My former teacher, Noreen Bush, was an absolute stickler for the correct use of the hands. We were taught that hands were the most vital element, in no only showing a calm, clean, classical line, but in expressing the storyline of the ballet and the style. She would go on to say that beautiful hands were a sure sign of a perfect classical training. With her lineage of fellow dancers, teachers and mentors, including Eduardo Espinosa, Adeline Genee, Anna Pavlova, Ninette de Valois, and Enrico Cecchetti, we students reverently listened and watched. Her hands were mesmerising.
This dance heritage continues today at The Dance Centre Peregian Springs, where the basics of beautiful classical hands is meticulously shown from primary ballet classes upwards.
Hands should never seem fussy, clumpy, spiked or unnatural, but lift or fall in graceful lines as an extension of the arms. They must be 'alive' as there is nothing worse than observing a clump of 'dead' fingers resembling pork sausages on the end of a pretty child's arm.
We occasionally use a wooden spatula (Magnum stick - yummy because the magnum needs to eaten first) inserted under the first and third fingers as a means of encouraging the correct shape of the hand, and tell our smaller dancers that the middle finger and thumb are best friends and are in slight proximity to one another in the centre of the hand. Fingers must always be very slightly separated with the thumb falling into the centre of the hand, elongating the line of the arm and then hands must always appear to be extending away from the arms and torso.
When students arrive from other dance schools with the thumbs spread outwards, I am often driven to gently folding them back into the hand using tape for a while. Once incorrectly taught, it is a huge effort on both parts - student and teacher - to correct these poor mannerisms. This spread thumb look is often jokingly referred to as 'Hamburger Hands' as it looks as though the student is holding a tasty, large double burger!
Another vital rule is that the wrists must always softly and flowingly lead the way, both upwards and downwards. I often ask our students to imagine different water colours gently and softly flowing out of each finger tip making beautiful rainbows, arcs and circles.
In 'fifth position' (English style), arms and hands must always form a beautiful frame, like a picture frame, for the face and torso.
When the arms are in 'first position' (English style), they are a heads width apart. If the hands are too close together they shorten the circle, and then the tips of the middle fingers would touch. This can be done to check the correct positioning of the fingers and indicates the feeling of extension and line coming through the fingers and hand. There must also be a strong feeling between the fingers of each hand towards each other in this position, like a gentle electrical current, which further helps the feeling of extension and circle.
Most leading professional ballet schools teach that the hand should always form an unbroken line with the arm. When the arm is in second position it curves gently down, in line with the shoulders to the hand. However, there are some very strong identifying styles globally in teaching the use of the hands.
Much has been written about the pure British style in ballet and the calm, simple, exact, and economical use of their Ports de Bras (See Joan Lawson in The Principles of Classical Ballet). Staying in the UK, The Royal Academy of Dance (in their handbook for teachers), The Foundations of Classical Ballet Technique, it states that in all positions "The fingers are softly grouped. The centre finger continues the curve of the inner arm and the thumb is in line with the index and middle fingers."
Most European schools and companies, including Bournonville, follow this style. Across the Atlantic, the great Balanchine style is slightly softer with the fingers more separated and often with the first finger raised slightly. In Russia, the Bolshoi initially teach their beginner classes to have the thumb touching the first knuckle of the second finger and later in their training they are asked to release the thumb to demonstrate a natural look with the little finger slightly raised (my husband was also taught this at The Royal Ballet School).
In contrast to the Bolshoi, The Vaganova Institute teaches the hand positioning with the thumb held close to the middle finger, and the index and ring finger slightly raised. Agrippina Vaganova also stipulated that the hand movements should fall into place at the end of the arm's movement at the very last moment.
Observe anyone talking and note how their hands are used to clarify and further the meaning of their words and thoughts. Just as it is in classical ballet where the dancer must make full use of their hands to convey expression and meaning to their steps, movements and mime, all the while maintaining beautiful extensions and lines with the arms, face and eye line.
Beautiful hands add not only beauty and expression, but greater poise to the dancers movements.