The other day, I see our teacher Elina Wisung doing this ‘stretch’–standing on one leg, extending the other in a 90-degree position, which makes her body appear longer. I watch her body go into a spiral, her muscles holding the tension while she stretches even more taking support from the barré. For a minute, I worry she might hurt herself, but then I laugh at my own stupidity. Who am I to judge what she is capable of when I hardly know what she is doing?!
Minutes later she comes back to me and writes this down on a piece of paper- ‘practising hip alignment in arabesque’. “Oh, the technical ballet term for that ‘stretch’; forget it” I think to myself. But wait, how long will I excuse myself for not knowing the technical terms of an art form that I am trying to understand? Will I continue to say ‘that stretch’ or will I use the term ‘arabesque‘?
Memorising these ballet terms, in French, is not my cup of tea. But, the fact that some of these words may have a history or an interesting meaning behind them finally made me embark on this journey to know about those jetés, pirouettes and fouettes.
Let me say, it is a surprisingly joyful ride. Perusing through the dictionary of ballet at one sitting is nearly impossible. But if you are a beginner like me, these few ballet terms will get you started in understanding this wonderful art form.
Before we begin, did you know that even though ballet originated in Italy, the ballet terms are in French!It is true that ballet has its origins in Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th century.But in the next century, an Italian noblewoman named Catherine de Medici, who was the wife of King Henry II of France began to fund ballet in the French court, during which time the art form was taken up more seriously and the terms and technique were standardised. Hence the french connection.( Source: Ballethistory-pbt.org.)
Now let us start with few important terms in ballet.
If you are a beginner, this would be the official ‘beginner’s term’ in ballet. Simply because this is the first position one will learn in ballet. Ideally, this position is when you keep your heels together and turn your knees and toes out to the sides. It may sound very simple, but takes many years of practice to get that 180 degrees turn perfectly. By the way, this first position and five more were invented by the Italian Choreographer Cesare Negari in his text ‘Le Grazie d’Amore’, which is considered one of the primary sources on Italian court dance. Did you know that there is also a well-known documentary on ballet called the First Position? Watch the trailer here.
Plié is also one of the basic positions in ballet that you will learn as a beginner. Literally meaning bent, it is used in almost all jumps and turns. Pliés are performed in all the five basic foot positions, either as demi-plié, where the heels remain on the floor or as grand plié where the heels rise.
Did you know that Misty Copeland, the first African-American principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre inspired the world famous ballet company to launch an initiative to find black ballerina’s under the name–you guessed it right–Project Plié?
This, perhaps, might be the most common ballet term that you have heard from dancers. Even if you have not heard, you have seen it and envied about it.Yes, dancing on their toes in those beautiful pointe shoes and balancing the whole body weight on the toes, as if it were a child’s play. In fact, pointe is the tip of a dancer’s toe and ‘en pointe’ means ‘on point’ (on toes). Now it looks so simple and effortless, but you will need at least a few years of intensive training to stand with those shoes, let alone dance. Don’t believe me? You can try it but don’t blame me if you get hurt. (If you have watched Titanic, remember the scene where Rose tries to stand on her toe during the working class party? That was my inspiration to try the stunt.) We don’t know for sure how and when the dancers began to dance en pointe, but Marie Taglioni, a famous ballet dancer during the Romantic ballet era, is the one credited for being the first to dance on en pointe. Read more here.
Now that you know what en pointe is, the next ballet term is about moving from one foot to the other. This is called a Jeté. When you watch a dancer performing a jeté, it appears as if she/he is throwing up her foot in the direction of the movement.
Hence the name jeté, which means ‘throw away’ in French.Since there can be many kinds of movements, there are different types of jeté. My favourite would be Grand jeté, which is a split in the air. By the way, there is also a short fiction by the same name ‘Grand Jeté or The Great Leap by Rachel Swirsky. No, the story has nothing to do with ballet.
Battement tendu -which is a dancer’s first experience of standing on one leg, at least in technical terms. Battement tendu helps dancers to be conscious of directing the force towards the pointed foot. Firstly, this ballet terms is pronounced ‘bat-ma’. It literally means ‘beat’ in French.
However, it is translated as the movement. They are important because, without these movements, a dancer can never attain perfection in his/her jumps and stretches. You can also check out battement fondu and battement frappe.
Pas de deux
Even if you know nothing about ballet, you can still go ahead and ask your loved one–your husband, lover or anyone for that matter,if they would want to watch ‘pas de deux’ from a ballet performance. Pas de deux is a duet dance, performed commonly by a male and female dancer. It means the ‘step of two’.
So you know what the ballet term pas is- a step. From Swan Lake to Giselle, all most all well-known ballets include a pas de deux as one of the highlights of the show. Finally, if you are a cat person, you should definitely check out ‘pas de chat’.
And finally, the ballet term that made me write this in the first place. The first four letters of the word should give you a clue on the origins of this word. Though Arabesque is also a form of Islamic art, in ballet, Arabesques are achieved when we stand on one leg and raise the other leg at a 90-degree angle.With the hands extended the body appears to be longer. Did you know that belly dance has been influenced by ballet? In fact, Arabesques (Egyptians Arabesques) are also performed in belly dance but are very different from ballet in terms of the elevation of the foot. Now I can proudly replace ‘that stretch’ with Arabesque. ( Photo source: Web)
There you go. The next time someone says Allegro, you may or may not know what it means.The list may get longer but this time, you know how to go about it. So go ahead.
Tell me a new ballet term you learnt so that I can add it to my list too.