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The Upper Body in Performance



As we have had several discussions on the board lately regarding port de bras and épaulement, I'd like to offer a mini online lesson about the upper body geared toward audience members. I'll include technical information, but this will be by no means exhaustive, especially considering that there are plenty of textbooks that do a fine job of describing the various methods' stances as far as the upper body is concerned. What I'd like to do is give balletomanes who do not have classroom experience with ballet a bit of familiarity with basic positions and how a dancer moves between them.


Good port de bras begins, of course, with good posture. By the time one is a professional dancer, this should be second nature--lower abdominals pulled in and up; shoulder blades pulled down; ribs, neck, and face relaxed; eyes focused; and most importantly, a "core" of energy running vertically up and down the spine. When making even the tiniest movement of the wrist or elbow, one must feel energy flowing up the spine and out along the entire length of the arm though the fingertips (not to the fingertips, through them). Often, one may see a dancer shift his/her torso slightly to initiate an arm movement; this is a visible manifestation of that energy.

Ballet positions are not static, lifeless poses. The energy in the spine and focus of the eyes keeps the dancer "alive" even when not visibly in motion.

There are different names for the various positions of the arms depending upon which method or style one uses, and the specific details of each position vary accordingly, but I will write about them in only the most basic terms. A choreographer may add his own particular flourish or idiosyncrasies to each position, so what you see onstage may not match the drawings in a textbook; this does not mean the dancer is incapable of producing "textbook" positions but that s/he has been asked to dance this way by a particular choreographer in a particular ballet.

The most basic arm positions are as follows; I will describe them arrondis (rounded) but all of them may also be done allongé (extended):

1. Preparatory Position/Fifth Position en Bas: The arms curve down from the shoulders so that the hands rest either just in front of the thighs or just above the tutu.

2. First Position/Fifth Position en Avant: The arms curve forward from the shoulders so that the hands are approximately in front of the solar plexus.

3. Second Position: The arms are at the same level as first position, but held open to the sides so that each hand is just in front of its respective shoulder. This position tests how well the dancer uses his/her back, as the elbows must not droop and the forearms must be rotated so that the palms face forward.

4. Third Position/En Couronne/Fifth Position en Haut: The arms curve upward from the shoulders so that the elbows are slightly in front of the ears.

In addition to these, there are three "intermediate" positions: the arms opened halfway between preparatory and second (often called demi-second), between first and second, and between second and third. In the intermediate position between first and second, the palms may be turned up.

To make a position allongé, rotate the forearm so that the palm faces down, and relax the elbow so that it is softened but not bent.


When one considers that the spine extends through the neck and even up into the back of the skull, it is easy to see how posture and energy affect the way one moves the head. If energy is moving all the way along the spine and the neck is relaxed, the head will almost naturally place itself correctly, without the chin jutting forward or pulled back. In ballet, the head is usually turned, inclined, or both. To incline the head, simply tilt it from one side to the other or front and back. Different methods and styles prefer different degrees of turning and inclination. For example, RAD-trained dancers often turn their heads without inclining them, whereas Vaganova-trained dancers both turn and incline their heads, sometimes to the point of producing a gentle curve in the upper back.

Usually the eyes focus in the general direction of the hands (there are exceptions to this, for example at the end of a Bournonville variation where the dancer's arms go down as s/he does a plié in 5th position, then the eyes and head lifts as the arms remain low and the legs straighten) and the head is turned in the direction of whichever leg is front (that is, right or left, although sometimes the head turns in opposition to the legs) and inclined to the level of the arms (low or high). This relationship of head to arms begins to produce the polished look of a fully coordinated body, although true coordination depends upon how the dancer moves between these various positions, which are also coordinated with the movements of the legs.


One thing I've thought about lately is how dancers use port de bras and épaulement to relate to each other onstage. For example, during the coda of the pas de six from "La Vivandière," the lead female dancer performs a diagonal of turns and jetés (usually garnering quite a bit of applause) at the end of which she turns back to the upstage left corner and gestures to (and looks at) the lead male dancer, who is just beginning his diagonal of grands pirouettes à la seconde as if to say, "If you thought that was good, look at what's coming up next!" Dancers will often use port de bras to direct the audience's eye to a different part of the stage where something important is happening.

Port de bras can also be used to exclude, and the Wilis in Giselle are quite good at this. When Hilarion dances his way toward death in the lake in Act II, the Wili corps faces away from him and puts out an arm with the wrist flexed as if to push him along. In the pas de deux between Gulnare and Lankedem in Act I of Le Corsaire, Gulnare makes a number of gestures repudiating Lankedem (notably during her arabesques penchées in the first diagonal of the entrée, before the adagio).

In a well-staged production of a story ballet, port de bras and épaulement are used to indicate rank and class differences. At the start of Act I of the Kirov's Swan Lake, it is obvious that all the people onstage are nobility, not just from the way they are dressed (even peasants in ballet get elaborate costumes) but from the way they behave. When two dancers meet, they bow to each other with one foot pointed in front, one arm extended in front and the other to the side, and it's clear from this formal greeting that they are of equal rank. When a gentleman escorts his lady somewhere onstage, he might offer his hand or curved arm, but he does not get overly familiar and put a hand on her waist. To express even more formality, a lady might merely take her partner's allongé forearm instead of the hand, although this is not practical when it comes to pas de deux.


Another thing that struck me today as I watched the La Scala tape of Giselle (with Alessandra Ferri) is how much less refined the Milanese company's arms and hands are than those at the very best companies. While the shapes were generally correct, they were not terribly exact, but more than that, they didn't convey the same feeling. There wasn't as much weight in the arms--they lacked that aristocratic, light-but-substantial feel that POB and Kirov dancers convey so well.

Ferri, on the other hand, was a different story, especially in Act I where she integrated her port de bras into her portrayal of Giselle's character, using certain gestures (slightly trembling hands, for example) to convey fragility and then exaggerating those gestures during the mad scene. Her hands even took on different shapes: fingers splayed as she cringed after bumping into Bathilde, roughly rounded as she delicately plucked petals from an imaginary flower.


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As you may know I am not a dancer... I recently discovered the wonderful Ballet Talk and was so thrilled to find it. My interest and attraction to ballet is so different from an artist involved in the dance or ballet.

I have always love the way dancers moved and glided. For many years I lived near the Joffrey school and was treated to many students who came and went. I had some modern dancer friends and attended numerous performances from Ballet, to Paul Taylor to Martha Graham and so on. I was not a frequent attende, but I did so when I since the 80s.

Ballet was always very special to my eyes and on a "pedestal" as a sort of "gold standard" of dance. Once sense a history and that the "interpretation was rather subtle as the ballets were "set" works... so I thought.

In the past few years we have been attending ABT 4 or 5 times a year. Each timeI attend I have a greater appreciation and "awe" of these dancers. It is very hard to articulate.

I found myself focusing less on the foot work at first, more on the entire body and lately on the upper body and the arms... which I have learned is called epaulement and port de bras. We think of dance reflexively as being about steps and footwork, but the upper body for me is where all the "meaning" of ballet is found. I call it "gesture" for lack of a better word.

I have little frame of reference because I have seen so few ballets and so few artists dance the same role. But I have seen Kent, Reyes, Wiles, Vishneva, Ferri, ... all the principals of the ABT. The epaulemnt/port de bras of Julie Kent and Paloma Herrera I found especially compelling and could not figure out where their bones went at times! These brilliant dancers can move their upper body (arms..hands fingers even) like some boneless sea creature who apendages flow with the current of the water.

And this movement is in perfect synchrinicity with the music as if it is coming fromwithinn these dancers at time. It amazes me how they can be so perfectly timed.... or whatever it is that I am seeing. I love to watch the hands and arms with my glasses... as one never sees arms and hands move with such grace and beauty.

This port de bras/epaulement seems to be something much more visable in the female dancers... am I wrong?

Any way, thanks for taking the time with dolts like me... the BT board is a treasure!

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Hello Hans, I am a member of your target audience -- a balletomane with no classroom experience. (Although I did observe a class by Danilova and another by Stanley Williams years ago at SAB). I think you've succeeded admirably in your aim of providing some rudimentary knowledge, and I thank you for it. Bravo. Lou D'Angelo

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Thank you very much! This latest series of posts will have more to do with classroom technique as I have recently started teaching again, but I hope to intersperse the technical writing with more thoughts on performing/watching ballet.

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This port de bras/epaulement seems to be something much more visable in the female dancers... am I wrong?

No, I don't think you're wrong at all. Of course, men should have port de bras that is just as refined as women's, but there are a few factors that I think make it less noticeable. For one thing, women tend to wear costumes that reveal their arms, whereas men tend to get long sleeves, puffy "poet shirts," &c. Also, women are encouraged to have a more "feminine" (I almost want to say "flamboyant") port de bras than men--they use their wrists more and more their arms in a more delicate manner than men. Men's arms should be no less graceful, but there is usually a weightier quality as well as a sort of noble reserve. It can be more difficult to tell the difference between "masculine" port de bras and just not using one's arms very much. One often sees very nice port de bras from the men of the Kirov, Royal Danish Ballet, and Paris Opera Ballet, and if you are able to see any of these companies live or watch DVD's of them, it may give you a sense of what I mean.

EDIT: I started this thread in Aesthetic Issues to discuss this issue, as I think it's a very interesting one--thank you for bringing it up!

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