• Zoe Phillips

At Our Fingertips: A Closer Look at Ballet's Hands

Updated: Dec 29, 2019

We breath through fluctuations in our fingertips and thus make them an active yet unclenched role in our dancing.

Louisville Ballet dancer Annie Honebrink Krieger (photo: Sam English)

New York City Ballet Principal Sara Mearns once made the astute observation that "most people, when you're in the audience, you watch from waist up." She's right. Our upper bodies are our storytellers; delicate angles from the neck and subtle glances with the eyes can shape a performance's atmosphere and ultimately create the intangible quality of diaphanous power that's so special to us. Year after year, it's this balance between strength and grace that sets ballet apart from its artistic counterparts.

Today, I'm twirling over what is perhaps the most under-appreciated part of this upper-body package: the hands. Below, the Australian Ballet gives a closeup.

Like many components of ballet, hands need to stay supported and supple all at once. Have you ever chuckled to yourself when hearing a makeup look described as "completely natural"? That's the paradox we're shooting for with ballet hands, too.

A beautiful hand is one that can go easily unnoticed. Fingers should melt out of wrists in a beautiful extension of arms. It's quality that remains wholeheartedly unique to ballet.

To explain, let's take a field trip. Watch gymnast and 2020 Olympic contender Riley McCusker dance through a 2018 floor routine and pay specific attention to her hands. Notice how she clenches her wrists at steep angles and sends energy pulsating through her locked knuckles. She's got the perfect hands for gymnastics. This sense of all-power, all-the-time is what sends her into those impressive flips and tumbles. There is no room for softness. Everything is taut.

A step removed from gymnastics we have competition dance hands, which are less taut but equally as static in their energy level. I briefly mentioned this detail back in May when discussing Kayla Mak on NBC World of Dance. Like most competition dancers, Mak splays all five fingers. Try tensing all the muscles in your hand and watch as all your fingers shoot out in different directions; that's the basic undertone of a competition hand. Watch this performance of a 2019 junior team on World of Dance for another example: all the dancer's bodies, including their fingertips, are so full of energy that they have to whack through each movement. This energy level is impressive in and of itself, but unfortunately it leaves very little room for variation. To me, it's the artistic equivalent of only ever using five-word sentences. Not necessarily wrong, but after a while, less engaging.

Ballet hands are different. They move organically in tandem with the arms and back. By relaxing our fingers, we transform them into the lungs outside of our bodies. We breath through fluctuations in our fingertips and thus make them an active yet unclenched role in our dancing.

Try this exercise from Claudia Dean: put your hands together at your chest in a sort of prayer position; push them together as hard you possibly can until the force sends them away from each other. Do your fingers and wrists feel like they're floating for just a second afterwards? That's the feeling ballet dancers want.

Of course, that effortlessness can be quite hard to achieve. To get there, we have specific rules to abide by when holding our fingers. The middle finger sits slightly lower than the other three, and the thumb is always tucked underneath. This position is so specific that many ballet teachers can judge the level of a student's training merely by seeing their hands at work. As pliés start the ballet class, we can zoom in on a dancer's fingertips before they've even moved a leg. If their thumb is outstretched, we can guess that the student might not be heavily trained in ballet.

Hands also differ depending on technique. For more classical schools, hands are quite tapered. The thumb stays very close to the other fingers and from the side we can only differentiate two or three fingers. Below, watch Yasmin Naghdi complete a variation from La Bayadere and notice how elongated she keeps her fingertips. Traditionally, classical male fingers tend to stagger less than the female's, creating a flatter look. Watch Taisuke Nakao land some beautiful jumps at 0:29 and notice how how flat he keeps his hands. He shows off way less of his pointer finger that Yasmin does.

I like to think of this technique as the finishing stroke on a fine tipped calligraphy pen. It's an exacting and graceful work of art. George Balanchine, however, felt like it looked too similar to a mannequin. He told his dancers to add more space between each finger because he wanted to see all five digits. The result is a more rounded version of the classical style. Below, watch a clip of Lauren Lovette demonstrate this rounding. This look has its own beauty, too. When done correctly, the spacing of the fingers can accentuate the breathing we mentioned earlier, in turn adding dynamism to the movement. However, dancers have to be extra careful not to over-round or hold tension in their fingers because that added space can easily turn into "claw hands," a mean nickname for neoclassical hands.

These days, Balanchine hands tend to be more common across all techniques. Fingers are flying freer nowadays. Many dancers in Russia and parts of Europe use an amalgamation of both looks, leaning towards the more rounded style of the neoclassical school. Male hands have become less flat, too. Watch the Bolshoi Ballet's trailer for Sleeping Beauty and note that all the hands are more rounded than earlier examples.

With such specific guidelines, there are no shortcuts for developing these fingers. The only ingredients involved are two big helpings of time and repetition.

Teachers spend years showing and reminding students where to place their fingers. Sometimes, young dancers will weave a chopstick or pencil in between their middle finger and the rest of the hand to practice the desired position. Occasionally, teachers give students a small ball to hold gently in between their thumb and middle finger while dancing so the muscles understand where to go. Once, I even had a teacher give me a real rose to rest in my palm in an effort to achieve the molded delicacy that those fingertips need to portray.

This connection is why it's so important to support our wrists, too. Even if the fingers look great, an overly bent wrist can break that line and distract the audience. Some dancers fluctuate their wrists more than others, especially in Russian schools. Much like the other technical differences, it's up to your personal preference on whether you like this or not. I often think dancers can get too "wrist-y," but the style can be effective in portraying sadness or desperation in ballets like Giselle or Swan Lake. It's important to remember, however, that a bent wrist is not a clenched wrist. Notice that both of the linked examples pinch their wrists at higher angles while still maintaining a balletic quality in their fingers and arms.

To finish, let's watch one of my new favorite ballet short films: San Francisco Ballet in Justin Peck's In the Countenance of Kings. On the surface, this piece seemingly breaks a lot of ballet's age-old rules. The dancers wear sneakers and the lead leaves her hair down. The group darts around a dilapidated building, not a studio or a stage. Despite all this, it's still wholeheartedly ballet.

Though you may not be drawn to them, the hands are a big part of this balance. Imagine if everyone had their thumb sticking out, or locked their knuckles. We can guarantee the entire flirtatious bounce of the choreography would be ruined. Instead, the dancers' hands breath alongside their movements, grounding the work in a rich aesthetic of classical ballet.

I first published this article on the original twirls4thoughts blog, Sep. 16 2019

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