"Port de bras creates colors," says Larissa Ponomarenko, ballet mistress at Boston Ballet. "It gives vitality and vibrancy to dancing." Here, she shares how she coaches her dancers towards strength, coordination and artistry in the use of their arms.
First, Fix Your Posture
Many bad habits Larissa Ponomarenko sees in port de bras—like drooping elbows and flapping wrists—originate in the lack of a muscular connection between the arms and back. This often has a postural cause: "A concave chest, shoulder blades squeezed in close to the spine, or arching the back too much," she says. "Feel the sternum going forward and opening up but the ribs closing, and the scapulae pulling sideways and flat for a strong, wide ballerina back."
- To help find that alignment and muscular connection to your back, Ponomarenko suggests trying a handstand against a wall (have a friend help). "Being stretched through the torso and the neck, almost like a violin string, helps to align the body from the tip of the head to the tailbone." Feel energy pushing down into the floor and push yourself away. "You will feel the sides of the back working automatically."
- The dorsal muscles will also engage with a little gentle resistance. Stand facing a wall with your arms in first position. Invert your hands so they face out, and gently push against the wall until your feel your back muscles fire.
- Ponomarenko learned this breathing technique at the Vaganova Ballet Academy: Keeping your rib cage closed and the sides of your back engaged, try to breathe into your upper chest, lengthening your spine with every inhale. "Move air up, without opening the ribs like an accordion. It is helpful to have the connection right away between the lungs, back, sternum and clavicles."
Move From Your Middle
Imagine your arms begin low in the back. "Often the port de bras moves because the back moves, and the back moves from the waist, with the internal and external obliques and the dorsals." The movement, initiating in the back, continues through the shoulder, upper arm and forearm, ending with a lightly breathing wrist.
To build up strength and fluidity, Ponomarenko advises practicing lots of isolated ports de bras, thinking continuously of lifting and opening your back. "Go through varieties of port de bras for at least 5 to 10 minutes every day."
Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet
Put It Together
"Coordination is important because the arms help so much in technical aspects of dancing," says Ponomarenko. The building blocks of coordination, she continues, begin at the barre. For example, if the arm is moving from second position to first, it must always anticipate by turning in to allongé with the movement right before. "The arms and head should be used at barre every day, a lot. Coordination is engraved throughout the barre."
Use Your Hands
"Hands and wrists can be the most expressive," says Ponomarenko. "By the way a hand is held we should know if the character is a noble or a peasant; if they are giving or begging, pointing, commanding, or praising; if they are tense or relaxed, affectionate or sensual; even if they are human or ethereal beings."
Give It Meaning
"A perfectly rehearsed passage of the arms should have reason behind every movement," Ponomarenko says. "Coordination of the hands and chin rising and lowering, use of the épaulement, angles of the head, tilts of the shoulders, extensive use of the back—all that should be organic and skillful, like eloquent speech."
In jumps, imagine a tightrope walker's pole extending between your two elbows. "With that sturdy and helpful line, you can navigate balance, direction and elevation. And then from the elbow down, the arm reflects the movement like a silk scarf."