Perfect Port de Bras: 5 tips to better ballet arms
'Port de Bras'
1. A movement or series of movements made by passing the arms through various positions. The passage of the arms from one position to another constitutes a port de bras.
2. A term for a group of exercises designed to make the arms move gracefully and harmoniously.
The National Ballet of Canada's Brendan Saye demonstrating a section of port de bras.
For all the awe-ing feats of athleticism and gravity-defying turns that ballet dancers perform, a beautiful port de bras is still one of the most captivating, and iconically elegant aspects of ballet. Port de bras, or ‘carriage of the arms’ is not only essential for balance and executing great turns, it’s also a huge part of the expression of ballet.
…which is why there’s nothing worse than feeling like your port de bras is more port de blah. Don’t despair though, we’ve got five wonderful tips to help you improve your port de bras - read on!
Self-analysis: Have you ever been mid-way through an exercise and caught sight of your own flustered reflection in the mirror only to realise that those Mariela Nunez-esque arms you were picturing look more like a homage to that scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz? Sometimes what we think our body is doing doesn’t quite align with what’s actually happening, but this is exactly what mirrors are for. Whilst it’s important to be able to dance without completely relying on the mirror, using it as a check-in and to build good habits is one of the best ways to get a position in to your muscle memory and avoid losing touch with the way your body is executing the things you ask of it. Make the most out of your class time to experiment with what 'feels right' and then assessing how this aligns with what looks right in the mirror. Having this level of self-awareness will make all the difference when to your port de bras technique.
Try: Standing in front of the mirror, take a moment to analyse your port de bras (perhaps in fifth position, or arabesque), now take some time to work your way from the tips of your fingers to your shoulders ensuring everything is in the right place and you're elongating the line of the torso (Is your arm too high or not high enough? Are your thumbs in? Shoulders down? Neck lengthened? etc.). Now that you've perfected the position, close your eyes and take a moment to notice what this feels like, without the visual feedback of a mirror. Relax and release the arms. For the final step, repeat the process away from the mirror and once you feel you’ve re-created the ideal shape, turn back to check your reflection. If your arms are a little wide or your shoulders are too high, adjust this and remember your mistake. Try repeating the process until you’re consistently able to ‘find’ the position without the mirror. This will really help you align the shapes and positions you’re creating with your body with that internal image you’re seeing in your mind.
Strength: You know it’s time to do something when your ‘dying swan arms’ read a lot more like ‘dead swan arms’ - but often ballet dancers get a little apprehensive when it comes to building strength in their arms, afraid that strong = bulky. However you don’t have to sacrifice lithe arms for a little muscle. Rather than doing hours of weights at the gym, enhance your port de bras training through using the muscle movements you use in ballet and making sure all of the muscles involved in port de bras are targeted, that way you’re not only strengthening your arms, you’re also increasing your body's familiarity with each position.
Try: Sitting or standing in front of a mirror (this is to make sure you’re preserving your technique), begin with your arms in fifth, making sure muscles are engaged and shoulders connected to your back slowly lower the arms to second position, holding for a second before returning to fifth. Repeat this step around twenty times, the slower the better. Then – starting once more in fifth, carrying through to second, continue in a steady, graceful movement bringing the arms down to bras bas, together through first and then draw them back up to fifth (making sure you don’t ‘short cut’ between any positions). Once you feel a gentle burn in your muscles, reverse the exercise and repeat from fifth through first, bras bas, then second and back up to fifth. Extension step: for increased resistance, repeat the first exercise with a thera-band, ensuring you're still going through classical positions.
Repetition: The best way to overcome bad habits (...like sinking elbows, aka. the Achilles heel of dancers!) is to create new, better ones, and this means using repetition to familiarise your body with a new 'default' placement. Postural and muscular habits are something that develop over time and once they’re formed these habits are what our body automatically returns to in times of stress or exertion, or even just when we’re not fully concentrating on that particular area of the body. So if you want to over-ride old reflexes, and better still, make great port de bras with strong technique your new default, then you need to start building new habits. It's also worth remembering that sometimes it's hard to analyse your own technique objectively, and it's the most obvious corrections we need to have pointed out for us. This is what your teachers are for, so if you're ever unsure about something don't be afraid to ask for guidance and ensure the habits you're building are the right ones.
Breathe: Efficient breathing is how we take in oxygen, which is what helps create glucose, the energy source our bodies use for fuel. This means not breathing properly will inhibit your ability to cope with whatever physical exertion you’re dealing with, which won’t just affect your port de bras – the rest of you will be just as easily fatigued as your arms. Also, when the body is straining harder to keep up with the added demands of dancing without proper oxygen intake, we tend to take on extra tension in our movements. Which of course is the last thing that’s going to help you get smooth, fluid port de bras. So ensure you’re conscious of you’re breathing when you dance, using inhalation to emphasise growing movements, and exhalation to elongate shrinking movements. If used properly, your breathing technique is one more tool that will help give your port de bras and dancing the elegant, musical, fluency that dancers aspire to.
Hands: You know how they say 'a pirouette is only as good as it’s finish', and that 'the ending is the most memorable part of a performance' – whether you’ve heard these expressions or not there’s no doubt that the last thing an audience sees always makes a big impression, and in many ways the same thing can be said for your hands in port de bras, which are responsible for beginning and ending most movements; and similar to the feet, the hands and fingers continue and elongate the line of the body, which makes them a natural point of focus for the eyes. Your aim should be to use the hands as a fluid, unbroken extension of the arms, which means you need to focus on avoiding common errors like protruding thumbs (aka. 'crab claws') and limp wrists which cut the line and give the illusion of shorter limbs. Also remember your hands are supposed to be expressive, so let them fluctuate and 'breathe' with you instead of keeping everything fixed in one rigid shape.
So there are our five simple tips to make your port de bras live up to it's full potential. Incredible expression and beautiful technique doesn't just exist in the biggest movements and grandest gestures, it's also waiting in your fingertips. In fact it's often the most subtle, delicate movements that make the art of ballet so utterly enchanting...
Finally, don’t forget that just like anything worth mastering, beautiful port de bras isn’t something that can be perfected in a day, it’s a process of constant evolution (and that’s a good thing!) so be patient and persistent with your practice, recognise and reward yourself when you do notice improvements, and don't give up!
Article be Elly Ford.