While I was teaching class last week, I had a question from one of my students. A question that I think many dancers will have at some point during their training, “how do I make this better?”. The ‘this’ in question was her arabesque. But there are so many other moves and position that dancers will want to improve that I’m going to begin putting together a little series called: One Move at a Time. To share my knowledge and experience at improving these positions to the wider public and not just my students. It can also become a space to share more information than I would have time for in class. So here is a better explanation to strengthening the body in order to prepare for an arabesque.
An arabesque is a position of the body that involves lifting one leg behind. The arms can take various different lines but are usually placed in front of the body in first, second, or third arabesque. The aim of an arabesque is to get the leg at the back high, whilst keeping the back upright. This means that both strength and flexibility is required to create a great arabesque position.
Common misconceptions surrounding the arabesque is that is only about flexibility in the legs and hips that help with the height of the leg. However, the abdominals and obliques in the trunk also need to stretch to allow for the height of the leg. Another important muscle that helps with the flexibility aspect of the arabesque is the psoas ilicus, a muscle that attaches at the front of the hip and the lower spine. These muscles as well as leg muscles, like the pectineus, sartorius, and the adductors help with the range of motion the back leg can achieve. But maintaining the height of the leg and a strong position relies on different muscles. In order to hold the position, the back extensors, gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and abductor magnus are all recruited to help keep the position stable.
So what does this mean in practice? It means that focusing on flexibility alone neglects the strength needed in the back to hold to leg away from the body, which results in the back dropping forwards or the position being uncomfortable to hold for more than a few seconds.
There are ways to help with this though. To improve the arabesque you need to improve the strength of the back as well as flexibility. A good level of flexibility for an arabesque is to be able to do forward splits, however, a good arabesque line does not require this. Aim to be able to have a grand battement at at least 90 degrees, as this will give a classic arabesque line. Flexibility above this will allow for a greater angle.
Before training an arabesque it’s good to warm up and loosen out the hip flexors a little at this will allow for a little extra range of motion and decrease the risk of injury. An exercise to do this is a grand battement on cloche, a movement that involves brushing the leg up to the front and then sliding straight through first position into a grand battement to the back. This is then repeated going straight to the front and then the back again, and so on. It takes in name from a bell, where your leg becomes the bell’s clapper hitting the sides of the bell.
To strengthen the back there are two main exercises. The first I’ve spoken about in a previous post: Back Extensions. Lying on your front with your hand either together below the face or stretched out in front of you, you raise the upper body, using only the back and core muscles. The upper body is then lowered back to the floor. After around 10-12, you should then aim to lift a little higher and hold that position, really engaging the muscles around the lower spine.
The second is a Prone Lying Leg Lift. Staying the same position as the previous exercise you place the hands under the head as if they’re a little pillow. While engaging the bottom and core muscles you raise one leg towards the ceiling and lower it again, switching legs each time. This exercise is harder if you keep the legs straight and can be made easier by bending the legs at the knee as the leg is lifted behind.
Following on from these two exercises a couple more functional exercises can be used to improve your arabesque line. These do involve a few pieces of equipment, can also be done using a partner. The first of which is arabesque pulses. Aim to find a ledge that is able to be used as a rest for your arabesque leg. Here I recommend a barre set to a comfortable arabesque height for you, but a chair or table can also work. You want to start in your arabesque position with the foot or calf resting on the equipment. The leg is then lifted off as far as it can and lowered to just above the equipment before being lifted upwards once more These are your arabesque pulses, repeat 8-10 times before switching sides. As you get stronger you may want to add in more or increase the height of the leg rest.
The last exercise to help with your arabesque is to do arabesque pulses with a resistance band. This is similar to that of the previous however, the leg should start higher. Most bands, like the flexistretcher or therabands, will be placed around the foot and loop around the opposite shoulder to facilitate the arabesque position. What is different doing it this way is that the leg will feel the resistance on the way down, as the band is opposing the action. Again, doing between 8-10 repetitions is a good figure to start at, remembering to do it on both sides. When doing with a partner they can assist the pulse on the way up but resist the lowering of the leg ever so slightly to get the same effect.
As with any time of stretching do not over-stretch and remember to give your muscles space to relax again. The child’s pose and touching toes position will give the back muscles the opposite stretch that can help not strain those muscles.
Hope this training advise helps! If there’s any move in particular you want help with don’t be afraid to ask.