Language Matters

Pull Up!

I need you to give 150%

Pretty faces. Smile.


Many dancers would have heard phrases like these regularly in class and/or during rehearsals. And while they’re typically said with the best intentions, to inspire and motivate, what effect might the language we use, perhaps the short-cuts we employ, have on those listening and taking guidance from our words?


No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.

~ John Keating


We’ve asked three of Australia’s most highly regarded proponents of dance technique, all of whom are in high demand Internationally for their expertise, for suggestions of the language they use.

JOHN BYRNE Artistic Director of Classical Dance Australia and former Artistic Director of the RAD and Chairman of the Board of Examiners.

MARIE WALTON-MAHONFounder of Progressing Ballet Technique

LISA HOWELLFounder of Perfect Form Physiotherapy and The Ballet Blog




This common phrase voiced regularly, yet not exclusively in ballet training, is used to instruct the dance pupil to engage and stabilise their core muscles through the hip, stomach and lower back.

However, while the phrase is well intentioned the effect often causes tension in students who, by working to create a feeling of lifting up through their abdominals, end up shortening their breathing and developing a technique of unnecessary tension in their chest and neck which can make them look rigid and robotic, often coupled with a swayed back.


What the experts say…



Oh yes! I have recently completed a DVD on Posture, Placement and the Basic Elements of Technique in which I talk about this very thing at length! “Pull up” is a term which should be banned from the classroom as it is so out of date!

We now know – in fact we have known or should have known since Newton expounded it – that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Resisting gravity by pushing down on to the foot-base activates the anti-gravity muscles of the body and results in an elevated pelvis and a lengthened spine. It earths the dancer, rather than suspending a dancer high above the foot-base and holding them up there by sheer tension. Pushing down drains away this tension and buries it underneath the feet. It also assists the breathing.

A dynamic exchange of up and down forces is what’s required. Good postural alignment is not achieved by thinking in terms of one-way traffic only, namely UP.

The same instruction to pull up is often also applied to the thighs; “pull up the thighs!” This often results in the kneecaps being pulled back and the weight being pulled back which also limits the ability of the muscles of the legs to work correctly and in a balanced way. This is particularly disastrous for dancers with hyperextended knees. Pushing down on to the foot-base will activate the hamstrings and bring the knees into a good position, particularly if the pelvis is placed correctly.



I couldn’t agree more. This phrase leads to tension throughout the entire body, sternum, shoulder girdle and neck. Tension affects the ability of the entire body to coordinate. I prefer phrases such as, elongate through the spine!



“Pull Up” is an extremely common cue with positive intentions, but so often is misconstrued by dancers, and results in many poor habits.

Some dancers immediately elevate their shoulders, as this is the easiest thing to “pull up”. Elevating the shoulders and straining the neck can lead to significant neck tension, and broken lines in their port de bras.

Another common issue is that dancers respond by sucking in their abdomen and locking off the diaphragm. This not only prevents effective core activation, but limits effective breathing patterns, and forces the dancer to breathe into the upper chest. This again drives tension into the neck and is commonly followed by the cue “relax your shoulders!”

The more effective way of working with the intrinsic weakness that leads to poor postural control is to look at the reasons why the deep core system is dysfunctional, and how it can be optimised for natural, dynamic, sub-conscious operation. This may be due to skipping developmental milestones such as crawling, or even due to abdominal pain from food intolerances. Addressing these deeper issues can have a profound effect on a dancers performance.

In addition, the thing I have come to understand in all the years I have been working with humans, is that the same cue will often result in different patterns of activation in different individuals. Using a Visual Ultrasound to watch the pattern of firing in different people given the same verbal cues has helped me understand just how important one-on-one work is to find the way that works for that individual. Exploration and refinement of how to translate the general cue given in class to what that particular dancer needs to think of often takes some time, yet can be amazingly liberating when they ‘get it’. 


Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.

~ Buddha


GIVE 150% !

There are three potential issues with asking – or demanding – more than 100%.

First, it’s factually incorrect as a person cannot give more than 100%, as 100% is the total amount. In a place of learning – a school, albeit a dance school – it should have no place. It’s a short-hand when what we want is for them to give more energy to a particular area of the dance, apply more focus, be more aware of the musicality or rhythm etc. The first issue therefore is that the phrase is non-specific and lacking in careful articulation.

The second issue is that it potentially sets young people up for long term self-esteem issues. If a young dance student isn’t sure what 100% is supposed to look like, and they believe they’re giving all they have and it’s not clearly articulated what is missing, then they may walk away feeling there’s something inherently wrong with them; that they’re missing something inside and are simply not good enough no matter what they do or how much effort they put in. Such short-cuts can lead to misunderstandings and so while the phrase might work for older, more self-aware and secure adults, it can set children up for a lifetime of self-doubt.

Finally, another potential issue with the phrase is that sometimes what is really wanted is for the dancer or dancers to work smarter, not harder. Phrases such as “give 110%” can make people feel as though they need to simply give more of what they’re already giving; just add to it, make it bigger, when sometimes what’s really required is different. We might want them to go away and re-consider how they’re approaching the dance. Perhaps the dancer would be better to take energy out somewhere in order to accent the energy they’re giving elsewhere.


What the experts say…



Absolutely agree. I suggest dealing with students who you feel are not working to their full capacity by saying, “Ask yourself; is this your personal best?”. Alternatively say, “Let’s make this your personal best”.

I also cringe when I hear no pain, no gain, often passed down by a generation of teachers from the past: this can lead to dancing with an injury afraid to speak up of being removed from a cast.



This is one area that I work a huge amount on in my teacher training courses, and one that often results in profound revelations for teachers in regards to their own bodies, as well as to how they guide their students.

Most of us were taught to “work hard”, “give it everything” and “if you’re not shaking, you’re not working hard enough”. As these were the messages instilled in us, these are the messages we tend to pass on to those we’re training.

However, as we have learnt more and more about the subtle mechanics of the body and studied the common injuries that plague dancers in detail, we’ve come to realise that many issues that dancers suffer from are an issue with over-recruitment rather than weakness. Creating too much tension in the body creates numerous issues that can often be very challenging to resolve. We have also come to understand the subtle and nuanced qualities of movement, and how misrepresented this often is by overly simplified aims such as “strengthen your hip flexors” or “switch on your core”. Especially in these two instances, trying harder actually inhibits the subtle, sequenced pattern of activation required for beautiful, effective and efficient movement especially in something such as an exquisite adagio.

My focus is always on working smarter, not harder, and using the least amount of activation to get the desired result. This allows for the maintenance of freedom in the body that is required for today’s dancer.



I agree this can be an issue. It is pointless and counter-productive to work hard when you do not have a clear idea of what it is you wish to achieve. Practising the fault is commonplace unfortunately, and I believe results from the idea that working hard is the top priority. Working slowly and carefully – or smarter – is much more productive than repeating something 50 times.

However, students can’t work smarter unless their teacher has the ability to communicate clearly what the requirements are. In my experience, students become motivated and want to improve when they have a clear idea of what they have to work towards. The teacher’s task is to create a thinking body within their students so that the student can monitor their own progress and self-correct. The teacher supplies the information and guides them towards a good result with corrections, but in the end, it is the student that has to bring about the result on their own body.

Teachers need to reflect on their own approach too. It is just possible that the student is not lazy and that they are not giving 100% because they are confused, or because they have been ill prepared in the basics of the technique and do not have the confidence to push forward. Working at 100% – or trying to push further than is possible – is likely to lead to the student forcing their technique rather than facilitating the technique by a calm and intelligent understanding of the issues involved.

The underlying philosophy of the Alexander Technique is relevant here – correct body use is vital. Many of the problems identified by the practitioners of the Alexander Technique are brought about by what they call “end gaining”. That is, adopting the finished form of a movement from the outset and then forcing the body into compliance, rather than a process which works correctly towards the desired outcome. A lot of teaching in the classroom falls in to the category of “end gaining”, particularly when training consists largely of endless syllabus classes, and there is often not enough time devoted to process.


But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. 

~ George Orwell, 1984



This is one I remember hearing a lot as a dancer. Again, the idea behind the phrase is well intentioned, as it’s asking that the dancer remembers to perform, remembers not merely to focus on their technique, but to connect musically and theatrically in order to be better connected to their performance and in turn, with their audience.

The biggest potential issue with this short-hand is that it can set performers up to take external cues to find their emotional connection instead of internal cues, and in doing so separates their body from thought and feeling developing an emotional mask instead of allowing them to reveal authentic emotion.

In real life the physical act of smiling has specific associated thoughts and feelings. Each smile is subtly unique in its timing, size, duration etc. and is contextual. A phrase such as, “just smile more” without the “why” leads to robotic, uncritical performers. A performer, any performer needs to know the “why” and further, they need the space to play with the why, to develop the internal logic that makes sense, feels organic and real to them. This matters as audiences absolutely do notice the difference between a smile or a tear that is connected and honest, versus emotions that are painted on like too much make-up that’s attempting to hide something rather than reveal.


What the experts say…



I couldn’t agree more on this one! Many young dancers focus so much on “achieving” certain tricks and steps, yet have very little experience or tuition in the craft of acting.

Dance is a performance art, and the skills needed to truly become a wonderful performer that can move an audience with one step or hand gesture take years to perfect. Focus needs to be made on understanding the message behind the piece, on the art of acting, but also on actually experiencing things in their ‘real life’.

Being present, observing others and becoming aware of all of the aspects of life will often have a much greater effect on a dancer than that extra acro class! If young dancers are serious about pursuing a career in performance, I highly recommend seeking out some formal acting classes to hone this side of their craft. 



Another interesting area, and a difficult one, especially for the adolescent dancer who is going through all sorts of developmental changes both physically and psychologically. Entreating them to smile or do something with their face is likely to make them withdraw even more. To me it is pointless to concentrate on the face. That is why we get the “fixed smile” which seems to be totally removed from the overall experience of the dancer and merely pasted on externally.  

The face is a landscape of emotions and they come from within. The face should change quite naturally depending on the stimuli affecting the student – as a response to the music, to the physical experience of performing a particular movement, dynamics, momentum, a visual projection of line and so on.

The personality of the student is also a factor here. We should not expect all students to respond in the same way. Some students are open and will allow their feelings and emotions to be given expression, and some won’t. There are individual differences here and that has to be understood and accepted. I think the expressionless face we often see in class comes from an intense concentration on what they are trying to achieve technically. They are concentrating hard to meet the demands of this very difficult technique. There is often a tendency to assume a “ballet face” which seems to represent the student’s idea of an aristocratic bearing. There is a tightness about this kind of face and when a face is tight it lacks animation.

The aristocratic bearing should instead come from the stabilisation of the shoulder girdle, which elongates the neck and the free and easy poise of the head on top of a lengthening cervical spine. Holding the face is a form of tension and tension always distorts.  

I get as frustrated as most teachers when trying to get some facial animation from dancers. My entreaties to “relax your face”, “soften your face”, “come out of your face” etc. are a reflection of this, but I do think it is important that the face, which is after all a primary organ of expression, needs to be given ongoing attention so that it becomes an integrated part of the dancer’s way of working, and just as important as anything else.  

Probably the best way of doing this is in the more dancey moments in class, rather than when the student is likely more focused on the technical aspects. Some basic acting exercises can also help. Classical ballet is after all a performing art and performing arts are based on the communication and expression of some feeling or emotion. Take that away and we are left with physical movement only.



I would like a dollar over the years for every time I heard the last thing a teacher say before the students entered the examination room, “DON’T FORGET TO SMILE”. After the set grin for the first 5 minutes the face becomes more a grimace! This will affect the child’s mark of expression as it hasn’t come from within. There is something special about a natural interpretation that is expressed through the face and body inspired by the phasing. Often, I feel this is affected by tension and lack of the breath when dancing.


Don’t ever diminish the power of words. Words move hearts and hearts move limbs.

~ Hamza Yusuf


To explore more thoughts and ideas from John Byrne please see his recently released DVD’s: The Art and Anatomy of Port de Bras & Posture, placement and the Basic Elements of Technique

For more visit Classical Dance Australia at:

For those interested in hearing what Marie Walton-Mahon has to suggest regards better phrasing please email Marie at: [email protected] or visit:

To see, hear and read more from Lisa Howell please visit Perfect Form Physiotherapy at: or at The Ballet Blog:

Many thanks to John, Marie and Lisa.

Article by Josef Brown

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