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4 Targeted Cross-Training Exercises to Tune Up Your Port de Bras

Ballet naturally creates strong legs. Arms, however, are another story. Many dancers are relatively weak in their upper bodies. They struggle with messy, floppy or stiff port de bras—or the dreaded “chicken wings." The good news? Targeted cross-training exercises can build strength in your upper body without adding bulk, and open your chest, upper back and sides. They offer a shortcut to smoother, freer, more supported port de bras.

Side Lying Arm Circle

All photos modeled by Elaine Hanson

Nathan Sayers

Many dancers keep tension in their upper backs, so it's important to warm up the area before dancing, says Jennifer Green, a physical therapist who owns New York City's PhysioArts. Before class, lie on your right side with your left leg bent in a loose parallel passé. With the left hand, trace a circle along the floor from your knee, over your head, behind your back, then returning to your knee. Reverse the circle, repeat three to five times, then switch sides.

As your arm reaches around, extend through the upper back and twist your trunk. Keep your breath and eyes connected to the movement the whole time so that you train your body to relate your arms to your spine. This arm circle is a great way to start the day—it gently warms and limbers the upper back and chest muscles, allowing you to move your arms in their full range of motion. It also releases tension that can cause stiff port de bras.

Pilates Magic Circle Series

Nathan Sayers

No reformer handy? A Pilates ring is an excellent standby. Ashley Pierson, a Pilates coordinator at Equinox in New York City, recommends using the ring to add resistance to traditional ballet arm positions. Begin by holding the ring en bas (with slightly rounded elbows). Squeeze the ring 10 times. Lift your arms to first, then fifth, repeating the 10 pulses in each position. Or, you can try pulsing continuously while moving through your port de bras from en bas to fifth. Whichever version you choose, be sure to maintain proper placement in your torso: Don't let the shoulders or ribs rise as the arms lift. Instead, draw the shoulder blades down and plug the upper arm bone into the socket. In addition to toning your arms, this exercise trains your trunk to maintain correct alignment as your arms rise over your head.

Nathan Sayers

Many dancers have loose shoulder joints but tight chests, creating dangerous joint imbalances that leave them susceptible to injury. Open your chest and strengthen your back with this exercise: Put your hands on either side of the ring, holding it behind you. With slightly bent elbows, attempt to squeeze the ring (without letting your shoulders roll forward). The ring will not move! Pierson suggests three sets of 10 squeezes. This strengthens the rhomboids and trapezius muscles to help keep your shoulder blades in place. The trapezius also helps you support your arms from the back—which means it's easier to hold proper positions, especially second. The best part? This will make you stronger without adding significant muscle mass. "These exercises work smaller, stabilizing muscles of the shoulder girdle," says Pierson, "so don't worry about bulking!"

Tabletop Extensions

Nathan Sayers

For multi-tasking dancers, tabletop exercises (on hands and knees) can provide a full core, back and shoulder warm-up. "Don't do heavy-duty strengthening before class," Green says. "Go for muscle warmth, not fatigue." Start in a tabletop position with your knees directly underneath your hips and your hands directly underneath your shoulders. Engage your deep core muscles to maintain a neutral spine as you extend one limb at a time without shifting your body. Next, reach the right arm forward while the left leg reaches back, then switch sides. Because your torso is parallel to the floor, this exercise challenges the entire core, working your abdominals, obliques, shoulders and back. It will give you the strength to keep the spine quiet as your limbs move through space.

Resistance On-The-Go

Nathan Sayers

Thera-Bands are many dancers' go-to, portable resistance tools. They're also a favorite of physical therapists because their possibilities are endless. Try the "classic" external rotator cuff exercise. Hold a looped, light to medium band in your hands, with your elbows bent to 90 degrees by your sides. Stretch the band apart by rotating the upper arm bone outward in the shoulder socket. Your elbows should not move. Hold for a moment, then slowly resist the band's pull as you bring it back to the starting position. Aim for three sets of 10 rotations. A strong rotator cuff equals a healthy, balanced shoulder joint, preventing injuries from partnering and quick arm movements.

Nathan Sayers

To strengthen the second position port de bras, Green has dancers wrap a semi-light band behind their back and hold the ends. Start with your elbows bent to 90 degrees and hands facing forward, and then extend the arms to a true second with rounded elbows. This exercise will give your second position more support and create resistance through your port de bras so that your arms don't look weak or floppy.

Practiced regularly, these exercises will awaken integral stabilizing muscles and help you eliminate noodley, weak arms. Then you can transform your shoulder and core strength into true port de bras artistry.

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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