Finding Grace: the Art of Port de Bras
Grace: the mysterious element that makes a dancer irrisistible to watch. It is her elegant, controlled smoothness, a simplicity of line that catches the viewer’s eye. It is perhaps more important than high extensions and multiple turns. When a dancer has fluidity and ease, we are mesmerized by her astounding effortlessness, her harmony of freedom and control. We are pulled into the magic of her movement, by the warmth of her polished poise.
I recently read The Art of Grace, by Sarah Kaufman, dance critic for the Washington Post for the last 30 years. A dancer herself, she is an expert on the topic of grace and in true journalistic style, she explores its every iteration. Her book (that sometimes reads like a poem) deliciously discusses grace in a range of contexts from dance to acting, stage to screen, tennis court to Supreme Court. I was inspired by the vast variety of her interviewees and the many ways she related grace in movement to grace in life. Like her, I also learn life lessons from ballet. In her introduction she offers an open invitation “But Grace is within reach of us all….hopeful news for the klutzes among us. Grace is wonderfully democratic. The potential is there for everyone. With practice, grace is a skill we can all develop.”
Last week I wrote about positions of the arms. Now I want to explore one step further. Dance, after all, is not a series of static poses, it is the movement that joins positions, the grace that flows in between. How then do we harness that grace to improve our dancing?
- Awareness. The first step in bringing grace to your arms is awareness. Start by paying attention to your arms. Watch them in the mirror during class. Is your hand above the line of your shoulders? Where are they in space as you read this? Is there tension in your shoulders? Can you allow your breath to soften and melt any tension there?
- Long neck. Along with allowing breath to soften your shoulders, keep your neck long, and ears away from shoulders as you balance as much as when you move. Imagine you could slide your shoulder blades down your back. Think of the grace of a swan’s long soft neck.
- Posture. Reach the crown of your head to the ceiling lengthening your spine as your feet push into the floor. Head is over your relaxed shoulders which are over your hips, which are lengthening towards your feet. Expand yourself. Take up space. Keeping that up-and-down expansive energy in your body, let go of any overt effort.
- Arms. Your arms are just an extension of your elongated posture, though always slightly rounded into a gentle oval curve, and elbows usually slightly bent, just enough to create a smooth line. Elbows lift away from the floor, and away from each other.
- Wrists and Fingers. Continue the line of your upper arms with your lower arms. Keep your wrists supple without being droopy, and your fingers energized without being stiff like the supple branches of a willow tree. One thing that can help droopy-wrist syndrome is energy in your fingers. Imagine you have tiny laser beams coming out your fingertips. You could also imagine that your fingertips are gently brushing something incredibly soft, like feathers or a bunny.
- Breath. There should be breath in moving your arms from one position to another. When moving arms from fifth to second, arms open and palms gradually turn to face forward. When moving your arms from second down to preparation, your arms should “breathe” and lift slightly, and fingers float up as if encountering a slight resistance, a wind, or as if moving through a thick substance.
Simplicity is key. Graceful arms are challenging because they are so specific and so simple. We almost want to make dance harder than it is by adding arm embellishments or wrist movements or drooping hands that only detract from the line, and break the flow. Keep it smooth, easy, fluid, relaxed, unhurried, gentle and simple.
The artistry involved in port de bras takes awareness and practice, but your dancing will improve as you find and develop this grace. Look for grace. Read about it in Sarah Kaufman’s book, watch dance as often as you can, discover grace in unlikely places – in the falling snow, or the warmth of a stranger’s smile. The invitation to finding grace is open to us all.