These are some basic ballet terms. There are so many more. This is just an overview. It can feel overwhelming at first glance to learn all the terms and techniques, especially because the vocabulary is in French but it’s with practice that one gets familiar with them. Ballet appeared in the late 15th century, not in France but in the Renaissance court culture in Italy. It’s later in the mid 17th century that ballet developed in the French court culture of king Louis XIV. Being a passionate dancer himself, he played an important role in the development of ballet as he established the world’s first ballet school in 1661. That is why the terms are in French.
The toes of each foot point out toward either sides, heels together. Following the position of the feet, the legs are straight and turned out.
Hip-width apart, the heels do not touch. Legs are straight, feet point out toward either sides.
Starting in first position, slide the heel of one foot and line it up with the middle of the other foot. Both feet point out toward either sides.
Slide one foot in front of the other foot about a foot’s length in front of you. The heel of the front foot should line up with the toes of the back foot.
Legs turned out and straight, it’s like the fourth position but no gap between your feet. The toes of each foot place directly in front of the heel of the other foot. This is the hardest position.
Feet are parallel to each other.
Plié means ‘to bent’. Legs and feet turned out, both knees bend. Pliés are done in first, second, fourth and fifth position. There are two types of pliés: demi-plié and grand plié.
Demi-plié means ‘half bend’. It’s a small bend of the knees. Heels are on the floor.
Grand plié means ‘big bend’. It’s a large bend of the knees and the heels raise off the ground.
Retiré means ‘withdrawn’. Raise the working leg to the side, bending the knee while withdrawing the pointed toe on the supporting leg’s knee. It can be withdrawn on the front, side or back of the knee.
Tendu means ‘stretched’. The leg stretches and extends while the foot sweeps across the floor fluidly from one position to another. The foot only brushes the floor and returns in the starting position.
Dégagé means ‘disengaged’. It’s like a tendu but the toes disengage from the floor.
Rond de jambe
Rond de jambe means ’round of the leg’. While resting on one leg, the other leg makes a circular movement.
Rond de jambe à terre is when the movement is done with the toes swiping the ground.
Rond de jambe en l’air is when the circle is made in the air, off the ground.
Developpé means ‘developed’. The leg unfolds and develops to a full extension.
Grand battement means ‘big beat’. The leg straight and turned out is lifted high.
En dehors/en dedans
En dehors means ‘outward’.
En dedans means ‘inward’.
Pointe means ‘tips on the toes’. Demi pointe means ‘half tips on the toes’ or ‘balls of the feet’.
Arabesque means in ‘Arabic’ fashion. Standing on one leg, the other leg turned out, extends behind the body. Both legs straight. The arms outstretched, one forwards and one backwards. The goal is to create a smooth flawless line from the shoulders to the toes of the extended leg in the back.
Pirouette is a 360 degree spin performed on one foot en pointe or demi-pointe.
Standing on one leg, the other leg is turned out with knee higher than the foot and lifted in the air in a 90 degree angle. The working leg can be lifted to the front, to the side and to the back.
Chainé means a set of turns that is ‘chained’. Turning in a chain.
Piqué means a ‘pricked’. A pricking turn is executed by transferring weight onto a leg on full pointe and the other foot in the air while making a turn.
Sauté means ‘jump’. Starting in first position with straight legs, bend the legs into a plié, pushing into the floor as you stretch your legs and jump in the air. As you land, roll through your feet and bend into a plié.
Changement means ‘a change’. Jumping from fifth position with the feet, change the foot position in the air so the feet land with the opposite foot in front.
Glissage means ‘glide’. It is usually a small traveling jump that often links other steps together. Starting in fifth position in a plié, slide one foot out into a dégagé in second (side) and land back in fifth position. For a moment, both legs and feet are fully stretched in the air.
Pas de bourré
Pas de bourré means ‘beating step’. It’s a sideway step in which one foot crosses in front or behind the other foot.
Pas de chat
Pas de chat means ‘cat’s step’. It looks like how a cat jumps. Starting in fifth position with the right foot in the back, bend in a plié, jump with the right leg going into a retiré rapidly followed by the left leg going also into a retiré. For a moment, both legs are in the air looking like a grand plié in fifth position with feet pointed. The right foot then lands first followed by the leg back in the starting fifth position with the right foot in the back and left foot in front.
To the barre!
I hope this helps understand better the basic ballet vocabulary. If you are thinking about doing ballet which i strongly recommend, do not let the French technique terminology stop you. Again, it’s while training that you will get familiar and at ease with it all! Very soon, I will be posting videos with the French pronunciation of each vocabulary listed in this article. So stay tune!