Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Ballet Steps: Arm Positions

The latest instalment of the ballet steps series explores arm positions. 

Marianela Nunez and Ryoichi Hirano in Serenade
Photo: Tristram Kenton / ROH
There are six main positions, plus a huge number of additional ones, and names vary according to the different schools and styles of ballet. I will cover the most commonly used positions and names according to the English style of training, as used in the Royal Academy of Dance syllabi. 

In most positions, the arms are curved, with a feeling of ‘lift’ in the elbow. Brasbas, the starting position for most ballet exercises, involves both arms curved downwards to form an oval shape either a couple of inches away from the torso or resting just above a tutu skirt. In 1st position, which is commonly used for pirouettes, the arms maintain the same oval shape but are lifted so that the middle fingers are opposite the belly button. In 5th position (shown by Marianela Nuñez above), the arms are raised further again such that the oval shape is overhead, framing the face.
Federico Bonelli
in Romeo and Juliet
Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH
2nd position involves opening the arms out to the sides, so that the hands can be seen in the dancer’s peripheral vision and fingers are at approximately the same level as the waist. This position should be curved not only through the arm joints to form a half-oval shape on each side, but also downwards from shoulder to fingertips. The anatomical ideal in this position involves an inward rotation of the upper arm and an outward rotation of the lower arm, whilst keeping the shoulders down and the elbows gently lifted.
3rd position, which is often used for pirouette preparations, involves one arm in 2nd position and one arm in 1st position. 4th position has two variations – 4th open (usually simply referred to as 4th), with one arm in 2nd and one in 5th (as demonstrated by Federico Bonelli to the right), and 4th crossed, with one arm in 1st and one arm in 5th.
Shiori Kase in Swan Lake
Photo: Photography by ASH
Common corrections in these basic positions include dropping the elbow, over-flexing the wrists and losing postural alignment in the back and torso. Placement can also be problematic and young students often lift the arms too high in 1st or place them too far back in 2nd and 5th. For 5th position, it can be useful to teach it with the arms slightly forward, so that students (especially children) can imagine looking at a mirror in the palms of their hands.  
There are many variations on these positions, such as demi-2nd, where the arms are in a lower version of 2nd with the palms of the hands facing down. Open 5th involves extending the arms into a ‘V’ shape overhead instead of a curve, and open 4th similarly involves extended arm lines in 4th position.
There are also specific arabesque arm positions. 1st arabesque features the same arm as supporting leg held straight forward, with the other arm straight out to the side and slightly back. In 2nd arabesque, the arms are the same, but the front arm becomes the arm opposing the supporting leg. In 3rd arabesque, both arms are straight forward, with one slightly higher than the other.
There are numerous other arm variations – far too many to cover here. Some include crossed wrists (shown above left in Swan Lake), hands on hips (such as in Don Quixote) and arms held diagonally across the torso (such as in La Sylphide).

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