Whether they're twirling, leaping, bending, gliding or nearly flying through the air, accomplished ballet dancers make their graceful feats look effortless.
When ballet dancers are at their best, their audience probably doesn't wonder how they got their bodies into those positions. The viewers don't think about how difficult it must be to stay (literally) on one's toes for so long. They don't marvel at this turn or that bend. In other words, they don't dwell on the details: They get caught up in the magic as the dancers seem to defy gravity and the limitations of human anatomy, all for their art. The ballet -- the theater, the story, the passion, the dance -- is what matters.
However, the dancers know that centuries of tradition and years of personal hard work have combined to create that magic.
Classical ballet traces its roots to 15th century Renaissance Italy [source: World Book]. It flourished in France in the 16th and 17th centuries, and soon spread to Russia and the United States.
Throughout its development, classical ballet has relied on some basic positions and movements. Aspiring serious dancers -- often as young as 8 -- must practice, practice, practice those positions and movements for years before they achieve that aura of effortless beauty.
As dancers learn the ropes, teachers and students alike use terms that have come down through the centuries. Those terms form the language of ballet. Read on for a sample of the most important terms in that classical language.
To put it plainly, ballet begins at the barre.
What does that mean, exactly? Ballet is usually taught in a studio that offers plenty of room for student dancers to move about. The lessons are basically exercises in "body mechanics" that help students perfect the basic positions and movements of classical ballet [source: Kirsten]. Repetition is important: In later years, accomplished dancers will still practice in much the same way.
Dancers begin to practice slowly while holding onto the barre, a long wooden, horizontal railing along the wall of the studio or rehearsal room. (Think of it as a set of ballet training wheels.) Holding onto the barre make it easier for young dancers to accomplish the exercises. Later, they'll be allowed to try the movements in the center of the room without the barre.
Make no mistake, though: The barre isn't just for beginners. Every day, every class, every ballet practice starts with a session of exercises at the barre. In fact, barre is also a term used to mean the exercises that make up the first part of a class [source: Dancehelp.com]. Constant practice is crucial to success in ballet.
Read on to learn more about ballet's basic movements.
Turnout and the Other Positions
The turnout is one of the first movements a ballet dancer learns. In the turned-out position, a dancer's thigh bones are rotated sideways. The heels are together, and the knees and toes point in opposite directions. In the ideal turnout, the feet will form a 180-degree angle. Because it's such an unnatural position, learning a proper turnout requires a lot of work. Beginners must achieve the turned-out position gradually, or they risk straining their knees and injuring themselves.
The turnout allows greater extension and freedom of movement of the legs than a natural stance does. It provides the base for jumps and spins. The turnout, or first position, forms the basis of classical ballet technique [source: World Book]. All ballet movements begin and end with the five established positions of the feet -- and all of those are based on the turnout.
The other positions of the feet are:
- Second position: It's just like first position, with the feet turned opposite each other in a straight line, but with 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) between the heels.
- Third position: The feet are turned outward, with one heel in front of the other.
- Fourth position: The feet are turned outward. One foot is in front of and parallel to the other, spread 12 inches apart. The heels and toes point in opposite directions.
- Fifth position: The feet turned outward, with one foot right in front of the other and only the first joint of each big toe past the opposite heel.
After dancers learn these positions, the real fun begins. Read on for more basic ballet moves.
Plié (plee-AY) literally means "bent." When a dancer bends his or her knees, they open outwardly, with the legs turned out from the hips. The plié is designed to make the dancer's joints, muscles and tendons flexible and pliable. It also helps to develop balance. In fact, the first exercise in most ballet classes involves the plié. Dancers do the plié at the barre and in the center of the floor. The move may be done in all five of the basic foot positions.
There are two main types of plié. In the grand plié, the knees bend fully, so that the thighs are horizontal. The dancer bends slowly and smoothly, coordinating movement with the arm that's not holding the barre. When the knees are at least halfway bent, the dancer's heels rise from the floor. As the dancer rises and the knees straighten, the heels go back down. The rise should take as long as the bend.
In the demi-plié, or half-bend, the heels stay flat on the floor. All jumps begin and end with a plié.
To expand your ballet vocabulary, head to the next page.
Battement (bat-MAHN) is a widely used term for a variety of beating movements done with the leg either extended or bent. Battement is such a common term in ballet that it's often omitted because it's understood. A battement frappé (struck beat, in full), the exercise that forms the basis of the jeté, for example, may be called simply frappé [source: Dancehelp.com].
There are two main types of battements:
- Grand battement: Also known as the "big beat." The dancer lifts one leg from the hip as high as possible and then brings it back down. The emphasis is on the return. The rest of the body stays still and properly aligned. The idea is to loosen the hip joints.
- Petit battement: This is also called the "little beat." One leg starts out sur le cou-de-pied (with the foot placed on the calf of the other leg, just above the ankle). It beats in time to the music -- front and back, over and over. Then it ends on the opposite side of the leg. During all of this, the knee and thigh of the working leg don't move. This develops the speed and precision required to move the feet and lower legs effectively. There are various types of petits battements: tendus (stretched); degagés (disengaged); frappés (struck) and tendus relevés (stretched and lifted) [source: Dancehelp.com].
When most people think of ballet, they often envision the graceful profile of a dancer standing on one leg. The other leg is extended behind the body, at a right angle to the supporting leg. The dancer's arms are elegantly stretched out to make the body look as long as possible. This move is known as the arabesque (a-ra-BESK), a graceful pose that gets its name from a Moorish ornament [source: ABT].
The supporting leg may also be demi-plié, but the dancer's shoulders must be kept square. Arabesques are often used to end a succession of steps. There are a host of variations upon the basic technique.
Keep reading for a little attitude adjustment.
The attitude (a-tee-TEWD) is a dance pose inspired by a statue of Mercury by Giovanni da Bologna, and developed by 19th-century Italian dancer and choreographer Carlo Blasis [source: ABT]. This position is similar to the arabesque in that the dancer stands on one leg, with the working leg in the air. But in the attitude, the raised leg is bent and lifted at a 90-degree angle. The dancer holds the leg so that the knee is higher than the foot. The heel of the supporting leg may be on the floor, or the dancer may stand on the toes or on the balls of the feet.
On the side where the leg is lifted, the dancer's arm is held in a curved position over the head. The other arm is extended to the side.
As with the arabesque, there are many variations on the attitude, mostly determined by the dancer's relative position to the audience.
The pointes are the tips of the toes. Female dancers, especially, may be trained to dance sur les pointes or on point. Young students are usually not allowed to dance on point until they have completed two or three years of intensive training. They also should be old enough -- at least 11 or 12 years of age -- so that the bones of their feet are fully developed [source: Dancehelp.com]. If a dancer is sur les demi-pointes, he or she is standing high on the balls of his or her feet.
Dancers may get onto their pointes or demi-pointes in three ways.
- Piqué (pee-KAY): Pricked, or pricking. The dancer steps directly onto the toe or ball of the working foot, with the other foot raised in the air.
- Relevé (ruhl-le-VAY): The dancer rises up on the toes or balls of the feet.
- Sauté (soh-TAY): The dancer jumps and lands on the toes or balls of the feet.
Dancers on point wear pointe shoes, or satin shoes with reinforced toes.
Find more of the language of ballet on the next page.
Pas (pah) literally means "step." In ballet, it can mean a simple step or a more complex movement that involves some sort of action. A pas de bourrée (pah duh boo-RAY), for example, may be done in various ways, but usually involves three steps, with the first two in demi-pointe position. A pas de chat is named for its similarity to a cat's leap. A pas de valse is a gracefully swaying waltz step. A pas de marché is a dignified march step that you can expect to see when the ballerina and the premier danseur (leading male dancer) take a walk together.
In ballet, the term can also refer to a dance. You can tell the number of people involved in a certain dance by its name. A pas seul is a solo. A pas de deux is a duet. A pas de trois is a dance for three and so on.
A pas jeté (pah zhuh-TAY) is such a familiar ballet term that it's usually called by its shorter name, jeté. Pas jeté means "throwing step" and usually refers to a jump or a leap. More specifically, it's a particular kind of jump in which the dancer jumps from one foot to the other. In the process, the working leg is brushed through the air so that it seems to have been thrown. As with so many techniques in ballet, there are a great variety of jetés.
In the grand jeté (large jeté), the dancer throws the working leg to form a 90-degree angle with the other leg as he or she makes a high leap.
Jetés may be performed in any direction. They can be combined with positions like arabesques and done with many other movements. Terms paired with jeté indicate what's going on: A jeté en avant grand, for example, means a large leap forward.
No listing of important ballet terms could omit the lovely pirouette, another of the images that leap to mind when most people think of ballet.
A pirouette (peer-ooh-WET) is a spin or whirl. Starting in one of many positions -- attitude, arabesque or numerous others -- the dancer makes at least one complete turn. Usually more than one turn is involved. The dancer is on one foot, on pointe or demi-pointe. The position of the arms will vary with the type of pirouette, but the arms remain still to provide the force of the momentum. The dancer's head is the last part of the body to move away from the audience and the first to arrive as the dancer twirls back around toward the audience.
The dancer is usually twirling rapidly in a pirouette. An exception is the supported pirouette. In a supported pirouette, a partner steadies the dancer, and the pirouette may be quite slow.
For more information on classical dance, leap over to the links on the next page.
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Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- American Ballet Theatre. "American Ballet Theatre Ballet Dictionary." (April 10, 2010) http://www.abt.org/education/dictionary/index.html
- ArtofBallet.com. "Beginners Ballet" (April 19, 2010)http://www.artofballet.com/class2.html
- DanceHelp.com "Ballet Terminology A-Z." (April 8, 2010)http://www.dancehelp.com/articles/dance-dictionary/ballet-dictionary.aspx
- George Mason University. "Suzanne K's Ballet Terms. Classical Ballet Terms and Definitions for Beginning Ballet." (April 13, 2010)http://www.dance.gmu.edu
- Lincoln, Kirsten and Stuart, Muriel. "The Classic Ballet: Basic Technique & Terminology." Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2008.
- South Dakota State University. "Ballet Terms/Definitions." (April 13, 2010)http://learn.sdstate.edu/melissa_mork/balletterms.htm
- The World Book Encyclopedia. "Ballet." Vol. 2. World Book, Inc. Chicago, 1984.