Understanding Arabesque

People ask us all the time how arabesque works, or why do all of the Clinic girls have such clean and high arabesque lines. The answer isn’t as easy as saying, “We just work the line.” To understand arabesque is to understand body mechanics, shape/line, and body potential. Ballet, classical ballet, as much as it is defined by the body’s turnout, is really defined by arabesque. It is the position most equated with ballet, and the position that all dancers are judged on. With auditions season upon us, and the 2021 audition season roaring in like a tsunami with no relief, I thought I would write some of the thoughts down regards to arabesuqe.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions or verbal corrections passed down through the generations is, “Lean forward.” It is really, really, really misleading, especially for a child’s brain, and spatial awareness. We obviously don’t want to create pinching in the back or pressure in the spine, but leaning forwards is probably not the best way to describe the sensation that happens in the core.

To really understand the classical arabesque line, you have to really understand your own body it’s turnout capability. Lifting the leg isn’t the right set of words to achieve the line either. I always like to say, “rotate the leg off the floor,” The leg spirals ups and into the hip socket to create stability and height, without gripping the glutes. If the glutes (specifically the major) grip the leg won’t go up. If the abs are gripped and clenched it will also prohibit the leg from going up. The core has to be engaged, but engaged properly, “Belly button to the spine.” As the leg rotates up, the pubic bone releases, and the psoas and hip flexor push away, the ribs disengage and the back presses forward (specifically the same side as the working leg) to create opposition.

Placement of the arms always depends on the line and the body. While classical ballet calls for the arm to be more forward, a more open shoulder line creates a less severe look and more natural ease. Too open shortens the leg and causes the scapula to pinch, but a too forward arm creates the visual illusion of your hand being larger than your head.

Another issue when attempting an arabesque is understanding the pelvis. The pelvis can only tilt as much as the core is strong enough to sustain stability. I think kids get too excited and let the hips tip from the neutral position too fast, or optionally opening the hip to get the leg up. This creates a lot of problems, but most importantly, trying to tip the hips to get that hypermobile arabesque line can be dangerous. If you are hypermobile and your body (specifically back) does allow you to achieve a hypermobile backline, you will need to cross-train extra hard and strengthen the core and back times 10.

Kyrie Brizendine, of the Ballet Clinic fully allowing her pelvis to tilt forward to achieve a hyper mobile line.
Taylor Cary, The Ballet Clinic

Here is a young student on pointe. While her body shows a tremendous amount of potential, we can see that her back is still not strong enough to stay as lifted as it should be. Being able to use the back to hold the spine (including the neck) in a straight line takes time. But the turnout and the pelvis placement is correct. The feet need to get stronger, and the so do the back of the legs, but it is age (young 12) appropriate. In another case, using Leonidas as an example, of a 13 year old boy’s arabesuqe line.

Here, you can see that on his flat arabesque he is maintaining the rotation of his supporting leg, staying lifted, and his arm is more forward. His arm is higher because of the height of his leg to achieve a more aesthetically pleasing line for his body type. In his relevé photo, his supporting leg is less turned out due to his inner thigh being weak. But, he is working on it. Ideally, his arm line is now more open s o he can have a more lifted look on relevé and a cleaner backline. But his pelvis placement is still forward, and his torso is forward while the spine is almost straight.

Hope this all helps.

Oh audition photo trick. When taking your audition photos, rotate the shoulder closest to the camera down slightly so that it creates a longer neckline, and visually places the shoulder down. Another audition photo trick: have the camera at the same level as the hips, not the face, it creates a more accurate representation of your body proportions. If you are going to have the camera any lower, it will distort the face and neck.

www.TheBalletClinic.com

Here are the first three arabesques.

For more posts on arabesque:
https://aballeteducation.com/2014/10/19/arabesque/
https://aballeteducation.com/2017/04/03/notes-on-the-ideal-arabesque-getting-it-higher-part-1/

Notes on the Ideal Arabesque & Getting it Higher… part 1

In ballet, there is one position above all others. It is the dreaded, gorgeous and controversial placement known as arabesque. There are a million ways to approach and improve arabesque, but the most important thing about it is to maintain control and show constraint. Below is how I teach arabesque and how to achieve an ideal position.

Notes on ArabesqueArabesque, by definition, is in an Arabic fashion. In design, it refers to ornate patterns used quite frequently in textiles, interior design, and architecture. Okay, in ballet, it is when the dancer is standing (supporting) on one leg, while the second (working) leg is directly behind the body. Arabesque can be done in a variety of different positions based on where the arms are placed, and the facings of the bodies. It can be done at various different heights based on the working leg: a terre, en l’air at any varied of degrees, 45 degrees, 90 degrees and ridiculously high. The supporting leg can be in plié, but the back leg must remain straight and behind the body.

Okay… getting into arabesque… Some teachers like to teach arabesque from developpé while some teachers teach it from fondu. I prefer to teach it from tendu. I also use cambré back so I can combine basics and start teaching arabesque at a younger age. Secondly, I don’t teach arabesque until students can do the splits. Okidokie. Start off with plank for a bit, do some crutches, and the splits. Then the class is ready to move onto arabesque. Usually, my students are able to start and achieve arabesque quickly around the age of six. In the rare occasions, I have seen about eight five-year-olds able to achieve, understand and comprehend the ideal arabesque.

For younger students, I do two hands at the barre, for advanced students I do one hand at the barre at the end of a rond de jamb combination. (click here for rond de jambs)

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(a.)So, we start in fifth position and tendu back.
(b.)From there, lift through the back and cambré back. (You can see the notes to cambré in issue three, click here) Don’t push the hips forward, make sure the standing leg is supported and perpendicular to the floor. Maintain the neck and let the sternum press into the ceiling. Don’t let the hips tip and keep the pelvis in neutral.
(c.) While in this position, maintaining your core, lift the leg as high as you can. Don’t lift from the quad, rotate from the hip and spiral the leg up directly behind the spine. The more rotation from the hip, the higher the leg. Don’t pinch or sit in the back. To make more space, or if you feel like you are running out of space, channel energy through the top of the head and create more space.
(d.) Start from the bottom of your abs and pelvis, and start to contract, maintaining the height of the leg. Start coming up from the cambré, leading with the sternum and creating an arch through the top of your head moving forward. Leave the neck and head where it is.
(e.) Adjust the neck and head, ideally, you should be at a perfect 90-degree arabesque or higher. Your hips should still be in neutral. Your spine and standing leg should make a straight line, your hips shouldn’t need to tilt, spill over, at all, especially at 90 degrees.

Now, onto getting your leg higher…

Getting a higher arabesque

Second part of the exercise… 
(f.) Place the weight slightly forward as you are about to start the plié. I work the leg higher while in plié. This would be the more classical position, by adjusting the back so that the spine and the front of the standing leg are lined up. To do this, you will let your hips tilt slightly forward, adding pressure to the back. Depending on the flexibility of your back, the break in the back will vary. This position is much harder than the position above based on your back.
ideal classical position
(g.) Okay, So leave your foot where it is, exactly at 90. Plié. Leave your foot where it is, but you are adjusting the height of your body. This makes the angle smaller on top. Maintain proper alignment with the knee.
(h.) Plié even more while leaving your foot where it is in space. Keep the alignment behind your spine… I prefer behind the spine while others say behind the shoulder… I like everything over crossed as it creates a diagonal line, and makes the leg look longer. Preference. While at the bottom of the plié start to initiate the spine up and forward and high arabesqueoutwards. So, the energy is flowing slightly forward and then back. This is when I have the students really wing/bevel their foot, and say that the foot and the head are creating a circle and trying to connect.

(i.) Press to relevé and lengthen through the supporting leg. Press into the floor and maintain the position. Ideally, you won’t feel any pressure in the back as you are constantly creating space in the spine and rotation in the hips. Re-align the back so the spine and the front of the standing leg match to visually create a line. Once you are in this position you can slightly raise the arm and eye line.
(pas de bourré and then other side)

ARABESQUES

First arabesque is the most common. I prefer open first but it does put a strain on your spine as it causes you to disconnecting the upper back from your core and spiral open without changing your hip placement. Second Arabesque is the devil position. Third Arabesque is super pretty, especially when the leg is at 45 degrees.

Classical positions require strength and control, it adds quality and allows for musicality. Sometimes, you are allowed to whack the leg, sometimes during grand allegro, or in choreography, depends. Whacking can cause injury or misalignment so I don’t ever recommend it. I’m more of a place it one count. Classically, you want to show constraint with the height in the leg but generosity in the preparation, getting into the position and turn out. Stylistically, the arabesque will change with the placement of the hips, standing leg and back. Click here to see. 

For the older dancer, arabesque can be death. For me it is. My back is completely shot, and have to do Gyrotonics and pilates to even maintain a 90-degree line. Though I have figured a way to improve my arabesque but it’s complicated to draw, so I am going to make a video of my busted self later on.

For young dancers, I know there is so much pressure to have high legs, but I am telling you this method does work! Keep up the good work. Subscribe to the magazine this month for only $9.99
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Arabesque.

 

The Position That Makes Ballet, well ballet…

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Sara Michelle Murawski’s, a soloist at Slovak National Ballet, super famous arabesque picture that probably one of the first pictures that made dancers addicted to instagram.

Contemporary Dancers have the tilt, jazz dancers have the layout, but ballet dancers have arabesque.

For those of you who are auditioning for the first time, the reason why everyone asks for an arabesque picture is for the following reasons: arabesque is one of the hardest positions to make in ballet, and it shows your turn out, flexibility, hyperextension and feet in on photo without hating yourself. If ballet auditions asked for, say…ecarte derrière… no one would audition… ever.

Now, there is a great debate of what arabesque technique is correct, or where it actually comes from, but should we really get into all of that mess? Maybe, just little bit. Just generalizing some things about companies that have a very specific type of arabesque.

Royal Ballet, the Ashton Arabesque is this super classical, dreamy position that requires the following: a hypermobile back, beautifully arched feet, and rarely is placed above 90 degrees. In addition, I think the artists of the Royal Ballet are the only ones that don’t let the supporting leg turn in. Their turn out is bangin. The arms are always super relaxed, and rarely go above their faces. Ultimate restraint. (Royal Ballet’s arabesque line isn’t the RAD line. I don’t believe in the RAD method, so I am not going to talk about it.)

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Plus, who doesn’t love some Sarah Lamb on any given day? Ironically, she is an American, with Russian training, dancing a Jerome Robbin’s piece set on NYCB, but staged on Royal Ballet.

The Russians have their own arabesque line as well. They are known for their incredible height and stretch. Besides the majority of women coming out of Vaganova school are beasts, their primas have create this unique fragile but stretched arm position. Standing leg is turned in.

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For the sake of irony, the super stunning Uliana Lopatkina, a Russian Dancing a Balanchine piece set on Bolshoi.

Then we have the super “classical” arabesque which is the mish mosh of cecchetti, vaganova and french… which is now lumped into the category of classical:

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Perfect turn out, not so hyper mobile, lifted up and forward, relaxed elbow, and spatula hands… just kidding, just a soft middle finger down…

Then we have the Balanchine Arabesque, which isn’t really a change in the principals of arabesque, but more of the arm and hand positions.

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Ashley Bouder and Jonathan Stafford in Tchai Pas. Ironically, everyone calls their hands the claw… or that they are really wristy, but Russians are more…  aka the super stunning and talented force Evgenia Obraztsova

evgenia obraztsova

And then finally, there is the Paris Opera Arabesque… which is basically like the impossible arabesque. Which is only possible if you are well… given everything and trained at Paris Opera.

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Another Irony, Paris Opera is the home of ballet, and here we have the Sylvie Guillem in a contemporary work. I have never really understood the Paris Opera arabesque besides it looking beyond perfect. David Hallberg who trained at POB has one of those arabesque that are beyond pulled up. A lot of the etoiles of paris opera have these super raised hips.

Another note… we gag on arabesque pictures on IG and tumblr, but the reality is… do we ever see these massive arabesques on stage… unless you are russian… Or Dark Angel in Serenade? I think the “style” of arabesque also comes from the role you are doing, the tempo of music, etc.

Now, here are some things that are really difficult for young dancers when it comes to arabesque…

Higher isn’t always better.

Being Square is in reference that both pelvic bones are on the same level of space.

Tilting your hip is really just for side extension.

Things regardless of what “style” of arabesque you are doing…

Your spinal chord can’t be compromised…

You either have a hyper mobile back and hips or you don’t.

Regardless of the arm placement, the torso doesn’t twist…

My favorite motto when teaching: when in doubt, turn out.

Finding what arabesque works on your body is really important as well. If you look at the women of NYCB, none of them have the same arabesque line. You have to find what looks best on your body… for anything in ballet, but especially for arabesque. As you develop into an artist you find your stride in arabesque, and what looks best on your body type. Arm placement, stretch, reach, quality… Those are the things that really distinguish an arabesque. No two professional arabesques are the same. When training, it might be a different story, but because no body is alike, the technique looks different on everyone.