Discover the French Origins of Ballet

Ballet dancer performing on stage in theater

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If you have been around ballet dancing for any period of time, you may hear a lot of French-sounding words incorporated in the dance. These words describe movements and poses, and they were derived from France. But why is French the language of ballet? And what do some of these fancy-sounding ballet terms actually mean to the teacher and dancers?

French is considered the language of ballet. Many of the terms and steps in ballet come from the French language. King Louis XIV of France loved ballet. He established the first official school of ballet, known today as the Paris Opera Ballet.

Ballet's French History

The dance known as ballet came from the 15th- and 16th-century Italian courts before it was spread from Italy to France by Catherine de' Medici (she later became the queen of France). It was developed more intensely under her authority in the French court. Under King Louis XIV, ballet was at its height of popularity. He was known as the Sun King and founded the Royal Dance Academy in 1661. The Paris Opera Ballet was a result of the Paris Opera, which was the first ballet company. Jean-Baptise Lully led that dance group and is known as one of the most popular composers of music in ballet.

Though its popularity declined after 1830, it did become popular in other parts of the world such as Denmark and Russia. Michel Fokine was another change-maker in the ballet world who reinvented the dance as an art form. 

A Collection of Ballet Terms

Many ballet instructors strive to teach their young dancers the French ballet vocabulary. This is because these terms are used worldwide and not just by French dancers.

Many of these ballet terms, when translated, give clues to their corresponding steps. Take a look at the following terms:

  • Plié: Bend
  • Changement: Change
  • Battement: A high or low kick
  • Pas de chat: Step of the cat
  • Pirouette: A twirl, or turning movement

More Ballet Words

Here are more ballet words that dancers will come across, along with their meanings:

  • Barre: horizontal bar opposite mirrors and along a wall in a studio for class exercises - where every class begins exercises
  • Cavalier: This refers to the female ballet dancer's male partner.
  • Chassé: A step where one foot chases the other out of its original position. These are done in a series of movements.
  • Développé: In this movement, the working leg is drawn up to the knee of the supporting leg and slowly extended to an open position and held there.
  • Fondu: Lowering the body on the supporting leg.
  • Relevé: The word refers to the motion of raising; which is raising the body on the demi-pointe (which is when the dancer is high on the balls of his or her feet, but still under part of the toes)

Many of the French terms are actually simple words that sound fancy. Some people believe that the French vocabulary gives ballet a more formal, sophisticated and mysterious feeling.