This is an excerpt from Beginning Ballet With Web Resource by Gayle Kassing.
Languages of Ballet
Ballet uses several languages with which you must become proficient. The first language you learn is that of ballet movements. To aid you in learning and remembering the movements, action words describe body actions, or movements of the legs, arms, and head in a sequence, for an exercise, step, or pose. Learning action words is an intermediate step to learning the French language terms of ballet.
Action Words to French Terms
The teacher uses action words to describe the movement. Saying these words to yourself helps you make a connection to the movement. Then you progress to condensing several actions into an exercise or step. This sequence of movements is represented by a single ballet term for an exercise or step.
When you begin learning ballet, the action words in their sequence cue your movements. Later, you can execute a step or exercise without thinking about each movement, and you can begin to use French ballet terms for the exercises and steps.
Spoken and Written Terminology
Understanding ballet terminology goes beyond translating the movement sequence to recognizing either the spoken or written term. Knowing all these translations comes in handy when it comes to exam time; you may be expected to perform the exercise or step, recognize or write the French ballet term, and know its translation into action terms.
The vocabulary of ballet technique includes positions, exercises, steps, and poses. Although the terminology is expressed in the French language, don’t confuse ballet French with the French you learn in a language class. The pronunciation of some terms may not be exactly the same. Because ballet French is spoken all over the world, ballet terminology may have a regional accent or even a different pronunciation depending on where you are.
Learning Ballet Movements
In ballet class students stand quietly and observe while the teacher performs an exercise or combination to music and speaks the action words or ballet terms. Then you execute the movement. Listening and remembering the movement sequence coupled with the action words and their ballet terms help you while practicing the exercise or combination. Learning new ballet movements can be distilled into an easy method: Watch it and hear it, then do it.
The first step is to watch sequences of movements as the teacher demonstrates them. When you begin to learn ballet, focus on the starting position of the feet, the working leg and its actions, and the directions in which the leg is moving. Later when exercises or steps include arm positions and traveling, you need to view the whole body doing the movement, what each body part is doing in sequence, and where it is in space.
While watching the teacher’s demonstration, you should also listen to verbal instructions—the cues the teacher uses to describe the movements while executing them. When the music starts, listen to the movement cues spoken in relation to the music. In your beginning practice, the teacher usually cues you just before you start a movement. This is your chance to identify which movement takes place on which count or measure.
As the ballet course progresses, the teacher demonstrates without the action words and instead uses the ballet terminology in rhythm or counts to the music. Near the end of your beginning ballet course, the teacher might say an exercise or combination using ballet terms without including a demonstration of the combination. At this point, you must translate your listening into movement: You have to hear the ballet term, visualize it, and then perform it to the music with the correct rhythm and tempo.
As a beginning dancer, translating the teacher’s words into movement is your ultimate goal for learning terminology. While you move from one phase of listening to translating, you likewise gain control of and responsibility for your movement.
The next step is to do the movement. When learning a new movement sequence, you usually execute the movements slowly without music, then slowly with music, while the teacher guides you from one movement to the next. As you practice the movement sequence, visualize it and say the action words or terms to yourself. Continue to fit the movements in their proper sequence and in time to the music, then practice the movement sequence until you become comfortable with it. Be prepared to make adjustments in order to perform the movement correctly. Remember, at this time you are learning just the basic movement patterns.
During the course, you begin to think about how technique, principles, rules, and other elements will refine your performance of beginning exercises. In ballet, refining your movement is an unceasing process. After you have the movement sequence in mind, practice it so that both sides of the body can initiate it.
As a beginning dancer, make it a goal to absorb most of the movement presented in class. In some classes, some or many of the components are repeated during the next class meeting. This repetition reinforces learning. In ballet, you have to attain a certain level of learning before you can progress to the next level of technique, style, and artistry. Your ability to remember and replicate movement contributes to your progress as a dancer.
Learn more about Beginning Ballet.