The port de bras is the strength and the gracefulness of the dancer. Vaganova felt that, “As soon as one begins to study port de bras the execution of the steps takes on a more artistic, polished appearance. The arms begin to play.” This playfulness, joy and expressiveness of the port de bras requires the understanding of correct placement, coordination of the arms and legs, and lots of practice.
The placement, or shape of the arms, has much to do with the back, the placement of the scapula, the shoulders, and the rib cage. The arms are always shaped in front of your body for port de bras. Your arms are usually within your range of vision, unless it is something choreographic. You can increase the strength and placement of the arms, back and head in port de bras by executing arm waves. An arm wave begins with the arms en bas. As you imagine moving the arms to first, concentrate on the scapula sliding down the back as you push imaginary water with the back side of your hand, elbow and arm to first position. Repeat the arm wave three times with pride and beauty. Repeat the entire sequence two more times. When finished, stretch the arms across your body. The arm wave exercise will create a sense of connection in your port de bras to your center. Once strong, the port de bras tends to fall on its own. It begins to have a sense of correct placement and alignment.
The hands continue the effort of the port de bras reaching toward each other following the intention of the curve in the upper, lower arm, wrist, hand and fingers. Feel as if your fingertips have magnets on them. The natural shape of the hand, with a straight back provides poise with the weight of your body in alignment. They provide a sense of position and presentation. The hands are relaxed, not collapsed in the desired position of the hand and fingers. The thumb directs toward the middle finger. Later the hands will gain variety according to the expression and feeling of the choreography or the emotion or story of the movement.
The head has five positions. The focus of the eyes keeps the awareness of where you are in space, and the line that you are making. The head positions are erect, lowered, raised, turned and inclined. The head movements connect to the movement of the arms, the port de bras. The focus typically follows the hands. The state of mind of the focus is important. Tilting the head creates expression. It is natural and not static. There is a sense of feeling and emotion. Children learn through imitation, so having a positive role model is important for the carriage of the port de bras and the focus. I encourage teaching assistants to not focus on their own image in class, but to use the focus in combination with the port de bras to create a meaningful phrase or sentence.
The root is the shape of the movement. The balance of lines is natural and logical. Typically one portion of the line is up and one is down in a variety of degrees and positions. You study simple lines, with no exaggerations when you begin your training. The arms keeping the same position and width throughout the execution of the port de bras. First position to third position is the simplest use of the arms because the shape doesn’t change. Establishing a position in second from first is an ideal way to feel the sliding of the scapula and the calmness of the rib cage. Another opportunity is from third to second. Moving the arms from first to second is the most complicated. You need to open thru the back and maintain the shape of the arms as you connect the positions. When you increase the use of the port de bras in adagio, allegro, pirouettes, jumps and diagonals you must continue to layer your knowledge of the body.
Use the weight of the arms to add dynamics to your dancing. To add personality and grace continue to use the head and the hands in coordination with the port de bras and the legs. In classical ballet we hope to achieve maximum effect with minimum effort. This is where the magic lies, doing something extraordinarily difficult and making it look easy.