Arabesque Dance Definition Essay

In ballet, arabesque is a position where the body is supported on one leg, with the other leg extended directly behind the body with a straight knee.

The standing leg can be straight or in plie, but the back leg must always be straight.  Arabesque can be found in almost every aspect of a ballet, both contemporary and classical, as well as other dance forms.  Arabesque can be done with the back leg either on the ground (a terre) or raised in the air (en l’air).

Different Arabesque Positions

Arabesque has several different versions, all defined by the position of the dancer’s arms.  The one constant is that the dancer must have a straight leg directly behind them, or it is not an arabesque. The different positions that can be done are first arabesque, second arabesque or third arabesque.

First Arabesque

First arabesque is when a dancer in arabesque has the arm that is on the same side as the supporting leg extended out in front of their body, with the other arm extended side or towards the diagonal back.

Second Arabesque

Second arabesque is when a dancer in arabesque has the arm that is on the same side as the back leg extended out in front of their body, with the arm on the side of the supporting leg to the side or diagonal back.

Third Arabesque

Third arabesque is when a dancer in arabesque now has both arms extended in front of the body, with the arm on the same side as the supporting leg slightly higher than the other so the hand is anywhere between the top of their head to a foot above their head.  The arm on the side of the leg in arabesque should never move higher than the shoulders.

Different Heights in Arabesque

An arabesque can be done at almost any height where the back foot is off the floor.  Higher does not mean better!  Past 90 degrees, many dancers begin to sacrifice quality for extra height by opening their hips toward the side.


Sometimes a teacher or choreographer may ask for a dancer to do a “low arabesque.”  This usually means around 20 degrees.  Much lower, and the step may not show well from a distance.

45 Degrees

A very common height, a 45 degree arabesque is quite common in variations, quick, and slow movement.  Since 45 degrees is just half of 90 (in the middle between directly horizontal and directly vertical), it is easier for dancers to know where that height is since it’s an actual measure, and not just a description.  This also makes for smoother corps work.

90 Degrees

The next height typical for arabesques doubles straight to 90 degrees.  There isn’t much in between because it doesn’t look deliberate enough.  Slightly below 90, and it may look like the dancer can’t get an arabesque to 90.

Slightly above 45, it may look like a sloppy or over-exagerated 45 degree arabesque!

90 degrees is often considered the “target” arabesque for many reasons.

  1. It is very easy to tell if an arabesque is exactly at 90 degrees or not.  If it is parallel with the ground, the dancer looks like they are at 90.
  2. It looks very clean.  Line of corps dancers all at 90 (Giselle 2nd act for example) looks very deliberate and uniform.  Audiences love this!
  3. At 90 degrees, there are other things you can do to improve the overall look that don’t involve lifting your leg higher.  For example, keep your back more upright, or squaring your hips more.  Being able to understand this idea is considered an advanced level way of thinking about technique and measure of quality since it doesn’t involve the obvious “get your leg higher!”

Over 90

Dancer Shelby Dyer demonstrates an arabesque above 90 degrees with a straight back!

Past 90 degrees in an arabesque is common too, but is often reserved when a dancer is featured alone or for the ballerina with her partner.

Because an arabesque gets considerably harder to do correctly past 90 due to average limitation in hips, asking an entire corps to hit a certain degree above 90 is asking for trouble!


Every so often, a choreographer wanting an explosive look will ask a dancer to wack their arabesque!  This simply means to quickly brush their leg back and try to get their leg as high as they can, often knowingly asking the dancer to sacrifice hip position.

A student focusing on correct technique should never be asked to “wack their leg,” as it truly encourages bad technique and breaks the look of control and classicism.  But, in stylized choreography, it definitely has a place.

Quality Arabesque

No matter if in class or on stage, a ballet dancer should never forget the basic technique for an arabesque which should always include turned out and straight legs.  Every dancer, especially advanced, knows their “maximum arabesque” height where quality isn’t sacrificed.  And the even more advanced know when to use it for the most effect.

Arabesque (French: [aʁabɛsk]; literally, "in Arabic fashion") in dance, particularly ballet, is a body position in which a dancer stands on one leg – the supporting leg – with the other leg – the working leg – turned out and extended behind the body, with both legs held straight. In classical ballet, an arabesque can be executed with the supporting leg en pointe or demi pointe or with foot flat on the floor.

The working leg may touch the floor in tendu back – an arabesque par terre – or be elevated. Common elevation angles of the raised leg are 45° – à demi hauteur – and 90° – à la hauteur. When the angle is much greater than 90° and the body trunk leans forward to counterbalance the working leg, the position is called arabesque penché, or penchée, a common misspelling of the French word.[1]). The arms may be held in various positions.

Numbered variations in ballet[edit]

Arabesque positions are assigned numeric references (e.g., "second arabesque") in some ballet training systems. In the descriptions below, these arabesques are described from the perspective of the dancer, in terms of the stage reference points used by the training system.


In the Vaganova method there are four basic arabesque positions. They are described here for a dancer facing point 8. In class practice, the arms are always level with the shoulders – arabesque de classe, whereas in performance the arm in front may be raised above shoulder level – arabesque de scene. The elbows are always facing downwards.

  • In the first arabesque, the dancer stands in effacé position – with the left foot in front – with the right leg raised in arabesque, the right arm extended to the side, to the audience, and the left arm extended front, towards the corner. The gaze follows the line of the arm extended en avant.
  • In the second arabesque the legs are like in the first arabesque, but the right arm is extended en avant while the left arm is extended aligned with the dancer's shoulder; the shoulders are in épaulement in line with the arms and the gaze is turned to the audience. The dancer's face is turned toward point one.
  • In the third arabesque the dancer stands in croisé position – with the right foot in front – with the left leg raised in arabesque, the right arm extended to the side and a little behind the shoulder, and the left arm extended front. The gaze follows the line of the arm extended en avant.
  • In the fourth arabesque position the dancer stands in croisé as for the third arabesque, but the right arm is extended front and the left arm is extended as far back as possible in line with the right arm. The shoulders are in strong épaulement and the dancer's focus is turned to the audience.


In arabesque tendue or dégagé, the leg comes from the hip[clarify] and does not affect aplomb as the back remains straight. Most dancers do not have absolute rotation through the supporting leg[clarify], therefore the working hip may open without lifting into the lower ribs, while the supporting hip lifts forward over the supporting foot, maintaining a spiral rotation through the legs[clarify].

When the leg is moved or held above 45° or so, the dancer curves the spine both laterally and vertically. The method is to:

  1. Anchor the shoulders and scapula downward without tension, keeping both shoulders "square" – aligned parallel with the direction the dancer is facing. The sternum must lift without hyper-extending the ribcage.
  2. Keep the supporting hip forward, as mentioned above. The spine curves to the anterior, keeping the head lifted to focus straight forward to diagonally up. The current standard height and degree for the Vaganova arabesque is 110°. Vaganova method maintains that, in classical ballet, both the supporting and the working legs must be fully turned out through the legs, not only from the hips, even in full arabesque. If the choreography requires the dancer to open her/his arms, the performer should rotate the shoulders around the spine, so the shoulders do not affect the position of the back and spine and/or shoulders.

Note that allowing for the dancer to open the hips is distinctly different than some older methods, that require the hips to remain down. Restraining the hips restricts range of motion, restricting the full curvature of the spine, (not allowing the spine to rotate laterally, thus increases compaction of vertebrae); nor for most dancers, to exhibit an outwardly rotated leg. Opening the hip allows dancers with lesser mobile bodies to safely achieve greater range of motion in arabesque.

Royal Academy of Dance[edit]

In the RAD system, there are three main arabesques. Here they are described for a dancer facing point 6:

  • First arabesque is taken standing en ouvert on the right leg with the left leg extended. The right arm is extended forwards at eye height, parallel with the right shoulder. The left arm is at the side, slightly behind and below the left shoulder.
  • Second arabesque has a more 'square' feel to it. The dancer stands on their left leg, with their right leg extended. The right arm is extended forwards at shoulder height, and the left arm is extended directly sideways from the shoulder. This can also be taken en ouvert, standing on the right leg and extending the left arm forwards.
  • Third arabesque is taken en ouvert. The dancer stands on their right leg, with their left leg extended behind. The right arm is extended forwards at eye height, and the left arm is extended parallel to it at shoulder height.



Further reading

  • Grant, Gail (1982) [1967]. Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet (3rd revised ed.). Mineola, New York: Dover. ISBN 0-486-21843-0. 
    • "[C]ompletely revised and updated virtually a new work. ... [E]xtensive revision, expansion and the inclusion of more than 300 new terms..." (Back cover).
  • Kostrovitskaya, Vera (1981). 100 Lessons in Classical Ballet. Translated by Oleg Briansky. New York: Limelight Editions. ISBN 0-87910-068-0. 
  • Kostrovitskaya, Vera (1995, reissued 2011). School of Classical Dance. Translated by John Barker. London: Dance Books. ISBN 1-85273-044-7
    • originally privately published for New York School of Dance by John Barker, New York, New York. This edition is authorized by Vera Kostrovitskaya, Vaganova Choreographic School, St. Petersburg, Russia.
  • Messerer, Asaf (1975) [1972]. Classes in Classical Ballet. Translated by Oleg Briansky. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-04599-9. 
  • Vaganova, Agrippina (1969) [1946]. Basic Principles of Classical Ballet. Translated by Anatole Chujoy. Mineola, New Yor: Dover. ISBN 0-486-22036-2. 
    • the English language translation of the fourth Russian edition, published in the 1930s in Leningrad, USSR.

External links[edit]

Arabesque position with working leg à la hauteur, forming a 90° angle with supporting leg


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