Ballet terms made simple

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In putting the final touches on my forthcoming novel, OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT (five weeks to pub day!) I decided to include a glossary of ballet terms in the back of the book. Which made me pause and consider just how one constructed one’s own glossary of ballet terms. Do you borrow from a dictionary, or a wiki page, or a long-established dance company’s web page? Do you credit each and every word, so as to avoid being called a plagiarist? It seemed to me that the best way to go about it was to create a glossary from scratch, but, whoa, that might take days, even weeks, to achieve. I didn’t have that kind of time. I had, in essence, twenty-four hours to throw one together. And then I started thinking that readers didn’t really need yet one more formal description of ballet terms anyway. I wanted to create the kind of description that sounded like I was talking to you, my reader, just giving you a quick mental image. So. Here you go. These are terms you’ll find in OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT, so it isn’t a comprehensive list at this time. I’m thinking what I’ll do, however, is gradually add a few words and slowly build it up. Got a term you’d like explained in laymen’s terms? Shoot it my way! I’d love to make this the easiest understood glossary of ballet terms out there. Or maybe the most irreverent. Or fun. Because this ballet thing, it’s supposed to be fun, right? Especially for my fellow adult ballet learners.

So, without further ado, here you go!

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CLASSICAL GIRL’S GLOSSARY OF BALLET TERMS

A

Adagio – slow, sustained movement. A section in a ballet, or in the center during class. Pretty to watch. Can also be called an adage.

Attitude (devant or derrière) – one leg goes up at an angle, preferably with the knee way high and the foot just a little lower and nothing dangling downward like a bird’s broken wing.

Arabesque – the non-standing leg lifts in back and holds, nice and straight, somewhere between a ninety and 120 degree angle.

À la seconde – refers to a body and leg position, which here would be to the side.

Assemblé – a jump movement where one foot/leg sort of swings out to the side and then both feet/legs “assemble” midair just before you land in fifth position. Commonly linked to a glissade.

 

B

Barre – that wooden railing affixed to the wall that you see in every ballet studio. Also the term for the first part of ballet class, which takes place—you guessed it—at the barre.

Battement – “beat.” Petit battements are these little foot beats at the ankle you do midway through barre, and grand battements are these big, leg-swinging kicks you do to the front, side and back, at the end of barre.

Ballet master – the guy (or female, who is sometimes called a ballet mistress) who does things like supervise rehearsals, teach class, serve as the dude in charge when the artistic director is not around.

Ballon – wow, I could write an essay on this one. Translated as “bounce,” this coveted trait, most commonly noted in male dancers (mostly because they tend to be the big jumpers), refers to a sense of lightness and ease when doing jumps. A dancer with great ballon will seem to sort of linger in the air, defying gravity for an instant. To use it in a sentence, and thus impress others with your newfound ballet acumen, you might say, “wow, did that guy have great ballon, or what?”

Bourré – a busy little foot skitter en pointe that makes it look like the dancer (always female—males totally don’t bourré) is skimming across the stage. Used to great effect in the “Wili” scene in Giselle. Also part of a pas de bourré.

 

C

Cambré – an arch back with one arm overhead. Usually done while at the barre, during a port de bras. A very iconic movement in La Bayadère’s “Kingdom of the Shades.”

Chaîné turns – a moving “chain” of quick revolutions, usually en pointe.

Choreographer – the person (usually a male; why is that?) who created the ballet, although if he’s busy and/or quite established (or dead), he’ll send out his representatives, called stagers, to teach the ballet to the dancers.

Corps de ballet – the entry level rank into a ballet company, above apprentice, below soloist and principal. Not the most coveted place to spend your whole dance performance career.

Chassé – a movement step, from fifth position, where one foot sort of “chases” the other while doing this little baby leap/hop. Ideally the feet sort of slap together midair. Commonly paired up for a chassé sauté.

 

D

Dégagé – a movement at the barre where your foot goes out, like in a tendu, but “disengages” from the ground, a few inches, before returning to a closed first or fifth position.

Demi-plié – demi means half and plié means “bent.” At the barre, the plié exercise you begin class with usually includes a few demi-pliés tossed in. All jumps begin with a demi-plié preparation.

Devant – “front.” It’s a floor position, a body position, that gets tacked on to other terms, such as in “attitude devant” where your attitude leg is in its pretty shape in front of you, not back.

Derrière – “back.” Otherwise, pretty much the same definition as the one above.

Développé à la seconde – tell me you don’t need me to translate the French here. A leg lift, where the toe traces a path from ankle, to knee, before developing out to the side and up. Some dancers can développé their leg way high, like close to 180 degrees. Pretty crazy to watch.

Downstage – back in the day, stages were raised in back, or “raked,” which meant downstage, closest to the audience, was literally down from the back part of the stage.

 

E

Échappé – this jumpy thing where your feet are in first/fifth position and they “escape,” while you’re in the air, out to second position. And then in the next jump, the feet go back to first/fifth.

En l’air – “in the air,” and it’s usually paired with something like rond de jambe, which means your leg’s in the air as it does the rond de jambe.

En pointe – on full point, when you’re wearing pointe shoes.

Entrechat – a jump from fifth position, where the feet switch positions, and there’s a sort of midair meeting of the feet before they land in their new spot. An entrechat quatre (French for “four”) means you double up the midair action, so the feet go back and then front before landing. An entrechat six (pronounced CEES) means there’s yet one more meet-up happening, before the feet land. Guys with great jumps can do entrechats huit (“eight”) and story has it Rudolf Nureyev could do entrechats dix (“ten”). Whoa!

 

F

First [position] – when your heels are together, toes turned out, usually 150 to 180 degrees, depending on how turned out your hips are. (See Turnout)

Fifth [position] – a foot position where the hips are doing the turned-out thing (see Turnout) so that the right heel fits snugly up against the left big toe and the left heel is behind the right toes.

First cast – the casting everyone craves. You are the top dog. You will likely perform on opening night, which is when most of the critics come to review, so you are lucky and fabulous, but likely you already know it, and so does your artistic director.

 

G

Giselle – the classic 1841 story ballet about Giselle, this village girl betrayed by love, who dies and becomes a Wili, one of a band of vengeful maiden spirits, but nonetheless tries to protect her beloved from being killed by them. The story motif of “bereaved, betrayed, innocent maiden sent to the spirit world” would make its way in several more story ballets (see La Bayadère).

Glissade – translated as “glide,” it’s this movement that starts in demi-plié, fifth position, and, well, glides, with a teeny, weeny leap-but-not, into another fifth position. A common prep step for glissade assemblé.

Grand allegro – the big run combination across the diagonal at the end of a ballet class. Big fun. Classical Girl’s favorite part of class.

Grand battement – a big giant beat (see Battement). Basically, big kicks at the end of barre, that you do to the front, side and back.

Grand jeté – a big-assed leap. Comes at the end of a few prep steps, most commonly a tombé, pas de bourré, glissade, and voilà. I don’t know a single dancer who doesn’t love doing this combination. It’s what dance is all about. All dancers, regardless of age and/or physical condition, secretly long to do this every time we walk down a long, wide, empty hallway. Kudos to those who actually do.

Grand jeté lift – when the guy lifts his partner, either waist-high or overhead, and she does the leap in the air. Overhead is the most common. Cool to watch. This is why male dancers must be very, very strong. It’s a HUGE myth that male dancers are wimpy. Couldn’t be further from the truth. Basically, they bench press girls. And they do it without those grunts or face contortions you see on some guys at the gym. But I digress. Sorry.

 

H

High fifth – this relates to the arm position, not the foot position. High fifth means arms are curved and overhead, like you’re holding a big beach ball over your head.

 

J

Jeté – “thrown.” Most common use is “grand jeté,” that leap where you just throw yourself into the movement.

 

L

La Bayadère –another 19th century story ballet about Nikiya, an innocent, young temple dancer, betrayed in love, who dies, and becomes a Shade, and her love, Solor, smokes himself into an opium stupor so he can follow her into the Kingdom of the Shades. Sounds a little like Giselle, huh? (See Giselle.)

Low fifth – an arm position, like high fifth. Low fifth, however, looks more like a guy wanting to cup his nuts in his two hands but his hands are politely hovering six to eight inches from his torso, arms curved all nice and pretty.

Lines – this refers to the pleasing coordination of the arms and legs in relation to the torso and head. Think of an artist sketching the initial lines of a perfect person’s body. You might hear someone say, “she has gorgeous lines” about a dancer (usually the lean, leggy ones).

 

M

marley [floor] – once a name brand, now a generic term for a type of sturdy black vinyl flooring that covers dance performance stages and quite a few studios, too. Good, slip-free surface to dance on. You can roll it up and transport it.

Merde – French for “shit” and what dance people tell each other before performing, because of course you’d never say “break a leg” to a dancer, and theater/dance people love their little superstition good-luck customs.

Mixed bill – this kind of program means the night’s performance will include two to four short ballets versus one long story ballet. Most times there are three.

 

P

Pas – “step.”

Pas de bourré – this step thingy, three small steps, that serves as a transition to bigger thingies. Like a tombé, pas de bourré, glissade, grand jeté.

Pas de deux – “step of two.” Basically, a more elegant way to say “a duet.” Most ballets have a few pas de deux thrown into them, almost always male/female, but in today’s contemporary ballets, hey, anything goes.

Pas de basque – you don’t expect me to keep repeating “step,” do you? And this one, it’s “step of the Basque” and I dunno, it’s a folksy, jaunty, steppy thing. It’s fun to do, if that helps.

Passé – position on one leg where the knee is out to the side and the toe is touching the other knee, sort of “passing” through, like from a front attitude to back.

Penché – translated as “leaning” or “inclining,” it’s affiliated with an arabesque. Basically the back arabesque leg goes way high while the chest dips way low, and the gaze remains forward. Lovely to watch. Very Giselle Act II.

Petit allegro – fun, busy stuff with the feet, and also a designated portion of the ballet class. (Generally, a combination of several steps within eight or sixteen counts). Hard to do the busy stuff if you’re a relative beginner, but SO much fun to watch a professional do it. YouTube it.

Plié – “bent.” Every barre starts with pliés. Every new student starts with pliés. Every professional does about a million of them. It’s like death and taxes: no way to avoid ‘em.

Piqué – “pricked,” a deliberate step into something, like an arabesque.

Piqué turn – kind of like chainé turns, but the non-supporting leg is in a passé or back retiré position.

Piqué arabesque – instead of bouncing up into an arabesque en pointe, you deliberately step into it.

Pirouette – turns in place with the non-supporting leg up in passé or retiré. Good dancers can do triples effortlessly. Really good dancers can do a half-dozen revolutions (guys, for whatever reason, seem to be able to do more). Partnered pirouettes are when the guy spins the girl’s waist, which doesn’t mean she’s not doing any of the work. She is. It’s just that a good partner can make a good spinner go four or five revolutions.

Port de bras – movement of the arms.

Promenade – a movement during an adagio where a dancer moves in a circular direction on one leg while the other is doing something fabulous, like a back arabesque or a back attitude. A partnered promenade is where the male moves his partner around while she’s en pointe in aforementioned arabesque or attitude, either holding her waist or her hand.

 

R

Répétiteur – okay, so different people apply different meanings to the term. Some say it’s interchangeable with the term “stager,” others say it’s someone who rehearses the dancers after they’ve learned the ballet’s steps. Then some say it’s the person who merely schedules all the rehearsals. Meanwhile, a ballet master often acts as a répétiteur. Whatever. You get the idea; take your pick.

Retiré – this position the non-standing leg takes, like a passé where the toe is at the knee, but instead of “passing” through, well, it “retires” there, in front. Or in back.

Rond de jambe (plural: ronds de jambe) – during barre, the foot traces a slow half-circle on the floor.

Rond de jambe en l’air – the thing described above, in the air. (See “en l’air.”)

 

S

Sauté – “jump.” I like the image of cooking, when you sauté onions on a too high heat and they jump. Yeah, that’s a good image. (BTW, even though I said I wasn’t going to mess with pronunciation, you really do need to know that this one is pronounced like “sew” as in sewing, versus “saw” like sautéed onions. I can hear your mistake from all the way over here, and it hurts my ears. Just saying.)

Second cast – the lesser cast, that won’t get opening night, but will still get a good number of performances, so, hey, it’s still a great thing. Beats being the understudy cast.

Shade – spirit maiden dancer from La Bayadère, Act II, Kingdom of the Shades.

Sisonne – another jump thingy where the dancer springs off both feet and midair the legs “scissor” open. One foot lands a split second before the other, into a closed fifth position. They can be done from front to back, back to front, or side to side. Can be done as a partnered lift for more dramatic effect.

Stager – a choreographer’s representative, who will teach the dancers the ballet before leaving rehearsals to the ballet masters (or the mystery-laden répétiteur). Generally, they themselves will have performed the ballet many times, with aforementioned choreographer. No Balanchine ballet can be professionally performed without it first being taught by a stager from the Balanchine Trust, all of whom have a close connection to either him or his choreography.

Story ballet – also called an evening-length ballet. Tends to be one of the classics, like Giselle, Swan Lake, Don Quixote, The Nutcracker, etc. Will be the sole ballet performed that evening. Big moneymakers for companies.

 

T

Tendu – its official name is “battement tendu” but no one bothers with the first word. In a tendu, you slide your foot out, point the toe, and slide it back in. It’s one of the most elementary steps at the barre, right after pliés. It’s the thing every little girl learns on her first day of ballet class and will thereafter demonstrate to you daily. Hourly.

Turnout – this is mostly referring to how your hip joints were built. Although anyone can turn their feet out when they’re in first position, having great turnout means your hips will allow a 180 degree pose without twisting the hell out of your knee joints. Either you’re born with it or you’re not.

 

U

Upstage – see “downstage” for explanation; I don’t feel like writing it out twice.

 

W

Wili – maiden spirits [from the ballet Giselle] who died before their wedding day and now wander the forest by night, exacting revenge on unsuspecting men by dancing them to death.

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