One of the most famous sayings among those in ballet is that dancers “know all the positions.” It’s true too—ballet has five key positions for every movement and a ballerina must have all of them down pat!
If you’re new to ballet, the positions may seem mystifying and downright bizarre. But have no fear; this guide breaks it down so you too can learn these five important poses.
Keep in mind that all of these positions utilize turnout: The rotation of the legs outward from the hip. This allows dancers to move more efficiently and with a more pleasing aesthetic. However, as most professional ballerinas have 180 degrees of turnout, the positions illustrated may be out of reach for the typical person.
Don’t worry though—beginning students are seldom expected to achieve full turnout in any position.
Literally the first position a dancer learns, first position resembles a straight line from the toes of one foot to the toes of the other.
The position can be achieved safely by the dancer standing with their feet parallel, toes straight ahead, heels together. The dancer then rocks back on their heels and turns the feet outward, away from each other, before redistributing weight back evenly from ball of the foot to heel.
This method prevents the dancer from forcing their turnout, as they rotate only as much as their hips allow.
A position used frequently by men, as well as both genres of dancers in the Bournonville method of dancing, second position is simply first position with the feet just wider than hip width apart.
This position can be attained by simply sliding one foot outward from first position until feet are slightly more than hip width apart.
One of the least used positions in all of ballet, third position is considered a preparatory position for dancers who have not yet learned to stand in a proper fifth position. In third position, one foot is turned out as in first. The second foot is aligned in the same position directly in front of the first foot, with the heel of the second foot touching the middle of the first foot.
To get into third position, simply stand in first, then slide one foot in front of the other, such that the heel touches the arch/midpoint of the first foot.
Where third position is seldom used in ballet, fourth position is arguably the most common—as well as the most difficult. The first foot stands as in first position, turned out. The second foot stands a foot’s length in front of the first, also turned out, such that the heel of one foot lines up with the toe of the other, even with the foot of distance between the two.
One way to get into fourth position is to start in third, then slide the front foot forward, the length of one foot, along the floor. Beginners will find this method easier, while more advanced dancers may start in fifth—not third—position.
Hot Tip: Hip to Be Square
Squaring your hips in fourth position is difficult, as they tend to either sway towards the back foot or tuck under towards the front foot. Make sure you engage your gluteal muscles to hold turnout, and line your hips up over the middle area between the two feet so that they don’t favor one foot over the other.
Fifth position is perhaps the most recognizable and beautiful position in ballet. When turned out a full 180 degrees, the dancer stands with one foot as in first position, with the other foot turned out in front of it. The feet should be stacked side by side such that the heel of one foot touches the toes of the other.
To get into fifth position safely, stand in first, then slide one foot directly in front of the other.
The Bonus Position
Frequently referred to as “parallel,” some methods of ballet refer to standing turned in with feet together as sixth position. This position is only used for practice purposes or in contemporary ballets.
It can also be found in character and folk dances, but seldom—if ever—in classical ballet. This is because moving in any direction from sixth position is both difficult and inefficient.
Do What You Can
New dancers may not be able to achieve the exact look of the five positions, but don’t worry! With practice and persistence, your turnout and hip flexibility will gradually improve, which will, in turn, make your positions look flatter and more like the pictures.
Remember: Never force your turnout from the ankles or knees in order to make it look more turned out; this will damage your knees and can cause severe injuries.
When in doubt, turn out only as much as you can comfortably and no more; it’s better to have a slightly turned in position than be sidelined from injury!