It’s normal to feel a little overwhelmed going into your first ballet class. The plethora of poses and positions to learn might have your head spinning, especially since many of their names are in French. But with practise and time you’ll soon be fluent in the language of ballet. And it’s always helpful to have an easy guide with ballet terms for beginners.
To get you started with confidence, here’s an overview of some common terms first-time ballerinas will need to know:
The Five Basic Positions
Understanding the basic positions is a great place to start when beginning your practice, since they make up the building blocks of ballet. As BalletHub noted:
“The five basic positions are usually one of the first things taught in a beginner’s ballet class but are essential to the technique of classical ballet as practically every step begins and ends in one of the five basic positions.”
The basic positions concern the placement of the feet and are aptly named: first position, second position, third position, fourth position and fifth position.
First position: The heels are together with the toes of each foot pointed out toward either side, with legs straight and turned out, following the position of the feet.
Second position: Legs are straight and the feet are turned out to each side like in first position, but the difference is that the heels do not touch and are instead about shoulder-width apart.
Third position: Begin in first position, and then slide the heel of one foot so it lines up with the middle of the other foot, keeping both feet pointing out in opposite directions.
Fourth position: Stand with one foot about a foot’s length in front of your other foot. Each foot should be pointing in an opposite direction, and the toes of the back foot should line up with the heel of the front foot.
Fifth position: This position is the most difficult one. It’s like fourth position, but there is no gap between your feet. The toes of each foot should be directly in front of the heel of the other foot, and make sure your legs are turned out and straight.
Basic Ballet Terminology
Adagio is a series of fluid and focused exercises that are performed slowly in order to improve dancers’ balance, strength and lines. It also refers to the opening sequence of a two-person dance that includes one partner lifting the other.
Allegro means fast, brisk and energetic movements and is associated with jumps.
An arabesque is when the dancer stands on one leg with the other leg extended behind the body. The arms can be held in a variety of positions. Regardless, the goal of the arabesque is to create as smooth and seamless a line as possible with the body, from the shoulders through the arms and down to the toes of the extended leg.
This is the wooden bar attached to the walls of the classroom, though some barres stand on their own. The dancer holds onto the barre for support, and a sequence of barre exercises is part of every ballet class.
This when the leg and foot are fluidly swept across the floor from one position to another. Typically, a “battement tendu” starts from first or fifth position, the leg is extended in the motion, and then it returns to the starting position. The leg should be straight and fully extended so that the foot only brushes the ground during the movement.
When a dancer begins in fifth position, jumps up in place and then switches the position of their feet while in the air so that they land in fifth position with the opposite leg now in front.
“En pointe” is when you dance on the very tips of your toes. Pointe shoes, typically made of satin, are used to achieve this. Students begin dancing en pointe only after they have advanced to a higher skill level, Learntodance.com noted. However, on their way to dancing en pointe, students will practise moves and positions en demi-pointe, which is when a dancer stands on the balls of their feet.
Pas de Deux
Pas de deux means “a dance for two people,” and is sometimes shortened to “pas.”
A pirouette is a 360 degree spin made on one foot that is en pointe or demi-pointe, and is frequently begun from fourth position. The move requires strong core alignment and balance, and, as Balletdancersguide.com stated, “are the mastering ballet move which every dancer is undoubtedly always trying to figure out how to improve.”
Plié means “bent” or “bending,” and is when one or both knees are bent while legs and feet remain turned out, and are done in first, second, fourth and fifth positions. There are two main types of pliés; demi and grand, which George Mason University’s dance department defined as follows:
Demi: This is a small bend of the knees while heels are on the floor which creates a diamond shape.
Grand: A large bend of the knees during which heels are raised off the ground in a motion that mimics a “frog stretch.”
Ronde de Jambe
Ronde de jambe means “round of the leg.” It is when the dancer rests on one leg and makes a circular movement with the other leg. It may be done “à terre,” which means the circle is made while the foot is touching the ground, or “en l’air,” which means the circle is made in the air.
Sauté means “jump,” and is frequently used in combination with other moves to signify that they should be done with a jump, Learntodance.com explained. The source gave the example of sauté arabesque, which would mean to jump in the arabesque position.