On the neck of the foot? The bite of the donkey?
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.
Tendu – “to stretch;” when you see a dancer’s foot extend to point the toes, that’s tendu.
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 – 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.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.
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 – “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.