Ballet Vocabulary

Although ballet actually began in Italy, it was formalized in France in the 17th century.

Ballet terminology has remained largely in the French language. Ballet dancers across the world learn and can communicate with this universal ballet vocabulary.

ballerina (bah-luh-ree’nah) A leading female dancer of a ballet company.  A dancer earns the title ballerina through years of hard work and great dancing.

ballet (bah-lay’) From the Italian ballare, to dance.

chaine (sheh-nay’) A series of turns on pointe (on tips of toes) or demi-pointe (on balls of feet) executed in a line or in a circle, in which the feet remain close to the floor and the weight is transferred rapidly and almost imperceptibly from one foot to the other as the body revolves.

choreographer (cor-ee-og’ra-fer) Someone who makes dances.  Originally the word meant someone who records dances, but has come to mean the person responsible for the design of movement in ballet.

classic (klas’ik) In ballet, classic applies to a rigorous basic vocabulary of steps and movements capable of infinite variations and a system of instruction that makes such variation possible for individual dancers.

corps de ballet (core, di, bah-lay’) Dancers who appear only in large groups.  The corps de ballet is the backbone of every ballet company.

divertissement (di-ver-tis-mah’) From the French: entertainment or enjoyment. A short dance inserted between the acts of a classic or story ballet designed to show off the technical ability of the featured dancer(s).

entrechat (an-tray-sha’) Probably from the Italian intrecciare, to weave, to braid.  A beating step of elevation in which the dancer jumps straight in the air from a plie and crosses his feet a number of times, making a weaving motion in the air.

jete (zhe-tay’) From the French jeter, to throw. This is a jump in which the weight of the body is thrown from one foot to the other.

pas (pah) From French, meaning “step.” A simple step or compound movement, which involves a transfer of weight. “Pas” can also be used to describe a dance by a soloist.

pas de deux (pah-duh-duh’) A dance for two people.

passe (pah-sey’) From the French passer, to pass. A movement in which the pointed foot of the “working” leg passes (but does not touch or rest on) the knee of the supporting leg.

pique (pee-kay’) Executed by stepping directly on the pointe (tip of the toes) or demi-pointe (ball of the foot) of the working foot in any desired direction or position with the other foot raised in the air.

pirouette (peer-oo-wet’) A complete turn of the body on one foot.

plie (plee-ay’)  From the French plier, to bend.  In the classic dance, this is a bending of the knees, with the knees wide open and the feet turned outward.  The function of the plie in the dancer’s body is like the function of the springs in an automobile, and is necessary for the development of flexibility.

port de bras (port, duh, brah’) In ballet, the movement or carriage of the arms.

releve  (ruhl-VAY) From the French relever, to raise. To raise the body on one or two feet, either on pointe (on the tips of her toes) or demi-pointe (on the ball of the foot). There are two styles of releve : a dancer rises with a smooth articulation of the foot, or the dancer can a little jump or spring to get on pointe or demi-pointe.

saute (soh-tay’) Jumped or jumping.

tutu (tew’ tew) A skirt used in classical ballet made of many layers of tulle or netting. The classical tutu rests high on the leg so that the movements made by the ballerina’s legs are clearly visible. A romantic tutu is longer, falling at mid-calf.

Learn More!

For more definitions and video examples of ballet terms, visit American Ballet Theatre’s Ballet Dictionary here.

Try out some basic ballet positions and steps here or experience ballet for yourself with classes for all ages, including adult beginning ballet classes.