Ballet often looks effortless, but ballet dancers spend many long hours in dance class to perfect their grace, poise and technique. With origins in the royal courts of 16th and 17th century France, ballet evolved into an athletic art practiced internationally. Despite differences in style from teacher to teacher, almost all classical ballet classes around the world follow the same pattern and include variations of the same exercises. This codification of ballet technique helps preserve the legacy of the art form for each new generation.
Almost every classical ballet class begins at the barre. A typical class includes anywhere from five to 12 combinations of exercises to warm up, strengthen and stretch the body. A barre sequence begins with small exercises including knee bends called “plies” and battement tendus, an exercise in which a dancer slides her foot on the floor to a point. Dancers also perform larger movements including developpes -- slow, controlled leg extensions -- and high kicks called “grand battements.”
After warming up at the barrre, the “adagio” portion of ballet class helps dancers develop control and fluidity away from the barre. A typical adagio combination includes high leg extensions and graceful arm movements called “port de bras” set to slow music. Teachers may also include long balances or turns in an adagio combination.
Dancers need to master quick traveling turns as well as stationary turns that stay in one place. Pirouettes -- spins performed on one leg -- may be practiced in the center of the room or paired with traveling steps to move across the room. Dancers also practice chaînés, small rapid traveling turns, and tour piqués, a movement in which the dancer steps onto one foot while lifting the other leg off the floor and spinning across the floor.
The allegro portion of class involves high jumps, precise footwork and often, more turns. Teachers often divide allegro exercises into two categories -- petit allegro and grand allegro. Petit allegro combinations include small, quick jumps such as sautés, hops on two feet. Grand allegro exercises usually travel across the floor and focus on large leaps called "grand jetés" and "saut de chats" along with other jumps. Men may also perform turning jumps called "tours en l'air" during this part of class.
Dancers of an advanced or professional level may finish ballet class with a coda or grand finale. The coda gives dancers a chance to test their stamina and practice the challenging turns and jumps that occur at the end of classical ballets. Dancers may practice fouettés en tournant -- a succession of turns performed on one leg while the other leg whips the dancer around -- or more quick jumps and leaps.
Ballet classes conclude with a reverence exercise. Dance students use the reverence to demonstrate respect and gratitude to the instructor and accompanist. The reverence often includes slow arm movements as well as a curtsies for female students and bows for males. This ritual celebrates the tradition and elegance of the art of ballet while helping students focus on the lessons learned in class.
Sarah Badger is a certified pilates and group fitness instructor, writer and dance teacher. Her work has appeared in "Dance Spirit" magazine and several literary journals. Badger earned her bachelor's degree in English and religious studies from Marymount Manhattan College, and currently owns a dance and fitness studio in upstate New York.