Practicing the fluid upper body movements of ballet and creating lines with the arms, head, and body to beautiful music is one of my favorite elements of classical dancing. The way the arm and upper body movements harmonize with those of the legs, the relationship to spatial geometry, and the range of expression available makes my heart sing.
This article, Podcast 070, and video series is focused on descriptions of the Port de Bras / “carriage of the arms” / arm movement exercises of the Cecchetti Technique of Classical Ballet. I have an upcoming series on Port de Bras from the Russian Technique as well, plus lots more fun with arm movements, ballet steps and choreography to come.
Port de Bras and Me
BIG CAVEAT: I am not trying to teach this port de bras series as any kind of a Cecchetti [or any other codified technique] specialist, guru, or purist. I am a liberal teaching artist and interdisciplinary dance educator and the intention here is to explore a variety of approaches, techniques, and movements, read what noted professionals have to say on the topic, and then integrate these various perspectives into learning ballet and dance.
Although I did study Cecchetti ballet technique early in my training, it has been decades since that time and my subsequent education has been eclectic and varied, having had the pleasure of working with Russian, Hungarian, and American teachers from a variety of schools at NCSA, then in college and graduate school.
So I’ve gone back to “the Manual,” that is the classic book The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet: Theory and Technique by Cyril W. Beaumont and Stanislas Idzikowsky, to try to learn these port de bras and film these videos, with with markedly imperfect results.
I love how inconsistencies in my execution of this series has led to conversations with Cecchetti technique fans and specialists in other parts of the world (some of whom are scandalized that I have shared these inaccurate portrayals of their beloved technique), and I look forward to sharing further resources and lessons in the future.
Please accept my apologies if you are personally offended by my flawed performance, I hope that at least some can see the beauty in being wrong 🙂 This could lead to me learning of further and better resources in practicing these port de bras, and possibly even a follow-up video series, based on recommendations for whom this is a specialization…
Meanwhile, enjoy these exercises as a range of expressive balletic upper-body options. I am excited for the synthesis that will come from cross-referencing with other systems and schools of thought, ultimately gleaning universal movement principles, graceful arm movements, and a vocabulary of pathways and qualities to draw from in improvisation, choreography, and other applications.
A conductor friend of mine was even interested in ballet port de bras and how they convey different moods and expressive possibilities in relating to music, how freaking cool! For those who want to try out some graceful arm movements to ballet music from Hawai’i, come along, and keep in mind that all of these videos, as well as future Port de Bras and upper-body movements, are included in my Arm Artistry Playlist on YouTube.
Intro to Italian Port de Bras
In The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet, Beaumont and Idzikowsky explain, “In your Exercises à la Barre you have learnt the five positions of the feet and those elementary movements of the legs, the varied and skillful combination of which provides the framework for every dance and ballet. Port de Bras deals with the positions and movements of the arms.” (p.61)
Although there are eight official port de bras exercises in Cecchetti technique, Beaumont and Idzikowsky stress that the possibilities are limitless: “Exercises in Port de Bras can, of course, be varied ad infinitum, and depend on the taste of the professor and the needs of the pupil.” (The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet p.62)
The Importance of Space
Beaumont and Idzikowsky begin their exploration of port de bras with a brief explanation of the use of space in ballet, since these spatial concepts are critical to learning such techniques:
“Since both arms are active, you will now stand in the centre of the practice room, or at a convenient distance from the walls, so that your movements may be free and unimpeded. Now, in order to fix the precise direction in which the head should turn, or the arms be moved, we must consider the walls of the practice room as having eight imaginary fixed points. These are the four corners of the room and the centre of each wall. For the purposes of explanation these are numbered respectively…” (The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet p.61)
According to The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet, we have Enrico Cecchetti himself to thank for the descriptive numbering system of the walls and corners of the room in classical ballet: “It is to Maestro Cecchetti that we owe the invention of this device for assigning to any room a series of fixed points. Just as the circle of a clock face is divided into twelve equal parts which serve to mark the hours, so these imaginary fixed points in the room enable the pupil to execute a dance with a very confident sense of direction. It also enables the pupil to complete a pirouette at the point from which it was begun. And when the pupil emerges from the studies of the practice-room to display his skill in public, the same system may be applied to the stage.” (p.61)
However, it is important to note that the numbering system differs from school-to-school (therefore there is no universal direction #1, #2, etc, instead a particular system that is consistent within each technique- gets very interesting when exploring more than one approach!), so it is important to orient yourself to the numbering strategy first before trying to learn choreography from written descriptions that refer to directions in this way.
In addition to different spatial numbering, there are also different names for the positions for the arms (“First” position of the arms in Cecchetti and Russian techniques, for example, is not the same shape), and we will explore this more when interpreting the Vaganova or Russian port de bras and others. Luckily, there is some agreement on what the general arm positions look like as well as the directions or orientations of the body used in classical ballet, for more on that you may wish to see my video on the Ballet Orientations of the Body:
Going through “The Door”
Although all possible arm positions and pathways may be seen in choreography at some point, some are more commonly used and therefore important to learn. A particularly critical arm shape due to its ubiquity, is what is called fifth position en avant in Cecchetti Technique. This position is used in every port de bras exercise.
Beaumont and Idzikowsky explain: “It should be noticed that in the raising of the arms from one position to another, the fifth position en avant is all important. It is familiarly termed ‘the door,’ because, just as a door is the proper mode of entrance into a room, or in passing from one room to another, so the fifth position en avant is generally the pose through which the arms must pass when raised from one position to another.” (The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet p.62)
First Port de Bras
This is the first exercise of eight in the sequence, and I suspect it will resemble the first port de bras in other ballet techniques as well, but time will tell!
Special Thanks to Megumi Kopp of West Hawai’i Dance Theatre, who graciously provided permission to use her Ballet Piano Music from Hawai’i in these videos. Megumi’s music is available on Spotify, Apple Music, and https://store.cdbaby.com/Artist/MegumiKopp
The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet describes the first port de bras exercise in the sequence in this way:
“Stand erect in the centre of the room and face 2, with the head inclined to 3, the feet in the fifth position, right foot front, and the arms in the fifth position en bas. The direction of the body is croisé.
- Raise the arms to the fifth position en avant so that they face 2.
Incline the head to 3.
- & 3. Open the arms to the second position, so that the right arm points to 1 and the left arm points to 3.
Gradually incline the head towards 1.
4. Lower the arms to the first position, and pass them to the fifth position en bas. ” (p.62-3)
Second Port de Bras
This is the second Cecchetti port de bras that I explored and one of the series that I am less confident is pure in it’s execution of the Cecchetti pathways. However, I particularly enjoy using epaulement or elongated shoulder twists you see in the video here, and hope you enjoy it for the pure joy of movement and beautiful shapemaking:
“Port de Bras Story” 1st-4th Port de Bras
It’s lots of fun to do to tell a little “story” with the arms while travelling through different pathways like we do in this choreography that explores the first-fourth port de bras:
Fifth Port de Bras
I realize that this is not an accurate rendition of the Cecchetti 5th port de bras, but was my best stab at it at the time and will be a jumping-off place for further exploration. If you know of any good online resources for learning the “true” Cecchetti port de bras series (especially 5-8, but for all of the upper body exercises), I will be sure to include them in future content on the topic.
If you’re just starting out with ballet port de bras, it is typical to practice the first through fourth (often practiced 4x each on the right and then the left) until reaching a quite advanced stage.
Sixth Port de Bras
Again, this exercise is not technically correct in terms of adhering to a strictly Cecchetti execution of the port de bras, but my I think my best guess still yielded a very pretty choreography.
Seventh Port de Bras
By now you realize that this is not going to be purely accurate, but again, if you want to try some different arm movement sequences, here’s another nice option.
Eighth Port de Bras
In my research, I am noticing a build from in-place arm movements to those which transfer the weight and travel through space, and this resembles what is sometimes called “Grand Port de Bras” in a big sweeping circle. So fun to do!
Questions for Reflection
- Have you ever experimented with learning choreography from written instructions or a manual?
- Are you familiar with ballet arm movements such as the Cecchetti Port de Bras series or another one, such as Russian or RAD? Or do you practice codified arm/upper body movements from another dance style or movement technique?
- How does it feel to move your arms in this way?
- What sorts of moods or emotions can you conjure or have you observed in dancing arm movements?
Please tell me about your experience and challenges with port de bras and arm movements on the A Blythe Coach Facebook Page or by email, I am delighted to continue to explore expressive use of the arms and upper body in dance.
May you enjoy this article and these videos in the spirit in which they were created, that of inquiry, exploration, and the wonder of movement!
Blythe Stephens, MFA
she/her or they/them
A Blythe Coach: ablythecoach.com
move through life with balance, grace, & power
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.