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Ballet Movement Introduction

Ballet is known for its grace, elegance, control and lightness. Although ballet has changed shape over its history, there are a few essential movement qualities that can be seen in most if not all ballet forms. Once you are familiar with these movement concepts you will be able to easily identify them throughout the ballet genre. Note that many terms for ballet are in French; this is due to ballet’s French origins during the Renaissance and Baroque eras. There is a complete French Ballet vocabulary, however we have selected a few important terms which are essential to Ballet and can be applied to other dance forms as well.

All ballet movements and steps are based in five positions of the feet. These five positions are rooted in the optimal 180 degree turn out of the entire leg which allows the feet to cross effectively over each other. The turn out and the related five positions developed early on in court ballets in order to facilitate sideways stepping in the highly geometric floor patterns of the era. The use of turn out later proved itself beneficial as extensions become increasingly popular in ballet technique as the rotation in the legs allows for higher extensions in all directions.

What one will notice first in ballet is the general and overt sense of uplift and buoyancy in the dancers. The chest is characteristically lifted with confidence, as the arms float weightless in the air. This portrays a defiance of gravity that exists within the ballet aesthetic. Even as a ballerina walks she will usually walk on the balls of her feet, floating through the space effortlessly. The development of the pointe shoe further exaggerated the pervasive feeling of uplift for the female dancer, creating the illusion of a ballerina lighter than air.

The desire to appear beyond the grasp of gravity can also be seen in the common use of movements in the high level. This includes all of the movements performed en pointe by the ballerina as well as the numerous springs that exist in both petite allegro and grand allegro exercises.

Springing is a very important aspect of ballet, capitalizing on the fascination with athleticism that existed particularly in the Classical ballet era. There are five basic forms of springs: Jump (two feet to two feet), Hop (one foot to same foot), Leap (one foot to opposite foot), Assemblé (one foot to two feet) and Sissonne (two feet to one foot). Male ballet dancers like Michael Baryshnikov are known for their ballon or ability to seemingly hover in the air. There are two types of springing exercises. Petite allegro is most commonly performed by women and includes fast footwork with series of quick jumps in various (often befuddling) patterns. Grand Allegro is performed by both men and women but really serves as the opportunity for the male dancer to show off his ability to rocket through the air. The most common and iconic form of a spring in dance may be the Grand Jeté or large leap where the dancer soars through the air in the splits, a common favorite in dance photography.

The pirouette is one of the quintessential movements of ballet. A simple form of rotation or more specifically turning, the pirouette is one of the many forms of turning that typifies ballet. Turns exist in many forms and in many combinations of direction, leg position, arm position and preparatory steps. The famous 32 fouettés seen in Marius Petipa’s Black Swan Pas de Deux is an example of a stationary or axial turn, while sequential turns are also frequently organized in traveling patterns from one corner of the stage to the other. Either way, turning is another important example of the athleticism and virtuosity seen in Classical Ballet.

Balance is an additional element of ballet and is essential to the success of each step in the classical vocabulary. While it can be seen within the movements mentioned above, it can also be a goal in and of itself. Balancing in a shape like arabesque or attitude is very common for both female and male dancers but as a skill is particularly valuable for the female dancer in her pointe shoes. The ability to balance effortlessly on the point of her shoe is essential to the ethereal, delicate and feminine persona of the ballerina.

The last of the virtuosic elements of Ballet is extension. Ballet is characterized by lengthened lines of the body with straight legs and pointed toes. The arabesque with the a single leg extended to the back is one of the most popular and recognizable forms of extension, however extension exists in all directions and at all levels. The extended or pointed foot is a large part of the illusion of length created through leg extensions. It visually lengthens the line of the leg making it appear longer than it actually is; this heightens the aesthetic experience of the movement for the observer.

Port de bras or "carriage of the arms" is not to be forgotten as an identifiable characteristic of ballet. The standardized use of the arms through an elongated yet slightly curved shape is universal in Classical ballet. Very often a simple gesture with the arm can be one of the most expressive moments in a ballet. Like the extension seen in the legs, the use of the arms is meant to elongate the dancer’s body.

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Produced in Partnership by Coast Learning Systems, a division of Coastline Community College, for instructional use.
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(c)Coast Community College District, David W. Megill, and Donald D. Megill, 2005