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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Port de bras


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This is not a particular technique question, maybe I'm only looking for inspirational stories...


Last night a woman I've not seen before came to my open Elementary/ Intermediate mixed class. She obviously had many, many years of training behind her, and of course I was looking to see how the way she worked could improve the way I work, as always.


Suddenly I had the tragic revelation that my arms are totally the wrong shape (as in the Chesterton story) not that externally they are wrong, but they always look wrong in class. Blocky, or wooden, or something.


My hands seem to be okay, not much clenching or drooping, and I've always been taught arms and legs together, so that doesn't seem to be my problem either. Is my best shot to improve my port de bras a lot of monkey see-monkey do with dancers who seem to have the elegance and suppleness I'm looking for?


Has anyone else substantially improved the graceful carriage of his/her arms and want to share ideas? Should I be walking around the house going from first to 3rd to 2nd to 1st?

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I'm finally starting to notice the difference between a dancer who uses thier back, and those who do not. I am wondering if a percieved graceful arm carriage isn't so much just the arms, but how the back is used as well. If the back and core strength is there, the arms should be able to move quite freely. I think when some strength is lacking, tension can go to the arms.


Wish I could offer some helpful tips, but I'm afraid to say that my arms and back are the big things I'm working on as well. There's a fine line in making the arms look like they're moving freely, and making sure that they cut through space in the proper way.


Dancers who come through a syllabus system from a young age seem to have an advantage over those who do not in terms of correct port de bras. I took a Vagonova syllabus class grade 8 a few months back and the precision involved in arm and head carriage was a real eye-opener for me. Everything had a very precise way of moving through space. It was quite different from what I am used to.

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For the past few years, I've felt almost annoyed at teachers who correct arms without mentioning the back... usually, the arms are the symptoms of lack of support through the back... fixing them alone often doesn't get to the crux of the problem... I don't know if one could get through to a small child on this... somehow their backs don't seem to me muscled enough to feel the support... but certainly an adult should be encouraged to feel that support (and use it). Using the back support for the arms would probably help abdominally as well, wouldn't it? I mean to feel one's center? It seems kind of hard to support the arms with the back without lifting up out of the waiste as a positive side effect.

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Good replies. I have been working on my arms forever, and am distressed when I see an otherwise advancing dancer say more or less that she'll get to that later. While I think I've been attentive to my arms over the years, I found that when I switched teachers and worked with one who really emphasized the back, I became even stronger. When I want to feel inspired in this regard, I look at footage I have of Dorothy Hamill.


I also notice that when I've taken class other than with the above mentioned teacher, the dancers often seem quite weak in the back and arms.


This teacher told me that people are very sensitive about their arms and corrections to them, as the arms "tell people who you are." It's like they're truth serum, reflecting the very core of an individual's personality.

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This teacher told me that people are very sensitive about their arms and corrections to them, as the arms "tell people who you are." It's like they're truth serum, reflecting the very core of an individual's personality.

Oh Funny Face, this is a wonderful thing to say. It really hit home with me. Thank you, thank your very wise teacher for me! :thumbsup:

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I would like to add that in my adult beginner classes it seems to me that the way to really tell apart those who have danced as a child, and who are new beginners, is their arms. Those who have had longer training, even if years ago, have elegant and expressive arms; us new to the art tend to be more awkward with ours. It's maybe not so much the basic ability to do the movements that differs, however - it's somehing like confidence in doing them. I suppose it only comes with years of doing it.

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Has anyone else substantially improved the graceful carriage of his/her arms and want to share ideas?

Yes, I did... I was quite a good dancer as a child, but the very obvious drawbacks were always my arms and how I carried them. I understood the 'theory' but couldn't apply it properly (I always had the force somewhere in my neck, rather than back). It's only years later that I 'got it'.


I would say that the previous answers have been very good: yes, the back is essential... It's important to feel how the scapula is placed in all movements (and it's easy to feel it when it's static, less so if you move the arm about). A good thing to do is lie on your back, and feel how it rests on the floor... Feel how the shoulder blades always lay flat (by having a feeling that your upper back is growing sideways... Almost as if you grew wings) and how the shoulder rotates in the socket to allow movements of the arms.


From there, when you have understood how the scapula lies flat and how to have a 'broad' back with nicely 'attached' arms :thumbsup: , you can concentrate on keeping the elbows turned pushed from you (in preparatory/bras bas position), as high as possible in 2nd -without lifting the shoulders, but it shouldn't happen if you use the back (with a slight decline in height from shoulder to elbow to wrist) and in 5th/en haut, with hands towards the crown of the head, slightly forward of the face (so that you can see your hands if you lift your chin slightly).


The position in 2nd is in my opinion the one that lacks form and beauty usually. It's because the elbow is allowed to drop. That elbow should feel lifted to the ceiling at all times. Even though it's lower than the shoulder (otherwise, the arm would be at shoulder level, which wouldn't be pretty, and the shoulder risks to rise), it should also be higher than the wrist. There is nothing worse IMO than a droopy elbow in 2nd.


Now, for port de bras, move your arms in a way that is not 'woody' by "unwrapping" them (so, not in one block movement, but rather, with upper arm moving and hand last... Without too much flourish... For this, copying a good example is good practice): so now, for the 'icing on the cake', I'll give you an image I learnt from this board (thanks Victoria or Mel! :wink: ): you can 'unwrap' the arm in a more graceful fashion by imagining you have another articulation between your elbow and your wrist. :thumbsup:

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This is not a particular technique question, maybe I'm only looking for inspirational stories...


dido, I too was retrained in the usage of my upper back and arm movements as an adult. I too was inspired by watching other dancers (somehow always Russian in this instance) and how they used their backs and arms. I was rehearsing ( funny I felt more like I was a student at that rehearsal then a ballet mistress) a well known Russian male dancer in the 2nd act pas de deux from Giselle with an American understudy in the role of Giselle. There were literally hours before it was to be on stage and he kept saying "no you must see me with your back". I was studying Vaganova pedagogy at the time and was fascinated by this statement. Although this dancer is not a well known teacher I found what he was saying to be of great interest to me and what I was doing with young students. The young understudy was transformed in just a few brief hours. She of course had a very solid, lovely technique prior to this rehearsal and the entire drama of being literally thrown on stage for her first Giselle is inspiration enough but I know for me that one rehearsal had a huge impact upon me and my interest in the magic of port de bras.


Russians are taught from a young age about the usage of the back, the arms, the hands and fingers with the usage of the head and eyes. When put all together it is called coordination. It is one of the most distinctive parts of their training but it takes years to develope. It is however, very obviously seen in a young first year student, as one of the main ingredients to success! :thumbsup:

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These are wonderful! Thank you all.


Jaana, I think I might agree with you most though, that the early training seems to be key, getting to that second nature point.


I've definitely been working on trying to engage my back, I think I might have problems feeling it because I'm extremely strong, especially in my back, and sometimes I OVER engage the upper back, because otherwise it doesn't feel like I'm doing anything. I'm pretty sure I'm not moving from the shoulders.


Balletowoman, I love the image of the extra joint between the elbow and wrist, I'll try it in class tonight and see if that works. When I was searching the site for previous advice I ran across Jaana's image of the bones moving rather than the muscles, and I think I'm going to try that too...


Finally, I think it was actually seeing the Kirov in Les S. a few weeks ago that started this whole thing off... I'll be looking at pictures and watching a lot of videos for the next couple weeks I think. It's encouraging to think that the training/retraining process is possible. I remember my first class, and the teacher describing all the different muscular sensations (up, out, down, here, there) it required just to stand correctly in first position and thinking "I'll never be able to do all of this," and realizing many years later that I do "all that" all the time now.


Watching that woman made me realize consciously for the first time really how much of a dancer's real grace and beauty is in the arms. Yet another first step on the way to Everest I suppose.


Thanks again, everybody.


Ooh, edited to add: I shudder :thumbsup: to think what my arms say about me!

Edited by dido
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You can also see the difference in figure skating. The Russian skaters seem to have had more ballet training, and most likely Vaganova. On average, they have consistently more graceful hand and arm positions than the others IME, while the North American school tends to concentrate on and reward mainly strong legs.


The visualization of broadening the back and "growing wings" sounds to me like the Alexander Technique mantra of "Your head should feel free to float up from your neck ... your shoulders should feel free to float wide of your back." (Probably remembered incorrectly as I only took a one evening course in it.) I am also struggling with the arms and only just got a correction for something I'm sure I've been doing a lot: keeping the arms too close together in 1st and 2nd port de bras type things, to the point of crossing the midline of the body. The teacher who is most vigilant about arms also said something new on Sunday to another student: "You're a small girl, so you should try to have long arms. A big girl, not so much." I got the impression she felt this was part of making a matching corps, but I may have misunderstood since neither she nor I are native speakers of the language of the class.

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I agree with you ALL....


the thing that's making hte most difference for ME at the moment is thinking of turning out my upper arm --that fascinating feeling of rotating the elbow outward as much as possible, while rotating the forearm inward, and pulling the WHOLE arm long out of hte back..... the hardest part of this is the first section of hte first port debras, bringing hte arm DOWN to bras bas....


My teacher Xiao Liu, who came from Changhai and had excellet training there -- but also had a spell at SAB, has us WORK on arms, and is extremely attentive to keeping hte elbow rounded, away from the body,as we bring hte arm down - -and indeed, if you DO this, you feel your back and pull up out of hte waist, diminish the ribs, lift the sternum, and as the arm rises to middle fifth, you feel yourself pressing forward into that circle and it feels like you're "where you ought to be."


but re the UPPER back -- the UPPER upper back (the trapezius) for me is OVER-active -- the places where the work should be happening are UNDER the shoulder-blade. The more I can get hte trapezius to STAY OUT OF THIS, the better off I am.


Is that true for hte rest of you?

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I had to look up what trapezius was but once I found it, I see what you mean. I think I tend to push down with the trapezius which kind of sends the rest of my arms (er the rest of both of my arms?) into a kind of strained position. I don't recall having any issues with arm placement when I was dancing through high school but now it's all I can do to keep my elbows from being pointy or droopy. And when my elbows are right my wrists have a hard time facing the right direction (mainly in second this is an issue).

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Elise wrote..". And when my elbows are right my wrists have a hard time facing the right direction (mainly in second this is an issue).


Oh yes, Elise -- that it DEFINITELY so. Funny, but that's what I like about it -- actively working the humerus against the radius, keeping them in a dynamic tension (without its getting TOO tense) is how I get my attention to come down to the lower upper back....


I'm one of htose dancers who actually likes to dance and doesn't LIKE thinking technically, but when it gets to hte stuff that's NOTHING BUT TECHNIQUE -- those combinations where you look en face, tendu side, rond de jambe, pl;ie pirouette -- that kind of combination? -- I HAVE to have something to think about other than the likelihood of failure, so I think about this...

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Guest gingembre

Oh, there is *so* much to say on the topic of arms... I always feel the arms are what will make or break a dancer. So many dance students seem to ignore the arms as an area to work on altogether :unsure:


I agree with so much of what has been said so far! Especially regarding use of the back, with the back and the stomach you have your core, and this is where *everything* comes from. Oddly, I think my Graham classes helped the most with my arms by way of tuning me into using my back...it also gave me more "weight" to my arms.


My two cents for arms in second: no dropping the elbows!!! For me what has helped is if you lift the elbow, then turn your upper arm so that the inner area of the elbow is facing front, and turning the lower arm so that the inner area of the wrist is facing front also. All this while not lifting the shoulder, making sure the elbow is higher than the wrist, the arm is *slightly* rounded but not bent and the hand relaxed but in line with the arm. :sweating: Typing it out now I know why my husband gave me a look when I explained it to him! :lol:


My biggest gripe: people who do the "wrist flick" when moving the arm down from second to... :angry: ugh, to preperation? Low fifth? I can't remember what that's called!! Anyway, the big, flashy wrist flick. Obviously the hand turns over but it should be SMOOTH and SUBTLE. :D

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I was watching a class a few months ago when the teacher made an interesting remark about arms. He told his students to imagine you were moving your arms through water while doing your port de bras. This stuck with me and I tried it. I noticed an immediate improvement in my arms. Imagining there was the resistance of water against my arms as I moved automatically made me engage my back and added a bit of grace to the arm movement. This simple trick has worked wonders for me. :angry:

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