Port de bras is a classical ballet term meaning “movement of the arms.” It describes how dancers move their arms from one position to another.
For example, if a ballerina moves her arms from first position to fifth position, that is considered a port de bras.
When doing proper port de bras, dancers will move their arms from their back and shoulders (without lifting the shoulders awkwardly upwards) while trying to move as smoothly as possible. The shape of the arms should be rounded so there is no visible break at the elbows and wrists. In classical ballet, the arms should never be fully straight or hyper-extended at the elbows. Also, the hands should be shaped with the fingers extended running mostly in the same direction, but not stuck together like a paddle or overly extended.
In contemporary ballet, there are many exceptions to the rules of port de bras, but generally port de bras should always look coordinated with the lower half of the body and still look balletic in nature (meaning, not raising the shoulders awkwardly or having excess tension in the arms) unless instructed specifically to look different or to make a certain shape requested by the choreographer.
While the term does mean movement of the arms, port de bras also includes the position and movement of the head in relation with the arms. The movement of both the arms and head are considered a package deal for almost every ballet step.
Port de bras is harder than it looks on paper. For all dancers, mastering port de bras takes several years of practice, with some professionals still practicing to achieve beautiful movement in their arms.
Grande Port de Bras
In class, teachers sometimes use the ballet term port de bras to instruct students to do a specific stretch at barre. For example, a teacher may say “… and port de bras forward and back” after a tendu combination at barre. The students would then place their arms, likely in a high fifth, and bend at the hips, stretching forward over their legs to the front, then returning to an upright position before arching backwards.