Port de bras in French literally means “carriage of the arms.” In ballet, it indicates the positions in which the arms are held. It’s often shortened to PdB in notation. In our classes, we will use the five typical arm positions recognized by most ballet schools, as shown in this short video from Royal Ballet in the UK.
When performing port de bras, it is important to ensure that the arms are rounded, with the fingers tucked inward. I like to think of it as holding a big invisible bubble or beach ball. The shoulders should be squared (there’s that posture note again!), not hunched inward or with one’s chest poking out. In positions #1 and #3 en avant (meaning “in front” of the body), the arm in front should be level with one’s bellybutton – if the arm is held too high, you can’t see the dancer’s face!
Note that PdB #5 has two positions: en haut (up high), wherein the arms are used to make a circle around the head, and en bas (down low), wherein the hands are held just before the hip/pelvis. In moving between high and low port de bras positions, the dancer changes the orientation of the hand from facing up (towards the ceiling) to facing down (towards the floor) at about shoulder-level. This movement, which add grace to the overall motion of the port de bras, is commonly called a gateway.
Port de bras also refers to a slow-moving (adage rhythm) choreographic piece which focuses on elongated arm movements. Like all adagio (slow) pieces, it highlights the graceful movements of the dancer. The traditional Russian school (or Vaganova school, named after its founder, Agrippina Vaganova) has a standard set of six port de bras pieces which are practiced en centre during classes. In classical training, students are expected to memorize these and be able to perform them at the simple request of their teacher.
Port de bras is an important element of all ballet dancing, but is especially important for adage (slow) pieces and révérence (the bows at the end of a class or performance), as shown in this Royal Ballet UK video.
Funny story: Traditional Russian training (the Vaganova school) actually only has three arm positions. Instead of having different notated positions, the standards are described by where they fall on the body (in front, up high, down low, in half, to the side, etc.) When I moved to a different studio that taught a different method, I had to learn a completely different set of rules for arm positions! It was really confusing at first. Just goes to show that ballet is not as universal as it might appear…