The Boned Arm of Eighteenth-Century Ballet

The “Boned” Arm of Eighteenth-Century Ballet


In contemporary classical ballet, the arms not uncommonly move in a such a way that they can appear to be rather “boneless,” as it were, i.e., with marked bends at the wrists and elbows, in order to create a pronounced sinuous effect. The “trailing” hand – the flexion at the wrist such that the hand seems to follow or trail behind the arm when the latter is lowered or raised – was already a feature of classical technique by the early twentieth century and is clearly depicted and described in Vaganova’s textbook of 1934 (1969: 45-47):

Turn the hands palms down, and as you exhale, bring them smoothly down, allowing the fingers to “trail” slightly behind, but without overemphasizing, and without two much break at the wrist [fig. 1].

Figure 1. Detail of a port de bras from Vaganova ([1934] 1969: 45).

In contemporary practice, however, the flexion at the wrist is now commonly very pronounced, especially among women dancers. And while Vaganova shows the arm falling without flexion at the elbow, the contemporary manner can also be accompanied by a sagging elbow, again especially among women dancers (fig. 2). Indeed, this tendency often reaches its extreme in performances of Swan Lakee.

Figure 2. A sequential representation of lowering the arm with a sagging elbow in contemporary ballet.


The Practice in Early Ballet

A dance historian is apt to wonder whether such a soft arm was perhaps also a (typical) feature of early ballet. The evidence suggests that it was not. While there was clearly variation in the way early ports de bras and positions were executed, commonly the early sources explicitly proscribe or outright damn marked or angular bends at the wrist and elbow, in the dance of both the ballroom and the theater (with the latter, specifically in the high styles, when speaking of eighteenth-century practice).

Consider, for example, Rameau’s remarks (1725: 204, 206), that “you must guard against bending the wrist too much, for it would then look as if broken,” and again, “you must not, however, bend the wrist so much, for that would look forced.” In the context of the ballroom minuet port de bras, Bonin (1712: 147) writes that

in letting the hands and arms fall back, one must shun affectation and get used to letting the arms fall back under the shoulders not far away from the body with the arms unbent, the which should appear gentle, unforced, and pleasing. If the arms bend, on the other hand, it looks no better than if one wished to empty out water or swim through the air.

In the same context, Hänsel (1755: 134) writes that “in letting the arms and hands fall back, which should not come to be too close to or too far away from the body, avoid bending the elbows so that with this affectation you do not imitate a dancer from the rabble.” Borin (1746: 15, 14) writes broadly that “one can, furthermore, give as a rule to round the elbows and have the arms assume only pleasing shapes,” and he outright damns bent wrists:

One of the greatest offenses against good taste is the use of wrist movements. If one can find individuals who praise them, it is apparent that they do not mean to speak of the movements proper and particular to the wrist, which are always ridiculous, but only of the movements of the forearm, which are graceful. Thus, the movements particular to the wrist belong only to comic or impassioned characters.

Indeed, the professional dancer and choreographer Giovanni Gallini (1762: 146) speaks broadly against flaccid movement, for the true art of dance “equally reprobates an ungainly rusticity, and a mincing, tripping, over-soft manner.”

Reviewers at times also laud a dancer’s skill in having their arms avoid marked or angular bends. Writing of Théodore, a reviewer in the Journal des théâtres (15 Jan. 1778: 198), for example, notes that “her arms round gracefully and extend without stiffness.” Around 1784, Oberkirch (1869: 2/55) notes that Guimard “is as thin as a beanpole, but how graceful she is in curving her long arms and concealing her pointy elbows.”

Early nineteenth-century sources also proscribe marked bends, and certainly in lowering or raising the whole arm, the practice of having the hand “trail” is not prescribed, on the contrary. Bartholomay (1838: 34), for instance, has the hand lead and not follow the arm when the latter is lowered:

In order to lower the arm in a skillful manner, one lets the hand sink inwards first, the arm follows little by little and assumes its prescribed positions. This applies no less in the instructions for raising or lowering both arms.

In complete agreement, Théleur (1831: 37-38) writes that “the elbows or hands should never be allowed to fall so as to form angles at the wrists or elbows, but should be supported so that almost a straight line might be drawn from the points of the little fingers to the under part of the shoulders.” And further, “the elbows should be the first part of the arms in motion, to ascend, and the last to descend.” And “in the action of raising and lowering the arms at the side, they should be straight, but still, attention should be paid to keep the backs of the hands in a line with the points of the elbows.”

While no relevant pictorial representations of arm movements like that shown in figure 1 are extant for early ballet, surviving depictions of dancers do regularly show at least only slight inward flexion at the wrist in the formation of arm positions, in agreement with the foregoing remarks. Consider the dancers in figure 3, for example, which shows fourth position of the arms, a position used during the eighteenth century normally to show “opposition” in the serious style, a slow terre-à-terre style. (Eighteenth-century ballet was by convention divided into four distinct styles – and, thus, into four distinct techniques – commonly called the serious, half-serious, comic, and grotesque. For further discussion, see Fairfax (2003: 81-188).)

Figure 3. Dancers in poses with the arms in fourth position at the height of the shoulder. Left: a detail from a portrait of the famed dancer Camargo by Lancret, circa 1730; middle: a costume design for a dancer in the role of a faun, circa 1760s; right: “arms in opposition, frontal view” (Blasis 1820: 105, pl. 4, fig. 12).

The remarks above refer specifically to established positions and movements of the arms in pure dance. In poses, however, any arrangement of the body and limbs was theoretically possible in all four styles, and so more marked bends of the wrists and elbows were not out of place in that context. Consider the bends at elbow and wrist in figure 4, for example, which shows dancers in various poses. (Most extant depictions of dancers from this period arguably show dance poses, and a broad array of possibilities. For a brief consideration of eighteenth-century dance poses, see Fairfax (2003: 172-79).)

Figure 4. Dancers in more fanciful poses. Left: Claude Ballon (1671-1744); middle: Marie Thérèse Perdou de Subligny (1666-1736) “dancing at the Opéra;” right: Auguste Vestris, London 1781.

The sources strongly suggest then that the arms of early ballet were generally more “boned,” as it were, than their modern counterparts; that is to say, the marked bends at wrist and elbow not uncommon today were largely avoided in both the theory and practice of pure dance in early ballet. And it can be said that there is some aesthetic justification in this, for the result is a greater harmony in form and movement between arms and straight legs. More marked bends in the arms, not to mention more widely spaced fingers (fig. 4, middle, in contrast to the hands in fig. 3), were limited mainly to poses – strictly speaking, non-dance elements – wherein not uncommonly the legs (often with little or no turnout) were also bent at the joints to harmonize more with the arms (fig. 4, left & right), and the fanciful totality provided contrast to the movements of pure dance.

The eighteenth-century equivalent of the movement shown in figures 1-2 then can be seen in figure 5, which shows a reconstruction of the “capering” port de bras belonging to the half-serious style (a bubbly airborne style), based on the following quotation, the foregoing remarks, and other material not presented here. The arms are shown moving without flaccidity, passing through sixth position, formed with only gentle curves at the joints, before reaching second position. (For simplicity sake, a simple jump into the air is merely shown, with no land on the floor.)

With capers [i.e., beaten jumps], however, if one wishes to do one with force (straight up, to the side, to the back, out to the fore), the arms are taken down during the tempo [i.e., the preparatory bend of the knees, fig. 5a-c], but in springing they are re-extended so that both arms come to lie in a straight line [fig. 5d-e]. From this, the following rule may be formulated: With the help of both arms, one can achieve height or elevation into the air off the floor. (Behr 1713: 47)

Figure 5. A reconstruction of the half-serious “capering” port de bras.

The foregoing is a brief presentation of material from my scholarly study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet, a companion to my earlier The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet.


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