Why are ballet steps in French?

French is considered the language of ballet and the majority of steps have a French name. Quite often a step will sound more complicated than it really is because of the translation into French, such as a ‘plie’ means ‘to bend’. The language of ballet is universal and the steps are taught worldwide.

Ballet originated in the court of King Louis XIV who was an advocate for dance and his court from 1643 – 1715 played host to many a performance. Louis began to dance as a boy and first danced in public in 1651 at the age of 13. By the time he was a young man he was performing in several ballets a week. Louis began to make his whole existence a ‘performance’ and his everyday routines, such as eating, getting up and going to bed became theatrical ceremonies! He became known fondly as ‘The Sun King’ as his court was filled with golden and palatial belongings. The formality of ballet was greatly admired and contributed to the structure and order of courtly life. Courtiers were part of the theatrical spectacles and French court life enabled the courtiers to show off and ‘be seen’. The King’s dancing master Pierre Beauchamp was one of the most highly paid of his servants and it was he who implemented some of the foundations of ballet technique, such as the five basic ballet positions and the turn out of the feet.

It was here that dancers were first ‘trained’ and moved from the French court to the theatres and a more formal style of dance emerged. King Louis established the first official ballet school; The Paris Opera, which still exists today. Many of the names given to certain steps and movements at that time, still remain today.

FRENCH NAME                           TRANSLATION
Plie                                                   to bend
Tendu                                              to extend the foot
Glisse                                              to slide the foot off the floor
Fondu                                             to melt
Developpe                                     to unfold the leg
Ronde de jambe a terre             to circle the leg on the floor
Ronde de jambe en l’air            to circle the leg in the air
Frappe                                            to strike
Grand Battement                        to throw the leg
Battement Cloche                      to swing the leg

Devant                                           to the front/forwards
Derriere                                         to the back/backwards
En Croix                                         in the shape of a cross

Ports de Bras                                carriage of the arms
Adage                                              slow at ease movements
Chase                                              to slide
Arabesque                                     to balance on supporting leg, with working leg extended.
Pirouette                                       to Turn
Chaine                                           turning like a chain
Balance                                         waltz Step
Pas de bouree                              linking step

Petit Allegro                                small jumps
Grand Allegro                             big jumps
Saute jump                                  2 feet to 2 feet
Changement                              to change feet whilst jumping
Assemble                                     to assemble the legs mid air – 2 feet to 2 feet
Sissone                                         scissor jumps – to jump from 2 legs to 1 foot.
Pas de Chat                                 step of the cat



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