Turn, Turn, Turn!
Deconstructing the Art of Turning
Knowing that I had studied several very different types of dance, a friend recently asked me for my thoughts and ideas regarding turns. As I began to collect my thoughts, it occurred to me that I had never really encountered a method of executing turns that was specific to Middle Eastern dance - unless, of course, one counts whirling, like the Dervishes of Konya, Turkey, which is an art unto itself!
The dance discipline I had studied first and longest, ballet, provided a useful frame of reference, as every move, every pose in ballet is precisely defined and named. A fundamental difference between ballet and Middle Eastern dance became apparent. Ballet distinguishes between the supporting leg and the working leg, and except where the legs work together simultaneously, as in a knee bend or a jump from both feet - the supporting leg and the working leg are always two different legs. In Middle Eastern dance, however, they are often though not always, the same leg. Think of a shimmy walk: basically one leg is doing all the work while the other just comes along for the ride!
In ballet class, we practiced preparation for turns (pirouettes) endlessly by springing onto the ball of one foot while our arms swept around our torsos to meet at the center. But why didn't I turn when I did the preparation? What was the difference between merely preparing to turn and actually turning? I finally came to understand that the difference lies in the action of the hips: a turn is made by a twisting motion of the pelvis, the largest, heaviest, and most central bone in the body. This propeller-like motion causes the rest of the body to turn, the body pivots on the ball of one foot, and increased momentum is achieved by a whipping or slicing motion of the opposite arm and/or leg. The hands - the fingertips - meet in the center with the arms rounded; this "contains" the energy generated by the moving pelvis, and centers it. (How fascinating that the pelvis is even shaped somewhat like a propeller - or a fan blade - with its own axis, the spine.)
"All these anatomical explanations are interesting," you may be thinking, "but then why don't I turn when I twist-walk?" Here's the reason: it's because the leg supporting the body weight isn't the "twisting" side, and because the foot corresponding to the twisting hip is planted on the floor; finally, because there is no help from the arms.
It follows that the less contact there is with the floor, the easier it is to turn - less friction! It takes considerably less effort to spin like a ballerina, en pointe - on the top of one toe. However, the more contact we have with the floor, the safer we feel. So, is it possible to turn on both feet?
Indeed it is. Spanish-style turns are fairly easy to execute, and feel very safe. Want to try? Stand on one foot, with the other foot crossed over it at the ankles. Place the ball of this foot on the floor and bend your knees. Rise up onto the ball of the supporting foot, and keeping your feet parallel and close together, "untwist" your legs by straightening your knees. For a clockwise turn, cross left foot over right, reverse for a counter-clockwise turn. The beauty of this turn is that it can be done very slowly, and will still work.
What about turns as done in Middle Eastern dance? These are essentially a faster version of this Spanish turn, but instead of simply crossing, the working leg whips around in front of the supporting leg; about halfway through the turn, the weight is shifted to the other leg. This makes it possible to execute consecutive turns to the same side. What if you find it impossible to do a full 360-degree turn? Work up to it! Ballet dancers practice by doing quarter turns, then half turns, three-quarter turns, and finally full turns. Kathak dancers learn by stepping through turns: they begin by going around in seven steps, then five, then three, and ultimately one.
Finally, a word about the technique of "spotting" during a turn. This gives a turn an amazing, crisp look. Here's how it is supposed to be done. Initiate the turn, but keep your head facing front. When your body reaches the quarter-turn point, whip your head around to face front and keep going ahead of your body. When your head is facing front, hold on to that point while your body catches up and completes the turn. You may have trouble encouraging your neck to turn a full 90-degrees, and it may be tricking reconciling your head and body moving at different speeds, but it's worth pursuing.
PHOTO CREDIT: This photo of Shira doing a slow spin with a spot turn was taken by John Rickman, San Jose, California.
Why turn at all? Because confident turns are the hallmark of an accomplished dancer (not to mention one of the five basic body moves that make up dance, according to dance master and researcher Rudolf Laban). Besides, once you lose your fear of turns, that moment of "flying" can be exhilarating!
About the Author
Arabella, the author of this article, has contributed many informative pieces to this web site on a variety of topics, including:
- Analysis of technique for doing certain dance moves
- Costume ideas
- Essays and opinion pieces
- Understanding Middle Eastern music
- Helpful how-to's, such as remembering choreography
Please visit Arabella's home page on this web site for a full list of articles she has contributed.
Arabella began her dance studies with Russian Ballet classes. Frustrated by ballet's impossible ideals, and curious about more ethnic dance disciplines, she moved on to study various other dance forms. Moving further east each time, these included Spanish flamenco, Escuela Bolera, Middle Eastern, and East Indian Odissi.
Arabella, based in Toronto, Canada, is also a certified Mastercraftsman in crewel embroidery, with a special passion for metal thread and ethnic embroidery. Currently she particularly focuses on Palestinian and East Indian embroidery.
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