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Port de bras


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There's a current thread on the teacher's forum under the title "why? why? why do they have trouble with arms?" Since we can't post there, I'm referring to it here. Perhaps this belongs in the buddy board (or the whine couch?), but it has a lot to do with technique issues so I am starting it here. Moderators, please move if you wish.


The part that caught my attention was the value of extensive and specific training on port de bras, and mention of a few other really basic things - mostly having to do with epaulment, heads, hands, and eyes. At least as an adult beginner, my answer to "why do they have trouble..." is another question: "why can't I find training ..." I generally see a few students in my classes who do these things with elegance, and I'd really like to learn how, but I've never been able to find much training. We all get a few corrections now and then, but nothing begins to compare with this parenthetical remark by one of the teachers:


"(but I did have a Russian teacher that drilled us in the six Vaganova port de bras combinations at the beginning of class for a year my first few years of study. Over and over and over and over. It became muscle memory)"


I would estimate that 70% of my epaulment and port de bras comes from trying to emulate those other students who do things I admire - they seem to have been trained in these things at some time. That sort of drilling is just not something that happens much in adult, drop-in classes - at least, I've not been able to find it, and I live where there are many adult options, I have excellent teachers, and I take a lot of classes. I cannot believe that copying others who look good to my untrained eye is the best way to learn these things!


At the dance camp, every day begins with the generic ballet class. This is the basic training regimen, and it's not that hard to get such a class most days if you look around and live in an urban environment. But these seem focused on maintaining skills you already have - the way to get new skills is to take a class above your level and have your incompetences corrected as if you had forgotten, not as if you never knew.


So I guess my question is, where if anywhere can one find more structured classes focused on drilling basic habits? Or, failing that, how far can you get practicing on your own? Where do you look for instruction on how to practice on your own? More than a few times, I have received no correction until after a bad habit has become ingrained through practice, so this approach frankly worries me.


Looking back over this post, I see that it is as much rant as question - I apologize for letting my frustrations out so much, but the question is sincere.

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Hi olddude,

I saw that post too, and I just want to second what you said entirely!

I did not realize that my training in port de bra and head movements (as well as facial expressions) was entirely zilch beyond the very basic arm positions, until I came to my current school, where the teacher pointed out my inadequacies. Geez, I didn't even realize how awful my body looked from the hip up until then :)! Apparently all my previously teachers were trained in the RAD syllabus whereas the current one received training in both RAD and French schools. She also seems to be well-versed in the Russian style. I wonder if that makes any difference.

A few of my classmates do have wonderful port de bra and it is a pleasure to have someone like them to emulate. Of course nothing is better than if the teacher teaches you those things from the ground up. I'm looking forward to hearing what the moderators have to say on this subject.

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What you both are saying is why it came up on Teachers forum! We are basically ranting about the lack of port de bras and upper body training, which is something I simply do not understand at all. How can one teach without that being an absolutely integral part of it??? I spend SO much of my time working on that BECAUSE it has not been addressed in prior training....and I teach only upper Int. and Adv. levels! :P


Airchild, it's really not the method, it's the teaching. It should be an integral part of all systems, even though there are differences in those systems.


Do your teachers not show everything using port de bras, head, épaulement? Those are things that can and should be constantly shown and taught, even if a teacher can no longer execute pirouettes or allegro movements. My knees have been bad for years now, but I can mark everything using the upper body, and I do that, always. And emphasize it!


Yes, I'm ranting too, old dude! :)

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OK if I join the rant? I have the same frustration as olddude. And you're right Victoria, it's not related to method.


I wouldn't say that there is no attention paid to port de bras in adult classes but I agree that what we end up doing most is trying to copy fellow students who were better trained as youths. Too often I feel like a wounded bird with arms flailing about.


All you adult teachers out there, hear our pleas! Spend some time every class specifically on epaulment and port de bras, particularly the transitions.

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To me this raises something of a related question. That is, to what extent do we expect ballet teachers to teach us things? I know when I was ballroom dancing, one of my partners believed that “truth” came only from teachers (and only certain teachers). I found that odd, but then I have always relied on myself to be responsible for learning.


To be honest, I can’t remember all that much about being taught port de bras, though I know it was addressed in classes in some way. But I do remember clearly using better students, teachers, and professionals as models for performance. In fact that’s pretty much my learning style. I’ve always tried to be around people who were better than me and to copy those things that I thought were admirable. Teachers and coaches have much to offer, but then I don’t expect them to make me a good performer.


A good way to improve your port de bras, I think, is to do some Spanish dance. The technique is completely different from ballet, but you gain a better awareness of what your arms and hands are doing as they go through the standard ballet positions, so that when you do ballet style port de bras you have more awareness of what’s going on.

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We are all different kinds of learners. Some people need teachers to help them to learn how to see and some do not. When it comes to usage of the head/eyes, hands/arms and epaulement however, there is much to be taught. There are mechanics of movement, rules for turning the body in directions and plain old logic of coordination.


Studying arm/hand movements, usage of the head and eyes leads to a good understanding of epaulement. It is much more readily understood when trained slowly in the beginning. Teachers are put in the unfortunate situation of playing ping-pong in that they not only have the responsibility to teach students how to accomplish ballet, but they also must gradify the students by helping them feel good about their dancing. With a class filled with various personalities, that is a banquet size order. Not everyone has the same idea of feeling good about their dancing.


When I did teach adult ballet, there was always a head count. How many students were in the class was a very big deal. Part of the responsibility of the teacher unfortunately is numbers. Teaching arm movements/port de bras takes a lot of time. If you and your classmates have an interest to understand more thoroughly about this aspect of studying ballet, try to speak with your teacher about your interest. When students ask questions about some things they need clarifying, it does help the teacher to plan "helping hands" so to speak into the lesson. It also can be inspiring to know one is working with students who have a real interest to learn things that may be new to them. In the end it is good for everyone. :)

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Guest MasterPuppeteer

In one of my beginner classes (I take two per week, two different teachers), my teacher has not addressed port de bras at all (and hands and fingers). I keep waiting for her to correct one of the other students in class who, because she is concentrating so hard on what her feet are doing, keeps making a claw with her fingers without her realizing it. I keep waiting for her to rowr at me and break into "Were you blind when you're boooorn?"

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That's something that frustrates me too. I wonder if it's to do with whether the class is predominantly made up of absolute beginners or begin-againers - whether teachers decide to address arms and head or assume that it's already known? One of the things I will repeatedly be called out on in class is for not using my head at all (front-facing death stare) - but if you don't say what you want the student to do with their head during the exercise, then how are they supposed to know to tilt this way or that? It doesn't really come naturally. I've just given in and have now started to ask about head positions before we begin the exercise.


What's also confusing is that different systems seem to do different things with their heads! Eek! You have to be very consistent with who you're copying in class! :)

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I wonder if the head placement is one of (the few) areas of ballet training where a good text book could help? I find that reference works such as Warren are better for looking things up after class to explain in theory things I've been learning in practice, but I wonder if there would be some good explanations of the "inclination of the head" which you could then implement at the barre. And yes, different syllabus systems have different details of the use of the head, but not that wildly different. Try a basic plie exercise in first and use your head to follow your hand. That's the instriuction/correction we often hear in my classes and it's a good start.

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I agree totally that I would love some instruction in class about where my head is supposed to be.


I had some instruction in my previous ballet life (not including tilts I seem to be expected to know now) and I would appreciate not having to look at another student to have a clue. Besides, I am pretty sure that the sheer act of looking at someone else while trying to copy head movement is going to make my own head look pretty strange in the process.


As to arms in port de bras, I have been corrected a little on that, but it was a matter of style rather than basic instruction.

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In my current classes, both of my teachers teach specific port de bras both with and without foot combinations. They reinforce the requirements of the port de bras they want during combinations, as well.


I don't recall, as a teen, being specifically taught port de bras. I do recall doing a lot of learning out of books on it, and spent one whole summer on my own just working out and practicing coordinating feet and arms. It was a summer well spent!


Having had training now in numerous methods, versions, et. al. of port de bras, I got and still get quite confused unless it's spelled out where they want the head (arms are usually not an issue), and ask directly. As one adult said a while ago, I look on it now as choreography; otherwise, I can't do it cleanly.


I find the current training very valuable, though, even though I haven't any real issues with port de bras. I know at our school, port de bras is specifically taught by all the ballet teachers.

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I don't know if this is usually the case, but when I taught adults, it seemed to me that they were much more interested in learning port de bras and épaulement than the teenage students were. It is hard work mentally, and it can be tiring, at first, for the back and some arm muscles, but ultimately I think it's something that adult beginners can accomplish more easily than things like turnout, extension, etc. An elegant upper body not only adds polish, but the hard work pays for itself by remaining in the dancer's muscle memory so that it is then possible to use the upper body well even when concentrating more on improving the legs.


For those interested, you can find the six Vaganova port de bras in Basic Principles of Classical Ballet (chapter 4). Facial expressions and positions of the head are also in Classical Ballet Technique by Gretchen Ward Warren, as well as arm positions and arm movements (pages 24-33). Arm and head positions for various methods and styles are laid out in Gail Grant's Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet (pages 126-137), but keep in mind they are just a general guideline and not the last word.


Of course, nothing can replace classroom instruction and observing good port de bras, but the above texts are fairly easy to obtain and are useful practice aids.

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Guest MasterPuppeteer

I had the most interesting class last night. Our regular teacher was out sick and we had a sub. Before class started (there were only 4 students!) she asked us to introduce ourselves and to tell her our reason(s) for attending ballet class (i.e., workout vs. technique vs. relaxation, etc.). I spoke up first and told her I was there to improve, and to bring on the technical.


Whew! Did she ever get technical on our butts, alright! She spent the first five minutes doing spinal alignment exercises (lying on the floor--see how your butt can't stick back?), then we focused on the mechanics of the tendus (it starts from the heel!), then turnout (she demonstrated proper hip rotation). She corrected my ballet hands (my thumbs were too far from the rest of my fingers), repositioned my port de bras fifth while on relevé (aaahhhh...better balance!) and went around the room lifting elbows while in second, and explaining why tendus should follow the natural direction of your turnout instead of going all the way to the side. Oh, and so much more!!! Wish I could tell you guys everything she showed us; wish I could've taken some notes! Or better yet, videotaped her instruction! It was awesome, a true "back to basics" class correcting bad habits and mistakes. In just one class I feel like I've improved my form a hundred percent.


Loved it. She mainly teaches kids on the weekend but I told her I'd trade her kickboxing lessons for private instruction. ;-)

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Slightly off topic...

Has it ever happened to you to see a teacher setting the wrong example? I just saw that last night at a intro to ballet class. The teacher had the most hideous hards ever - fingers spread out like claws. Also she didn't correct any of the arms while we were at the barre, so there were a couple of elbows bent at 90 degrees... I am mentioning this because some teachers (not all, of course!) might be unconsciously giving more importance to the leg work than to port de bras and upper body...

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One of the things I will repeatedly be called out on in class is for not using my head at all (front-facing death stare) - but if you don't say what you want the student to do with their head during the exercise, then how are they supposed to know to tilt this way or that?


I've taken to just plain asking about it. The littlies in my class won't - too shy - so I do it. Often there's a group of "Oh-s" around me when I've asked the teacher to clarify how the arms and head are supposed to go in each exercise.

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