NOTE: This is geared specifically for teachers of more advanced students. Lower leveled students do require consistency with port de bras so they can remain focused primarily on technique. Once technique is established with any given step, then the world opens up to luscious port de bras.
Years ago, I was teaching a class and a student from another school was there for a trial class. She was lovely to teach. Very engaged and responsive. During allegro, I gave an exercise that included temps de flèche and she executed it well enough, but she did not do the port de bras I had instructed. I corrected her, and she attempted to implement the correction, but it became clear after several attempts that she had only ever done temps de flèche with this one particular port de bras. Any deviation caused the entire step to crumble.
It was then I learned the valuable lesson that, as a teacher, I have the power to create habits in my students. This, of course, is huge, and has impact that reaches far beyond port de bras. However, for this article, I would like to stick with the port de bras aspect of the lesson.
We all have port de bras we prefer. We can’t help it. Not only do we have port de bras we prefer, but we have preferences even within the preferred port de bras. I feel this is a good thing and points mainly at our artistry as individuals. But, it can be a disservice to our students when we are unaware of our preferences.
Why? Here Are 3 Reasons . . .
- It’s default. Our preferences are generally what we will default to, correct? We give a combination, and if we haven’t given much consideration to the coordinating port de bras, our arms will naturally move where we wish them to. This is not exactly bad, but it becomes bad when we do this so often that our students rarely receive experience with other types of arm movements. If you only ever give tombé pas de bourrée entournent with the arms moving from 2nd position through 4th position to 1st position this is all your students will ever know.
- It’s incomplete teaching. Sometimes simply switching port de bras can be the thing that helps a concept click with a student. But if we are unaware of our port de bras preferences, we likely would not even see the connection. If we always finish a string of chaînés with a 2nd arabesque, we might not consider that switching to 1st arabesque could be the very thing to help that one student learn how to place their weight directly over the ball of their supporting foot.
- It’s limiting. Our preferences are all fine and wonderful, but if we don’t expose our students to other ways of coordinating arms with legs, they will never have the opportunity to explore and discover their own preferences. It also decreases coordination and the ability to be versatile. Not to mention it shuts down creativity to no end when you feel closed in to such a small world of how the arms are allowed to move while doing any particular step.
So then how do we make sure we don’t lock our students in with port de bras?
Here Are 3 Ideas . . .
- Know Yourself. If you don’t know what you prefer, then figure it out. If you can’t figure it out, then flat out ask your students. After they pick themselves up off the floor from YOU asking them for help, they will definitely be able to tell you. “Oh yeah. You always give 5th position when we do soutenu”, or “I just thought the arms always went to second for glissade because we have never done it differently”, etc.
- Choose Differently. Once you know your preferences, then try to choose against yourself. Set a port de bras that defies your natural tendencies and see what happens. Or, at the very least, choose a different port de bras on purpose. This doesn’t mean you need to choose something you don’t like or choose something that doesn’t represent who you are. What it does mean is that you are stretching yourself and this can only be a good thing.
- Don’t Give It. Some of the best moments in my teaching have come from allowing the students to step up and make their own choices. I don’t do this often because I know it loses its power when overdone, but NOT giving direction while telling the students to give THEMSELVES direction has given me so much insight. Open it up to them. “Dancers, today I want you to choose the port de bras for the petit allegro. Be purposeful. Be thorough. I want to see clean lines and attention to details.” It’s a fun challenge for them, and will tell you how well they understand the coordination of arms to legs, and how those two things work in unison to complete a movement.
Exploring port de bras requires time. It is so much easier to fall to what we normally would do and often we are so very crunched for time, we do just that. We do what is easy. But perhaps easier is not better in this situation.
If you are a teacher who uses the same port de bras for every class, breaking that habit will be trying, but it will be worth it because your students will flourish. If you are a teacher who enjoys mixing things up, then I challenge you to find ways to mix it up even more.
Ultimately, no one wants to be the dancer who can only do temps de flèche if their arms get to move in this one particular way. Absolutely no one wants to be that dancer, and no one wants to be the teacher who created that dancer. So, let’s just not.