33 French ballet terms every dance lover should know

33 French ballet terms every dance lover should know

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated August 7, 2023

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

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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 ballerinea ballerinaTechnically, 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 étoilea prima ballerinaTranslated 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 étoilea lead dancerThis is the masculine version of the above word, meaning “star dancer.”
un petit rat de l’Opéraa young dance pupil at the OperaThis 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 chorégraphea choreographer
un corps de balleta 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 barrea barre
un chaussona ballet shoe
des demi-pointeshalf-pointe shoes
des pointespointe shoes
un collanttights
un tutua tutu
un justaucorpsa 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.

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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 positionthe first position
la deuxième position orla seconde positionthe second position
la troisième positionthe third position
la quatrième positionthe fourth position
la cinquième positionthe fifth position
une arabesquean 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 tendua 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.

FrenchEnglishThis 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 chasséa chasséThis 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 entrechatan entrechatThis term describes a quick succession of small jumps, in which the dancer crosses their feet to create a weaving motion. 
un jetéa jetéAs 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 basquea pas de basqueThis 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 bourréea pas de bourréeThe “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 chata pas de chatAnother 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 deuxa pas de deuxThis “step of two” is quite simply a duet.
un piquéa piquéThis 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 pirouettea twirlIn 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 pliéa pliéThis 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 brasa carriage of the armsThe expression refers to a controlled movement of the arms.
un rond de jambea rond de jambeMeaning “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 sautéa sautéThe 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.

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Anne-Lise Vassoille

Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries… Settled down in London, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

Anne-Lise Vassoille
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