A San Francisco Ballet School student practices first arabesque in class.

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

The Anatomy of Arabesque: Why Placement and Turnout Are Key to Achieving This Crucial Position

Audition for any school or company, and they'll likely ask for a photo in arabesque. The position not only reveals a great deal about a dancer's ability, but it is also a fundamental building block for more advanced movements, like penché or arabesque turn. Beyond technique, it can be the epitome of grace and elegance onstage, creating unforgettable images—just try to imagine Swan Lake or Balanchine's Serenade without an arabesque.

Yet many dancers are unsatisfied with their arabesque lines, and students frequently ask how to improve their extensions. (Social media posts of dancers with extreme flexibility don't help!) In an attempt to lift the back leg higher, dancers may sacrifice placement and unknowingly distort their position in the process. How can you improve the height of your back leg while maintaining proper placement and turnout? We talked to a few experts to better understand the science behind this step.

What Muscles Do I Use?

In order to achieve a 90-degree extension, the muscles in the hips and spine must lengthen and stretch. "The hip extensors (glutes and hamstrings) and back extensors (muscles that hold your back into an arch) are the primary muscles to hold the back leg into arabesque, but it is also important to remember the deep hip-turnout muscles to control rotation of your hip," says Julie Daugherty, MPT/CMPT and physical therapist for American Ballet Theatre.

When in arabesque, the standing ankle and knee should remain still as the working leg lifts—the hip joint initiates the range of motion. "The stability and strength of the standing leg is essential to give a strong base of support," says Daugherty, while properly aligning the standing knee and foot is crucial for maintaining hip placement.

Why are some dancers able to lift the back leg effortlessly, while others struggle? Daugherty points to a variety of factors, including anatomical limitations in the spine or hip ("both bony and ligamentous," she explains), tight anterior hip ligaments or groin muscles, and muscle imbalances or weaknesses. It's not enough just to stretch—improving your arabesque height requires attention to both strength and flexibility. (For a targeted conditioning routine, click here.)

A female ballet student in a pink leotard and pink tights faces the barre and starts to lift her right leg in arabesque.

The standing ankle and knee should remain still as the working leg lifts—the hip joint initiates the range of motion.

Israel Zavaleta Escobedo, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

What Makes a Good Arabesque?

"I prefer to see a beautiful and tasteful line to a distorted one," says San Francisco Ballet School instructor Anne-Sophie Rodriguez. "It all begins and ends with the supporting leg and hip. When the turnout is held, which results in the standing hip being squared off, we can build up to a high arabesque that is elegant as well as healthy and helpful for our technique."

When dancers apply to the ADC|IBC, they must submit an arabesque photo for a panel of judges to review. Audrianna Broad, ADC|IBC's founder and president, says the photos are used as "a supplement to help determine suitability for programs, largely because the position is very telling of the dancer's current level and training background." She adds: "First arabesque is introduced relatively early on to students, and yet it is one of the most difficult positions to execute properly."

As for what Rodriguez looks for, she says, "the awareness needs to be on keeping the pelvis/hip complex lifted so the pelvis doesn't tilt more than necessary for each dancer's specific anatomy." She continues, "Squaring the ribs to the front and anchoring the supporting shoulder down and back are the next steps I would suggest working on."

Then there is the energy Rodriguez says should be radiating through the body: "Down into the floor, forward through the eyes and fingers of the front hand, back through the foot and back, and back/side through the side arm."

A ballerina in a white, gold and blue embellished tutu poses in first arabesque on pointe.

San Francisco Ballet principal Sasha de Sola, as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, takes an arabesque looking out towards the audience.

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

Common Mistakes

Many dancers place too great a value on the height of the leg and end up distorting their line by allowing the hip to lift and open. "Students and professionals alike are forgetting that any position begins with the placement of the standing leg," notes Rodriguez.

When viewing competitor photos, Broad has similar feedback: "The vertical alignment of the standing hip is the first place my eye gravitates. If tilting occurs, I proceed to see how other regions of the body are affected." Tilting your pelvis forward limits turnout—which can result in pronation (rolling in) on the standing ankle—and causes the shoulders and torso to twist out of alignment.

Another common mistake occurs when the back leg opens out diagonally; dancers should practice first finding their placement in tendu derrière and then lift the leg (without allowing it to drift sideways).

In the search for extension, dancers also tend to "whack" the leg up without maintaining control. "It's important not to force the movement beyond where you can support your low back," says Daugherty. "Crunching into the low back in order to raise the back leg higher is the biggest problem I see." Doing so can eventually lead to serious injuries, like a stress fracture in the spine (spondylolysis), or back strains, pulled muscles and disc herniations.

The control, balance and focus needed to master arabesque are the same tools needed to succeed in all of ballet. By working with awareness and intention, dancers can work towards a higher leg while maintaining the alignment and purity of movement.

Latest Posts

Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

2020 Stars of the Corps: 10 Dancers Making Strides In and Out of the Spotlight

The corps de ballet make up the backbone of every company. In our Fall 2020 issue, we highlighted 10 ensemble standouts to keep your eye on. Click on their names to learn more!

Dara Holmes, Joffrey Ballet

A male dancer catches a female dancer in his right arm as she wraps her left arm around his shoulder and executes a high arabesque on pointe. Both wear white costumes and dance in front of a blue backdrop onstage.

Dara Holmes and Edson Barbosa in Myles Thatcher's Body of Your Dreams

Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet

Wanyue Qiao, American Ballet Theatre

Wearing a powder blue tutu, cropped light yellow top and feather tiara, Wanyue Qiao does a piqu\u00e9 retir\u00e9 on pointe on her left leg and pulls her right arm in towards her.

Wanyue Qiao as an Odalisque in Konstantin Sergeyev's Le Corsaire

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson, Houston Ballet

Three male dancers in tight-fitting, multicolored costumes stand in positions of ascending height from left to right. All extend their right arms out in front of them.

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson (far right) with Saul Newport and Austen Acevedo in Oliver Halkowich's Following

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Leah McFadden, Colorado Ballet

Wearing a white pixie wig and a short light-pink tunic costume, a female ballet dancer poses in attitude front on pointe with her left arm bent across her ribs and her right hand held below her chin.

Leah McFadden as Amour in Colorado Ballet's production of Don Quixote

Mike Watson, Courtesy Colorado Ballet

Maria Coelho, Tulsa Ballet

Maria Coelho and Sasha Chernjavsky in Andy Blankenbuehler's Remember Our Song

Kate Lubar, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Alexander Reneff-Olson, San Francisco Ballet

A ballerina in a black feathered tutu stands triumphantly in sous-sus, holding the hand of a male dancer in a dark cloak with feathers underneath who raises his left hand in the air.

Alexander Reneff-Olson (right) as Von Rothbart with San Francisco Ballet principal Yuan Yuan Tan in Swan Lake

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

India Bradley, New York City Ballet

Wearing a blue dance dress with rhinestone embellishments and a sparkly tiara, India Bradley finishes a move with her arms out to the side and hands slightly flexed.

India Bradley practices backstage before a performance of Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Bella Ureta, Cincinnati Ballet

Wearing a white dress with pink corset, Bella Ureta does a first arabesque on pointe in front of an onstage stone wall.

Bella Ureta performs the Act I Pas de Trois in Kirk Peterson's Swan Lake

Hiromi Platt, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Alejándro Gonzales, Oklahoma City Ballet

Dressed in a green bell-boy costume and hat, Alejandro Gonz\u00e1lez does a saut\u00e9 with his left leg in retir\u00e9 and his arms in a long diagonal from right to left. Other dancers in late 19-century period costumes watch him around the stage.

Alejandro González in Michael Pink's Dracula at Oklahoma City Ballet.

Kate Luber, Courtesy Oklahoma City Ballet

Nina Fernandes, Miami City Ballet

Wearing a long white tutu and crown, Nina Fernandes does a saut de chat in front of a wintery backdrop as snow falls from the top of the stage.

Nina Fernandes in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet

Courtesy Carrie Gaerte, modeled by 2020 Butler University graduate Michela Semenza

Concussions Are More Than a Bump on the Head. Here's What Dancers Need to Know

Your partner accidentally drops you during a lift. You collide head-on with another dancer in rehearsal. Or you're hit in the face while you're spotting a turn. Even if you didn't lose consciousness, you may have a concussion, which can occur from a direct blow to the head or rotary force of the brain moving excessively or striking the skull.

As a dancer, your first instinct may be to keep going, but you shouldn't, says physical therapist and athletic trainer Carrie Gaerte, PT, DPT, ATC, who works with Butler University in Indianapolis and at Ascension St. Vincent Sports Performance. "What's really hard for dancers is admitting that maybe something isn't right," she says. "But the big thing about concussions is that your brain is not like your ankle, shoulder or knee. When your brain has an injury, that needs to take precedence over a role or a job."

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

Thinking About College Ballet Programs? Here's a Comprehensive Guide to the Application Process

Gone are the days when you had to skip college in order to have a successful ballet career. College ballet programs are better than ever before, providing students with the training, professional connections and performance experience they need to thrive in companies postgraduation. But given the number of elements involved in the application process, choosing the right program can feel daunting. We've broken the college application timeline down step by step to help you best approach each stage along the way.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks