The five positions of feet in classical ballet were first codified by a French choreographer and dancer Pierre Beauchamp (1631-1705) and still form the basis of the classical ballet technique.
It is very important to achieve these positions with one’s legs and body properly aligned. If they are not, the risk of injuries will increase, improvement of technique can be slowed down and muscles will develop unnecessarily in the wrong places.
There is a very good and simple exercise one can do in order to check the alignment and, at the same time, strengthen the legs. Stand with your feet in parallel* with a tennis ball between the ankles (the ball should be placed just above the ankle bones – the feet do not have to touch each other), and try to squeeze the tennis ball by standing tall and using the inner thigh muscles (particularly the gracilis). The tennis ball should be firmly held by your legs. Ask someone to try and take the ball out. If this is difficult (it is not really impossible…), you are likely to be using the correct muscles and your knees and toes are aligned. Your knees should be straight above your toes. Next, do a plié and check that the tennis ball is still firmly held. Then go up onto your tiptoes and see if the tennis ball is still strongly held. Repeat this several times. By continuing this exercise daily, you can train your legs to be aligned and strengthen the inner thigh muscles.
Once you know how to align your legs, stand with feet parallel to start with, and then lift your feet off the floor onto your heels without bending your knees at all. Pivot your legs on your heels so your toes swivel outwards to the side, without loosening your knees and keeping your body upright. Put your feet down and you are in the first position. You should always turn out your legs from the hips. Some people feel their legs are turned out when the toes are pulled to the sides, but this very often results in twists in ankles and knees, that lead to injuries and overly developed muscles in unnecessary places.
A very good way to check if your knees are aligned above your toes: Whatever the position you are in, curl your toes upwards as much as you can without lifting the balls of your feet. If you can do this without any strain to your feet joints, your knees are properly aligned above your toes. You should feel three pressure points on your feet. In the middle of your heel, one between the first and second toes and one between the fourth and fifth toes.
From the first position, slide one leg out, keeping the balance on the supporting leg and gradually stretching the moving foot (if you are at the barre, the outside foot) to the side, being careful to keep the toes on the floor, then shifting the balance gradually into the middle as you lower your heel. This is the second position. The distance between the heels should be about the length of your own foot. You can achieve a beautifully positioned second position by standing with one foot in front of the other, swivelling the back foot on the heel and then putting the foot down into second position.
Stretch the outside leg, lifting from the heel, shifting the balance back onto the inside leg, slide the foot toward the supporting leg, closing it just in front, with the heel of the outside foot in front of the arch of the other foot. This is the third position. Although some teachers encourage use of this position when a dancer finds it a little difficult to close into a tight fifth position, I find this can encourage the dancers to be a little lazy when they are supposed to be in the fifth position, and therefore I do not use this very often in my classes.
To reach the fourth position from the third or fifth position, slide and stretch out the front foot forward, pushing the heel forward rather than the toes and, after completing the stretch, bring your toes back a little (turning the leg and feet out all the time) and put the foot down on the floor in a position parallel to the supporting leg. The distance between the two feet should be a little shorter than the length of your own foot. To check this, put the front foot in 90° angle to the supporting foot, heel to heel. Pivot the front foot on the ball, pushing the heel forward, and lower the heel down.
To reach the fourth position when coming from the second position, first stretch the outside foot without lifting the toes off the floor, shifting the balance onto the other leg. Move your outside leg from your side to front, as if to draw the arc of a quarter of a circle. Make sure you keep your leg turned out. When your working leg reaches the front, put down your heel in the way described above.
From the fourth position, stretch the foot forward and then slide it back towards the supporting leg, led by the toes, making sure your leg stays turned out, until the front foot is touching the back foot, toes to heels into the fifth position.
If you are coming from the second position, you could either do the same quarter circular move as into the fourth position and then close straight into the fifth position or, after stretching the outside leg, slide back straight from the side into the fifth position.
If you do not have enough turn-out in your legs and/or flexibility yet, it is difficult to achieve a 180° turn-out in the first and second positions, or parallel lines in the third, fourth or fifth positions. I usually advise my dancers to have slightly less turn-out in order to keep the knees and toes aligned and perhaps the legs very slightly less crossed, but encourage them to keep striving to go further every day.
If you search for “feet positions in ballet” online, there is one source that says Serge Lifar (1905-1986) reintroduced two positions in the 1930’s and they are limited to Lifar’s choreography. Whereas it is likely that he reintroduced them and codified them as the sixth and the seventh positions, both positions are and have been used in many examples of choreography, including classical repertoires such as that of Marius Petipa, aside from Lifar’s own.
The sixth position is widely used. It is a position I discussed at the start: parallel feet. Many methods call this sixth position even if they are not down the Paris Opera line.
The seventh position is also widely used, but as far as I know, it is usually not called so. It is a position, essentially a fourth position in relevé with heels aligned. This position is usually called fourth position on (demi)pointe.
Whatever the position you stand in, do not forget to get your legs turned out from the hips, align your knees above your toes, and hold your head high; beautiful dancing is something to be proud of, after all!