Arabesque: A Series of Revelations



As with all ballet positions, the arabesque begins here.

To find your true turnout, first stand with your feet together. Now open them up as you would unfold a fan, with your heels acting as the fulcrum. You will see that your turnout is not ideal. It forms, instead of a straight line from the toes of one foot to the toes of the other, an angle. An obtuse angle.

This is the first position. It is the most simple, but also the most revealing, the most vulnerable.



The turnout is a rotation of the legs outwards, the rotation that allowed Louis XIV to show off the heels of his shoes.

A good turnout is a process, the constant opposition of strength against flexibility. In the hip alone, seven hip rotators muscle their way against the three ligaments that secure each femur to the pelvis. Allow this energy to spiral down your legs, rotating your knees and shins and ankles, down to your pinky toes. You must sustain this energy, in your body and in your memory, just as dancers before you have done. Ballet is “an art of memory, not history,” writes the dancer and historian Jennifer Homans. “[B]allet repertory is not recorded in books or libraries: it is held instead in the bodies of dancers.”

In ballet, our bodies are memoirs.

{Arabesque à Terre}

In the visual arts, an arabesque is a series of undulating lines that curl like vines, interlacing as they grow. Renaissance artists ornamented manuscripts, furniture, and entire walls with arabesques.

In ballet, we have our own arabesque. Keeping your rotation from the first position, brush your right foot to the back. No, not like that. Peel your foot off the floor sequentially—first your heel, then your arches, then your metatarsal, until your big toe is the only point of contact with the floor. There should be no weight on your right leg, the working leg. All of it should be on your left leg, the supporting leg.

Now, check your position. Are your legs equally turned out? Are the toes of your right foot pointed? You must form the longest line possible, even in your toes. Keep your body upright, your core stable, your back strong, your hips square and facing the front.

You are sweating. Your face is tense. Your shoulders are up, and your neck is stiff. This is only arabesque à terre, an arabesque on the ground. I have yet to add in a port des bras, or an epaulement, or ask you to take your working leg en l’air. You are not a statue, but a body; you must be soft and supple.

Good. Now all you have to do is remember all this so that your body can perform the arabesque on demand and in a fraction of a second. Every movement in dance should, wrote the ballet master E. A. Théleur, “as the words in a language, be correctly pronounced, without any apparent or studied effort of the performer; this is (if I may be allowed the expression) the fluency of the dancer.”


Started late. My body is not a native speaker and will never achieve fluency. My body will never be a good memoir.


In an arabesque, a spiral radiates iterations of itself as it progresses, weaving various motifs into a single, unbroken line. This structure is unique in the world for its “infinite correspondence,” which, according to art historians, provides the viewer with “sufficient information to imagine how the design would appear were it extended beyond its actual limits.”

The arabesque entered ballet first as a choreographic design, rather than a pose. On stage, dancers composed themselves into a floral arrangement, weaving garlands and veils and pastoral instruments into their formation. Abstracting their bodies into one continuous, undulating arabesque, the dancers imitated, at once, nature and ornament.

{Carlo Blasis (1797–1878)}

The Italian ballet master reframed the arabesque as a motif, one that could be reproduced in a single body. For Blasis, “arabesque” designated a category of mannerist poses in which the upper body and the working leg leave the body’s perpendicular line to create, in effect, an incline.

This inclination is, first and foremost, an anatomical response to the mechanics of the pose. When a limb as heavy as a leg leaves your axis of gravity and extends to the back, it demands of your body a new understanding of balance: your torso must tilt forward to act as a counterweight to your leg. It demands of ballet nothing less than a new aesthetic, a departure from the aristocratic mannerism of standing upright.

For Blasis, the arabesque is a bodily attitude, at once a composition and a mannerism. “Imitate a painter in your manner of combining and arranging; let all the objects of your picture be in strict harmony one with another,” he advised, and imitated with his own body the mannerisms of Mercury.

ng Mercury}


Carrying his caduceus in his left hand, Giovanni da Bologna’s Mercury stands on a breath, a single exhale of the wind god Zephyr. With his right, Mercury points to Jupiter, and the gesture pulls his body into a forward-leaning spiral. Countering the weight of his outstretched arm, Mercury extends his right leg to the back, bringing his body into equilibrium, into poise.

The attitude is Mercury, stilled to express our desire for flight.

{Arabesque en l’Air}

Go to arabesque à terre. Take your arms out to the sides. Curve them as though you are hugging a large balloon. This is the second port des bras, or “carriage of the arms.”

Now bring your working leg into an arabesque en l’air, an arabesque in the air. No, don’t just lift it like it’s dead weight—without affecting the position of your hips, lengthen your leg into the air. Imagine that your toes are drawing an arc behind you. Check if your legs are equally turned out—it’s not about the height; it’s about the position. Keep your legs straight, and wing your foot.

Your upper body will naturally tip slightly forward, but keep your core strong. Avoid splaying. The foot of your working leg should be aligned with the center of your body. Feel a connection between the foot in the air and your opposite shoulder.

Have you forgotten your arms? Why are your fingers shaped like claws? Do not let your elbows dip—feel a long line running from your shoulder to your middle finger. Remember, your arms are extensions of your back. A strong port des bras comes from a strong back. A strong back gives you the strength to support an arabesque.

Your shoulders are up, and your neck is stiff. You’re not breathing. Your face is tense. You must dance with your whole body—is your face not part of your body? Ballet is athletic, but it is not a sport—it is an art. Never reveal the effort it takes to dance. You must perform at all times, even if you’re only in the studio.


The equal distribution of weight. Find your balance in arabesque through equiponderance, such that your outstretched leg tilts your upper body towards something—perhaps a lover, the absence of a lover, or the anticipation of one.

Equiponderance is an ongoing attempt to approach equilibrium. A dancer does not hold—in the way we are told to hold our heads up high, our muscles straining to lock our posture to the point of stiffening—a dancer ponders, distributing their weight about their axis of gravity.

{Hopes & Dreams}

Blasis had hoped to perfect a turn in arabesque. “[W]hy should dancers be so limited as that in the position of the body during the performance of their pirouettes?” he mused.

Back then, Blasis was a pioneer. Today, this is no longer a feat—amateurs, too, can turn in arabesque. The ballerina in the musical box I’d always wanted turns perpetually in one.


Blasis was fond of concluding a movement sequence on an arabesque, a pause that, while the audience sat in suspense, imprinted onto memory.

The success of such an arabesque depends not only on corporeal equiponderance, but also on an equilibrium between the dancer’s external form and, as Blasis writes, their “passions, the impulses of [their] soul.”

In a moment, the dancer reveals to the audience the very essence of herself.

{La Sylphide

We have no memories of the original choreography, only an understanding of its aftermath.

The 1832 premiere of La Sylphide marked the beginning of Romantic ballet. Then, Marie Taglioni (1804–1884) was the first to perform a full ballet en pointe. Prior to that, pointe had been used as a momentary, acrobatic stunt.

On stage, Marie the Sylph floated on the point of her toes. She is so light that, in one print, when her toe descends onto a cloud, it barely moves. Directly above her pointe shoe, a bulging calf reveals the strength required to perform lightness and femininity.

At the end of the ballet, the Sylph’s human admirer catches her with a scarf, and Marie’s wings fall like petals. She loses sight and dies; her body, borne away by her sylph sisters.

After La Sylphide, we abstracted Marie’s image, reproducing it on caramels, cakes, and the bodies of young women and aspiring ballerinas.

{First Arabesque}

Bring your leg into an arabesque en l’air. Your working and supporting legs should make at least a 90-degree angle. Open the arm on the side of your working leg to either the side or the back, such that it mirrors the extended line of your leg.

Now, lengthen the line of your working leg by placing your other arm in front of you. Unless otherwise instructed, place your fingertips at eye level. Feel a horizon running from your fingers, through your body’s vertical axis, to the toes of your working leg. Feel the energy pulsing, out of the tips of your fingers and the tips of your toes, a gesture to infinity.

{Revelation, II}

Never reveal all of yourself at one go, my father advised when I was going off to college. It is better to be low-key. Better to appear, at first sight, distinctly average and uninteresting. This way, when your peers find out more about you, they will be surprised. They will be curious.

{Marie’s Romantic Admirers}

In the book he sent her, Victor Hugo signed, “A vos pieds, a vos ailes.” At your feet, at your wings.

 “An innocent Eve, a fallen Eve,” wrote François-René de Chateaubriand of the Sylph. “I placed her upon an altar and I adored her.”

 “Taglioni is one of the greatest poets of our age,” declared Théophile Gautier, comparing her genius to Lord Byron. “She has ronds de jambes and undulations of the arms that are worth as much as a long poem.”

Marie the Sylph embodied the very essence of Romantic poetry—its yearnings for the spiritual and the sublime. So, too, did the arabesque. “Behind the arabesque, and through its openings,” wrote Hugo, “all philosophy can be seen; vegetation lives; man becomes pantheist; a combination of infinite takes place in the finite; and before such work, in which are found the impossible and the true, the human soul trembles with an emotion obscure yet supreme.”

Ask yourself, what can your arabesque reveal?


Arab-esque. In the history of ornamentation, the term first came into use in 1656 as an adjective, e.g., “the arabesque frescoes.” As the original vegetal pattern was assimilated into Western art, “arabesque” emerged as a noun in 1720. It was now possible to circulate the essence of the Arab, in the form of an ornament and via manuscripts, bookbinding and furniture.

The arabesque originated in the tenth century as a biomorphic design in Islamic art, adorning the surfaces of religious art and architecture. In a mosque, the intricacies of the arabesque invited one to contemplate the mystery of God and his works, and while its winding lines suggest vines and other geometrical patterns found in nature, the arabesque prevented image worship by avoiding the representational realm. Due to its religious role, the arabesque is often seen as the Islamic view of the world.

Of course, “arabesque” is a European term applied to Islamic art. The word arabesque, then, reveals not so much Islamic worldview as it does European perception.

{A Riddle}

You see me walking along the streets. To you, my skin looks yellow, my hair, black.

What am I? 

By which I mean, tell me about yourself.

{La Bayadere}

Choreographed by Marius Petipa, the 1877 ballet La Bayadere is a love story set in exotic India. In the first act, the warrior Solor and the temple dancer Nikiya swear their eternal love before the temple’s sacred fire. Consistent with the conventions of melodrama, their love is a transgressive one, one that goes against the norms of the caste system and against the dictates of the Rajah.

As a result, Nikiya dies. A grieving Solor smokes his way into an opium-induced dream, into the “Kingdom of Shades” scene. On stage, apparitions of Nikiya descend into his consciousness, zigzagging their ways downstage. Thirty-two Nikiyas—sometimes more, sometimes less—of the corps de ballet enter the stage one by one, performing arabesques down a ramp. Once Nikiya’s image occupies the entire stage, occupies the front and back and periphery of Solor’s mind, the corps commences a mournful adagio.

Over nine minutes or so, the corps performs thirty-nine arabesques in their white, made-in-Russia English tulle tutus. Indianness is reduced to a headpiece, with arm drapes that run from bun to wrist.

{Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829}

In his 1800 Dialogue on Poetry, the German Jana Romantic called for a “new mythology,” one that would “transplant” the rational, enlightened human “into the beautiful confusion of the imagination, into the original chaos of humankind.”

Schlegel’s “new mythology” was not so much a novel creation as it was an appeal to resurrect ancient poetry. As in the spirals of an arabesque, “All poems of antiquity,” wrote Schlegel, “follow one after the other until from ever growing masses and parts the whole is created; everything is related, and in everything there is one and the same spirit, only expressed differently. Thus,” he continues, “it is truly no empty saying that ancient poetry is one whole indivisible perfect poem.”

In other words, no matter their unique characteristics, all poems are animated by a single spirit and universal essence. Schlegel’s arabesque, while permitting diversity on the surface, is ultimately a universalizing impulse.

{Brendan Fernandes (b. 1979)}

In the performance art Inverted Pyramid (2014), Fernandes whittles the cast of “Kingdom of Shades” to one dancer. Instead of her thirty-one fellow corps de ballet members, the dancer performs the thirty-nine arabesques with life-sized cut-outs of her body in arabesque, competing with these forms until her body fails.


Arabesques “may be varied ad infinitum,” wrote Blasis, “for the slightest change in the situation of the body.” Depending on the placement of the limbs, the inclination of the head, the movements that precede or follow it, the arabesque expresses everything from jealousy to love, from power to fragility, from poise to discomposure. For Blasis, it is the “good taste” of the dancer that determines the physical intricacies of the position.

As a test of virtuosity, the arabesque is a rite of passage, one that locates the dancer in the ever-growing artistic tradition.


Someone once told me that dancers had developed limbs and simple minds. That someone, who has loved me ever since I was born, thought dance was a hobby I should quit.

Years later, upon realizing I never would, that someone asked me what I liked about dance. I’m just trying to understand, that someone said, having only watched me dance once, for five minutes. And I remember that someone’s first comment: Why is she unstable on her feet? That someone wanted to understand.

{Anna Pavlova (1881–1931)}

When the great prima ballerina visited India in 1923, she and her students took classes from Hindu dancers. On her experience in an interview, Pavlova commented, “[My students] achieve the outside appearance of that dancing. The inside feeling neither they nor I can wholly achieve, and we know it. […] It has a power which I try to employ in my dances, but which I certainly could never by means of words explain.”


Ballet is a lifelong thing, said my teacher Sarah as I left the studio after class one day, feeling frustrated and incompetent. I turned to catch her eye and, feeling seen, looked away.

{A Portrait of Marie}

One lithograph captures Marie as the Sylph in the Scottish countryside, her white tulle skirt blooming about her hips and ending at midcalf. Poised on the point of one foot, she draws her working leg into a low arabesque en l’air, raising an arm to form a diagonal line from
fingertip to toe.

Did you know? Marie had, according to her teacher, a hunched back. Prior to La Sylphide, which her father Filippo had choreographed for her, critics described Marie’s body as “ill-made” and “
almost deformed.”

You can see it in this lithograph, the way Marie leaned forward in arabesque to mask her rounded back, her body a figure of longing. And yet, it was this figure that became the aesthetic of
Romantic ballet.

This figure of Marie, we remember.