From the French can-can to the valse musette that French people may still dance on Bastille Day, French dance styles have gained international fame. But the French influence on the world of dance is best exemplified by ballet.
Ballet itself — as well as the language of ballet — has become a French national treasure and global export. Though the trend nowadays is for English words to infiltrate the French language, the opposite is true with ballet. In fact, learning the meaning behind various French ballet terms is an extra step you can take to dance your way into learning French.
- Why are so many ballet terms in French?
- 6 French terms from professional ballet
- 7 French words about ballet clothes and equipment
- 20 French terms of ballet steps and movements
Why are so many ballet terms in French?
It’s a fair question to ask, especially when you consider that the word “ballet” actually comes from the Italian verb ballare (to dance).
The origins of ballet can be traced back to Italy, where it first appeared at court during the 16th-century Italian Renaissance. It was Catherine de Medici who imported ballet to France when she married French King Henri II in 1533. The dance quickly grew in popularity and, in the 17th century, the codes of ballet were defined in France under the influence of King Louis XIV — himself a dancer and patron of the arts.
Louis founded the Académie royale de danse (Royal Dance Academy) in 1661 and the Académie royale de musique (Royal Music Academy) in 1669. In time, this led to the creation of the ballet de l’Opéra national de Paris (Paris National Opera Ballet). To this day, the dance company is one of the most prestigious in the world.
6 French words from professional ballet
Like the dance itself, the world of professional ballet is very much codified. This is reflected in the language of professional ballet used in French:
|une ballerine||a ballerina||Technically, this term refers to the female lead dancers of a troupe. It can also be used to refer to any dancer in a ballet company. The word used in English is actually of Italian origins.|
|une danseuse étoile||a prima ballerina||Translated literally, this phrase means “star dancer.” It specifically refers to a female lead dancer in a ballet company. The English translation is again an Italian word, meaning literally “first dancer.”|
|un danseur étoile||a lead dancer||This is the masculine version of the above word, meaning “star dancer.”|
|un petit rat de l’Opéra||a young dance pupil at the Opera||This phrase, which literally means “small Opera rat,” was probably coined in the 19th century, at a time when young dance pupils studied and lived at the Paris Opera.|
|un chorégraphe||a choreographer|
|un corps de ballet||a ballet company|
7 French words about ballet clothes and equipment
Needless to say, the clothes used in ballet have evolved quite a bit since the dance first appeared at the French court. As ballet became more sophisticated and professional, clothes were adapted to allow for more freedom of movement.
Here are the main clothes and equipment you’ll need as a ballet dancer:
|une barre||a barre|
|un chausson||a ballet shoe|
|des demi-pointes||half-pointe shoes|
|des pointes||pointe shoes|
|un tutu||a tutu|
|un justaucorps||a leotard|
20 French terms of ballet steps and movements
Now that you’ve put on all your ballet clothes, let’s warm up with some useful vocabulary about ballet positions and movements.
7 words for ballet positions in French
Before you start moving, you’ll first need to put your legs, feet and arms — the most important body parts in ballet — in the right position to bring grace to your dancing.
|la première position||the first position|
|la deuxième position orla seconde position||the second position|
|la troisième position||the third position|
|la quatrième position||the fourth position|
|la cinquième position||the fifth position|
|une arabesque||an arabesque|
This word, which also designates a type of Arabic ornament, refers to a position in which the dancer stands on one leg, with the second leg extended straight to the back at a right angle and one arm stretched out to the front to create a long line to the leg.
|un tendu||a tendu|
A tendu (“stretched” in English) describes the position in which one foot is extended straight out with the toe maintaining contact with the floor.
13 French terms for ballet steps, jumps and movements
Once you’re in the right position, it’s time to break it up with a succession of elaborate steps and jumps that are the very essence of ballet.
|French||English||This is yet another past participle, this time from the verb plier (to bend or to fold). Without surprise, this movement involves bending both knees and usually serves to spring into a certain position or jump. There are two main kinds of pliés: the demi-plié (half plié) and the grand plié (full plié).|
|un chassé||a chassé||This word, which is the past participle of the -er verb chasser (to hunt), refers to a triple-step pattern in which the feet glide together step-by-step.|
|un entrechat||an entrechat||This term describes a quick succession of small jumps, in which the dancer crosses their feet to create a weaving motion.|
|un jeté||a jeté||As the past participle of the verb jeter (to throw), this term refers to a jump in which the dancer “throws” the weight of their body from one foot to the other.|
|un pas de basque||a pas de basque||This movement, which comes from the Basque region of France, starts and finishes in fifth position and involves both a plié and a rond de jambe to bring one leg front to back or back to front.|
|un pas de bourrée||a pas de bourrée||The “step of the drunk,” as this phrase can be literally translated, consists of quick sideways steps with a demi-plié, to bring one leg in front or at the back of the other.|
|un pas de chat||a pas de chat||Another funny phrase, the “step of the cat” is a sideways jump that involves bending and unfurling each leg one at a time.|
|un pas de deux||a pas de deux||This “step of two” is quite simply a duet.|
|un piqué||a piqué||This is a type of movement in which the dancer steps onto their toes, either on pointe or half pointe, while raising their other leg in the air in any direction or position they please. As such, there are various piqué you can do.|
|une pirouette||a twirl||In this movement, the dancer performs a complete rotation of their body on one foot, by positioning their arms to propel the turn and by keeping their eyes on a fixed spot while quickly turning their head.|
|un plié||a plié||This is yet another past participle, this time from the verb plier (to bend, or to fold). Without surprise, this movement involves bending both knees and usually serves to spring into a certain position or jump. There are two main kinds of pliés: the demi-plié (half plié) and the grand plié (full plié).|
|un port de bras||a carriage of the arms||The expression refers to a controlled movement of the arms.|
|un rond de jambe||a rond de jambe||Meaning “round of the leg,” the rond de jambe is a circular movement of the leg. In terms of position, the leg can be raised in the air or the foot can touch the floor.|
|un sauté||a sauté||The past participle of the verb sauter (to jump) designates any step that includes a jump.|
Learn to speak the language of ballet in French
Though ballet was born in Italy, it came of age and grew in widespread popularity only after migrating to France. This influence is also visible in the vocabulary of ballet, with many ballet terms borrowed from (or invented in) the French language. If you’re a dance lover who’s also interested in learning French, you’ll find in ballet the perfect excuse to discover the meaning of words you’re already familiar with in English.