Hand, arm and upper body movements are beautiful to watch, but did you know that just as in skating, Classical Ballet ‘port de bras’ (meaning “carriage of the arms”) are scientifically designed to assist with jumps, spins and general balance? Every movement of the arms in ballet helps us to control the movement of the entire body and is based on physics as well as geometry. In the Vaganova (Russian) Method of ballet training there is a saying that the arms are connected to the lower back and that training the arms needs to support this most important area of the body and not merely used for ‘expression”.
Since all real movement training is based on science, it also shouldn’t be surprising that in the Vaganova training method, every carriage of the arms pattern and pose of the body actually correlate with the 8 edges in figure skating. Many years ago, when I first began teaching skaters, I found this fact to be another exciting reminder of how all movement is connected at a very fundamental level.
There are 6 port de bras patterns, 4 arabesques and 2 attitude positions in the Vaganova method, each involving the head, eyes, arms, torso, hands and fingers. They each also incorporate breathing, timing and flow of movement so that whether you are jumping, spinning or just standing still (or gliding), the upper body movement (called Épaulement) can assist with technique as well as look beautiful – for every tempo and type movement.
The study of Épaulement and Port de Bras takes many, many years to perfect but, in this article I’ll briefly cover the beginning of 1st Port de Bras and the 4 arabesques – how they correlate with skating edges and how you can use them in your skating practice. It’s best to first try them off-ice in front of a mirror until you really get a feel for them. Keep in mind that when you’re first learning the technical correctness of each position and pattern it may feel a bit “robotic” and that’s okay – it’s about mastering the alignment first – then they can be incorporated into any choreography with real purpose (not just as a flowery add-on!)
First – a note about the basic arm positions:
Whether you’re familiar with Vaganova or have been taking another method of ballet, the names and numbers of the positions are not any where near as important as the accuracy of the positions themselves.
Preparatory (or Bras bas): FIG 2 — Arms slightly curved to frame the torso without raising or rounding the shoulders forward – the torso is lifted through the “Lats” with neck & spine long – ears parallel shoulders and fingers nicely grouped together and almost touching in front.
1st Position: FIG 3 — Keep the exact shape and torso lift of “Preparatory” and raise both arms, bringing your index fingers to directly across from your navel (the demonstrators’ arms are slightly higher in this pic). This is the scientific balancing point of your body’s “center” which is directly in line with your 5th lumbar vertebra. **Head and eyes can be in “neutral” or turned slightly to either side during the progression of movement. *Always feel the spine and Lats lifted and well supported without the shoulders rising.
3rd Position: FIG 4 — Keep the exact shape and torso lift as in 1st position and raise both arms to just above your head so that you can see your “pinky fingers” in your peripheral vision when your head is in neutral to the front. If the arms are too far back or forward this will change your centre of gravity. Make sure ears stay aligned with your shoulders. Your head can also be in profile with eye gaze toward either side of the forearms.
2nd Position and Allongé: FIG. 5a & 5b — With palms facing front, open both arms to either side of the body parallel to the floor (not drooping as you cannot engage/lift your laterals or lower back muscles as strongly in this position). Shoulders to elbows parallel to the torso and forearm bending just slightly forward from the torso. Head and eye gaze can be turned toward the direction of either hand.
For Allongé the arms are stretched and the palms face down. The chin, eye gaze and the torso are lifted further with an inhalation.
Variations of these 3 positions are widely used but it is most important to understand that in dancing as in skating they are not just positions but enabling and supporting positions and movements – meaning they are to be regarded as a means of full body assist. As such, functional awareness of breathing, timing, and overall torso back and spine coordination with shoulders down should be realized at all times. The dancers/skaters deep core and lower back muscles need to be highly developed both for strength as well as flexibility in order for the arms and torso to do their part correctly. Proprioception also plays a huge part as the head and eyes need to be able to look in a direction other that the flow of movement.
1st port de bras – can be used as a breathing, edge control and proprioception exercise while stroking around the rink. It can be utilized with all edges as it is the most basic arm, hand, head and eye focus pattern. Deep breathing (try starting with 3 counts per inhale, 1 counts per exhale)
FIG 6 — Practice off-ice standing in front of a mirror in 4 slow counts per position. *At first you can just stand still and not use the below suggested lunge, in order to really feel each movement coming from the spine and lower back.
Begin at the back of the room facing the mirror with arms in preparatory and feet in a ”T-stop” position – left foot front
FIG. 7 — Count 1 – Arms to 1st position with “push off” to a demi-lunge position (big toe of “free leg” can be touching the floor for better balance or leg can be slightly lifted off the floor) – head turned with eyes looking to the right
FIG. 8 – Count 2 – Open arms to 2nd position still in lunge looking to the right
Count 3 – “Allongé (elongate, inhale) arms and hands – lift chin and eyes slightly and begin to straighten the standing leg. (See Fig. 5b.)
Count 4 – slowly bring arms down slowly (fingertips first, keeping shoulders open – not rounded, and torso well lifted) to preparatory, and bring feet together for the next stroke.
Repeat with right foot as the skating/standing foot and looking to the left. (Counts 5 – 8)
FIG. 9 & 10 Repeat the whole exercise bringing one arm to 3rd and one in 2nd on count 2 – opening both arms to 2nd and lowering arms on counts 3 and 4. Lastly bringing both arms to 3rd on count 2, etc. Make sure to change head directions to the free leg side every time.
When you have the basic feeling and flow of this exercise you can move on to the 4 arabesques. Begin as previously with the push off (or just standing still) always starting in “preparatory” with well-lifted torso and strong awareness of the spine. Bring both arms through 1st position and then open into the following whole body positions. Breath IN on the entrance to and pose, breathe OUT following the “allongé” and lowering of arms back to preparatory.
FIG. 11a, 11b 1st arabesque (outside edge, fwd or bkwd – same arm as skating leg front head in neutral):
FIG. 12a, 12b 2nd arabesque (inside edge, fwd or bkwd – opposite arm as skating arm front head to side)
FIG. 13a, 13b 3rd arabesque (often done with a bend of the skating/standing leg) (inside edge, fwd or bkwd, head in neutral)
FIG. 14a, 14b 4th arabesque (outside edge, fwd or bkwd head to side and tilted)
When you have the breathing, lift, awareness and flow of how the arms are connecting with the entire torso try it out on the ice!
Concepts to keep in mind:
- Classical arms always move in a very clean, precise and bio-mechanically supportive pattern so that in both dancing and skating every arm movement provides a technical assist as well as an artistic embellishment.
- All arm movements originate from the deep muscles of the spine, specifically in the lumbar vertebrae and the latissimus dorsi; not the shoulder joints.
- The arms, head and spine should work together to support the physical movement as well as to extend the line of the entire body during jumps, spins and footwork so that one is in constant balance and control.
- There should be a constant sense of energy and direction from your center through the arms which reaches out beyond the tips of the fingers to touch the audience.
- Flow of movement: every arm movement has a beginning, middle and an end and must be done with purpose, meaning and “follow through.” Excellence means thinking through the whole movement at every point. I tell my students that the “art” is in the middle movement… how you get there. Anyone can “strike a pose,” but in essence it is how you get there that shows your finesse.
If head and eye training is not introduced at the very beginning it will be difficult if not impossible to incorporate these poses later on as the entire spine and neural pathways are affected by them. Even very young children understand and enjoy the process of involving their entire bodies into a movement and I have personally found that head, hand and eye training is actually fun for them to learn.
Models in the photographs are Carly Vanderheyden (FIG 2-5b) and Kate McCall (FIG 6-14b).
McCall is a coach and choreographer in Calgary, AB. Kate is the founder and director of Calgary Ice Cinema, an ice theatre group that offers edge and artistry classes as well as performance opportunities for teen and adult skaters.