What is Classical Ballet?

Ballet is a form of dance that originated in Italy in the fifteenth century. It was mostly unstructured court dances, and not the highly choreographed productions it has become.The structure of what is now classical ballet came from Louis XIV of France who was an avid dancer and performer, and was the first to establish an official school of ballet called the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661. This is the reason why ballet terminology is mainly taught in the French language. From the mid-1800s to the early twentieth century ballet saw a decline in France, but it remained strong in Russia as well as Denmark. Though the underlying technique of ballet is the same no matter where is it practiced, multiple different styles exist due to its widespread following in many different countries. Styles from Russia (known as Vagonova), Italy (Cecchetti), Denmark (Bournonville), France (Opéra National de Paris), England (Royal Academy of Dance) , and even America (Ballanchine) are dominate in ballet schools all over the world.

- Some basic ballet terminology -

As with any art form, sport, or technique there exists specific terminology in the world of ballet that is helpful to know even for people that are just patrons.

First and foremost is the pas de duex, or “step for two”. A pas de deux usually consists of a female dancer, or ballerina, and a male dancer, or danseur. While pas de deux can be any dance consisting of two dancers, it usually implies partnering is the main component, with the man supporting the woman as she dances assisting her with balance as well as lifting her into the air.
If both dancers are male or female, the dance is usually considered a duet. The most coveted by dancers is the Grande Pas de Deux, which consists of a pas de deux with the man and woman, then continues with both dancing their own solo or variation and concluding with a coda where they dance together again. The Grande Pas de Deux is usually the centerpiece of a ballet.
As a dancer gains experience and ability, they can progress up the ranks of a ballet company. Although it can vary slightly, these ranks usually consist of (from low to high) the Corps de Ballet, Soloists, and Principal Dancers.
The principals are the highest ranked dancers, and normally dance the leading roles. The soloists dance the supporting roles, and the corps de ballet dance the group dances.

Occasionally a lower ranked dancer will be offered a higher ranked role as an understudy, in the event that the higher ranked dancer cannot perform. Often this is the way a dancer progresses up the ranks.

- The ballet class -

The first thing a dancer does every day prior to any rehearsal is to take a technique class. This serves as both a warm-up for the rehearsal day, as well as practice of the technical elements of ballet.
Classes have one teacher who arranges the combinations of steps and conveys them to the dancers taking class, who then perform the movements twice, once to the right and left, so both sides of the body are exercised.

Class begins with the dancers holding onto a bar, or barre, so they may concentrate on working the legs before progressing into the center where they perform exercises without the aid of the barre.
A ballet class is structurally the same no matter where it is given, and all of the steps are given by their French names. Thus a dancer from the United States can travel to Russia and take a ballet class and know exactly what to do, even if he couldn’t speak a word of Russian!