Ballet emerged in the late 15th-century Renaissance court culture of Italy as a dance interpretation of fencing, and further developed in the French court from the time of Louis XIV in the 17th century.
Originally the court ballets were performed by the aristocracy and royalty in the rooms and gardens of their palaces. Dances were based on the social dances of the royal courts with graceful arm and upper body movements and elaborate floor patterns. These flamboyant spectacles helped keep courtiers amused. Being able to dance was then a necessary social accomplishment.
The Sun King (Louis XIV) was a passionate dancer and loved having ballets staged at the Palace of Versailles. In 1661 the Académie Royale de Danse, today called the Paris Ballet Opera, was established in France. Here the first professional theater dancers were trained and dance moved from the court to the public theaters.
No wonder then that French is considered the language of ballet as many of the terms and steps were created by the King himself or his court and they are still in use, for the majority.
Many ballet instructors strive to teach their young dancers the French ballet vocabulary but the pronunciation might be the biggest challenge. There is a multitude of websites with the terms, their definitions and their pronunciations to help the students better understand the technical terms used in this art.
The literal translations of many of the terms give clues to their corresponding steps. Take a look at the following terms:
Plié: bending the knee or knees.
Changement: change: for example – jumping from one position, then – change the legs and land in that same position.
Battement: beat, i.e move the legs.
Pas de chat: cat step – having both feet off the ground when jumping from one foot to the other.
Pas de ciseaux: scissor step, when you are in the air the legs pass each other and you land on one leg.
Pirouette: twirl, a move when you have to turn.
Double tendue: double extension, when you extend the leg from a specific position in a certain direction with foot fully pointed, put heel on floor, stretch leg again point foot then close to original position.
Many of the French terms are actually simple words that sound fancy in English. Some people believe that the French vocabulary gives ballet a more formal, sophisticated and mysterious feeling. So, when going to see a ballet, speak French and try to avoid any faux-pas!