Lets Talk Port de Bras!

Lately, many student’s parents have asked, “What is Port de Bras?”  So lets clear up all the confusion!

In french, port de bras, literally means the carriage of the arms.  I completely understand why there is often questions.  In dance, it can refer to two different things, it is both an action and a description.  Port de bras can refer to specific exercises and also refer to the quality of movement. Confusing!

Port de bras describes a set of exercises designed to improve the quality and strength behind your arm positions.  They are typically performed as traditional exercises in ballet classes.  To the untrained eye, it appears that dancers are just practicing their basic positions or creating pictures, but it is not that simple. Ideally, the teacher should be emphasizing the importance of using the correct muscles and coordination to both strength train and solidify the correct muscular connections as the exercises are completed. Correct port de bras should look effortless yet be completely controlled.  There should be a light and graceful quality, yet it should feel like you are moving your arms through peanut butter. This can take years to perfect.

It is also more commonly used as a general description of the quality of the arm movements of a dancer. This is typically where parents are hearing the term used. Quality of a port de bras is defined as the correct muscular connection created to move the arm, the effortless control, ability to hold body alignment perfectly and use proper back connections to control the arms. Some dancers have more natural ability to find their port de bras connection quickly yet others can struggle for years to build their correct connection. Proper port de bras is essential to advancement and can hinder a dancers progression in all areas, especially pirouettes, jumps and ballet lines. Arms are so vital to keeping the body in alignment and control as you dance.

So lets talk body alignment.  First and foremost, a dancer’s core must be strong.  It is the foundation of everything else.  Once the core is pulled up and connected, the rib cage can be closed.  Only then can the dancer have the ability to relax the neck and shoulders. Relaxing the neck and shoulders as you dance is crucial to a dancers advancement.  Noticing tension in this area is a sure sign that there is alignment issues to address.

The strength and control required to lift the arms should come from the back.  The latissimus dorsi, or commonly nicknamed the “lats”, are the large muscles running from the lower and mid-back area across the ribs and inserting into the arms. I often describe these as your “wings” to my younger students. This helps with the visual picture and encourages connection in the right place.  The “lats” or your “wings”  must stabilize the back and be the point of control for the arms.  If there is any issues happening with center control, shoulders or neck muscles, it will be difficult to use the “lat” muscles correctly. The “lats” similar to “wings” wrap around the back and send energy up and out of the center.   This is energy that is important to visualize and feel as you move your arms through space. The “lats” support all movement of the arms!

The deltoid muscles, located at the cap of the shoulders, are responsible for lifting the arms and working as a team with the “lats.” A young dancer often makes the mistake of initiating movements from the elbows or lifting the shoulders. The deltoids must be the initiator! In Picture A,  you can see clearly the deltoid muscles engaged and supporting the arms.  You can also visualize the “lats” stabilizing the body and acting as a support for the arms.

Picture A: Great Port de Bras

Here are the tips to the perfect port de bras:

  • Shoulders should be down.
  • Neck is relaxed without any tension.
  • Rib cage is closed and connected to your core.
  • Elbows are lifted.
  • Palms are slightly lower than elbows.
  • Hands are relaxed yet slightly angled towards the floor with fingers placed.
  • Arms should appear as if there is a gradual slope downwards.
  • Arms should have a circular feeling as you send energy towards the fingers.

    Picture B: Bad Port de Bras

These tips are illustrated in Picture A.  Picture B, helps to illustrate droopy elbows, a common problem with young and beginning level dancers. You can also see how it negatively affects the back muscles and knocks the body out of alignment.

To visualize these details in a familiar language, lets talk “Dirty Dancing“.  Those who have seen the original movie starring Patrick Swayze, you might remember the scene when he teaches Baby how to dance for the first time.  He refers to her arms as “spaghetti arms” and holds her arms up to the correct level.  He describes that this is your dance space and illustrates that she is meant to support her own arms, they are her frame.  I think about this all this time.  It helps me to think about by back as my support system … and the visual helps!  I’m sure if Patrick Swayze had his hand on your waist, you would be extra pulled up, lifted and connected! Am I right? It is a helpful visual.  If you aren’t from my generation, then please insert one of the Twilight gentlemen instead!  Same principles apply.

Parents, if you are hearing this from your child’s teacher, then it might be time to spend some time in front of the mirror revisiting body alignment.  Throughout the teen and pre-teen years it is important to revisit body alignment regularly, as the body is growing and changing regularly.  I often encourage dancers to go back and take a beginning ballet class.  A lower level class is a great opportunity to revisit the basics and correct any problems.  It is also a great idea to volunteer to help out a lower level class or be a teacher’s assistant.  A true dancer can learn something in any level class that he or she may take, participate it or assist….

Special thanks to Ali from Elite Dance Studio for being my gracious port de bras model.

“Our arms start from the back because they were once wings.”
-Martha Graham

Happy dancing!


Lets further the art of dance together… ASK MS. SONYA, I want to help!


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