Pardon My French

On the neck of the foot? The bite of the donkey?

Echappe-3_crop for blog

Next Generation Ballet dancer Alexandra de Roos demonstrating échappé.

The French codified ballet under King Louis XIV by defining the five basic positions of the feet and setting a catalog of positions related to the “turn-out” of the legs in the hip sockets (i.e., the legs rotate out of the hips instead of facing forward). Placement, a.k.a. alignment, and lift, a.k.a. pull-up, became fundamentals that traveled with ballet when it spread to Italy, Russia, Denmark and finally to an American style with George Balanchine. The different countries put their own flair on the fundamentals and their major schools altered the basic vocabulary just enough to be super annoying if you study one school, like Vaganova, and then take class with a teacher from the Cecchetti school.

However, the basic language of class and choreography roots en francais, in French, from the founding school.

Let’s be as plain as possible: ballet is hard. It’s a tough art form with an unforgiving technique that requires ballet dancers to be the most elegant professional athletes with (let’s face it) the best team uniforms. The bitter irony for dancers is that training until your toenails slough off results in a form that looks effortless onstage. Sometimes, it’s also tough for the person who has never studied ballet terms to appreciate the cool connection between the moves and their names.

We thought we’d put together a brief list of classical ballet terms with their English translations to give a little pro tip insight to our audience.

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Tendu. [Photo: STOCK4B | Getty Images]

Tendu – “to stretch;” when you see a dancer’s foot extend to point the toes, that’s tendu.pas de bourree

Pas de bourrée – “pas” means “step.” “De bourrée” means “of the bourrée,” which was a three-step 17th century French dance. Chances are, if you’ve ever taken a jazz, ballet or contemporary class, you’ve done pas de bourrée, though it usually sounds like padda bou-ray.

Two more that you may have heard whose spellings might surprise you are chassé (sounds like “shah-SAY”) and chainés (those “sheh-NAY” turns). “Chassé” looks like “chase” so that’s an excellent way to remember chassé is a step where one foot chases the other. “Chainés” looks like “chains,” which also serves as a foolproof mnemonic device for those rapid little turns that look like the dancer is drawing chain links in a line or circle across the floor.

pas de chat

Pas de chat – this fun term means “step of the cat.” This jaunty leap mimics the quick, arching jump of a cat onto something. The idea here is to get both feet in the air with bent knees at the same time and land soundlessly with a touch of ennui, much like our feline friends.

Pas de cheval – again, another animal step. This one means “step of the horse” or “horse’s step.” The dancer extends from the knee à la Mr. Ed pawing at the ground, but more gracefully.

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Three sur le cou-de-pied positions: devant (pointed), devant (wrapped) and relaxed. [Photo: Dance Spirit]

Cou-de-pied – “Cou” means “neck;” “pied” means “foot.” The French named that area between your ankle and base of the calf “the neck of the foot.” You’ll often see dancers with their pointed toes placed delicately on this area.The bite of the donkey – This phrase is a perfectly apt description of what it feels like to hit a correct attitude (a position with one leg extended from the hip and bent at 90 degrees behind the other, with the knee HIGHER than the foot.) Try it, and you will indeed feel like a donkey is biting you in the derrière and/or low back. Ouch.

echappe

Échappé – “to escape;” used to describe when the legs open at the same time. Admit it, that’s witty—the legs are getting away from each other.

pirouette

Pirouette – “to twirl,” “to whirl,” “to rotate.” This iconic ballet turn with the toes tucked to the knee in a shape like the number 4 literally means to rotate and to twirl and whirl. Excellent job summarizing the whole shebang in one word, nos amis français.

Naturally, this vocabulary list represents but a fraction of full joy that is the often literal, somehow simultaneously poetic names of classical ballet moves.

And, imagine the surprise of your friends when, at intermission, you can casually mention how impressed you were with the dancers’ placements sur le cou-de-pied and how much you enjoyed the sequence of pas de chevals.

Put your new knowledge to use when Ballet Nacional de Cuba returns to Morsani Hall on May 23 as part of a very limited United States tour.

Okay, Ladies, Now Let’s Get in Formation

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Former Next Generation Ballet Trainees. (Photo: Michelle Revels)

Ballet conjures images of tutus, tights, impossible-looking turns on tips of toes and gravity-defying mid-air leaps. If you’ve never taken a ballet class or had a little ballet beginner, then you may not realize those tricky combinations of flicks, kicks, twists, tippy-toe steps, glides, bends and hops emerge from a seriously old set of schematics precise and infallible enough to impress the most demanding engineer.

And those schematics depend on five simple foot positions.

“The ballet positions not only create a foundation for technique but are crucial for the linking of movement, so ballet appears seamless,” says Philip Neal, Dance Department Chair and Artistic Director of Next Generation Ballet.

Poster, New York City Ballet, 19601980

When skill at European court dances (ballet de cour) became so popular in the 1500s, instructors needed a technique. The court dances relied on the dancer being nimble, with the hip rotators turned so the feet shifted from face-forward to out-to-the-side. With feet and toes pointed outward and the hips rotated, dancers had a greater, more controlled, more fluid range of motion. They created, with this simple adjustment of hips and feet, something quite titillating: possibility for moving and moving across floors.

Eventually, a Parisian choreographer, Pierre Beauchamp, codified “turnout” of the hips and the five basic foot positions to improve strength and flexibility in turnout in the 17th century. Beauchamp’s boss, King Louis XIV, appointed Beauchamp and twelve others to set the artistic standards of classical ballet as we know it today. And did they.

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2015 Next Generation Ballet Summer Intensive dancers in class at the Straz Center. (Photo: Stormy Sea Studio)

Thus, ballet begins—not with 5, 6, 7, 8!—but with first, second, third, fourth and fifth. These five basic positions of the feet on the floor relative to the dancer’s body serve as the building blocks for every subsequent step, combination of steps, phrase, leap and combination of leaps and phrases. Next time you’re at a classical ballet, watch: every movement and pose begins and ends in one of these five steps.

Lest these simple-looking positions—feet together, feet apart, feet apart at a different angle, feet together again—belie their difficulty, first let us talk a little about what a dancer is going for in these basic positions. The trick is interior mastery of muscles and groups of muscles, connection with one’s center of gravity, execution of proper alignment and stance in which the pelvis and shoulder girdle must be in line with invisible vertical, horizontal, saggital (left/right) and frontal (front/back) planes. And, she or he must remember to “hold” the body with these particular but unnoticeable-to-the-audience forces:

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So, when you practice these positions in your class or you see dancers “working through the positions” in warm up or catch a glimpse of these building blocks in your next viewing of Swan Lake, know that there is much more than meets the eye. In fact, simply standing in first position using proper technique engages more than 20 muscles: the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, tensor fascia latae, adductor magnus, adductor longus, adductor brevis, pectineus, adductor gracillis, gluteus maximus, deep six lateral rotators, sartorius, rectus femoris, biceps femorus, quadriceps vastii, spinal extensors and transverse abdominus.

Plus you have to do all this while breathing and keeping a pleasant look on your face.

First position:

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Balls of the feet turned out completely, heels touch. Dancer attempts to create a straight line, or a 180-degree angle. “At barre, we begin with first position to establish turnout in the hips. It’s important not to force turnout from the knee down but rather at the pelvis,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Second position:

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Similar to first, but the heels separate by a length of 1 1/2 times the dancer’s foot. “Second position, a wider open stance, helps prepare stability and strength for jumps and larger scale movement,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Third position:

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Here, one foot is in front with the front foot touching the middle of the back foot. “Third is hardly used anymore, except perhaps in character movement,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

 Fourth position:

Positions-of-feet_4

Same as third, but feet are apart by a space of the dancer’s foot-length. Neal says, “It’s crucial as a preparation for turning.” (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Fifth position:

Positions-of-feet_5

Both feet touch with the toes of each foot reaching the heels of the other foot. “Fifth is the most valuable position of all, and the hardest to perfect,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Tip from Neal: “I teach that fifth position should be like a Ziploc bag. Each leg is color-coded like a sandwich bag, one leg is yellow, the other is green. In fifth, a tightly closed position, yellow and blue seal to make green, to seal in the freshness of the position! Think of the legs like crossed beams in a structure providing stability to a building.”

 

In any given classical ballet class worth its salt, instructors take dancers through several series of exercises working the feet, legs and hips through these positions. These building blocks define the placement of the feet on the floor and, eventually, define the placement of the dancer in the studio and on the stage. Proper technique from these five positions makes pushing from the floor for leaps and turns possible, and the extensive vocabulary of ballet begins with learning these five simple—but not easy—steps. To get ballet, you’ve got to get in formation.