A Blythe Coach

Art & Architecture of Arabesque

“These are very charming poses, which doubtless owe their inspiration to antique painting and sculpture. The name arabesque applied to the flowing ornament of Moorish invention is exactly suited to express those graceful lines which are their counterpart in the art of dancing.” – Cyril W. Beaumont and Stanislas Idzikowski in The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet** p.31

Pique arabesque from “Blue Green” at UH Manoa

I’m excited to share one of my favorite ballet shapes with you in this blog and accompanying videos, including definitions of arabesque from major schools of ballet, instructions for executing first arabesque, explanation of how the various arabesques differ, as well as suggestions to help strengthen posture, technique, flexibility, and balance to create exquisite classical lines.

Whether you just want to appreciate balletic shapes while watching dance in  performance, you want to try your first arabesque, or you’re looking to improve your execution of this gorgeous shape, I’ve got something for you in this blog and recommended resources for further learning!

My video on Arabesque theory and practice, also called “Architecture of Arabesque”
What is a balletic arabesque?

As Beaumont and Idzikowski intimate above, “Arab-esque” refers to appealing lines, both in terms of architectural flourishes and in said lines coursing through the body of a ballet dancer. 

Technically speaking, they describe the dynamic shape in this way: “An arabesque is made by supporting the body on one leg, which can be straight or demi plié, while the other is extended in a straight line at right angles to it. The arms are disposed in harmony with the lines made by the legs.” (The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet** p.31) 

Thus the leg we stand on can be either bent or straight, but the leg stretched behind us is absolutely straight, while the arms and orientations can greatly vary, as Agrippina Vaganova emphasizes in Basic Principles of Classical Ballet**: “The arabesque is one of the basic poses in contemporary classical ballet. If in attitude the leg is bent, or half-bent, in arabesque it must always be fully extended. The forms of the arabesque are varied to infinity.” (p. 56)

The extended rear leg can differ greatly in terms of its height, as Eliza Gaynor Minden describes in The Ballet Companion**: “The working leg–always long and stretched–may range in height from arabesque à terre, in which the working toes touch the floor, to a ‘6 o’clock’ arabesque penchée in which the upper body leans forward to allow the working foot to point straight up to the ceiling.” (p.98)

Supported 2nd arabesque penchee in the studio at NCSA

Beaumont and Idzikowski agree with Vaganova about the unlimited diversity of such a pose, and further explain its use in choreography: “It is obvious that such positions are capable of infinite variation for the slightest displacement of either foot or either arm at once produces a new pose. […] Choreographically considered, arabesques are usually introduced to conclude a phrase of steps, both in the slow movements titled Adage and in the sparkling vivacious movements grouped under Allegro.”  (The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet** p.31-2)

Arabesque with arms en haut at home in Kailua-Kona, HI
Technique and alignment of arabesque

So we know that we’re standing on one leg, with the other behind us, but how do we maintain grace and balance in such a shape? Of course the whole ballet class builds support for such shapes, but further we need to keep in mind as Beaumont and Idzikowski remind us, that “The essence of a good arabesque is the correct disposition of the weight of the body, which should be neither too far forwards nor too far backwards.” (The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet** p.31)

Gaynor Minden describes how the body must respond as the leg is raised above the ground, while maintaining engagement and control: “The pelvis tips to allow the leg to rise above 45 degrees, and the shoulders must move forward as well, but the back is strong and arched at all times. The working hip resists opening until the height of the working leg requires it. The upper back from the bust up is always upright and slightly arched. Be careful not to let the ribs protrude or the shoulders to hunch forward.” (The Ballet Companion** p.98)

How schools of ballet define arabesques differently

Gaynor Minden describes the varying approaches to theory of naming the various arabesque forms according to school, as well as providing diagrams of the different shapes and their numbers: “The major training systems differentiate between arabesques in different ways. The French school considers orientation: which leg is raised relative to the audience. R.A.D. and Bournonville consider the positions of the arms; Cecchetti does, too, and adds variations facing a corner with a bent supporting leg (4th and 5th arabesques). The Soviet system incorporates both orientation and port de bras.” (The Ballet Companion** p.98)

Here I’m performing first arabesque on a rock in SE Oregon
How to do First Arabesque

Vaganova includes a very specific and helpful description of how the first in the series of arabesques is performed: “The body rests on one leg. The other, extended and straight, is lifted from the ground to an angle of no less than ninety degrees. The feet are in position effacé. The arm opposite to the lifted leg is extended forward, the other one is taken out to the side. The hands are held palms down as if leaning on the air. The body is inclined forward. The head is in profile to the audience, as is the entire figure. The shoulders are level, as in all arabesques. The deciding factor in the arabesque is the back. Only by holding it well can one produce a beautiful line.” (Basic Principles of Classical Ballet** p. 56, bold emphasis mine)

Beaumont and Idzikowski provide further instruction on the use of the upper body and arms: “Note that the shoulders are held square to the line of direction and that the extremity of the hand placed in the fourth position front must always be in a line with the center of the space between the eyes. The arm extended in the fourth position back is disposed in the same line, according to the theory of Port de Bras.” (The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet** p.31)

In the book Ballet Pedagogy**, Rory Foster provides a diagram that I often share with my students, which clearly shows “Placement in arabesque, showing the correct counterbalance of the working leg, torso, and arms in relation to the center of gravity and over the base of support. Notice how the arabesque is visually, and aesthetically, balanced.” (p.61)

An early arabesque performance photo, as Clara in “The Nutcracker”
Test your equilibrium

Once you’ve got the basic shape set up, Beaumont and Idzikowski suggest a way to determine if you are holding the body correctly: “A simple method of determining whether the body is correctly placed, is to pass the raised foot forwards and step on it. If the weight is correctly disposed, the body will remain in equilibrium, whereas, if the back is too arched or the chest thrown too far forwards, the body will fall backwards or forwards respectively.” (The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet** p.31)

Of course we must learn to gracefully transition in and out of arabesque as well!

Developing flexibility, strength, and balance for arabesque

By now we see that although arabesque is a “basic” ballet position, there is a lot that going into effectively using the shape in our dancing. We require an understanding of the technical and anatomical theory, core and back strength, flexibility in the back and hips, stability and balance, and lots of practice using arabesque in dancing. The following are targeted training for each of these areas, and of course I will continue to offer more in the future.

To learn more about basic ballet body positions theory & spatial ideas:

Planes of Space & the Body” Video
Ballet Orientations of the Body” Video

To practice ballet body positions and creating lines while dancing: 

Ebullient Battement & Passe” Video
Ballet Centre Tendu” Video
Articulate Adage” Video

For developing core and back strength and balance:

Planking Pleasures” Video 
Oh Wow! Cat Cow” Video
Winning at Warrior III” Video, which is NEW this week!
New Year, New Yoga Flow” Video

For developing leg strength and stability:

Happy Knees Stability Yoga” Video
“Luscious Lunges” Video 
“Scrumptious Squats” Video 

For developing Upper-body strength and control:

Ballet First Port de Bras” Video
Ballet Second Port de Bras” Video
“Push It Up!” Video 
Tasty Tricep Dips” Video

For developing hip and lower back flexibility:

Intro to Hip Stretches” Video
…And soon to come, “Splendid Splits,” which will focus on lunges and variations on splits techniques appropriate for different starting flexibility levels 🙂

Send me a message, or hop over to the A Blythe Coach Facebook Page and tell me about your favorite ballet shapes, as well as technical and artistic questions!

Blythe Stephens
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A Blythe Coach: 
move through life with balance, grace, & power

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DISCLAIMER: A Blythe Coach recommends that you consult your physician regarding the applicability of any recommendations and follow all safety instructions before beginning any exercise program. When participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in this exercise or exercise program, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself.

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