The signature cupped hands of the celebrants in Primitive Mysteries; the clawed hands of Medea in Cave of the Heart—“Graham hands" are unmistakable and create next-level drama. Each thrust or flick enhances Graham's larger-than-life characters. “Martha marveled over the possibilities of the hands," says Terese Capucilli, a former Martha Graham Dance Company principal dancer who trained with Graham, and was co-artistic director of the company from 2002–05. “She used hands as an extension of the expression that inhabits the body. It's a magnification of the energy that's projected from the center."
Lindsi Dec in Kyon Gaines' M-Pulse (by Angela Sterling)
You’re at the ballet, and a dancer catches your eye. She’s got strength, charisma and a beautiful movement quality—but there’s something about her that bothers you. Then you place it: Her hands! Her wrists are floppy and her fingers stick out all over the place. Small as they may be, those bad hand habits change the whole feel of her dancing.
The way you use your hands in ballet can make or break your line. The cardinal rule—hands should enhance your dancing, not distract from it—is simple enough. But getting just the right look can be tricky. Read on to learn about how different techniques use the hands, and how you can overcome the most common bad habits.
George Balanchine trained his dancers to have rounded and delicate hands. “He would have people hold a little ball so that the palm of the hand would round rather than stay flat,” says Kay Mazzo, co-chairman of faculty at the School of American Ballet. “When the fingers opened from the ball, he wanted them to open like a flower.” In the Balanchine style, all five fingers should be seen, not stuck together, and never held straight or stiff. There should be energy coming from the fingertips and life throughout the hands. In arabesque, stretch your fingers to the limit and elongate your line.
In the Vaganova style, the hands are placed so they follow the natural line of the arm. “The thumbs should be curved and softly touching the second joint, not the first joint, of the middle finger,” says Martin Fredmann, artistic director of the Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C. “The fingers should be separated but not all spread out. It’s a beautification of what’s natural, not an exaggeration.” Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) follows a similar model, but prefers a long line from the shoulder to the fingers, with no broken wrist. Cecchetti teachers prefer curved fingers in demi-seconde, as if you’re holding the edge of your tutu.
Albertson and Bramaz in In the Night (by Linda Hervieux)
All of the styles agree on one point: The hands should be expressive. “Most students forget there’s something beyond the wrist,” Mazzo says. “Always think of your hands as alive.”
Most ballet dancers have had to overcome some kind of bad hand habit. Getting your hands right can take just as much time and effort as getting your pirouettes right. Lindsi Dec, a soloist with Pacific Northwest Ballet, says her hands are a constant struggle for her. “I have one hand that’s more tense than the other, so it looks like a pancake,” she admits. “It’s hard for me to think about relaxing it and being strong in my legs simultaneously.” She focuses on initiating her arm movements from her back, not her fingers, to ease the tension in her hands.
Sometimes a little thing like nail polish can help make you more aware of your hands. When Dec first joined PNB, she even borrowed then-principal dancer Patricia Barker’s rings to wear for class. “They helped me think about my hands a bit more in center,” she says. If you don’t want to wear jewelry or paint your nails, imagine a tingling sensation in your fingertips, which will help you remain conscious of them.
Tricia Albertson, a principal with Miami City Ballet, struggles with another common problem: floppy wrists. “I have to work hard to think of my hand as an extension of my arm,” she says, “so that every line finishes with the fingertips.” She’ll often go through a variation marking the legs but doing the arms full-out, concentrating on maintaining the line of her arm through her wrists and fingers. To avoid flapping her hands during fast steps, like petit allégro, she’ll try moving her arms and legs at different tempos. “I half-time my arms so my wrists don’t respond to the jolt of each jump,” she says.
The best way to develop good hands is to be aware of how you’re using them right from the beginning. “Even when you’re starting your preparation at the barre, think about how you’re holding your fingers,” Mazzo says. “It doesn’t come automatically”—but it will, with practice.