Health & Body

4 Exercises That Will Strengthen Your Port de Bras

The baby swan can help strengthen your serratus anterior. Modeled by Marimba Gold-Watts, photographed by Jayme Thornton

Ever wonder why some dancers' port de bras appears to be disconnected from their body? It typically comes down to how they stabilize their shoulder blades, says Marimba Gold-Watts, Pilates instructor to dancers like Robert Fairchild.

"Dancers often hear the cue to pull down on their latissimus,"—the biggest muscle in the back—"which doesn't allow the shoulder blades to lie flat," she says. "It makes the bottom tips of the shoulder blades wing, or flare out, off the rib cage."


Instead, she encourages dancers to use the serratus anterior muscle, which attaches the shoulder blade to the rib cage. To locate it, Gold-Watts suggests dancers imagine that the collarbones and shoulder blades are widening across the body in opposite directions.

The serratus anterior in red. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

"As soon as your shoulder blade is lying flat, you can get other muscles around the shoulder girdle to turn on, allowing you to connect your arms to your back."

Try these at-home exercises to strengthen your serratus anterior and the rest of the shoulder girdle for stronger, smoother port de bras:

Baby Swan

  1. Lie facedown with your feet together. Extend the arms down by your sides, palms flat on the floor.
  2. Engage the deep abdominals to lengthen the lower back and pull your belly button to the spine. Imagine rolling the collarbone up and back as you slowly lift your head, keeping the neck long. Aim to articulate the spine bone by bone as you lift, stopping at the bra line. When your shoulders begin to lift, raise the hands as well.
  3. Hold this position for three to five breaths.

Do 10 reps. To make it harder, lift the feet as well.

Plank Prep

  1. To work up to a plank, start with a modification: With forearms on the floor and hands pointing straight ahead, let your knees touch the ground to help support your weight. Hold for 30 seconds, completing three sets.
  2. When ready to progress, try three sets of one-minute kneeling planks, and then do the same progression in full forearm plank with knees off the floor. Keep the abdominals engaged and shoulder blades wide and flat against the back.

Sword Arm

  1. Standing on a Thera-Band with feet hip-distance apart, reach across the body with your right hand to hold the Thera-Band by your left hip.
  2. With the arm straight but the elbow unlocked, pull the band up and out to the right, as if you're pulling a sword from its sheath.
  3. When the arm is above the shoulder, rotate the trunk to the right as well, looking back over the right shoulder. To keep the shoulder blades from lifting, Gold-Watts cues her dancers to "imagine sliding the shoulder blades down into your back pockets as you lift the arm."

Complete 10 reps per side.

Wall Push-Up

  1. Stand two to three feet away from a wall with your legs together. Place your hands on the wall at forehead height, making a diamond shape.
  2. Slowly bend your elbows, bringing your trunk closer to the wall while maintaining a plank position in the body.
  3. Press back out.

Complete 10 reps. To modify, step closer to the wall. For an additional challenge, try one arm at a time without allowing the body to rotate.

The Conversation
Dance Training
Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Alexandra Wells can always tell when a dancer hasn't read her summer intensive information packet. Sometimes, says Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's director of artist training, there's a quick fix for the lack of preparation. "You can go and buy a long-sleeve shirt after you burn your shoulder really badly in that first floorwork class," she says. But not bringing enough of your special-order pointe shoes? "That's really dire."

Between reading the fine print, shopping for necessities and ramping up physically, getting ready for a summer intensive takes more than just dancing a lot. We broke down a step-by-step timeline:

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Advice for Dancers
Photo by Ali Müftüoğulları, Courtesy Unsplash

Whenever I'm cast in a solo role, I'm consumed with thoughts of everything that could go wrong. Please help.

—Isabella, Philadelphia, PA

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