You’ve probably come across the cult-favourite ballet quote: “Dancers don’t need wings to fly”. True, because your arms are your wings. I’ve had many a teacher tell me to hold my arms up from the back, because the arms are extensions of the back, and are crucial in balancing, co-ordination, and of course, aesthetics. But before you could attempt complicated arm movements, you must first be able to recognise and hold your arms in the 5 basic positions. That’s right, just like the 5 basic feet positions (which you can read here), classical ballet arms are in 5 positions as well!
The arms in first position is where you gather your arms in front of you, around stomach level, palms facing in. Arms are gently bent at the elbow, and at a considerable distance from your body, much like imagining holding a big ball. Try to feel like you’re supporting your arms from the back, where you imagine wings would sprout. Your hands shouldn’t be touching each other, but a slight distance apart; your face width would be a good estimation. Your elbows should be always higher than your palms, otherwise you’ll just look sloppy. In short, your arms should slope down in front of you from your shoulders to your fingertips.
To place your arms in second position, simply open both your arms to each side. Take care that you do not open them all the way or stretch them fully to resemble a “T”; your arms should still be rounded and held properly. Your arms should be curved slightly forward; it really isn’t a wide open position where you just throw your arms out with abandon. Again, elbows should be higher than the palms. From the shoulder, the arm should run in an unbroken line to the fingertips. When you’re opening your arms from first position, you could imagine yourself pushing a set of doors outwards with the backs of your hands.
The arms in third position is simply a combination of the first and second position. One hand is held in first position in front of you, while the other is opened to the side. The third position arms are usually used together with more complicated movements to help with co-ordination. When arms are switched from third to third (alternating the arms in first and second position), it creates a nice, wavy movement.
In fourth position, one arm remains in the second position, whereas the other is raised above the head. Especially with the hand that is raised above the head, make sure that you do not lift the shoulder up. Actually, in all arm positions, your shoulders should be firmly pressed down. The arm above your head should not be fully stretched, but not too round either with the elbow just slightly bent. The palm should face slightly inwards (towards yourself) as well. Remember to not drop the wrist or relax your elbow too much!
Last but not least, in the fifth and final position, which is also probably the most recognisable arm position, you raise both arms above your head. Seem familiar? Of course – everyone who’s tried to attempt ballet without knowledge has tried the fifth position arms at least once, and ended up looking like they’re forming heart shapes with their arms instead. That’s not it, guys! Your arms should be well held and you should feel like you’re reaching for the ceiling without fully stretching your arms. Basically, a feeling of “growing tall”! Fingertips should not be touching each other; again, your face width is a good estimation on how much your arms should be distanced. Remember to keep your arms centred above your head, and not let them fall open to either side, or tilted front or back too much.
Coupled with the five basic feet positions of classical ballet, these arm positions will help you better understand the beginning points of ballet movements. For beginners, which of these positions have you tried and what do you feel? For any non-dancers, why not try these arm positions out and imagine what it’s like to be a ballet dancer? Share your experience with us in the comments below!
Note: All arm positions are according to the Royal Academy of Dance; other styles may name the same position differently, or have different positions altogether.
Embarking on the journey of self-discovery through dance.