The arabesque is one of the basic positions of the ballet technique. Codified by Carlo Blasis, the arabesque has evolved through time. Most dancers are now following the technical fundamentals and aesthetics set by Agrippina Vaganova without necessarily knowing it. So what changes did Vaganova bring to the technique of the arabesque and what was her reasoning?

Vaganova’s views of the French and Italian arabesque

Vaganova explains how her arabesques differs to the French and Italian arabesques by using the first arabesque (also called open or allongée). Note: we are referring here to the French and Italian technique at the beginning of the 20th century. Vaganova believed that the French and Italian arabesques had serious shortcomings which were obvious during arabesque turns.

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She found that, in turns, the French arabesque doesn’t allow to finish the turns. A quick analysis of the position validates her observation: in the French arabesque, the back was leaning forward passively which means that one couldn’t use the back to create any momentum in a turn. She also believed that the French arabesque was looking too sluggish with the upper body passively leaning forward and the arm inexpressively in 2nd position.

She found that the Italian arabesque didn’t have this softness due to the back being upright and questioned the placement of the arm far behind. In turns, the Italian arabesque resulted in bent knees which she found unaesthetic. One of the principles of ballet is to erase any angle in the body.

Vaganova’s first arabesque

Vaganova thus suggests a different 1st arabesque. Vaganova suggested that the upper body is allowed to shift forward to provide a more pleasant visual line and a sense of forward impetus. However, contrary to the French arabesque, the body is not leaning forward, the upper body is in a cambré position, curved from the thoracic spine (your waist line) upward. In other words, you pull up your back, you don’t pull it forward.

Vaganova places the arm just behind a regular 2nd position to ensure muscular tension in the back. This mention of muscular tension through specific arm placement is interesting to anyone with some notions of fascia lines and biotensegrity. It would seem that Vaganova had experienced by herself that some arm placement made is easier to put into tension muscle chains from one arm through the back to the other arm. A principle vital to a coordinated and gracious dance practice.

Vaganova’s principles of a good arabesque

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Contrary to common beliefs, Vaganova’s motives are not to lift the leg higher. She mentions that the leg in arabesque is at 90˚ or above, which was already the standard. The drawings reflect that

Vaganova mainly focuses on back alignment. In her manual, Foundations of Classical Ballet, she stresses that without a good back alignment there is no harmonious arabesque. The changes she proposed: chest and arm placement are meant to help the dancer with a stronger back and a more aesthetic position.

The 2nd, 3rd and 4th arabesque are based on the same principles with just changes in the standing leg and forward arm.

If you are looking for help to improve your arabesque, you’ll want to follow our 3 weeks program ‘Improve your arabesque’: an extensive program of ballet technique review, anatomy explanations and conditioning exercises to enhance the look and feel of your arabesque.