Ballet Arm Positions ~ as easy as cake?

Ballet Arm Positions ~ as easy as cake?

Maybe ballet arms aren’t as easy as cake (and is cake really easy?) But it would seem that arm positions are to a dancer what frosting is to a cake. Just as it wouldn’t be a cake without the icing, a dancer isn’t complete without port de bras, or carriage of the arms. Here is a run down of the basic arm positions. {Bear in mind that ballet historically had three main schools, French, Cechetti (Italian), and Russian. Each of these schools had slightly different names and styles for various positions. As a result, some arm positions are called different names by different teachers. In general, these are the arm positions that are most helpful to know and if your teacher calls it by another name, let me know!}

  1. Preparation, also called Low Fifth or En Bas: Let both arms to hang at your sides. Then round your arms slightly like you are holding a beach ball towards the floor in front of you. Bring your fingers to almost touch each other and tuck your thumb in towards the center of your hand so as not to break the line of your arm and fingers. Allow space between your arms and your body (“as if you didn’t want to squash your tutu” my teacher used to say.) Preparation is where most combinations start and finish.
  2. First Position: From preparation or low-fifth, bring your imaginary beach ball in front of you so that your palms are facing you and your hands are in front of the lowest part of your rib cage. This is first position. Keep your shoulders plugged into your shoulder girdle, and engage the muscles along the backs of your uppers arms to lift your elbows and keep a nice round shape with your arms. Allow your wrists hands and fingers to continue the curved shape of your ams, and tuck your thumbs in. Hands should always be lower than your shoulders. First position is particularly important for turns, but it is also important because it is the ‘gateway’ position, like the Times Square subway stop in New York which is a major train switching station, when you move your arms to another position, arms go though first position.
  3. Second Position:  From first position, grow your arms open so that your arms are extended straight out from your shoulder as if your beach ball had turned into a big giant redwood tree (there’s an image!) Although your arms will be extended out from your shoulders to the sides, keep your arms rounded and slightly in front of you as if you were actually hugging a tree. Like first position, keep elbows lifted.
  4. Low Second: Between second and preparation is a position called Low Second. It is sometimes used as a preparatory position.
  5. Fifth Position, or High Fifth: Fifth is far more used than fourth or third, so I’m going in order of appearance in the cast, as it were, not numeric order. Fifth position mirrors preparation or first position, but overhead. Simple in concept, if not in practice. Like second position, keep your arms a little in front of you–over your forehead, not over the crown of your head. You should be able to see your arms above you by raising your eyes, and without raising your head.
  6. Third Position: Third position is when one arm is in fifth position, and the other arm is in second position.
  7. Fourth Position: Fourth position is when one arm is in fifth position, and the other arm is in first position. This position is not used very often, honestly. A more common fourth position used quite frequently is one arm in second, the other in first. Sometimes this is called third or low third, depending on the teacher. If you already know first and second and fifth, you’ll be able to roll with whatever the teacher says.
  8. First Arabesque arms: Although arabesque arms are not considered part of the five arm positions, it seems important to include them here because we use them pretty frequently. When you are in arabesque, standing on one foot with the other leg extended straight behind you either in tendu or any height off the floor, and you have the same arm forward as the leg you are standing on, this is first arabesque. The arm that is forward should be directly in front of you, and the other arm is extended behind you and to the side. Palms of both hands face the floor.
  9. Second Arabesque: (Again names differ.) Usually what teachers call an arabesque when the opposite arm is forward than the leg you are standing on.
  10. Third Arabesque: Third arabesque – when you have both arms in front of you, palms down, but one arm is straight out from your shoulder, and the other is higher, at a 45 degree diagonal. Each arm extends from the shoulder, so the arms are shoulder distance apart. Again, names can vary.

Let me know if you have any comments or questions about arms in ballet, or if I need to clarify any of this. Thanks for reading!


Please see the Classes page for my current teaching schedule. I’d love to see you at the barre!


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