment in tendues:
- From 1st position, brush your foot to 4th position, leading with your heel without lifting it from the floor.
Once in 4th position, the relationship between heel and toes should still be exactly the same as in 1st position.
- Lift your heel to half pointe without letting your toes slide forward, instead focus on lifting your heel “over your toes”. This will feel like you are “winging” your foot, which is pretty much what it is.
- Stretch your toes fully, but keep them “under your heel” as much as possible. Sometimes I tell my students to “curve their little toe toward the outside of their ankle”. What this does is training a muscle in the ankle that ultimately will dictate stability and correct alignment for pretty much everything to do with pointed toes and balances.
- Reverse the process by lowering your toes to half pointe, maintaining the alignment with your heel. Lower your heel to flat and back to 4th position. To maintain your toe/heel alignment, your toes need to strive backward, keeping them “under” your heel.
- Close to 1st position by brushing your whole foot backward, leading with your toes.
- Repeat to the side and to the back while constantly keeping your heels “over your toes” and your toes “under your heels”.
This exercise is nothing fancy, just a slow motion tendu, but here are the most important details in relation to toe/heel alignment:
- When you open your foot to a front tendu, your heel leads the movement while your toes resist the movement.
When you close your foot from the front, your toes lead the movement while your heels resist the movement.
- When you open your foot to a back tendu, your toes lead the movement while your heels resist the movement.
When you close your foot from the back, your heel leads the movement while your toes resist the movement.
- When you open your foot to a side tendu, your toes lead the movement striving backward (toward the outside of your ankle) while your heels resist the movement, striving forward.
When you close your foot, the same applies, toes lead, striving backward while your heel resists, striving forward.
If you follow this alignment, your heel will always face front, (avoiding a sickled foot) regardless of the direction of your foot and consequently your entire leg will follow. This is all about mechanics and predictable linear and symmetrical movement. About how to guide and use energy instead of energy guiding and using you with very unpredictable outcomes. If you can align the most outer parts of your body, your feet, in a predictable, consistent and unfailing way, you will take control of your technique.
Your relationship to the floor and the energy you receive from it will immeasurably increase with literally every step.
With your feet, you will create a compass or GPS through the entire vocabulary by establishing your own front, side and back, how to get there and how to transition from one to the other in any movements that requires brushing or transition with a straight leg through multiple positions. A fouette from efface front to first arabesque only functions if your foot can guide your leg predictably through the entire movement, as it is nothing else than a releve lent front, side and back without closing to 1st or 5th each time you reach one of these positions. A rond de jambe par terre en dehor’s is nothing else than a tendu that lasts through these three directions without closing. Just these two steps are a basis for a large part of the vocabulary and unless you trained your tendu and toe/heel alignment correctly, they will always be a hinderance to anything that follows.
Transitions Between Positions
It may seem like nitpicking, but when it comes to tendu, you can’t be thorough enough! If you respect the following transitional positions for every direction of your tendues, you will at the same time solve some general weight distribution and placement issues, like “sitting” on your standing leg. If you are one of the many students who have trouble keeping their legs fully stretched in a tendu, this will be of value to you.
Remember that your weight will always be between your legs instead of on one or the other, because your axis is in the center of your body and not to the right or left of your center. These transitionary positions will serve as a reminder of correct placement, besides forcing you to brush and align your toes with your heel correctly:
- Any tendu from 1st or 5th position to the front or back must pass through a 4th position before reaching its destination.
- Any tendu from 1st position to the side must pass through a 2nd position before reaching its destination.
- Any tendu from 5th position to the side must pass through a 1st position and a 2nd position before reaching its destination.
Don’t ever compromise or “fake” the execution of your tendues if you want to receive the full benefit of your training, no matter what the speed. The faster you brush and stretch your toes, the stronger the outward energy, eventually forcing your leg to lift when you open it. I see it all the time in my classes: students will lift their toes accidentally in certain tendu combinations, simply because the energy they apply gives their toes the impetus to do so.
Of course, tendu doesn’t lift off the ground, but once the energy is discovered by a student and the result of correct brushing and alignment, it is a fairly easy battle to use only as much as necessary.
Tendue is the basis for a very large part of the ballet vocabulary because there are only two ways to disengage your toes from the floor, either by brushing or by lifting. A tendu with both legs at the same time would result in an echappe in the pointe vocabulary, a dégagé with both legs at the same time results in the jump jete, a grand battement with both legs at the same time a sissonne. This only illustrates the importance of a very caring treatment of your tendues.
Where I trained, ballet technique and the training of students was a fairly scientific matter. Tendu was actually called Battement Tendu with a logical following of related basic material. Here is a progression of battement tendu, so you understand just how connected things are. Please note that depended on the syllabus, dégagé is referred to as jete and visa versa.
- Battement Tendu – the leg is par terre
- Battement Tendu Jete – the leg is below 45 degrees
- Grand Battement Tendu Jete – the leg is above 90 degrees
Jete, in French, means to throw and describes the character and speed of the movement. I will often ask young students to throw an object across the room when we talk about jete (degage). Most of the time I will just look for anything that can’t create damage to the room or the people in it and most of the time, the student will be very cautious and careful. Then, after making a disappointed face, I ask another student to do the same who will, obviously, throw it as hard as possible. Then I ask that same student to do the same with their toes in a jete (degage) and will almost every time get a nearly perfect jete (degage).
Anecdotally, dégagé in French means to move from one place to another. Lame Duck also has the name tour dégagé because it moves, chasse, if not a jump, can also be referred to as dégagé for the same reason. If you tell someone: “Degage!”, it is a not so nice way to say: “Get out of my way!” As I said earlier, literate translations don’t make sense most of the time, but it is never a bad thing to know what things mean because there was in some point a reason to associate a step with a name.
Understanding the character and speed of a movement is essential to grasp its underlying physical and mechanical principle. Ballet vocabulary can be divided into movements that are soft and round and into movements that are sharp and linear. Most soft and round movements are based on lifting the leg trough coupe and passe, most sharp and linear movements are based on lifting a straight leg through brushing into the floor.
Think of all the steps you know that have tendu, jete (degage) or grand battement related or involved and it becomes clear how far reaching tendu is and how absolutely essential it is to comprehend it fully and execute it accurately every single time.
Here is a quintessential tendu combination for you to practice:
It starts similar to the previous exercise, starting from 1st position, arms in second, on the barre or in the center.
1 – and – / 2 – and – / 3 – and – / 4 – and – /
brush to 4th front / lift your heel to half pointe / point your toes / lower your toes to half pointe /
5 – and – / 6 – and – / 7 – and – / 8 – and – /
lower your heel to 4th / brush to 1st / brush to 4th / brush to 1st /
1 – and – / 2 – and – / 3 – and – / 4 – and – /
brush to 4th front – lift your heel to half pointe / point your toes / lower your toes to half pointe / lower your heel to 4th – brush to 1st /
5 – and – / 6 – and – / 7 – and – /8 – and – /
brush tendu front / brush to 1st / tendu front – close 1st / tendu front – close 1st /
Repeat en croix (front-side-back-side), as often as you like. Most importantly, make sure to focus on everything outlined above in respect to heel/toe alignment, transitionary positions and the brushing downward to open your tendu.
Cross every “t” and dot every “i”; it’s incredibly important. Continue this exercise every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. During ballet class, keep working the same way, anytime you brush your foot anywhere.
If you keep at it, I guarantee that you will conquer tendu in all of it’s intricacies. Your relationship to the floor and the energy you receive from it will immeasurably increase with literally every step.