Was the “Wrapped” Position Used in Eighteenth-Century Ballet?
Part of reconstructing an earlier dance technique is determining not merely what was done but also what was not done. In other words, what features from periods predating and postdating the age in question were likely or almost certainly unknown? Since technical features must have a beginning, sometimes an end, and not uncommonly a metamorphosis, a ballet historian might wonder when the “wrapped” position of the traditional Russian school of ballet came into existence, i.e., whether it was perhaps known as early as the eighteenth century (and eighteenth-century ballet is, by the way, the focus of my academic research).
First, let’s be clear about the formation of this position. According to Grant (1982: 33-34), the “wrapped” position is
the position of one foot placed between the ankle and the base of the supporting leg just under the calf muscle. The sole, with instep stretched and toes pointed, encircle the ankle so that the pointed toes are behind the heel of the supporting foot [see photo]. This position is used for petits battements sur le cou-de-pied and battements frappés.
The little evidence that I have unearthed points to an early nineteenth-century origin for this position. The following passage from Helmke (1829: 136-137) seems to be the earliest description. He writes that
not long ago, even a sixth position was invented, but I must wholly spurn it, however neat it may be, for firstly it is seldom used, and secondly you are apt to dirty your stockings with the soles whenever you attempt to use it. I know this sixth position under sundry guises and find many of them so meddled with that it seems to me that the inventor had suffered brain damage.
Helmke gives no further particulars on the shape of this position, but his vague remarks that this arrangement was “neat” and further “apt to dirty your stockings with the soles” do in fact well characterize the wrapped position. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what other position of the feet Helmke could possibly have had in mind here. His comment that this arrangement was “seldom” used – at least in the ballroom – would also explain why other nineteenth-century dance handbooks do not commonly show or describe the position. But clearly it was used and eventually became a codified position in the Russian school by the early twentieth century (Vaganova  1969: 32-33).
Helmke states that the position was invented “not long ago.” Given that his handbook was published in 1829, it would be reasonable to assume that the position was introduced into formal dance sometime in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. And so it seems most likely indeed that the wrapped position was foreign to eighteenth-century ballet.
Almost certainly some reader of this post will want to add that “eighteenth-century dancers couldn’t have performed this position, because they had only shoes with biggish heels, which would have made the position impossible or uncomfortable to do.” No. Soft flexible dance shoes with only a slight heel – “pumps” to use the period term – were in existence already by 1717 and are clearly described and even shown in the pictorial record (click here to see a detailed discussion). And so, this position could have been done if it had been known in the period.
Grant, G. 1982. Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet. Third ed. N.Y.: Dover.
Helmke, E.D. 1829. Neue Tanz- und Bildungschule. Leipzg: bei Christian Ernst Kollmann.
Vaganova, A.  1969. Basic Principles of Classical Ballet, Russian Ballet Technique. N.Y.: Dover.