Technique 101: The art of Ballet Hands
How to perfect your port de bras hands and avoid the 5 most common mistakes.
Attention to detail is one of the essential ingredients of mastering ballet; every gesture, angle and shape has purpose and precedent, which means dancers must also be technicians in the art of precision.
The hands of the dancer are no exception, in fact because the hands (just like the feet) are responsible for finishing the line of the body, they are incredibly influential in creating the ideal shape that dancers aspire to. Of course when you’re thinking about five thousand-and-one other things at the same time, it’s natural that the hands are often first to be forgotten and develop bad habits... Luckily we’re here to give you a helping hand (pun intended!) Here are the 5 most common errors when it comes to ballet hands, and how to fix them.
1. PINCHED FINGERS
Sadly there's no magic shape you can master to use as your default in port de bras (wouldn't that be easy!) however some dancers unconsciously become 'pinchers', keeping their thumbs studiously glued to their fingers to avoid sticking fingers out in every which way. Unfortunately this look is equally undesirable, and awkward (unless of course you're Coppélia) as it prevents any fluidity in the hands. It is important to allow your hands to ‘breathe' through movements, and it’s the cushioning of space between the fingers and the thumb that allows for this natural articulation. So focus on keeping a pocket of air (approximately 3 - 4cm) room between the thumb and fingers and allowing the movement of the port de bras to continue down the arm and escape out the fingertips.
2. BROKEN WRISTS
No doubt if you’re a ballet dancer you’ll have heard your teacher scolding one student or another for broken wrists on multiple occasions, and whilst some dancers prefer a higher hand with a more angled intersect between the arm and the fingers, completely limp hands, or hands that are at a ninety degree angle to the arm detract from the aesthetic of the dancer's body, particularly in profile. The danger zone for this mistake is usually when executing more strenuous movements, such as grand battement derriere or arabesque. We tend to be busy focusing on pulling up the body and not letting the back drop, so the hand gets neglected and left to droop like a wilting flower. If you instead focus on imagining that your fingertips are reaching out towards an invisible horizon line (and not shooting into the floor like in the above left image) then you'll find it much easier to maintain a nice line. Emphasis for the movement should be on gently lengthening the entire body, that way you'll continue to have a nice flow of energy in the arm which will help keep you from slipping back into broken wrists and ruining a gorgeous arabesque.
3. CRAB HANDS
The problem: Unconscious stiffening of the hands and fingers, leading to a rigid claw shape, with the thumbs protruding too far from the hand and interrupting the line of the arms. Interestingly, there is a style of ballet that is affectionately known for it’s ‘claw hands’ (more on that later), however whilst dancers that do desire a more widely spread thumb and curved fingers may bear some small resemblance to this position, the difference is that a dancer's hands should never be stiff, and it’s the frozen, immobile joints of the fingers and wrists that make this a habit to avoid. Some teachers even recommend repeat offenders try taping there thumbs in class to override the incorrect muscle memory, but it can be just as effective to keep a hair tie or rubber band on your wrist during class so that each time you glance down or feel the pressure from the band it acts as a reminder to check your hands... handy!
4. STUCK OUT THUMBS
A similar sin to crab hands, however rather than looking like you’re clasping an imaginary ball in each hand, dancers with stuck out thumbs tend to have spiky, straight digits, (sometimes still with good positioning of the other four fingers, sometimes with all fingers overly-rigid) - but always with a protruding thumb that shortens the line of the arm and detracts from the smooth shape of an ideal port de bras. As above, the most important step is to override the existing bad habit and replace it with a good one, which takes a whole lot of focus and a little help from your best friend, the mirror.
5. PANCAKE HANDS
It seems like we're always trying to get things 'flatter' in ballet: flatter Penchés, flatter stomach, flatter turnout... but of course there's always exceptions, and the hands are a very important one. Unfortunately it's quite common that someone who is overly conscious of their tendency for sticking their thumbs out might over-compensate by flattening their fingers and thumbs down altogether. Regrettably having pancake-style hands might look good in kung-fu, but when there's so much beautiful movement and articulation going on throughout the rest of the body, ending the line on lifeless flat hands is a true tragedy. Dancers who tend to end up with flat hands during class should try 'refreshing' their arms at the beginning and end of each exercise. Ie. remind yourself to take a breath in and allow the movement from your chest to expand and travel across the body away from your centre - pushing the shoulders back, slightly lifting the chin and travelling down the length of the arms and out the tips of the fingers whilst in bras-bas. This is an opportunity to check your fingers' spacing and relax any stiffness in the hands or wrists.
Other common Port de Bras mistakes:
1. Over-exaggerating the shape of the arms, either by making the arms too straight (which then gives you the ‘broken wrists’ look even when the line of the hands is right) or too bent, which disrupts the line of the arms and shortens the shape of the dancer.
2. Not having an awareness of the placement and shape of the hands will result in a lop-sided port de bras, dancers need to be particularly aware of this in fifth position, as it's common for all of us to have a stronger and weaker side, so what feels even may not always look it. This can also be affected by your shoulders and back, make sure you're not favouring one side and keep the spine at straight as possible!
3. It's important that our hands and arms are delicate, but be careful not to confuse delicacy with weakness! Always keep the elbows lifted (but not taught) - the idea is for the arms to look graceful but feel strong.
Different styles and techniques:
Another consideration we have to mention when talking about hands and port de bras is that different schools usually follow one of four main methods with differing attributes (Vaganova, Cecchetti, RAD and Balanchine) when it comes to port de bras, so your ideal port de bras hands could vary depending on your training, in which case some of the positions that are ideal to one dancer may be not-quite-right to another. For example, dancers trained under Balanchine’s style tend to have more exaggerated shapes with the fingers and wrists (e.g. more space between the fingers, a more ‘bent’ wrist and an overall more flowery movement) meaning they’re actually famed for popularising the ‘claw’ hand. Balanchine’s style is also characterised as the more neo-classical approach to technique. Vaganova method on the other hand (the Russian method developed by Agrippina Vaganova and practiced by Mikhael Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova), aims for arm plasticity with the hands held as if the dancer was lightly clasping a coin between thumb and middle finger, with the other three fingers raised. But at the end of the day all four methods follow the same principles of classical ballet technique, and a simple conversation with your teacher can help you pin-point the distinctions between your training and that of another method.
Tricks and tips to improving your hands for good:
The most important thing to remember if you’re wanting to greatly improve your hands is that change is never passive, if you really want to transform the shape of your port de bras you have to be actively thinking about your hands throughout class. Bad habits need to be overwritten, and new ones need time to become routine. With enough practice and perseverance your body will find it’s own muscle memory for these shapes and the movements will become second nature. This takes time though, so have patience and keep self-assessing throughout class.
1. Make it habit.
Develop a routine that allows for regular time to focus on the hands and port de bras, whether that's at the beginning of each exercise, during the break between barre and centrework, or spending 15 minutes after class going through some exercise on your own.
2. Talk to your teacher
You have an incredibly knowledgable expert on all things port do bras at your disposal every time you go to ballet, so make the most of it. Ask your teacher about anything you're uncertain of, or any areas you feel concerned about. Even just having a conversation about port de bras will make you more conscious of your hands in class, because you'll know your teacher is observing you more closely now.
3. Use the mirror.
Regularly self-assess. The mirror is one of the best tools you have and it's the only way to really consolidate the 'feel' of a position with what it looks like, so that eventually you'll be able to accurately visualise exactly what shape your hands and arms are making without seeing it. Use the 'test and check' approach to help build this visualisation-muscle memory connection - Stand in front of the mirror, choose a port de bras position, without looking make the pose and try and 'feel' when everything is in the correct placement. Now look in the mirror and check how similar (...or not so similar!) your arms are to the position you visualised. Then relax, look away from the mirror and try again (adjusting/improving your approach each time).
4. Pencil technique.
For younger dancers who are particularly struggling to judge the proper spacing and shape that they should be aiming for with their hands, a pencil can be used to demonstrate the correct position of the fingers and naturally adjust to the new placement. Try it!
5. Find inspiration.
The bottom line is that you can't improve technique unless you really understand what you're aiming for, so take some time to find dancers who have great port de bras and hands, and enjoy watching the true virtuosos work, this is the fun part! Look at photos, watch some videos, notice the expression and style that different dancers demonstrate next time you're at the ballet. Whichever the technical training methods of your school/teacher are, you'll start to notice particular artists who stand out for the way they utilise every second of music and every count to extend each movement through their incredibly expressive port de bras. True masters manage to make the most controlled, precise movements look effortless and almost spontaneous. If you're not sure where to start, we'd recommend looking at dancers like Andrian Fadeyev, Alina Cojocaru, Svetlana Zakharavo and Daniil Simkin.
A final tip:
As dancers there's no denying we spend most of our time thinking about, dreaming about and drooling over the perfect legs and feet... but don't forget to be generous with your thoughts and even things out for the upper body too. So much emotion, grace and control in ballet is expressed from the waist up, and mastery of the hands in port de bras is another step closer to creating that perfectly flawless illusion of delicacy and beautifully effortless movement that only ever happens with hours of hard work, commitment, and above all - passion.
Article by Elly Ford