Extension refers to the lifting of the leg in any direction, whether that be to the front, side or behind in arabesque. Usually in ballet, extension is most commonly performed through développé. In développé, the working leg unfolds to a spectacular height, displaying a combination of flexibility, control and strength.
Nowadays, everyone’s extension leg is next to their ear… except for yours. If you find yourself lusting after a 6 o’clock penche or a perfect 180 degree side leg (especially on Instagram), then make sure to do these exercises to improve your extension.
Développé: “to develop, or developing movement; to unfold”
A movement where the working leg is drawn up to the knee (in retiré passé) and then fully extended outward. Développé can be performed to the front (devant), side (à la seconde), or back (derrière). Usually, a développé will pass through the following positions before fully extending: coup-de-pied, retiré passé, and attitude.
First off, be sure to review our separate blog post on Ballet Basics: Passé & Retiré. Développé must pass through a retiré position, so make sure you have a strong retiré passé alignment before extending the leg!
I put strength ahead of flexibility for a reason: you can have the most open hips in the world and easily oversplit when stretching, but still not be able to hold your leg in the extended position. Why? Because of a lack of strength. Muscle strength and control is more important than flexibility for beautiful extensions. Strength is important to be able to support the leg in the extended position; control is also equally important for the quality of the développé.
Now, obviously to increase the height of your extension, you must increase your flexibility. Start slow – stretch strategically and incrementally. You should not try for oversplits if you first are not able to do a full split! Light stretching can be done before class to gently open up the muscles (key word: light). More thorough stretching should be done at the end of class when the muscles are warm and limber. Hold each stretch position for a maximum of 30 seconds. Careful not to overdo it – do not be in a stretch position without warming up your muscles and sit in front of the TV for 20 minutes!
Stretching Exercises for Strength & Flexibility:
Use the barre as a stretching tool by resting your leg on top of it in the correct aligned position (devant, à la seconde or derrière). Make sure your hips are correctly aligned with the supporting leg lifted and turned out. Lean into the stretch by either bending forward or side, depending on which position you chose. Then, pulling up on your supporting leg and core, lift your leg off the barre and hold in the exact same position for as long as you can. Think about engaging your core to hold. Repeat this stretch-and-hold procedure with every side.
Extension works both legs. We focus so much on the working leg going up that we easily forget about the supporting leg. In fact, the supporting leg is even more important than the extending leg because you have to balance on the supporting leg! Focus on standing tall by imagining your supporting leg screwdriving into the floor. You want your supporting leg to be like a strong tree trunk. Having a straight and rock solid standing leg will help you control the working leg as it goes up.
Exercise Drill for Strong Supporting Leg:
Développés on a block or uneven surface like a balance board. This will force you to focus on your bottom leg! Make sure you keep your weight on the balls of the feet and press the toes into the block. Lift up in your core as your leg goes up and up.
Développé is a sequence.
Remember, développé is a step that moves through positions. Practicing développés in adage exercises is a perfect time to focus on control and musicality. Focusing on the quality of the développé through coup-de-pied, retiré, attitude, then final extension will make the step more beautiful and interesting to watch than just wacking the leg up anyhow. Feel the process of the foot peeling up from the floor and draw up the leg before lengthening into the extension. The sequence of développé can make your extensions more appealing than just high legs.
Other Helpful Exercises
Lie on your back with the legs crossed in fifth position. Slowly draw the toe up the front of the bottom leg and extend up to the ceiling. Control down to close back into fifth. Repeat with the other leg.
Á La Seconde
Lie on your side with the top hand supporting in front of your belly button. Make sure your body is straight and core engaged. The legs should both be activated to rotate into first position. Slowly draw the toe up through retiré passé and extend up to the ceiling. Control down and squeeze the inner thighs together. To increase the range of motion, once you get to passé, lift the knee up towards your ear and then extend. Make sure you don’t lose your alignment and balance on your side.
Lie on your stomach with your hands underneath your forehead. Keep the legs in parallel and pointe your toes. Think about lengthening your toe out towards the back wall as you float the leg off the ground. Gently lower the leg back down. Repeat with the other leg. Make sure your core is zipped up and you don’t press into the lower back in order to lift the leg. Engage the glutes and lengthen.
Hip Flexor Stretch
Développés devant and á la seconde can be very tight on the front of the hip. Be sure to release your hip flexor through a runner’s lunge.