Seven Commonly Used Ballet Terms, and What They Actually Mean in France

Posted on January 3, 2011 by

Do you call the pirouette position passé or retiré, or do you use both? What about the term élevé? Do you use it? Have you ever considered what these French words actually mean?

“Ballet terminology is somewhat subjective,” says Raymond Lukens of ABT’s JKO School. “Often there is no definitive way to say something. What’s really important is to create a picture in the minds of your students so that they will do the step you’re asking the best way possible. You can split hairs forever over this stuff!”

Another thing to keep in mind is this, says Lukens: “For the French, ballet terms are seen as verbs or action words, and to non-French speakers they’re seen as labels for the movements.” —Kate Lydon

Tendu Everyone in the world who knows ballet understands what you mean when you say, “Four tendus front,” but the French say dégagez four times front. Dégager means “to disengage.” You dégagé the leg to the front, side or back from a closed fifth or first position to an open position. You can dégagé to the floor, at half height (what Americans commonly know as dégagé) or at full height. Tendu means “stretched,” so the French may command in class, “Dégagez à terre avec la pointe tendue.”

Penché Pencher means “to lean.” I was watching a class at the Paris Opéra Ballet School and the teacher told the
students, “Penchez en avant et relevez-vous.” What do we envision immediately? A penché in arabesque and a relevé onto demi-pointe in arabesque. But the teacher was simply saying, “Bend the body forward (with both feet in first position) and recover.”

Passé Passer means to pass the foot from front to back and vice versa. If the foot remains in front, where are you passing to? With pirouettes: If you’re in fourth position and you bring the back foot to the front for an en dehors turn, that can be seen as a passé, but if you are in fifth with the right foot front and you lift it to the front of the knee to turn, that would properly be called retiré, which means “withdrawn.” In ABT’s curriculum, for consistency and to avoid confusion, we use the term retiré for all pirouettes, because you withdraw the foot no matter what position you begin from.

Tour jeté The French call this movement grand jeté en tournant and post-Vaganova teachers call it grand jeté entrelacé. Claude Bessy, former director of the Paris Opéra Ballet School, says that “tour jeté” makes no sense and that entrelacé does not pertain to the movement unless you do the movement with beats.

Élevé My biggest pet peeve is the use of the term élevé to describe a relevé without the use of the demi-plié. When I asked a former dancer from the Paris Opéra Ballet about this term, she looked at me with the most curious tilt of the head and asked, “How does élever pertain to ballet? I élève my glass for a toast, I can élève chickens,” which translates as “I raise my glass,” or I can “breed chickens,” “but there is no élevé movement in ballet.” The translation for élever is “to raise, bring up, breed or rear.” The reflexive verb se relever means “to raise oneself, to get up,” so when you do a relevé with straight knees, that’s just what you say.

Did you know?

Entrechat literally means “between cat.” All we can suppose is that the term came from French masters distorting the Italian word intrecciare (sounds like intrecharay), which means “to interweave, interlace.” But who knows!

Sauté is the past participle of the verb sauter, “to jump.” So when we ask a student to do 16 sautés we are asking the student to do 16 “jumped.”

Raymond Lukens studied as a dancer and teacher with masters of Russian, Danish and French ballet techniques, and holds the Enrico Cecchetti Diploma. A polyglot (he can speak five languages), Lukens has traveled the world as a performer and ballet teacher.

(photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of Raymond Lukens)

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