Fifth Position of the Arms

The following is an adaptation of a short section from “The Positions and Movements of the Arms,” chapter 6 in the work in progress The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet (© Edmund Fairfax 2018). Some features are discussed in detail in other sections or chapters, and the reader would simply consult those sections in a completed work, but these are not available here.


6.7.5 Fifth Position of the Arms Attestations and Formation

The fifth position of arms given by Malpied (1789?: 129) is formed “with the [one] arm quite closed” (rightmost character in the top row of fig. 1, and the leftmost in the bottom row of the same figure). Malpied’s brachial character is ultimately from Feuillet (1700a: 97), whose examples are shown in fig. 2. Feuillet describes the arrangement shown in the example third from the left (fig. 2) as “the left arm open and the right fully closed,” and in the rightmost example (fig. 2) as “the right arm open and the left fully closed.” Feuillet’s symbol for the “closed” arm is also presented on its own in his treatise (fig. 3, left) and is described there as “the arm fully in front of oneself at height.” By the phrase “at height,” Feuillet presumably means at the height of the chest.

Fig. 1. Positions of arms in Beauchamps notation (Malpied 1789?: 130).

Fig. 2. Positions of arms in Beauchamps notation (Feuillet 1700a: 97).

A number of treatises that are either straightforward translations or rather adaptations of Feuillet (1700a and 1701) reproduce these characters, usually accompanied by Feuillet’s captions: Weaver (1706: 55), who translates the description of the closed arm with “The Arm quite before” (“before” = ‘in front’) or “quite closed in”  (fig. 3, right); Taubert (1717: 793, 894), with the French tout à fait fermé (‘fully closed’) mistranslated as ganz gehoben (‘fully raised’); Magny (1765: 137); and Clément (1771: 27), without captions.

Figure 3. Left: a further example from Feuillet (1700a: 97); right: the same example in Weaver (1706: 55).

The position is also fleetingly mentioned in other sources. Bonnefond (1705: 14) mentions a position “when one arm goes in front, and the other remains extended to the side.” Ratier (1759?: 33) has “the left arm open and the right closed.” Guillemin (1784: 14) also mentions a “closed” position in his cursory remarks on the arms, he noting that there are “four positions of the arms, first, with the arms straight, rounded, bent, and closed.” (“Bent” describes the oppositional arm in fourth position, shown in Malpied’s character for this position (fig. 1, top row fourth from left; bottom row second from left), and in Feuillet’s (the second from the left and fifth from the left in fig. 2).) Magri (1779: 1/110) also seems to have fifth in mind as the basis for his example of an attitude:

Raise the other foot off the floor, curving it at the knee, and raise the arm on the same side in a half circle with the palm of the hand facing the chest and the body turned in an oblique line to the side opposite the foot off the floor, the head turned in the same direction.

Magri describes the position of only the one arm here – “with the palm of the hand facing the chest,” which would seem to correspond to Feuillet’s “with the arm fully in front of oneself at height” – but presumably the other arm is extended to the side. What are almost certainly examples of this position freely interpreted (i.e., with “painterly” inflections of the wrists) and used in the formation of dance poses can be found in the pictorial record, such as those shown in fig. 4. Indeed, the pose shown on the right of the same figure would seem to correspond very closely to Magri’s minimal description.

Fig. 4. Dancing dwarfs in poses, engravings by Johann Georg Puschner (Lambranzi 1716: 2/36, 47).

As a position proper to pure dance, the expected appearance of fifth at the height of the shoulders (with the opposing arm “fully closed”) is shown on the left in figure 5. To the right in the same illustration is shown fourth position of the arms (with the opposing arm “bent at the elbow”). The corresponding notational characters are the first and second examples from the left in the bottom row in fig. 1 respectively.

Figure 5. Left: a reconstruction of fifth position of the arms at the height of the shoulders; right: a reconstruction of fourth position of the arms at the height of the shoulders.

This fifth position clearly continued to be used in the nineteenth century and beyond. Roller (1843: pl. 7) provides an illustration of it (the woman on the left in fig. 6). It is also shown in stylized notation in Saint-Léon (1852), both in his choreographic notations as well as in his “Tableau Général des Signes de Sténochorégraphie.” The notational character for the rounded arm betrays the same shape as when both arms are held in front “at the height of the chest,” while that for the extended arm has the same shape as when both arms are “extended at the height of the shoulders.” Elsewhere Saint-Léon (1852: 39) describes this position as “left rounded, the other extended (that is, demi-opposition de bras),” in that particular example, and in his summative chart, the character is described as “demi-bras with the right arm.” Emmanuel (1895: 81) also provides a schematic representation of the position (middle figure in fig. 6). And the rightmost figure in figure 6 shows a mid twentieth-century representation.

Fig 6. Left (Roller 1843: pl. 7); middle (Emmanuel 1895: 81); right (Lifar 1951: 43).

In the nineteenth century, this position could be formed at different heights. Blasis (1820: 104), for example, shows a low version, with one arm rounded and held down in front of the body, while the other arm is extended a little away from the side of the body (see the man in fig. 7). His caption to the illustration identifies the arrangement as “half arms in opposition and the legs in third position.” Blasis’s illustration served as a model for that given in Hentschke (1836: pl. 1, fig. 3), who like Blasis shows this position in connection with third position of the feet.

Fig. 7. Left (Blasis 1820: 104); right (Charbonnel 1899: 400).

A version at half height (see the woman in fig. 7) appears in Charbonnel (1899: 400). And finally a high version, with one arm extended to the side at the height of the shoulder and the hand of the other raised to the height of the head or higher, is depicted in Blasis (1820: pl. 13, fig. 3), Saint-Léon (1852: “Tableau Général”), Emmanuel (1895: 81), and Charbonnel (1899: 396), shown in figs. 8-9. Fifth position at the height of the shoulders then is clearly the forebear of what is now called “third low” in the modern Cecchetti school, or “small pose” in the Russian school, and when the position is executed with one hand raised above the head, “third high” or “big pose” respectively (Warren 1989: 28).

Fig. 8. Left (Blasis 1820: pl. 13, fig. 3); right: notational character defined as “bras droit haut le gauche tendu” ‘right arm high, the left extended’ (Saint-Léon 1852: “Tableau Général”).

Fig. 9. Left (Emmanuel 1895: 81), right (Charbonnel 1899: 396).

As discussed above (§6.3), it is incontrovertible that the arms generally could be held at different heights in eighteenth-century ballet: to wit, low, mid, high, and forced. Hänsel (1755: 135) and Magri (1779: 1/113) explicitly state this. Some of these heights are fleetingly alluded to in even earlier sources, such as Bonin (1712: 171), or shown in the pictorial record from the whole century. And so there is no reason to doubt that our fifth could also be realized at these different levels, at more or less the same heights found in the early nineteenth century, and the latter should be seen as an inheritance from the eighteenth century, and not an innovation. Indeed, a comparison with Blasis’s low fifth in fig. 7 readily suggests that the attitude of arms shown in fig. 11 is simply a “painterly” interpretation of the same position (with wrist inflections). And again, a comparison with figs. 8-9 suggests that the attitude of arms shown by the right man in fig. 10 (again, with “painterly” wrist inflections) and the woman in fig. 12 (a satiric rendering of “bony” Guimard en attitude from 1789, a half-serious dancer) is again based on the same position. The sketch of the serious dancer Louis Gallodier (fig. 12, right) shows a version of the position apparently expressing violent passion.

Fig. 10. Left: detail from a mid-eighteenth-century Wind in action, reproduced in Winter (1974: 103); right: a clarifying redrawing.

Fig. 11. Left: costume design for the Comte d’Artois in Le ballet de la reine, reproduced in Kochno (1954: 79); middle: costume design for G. Vestris 1771, Bibliothèque Nationale, reproduced in Pastori (1980?: 45); right: costume design for the role of Creusa in Médée et Jason 1770, Louis-René Boquet, Bibliothèque-Musée de l’Opéra, reproduced in Guest (1996: pl. 10).

Fig. 12. Left: a caricature of Marie-Madeleine Guimard entitled “The Celebrated Madelmoiselle G-m-rd or Grimhard of Paris,” London 1789, unknown artist, reproduced in Guest (1996: pl. 38); right: a detail from “la naissance du Danseur, le Maître de Ballet Gallodier” (‘the birth of the dancer, the ballet master [Louis] Gallodier’ (c. 1734-1803)), sketch by Johan Tobias Sergel, reproduced in Skeaping (1967: 52).

It should also be noted that in this position, the hand of the arm in front of the body is always slightly lower than that of the extended arm (except at the height of the hip; and, of course, except when forming a grand position, wherein the hand of opposition is taken above the height of the shoulder). In this way, fifth position differs from fourth. To be more precise, the hand of the “bent” arm in fourth is always higher than that of the extended arm and is not placed in front of the torso as here but to the side. (Compare the two positions in fig. 5.)

In the nineteenth century, the hand of the opposing arm could be held in line with the shoulder of the opposing arm (woman on left in fig. 6; man in fig. 7; women on left in fig. 9), or alternatively in line with the center of the body (woman in the middle in fig. 6,  and on right in 7 and 9). The former is also prescribed by Théleur (1831: 38-39), at least when the dancer was en face: “in raising the arms, when the body is in a front position, care should be taken never to permit the hands to approach each other, so as to hide the body; they should rise in front, opposite the shoulders.” Given that the management of the arms in eighteenth-century dance was greatly dependent on caprice, or personal taste (§6.2.4), it is almost certain the such variability in the placement of the hand would also have been found in our period.

In order to get in and out of fifth from any other position, the dancer must use “turns from the shoulder” (§6.7.3), rather than “turns from the elbow” (§6.7.2) as with fourth. (For a discussion of the placement of the head and torso in this position, according to style, see §7.3 and §; for the shape of the hands and arms, see §6.4; and for the system of different heights and their use, see §6.3)

Figure 13 shows reconstructions of fifth at different heights, based on the foregoing as well as on the cited sections (with head and torso unposed): low (hip height), mid (waist height), high 1 (shoulder height), high 2 (head height), and forced (overhead). These represent idealized reconstructions; in practice, dance positions were clearly subject to minor alterations in order to offset individual bodily imperfection and satisfy personal taste (§6.2.4). Indeed, there was no prescribed height and placement in les grands bras, the highest height. As Magri (1779: 1/114) writes, “these arms cannot have a set measure or precise height but can be raised as much as you wish beyond the others [i.e., other heights] depending on the character, the expression, the spirit, and the ability of the performer.” And so the illustrated examples of the forced position are only two possibilities (cf. the sketch of Gallodier in fig. 12).

Fig 13. Reconstruction of fifth position at differing heights. Use

None of the sources describes how this position of the arms was to be used. Clearly, it could, like the other arm positions, be used to form attitudes, as shown by figs. 4, 10-12. In the post-eighteenth-century period, the reflex of fifth was regularly used to form “opposition” or “false opposition” (§6.8). And it would seem to have functioned in the same way in our period as well. Like Blasis, Malpied shows the position in connection with a crossed position of the feet, here fifth, a position frequently requiring opposition of some sort. Malpied blunders with his notational characters in fig. 1, which show third, fourth, and fifth positions of the feet with false opposition, that is, with the wrong arm showing contrast. This was apparently an honest mistake, since even Feuillet got one of his own examples wrong as well (the rightmost example in fig. 2). Indeed, Feuillet (1700a) – and those sources that derive from him – presents the position in the same context. And oppositional use is also implied by the example discussed in the following two paragraphs.

As none of the handbooks outlining dance technique prescribes this position in the context of ballroom dance, it would appear then that fifth was not normally used in ballroom dancing, nor by implication in the serious style of the theater, where fourth position of the arms, and sometimes third – together with “movements of the elbow” and “of the wrist” respectively – was regularly employed to form opposition. At best, fifth could be used as an uncommon substitute for fourth, it seems, in the serious style (outside of attitudes). This is suggested by Feuillet’s notation of steps with arm movements for the first sixteen bars of a version of the Folies d’Espagne (1700a: 102). According to Taubert (1717: 369), the name Folies d’Espagne was a common alternative for the “Spanish pavane,” and according to Behr (1713: 121), the pavane was a “serious dance.”

Fig. 14. Les Folies d’Espagne (Feuillet 1700a: 102).

In the first jump, a contretemps (fig. 14), the left arm does a movement of the shoulder from below upwards, and then one from above downwards in the following contretemps. In light of Feuillet’s definition of the character representing the result of the first movement (“the arm fully in front of oneself at height”), a movement of the shoulder in and out of fifth position is implied in the first bar. The arms at the end of the second bar are in fourth position, with the right bent, arrived at by a turn of the right elbow from below upwards. In the third step, the notation seems to suggest that the right arm is to pass through fifth position from fourth on its way back out to second, but I am inclined to think that the character here may well be an error on the part of the engraver (cf. Feuillet’s error in the rightmost example in fig. 2). That is, a turn of the right elbow (rather than shoulder) from above downwards to second would seem to make better sense in this context. In any case, for the remainder of the dance, the arms do nothing but movements of the wrists and elbows, which imply the use of third and fourth positions, either singly or doubly, i.e., amplified sixth.

The little evidence available suggests that, apart from this limited use in the serious style, fifth position was, rather, the usual way of forming opposition in the half-serious style, and indeed in the comic and grotesque styles as well. The evidence comes from Charles Didelot’s student Adam Glushkovsky ([1851] 1940: 164), who retrospectively writes that in the tradition upheld by Didelot – at a time when the system of distinct styles had been largely abandoned – the half-serious style used “a completely different position of the body and arms” from that employed in the serious:

Serious dances were performed to adagio and marcia music. Didelot always composed smooth-flowing dances for the main person, with various attitudes but seldom mixed with entrechats or fast pirouettes. The demi-caractère dancer performed to andante grazioso and allegro music; for him, Didelot composed graceful dances with an altogether different position of the body and arms, and made use of quick petits pas [i.e., steps especially suitable for petit allegro] and pirouettes of a different kind from those of the serious pas. And for the comic dancer, he would create a pas to allegro music mostly with different kinds of jumps, such as leaps in the air (tours en l’air) with a different movement of the body and arms. Thus, the audience saw in each dancer a particular type of dance.

Glushkovsky notes, moreover, that the comic style emloyed “a different movement of the body and arms,” i.e., different from the half-serious, but not a different position of the arms. Fifth is the only other established arm position – as opposed to freely varying attitudes of arms – extant from the century that is otherwise unaccounted for and easily fits the bill here.

And there is no reason to dismiss the practice cultivated by Didelot as an idiosyncrasy or a late development unknown to the early part of the period. According to Angiolini (1773: 54), who must have started his dance training in the late 1730s, “dance in its fundamentals, as you [i.e., Noverre] certainly know, has not changed in any way [since the time of Pécour (1653-1729)].” That is to say, there was much continuity in the fundamental technique throughout the eighteenth century. If anything, the trend was for stylistic distinctions to disappear rather than appear (Fairfax 2003: 257-291). Didelot’s use of different positions and movements of the arms according to style almost certainly represents then the continuation – or the “last dying gasp” – of an earlier convention rather than the creation of a new one, so at odds with the trend toward uniformity of technique in Didelot’s day (cf. Noverre’s remark (1807: 2/127-128) that “the dancing at the Opéra is now of the same color, the same style, the same genre. There is only one manner of execution.”).

It should also be borne in mind that Auguste Vestris, who was largely responsible for the creation of the new blended style that was the basis for post-eighteenth-century ballet, had been in his youth principally a dancer in the half-serious style (Fairfax 2003: 275-291; Guest 1996: 128). It would seem that the old eighteenth-century half-serious, blended with elements from the other styles, was the primary basis for the ballet of the nineteenth century. And this would explain why the reflex of fifth rather than that of fourth – the former the usual position of opposition in the eighteenth-century half-serious – became the normal way of showing opposition or false opposition in the ballet of the nineteenth century generally.

Clearly, fifth was an important enough position of the arms already by 1700 that Feuillet provided notational means to capture it. If fifth was not used as suggested above, then it is hard to imagine how else and where else it could have been employed. If fifth in the serious style was simply a little-used substitute for fourth, as suggested by Feuillet’s sixteen-bar notation above, the position would hardly merit being included in treatises dealing with common or rudimentary movements and positions. Or as Cahusac (1754) puts it in his preface, “the dance notations of Thoinet Arbeau and of Feuillet (and that of which Beauchamps had himself declared author by a writ of the parlement) are merely the rudiments of dance.” So too Gallini (1772?: 183-184) points out that the system amounts to “nothing more than an elementary indication of the art: and an explanation, such as it is, of some of the technical terms of it.” Even a treatise like Guillemin (1784), which gives only a very pared-down account of the notation, still alludes to this position. And so the inclusion of fifth position would seem to suggest that it was quite basic to the art, even if its use happened to go undescribed.

And while the pictorial record shows fifth used in attitudes, it seems unlikely that it was merely an arm pose. As already mentioned, all the positions of arms could be used to form attitudes, but there were many attitudes of arms, apparent from a variety of sources, and none of these poses is given a distinct notational character. As Magri (1779: 1/109) notes, an attitude was a very open-ended concept (and thus not really amenable to easy verbal description or notational representation):

The attitude is a movement of any part of the body and is not restricted merely to the movement of the arms, as some think; here one can express with the head, the eyes, the feet and with any part capable of making a gesture. The true theatrical attitude does not consist of a single, simple gesture but of a combination of a number of poses, for it must be a bringing together of arms, feet, head, and eyes, which must express the emotional state of the character.

Compare as well Blasis’s comments on dance poses (1820: 70):

Poses, attitudes, and arabesques can be multiplied ad infinitum, as a slight épaulement of the body, oppositions of the arm, or simple movements of the legs, wherein the whole is happily combined, must result in a very large number. Their graceful execution depends upon the artiste’s taste and he must know how to make good use of them and fit them well to the genre and character of his dance.

All of the foregoing then points to fifth as the regular arm position used to show opposition outside of the serious style. Since the serious was the least popular style in most parts of eighteenth-century Europe (Fairfax 2003: 243-255), it follows that fifth – rather than fourth or third – would have been the position of opposition most commonly seen by theater-goers and thus the most “typical” oppositional arm position of eighteenth-century ballet.