“It’s just part of the routine of being a professional dancer; at Northern Ballet it’s treated as training, a time to constantly hone our technique and improve. Sometimes it seems a chore but without it you feel disconnected for the rest of the dancing day.” Hannah Bateman, First Soloist, Northern Ballet.
The daily ballet class is routinely taken by ballet dancers around the world. The structure & language is the same wherever in the world you are, and company class usually lasts for an hour and a quarter. (Ed note : in schools and non-professional ballet classes, the duration of class can vary; I’m focused here on professional dancers, to bring you an insight into their working lives.) The purpose of the class, in a professional company, is to gradually warm up the body to prepare for the rehearsals/performance ahead. Often it’s also the case that the dancers will have performed on the previous evening and so it’s also a time to stretch out any residual stiffness and work on any newfound difficulties.
In company class, the dancers know what they need to do in order to maintain their bodies and manage their workload, so the teacher will give the excercises but each dancer works on the areas which they know need more or less attention. This might mean skipping an exercise or working slightly differently, whereas in an amateur or vocational school ballet class the dancers are expected to follow the teachers instructions exactly.
“For me, class is more than just a warm-up. It is the time to refine and build your technique, which allows you to be free onstage!” Kathryn Morgan, Soloist, New York City Ballet.
Ballet dancers are always working towards a known ideal, for example, the particular way a step or turn should be performed, and the ballet class is their time to work on technique. Class is not a performance.
Professional dancers know the difference between warming up and stretching, but as a student it’s important to understand the differences between them as well as their different goals :the rule is that warming up should be done before class; stretching at the end.
The structure of the ballet class is always the same, starting with barre (30 minutes) and then moving to the centre (for 40 minutes) and adagio, followed by allegro (for 20 minutes) which is divided into three sections – petite, medium & grand allegro).
The class begins with a warmed-up body (many dancers swim, use Pilates or yoga to do this), with slow exercises at the barre. Some dancers think of the barre as their partner, and it’s ettiquette to turn towards the barre when you change sides, just as a dancer would turn towards their partner rather than turn their back on them ! The exercises at this stage are grand pliés, cambré, relevé & tendu. Then some turns will be introduced including tombés en tournant, coupés en tournant, fondus en tournant, half pirouettes, fouttés and changement en tournant. Then the class moves on to rond de jambe à terre, battement tendu jeté, frappé and grand battement jeté.
The class then moves into the centre, moving the barres out of the way, stretching out, grabbing a drink of water/coffee etc and for the girls this can mean a change into pointe shoes (unless they have chosen to wear pointe shoes all the way through class). Here the dancers go through demi plié, balletment tendu, battement fondu/soutenu, développé/relevé, & grand battement.
“It’s a time to iron out the kinks and get your body and mind ready for the day ahead.” Kenneth Tindall, Premier Dancer, Northern Ballet.
The allegro section starts off with small jumps – temps levé, échappé, assemblé, jete, ballonne & simple sissonne. This is followed by small jumps with beats – échappé battu, entrechat, jeté battu – and then on to middle jumps – sissonne fermé, sissone ouverte & jetés. The big jumps include grand jeté, grand fouetté sauté, cabriole and tours en l’air.
The class moves on to larger combinations of big and small jumps, with and without beats, and a final small allegro of repetitive fast jumps.
The class ends with a reverence; a thank you to the teacher and pianist, which in a ballet company is usally a round of applause.
“Ballet class is a big part of any dancer’s routine. Not only does it prepare you and warm you up for daily rehearsals or shows, but it allows you to assess your body on that particular day so you know how much you can push it. I feel that once you are at a professional level, you learn to sink into your own routine as you become more aware of how your body works and how much of class you need to take. However it is important for me to keep learning as much as possible from the teacher giving class, as it is the one part of your day where you can focus entirely on yourself and improve on things that may not necessarily be involved in the repetoire you rehearse each day.” Tracy Jones, Corps de ballet, Corella Ballet.
The technical terms used in this feature are explained here :
plié (to bend; a bending of the knee or knees)
cambré (arched; the body is bent from the waist, backwards or sideways)
relevé (raised; a raising of the body on pointe or demi pointe)
tombés (falling; the dancer, with the workign leg in the air, falls forward, backward or sideways into a fondu on the working leg)
coupé (cutting; a small preparation step)
fondu (sinking; a lowering of the body by bending the knee of the supporting leg)
pirouette (whirl; a complete turn of the body on one foot, on pointe or demi pointe)
foutté (whipped; a whipping movement of the raised foot as it passes in front or behind the supporting foot or the whipping of the body from one direction to another)
changement en tournant (change of feet. The turn is done at the moment of the jump and begins in the direction of the front foot)
rond de jambe (a circular movement of the leg)
battement tendu jeté (battement – beating of the extended or bent leg – stretched and thrown)
grand battement jeté (battement – beating of the extended or bent leg – very large)
demi plié (half bend of the knees. All steps of elevation begin and end with a demi plié)
balletment tendu (battement – beating of the extended or bent leg – stretched; this is the starting & ending portion of a grand battement & forces the insteps outward)
battement fondu (battement – beating of the extended or bent leg – sinking. The supporting leg is bent in fondu with the working foot pointing on the ankle. As the supporting leg is straightened, the working leg unfolds and extends to point on the floor or in the air)
développé (developed; a movement where the working leg draws up to the knee of the supporting leg & extends to an open position en l’air & held there with absolute control)
relevé (raise; lift)
échappé (escaping; slipping. A level opening of both feet from a closed to an open position)
assemblé (assembled; joined together. The working foot slides along the ground before being swept into the air. As the foot goes into the air the supporting leg pushes off the floor extending the toes. Both legs come to the ground simultaneously in fifth position)
jeté (the legs are thrown to 90 degrees in a high jump)
ballon (light, elastic jump. The dancer jumps from the floor, pauses mid-air & descends softly & then repeats the step – like the bouncing of a ball)
sissonne (a jump from both feet onto one foot – with some exceptions eg sissonne fondue which finishes on two feet)
échappé battu (échappé – escaping; slipping – beaten.
entrechat (interweaving. A beating step where the dancer jumps in the air & rapidly crosses the legs before and behind each other. Entrechats are counted from 2 to 10)
cabriole (caper. The extended legs are beaten in the air)
tour en l’air (turn in the air)
There is only one manual you need to learn more about the technical terms in classical ballet & I highly recommend it :