Jargon Watch: The Language Of Ballet
Assuming you didn’t grow up speaking French but you did do ballet at some point, you probably internalized all the esoteric ballet terms your teacher used without fully grasping their actual meaning in French. You might not even recognize it spelled out as fouetté, because you only remember it in your head as a “fwe-tay,” the immortalized remains of your teacher’s bad pronunciation.
Regardless of your personal level of familiarity with the world of ballet, the universe of ballet terms — much like fencing — exists almost entirely in French. If you’re learning the language (or even if you’re just an etymology nerd), the meanings of these movements can be illuminating — or at the very least, interesting.
So why are ballet terms almost all in French, especially if ballet technically began in Italy? Technically, the word “ballet” itself comes from the Italian ballare, which means “to dance.” Ballet began in the court life of 16th century Italy. When Catherine de Medici of Italy married French King Henry II, it came to France, where the official vocabulary became codified over the next century, particularly during the reign of Louis XIV, who was himself a dancer.
The movements were originally subtle in their range because the earliest dancers wore very restrictive clothing, but as time went on, they became more acrobatic. Ballet became an art form that was performed by professional dancers, and not just noblemen in the context of their everyday social life.
Here are some of the most common ballet terms and the not so hidden meaning behind them.
An A-Z Tour Of Ballet Terms
Allongé — Lit. “elongated,” an all-around qualifier that refers to any sort of pose that is elongated or stretched.
Arabesque — A pose involving one leg being extended straight to the back, at a right angle, with the shoulders squared off and the arm creating a long line to the leg. The name comes from a style of Moorish ornamentation and literally means “Arabic” or “of the Arabic people” in French.
Assemblé — “Joined together.” In this movement, the dancer brushes one foot off the floor and then brings both legs together — assembles them, if you will — at the same time in fifth position.
Balancé — “Balance.” This is a rocking step that involves a weight shift from one foot to the other.
Ballon — “Bounce.” A move described by a light jump.
Battement — “Beating.” Used to describe a sort of forceful kick or beating action of the leg.
Brisé — “Broken.” In this step, the dancer’s legs move one after the other, such as to give the appearance that the simultaneous movement is “broken.”
Cabriole — “Caper.” This is a type of jump where the legs are extended out from the body and the dancer beats their calves together in the air.
Changement — “Change.” This is when the dancer changes the position of their feet in the air.
Chassé — “To chase” or “hunt.” In this step, one foot chases the other foot via a triple-step pattern.
Coupé — “To cut.” A step in which the foot “cuts” the other foot away and takes its place, with the foot raised to calf or ankle level.
Dégagé — “Disengage.” When one leg “disengages” from the other by pointing and brushing it off the floor.
Developpe — “To develop.” An extension of the leg that begins by bringing it up to knee level in a bent position and then straightening and extending it out.
Échappé — “Escaped.” When the feet “escape” from a closed to open position.
Elevé — “Elevated.” This is essentially when the dancer rises onto their toes, either onto the balls of the feet or en pointe if they’re wearing pointe shoes.
Entrechat — “Interweaving” or “braiding.” In this jump, the feet rapidly cross in front and behind each other.
Fondu — “Sinking down.” When the body is lowered by bending the supporting leg (essentially, a one-legged version of a plié).
Fouetté — “Whipped.” In general, a whipping movement involving one foot or the entire body.
Frappé — “Strike” or “hit.” This involves using the pointed foot to swipe, or strike, the floor.
Glissade — “Glide.” This is a move where the dancer travels across the floor by gliding from fifth position, first with one leg and then the other foot closing behind it.
Jeté — “Throw.” This is a type of jump where the working leg appears to have been thrown, or thrust into the air. In a grand jeté, the legs are both extended to 90 degrees, forming a parallel with the ground.
Pas de basque — “Basque step.” A movement that begins in fifth position, followed by bending the back leg and then extending the front leg and moving it in a circular movement around to the back, then stepping onto that leg and finishing in fifth position again. The movement was inspired by the national dances of the Basque people.
Pas de bourrée — “Step of the drunk.” A movement similar to the “grapevine,” wherein one leg crosses behind the other, the following leg moves out to the side, and the starting leg lands in front.
Pas de chat — “Step of the cat.” A type of sideways jump with bent legs where one leg follows the other.
Pas de deux — “Dance for two,” used to refer to a duet.
Passé — “Passed.” Where one foot passes in back or in front of the knee.
Piqué — “Pricked.” A type of turn where the dancer steps onto their toes and raises the other leg in any way.
Pirouette — “Twirl.” This is a turn that involves a complete rotation of the body on one foot.
Plié — “Bent.” A movement that involves bending both knees, in what may appear to look like a squat.
Port de bras — “Carriage of the arms.” This refers to any sort of movement of the arms from one position to another. The passage of the arms from one position to another.
Relevé — “Raised.” This is when the dancer raises the body from a demi-plié (slight bend in the knees) to pointe or demi-pointe, a.k.a. on their tippy-toes.
Rond de jambe — “Round of the leg.” When the leg moves in a circular motion from the back to the front or vice versa.
Sauté — “Jump.” This refers to any movement involving a jump.
Soutenu — “Sustained.” A turn en pointe or on the balls of the feet, maintained in fifth position and landing on the opposite foot.
Tendu — “Stretched.” When one foot is extended out straight with the toe maintaining contact with the floor.