A Beginner’s Guide to Ballet – Basic Positions of the Feet and Arms

It’s normal for a new dance student to feel a little nervous going into their first ballet class. With the many new vocabulary words and positions to learn it might seem overwhelming. However, after some practice and time students will soon be fluent in the language of ballet. Whether your child wants to take ballet once a week or is interested in becoming a professional ballet dancer, learning ballet is and should be fun! A child can start ballet at any age

All ballet dancers have one thing in common: a true love of the beauty, discipline and grace of ballet.

A Touch of Ballet History

Although many believe that Ballet dance originated in France, Ballet started in Italy during the Renaissance period of the 15th Century.  Ballet became a part of social events that were held in the Courts.  Later in the 16th century, Ballet was performed in the French Courts until King Louis XIV opened the first Dance Academy, The Royal Academy of Dance.  As popularity spread, ballet made its way to Russia and in the latter part of the 19th Century ballet also found a home in America.  

Today, ballet is considered to be the foundation of all dance. The fundamentals used in ballet are used throughout all other dance styles. The Ballet style of dance is used to tell a story and relies heavily on precise technique and discipline.

The Foundation of Ballet:  Five Basic Ballet Positions Using the Feet and Arms 

When dance students begin to study ballet, one of the first things they will encounter is the five basic ballet positions, normally referred to as positions one through five. These five positions are important because every basic move in ballet begins and ends in one of those positions. Every ballet step originates from one of the five basic feet positions of ballet. There are also five basic positions of the arms in ballet. (Both the names and actual positions vary based on method). These five basic feet and arm positions form the basis for all of ballet dancing. 

While there are six different stylistic variations of classical ballet that relate to the origin of their development, each of these six styles places a different emphasis on certain elements of classical ballet technique, they all stem from the 5 basic positions for the feet and arms. The five basic positions of the feet and arms are the building blocks of ballet and are all listed here as an easy guide for beginners.

The 5 Basic Feet Positions of Ballet 

In all five basic feet positions, the leg is rotated (or “turned out”) from the hip. As a result, the feet are displaced from their usual toe-forward orientation and are positioned instead with the feet rotated 90 degrees. A full 90-degree rotation may take years of practice, so in the beginning, the instructor will probably ask the student to rotate only as much as is comfortable. 

First Position of the Feet: In first position, the balls of the feet are turned out completely. The heels touch each other and the feet face outward. It is important that even in the beginning the soles of both feet are firmly and entirely in contact with the floor. The legs are in contact with each other from the top of the leg down as far as the calf and thereafter as close as possible, with the heels in full contact.  

Second Position of the Feet : Begin in first position and then, maintaining the same rotation, slide the feet apart. The balls of both feet are turned out, if not completely then as much as is comfortable, with the heels separated by the length of one foot.  

Third Position of the Feet: To get into third position, begin in second position and then slide one foot toward the other so that the heel of your front foot touches the arch of your back foot.  

The third position is rarely used by contemporary choreographers, who favor the similar but more extreme fifth position. The two look somewhat similar with some saying that the third position looks like a slightly sloppy execution of the fifth. 

Fourth Position of the Feet: The feet are placed in much the same position as in third position, but farther apart. Slide your forward foot away from you and toward an imagined audience. Your feet should be about one foot apart.  

Fifth Position of the Feet: Fifth position is similar to fourth position, but instead of there being some distance between the two feet, they are now in full contact with one another, with the toes of one foot oriented and as much as possible in contact with the heel of the other. 

Bedinghaus, Treva. “The 5 Basic Foot Positions of Ballet.” ThoughtCo, Aug. 22, 2019, thoughtco.com/basic-positions-of-ballet-1007299.

The 5 Basic Arm Positions of Ballet

Just as every ballet step originates from one of the five basic feet positions of ballet, there are also five basic positions of the arms. 

Preparatory Position: The preparatory position, or premiere en bas, is not considered one of the basic arm positions of ballet, but it is used often and worthy of note. The preparatory position is a beginning pose used to start and finish a floor combination.  Holding your back straight and your head high, allow your arms to relax in front of you, slightly extended away from the body.  Both arms should be rounded with your fingers almost touching.  Relax your hands and shoulders. 

First Position of the Arms: The first position of the arms, as well as the other arm positions, can be executed with the feet in any of the five positions. For example, many times your feet will be in the first position while your arms are posed in the fifth position.  Hold both arms low in front of the body, with hands almost touching.  Round the arms, slightly bending the elbows.  Raise the arms so that your fingers almost touch your navel. 

Second Position of the Arms: From the second position, raise your arms to the side.  Keep your arms slightly rounded.  Lower your elbows slightly below your shoulders.  Make sure your wrists are lower than your elbows.  Keep your shoulders down, your neck long and your chin up. 

Third Position of the Arms: In the third position, the arms work opposite the legs. If your right foot is in front, your left arm should be raised.  Raise your left arm over your head, slightly forward.  Round your right arm to the side at belly button height.  Keep the palm of your hand turned forward. 

Fourth Position of the Arms: As in the third position, the arms work opposite the legs.  Bring your left arm forward, slightly rounded at the height of your chest.  Raise your right arm above your head, slightly rounded. 

Fifth Position of the Arms: Starting with arms in the first position, raise the arms over the head. You should be able to see your hands without moving your head.  Round your arms with your elbows slightly bent.  Your hands should be about 6 inches apart.  Make sure your palms are facing inward.  Note: There are three positions of the arms in the fifth position in ballet: low, middle and high fifth. 

Bedinghaus, Treva. “Positions of the Arms in Ballet.” ThoughtCo, Aug. 22, 2019, thoughtco.com/positions-of-the-arms-in-ballet-1006783.

Important Ballet Terms for Beginners

 To help new students start ballet class with confidence we have highlighted some common terms first-time ballet students will need to know: 

Adagio:  Adagio is a series of fluid and focused exercises that are performed slowly in order to improve dancers’ balance, strength and lines. It also refers to the opening sequence of a two-person dance that includes one partner lifting the other. 

Allégro:  Allégro means fast, brisk and energetic movements and is associated with jumps. 

Arabesque:  An arabesque is when the dancer stands on one leg with the other leg extended behind the body. The arms can be held in a variety of positions. Regardless, the goal of the arabesque is to create as smooth and seamless alinement as possible with the body, from the shoulders through the arms and down to the toes of the extended leg. 

Barre:  This is the wooden or metal bar attached to the walls of the classroom, although some barres stand on their own. The dancer holds onto the barre for support, and a sequence of barre exercises is part of every ballet class from beginner to advanced levels. The barres are used to help dancers work on their technique which will then be applied to the floor work.  Every class will start with a number of exercises using the barre. Barre is always the first part of the Ballet class. 

Battement Tendu: This when the leg and foot are fluidly swept across the floor from one position to another. A “battement tendu” starts from first or fifth position, the leg is extended in motion, and then it returns to the starting position. The leg should be straight and fully extended and turned out so that the foot only brushes the ground during the movement. Many instructors refer to the move as just “tendu.” 

Pirouette: A pirouette is a 360 degree turn made on one foot that is on pointe or demi-pointe, and is frequently begun from fourth position. The move requires strong alignment and balance. 

Plié: Plié means “bent” or “bending,” and is when one or both knees are bent while the legs and feet remain turned out, and are done in first, second, fourth and fifth positions. There are two main types of pliés, demi and grand.

Romany Pajdak, Royal Ballet First Artist, demonstrates arm and feet positions.

Ballet Classes at Progressive Dance Studio

At Progressive Dance Studio (PDS) our ballet program is very important to us because ballet is the foundation of all dance, and we take that very seriously.  PDS offers over 13 Ballet classes that start with Pre-Ballet for kids ages 6-7 and continues through Intermediate Teen Ballet for ages 13 +, as well as additional ballet classes through audition only. The Ballet classes that PDS currently offers include: 

  • Pre-Ballet – Ages 6-7
  • Ballet 1 – Ages 7-9 and 8-11
  • Ballet 2 – Ages 8-11
  • Intermediate Ballet – Ages 11 +
  • Pre-Teen Ballet, Level 1 and Level 2 – Ages 9-12
  • Ballet 1 – Ages 12 and up
  • Pointe 1 – Ages 9-12 and 12 +
  • Teen Intermediate Ballet – Ages 13 +
  • Advanced Ballet 12 and up

 Ballet class begins with a ballet barre including pliés, tendus, glissés, fondus, and frappés, then moves to a center floor adage, petite and grand allegro, and concludes with a formal grand reverence. Repetition is very important, even for the most advanced dancers. 

Dancewear & Ballet Shoes

Ballet dancers wear tights and leotards to class and rehearsals, and tight, form-fitting clothing is best for dancing. Tutus, or ballet skirts, are usually reserved for performances and recitals.  Ballet is typically danced wearing slippers or pointe shoes.  Ballet shoes are usually worn until the dancer’s feet have developed enough strength to progress into pointe shoes, which usually occurs between the ages of 11-12 depending on their muscular and skeletal development, and their dedication to practice. 

For information about other dance styles see our post The Beginner’s Guide to Dance.

If you have questions or would like to take a tour of Progressive Dance Studio located in Englewood, NJ call our front desk at (201) 894-1333 we’re happy to help!

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