Dance Dissection: Arabesque

Editor’s note: The “Dance Dissection” series is created by students enrolled in DANC-270: Dance Kinesiology at Loyola University Chicago. As one of their culminating projects, small groups of students are required to select a movement in dance and create a photo essay describing it in detail based on content presented in the course. Please understand that this is an introductory course and students’ understanding of the body is just beginning. While we encourage comments and feedback, please frame your responses in this context.


By Abagail Darrow, Michael Shay & Melanie Kohout


A beautiful arabesque is one of the most visually pleasing moves in dance. This position calls for dancers to position themselves on one leg with the opposing leg extended in a turned out position behind the body. The arms might also be in various positions while in arabesque. Although an arabesque appears to be simple, it is not as easy as it looks. Specifically, major components include: the position of the foot and ankle on the standing leg, the initiation of the arabesque through the foot, ankle, and hip, weight shifting and weight placement, and rotator muscles and joints. Minor components of an arabesque include: technicalities of anatomy and how the movement functions.

Foot and Ankle

In terms of stability in arabesque, the supporting foot should be flat on the ground, in attempt to avoid pronation and supination; rotating too far to one side or the other. Supination of the foot combined with a heavy load throughout the supporting leg creates the possibility of rolling the ankle- due to the lack of stability in the knee in medial rotation. This could result in a sprain and/or injury to the ligaments. Specifically, in the foot and ankle, the three ligaments that are responsible for holding the ankle in place are crucial for proper placement. These are the posterior talofibular, calcaneofibular, and anterior talofibular. One might hear ballet teachers constantly talk about rooting the entirety of the foot, which increases the support throughout the leg, creating a sensation that both pushes and pulls, which helps in maintaining stability. A dancer might commonly be told to feel all of their toes on the floor, especially when in a turned out position. This helps more when visualizing the arch of the foot, and making sure they feel its engagement when working through a movement. This could help with using the foot in a more stable manner, utilizing all of its tools of support.


When looking at the standing leg in an arabesque, it is turned out and the knee is straightened. The turned out leg is utilizing transverse movement, because of its movement away from the medial plane. While in the rotated position, the weight bearing ankle joint is utilizing dorsiflexion. This is because the angle between the anterior leg and the foot is being reduced. While in this dorsiflexed position, the ligaments involved are being used differently. The anterior talofibular ligament is looser, while the posterior talofibular ligament is tightened. Above the ankle, the knee should be completely straightened. This extension allows for a relaxed sensation in the gastrocnemius.

Weight Shifting in the Foot and Ankle

While the working leg extends toward the body’s posterior, the standing foot focuses on the initial transfer of weight from two feet to one. The weight of the body initially moves to the ball of the foot, which puts pressure on the metatarsals. When done correctly, the weight will not lean towards the calcaneus, because if it did, the whole position would fall backwards. When balancing with the foot flat on the ground, one should have the ability to move in many different directions to get to a perfect balance.

The importance of balance in a first arabesque is crucial in order for proper execution- for shifting the trunk and pelvis front and back will cause one’s weight to fall completely backwards or forwards, causing unnecessary stress build-up on the ankle and knee joint. If done correctly, the weight of the body in arabesque will hover over the plumb line, located through the center of the leg and the anterior transverse arch at the bottom of the foot. If the plumb line is centered with the leg, it will be going straight down through the knee (this concept carries potential danger, for if a dancer’s knees are varus or valgus, the plumb line is not stable and could create problems with the medial collateral ligament (MCL) and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

Adding the foot into the concept, when it is not centered, strain is not only put on the muscles in the foot, but will cause the knee’s position to not be over the toes. The knee is a hinge joint and is not meant to go to the side. However, if the plumb line is not traveling down through the heel, the knee is more prone to stress and eventually, injury. As dancers, it is common for one to often simply ‘make it work’ in an attempt to balance while lifting the arabesque leg, even when the standing leg is not placed in the correct position. This bad habit is dangerous, as it can cause muscle imbalances in dancers’ feet in the long run.

The Foot En Pointe

If the arabesque is taken on releve or en pointe, the weight of the body morphs into a completely new position, in which the foot bears the weight differently. When en pointe in arabesque, the load in the supporting leg is expected to go through the center and down through the arch of the foot. In adding releve, the foot resides in plantar flexion rather than dorsiflexion. However, the ankle is extended, which makes the plumb line go through the dorsal point of the foot. The only problem with taking an arabesque en pointe could be if the dancer’s foot is not one that fits naturally in a pointe shoe, meaning biologically the foot is ‘wider’ than most. For example, if a dancer had a bunion, the plumb line would go through the first metatarsal rather than the big toe- which could also result in injury over time. Another example would be if one of the dancer’s toes is longer than the rest, their weight would shift laterally.

Starting Your Arabesque- Ankle

Many dance teachers are constantly telling their dancers to point their feet, which in this case the ankle takes on a load of responsibility- in certain techniques such as classical ballet, a pointed foot is most aesthetically pleasing in terms of structure. On the working leg, the ankle is crucial for a beautiful looking arabesque. An arabesque features the foot working in conjunction with the hip. As the hip joint extends, the foot pushes into the ground. At this point the first phalange should be the only thing touching the ground. In continuation, every tarsal and metatarsal of the foot are to be connected to the floor, as if they are peeling off. This is the correct way to initiate the movement. From this point, the leg will rise due to the work of the muscles in the thigh, butt and hip, back. When, finally, the entirety of the foot is off the floor, the ankle extends and the foot points.

In terms of the working leg, the ankle is in plantar flexion- occurring when a dancer is working to point as hard as they can.   Some teachers might prefer an everted foot which results in the common concept of ‘winging’. This includes the components of eversion in the foot; abduction, pronation, and dorsiflexion. The ankle and foot of the arabesque leg are working away from the midline and extending out and up while the arms are reaching in the opposite direction.

A ‘winged’ foot

Technicalities of Anatomy and How the Movement Functions

The standing leg is typically focused on keeping the entire body upright. The adductors of the thigh are contracting and the abductors of the hip are stabilizing. This allows for the center of gravity of the dancer’s body, or plum line, to be over the supporting foot. If this did not happen, proper balance could not be achieved, and the body would fall sideways. If the abductors are weak and the adductors too tight, then the hip would tilt downwards towards the arabesque leg.

When looking at an arabesque, the leg that is in motion or being held up has many of the same mechanical qualities as the supporting leg. The knee should be completely straightened, and the leg should be in a turned out position. While this leg is mainly moving in the sagittal plane, its rotational quality is also utilizing movement in the transverse plane.

An anterior view of an arabesque, in a turned out position

Most of the movement involved in an arabesque occurs in the sagittal plane. As the arabesque leg lifts posteriorly, the torso shifts forward, making room for a greater range of extension. Additionally, the torso also twists, taking place in the transverse plane because of its rotational qualities.

The ankle on the extending leg is utilizing plantar flexion because it is fully pointed. Inside one’s foot, the calcaneus, cuboids, metatarsals, and phalanges are all formed into an arching shape. In class, one might find that visualizing the use of the arches when pointing the foot can help to avoid sickling, or any other unsafe, useless practices.

A proper arabesque involves several muscles and bones, each of them acting as either primary workers, extenders, or relaxers. The latissimus dorsi is engaged on both sides of your back. If a dancer is only lifting one leg, in order to get it up and directly behind, the latissimus dorsi on both sides should be engaged. The gluteus maximus contracts in order extend the hip joint and raise the leg posteriorly. The rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, and vastus medialis create the quadriceps muscle, which does not necessarily help in lifting the leg. Rather, it helps to keep both the standing and working leg straight by contracting and pulling the tibia and hip together. In the working leg, the quadriceps muscle is being stretched because an arabesque increases the angle between the hip and thigh, stretching it. The hamstring muscles are the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimebranosus, which all contract to extend the leg. After extension, biceps femoris externally rotates, or turns out the leg. The femur, patella, tibia, and fibula, are the bones involved in the arabesque, whether it be the standing leg, or the lifted leg. Specifically, some tendons that are helpful in an arabesque are the iliotibial band and the achilles tendon. The iliotibial band is being used to stabilize the pelvis in conjunction with the tensor fasciae latae muscle. The gastrocnemius contracts to point the foot with the help of the achilles tendon since it attaches the calcaneus to the gastrocnemius. In the foot, many tendons are in use, such as the anterior tibial tendon, posterior tibial tendon, plantar fascia, and extensor tendons.

The Hip – Standing Leg

The hips’ movement begins in a turned out position. Now, the hip joint is the part where the femur connects to the pelvis, however, the pelvis cannot actually turn out. It is a fairly stationary part of the body, it can flex and extend, tilt forward and back, and ‘open’ to either side (which is actually more of a spinal movement). The head of the femur has the ability to rotate within the hip joint. The piriformis, obturator internus and externus, gemellus superior and inferior, and the quadratus femoris are six small muscles (or, the deep six) that attach to the greater trochanter of the femur and the different bones of the pelvis: the ilium and ischium. These muscles are responsible for integrity of movement in the hip, as well as helping with lifting the pelvis. The deep six muscles flex and laterally rotate in order to rotate the femur backwards. This is what is means to ‘turn out’ the leg. In opposition, the tensor fasciae latae medially rotates the thigh, in conjunction with gluteus medius and minimus and adductors brevis and longus, and connects to the iliotibial band, which connects the tibia to the Anterior Inferior Iliac Spine (or ASIS). Tensor fasciae latae is what a dancer would use in order to ‘turn in’ the leg after achieving the arabesque position.

The Hip – Working Leg

Notice the pronounced curve of the lumbar spine required for a high arabesque.

While the knee and ankle are held still in a strong, straightened position, the hip joint is where most of the motion comes from in an arabesque. In the working leg, the hip joint is extended posteriorly to pull the leg from a straight position on the ground to behind the body. The hip joint of the working leg laterally rotates to maintain turn-out just as in the standing leg. In addition, the gluteal muscles both support the extension, and aid to maintain the turnout in both legs. Practically every muscle in the legs and feet are engaged to straighten, lengthen, and support the position. Once the working leg is extended, it can be altered to create various dance positions that require the leg to bend at the knee, exaggerated rotation, etc.

The Trunk

The lumbar and thoracic spine works in unison with the hip joints. This part of the spine is the lowest and the most flexible, respectively, hyperextending to make room for the working leg to rise. The ball-and-socket joints in the shoulders facilitate maximum flexibility that allow the back and chest to open up. The arms might seem useless to the arabesque because they are superior to the action on the inferior half of the body. However, they utilize abduction and flexion to acquire the appropriate position depending on the choreography. Contrary to popular belief, the arms and shoulders play a large role in the success of the arabesque, adding to the line of the extension as a whole.

Muscle Fibers in Action

It depends on the context, but popularly, the arabesque utilizes mostly type I fibers. An arabesque often has the intention to be held for an extended amount of time, commonly used in slower paced ballet pieces. However, if choreographically an arabesque must be reached within a very short amount of time, this action of the arabesque will utilize type II muscle fibers. In this case, an arabesque is more of a position that, once achieved, is to be held for a short period of time, making it a high intensity anaerobic movement. For example, when en pointe, the arabesque is seen as an explosive picturesque movement after a variation.

An arabesque is not a constant position, as it is constantly shifting minutely in order to maintain balance. Involuntary movement allows the dancer to react to the environment and correct the “little things” in order to hold the position.

Other Applications

An arabesque is an extraordinary movement in itself, but it is also the beginning to more complex movements. These may consist of anything from an arabesque penchée, fouetté, tour jeté, or an attitude. All of these, as well as others, incorporate arabesque. An arabesque is also an extension of other dance movements such as a port de bras, tendu, or a dégagé. These dissected parts of an arabesque can be used as part of a warm up, as well as actually using the full movement in a combination. A good ballet warm up for an arabesque includes stretching, as well as tendus or dégagés leading into a battement combination. Muscles are able to be actively stretched and warmed in these movements, leading to a decreased chance for injury. Having a better warm up that incorporates dynamic movements is more effective, especially when preparing for explosive movements.

Hopefully, some of this information will be beneficial to any dancer or dance enthusiasts interested in learning more about the anatomy and kinesiology of dance.

Abagail Darrow is a sophomore dance and marketing double major. She has been dancing since a young age in West Dundee, IL. Abagail has an involved history with injuries, having two hip arthroscopies to treat labral tears before coming to Loyola. With that, she has taken a newfound interest in the basic anatomy of the human body, particularly in genetic abnormalities such as arthritis and how they are passed down. Abagail is not finished researching labral tears in dancers, and would like to keep herself up to date on nuances found in medial treatments and surgical techniques. 

Melanie Kohout is a junior biology major with a dance and spanish double minor. She has always been interested in dance as well as biology, in the research, environmental, and medical fields. She was interested in taking this class to help her find a connection between dance and biology. She is very interested in dance injuries and would love to continue researching the several different injuries that may be involved in this specific movement, as well as others.

Michael Shay Michael Shay began dancing at the age of 15 at the School of Performing Arts in Naperville, IL. His training continued at the University of Arizona, where he trained for 2 years under Melissa Lowe, James Clouser, and Amy Earnst.  He performed in works such as At The Vanguard, Cloud 9, and Rising. He is now continuing his training at Loyola University.


Author: Guest Contributors