Terminology 101

Last month when my daughter Rachel was working on a school project about ballet, I realized that the dance lingo I learned as a child was long forgotten. So I thought maybe there are other parents who have experienced the same memory loss and need a refresher, or others who have absolutely no experience with this sport. In either case, it can be intimidating talking to the dance teachers and not understanding what they are saying. It’s like walking into a foreign land and hearing a foreign language.

Well …  actually you are. You’re hearing French. You’re probably wondering why French?  Here’s the scoop – while ballet originated in Italy more than 600 years ago, it gained popularity in France when an Italian lady Catherine DE Medici married a French king and introduced this new art form to France.

Because my French is a little rusty, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by asking “What’s a jeté?” or “What’s an arabesque?” every few minutes, I thought a crib sheet of ballet vocab words would help with the (re)learning curve. On second thought, it’s my daughter who would be embarrassed. I can just hear her saying, “STOP Mom! You’re embarrassing me.”

So with the help of the trusty internet, and Rachel and team-mate Riley, I’ve compiled a ‘cliff note’ list of the most common ballet/dance words. If the girls could not pronounce, describe or demonstrate what the word meant, it was removed from the list. Oh yeah, since most of the words are in French, the list includes phonetic pronunciation. 

Ballet Vocabulary:

Arabesque (a-ra-BESK) – The position of an arabesque shows one leg as the supporting leg and the other extended behind you. The arms can be held in various positions to show a first, second, or third arabesque.

En L’Air (ahn lehr) – In the air.

Attitude (a-tee-TEWD) – The pose is similar to an arabesque, but the lifted leg is bent at a 90-degree angle.

Balancé (ba-lahn-SAY) – A rocking step.

Barre (bar) – Every ballet class begins at the barre, which is simply a free-standing bar or a bar attached to the wall in which dancers use for support while practicing movements.

Brisé (bree-ZAY) – A fast action step in which the legs beat together in the air.

Chaînés (sheh-NAY) – A fast series of turns, on pointe or demi-pointe, with the legs held tightly together to create an exciting and energetic effect.

Changement (shahnzh-MAHN) – Change of feet.

Chassé (sha-SAY) – This is a travelling step where the legs move forward in a series, taking the body forward too.

Choreographer – The name for the person who has created and choreographed a dance.

Classical Pose – A position in ballet where the dancer stands on a turned out foot with the other foot either in a straight leg tendu derrière, or with the knee bent.

Coda – It is the finalé of a ballet where the main dancers perform impressive jumps and turns.

Combinations – Sequences of steps in a ballet class or choreography.

Croisé, croisée (croz-ZAY) – Crossed. One of the directions of épaulement and usually associated with facing one of the corners before an exercise, so not directly to the front.

En Dehors (ahn duh-AWR) – Outwards This term is used in opposition to ‘en dedan’. So, for example, a pirouette is performed outwards towards the working leg.

Demi-plié – Half-bend of the knees.

Sur les Demi-pointes (sewr lay duh-mee-PWENT) – On the half-points. This term is used for when a dancer stands high on the balls of their feet.

Derrière (deh-RYEHR) – Behind or back. In ballet terminology this is when a movement or step is placed behind the body.

Échappé (ay-sha-PAY) – Opening of both feet from a closed position.

Entrechat (ahn-truh-SHAH) – A quick beating step where the dancer jumps and crosses their legs into the air then lands back down in a fifth position.

Épaulement (ay-pohl-MAHN) – This movement happens in the shoulders and should show a slight twist of alignment, just so that the one shoulder is brought slightly in front of the other. It gives a finishing artistic touch to a movement and is used to give more style to a position.

Extension (eks-tahn-SYAWN) – When a dancer lifts and holds his/her leg in the air.

En Face (ahn fahss) – Facing the audience.

Fish dive – Most commonly a female dancer is supported by a male dancer and she is off the floor in a horizontal position.

Fondu, fondue (fawn-DEW) – This is when the supporting knee bends and so the body is slightly lowered in the movement.

Fouetté rond de jambe en tournant (fweh-TAY rawn duh zhahnb ahn toor-NAHN) -Fouetté show the dancer turning in a series with the supporting leg turning and the working leg in a whipping movement. The working leg comes into retire during the turn and extends quickly out through the a la second position in between the turns.

Battement frappé – To strike. This is a fast and energetic movement, that prepares a dancer for the jumps that come later.

Glissade (glee-SAD) – This a linking or gliding step for jumps that starts from a plie in fifth position, then the leg glides along the floor before showing a light jump in the air, then landing back in fifth position.

Grand, grande (grahnd) – Big, large.

Grand Battement – An exercise where the working leg is lifted into the air in a fast and quick motion, then brought back down again.

Grand Jeté – Large forward leap.

Petit Jeté (puh-TEE zhuh-TAY) – Small jeté or leap.

Manèges (ma-NEZH) – This is when a dancer performs steps in a circle and it is usually known as a challenging movement.

Mime – Every classical ballet will use mime as well as dance, it is when the face is used for dramatic expression and it helps portray the story and characters.

Ouvert, ouverte (oo-VEHRT) – Open, opened. This term can be applied to the alignment and position of your body, as well as the arm and leg direction.

Pas (pah) – A simple step or movement with a transfer of weight. For example, pas de bourrée. In the ballet dictionary “Pas” also refers to a dance performed by a duet. For example, pas de deux.

Pas de bourrée (pah duh boo-RAY) – This is made up of three quick steps. It takes off from a plié and goes through a tight fifth position, on demi-pointe or pointe.

Pas de chat (pah duh shah) – It is like cat’s leap in which the dancer jumps into the air with both feet coming quickly underneath her/him to land on two feet again. 

Penché, penchée (pahn-SHAY) – This position is mostly known as an arabesque penché which shows great flexibility for a dancer when they extend the leg beyond an arabesque and split the legs whilst remaining on balance.

Petit, petite (puh-TEET) – Little, small.

Piqué (pee-KAY) – The general quality of this movement is sharp and energized.

Pirouette (peer-row-RET) – A whirl or spin

Pirouette piquée (peer-row-ET pee-KAY) – Pricked pirouette.

Plié (plee-AY) – This is a key position in ballet that controls all movements, steps and jumps. A dancer always starts a ballet class with pliés at the barre in all five positions of the feet.

There is a Demi-plié, which is what we need for all movements, and a grand plié which is to the very depth of your plié. In any plié, the dancer aims to have both feet turned out.

Port de bras (pawr duh brah) – The movement in which your arms take to pass through each position. In a typical ballet class, the dancers would have a set port de bras exercise designed specifically to work on the back and arm muscles.

Promenade (prawm-NAD) – Turn in a walk. The turn can be done held in a position, such as an arabesque, and it is usually in an adagio (leisurely) exercise so the control is in the supporting leg to turn you around.

Relevé (ruhl-VAY) – When your foot rises off the floor either on pointe or demi-pointe.

Retiré (ruh-tee-RAY) – Withdrawn. The position for pirouettes where the thigh raised and the toe is placed in front, behind or at the side of the knee. The supported leg in straight, on demi-pointe for pirouettes and balances. 

Rise – This is a smooth relevé, so the toes do not move from the place at which the rise began.

Rolling – This is a common technical correction for dancers, so if the feet roll inwards or outwards it is not the correct placement but the weight should be place in the middle of the foot

Rond de jambe (rawn duh zhamb) – Circular movement of the leg.

Rond de jambe en l’air (rawn duh zhamb ahn lehr) – A Rond de jambe in the air.  The whole movement is made by the calf only.

Saut de basque (soh duh bask) – A jumping step where the dancer turns in the air with one foot drawn to retire or cou de pied.

Sauté, sautée (soh-TAY) – Jumped, jumping.

Sickling – This term is a technical fault in ballet and applies to the line of your pointed foot. If the dancer turns their foot in from the ankle, it breaks the straight line of the leg and becomes a sickle. The opposite of this would be called fishing the foot.

Supporting leg – A term used by dancers and teachers for the leg which supports the body, so that the other working leg is free to carry the movement.

Tendu – Stretched.

Temps levé – This is a simple jump from one foot and landing back on the same foot.

Tour en l’air (toor ahn lehr) – Turn in the air. You jump straight up into the air from a demi-plié in fifth, then make a complete turn and land back again in the fifth position.

Turn-out – Turn-out is one of the main parts of technique for ballet. The turn-out is initiated from hip joints right through to the feet, so the whole leg is engaged to achieve the range of turn out you have.

Working leg – The leg that is carrying out the movement, while other leg is supporting the balance of the body.

Note: Information for this blog was taken from: balletdancersguide.com