Despite starting ballet as a toddler, training at the schools of both Boston Ballet and National Ballet of Canada and ultimately dancing with such companies as Dance Theatre of Harlem and Ballet NY, Melissa Morrissey says that she still works hard to improve one of ballet’s most quintessential poses: first arabesque. Surprised that a pro with 11 years of experience struggles with such a basic position? Don’t be. Serious dancers are always striving for higher, more square first arabesques. “It’s the most telling of all the classical arabesques,” says the School of Oregon Ballet Theater’s Director Damara Bennett. “Anybody who wants to see what a dancer looks like asks for a picture in first arabesque. It’s used everywhere.”
5 Tips for a Refined Arabesque
To increase the height of the working leg, open the hip without lifting it, making sure rotation increases as the leg ascends higher.
The back should be positioned correctly to achieve adequate height. Instead of the strongly arched Vaganova back or the rigidly vertical back espoused by the Cecchetti school, Bennett prefers moving the torso forward to facilitate the leg’s ascent. The chest should be over the toes of the standing foot. A 90-degree back-to-leg angle is the aim.
To understand the proper positioning of the back: Face the barre in first position. Holding on with both hands, tendu derrire with the right foot. Then, cambré back, feeling the arch in the center of the back. Without standing upright, lift the foot in tendu off the floor as high as you can without moving your back. Then, keeping the same back-to-leg angle, bring your back up to a vertical position, imagining that the big toe is lifting your back. Repeat on the other side.
Keeping the arabesque square means neither tipping toward the standing leg nor lifting the working hip. For a symmetrical arabesque and a traditional line, square the rib cage by making the right side of the torso even with the left side of the torso (when you’re standing on your left leg), so that you feel the stretch in the middle of your back.
Lift the chin and look over the fingers of the lifted arms, which are in line with the center of the body.
Facing away from the barre on a diagonal, Melissa Morrissey holds on with her right hand to “keep the chest up and everything square and lifted.” She places the left leg on the barre, which helps increase flexibility in her back. By continuing to pull up over the supporting leg, she stays lifted and avoids letting her torso fall forward. Then, she lifts the leg as high off the barre as possible, holds for five seconds, and lowers the leg to the barre. She does 5-10 repetitions before reversing.
Susan Chitwood, a former apprentice with Virginia Ballet Theater, has an MS in journalism from Columbia University.
(From left) Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland (all photos by Erin Baiano)
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Imagine attending American Ballet Theatre's prestigious NYC summer intensive, training among classical ballet legends. Imagine taking the stage at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals, competing against some of the country's best contemporary dancers. Now, imagine doing both—at the same time.
Welcome to Madison Brown's world. This summer, she's in her third year as a National Training Scholar with ABT, while also competing for NYCDA's Teen Outstanding Dancer title. (She's already won Outstanding Dancer in the Mini and Junior categories.) The logistics are complicated—ABT's five-week intensive overlaps with the weeklong NYCDA Nationals, which translates to a lot of cabs back and forth across Manhattan—but Maddie is committed to making the most of each opportunity. "I love contemporary and ballet equally," she says. "While I'm able to do both, I want to do as much as I can."
Maddie has an expressive face, endless extensions, and a quiet command of the stage. She dances with remarkable maturity—a trait noted by none other than Jennifer Lopez, one of the judges on NBC's "World of Dance," on which Maddie competed in Season 2. Although Maddie didn't take home the show's top prize, she was proud to be the youngest remaining soloist when she was eliminated, and saw the whole experience as an opportunity to grow. After all, she's just getting started. Oh, that's right—did we mention Maddie's only 14?