Just as the hands are used to embellish and punctuate our conversation, so in classical dance they also play a vital part in conveying expression and meaning. Although difficult to consider separately from the arms, the hands’ placement is nevertheless critical for a cultivated and sensitive ports de bras. Together with the arms they act as a framework for the head and torso, and are the means by which the subtle stylistic differences between a classical, romantic and a modern or contemporary ballet can be first distinguished.

While most dancers have beautiful hands, all too often we see hands that are fussy, or mannered, which can seriously undermine a dancer’s success. It is essential to prevent bad habits from creeping into ports de bras right from early training. Hand and arm movements should be taught to have an abstract purity, allowing style to be applied as required.

Joan Lawson, discussing the rules of the arms in The Principles of Classical Dance, insists that in class only simple ports de bras be used, and all should be kept calm. “They must be exact and economical – and they are therefore better simple.” Likewise the hands must also appear calm, but most importantly, alive “whenever the dancer pauses momentarily in some pose, or at the point of greatest effort, because each movement must be felt right through the body … to the tips of the fingers and toes”.

Rowena Jackson and Philip Chatfield, still both teaching after a lifetime in dance, agree that the hands must have a life of their own and should not float expressionlessly at the end of the arms. “When extended the hands must appear to be reaching as if to gently touch someone further away,” says Jackson, “which immediately affects the poise of the body and head.” And when moving from one position to the next Jackson recalls being taught early “that the wrists must always lead the way softly, both upwards and downwards, like a soft brush”.

And how should the hand be held and the fingers grouped? There is agreement across all schools that the hand should always form an unbroken line with the arm, where the arm in second position curves gently down, in line with the shoulders, to the hand. As for the fingers, my research revealed a myriad different ways of describing similar positioning. The Royal Academy of Dance (in The Foundations of Classical Ballet Technique) states most simply that in all positions “the fingers are softly grouped. The centre finger continues the curve of the inner arm and the thumb is in line with the index and middle fingers”.

The Balanchine style is softer with the fingers separated and delicate, while the hands slightly cup as if holding a small ball. Bolshoi beginners are taught to have the thumb touch the first knuckle of the second finger, making an egg shape, thus engraining this shape in their muscle memory. Later, they are asked to release the thumb, allowing a small amount of space for a more natural look. The little finger is highest, the index second and third finger next, giving a rounded shape at the end of each finger; a slight downturn after the second knuckle of each finger creating a soft, cascading look to the fingers, which never lie parallel.

The Vaganova Academy dictates that the hands also be held distinctly, with the thumb similarly held close to the middle finger, and the index and the ring finger slightly raised. Vaganova also encourages obvious hand movements where the hands do not flow gradually from one movement to the next, but instead slip into place at the last moment at the end of the arm’s movement. This sometimes results in a more decorative ports de bras than that of the English school.

The Australian Ballet’s education manager, Colin Peasley, answering a question about hands in the Australian Ballet’s “Ask Colin” section of their website, concedes that the use of a pencil hooked under the first and third fingers is one “way of encouraging the shape that the hand should take, with fingers slightly separated and a ‘dead’ thumb falling into the centre of the hand to help elongate the line of the arm.” Exercises such as finger fans (rolling and unrolling the fingers into a fist), he suggests will also help articulate and strengthen.

Ultimately however, beautiful and sensitive hands are unachievable if there is any underlying weakness in another part of the dancer’s body. Rigid fingers or thumbs, or the use of the arms to help in the execution of a step, are evidence of this strain. Hopefully a younger student will outgrow any weaknesses, because, as Lawson so succinctly puts it, with ballet being about communication, “without sensitive hands and arms the dancer is dumb”.

This article was first published in the June/July 2011 issue of Dance Australia

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