All about arabesque! Learn what an arabesque is and how to make the most of this fundamental ballet step in your next class or performance
Most ballet lovers consider arabesque as the essence of classical ballet. When executed to perfection, it is one of the most beautiful poses performed by a ballet dancer. Arabesque is also hardest to perfect too!
Arabesque – (pronounced air-a-besk)means “in Arabic Fashion” in dance. In ballet, it is the body position in which a dancer stands on one leg- which is called the supporting leg, while the other- the working leg- turned out and extended behind the body.
In classical ballet, an arabesque is executed with the supporting leg en pointe or demi-pointe or with foot flat on the floor.
However, these days, it is important for today’s dancers that the arabesque is higher than the head. Most arabesques are defined in terms of the training system followed for the ballet. The variations are based on the position of the arms which create the longest line from the fingers to the toes.
There are different types of arabesque based on the various ballet schools- therefore, the positions differ in all these variations considerably.
For example, in Russian School, Vaganova method having four variations is followed.
While Cecchetti/French Method considers the orientation: which leg is raised relative to the audience, has 5 positions, it adds variations for the supporting leg and the gaze.
The Royal Academy of dance and Bournonville consider the positions of the arms more important than the stance.
The dancer stands with supporting leg straight or in plie, the working leg (usually the right leg) stretched long behind them either on the floor or lifted off the ground. While the right arm extended to the side, towards the audience, while left arm extended front, towards the audience. Simply put-
Supporting leg in front of the dancer- the same arm extended at shoulder height or slightly higher
Working leg stretched at the back or raised up- the same arm lifted to the side or slight diagonal back.
A variation to the first arabesque, the legs have the same position, but the working sidearm (usually the right arm) is extended slightly higher while the left arm is extended diagonally back aligned with the dancer’s shoulder. The shoulders are in line with the arms while the dancer gazes towards the audience.
Arms are extended to the front with both elbows straight and at least a foot apart. The arm on the standing leg side is lifted, so the palm is in line with the head. The arm on the side of the working leg is in line with the shoulder or slightly lower. The gaze follows the line of the arm extended above the head.
The dancer has to stand in the same way as the third arabesque, but the right arm is extended in front while the left arm is extended as far back possible in line with the right arm.
Arabesque requires strength and control, it adds quality to your dance and allows for the movements with music.
How to approach Arabesque
Arabesque is one position which is gorgeous and controversial for its placement of arms and legs. For young kids, it may sound more natural to do, but for adults, it is challenging to pull off and puts a significant strain on the hips and the back.
There are many ways to approach and improve arabesque, but the most important thing is to maintain control and show constraint.
Most young dancers would want to have gravity-defying leg raises in the name of Arabesque. This is wrong and, potentially dangerous approach. The ideal way to approach Arabesque is to work on the position of the torso, arms and head with strengthening exercises like Pilates along with conditioning exercises help reaching the perfect height.
How to start working on Arabesque
- Start with lightly holding onto a barre or chair for balance.
- Stand with your left foot in front, as in the fifth position. Remember, your standing leg can be bent or straight, but the back leg HAS to be straight at all times.
- With your right foot do a “battement tendu” to the back
- While you are balancing on your left leg, hinge forward at your hips while lifting the right leg off the floor.
- Your right hip should be turned right as you raise your leg to the back.
- Make sure your right knee is straightened and don’t forget to point your toes.
- Your chest has to be lifted and spine-lengthened. Raise your back leg only as high that your upper torso doesn't collapse.
Arabesque for Adults, or Dancers re-attempting after a break
- Adults doing ballet for the first time or after a long gap, please take note, you don't have to lift the back leg for it to be called an arabesque. Start with arabesque parterre, where back foot is on the floor behind you.
- Arabesque is primarily a classical ballet move that can be performed by holding your arms in different positions. You can depict a specific character or express different messages with arm movements.
- Start with raising your leg to 45 degrees, if you or your instructors feel that you have advanced, try raising it to 90 degrees. Feeling more confident? You can go beyond 90 degrees as well, but make sure your back is aligned, and the torso is leaned forward.
Advanced Arabesque Positions
Arabesque enpointe, where the dancer rises onto the toe of the supporting leg is the ultimate dream of every dancer. It needs a lot of training and is done under supervision in special pointe shoes. To reach this advanced level, you need to prepare yourself, and your instructor needs to guide and assess you to see if you are ready.
To Perfect your Arabesque
first, learn what an arabesque is not.
Arabesque is not about standing on one leg and kicking the other leg back as high as possible. Any professional ballet dancer or a good ballet teacher will tell you to focus on technique as your arabesque can improve only if your technique improves. You need to work hard at the barre, concentrate on every barre exercise.
The Four Fundamentals of Arabesque that you need to work on are
Control over feet
Pulled up knees
Ramrod straight body
Tips to Improve your Arabesque
Warm up your body before you start stretching by jogging in place or take a brisk walk. Make it long enough to break into a light sweat.
Work on your core
Bend slightly at the waist to the front, side-to-side and the back in one fluid and controlled motion. Keep your arms up above your head and both legs firmly planted in the ground. Then try this with one leg up. Engage your core with deep breathing and focus on your postures and keeping your core pulled on.
Focus on your arms too!
Arms need to be kept in the air in a position for a long time in arabesques. Swing your arms, twist them back and forth, circle them to strengthen them and prepare for long time mid-air.
Legs need a lot of conditioning
A lot of cardio, strengthening legs with conditioning exercises, and try and touch your toes. Strengthen your glutes, do basic squats, rotate your ankles both ways as the most weight will ultimately fall on them.
Stretch your back
A stiff back can make your Arabesque ineffective. Do a lot of back flexibility exercises like rotating torso, swinging arms, and legs side to side. You can also use a foam roller or a Pilates ball to ease out tension from your sore back muscles.
Improve your arabesque by adding this exercise to your warm up!
Step 1: From standing position with legs hip-width apart and hands flat on the floor. Move your right leg into tendu derriere.
Step 2: Move your leg from tendu to arabesque stopping at 90 degrees.
Step 3: lift your leg as high as you can while inhaling slowly focusing on your hip flexors.
Step 4: hold this position for a count of 4 and lower slowly with control for 8 counts. Repeat these 4 times on each side turned out AND parallel 3 times a week or as part of your warm-up routine.
Dance Teachers- you can incorporate in this into your usual warm up to help students improve their flexibility. Let us know how you progress!
Arabesque is a signature step for ballet, just like mastering the layout is a signature step for jazz; a ballet dancer’s ultimate test of mastery is a perfect Arabesqueat minimum 90 degrees. But before you reach that stage, you need to put in endless hours of barre work. Barre is the place where you will learn proper body alignment and ultimately stop looking for it for support. By practicing eleves and releves at the barre, you can strengthen your legs, ankles, and feet.
It doesn’t matter if you are in class or on stage, as a ballet dancer, you must attempt to master the arabesque. Most auditions would require a photograph of candidates showing their best attempt at accomplishing a perfect arabesque, which is one of the hardest positions in ballet.
A breathtakingly perfect arabesque indicates that a dancer has worked on every aspect of ballet – be it turnout, flexibility, arches of the feet and overall fitness.