• Zoe Phillips

Arabesques and Art: Histories of a Position

Updated: Dec 29, 2019

In our classrooms of pure classical ballet, the meanings of our movements hold serious power.

When teaching ballet, especially in more traditional studios, teachers will often refer to the literal meaning of a term in an effort to further students' understanding of the movement at hand. For example, the term pas de chat translates to "step of the cat;" hence, a ballet teacher might use the image of a cat to encourage a student to embody the skittish energy of such a jump. After years of this practice, students end up with an impressive vocabulary of terms that help them encapsulate their knowledge of movement.

Recently, an inquiring mind asked me about the term arabesque [a-ra-BESK]: "What does it mean?" They asked as I posed for one on a cliffside. I was caught off guard. My years of curiosity and training has taught me many words, and one would assume that I'd know this one given how common a position it is. (Try to find one ballet variation that doesn't include at least one arabesque: far more challenging than you think!)

Alas, I had no answer. A few days later my curiosity continued to twirl in the back of my head, and thus launched my hunt to find out.

An arabesque is a position that Gail Grant describes as "the body, in profile, supported on one leg, which can be straight or demi-plié, with the other leg extended behind at right angles to it, and the arms held in various harmonious positions... the shoulders must be held square to the line of direction."

Wow, what a mouthful. Despite the number of words here, I'd like to add even more detail and argue that the leg which is extended behind does not necessarily need to be at a right angle. Arabesques can be created with virtually any angle depending on the style a dancer is conveying.

That said, what does the term actually mean?

Like most (but not all) ballet words, arabesque is a French term. Its translation is a bit unclear but after some research, I think it loosely means "in Arabic fashion," which would make sense in reference to Gail Grant's explanation that the arabesque takes its name from "a form of Moorish ornament."

If we move to a non-ballet source, Merriam-Webster provides more context. Its dictionary entry gives me three explanations: first "an ornament or style that... produces an intricate pattern of interlaced lines," second :the position from ballet", and third "an elaborate or intricate pattern."

Indeed, if you google "arabesque" without reference to ballet, the images that come up are all reminiscent of the Arabic art style often found on mosques or in rugs and ornamental furniture.

Though the connection between these geometric stylings and our ballet position may seem vague, it actually makes sense to me. Reexamine the definitions from Merriam-Webster and you'll notice the words "elaborate," "intricate," and "interlaced lines." A ballet arabesque is all of these things, especially when we take into account just how many arabesque positions there are. Arabesques require specific positioning from all four limbs, both hips, the shoulders, the head, the neck, and even the eyes. Consider how many possible combinations we could create using this many categories and we can see why Gail Grant says that "the forms of arabesques are varied to infinity." They are, just like their namesake art style, a collection of interlaced lines.

Various schools of technique summarize these different combinations using differently numbered positions; the RAD method uses three arabesques, Cecchetti uses five, Vaganova four, and French two. I'm not sure how many Balanchine uses, but I do know that their arabesque is also distinct in that the hips are open rather than remaining square.

The diversity across and within techniques requires an elaborate database of knowledge and understanding on how to control one's body, mimicking the elaborate nature of the namesake art that Merriam-Webster speaks of.

Further, the specificity required to differentiate each arabesque position is just one level of focus. No matter the type of arabesque, the general position is extremely demanding in its placement.

As Gail Grant notes, no matter which arabesque a dancer holds the goal is to create "the longest possible line from the fingertips to the toes." This perceived stretch demands intense attention to details like the direction and energy of each finger and toe. If someone holds an arabesque with energy shooting from their legs and arms, but relaxes their finger or wrist by an inch, this makes a huge difference when creating that overall length.

Just as important, the eyes play a role in performing this line, too. If a dancer holds a beautiful arabesque but only places their focus a few inches past their body, the audience will sense a lack of energy. Instead, dance students are often advised to look beyond the studio or stage's walls. Balanchine often told his dancers to "reach for diamonds." This creates a sense of energy that moves well beyond the performer's physical body. Often the completion of this energy comes solely from the powerful focus of a dancer's eyeline; in other words, we can change the feel of an arabesque without moving anything physically. These types of focus are highly intricate, again mimicking the detail required of these beautiful geometric art pieces.

Thus we discover a strong connection between these two types of art that at first seem completely unrelated. Finding these connections, especially when they seem so disparate, reminds me of ballet's importance and singularity as one of the oldest forms of movement in the Western world.

Ballet's terminology holds importance far beyond its own sphere. Most other styles of dance rely on words borrowed from ballet to describe their movements, yet their meanings are often long forgotten. But in classrooms of classical ballet, the meanings of our movements hold serious power. Behind each term is a story often interlaced with history, and the more we are able to study and understand these stories the more our study of ballet becomes a preservation of such history.

Not done twirling? The Entrance of the Shades scene from the ballet La Bayadère is one of the most impressive of all ballet repertoire: 24 women perform a consecutive 39 arabesques as they descend a ramp into the kingdom of shades. When performed correctly, it is sure to leave the audience with chills! (In the below video, it starts around 2:30).

This article first appeared on on Sep. 16 2019


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Updated 2020. Many thanks to Emily Considine for the header art at the top of my page!