Guest Blog Post – What Does Ballet Vocabulary Really Mean (by Catherine of shinava.net)

Hey everyone! It’s been a while (sorry!) but I’m super-excited to have a guest blog post! The awesome Catherine (@catoucat on Twitter) of shinava.net, has written an amazing post about the true meaning of ballet terms. Catherine, who I take class with here in San Francisco, has created this must-read guide on the french meaning of terms such as cou-de-pied and pas de poisson, and has thankfully let me put a copy up here (it was originally posted on her own blog here). So without futher ado…


If you have already danced ballet (or maybe other dances which use the same vocabulary) you already know a lot of French without knowing!

I am a French ballet (recreational) dancer, and I am amazed how people from all around the world share the same vocabulary. They can attend any ballet class in any country without knowing the local language, and still can understand the instructions. See by yourself: a class in London Royal Opera House for World Ballet day 2015, it’s full of French terms! (with a strong accent, though)

But do you know what ballet term mean? For instance “fouetté” is not just a quick turning movement, it is also associated with food and sometimes nasty activities? Here are the litteral translations of most common ballet terms, you will see there’s usually a logic or full of imagery meaning.

Positions and directions

The first vocabulary you learn is the five basic positions, which are called “first, second, third…”. Maybe you recognize for some of them the numbers “one, two, three…” in French, which are “un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq”. Add a “à la” (to the) and it becomes a direction.

positions

Regarding directions, those additional words give an indication on the way the movement should be executed.
En-dehors and en-dedans are probably the most common ones, they litteraly mean “”towards outside / inside””. The goal of a ballerina/ballerino is to be “towards outside”, so hips and feet trying to go escape outside!
Dessus and dessous (over and under) refer to how the feet should close in reference to the standing leg. You may also hear “en remontant” and “en descendant” (going up, going down) in the center, they refer to the stage which used to be inclined towards the audience. “En remontant” means therefore “going up (in direction to the back of the stage)”.
Ouvert and fermé (“open” and “closed”, with an additional “e” when it comes with a feminine noun) refer probably to the legs at the end of the movement (e.g. “sissone ouverte”).

prepositions

Finally, the French terms about body position also use basic position words in French: devant (in front), derrière (behind), écarté (apart, or separated, the leg is to the side in diagonal and the furthest from the standing leg).
The next ones also make sense: épaulé (shouldered) tells you have to show your shoulder (therefore not be “en face”, which is opposite). In croisé (crossed), your legs must be crossed. And in effacé (faded, or shy for a person!) you must look a little behind, as if you were shy.

bodypositions

Barre exercices

The first terms of barre exercices (during pliés which are bent movements) mean litteraly half-bent (demi-plié), big-bent (grand plié), tilted/inclined (penché, like in “penché en avant” which is inclined towards the front), raised or elevated (relevé), and finaly arched (cambré, which is mainly used when we talk about somebody’s back).

barre1

Then come the full of imagery terms!
During jetés you must be sharp and quick as it means “thrown”. Imagine you’re throwing away your leg!
In frappés, ballet teachers usually say you have to brush the floor. Actually you want to brush it and also do it with anger since it means “stricken”. The floor must be struck by your foot…
A fondu is “melted” (like a chocolate or a cheese fondue). Both your legs must be bent and soft like melted cheese.
A battement (small or big, “petit” or “grand”) is a “beat”. And battu is “beaten”. Then again your legs are involved in a battle and must beat each other, or beat the air.
Finally, tendu is simply “stretched”.

barre2

Cou-de-pied is “neck of the foot”, not to be confused with “coup de pied” (kick with the foot). Many people think it means kick since they are both pronounced the same way and cou-de-pied is never used in French besides in ballet.
When you do battements en cloche it means like a bell. See a bell swinging from left to right? Yeah, that’s it.
Port de bras is just “carriage of the arms”, it just means you mustn’t leave your arms unsuported!
When you do a rond de jambe, it’s a “leg round/circle”. Ever wondered why it is called that way? I’m still wondering! (you really do half a circle…)
Coupé is to be cut, so you try to cut your ankle with the toes of your other foot…
Retiré (foot to the knee) means “wirthdrawn”, although I often hear “passé” (passed) abroad.

barre3

Center exercices

Now let’s go on with center exercices. Ever heard you have to jump during a glissade? Some French teacher would argue it means to “glide” so you must stay close to the floor (“this is called a glissade, not a jeté!” once said a teacher).
Then tombé is “fallen”, so just think of tumbling and finish on one foot.
Assemblé is of course “assembled” since you assemble your legs in the end of the step.
Chaînés mean chained (easy one), but déboulés (which is their more commonly used name in France) means tumbling/rolling. For instance a rolling rock on a hill will “débouler”.
Balancé means “rocked”, sometimes you can also hear “balançoire” which is a swing.
Chassé means “chased/hunted”, so imagine a running deer?
As of échappé, it means “escaped”. Each of your feet tries to escape in a different direction then, weird.

center1

Temps levé is an “elevated time”, and temps lié is “linked time”.
Then come the weirdest terms: a brisé-volé is litteraly a “flying broken” (brisé = broken, volé = flying). I can definitely see what is broken (legs, after trying brisé de volée for a while), and that it ”should” be flying. However I think they mispelled the name of this step, and it should be called “the step of the hell”. What is a brisé-volé? [See this video
We say fouetté when we talk about a cream or Zorro. Yes fouetté means “whipped” so use your leg to beat eggs or whip the air!
A piqué is something sharp and quick, since it means “pricked” (you can be “piqué” by a mosquito, or a needle for instance).
The term promenade is maybe the most ironic one. It means “a walk / a stroll”, and not “stay balanced why turning slowly in a very uncomfortable position” :)
I like failli, it means “almost” like in “I almost made that huge jump but in the end I decided to just slide into 4th en avant”

center2

Last but not least, all the “pas de” (step of). You can immitate a cat (“pas de chat“), or a horse (“pas de cheval“), and even a fish (“pas de poisson“).
However you can also try to walk like a Basque (“pas de basque“), who is a person from a region between Spain and France.
If you drank too much you can also do a “pas de bourrée“! Actually “bourrée” is an old dance but it litteraly means “drunk woman/girl”.

center3

I hope you learnt some new French meaning and you will remember them at your next class!


Thanks to Catherine for such an awesome post! Were you surprised by any of the meanings? Or do you have a favourite term? Let us know in the comments below.

Until next time, keep on dancing!

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