“One of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever-shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from the personal life into the world of objective perception and thought”, by Einstein.
After working many years with master teachers such as Nikolai Morozov, Ludmila Morkovina, Ramazan Bapov and Richard Glasstone in two prominent teaching methods, as well as performing professionally for more than thirty years and teaching classical ballet for thirteen years in Europe, Asia, America and Canada; I have concluded that the Cecchetti and Vaganova arm positions can be improved upon. In this article I present ten complete classical arm positions, introduce the concept of allongé dessus (elongation over, palm looking up) and allongé dessous (elongation under, palm looking down) in addition to allongé simple (elongation out and away.)
Catbas Arm Positions:
1st position 2nd position 3rd position 4th position
(Low 2nd elongated) (High 2nd elongated)
5th position 6th position 7th position 8th position
9th position 10th position
Three elongations with 7th position:
Allongé dessus Allongé simple Allongé dessous
(Elongation over) (Elongation out-away) (Elongation under)
Enrico Cecchetti (1850-1928) was an Italian principal dancer who made his Russian début at the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg in 1887. Cecchetti taught at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg from 1887-1902, and then the Warsaw State School in Poland from 1902-1905. In 1925 he became the ballet master at La Scala and devoted the rest of his life to perfecting his teaching method. At that time he was regarded as the absolute expert ballet teacher. The Cecchetti Method describes nine different arm movements with only five defined positions. It has two low arm positions (first position and fifth en bas), two fourth positions (medium and high) and three fifth positions (low, medium and high). There is demie seconde (a position in between first and second) and a complicated third position but no demie cinquième en haut (a position in between second and fifth.) The allongé is restricted to the elongation of the entire body with palms facing forward (allongé simple), avoiding forearm movements. Many believe that the Cecchetti arm positions flow and blend more smoothly than any other technique, however the need for a movement from the elbows emerges when we raise the arms up, as the palms would otherwise face either forward (from 2nd position) or backwards (from 5th en avant).
Cecchetti Arm Positions:
1st position 2nd position 3rd position
4th en avant 4th en haut Spanish fourth
5th en haut 5th en avant 5th en bas
(High) up (Medium) front (Low) down
Agrippina Vaganova (1879-1951) was the great Russian teacher who developed the system that bears her name. In her early years as a student, her own struggle with classical ballet technique inspired her to create and perfect a successful syllabus which enabled her to teach pupils who would eventually become ballet legends. In 1934, she published her textbook Fundamentals of the Classic Dance which is recognized as the basic method of all Russian choreographic schools and is used worldwide. She was also the director of the Vaganova Ballet Academy, the official school of the Kirov Ballet (Mariinsky Theatre.) The Vaganova system contains three arm positions and a preparatory (low first position elongated out-away), corresponding to Cecchetti’s fifth position en bas (in French style, bras au repos meaning arms at ease.) In my opinion the term preparatory can be misleading, as if a proper low arm position was deliberately excluded. The port de bras is fluid since the elongation with the forearms is allowed, yet it ends abruptly at sixth, without any low arm positions except for the preparatory (the extensive use of the classical tutu at the time may be the justification for it since a classical tutu will prevent the ballerina from having them.) A fifth position is also scarcely mentioned corresponding to the first position en haut (arms are in a horizontal oval shape instead of vertical oval when they are raised above the head, thus shorter than the third position.)
Vaganova Arm Positions:
Preparatory 1st position 2nd position 3rd position
(Low 1st elongated) (5th elongated)
Petite pose Grande pose 5th position
Both Vaganova and Cecchetti styles have the second arm position sideways to match the second leg position (a clear homage to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”.)
“No human inquiry can be called science unless it pursues its path through mathematical exposition and demonstration”, Leonardo Da Vinci.
In this much improved new concept, when teaching small children, having low, medium and high arm positions in an order (as first, second and third positions), eases the demonstration of keeping the shoulders down (scapulae aligned) with an elongated spine (including the back of the neck). In martial arts, the three fundamental arm positions: Low chi, medium chi and high chi are also all in front of the body, taking priority over the side arm positions.
A common criticism may be that ten arm positions are too many for a pupil to learn. But the completion of a cycle during the port de bras provides continuity in a teaching philosophy. One should try to see the profound simplicity that exists on the far side of its complexity. The progression should be based naturally on a student’s talent and his instructor’s good sense.
I believe each arm position can be performed with all 7 positions of the feet; therefore it is possible to stay symmetrical and proportional without matching them numerically to each other. I also intentionally excluded the crossed arms (low, medium and high) that were commonly used by Balanchine, and the character arms (arms slightly behind the body) that are performed in every one of Petipa’s choreography, since the execution of positions in both cases would need a horizontal movement from the shoulders (épaulement). In this teaching method holding the shoulders in one place is the key to work the muscles always the same way: Correctly (vertically against gravity).
The practice of my system also addresses the following issues:
- The Cecchetti Method “first position” becomes: À la première position allongée dessus (Cem Catbas’ first position elongated over).
- Demie seconde or so-called “tutu arm position” (awkward when teaching male students) becomes: À la seconde position allongée dessous (Cem Catbas’ second position elongated under).
- The undefined arm position that is given during grand jeté devant becomes: À la seconde position allongée dessus (Cem Catbas’ second position elongated over).
- First arabesque becomes: À la sixième position allongée dessous epaulée avec la tête en haut et en avant (Cem Catbas’ sixth position elongated under with shoulders moved horizontally, head up and forward).
Low 1st arabesque 1st arabesque High 1st arabesque
The correct use of arms from a position into port de bras.
4th position 4th elongated over 4th allongée with épaulement
When teaching older students and professional dancers, utilizing ten arm positions with three different elongations (forearms activated), opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Attaining various allongés with each arm position can help make every port de bras more meaningful, offering a classical ballet artist the freedom to go sensibly beyond technique. My intention was to develop a logical teaching system that covers the harmonious circular arrangement of both arms, and contributes to the evolution of classical ballet training.
Romantic tutu Platter tutu
“The moment thou performed thine art with the true knowledge of thy mind would undoubtedly be the dayspring wherein one transcended everything ever known to mankind”, Cem Catbas.