The Arabesque of Eighteenth-Century Ballet

The Arabesque of Eighteenth-Century Ballet


Figure 1. Interior detail from the Tsarkoye Selo, Russia, showing the use of rococo arabesques.

It is something of a misnomer that the straight-legged pose of contemporary ballet, namely the arabesque, should be so called. As an art term, an arabesque is, after all, “a species of mural or surface decoration in colour or low relief, composed in flowing lines of branches, leaves, and scroll-work fancifully intertwined,” to give the OED definition (fig. 1). Morphologically, the term consists of the root arab- ‘Arab’ + the suffix -esque (the same found in picturesque, for example). Such an etymology is understandable, since traditional Arabian and Moorish art made great use of arabesques.

The modern sense of the dance term was already well established in the Russian school by the 1930s. As Vaganova ([1934] 1969: 56) writes, “if in attitude the leg is bent or half-bent, in arabesque it must always be fully extended” (fig. 2). Current usage is almost certainly due to the pervasive influence of the Russian school in the twentieth century, for the modern definition does not appear to predate the twentieth century.

Figure 2. First and second arabesques (Vaganova [1934] 1969: 56).

And so, how did such a term, one denoting fanciful “intertwining” or “flowing” – i.e., curvilinear – lines of foliage, come to refer to a straight-legged pose? In order to understand this peculiar development, it will be helpful to work our way backwards through the historical sources.


The Nineteenth-Century Arabesque

Figure 2. Left: opposition; right: false opposition.

The term as defined in the nineteenth-century sources has a rather vague denotation, and varying, even conflicting, definitions are given, but the general sense for most of the century was a pose that was seen as being in some way “imbalanced.” That is to say, the pose showed a more fanciful arrangement of the arms or false opposition, or alternatively a lengthening of the upper body and the limbs, such that the dancer could even seem to be off his center. (By opposition is meant an arrangement of the arms wherein the arm opposite to the forward leg is bent, while the other is extended to the side; and so in false opposition, the bent arm and the forward leg are both on the same side of the body (fig. 2).)

Consider, for example, the rather vague definition given by Desrat (1895: 20-21):

In dance, this word suggests one or several poses of the body, poses which can be varied ad infinitum like attitudes. One hand or one leg when slightly displaced changes the meaning and the name of an arabesque. Choreographically speaking, the arabesque is done by supporting the body over one leg bent or straight and keeping the other horizontal. The placement of the legs depends upon what the arms express. Arabesques serve mainly to betray jealousy, anger, scorn, disdain, as well as joy and pride. Arabesques are executed in an upright, inclined, or diagonal manner.

Emmanuel (1895: 106-7) gives the following:

A derivative of the attitude, the arabesque is a combination of special positions of the legs, body, and arms, noticeably different from those given before [i.e., attitudes]. The arabesque is characterized by a lengthening of the torso and limbs, which are in keeping with the same very open arc, and by the shape of the balance. The body of the dancer is supported, as in the attitude, on only one leg, and it tips over; the leg off the floor is raised and is slightly rounded in order to continue the curve of the torso.

According to Emmanuel then, the gesture leg is not perfectly straight but “slightly rounded,” in order to “continue the curve of the torso,” as the latter “tips over” (fig. 3), although Desrat notes that the arabesque could also be done “in a upright” manner.

Figure 3. Grande Arabesque by Edgar Degas, c.1885-90, posthumous cast.

For Adice (1859: 2/12), however, the arabesque was defined more by the disposition of the arms. He outlines five arabesque arm poses (fig. 4), which could be combined with different basic positions of the head, torso, and legs. (His first arabesque position is also shown in fig. 3.)

Figure 4. The five arabesque positions (Adice 1859: 2/12)

Like Adice, writers from the earlier part of the nineteenth century seem to have defined the arabesque more in terms of the placement of the arms. Théleur (1831: 50), for example, writes that

there are likewise, attitudes made with the same arm and foot, and sometimes with both arms, but all partaking of the foregoing principles, *[Théleur’s footnote: “*In this class I include all attitudes that are made to prepare for the purpose of taking pirouettes, &c.; it does not follow that the arm should be high to form an attitude.”] these are called les attitudes arabesques and require judgment and taste in their execution.

Théleur waywardly imagined that arabesque attitudes were ultimately derived from Spanish dance. (It should be borne in mind here that in early ballet, the term attitude meant broadly and vaguely any kind of pose, not necessarily one wherein the knee of the gesture leg is bent, as in current usage.)

I have not succeeded in discovering the authentic origin of the arabesques attitudes, but am inclined to think that we borrow them from the Spaniards, who for the most part do their steps with the same arm and foot. They, I conjecture, copied them from the Moors, who, in the eleventh century infested their country: this leads me to suppose that they derive their origin from the Arabians, and are thence called arabesques.

And finally, Blasis (1820: 63) notes in particular that “in arabesques the position of the arms departs from the common rule [of opposition], and the dancer ought to know how to place them as gracefully as possible.” Those poses identified as arabesques in his treatise (fig. 5) clearly point to fanciful arm arrangements, wherein a sense of opposition is absent, but clearly, the shape of the gesture leg was immaterial to the concept. (Adice’s second and third arabesque positions (fig. 4) are also apparent in some of these.)

Figure 5. Various poses explicitly identified as arabesques in Blasis (1820). Top row: pl. VII/4; pl. X/1-4; pl. XI/1-2; bottom row: pl. XI/3-4; pl. XII/1-3.

Figure 6. “Fig. 160 fourth arabesque open; fig. 161 fourth arabesque crossed; fig. 162 fifth arabesque open; fig. 163 fifth arabesque crossed” (Cecchetti 1995: 99).

Thus, the general trend throughout the nineteenth century was apparently for the term arabesque to refer less and less to mainly a fanciful disposition of the arms in a pose and more and more to a lengthened placement of the torso and limbs. Indeed, still in the first part of the twentieth century, the arabesque was associated in some quarters with a certain “lengthening” and seeming “imbalance.” According to Grazioso Cecchetti (1892-1965), the son of the famed teacher Enrico, arabesques “are outside all the rules and laws that control the movements and positions in dance and, above all, the basic principle of balance, for they move away from the perpendicular line of the center of gravity, finding their balance only in the virtuosity of the dancer” (1995: 96). And some of Grazioso’s sketches of his fourth and fifth arabesques show both legs bent (fig. 6). (The two top examples in figure 6 show Adice’s second and first arabesque positions (fig. 4).) But in the Russian school, the “lengthening” was taken to its logical extreme of a fully stretched leg at all times.


An Early Semantic Change

But even the nineteenth-century meaning of the term arabesque, however imprecisely defined, does not appear to have been original. Blasis (1831: 74-75) writes that arabesques “we have derived from antique relievos, from a few fragments of Greek paintings, and from the paintings in fresco at the Vatican, executed after the beautiful designs of Raphael.” But a careful and systematic consideration of early-ballet iconography shows that dance poses generally were commonly taken or adapted from the visual arts, either from ancient or more contemporaneous works. And these were used not only by dancers but also by playhouse actors (Fairfax 2003: 172-81). And so, an origin in the visual arts cannot be a defining feature of the early arabesque. But Blasis also writes thus of the word:

Our dancing-masters have also introduced this term into their art, as expressive of the picturesque groups which they have formed of male and female dancers, interlaced in a thousand different manners, one with another, by means of garlands, crowns, hoops entwined with flowers, and sometimes ancient pastoral instruments, which they hold in their hands. These attitudes, so diversified and enchanting, remind us of the beautiful Bacchantes that we see on antique basso relievos, and by their aerial lightness, their variety, their liveliness, and the numberless contrasts they successively present, have, in a manner, rendered the word arabesque natural and proper to the art of dancing.

The descriptor “picturesque groups . . . interlaced . . . by means of garlands, crowns, hoops” seems to point to the origin of the term. In other words, the arabesque attitude appears to have been originally a pose – or poses making up a grouping – wherein arabesques in the commonly received sense of the word (i.e., intertwining or flowing curvilinear lines of foliage) were created through the use of flowery props held by one dancer or more (fig. 7). Compare also Hentschke’s description (1836: 189):

Arabesques are the plastic attitudes modeled on ancient bas-reliefs or the arabica ornamenta, i.e., ornaments composed of plants, flowers, and human forms on the frieze of an entablature, and the like, which are said to stem from the Arabs or Moors and bear a resemblance to the metamorphoses of the Greek myths. The imitation of such forms are called arabesques and are the most difficult attitudes because of the way in which one balances in them.


Figure 7. A caricature of a garland grouping by Gillray, 1790s.

Already by the 1790s, arabesque could be used to denote a kind of pose. In his printed scenario for the Bordeaux revival of the ballet Télémaque (1797), Dauberval notes that “you cannot pay too much attention to the elegance of the groupings, to ‘arabesques’ and voluptuous poses” (trans. in Guest 1996: 404). It is impossible to say what Dauberval precisely meant by the term, but the context suggests he understood thereby a kind of pose or grouping. And it is clear from Gardel’s scenario for his ballet La dansomanie of 1800 that the term at the time of his writing no longer referred specifically to the presence of flowery props. According to Gardel’s synopsis, the dancing master Flicflac, who has come to the home of Duléger to give him a lesson, demonstrates

the new double, triple and quadruple temps de cuisse, steps in which the legs are thrown forward one after the other, pirouettes on the cou de pied, waltzes, arabesques, and finally all those steps that make our social dances look ridiculous and all too often disfigure the dancing in our theatres. (Trans. in Guest 2002: 83)

It would be odd for a visiting dancing master to show up equipped with garlands, and so the arabesques here must refer simply to kinds of poses.

Given the dearth of material, it cannot be established when such a semantic change took place – i.e., a shift from a pose employing a garland to a pose seen vaguely as “imbalanced” or in some way whimsical – but the sources above suggest that the shift predates 1800. And while Adice’s arabesque positions (fig. 4) can be found in the eighteenth-century iconography – figure 8 shows versions of Adice’s first and second positions, for example – it is unlikely, in light of the foregoing, that even in very late eighteenth-century usage the term referred only to these five, as Adice would have it.

Figure 8. Left: Scaramouche in a pose, with the arms in the forebear of Adice’s first arabesque position (Lambranzi 1716: 2/27); middle: Scaramouche in a pose as a “fine statue,” with the arms in the forebear of Adice’s second arabesque position (Lambranzi 1716: 2/24); right: a late seventeenth-century or early eighteenth-century dancer in a pose, with the arms in the forebear of Adice’s second arabesque position.


The Eighteenth-Century Garland Pose

It is unknown when arabesque began to be used as a dance term, but certainly it was established already by the 1790s, as noted just above. It is clear, however, that arabesque attitudes in apparently the original sense, that is, poses of any sort making conspicuous use of garlands (flexible flowery festoons), wreathes, and possibly more rigid hoops, or a combination of these, were not a novelty in the eighteenth century (fig. 9, right); indeed, they are depicted already in the seventeenth-century iconography (fig. 9, left and middle).

Figure 9. Left: a triton from Thésée (1675); middle: a “woman dancer at the Opéra, dressed as Flora, the goddess of spring,” late seventeenth or early eighteenth century; right: a “Zephyr,” c1760s.

Whether these were actually called les (attitudes) arabesques in the seventeenth century or first part of the eighteenth is impossible to say, but such poses and groupings were clearly not uncommon. Indeed, they were an essential element of garland dances, and there are several references to such dances. In the prologue to Lully’s Atys (1676), for example, “the goddess Flora, led by one of the Zephyrs, comes forth with a troupe of nymphs bearing sundry ornaments of flowers (fig. 9, middle). In a review of Les fêtes de Polymnies as mounted at the Paris Opéra in 1745, we read that

Hymen appears followed by Games and Pleasures, who carry garlands of flowers. It is hard to describe the arrangement of this dance. While Hymen dances between Hébé and Alcide, around each of the lovers are formed two rings of garlands held by Games and Pleasures. Hymen holds in one and the same hand one of the garlands from each ring. (Mercure de France Oct. 1745: 142-43)

Figure 10. Philippe Taglioni as a satyr “binding” Aglaé (c1827).

A dance in Les hommes as performed at the Comédie-française in 1753 ended thus: “The men are instructed by the cupids to place themselves at the women’s knees, who bind them with garlands” (Mercure de France Aug. 1753: 182). And a dance in Les femmes, mounted at the Comédie-italienne in the same year, showed genies danced about by a group of women covered with foliage, who “bind them [i.e., the genies] with garlands of flowers” (Mercure de France Oct. 1753: 175). Cf. figure 10.

A dance included in a performance of Castor et Pollux at the Paris Opéra in 1754 again conspicuously included attitudes and garlands: “The women of the corps d’entrée present themselves to him [i.e., Pollux] in attitudes all grouped together well, with their arms interlaced with their garlands” (Mercure de France Feb. 1754: 189); cf. figure 7. In a performance of Noverre’s ballet La fontaine de jouvence in 1754, the shepherds at one point “begin their dances with their garlands only” (Mercure de France Nov. 1754: 176). According to La Ferté (13 Sept. 1788), the pas de deux inserted into the Paris Opéra’s production of Le devin du village in 1788 featuring the young Charles Didelot and Guimard “was made up of interweavings of garlands and crowns, attitudes and movement with which we are already familiar” (trans. in Guest 1996: 279). Such garland dances were long-lived and continued to be performed throughout the nineteenth century as well (figs. 11-13).

Figure 11. A garland grouping (Théleur 1831: pl. 48a).

Figure 12. A grouping with garlands (Théleur 1831: pl. 48b).

Figure 13. A tableau with garlands and hoops (Zorn [1887] 1905: 96.

To conclude, I have added a link to a video excerpt of a garland dance from The Sleeping Beauty (a 2006 production by the Royal Ballet, available on, with a playing time of about two and a half minutes. A careful comparison with descriptions of corps dances and specifically garland dances from the eighteenth century suggests that – apart from some obvious differences, such as the pointe-shoe and the extensive use of pointe, the waltz step, and so forth – the eighteenth-century garland dance likely looked very similar to this. Cf., for example, figure 14 (and compare also the dancer on the right in figure 9).

Figure 14. Left: the dancer Louise Madeleine Lany (c1748-67); right: a detail from the garland dance in The Sleeping Beauty, a screenshot from the video below.

Compare also figure 15, again a screenshot from the video, with the description above from the Mercure de France (Oct. 1753: 175), which mentions women dancers who “bind them [i.e., the genies] with garlands of flowers,” and compare as well figure 10.

Figure 15. A screenshot detail from the video below, showing one dancer “binding” the other with his garland.

Indeed, many of the general choreographic features found in the dance excerpt are described or shown in notation in the eighteenth-century sources. Worthy of note are the following: the extensive use of symmetry in the figures, and the use of geometric figures, such as circles and zigzags; alternation between dancing groups and posing groups; the presence of contrary motion among groups; the use of the arcade – a figure wherein one group of dancers holds up their arms or some other objects (hoops in this case) to create a kind of arcade under which other dancers pass; among many other features.

And by the 1770s, figure dances with a very large corps were clearly possible: The Paris Opéra, for example, employed between 82 and 93 dancers then (Pitou 1983: 1/26), and in the ballet Les amours d’Ariane et Thésée mounted there in 1774, as many as 40 dancers together with 80 supernumeraries appeared on stage at the same time (Guest 1996: 70). (The dance in the video is performed by 20 dancers.) And the great depth of theater stages in the second half of the eighteenth century allowed for complex layered groupings: In the 1760s, for example, Parma boasted a theater with a stage depth of over 130 feet or roughly 40 meters (Journal de musique 1773: 6/37-38). In contrast, the Metropolitan Opera House (Lincoln Center) in New York City has a stage depth of only 80 feet or roughly 24 meters.




Figure 16. “Pantomime dancer in the ballets of the Opéra doing the Spanish peasant dance,” second half of the eighteenth century.

If in the eighteenth century the term arabesque did not refer to a straight-legged pose as in contemporary ballet, how did one then refer to such a position? Apparently, no unique term was used. The strict opposition between attitude and arabesque of ballet today reflects a more recent “balleticization” of poses, wherein the freedom in form typical of early ballet has been severely limited, and even the turnout of the legs, which originally and properly belonged to pure dance movements, has been imposed. In contrast, the poses of early ballet were not “dance” but moments of “non-dance,” so to speak, and were commonly taken from the visual arts of painting and sculpture, hence the common absence of turnout, the frequent presence of unstraight legs and unpointed feet bent to varying degrees and lifted to a great variety of heights, and the appearance of fanciful arm arrangements that are so conspicuous in the early-ballet iconography. Poses were clearly meant to provide contrast to the movements of pure dance and allow for the plastic expression of the passions. Such an open-ended motley collection of shapes does not lend itself well to a neat distinction between a bent-legged pose and a straight-legged pose, and so there was little need to make such a distinction. (For further discussion of eighteenth-century dance poses, see Fairfax (2003: 172-81).)


The foregoing is a somewhat reduced presentation of material from my scholarly study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet.



Adice, G. Léopold. 1859?. Théorie de la gymnastique de la danse théatrale.
Blasis, Carlo. 1820. Traité élémentaire, théorique et pratique de l’art de la danse. Milan: chez Joseph Beati et Antoine Tenenti.
Blasis, Carlo. 1831. The Code of Terpsichore: a Practical and Historical Treatise, on the Ballet, Dancing, and Pantomime; with a Complete Theory of the Art of Dancing: Intended as well for the Instructions of amateurs as the Use of Professional Persons. Translated by R. Barton. London: Printed for James Bulcock. Centrale de Napoléon Chaix et Cie.
Cecchetti, Grazioso. 1995. Manuale complete di danza classica, Metodo Enrico Cecchetti, Volume 1°. Ed. by Flavia Pappacena. Rome: Gremese Editore.
Desrat, G. 1895. Dictionnaire de la danse historique, théorique, pratique et bibliographique. Paris: Librairies-Imprimeries Réunies.
Emmanuel, Maurice. 1895. Essai sur l’orchestique grecque. Paris: Hachette.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press.
Guest, Ivor. 1996. The Ballet of the Enlightenment: The Establishment of the Ballet d’Action in France, 1770-1793. London: Dance Books Ltd.
Guest, Ivor. 2002. Ballet under Napoleon. Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books.
Hentschke, Theodor. 1836. Allgemeine Tanzkunst. Stralsund: W. Hausschildt.
Pitou, Spire. 1983-1990. The Paris Opéra: an Encyclopedia of Operas, Ballets, Composers, and Performers. 3 vols. in 4. Westpoint, Connnecticut: Greenwood Press.
Théleur, E.A. 1831. Letters on Dancing, Reducing this Elegant and Healthful Exercise to Easy Scientific Principles. London: printed for the author.
Vaganova, Agrippina. [1934] 1969. Basic Principes of Classical Ballet, Russian Ballet Technique. Translated from the Russain by Anatole Chujoy. Unabridged replication of the second English-language edition published in 1952. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Zorn, Friedrich A. [1887] 1905. Grammar of the Art of Dancing Theoretical and Practical, Lessons in the Arts of Dancing and Dance Writing (Choregraphy). Translated by Benjamin P. Coates, edited by Alfonso Josephs Sheafe. Boston.

The Bent-Legged Jumps of Eighteenth-Century Ballet

The Bent-Legged Jumps of Eighteenth-Century Ballet


One of the most interesting aspects of eighteenth-century ballet was its system of distinct styles: There was not one technique but rather four, commonly called the serious, half-serious, comic, and grotesque. In practical terms, this meant that a single given step would have had potentially four or more different manners of execution. The choice between these then depended on the role and the general style performed. Indeed, some movements and positions were proper to only one style and thus were not used in the other three.

One of the distinctive features of the comic and grotesque styles was the practice of “picking up the feet” in jumps. That is to say, while airborne, the dancer bent the knees and drew the feet up under the torso. These bent-legged jumps are mentioned or described a few times in some of the eighteenth-century sources, the most important of which in this context are Lambranzi (1716) and Magri (1779). Such jumps could be denoted in Italian by either ritirato or rancignato / ranzegnato, both meaning ‘drawn up.’ The former author (1716: 1/3; 2/45), for example, notes in one of his dance scenarios, almost certainly grotesque in style, that the dancer is to do “ranzegnati, that is, with the knees and feet drawn up.” And Magri (1779: 1/122) writes at one point that “all these sorts of capers stretched can likewise be done drawn up, be they French, Italian, or Spanish entrechats or cabrioles; the only difference is that the legs are shortened or drawn up [ritirato].”

A consideration of all the references to this practice – I have given only two here – makes it clear that any jump, whether beaten or not, could be performed in the low styles with the feet picked up, as well as with the legs stretched straight. As an example, I include here reconstructions of two different ways of executing a comic changement de pieds, with the legs straight (fig. 1), and with the feet drawn up (fig. 2).


Figure 1. A reconstruction of the comic changement de pieds with straight legs; the land on the floor is not shown.


Figure 2. A reconstruction of the comic changement de pieds with drawn-up feet; the land on the floor is not shown.


There is also a little evidence – to be outlined in my scholarly study entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet – which suggests that instead of both legs, only one leg could be drawn up as well. The following illustration (fig. 3) shows a reconstruction of a comic changement de pieds executed with only one foot drawn up.


Figure 3. A reconstruction of the comic changement de pieds with one foot drawn up; the land on the floor is not shown.


In all of these reconstructions, the dancer is shown with the arms in so-called first position, the norm in the comic and grotesque. A slight bit of rounding at the elbows was also apparently possible but is not shown here; such variability in shape was certainly true of the reflex of this position in the nineteenth century (fig 4). (In a future blog-post, I will give a short introduction to the arm positions of early ballet.) Furthermore, the shape of the foot when picked up was variable and apparently dependent on personal style. The three possibilities are as follows, arranged in order of decreasing frequency of use, as far as that can be determined: vertical to the floor (as shown in figures 2d and 3d); diagonally flexed, following more or less the line of the thigh above; or fully pointed, as in modern practice, i.e., following the line of the shin above. (The arguments supporting this claim are too lengthy to be presented here.)

Figure 4. Two versions of the reflex of eighteenth-century first position of the arms (Zorn [1887] 1905: 86).

Stylistic Restriction

This drawn-up execution was proper only to the low styles (comic and grotesque) and was not found in the high styles (serious and half-serious). It was, as it were, a kind of “thumbing the nose” at the high styles, wherein a stretched leg was de rigueur. As Pasch (1707: 61) notes, comic and grotesque dances “must be formed and arranged in contravention of all the rules that belong to the serious.” That such a practice was indeed proper to the low styles is clear from the following (as well as from other sources not cited here):

All the beaten springing steps and capers must be done with the knees well stretched as the legs interweave when bounding into the air, and this is what is known as fine dancing, for drawn-up capers were used in the past only in the theater, contrary to the rules, by grotesque dancers, and if today good taste has removed the ban on them, it would be unseemly to see them done in a hall for civil conversation [i.e., in the ballroom]. (Costa 1831: 227)

Costa mentions only “grotesque dancers,” but it was common terminological practice to lump together the two closely related styles of the comic and grotesque and refer to them by one term, either the comic or grotesque, even though they were, strictly speaking, not identical. The “ban on them,” that is, the stylistic restriction limiting their use, had been done away with by Costa’s day, as an upshot of the meltdown of the system of distinct styles at the end of the eighteenth century (Fairfax 2003: 257-91).



The rancignato was no innovation of the eighteenth century. Bent-legged jumps were already in existence by the beginning of the seventeenth century, although the absence of full turnout creates a rather different appearance. Negri (1602: 77) describes a salto con le gambe piegate (‘jump with the legs bent’):

In the first jump with the legs bent, stand a piè pari [i.e., with the feet together side by side]; first rise straight up off the floor and bend both legs equally, with the left ankle over the right, and spreading [i.e., bending] the knees, land in the same place.


The practice of picking up the feet in jumps continued well beyond the eighteenth century, although without the old “ban” mentioned by Costa, i.e., without being restricted to low characters. Roller (1843: 216-19), for example, gives a few examples of some basic jumps – écart, pas sauté, changement de pieds, and entrechat – executed with the feet drawn up once or even twice while the dancer is airborne. Emmanuel (1895: pl. 3) provides a sequence of eighteen time-lapsed photos showing a dancer executing a string of three entrechats with the feet picked up (fig. 5). Observe the apparent attempt to have the feet vertical when drawn up (nos. 4, 10, 16), and note that the concluding land of the sequence (no. 18) is not in a demi-plié but on the toes with the knees only slightly bent, such that the greater part of the impact is absorbed by the elasticity of the insteps – another old practice. And the position of the arms assumed here appears to have been an acceptable variant in the eighteenth century as well in the comic and grotesque, instead of that shown above in figures 1-3; this is suggested at least by the arrangement of arms drawn in figure 6, a detail from a dance for Harlequin from the 1720s.


Figure 5. A sequence of time-lapsed photos showing three entrechats done with drawn-up feet (Emmanuel 1895: pl. 3).


Figure 6. A detail from Le Roussau’s notation of a “Chaconne for Arlequin,” early 1720s.

Picking up the feet was particularly popular in the so-called Italian school – one of a number of connections between the old comic and grotesque and the later Italian school. (The comic and grotesque styles were extremely popular – indeed dominant – in eighteenth-century Italy (Fairfax 2003: 189-217).) In his preamble to jumping generally, Lifar (1951: 105), for example, writes that “the legs must be stretched out as far as possible, contrary to the teaching of the Italian school which recommends jumping à la crapaud, i.e. with knees bent.” Nicolaeva-Legat (1947: 118) also notes that “entrechats are taught with bent knees in the Italian school.”

Vaganova ([1934] 1969: 72, 74, 76) clearly disliked the practice and broadly proscribed it. In her discussion of the grand changement de pieds, for example, she writes that “in the Italian school, it is customary to bend the knees when doing changement de pieds” but prescribes straight legs for her Russian school (fig. 7).


Figure 7. The grand changement de pieds in the Italian and Russian styles (Vaganova [1934] 1969: 71)


And in connection with the assemblé, she adds that

in order to create an impression of a higher jump, the Italians bend their knees after grand battement, before lowering themselves into 5th position. This bending of the knees during the jump renders the dancer a grotesque character, spoiling its classic line. [fig. 8]


Figure 8. An assemblé in the Italian style (Vaganova [1934] 1969: 74)


So too in the pas jeté, she notes that “the Italian school teaches the pupil to throw up the legs very high and to bend them sharply; the movement acquires a great strain and the design acquires a definitely grotesque shade.”

This practice has been largely rooted out of contemporary classical ballet, no doubt owing to the widespread influence of the Russian school in the twentieth century, which disseminated Vaganova’s taste. Only a small number of jumps involving such leg movements, most notably the pas de chat, are now regularly seen in contemporary ballet performances. The same goes for jumps with only one leg drawn up, such as the passé sauté.



Costa, Giacomo. 1831. Saggio analitico-pratico intorno all’arte della danza per uso di civile conversazione. Turin: Stamperia Mancio, Speirani eCompagnia.
Emmanuel, Maurice. 1895. Essai sur l’orchestique grecque. Paris: Hachette.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Lambranzi, Gregorio. 1716. Neue und curieuse theatralische Tantz-Schul. Nuremberg: Joh. Jacob Wolrab.
Lifar, Serge. 1951. Lifar on Classical Ballet. London: Allan Wingate.
Magri, Gennaro. 1779. Trattato teorico-prattico di ballo. Naples: Vicenzo Orsino.
Negri, Cesare. 1602. Le gratie d’amore. Milan: Gio. Battista Piccaglia.
Nicolaeva-Legat, Nadine. 1947. Ballet Education. London: Geoffrey Bles.
Pasch, Johann. 1707. Beschreibung wahrer Tanz-Kunst. Frankfurt: Wolffgang Michahelles and Johann Adolph.
Roller, Franz Anton. 1843. Systematisches Lehrbuch der bildenden Tanzkunst und körperlichen Ausbildung. Weimar: Bernh. Fr. Voigt.
Vaganova, Agrippina. [1934] 1969. Basic Principes of Classical Ballet, Russian Ballet Technique. Translated from the Russain by Anatole Chujoy. Unabridged replication of the second English-language edition published in 1952. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Zorn, Friedrich. [1887] 1905. Grammar of the Art of Dancing. Boston.

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.


Bartholomay, Paul Bruno. 1838. Die Tanzkunst. Giessen: the author.
Behr, Samuel Rudolf. 1713. L’art de bien danser, die Kunst wohl zu Tantzen. Leipzig: Martin Fulde.
Blasis, Carlo. 1820. Traité élémentaire, théorique et pratique de l’art de la danse. Milan: Joseph Beati et Antoine Tenenti.
Bonin, Louis. 1712. Die neueste Art zur galanten und theatralischen Tantz-Kunst. Frankfurt and Leipzig: Joh. Christoff Lochner.
[Borin]. 1746. L’art de la danse. Paris: Jean-Baptiste-Christophe Ballard.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Gallini, Giovanni-Andrea. 1762. A Treatise on the Art of Dancing. London: printed for the author.
Hänsel, Christoph Gottlieb. 1755. Allerneueste Anweisung zur aeusserlichen Moral. Leipzig: auf Kosten des Authoris.
Oberkirch, Henriette-Louise. 1869. Mémoires de la Baronne d’Oberkirch. Paris. Charpentier.
Rameau, Pierre. 1725. Le maître à danser. Paris: chez Jean Villette.
Théleur, E.A. 1831. Letters on Dancing, Reducing this Elegant and Healthful Exercise to Easy Scientific Principles. London: printed for the author.
Vaganova, Agrippina. [1934] 1969. Basic Principes of Classical Ballet, Russian Ballet Technique. Translated from the Russain by Anatole Chujoy. Unabridged replication of the second English-language edition published in 1952. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

The High Leg of Eighteenth-Century Ballet

The High Leg of Eighteenth-Century Ballet

Dance Magazine (7 Jan. 2019) recently ran an article called “The Story of How Ballet Legs Got Higher, and Higher, and Higher” (click here to read). The view presented there is informed by a kind of teleological evolutionism, such that the range of leg movement in the course of ballet’s history is seen as simply getting bigger and bigger. This is a completely mistaken notion: a careful examination of relevant primary sources reveals a much more complicated development. This blog-post then, which is based on my scholarly study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet, is intended to debunk the myth and show some of the wayward changes in fashion, by focusing mainly on theory and practice in the eighteenth century.


Ballroom Versus Theatrical Dance

It is incontrovertible that eighteenth-century ballet employed a number of different leg heights, from the very low to the very high. This fact, however, has not been widely embraced in both scholarly and popular presentations wherein older ill-informed views have been uncritically accepted. Part of the problem here has been the unfounded assumption that the dance of the ballroom and that of the theater were more or less the same as far as technique goes.

While many movements were shared by both kinds of dance, it is quite clear, however, from both textual and pictorial sources that the execution of movements in the theater differed from that in the ballroom, or as Magri (1779: 1/137) puts it in his handbook for amateurs, “generally speaking, all these steps, being theatrical, are performed on stage differently, not as we have minutely shown.” One of the major ways in which the two differed was in the range of movement: that is, movements on stage were exaggerated, while those in the ballroom were contained. Mattheson (1739: 37), for example, writes broadly that

the art of gesture is as indispensable to the art of dance as the feet themselves. A composer who is poor at judging dances, whether they belong, say, to the choric [i.e., social] or hyporchematic [i.e., theatrical] styles – the difference lying more in the positions than in the steps, turns, or springs – will not do well at all here, for from his notes must stem comic or serious gestures.

Other sources clarify that by “positions” here was meant in part an expansive execution, with arms and legs held higher on stage than in the ballroom, and jumps reaching greater heights than on the ballroom floor. Rameau (1725: 70) writes in his ballroom handbook that “as I have undertaken, however, only to give instructions on how to do the different steps belonging to ballroom dancing [danses de ville], I am obliged not to go into these [theatrical] steps, which are executed in a grander way.” That danses de ville meant ‘ballroom dance’ is made clear by Essex’s translation of the phrase (1728: 40) as “Ball Dancing,” and by Ratier’s definition (1759?: 38) “the dance of the salon, or la danse de ville.

The professional dancer and choreographer John Weaver (1712: 162-63) also notes specifically that dance steps on stage differed in the performance, so much so that a theatrical execution would have been “rough and ridiculous” in a ballroom, that is, too exaggerated for so small a space:

SERIOUS Dancing, differs from the Common-Dancing [i.e., ballroom dance] usually taught in Schools, as History Painting differs from Limning. For as the Common-Dancing has a peculiar Softness, which would hardly be perceiveable on the Stage; so Stage-Dancing would have a rough and ridiculous Air in a Room, when on the Stage it would appear soft, tender and delightful. And altho’ the Steps of both are generally the same, yet they differ in the Performance: Notwithstanding there are some Steps peculiarly adapted to this Sort of Dancing, viz. Capers [i.e., cabrioles], and Cross-Capers [i.e., entrechats] of all kinds; Pirou[e]ttes, Batteries [i.e., battements], and indeed almost all Steps from the Ground [i.e., jumps].

The Spectator (25 Aug. 1712) likewise touches upon the overdrawn movements cultivated by theatrical dancers:

the Dancing [i.e., the dancers] on our Stages are very faulty in this Kind; and what they mean by writhing themselves into such Postures, as it would be a Pain for any of the Spectators to stand in, and yet to hope to please those Spectators, is unintelligible.

Indeed, dancing in too contained a manner on stage was in bad taste. As the famed choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre puts it (1760: 344), “confined steps, slight or ‘shrunken’ movements, in short, an execution that is too small, this is equally offensive to good taste.” The professional dancer and choreographer Giovanni Gallini (1762: 146) also speaks against mincing – and flaccid – dance movement generally, for the true art of dance “equally reprobates an ungainly rusticity, and a mincing, tripping, over-soft manner.”

The difference in the manner of executing movements on the ballroom floor versus the stage, as outlined above, continued into the following period. Carlo Blasis (1831: 489, 492-93) notes that “the private dancing [i.e., ballroom dancing] derives its origin from the theatrical dancing” and that

as to the movements of the body [in the former], they are nearly the same as those practiced by stage dancers, with this difference only, that they should not be carried to that grandeur and elevation, should have less impulse, and be modified, and adapted to the circles of Private Dancing. The legs ought to be raised from the ground but very little above the method of the second position; however, gentlemen may raise them something higher: the peculiar style of their dancing being more powerful and unrestrained, will admit of more elevated steps.

The professional dancer Théleur (1831: 100-101) in like manner comments on the difference in range of movement between stage-dancers and social dancers, noting that ballroom dance was the simpler part of theatrical dance executed “in miniature”:

Room-dancing is nothing more or less than that which is used for the stage, but executed in a more quiet style, avoiding all extravagances, or large steps; consequently, the practice to acquire this part of the art is considerably more easy than that of the public-dancer; it consists of the bending in the first position [i.e., fifth position], the little battemens from the first ground station to the fifth half aerial [i.e., from fifth to second position off the floor], the little battemens to, and from, the third half aerial station [i.e., battements sur le cou-de-pied], the ronds de jambe on the ground, the little ronds de jambe, the changes of the feet, the assemblées, the temps levés, the chassés, &c. selecting the more simple part of the practice laid down for the theatrical dancer, employing all the grace, &c. but in miniature.

For further discussion, see Fairfax (2003: 15-79).


References to a High Leg

The two heights of leg normally used in ballroom dancing were those wherein the toe of the gesture foot was raised to the heights of the ankle or the calf of the supporting leg. These are either explicitly prescribed in the ballroom handbooks or shown in surviving illustrations of ballroom dancers (fig. 1).

Figure 1. Ballroom dancers, 1735.

As was made clear in the foregoing section, the range of movement on stage was normally grander than in the ballroom, and this then implies that heights of leg above those of the ankle and calf were common in the theater. And, indeed, the heights wherein the toe of the gesture leg was raised until roughly level with the hip or above – to the height of the shoulder or even above the head – are alluded to or actually depicted in surviving illustrations of theatrical dancers. Bonin (1712: 169), for example, writes that “cabrioles can also be cut out in front, wherein the feet must come to lie almost level with or opposite the hips.” The same height is mentioned by Taubert (1717: 728) in the same context; cf. the height shown in figure 2.

Figure 2. Auguste Vestris, London 1781, an engraving after a design by Nathaniel Dance.

In the écart (i.e., the splits in the air), Ferriol (1745: 1/127) has the dancer “jump and while in the air fully open the legs as much as possible” (fig. 3). Pauli (1756: 20) sketches a grand rond de jambe thus: “the ouverture de jambe is performed when the leg does a rond in the air at the height of the thigh.” In the gargouillade, Magri (1779: 1/124) has the performer execute the circular movements with “the legs and thighs in an even line parallel to the floor.”

Figure 3. A caricature of a comic dancer apparently doing the splits in the air, circa 1780s, George Dance.

Compare as well the height of leg depicted in figure 4, which arguably shows poses, hence the reduced turnout, the bent legs and unpointed foot, and the more fanciful arrangements of the arms.

Figure 4. Dancing dwarfs: left 1716; right 1720s.


References to an Overhigh Leg

References to an overhigh height – above the hip, to the height of the shoulder or above the head – are found in Magri, for example, who had been a professional dancer in the so-called grotesque style from the late 1750s to the early 1770s. Consider his description (1779: 1/40-41) of the grand battement (the bolding is mine in the following quotations):

Figure 5. Reconstruction of Magri’s grand battement.

There is another kind of battement, which is said to be a high battement dégagé. Placed as usual in fifth, raise the right leg, for example, keeping the knee well stretched and turned out and the cou-de-pied arched, disengage the leg at least to the height of the shoulder, then take it down behind the left but see to it that it does not go beyond the foot on the floor; otherwise the body will be visibly contorted, and raising it again to the height of the first, take it back down in front, this second one done heeding the same warning. As many of these as possible are repeated thus. Not going beyond the foot on the floor will be difficult because of the force of the descent; this must be done with care, curbing this force of the descent, which is easy to achieve if done with caution. There are two movements here, the first lifting the leg and the second lowering it. These are also done as quickly as possible in order to acquire the desired benefit and fine dégagé of the thigh.
I have proven myself with these battements and have gone higher than the head. Indeed, I held up my left hand so that it was raised perpendicular, and I touched the palm of my left hand with the right foot, or rather cou-de-pied, a clear indication of having disengaged the leg well [fig. 5]. Take care, however, not to practice these battements violently; do them after you have made the sinews soft and flexible, and do not be heedless of keeping the foot on the floor well supported. In practicing these in a heat once, my beating foot displaced the other on the floor, and falling flat on my face, I broke my nose. With the same carelessness, Cesarini had the ill-luck to break an arm.

In one version of the grande révoltade, Magri (1779: 1/126) notes of the gesture leg, at the height of the jump, that “its thigh [is] taken up so high that the knee passes close to the face with the leg pointing upwards and the foot going above the head.” And most impressive of all, both feet are taken above the head in the grotesque jump the spazzacampagna (lit. ‘blunderbuss’), reconstructed in figure 6, which is based on the following two descriptions and other relevant material not presented here:

The caper known as the spazzacampagna begins in fifth position. Bend both knees [fig. 6a, which shows forced fifth (ball against ball with the heels a little off the floor) and a forward inclination of the body], and in rising into the air [fig. 6b], draw up the legs under the body as much as possible without taking the feet apart from this fifth [fig. 6c]. Then with them both coupled together in fifth, stretch them forwards to just above the head, which is drawn down a little to hide behind the feet [fig. 6d]. From here both legs are stretched out to the sides, opening and stretching as much as possible; raise the head and straighten the body at the same time [fig. 6e]. As you start to descend, begin to bring the feet together [fig. 6f] until they are in fifth again in coming down, but with the foot in front that was behind at the beginning [the land is not shown in fig. 6]. To do this caper, you need to precede it with a grand brisé or a grande [demi-]sissonne, which will be able to give force to the jump. Usually the fifth positions in which it begins and ends are forced, for when greater force is needed for height, an exact position is not to be looked for but rather that which will give greater force to the jump. (Magri 1779: 1/127)

The Spacciato Campania [sic]. This was always the most outstanding tour de force of the grotesque dancer. A tempo [i.e. preparation] for it with a few steps in a running start and a forward spring is needed. With both feet on the toes in first position, spring up at the very same time and do a high jump. At the same time as the spring into the air, the right foot does a tour de jambe to the right from front to back; the left does a tour de jambe to the left from front to back. The right arm does a circular movement to the right from front to back, and the left arm does a circular movement to the left from front to back. Land again in first position. Not a little strength and practice are needed here in order to do these four circular movements with the arms and legs very high at the same time. When highest in the air, the body looks like a frog tossed up into the air with all fours stretched away, which may well be the source of the name. (Roller 1843: 221-22)

Figure 6. Reconstruction of the spazzacampagna (land on the floor is not shown).

Clearly, raising the gesture foot to the height of the shoulder or higher was already established by the beginning of the eighteenth century and continued into the early nineteenth century, as is apparent from figure 7.

Figure 7. Left: “Monsieur Dubreil dancing the role of Scaramouche,” before 1713; right: the comic dancer Charles Masurier dancing with his mistress in Blache’s ballet Les meuniers, 1824.

As mentioned above, Magri was a dancer in the so-called grotesque style, a genre which by definition was to be as contorted and exaggerated as possible (Fairfax 2003: 124-61), and these overhigh heights almost certainly were proper to this style in theory. (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 details, see Fairfax (2003: 81-188).)


Excursus on the Upper Body

Figure 8. Parisot in a pose, London, 1790s.

I might mention here only very fleetingly that there appears to have been a stylistic difference in the way the upper body was managed when a high straight leg extension to the rear was executed. In the high styles (the serious and half-serious), the dancer seems to have regularly performed here a forward upper-body inclination, so that the whole body came to be horizontal to the floor when the gesture leg was highest (fig. 8). Cf. Bonin’s remark (1712: 169) in connection with the cabriole en arrière as described in his chapter on the high styles:

If I wish to do this cabriole to the back, however, the body and the feet must come to lie in a horizontal line, but I have even seen it done with the heels visible above the horizontal line so that the head and feet formed a transverse line.

In the low styles (comic and grotesque), however, the torso seems to have been regularly held as upright as possible to produce a more contorted line in the body (fig. 9). Further evidence relevant here will be outlined in my forthcoming study.

Figure 9. Left: posed dancer in the grotesque role of Scaramouche, 1716; right: grotteschi, 1823.


The Dupré Precedent

In the 1730s, Louis Dupré, a famous dancer in the so-called serious style (a slow graceful terre-à-terre style), set a precedent for plentiful use of overhigh leg extensions in this genre, and he was widely imitated by other serious dancers. Dupre’s elasticity is alluded to in a number of sources, such as Casanova (1961: 2/141), who saw Dupré perform at the Paris Opéra in 1750, at the end of his career: “Truly it was an elastic body, which became bigger as it unfolded.” Noverre (1760: 342-44), who had been a student of Dupré, clearly indicates that many imitated these lofty extensions (the bolding is mine in the quotation):

The déploiements [i.e., unfoldings] of the leg and the temps ouverts [i.e., movements into an open position] were doubtless suitable to Monsieur Dupré; the elegance of his figure and the length of his limbs went wonderfully together with the temps développés and daring steps of his dancing, but what suited him will not suit dancers of middling height, yet everyone wanted to ape him. The shortest legs were forced to run through the same spaces and describe the same circles as those of this celebrated dancer, thus, the loss of stability: The hips were never in their place, the body wavered continuously, the execution was ridiculous, I thought I saw Thersites imitating Achilles. . . .
This fault [of disproportionate movement], Monsieur, is very fashionable among serious dancers, and as this style holds greater sway in Paris than everywhere else, it is very common there to see the dwarfish dance with movements of gigantic and ridiculous proportions. I would even go so far as to say that those who are gifted with a majestic figure sometimes misuse the extent that their limbs can reach and the ease with which they cover the stage and make their movements stand out. These exaggerated déploiements alter the noble and peaceful character that la belle danse [i.e., the serious style in this context] should have and deprives the execution of its softness and gentleness.

Figure 10. Costume design by Boquet for the serious dancer Gaétan Vestris, circa 1760s.

Elsewhere, Noverre (1760: 183) again implies that these high leg extensions were to a height well above the waist. In speaking (ill) of the tonnelet, which was a kind of male tutu worn by especially serious dancers throughout much of the eighteenth century and which in this case was not uncommonly made with pronounced lateral projections (fig. 10), he writes that “I would do away with those stiff tonnelets, which in certain dance positions, bring the hip to the shoulder, as it were, and which obscure [the body’s] contours.” Carrying the gesture foot markedly above the height of the waist would naturally cause one edge of the tonnelet to rise with the leg, thus bringing “the hip” (i.e.., the outer edge of the tonnelet) “to the shoulder.”

And so, the not infrequent use of overhigh extensions, which almost certainly were originally proper to the grotesque style, spread to the serious style in practice. The latter style in theory, however, was to cultivate only graceful movements and positions and avoid any contortion and caricature which might “alter the noble and peaceful character” requisite here.


The Vestris Precedent

Figure 11. Auguste Vestris c.1781, Thomas Gainsborough and Gainsborough Dupont.

The course of ballet history was radically changed by Auguste Vestris (1760-1842), a superstar dancer (fig. 11) who developed a highly idiosyncratic style of dance wherein elements from the four traditional styles were blended into a single composite style, during the heady days of the French Revolution. His style was marked by, among other things, much use of exaggeration, such that “his leg would rise to the height of his head” as in the grotesque style (Berchoux 1808: 20), a penchant caricatured in figure 12. (For a discussion of the freedom granted dancers to cultivate a unique personal style, see Fairfax (2003: 243-55).)

Figure 12. Two caricatures of Auguste Vestris circa 1800: left by Isabey; right by George Dance.

His tremendous popularity induced a widespread imitation of his personal style and ultimately resulted in the demise of the four traditional styles and the emergence of a single composite style in the early nineteenth century. As Noverre remarks (1807: 2/127-28), “everyone became imperfect and unfaithful copiers,” such that he could ask,

what has come of this unreasonable and capricious aping? The dancing at the Opéra is now of the same color, the same style, the same genre. There is only one manner of execution. This art has driven out variety in order to adopt the most unbearable monotony.

As part of this widespread imitation and “unbearable monotony,” limbs now were not infrequently raised overhigh with all characters, soloists and corps, men and women alike. That is to say, the exaggeration that had originally been proper only to the grotesque style, but then became common in the serious style, was now found everywhere. Noverre (1807: 2/167) complains of typically having “to see sixty arms raised well above the head and thirty straight legs carried in one spontaneous movement to the height of the shoulder.” In like manner, Roller (1843: 19), who had been a professional dancer in the 1790s, speaks broadly of “the loathsome contortions and grotesque movements to which ballet has now degenerated, little by little since the French Revolution,” and which are lampooned in figure 13. A fuller discussion of these changes can be found in Fairfax (2003: 275-91).

Figure 13. A caricature of a pas de deux in Giselle, entitled Grise-Aile (‘Tipsy-Wing’), from Le musée Philipon, 1841.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the theoretical norm of hip-height seems to have been favored, at least in the Russian school. While Bernay (1890: 199) still gives an overhigh height for a grand battement – “the said left foot then leaves fifth and rises to the height of the left temple, still forming a continuous straight line with the leg” – Alexandra Danilova (1903-1997), however, notes in her memoirs (1986: 40) that

at that time, during my years at the school, we didn’t lift the legs high – it was considered not classical, rather daring, a little bit vulgar. “You are not in the circus,” our teachers would scold if développés or grands battements got too big. Just a teeny bit above the waist was as high as we were allowed. The Victorian attitudes still prevailed.

Contrast Danilova’s statement with that of the grottesco Magri from the eighteenth century, who prescribes that the foot of the gesture leg in a grand battement be raised “at least to the height of the shoulder.” Or contrast it with that of Noverre, who writes that serious dancers after Dupré commonly performed “with movements of gigantic and ridiculous proportions.” Danilova attributes the popularization of overhigh leg extensions in the twentieth century to the influence of George Balanchine, who “wanted the legs higher” – higher once again, it could be said, in light of the foregoing.



The remarks given above concerning eighteenth-century practice refer specifically to male ballet technique. The history of women’s technique for this time frame is somewhat different and more nuanced, but I have not dealt with it here, as the purpose of this already lengthy blog-post is to debunk the myth that very high extensions of the leg were foreign to early ballet. (For a partial treatment of changes to women’s technique, see Fairfax (2003: 219-42).)



Berchoux, J[oseph]. 1808. La danse, ou la guerre des dieux de l’Opéra. Second ed. Paris: chez Giguet et Michaud.
Bernay, Berthe. 1890. La danse au théâtre. Paris: E. Dentu.
Blasis, Carlo. 1831. The Art of Dancing. Translation by R. Barton. London: E. Bull.
Bonin, Louis. 1712. Die neueste Art zur galanten und theatralischen Tantz-Kunst. Frankfurt and Leipzig: Joh. Christoff Lochner.
Casanova de Seingalt, Jacques. 1961. Histoire de ma vie. 6 vols. Wiesbaden: F. A. Brockhaus.
Danilova, Alexandra. 1986. Choura, the Memoirs of Alexandra Danilova. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Essex, John. 1728. The Dancing-Master. London: J. Essex and J. Brotherton.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Ferriol y Boxeraus, Bartholomè. 1745. Reglas utiles para los aficionados a danzar. Copoa: a costa de Joseph Testore.
Gallini, Giovanni-Andrea. 1762. A Treatise on the Art of Dancing. London: printed for the author.
Magri, Gennaro. 1779. Trattato teorico-prattico di ballo. Naples: Vicenzo Orsino.
Mattheson, Johann. 1722-1725. Critica musica. 2 vols. Hamburg.
Noverre, Jean-Georges. 1760. Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets. Stuttgart and Lyon: Aimé Delaroche.
Noverre, Jean-Georges. 1806-07. Lettres sur les arts imitateurs en général, et sur la danse en particulier. 2 vols. Paris: chez Léopold Collin.
Pauli, Charles. 1756. Élémens de la danse. Leipzig: Ulr. Chret. Saalbach.
Rameau, Pierre. 1725. Le maître à danser. Paris: chez Jean Villette.
Ratier, Joseph. 1759?. Observación 1 sobre el arte de la danza. Manuscript Mn Barbieri Mss 14059. Madrid: National Library.
Roller, Franz Anton. 1843. Systematisches Lehrbuch der bildenden Tanzkunst und körperlichen Ausbildung. Weimar: Bernh. Fr. Voigt.
Taubert, Gottfried. 1717. Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister. Leipzig: bey Friedrich Lanckischens Erben.
Théleur, E.A. 1831. Letters on Dancing, Reducing this Elegant and Healthful Exercise to Easy Scientific Principles. London: printed for the author.
Tomlinson, Kellom. 1735. The Art of Dancing. London: printed for the author.
Weaver, John. 1712. An Essay Towards an History of Dancing. London: printed for Jacob Tonson.

Eighteenth-Century Pointe

Eighteenth-Century Pointe

It is a commonplace in dance histories to claim that pointe was an innovation of the nineteenth century. This is, in fact, a misconception: pointe was clearly in use already in the eighteenth century. The clearest reference to such early use comes from Magri (1779: 1/91), who writes that the French dancer Antoine-Bonaventure Pitrot (fl. 1744-1770)

does not remain in equilibrium on the ball of one foot, as others do, but raises the whole body on the tip of the big toe and straightens all the joints so perfectly that the thigh, the leg, and the foot itself fall into one perpendicular line.

And there is some evidence that Pitrot was not the only eighteenth-century dancer to perform this feat. Almost certainly, Sandham, an early eighteenth-century English dancer specializing apparently in comic and grotesque roles, performed on pointe in his dance the Dutch Skipper during the 1721-22 season at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. A bill draws attention to his performance “on his Toes” (cited in Highfill 1991: 13/202). If the phrase is taken to mean simply ‘on the balls of the feet,’ then there would have been little need to highlight this manner in a bill, since a high rise on the ball was the norm in eighteenth-century theatrical dance.

Almost certainly, a further example is mentioned in a description of a performance seen by Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1935: 31) at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1710:

A man appeared as Scaramouche, but he was far from being as elegant a dancer [as Hestor Santlow, who preceded him], though he excels in droll attitudes, leaping and contortions of the body, in which I never saw his equal. The most amazing of all was that he danced a “Chique” [i.e., a jig] with great agility on the tips of his toes with his feet turned entirely inwards, so that one cannot conceive how he was able to bend his feet thus backwards, stand on tiptoes, and spring about without straining his feet or breaking them at the ankle-joints.

A description of Giovanna Baccelli’s début at the Paris Opéra in 1782 also alludes to the “tours de force” of landing, balancing, and pirouetting “sur l’orteil” (‘on the toe’):

It was in the ballet in the second act of Électre, to an air by Monsieur Sacchini, that Mademoiselle Baccelli débuted yesterday. It cannot be gainsaid that she is a most agreeable dancer, who links strength and a brilliant execution to a neat figure; but because her style is utterly the same as Mademoiselle Dupré’s (who made her appearance a few months ago and who already has many partisans), she excited less admiration especially in her tours de force of landing, holding herself, and pirouetting on the toe [sur l’orteil] without losing anything of the nobility and grace in her role, which the former did as well. (Bachaumont 1783: 21/1/ii = 16 Nov. 1782)

The “landing” sur l’orteil here most likely refers to a sharp rise onto the toe with the ball raised off the floor in a terre-à-terre jump. Indeed, springing up onto the tips of the toes is in fact prescribed by Gourdoux-Daux (1817: 55-56) in his description of the “assemblé upon the toe,” within the context of even ballroom dance technique.

Place yourself according to the rules of deportment, the knees straight, the feet in the third position. To perform this motion, place the weight of your body entirely upon the fore foot and straight upon the hip; this will disengage the hind foot. Bend upon the fore knee, raising, at the same time, the hind foot upon the toes. This motion will cause the hind knee to bend also; hold it well turned out and unfold it by sliding the foot with the toes low and near the floor towards the [56] second position, which it will reach, being extended, at the same moment the foot you stand on will reach its utmost bend. To rise up straight again, hold the foot extended which is pointed in the second position, and drawing it on the toes towards the ones you stand on, you will enter it above that one, which will be straightened at the same moment that the foot, coming from the second position, will reach the third, where you will continue to hold yourself upon the tip of your toes, bending them down as much as possible, and let the heels come down gradually.

That pointe is indeed referred to in the description of Baccelli is strongly suggested by the fact that the expression sur l’orteil was used in the first part of the nineteenth century to refer to a position on the toe(s), and not on the ball. Saint-Léon (1852: 31), for example, writes that

to be sur l’orteil is said of that position of the feet wherein the body is carried onto the tip of the toes, that is, that position wherein the body is carried onto the little phalanx of the big toe and onto the little phalanxes of the four other toes. . . [In contrast,] to be sur la demi-pointe is said of that position of the feet wherein the heel leaves the floor while the body is carried onto the front of the foot, that is, that position wherein the body is carried onto the back of the sesamoid bone and the metatarsal bones of the toes.

Saint-Léon is clearly referring here to an alternative form of pointe, one wherein the toes are not fully vertical, and the body’s weight is borne by the pads of the toes, with the ball still lifted from the floor. This version might be called “pad-pointe” as opposed to “tip-pointe.” (These two forms might have been distinguished by the expressions sur les orteils and sur les pointes respectively; Michel Saint-Léon (1829: 13r) seems to use them contrastively when he occasionally notes that a rise is to be done “sur les pointes / orteils,” although synonymity is not out of the question.)

The pictorial record suggests that these two forms of pointe existed side by side in the first part of the nineteenth century. Consider the depictions of the feet in figures 1-3: the first two show “pad-pointe,” and the third “tip-pointe.

Figure 1. The three Prices: Sophie, Amalie, Juliette, circa 1850s.

Figure 2. Deblin, Mr. Conway, and Mrs. Conway, New York, 1827.

Figure 3. Geneviève Gosselin, 1815.

As is apparent from these figures, men as well as women could rise up sur l’orteil or sur la pointe. And this was clearly true for dancers in the eighteenth century as well. In an extant engraving of Pierre Gardel from the 1790s (fig. 4), the lack of foreshortening in the toes of his right foot strongly suggests that a position sur la pointe is intended. Indeed, the engraving agrees completely with Magri’s description of Pitrot’s pointe given above.

Figure 4. Pierre Gardel in a small pose, circa 1790s.

An eighteenth-century example of “pad-pointe” is possibly shown in an engraving of Gallini (fig. 5), although the diagonal line of the forepart of the weight-bearing foot may be simply due to the engraving’s lack of skill.

Figure 5. Giovanni Gallini in a small pose, 1762.

Bachaumont states that Baccelli excited less admiration during her début at the Paris Opéra because “her style is utterly the same as Mademoiselle Dupré’s,” and that Bacelli’s feat of dancing sur l’orteil, Eléonore Dupré “did as well.”

These few references suggest, moreover, that pointe-work was largely a virtuoso feat in the eighteenth century, and that the norm was still to rise on the ball rather than on the toe(s). These moments of pointe, moreover, were apparently just that, virtuoso moments, such that the position was normally not maintained for long in the course of a dance. Indeed, what made Geneviève Gosselin’s pointe-work so memorable were both the remarkable duration of these moments and their frequency of occurrence. A critic in Le journal des débats (3 Aug. 1827), for example, writes that “her astonishing flexibility of limb and her muscular power . . . allowed her to remain suspended for a minute or two on the extreme tips of her feet.” And “she could rise more often than usual on the point of her feet, presenting an elegant body supported, so to speak, on the big toe, or on a single toe-nail” (Journal de Paris 23 Jul. 1813).

It is unclear how far back the use of pointe goes. The material available for the pre-eighteenth-century periods is simply too sparse to make any certain claim about the origin of the technique. But given the high level of skill achieved by early acrobats, who were able to perform amazing feats of contortion, jumping, and balance already by the beginning of the eighteenth century (Fairfax 2003: 28-33), it would not be surprising if pointe originated fairly early among this latter class of performer and then eventually spread to more highbrow performances. Indeed, it was not unknown for some performers to lead a double life as acrobat and dancer (especially in the comic and grotesque styles). Consider the figure of Antoni, who was

in his day the most perfect rope-dancer [i.e., acrobat who performed dances on a tightrope] ever seen in France. His dancing was noble and easy, such that a skilled dancer might have performed on a stage. To this talent he united that of jumping with admirable elevation, justness, and precision, not to mention that he was original in the dance of the Drunkard, which he performed several times on the stage of the Académie Royale de Musique [i.e., the Paris Opéra] to the liking of all connoisseurs. (Parfaict 1756: 1/152-53)

Interestingly enough, two of the earliest allusions to pointe, adduced above, are found in connection with dances for low characters.

And finally, it should be stressed that a pointe position does not require a modern pointe-shoe. (For a brief discussion of eighteenth-century dance shoes, click here.)

The foregoing is a somewhat abbreviated presentation of material from my study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet.



[Bachaumont, et al.]. 1777-1789. Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la république des lettres en France, depuis MDCCLXII jusqu’à nos jours, ou Journal d’un observateur. 36 vols. London: chez John Adamson.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
G[ourdoux-Daux], J. 1817. Elements and Principles of the Art of Dancing As Used in the Polite and Fashionable Circles. Philadelphia: J.F. Hurtel.
Highfill, Philip H., Jr. et al. 1973-93. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. 16 vols. Carbondale, Illinois: South Illinois University Press.
Magri, Gennaro. 1779. Trattato teorico-prattico di ballo. Naples: Vicenzo Orsino.
Parfaict, François. 1756. Dictionnaire des théâtres de Paris. 7 vols. Paris: Lambert.
Saint-Léon, Arthur Michel. 1852. La sténochorégraphie, ou art d’écrire promptement la danse. Paris: the author.
Saint-Léon, Michel. 1829. “1ier Cahier, Exercices de 1829.” Opéra Rés. 1137.(1).
Uffenbach, Zacharias Conrad von. 1935. London in 1710: from the Travels of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach. Translated and edited by W.H. Quarrell and Margaret Mare. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

Was the “Wrapped” Position Used in the Eighteenth Century?

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 [1934] 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. [1934] 1969. Basic Principles of Classical Ballet, Russian Ballet Technique. N.Y.: Dover.