Ballet For Dummies book cover

Ballet For Dummies

By: Scott Speck and Evelyn Cisneros Published: 12-12-2019

Whether you want to participate in ballet or just watch it, the ballet experience can excite and inspire you. Ballet is among the most beautiful forms of expression ever devised: an exquisite mix of sight and sound, stunning, aesthetics, and awesome technique.

Ballet For Dummies is for anyone who wants to enjoy all that the dance forms offers – as an onlooker who wants to get a leg up on the forms you're likely to see or as an exercise enthusiast who understands that the practice of ballet can help you gain: 

  • More strength
  • Greater flexibility
  • Better body alignment
  • Confidence in movement
  • Comfort through stress reduction
  • Infinite grace – for life 

From covering the basics of classical ballet to sharing safe and sensible ways to try your hand (and toes) at moving through the actual dance steps, this expert reference shows you how to: 

  • Build your appreciation for ballet from the ground up.
  • Choose the best practice space and equipment.
  • Warm up to your leap into the movements.
  • Locate musical options for each exercise.
  • Look for certain lifts in a stage performance.
  • Tell a story with gestures.
  • Picture a day in the life of a professional ballet dancer.
  • Identify best-loved classic and contemporary ballets.
  • Speak the language of ballet.

Today you can find a ballet company in almost every major city on earth. Many companies have their own ballet schools – some for training future professionals, and others for interested amateurs. As you fine-tune your classical ballet technique – or even if you just like to read about it – you'll become better equipped to fully appreciate the great choreography and many styles of the dance. Ballet For Dummies raises the curtain on a world of beauty, grace, poise, and possibility!

 

P.S. If you think this book seems familiar, youÂre probably right. The Dummies team updated the cover and design to give the book a fresh feel, but the content is the same as the previous release of Ballet For Dummies (9780764525681). The book you see here shouldnÂt be considered a new or updated product. But if youÂre in the mood to learn something new, check out some of our other books. WeÂre always writing about new topics!

Articles From Ballet For Dummies

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Ballet For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 04-27-2022

Ballet is a beautiful and demanding art form, with positions and moves to memorize and, often, strained muscles to heal. From the five basic positions — from which all ballet moves emanate — to the (mostly French) language of ballet, there's lots to master.

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Important Ballet Terms to Know

Article / Updated 12-29-2021

Whether you're practicing ballet in the studio or dancing ballet for a performance, it's important to know the lingo. The following list shows some basic ballet terms with pronunciation guides, as well, because almost all of them are French: Battement tendu (bat-MAHN tahn-DUE): Brushing out your leg along the floor and pointing your foot. It also can be done lifting your legs to various heights, to the front, side, and back (also known as arabesque). En pointe (ahn PWANT or on point): Balancing on the tips of your toes (for women only). This is achieved by wearing special pointe shoes. Grand jeté (GRAHN juh-TAY): A forward jump with a split. Pas de deux (PAH duh DEUH): A dance for two. Pirouette (pee-roo-ET): A turn or series of multiple turns. Plié (plee-AY): Bending your knees. This can be a small or big bend, on one leg or two. Port de bras (POR duh BRAH): Movement of your arms and upper body. Sauté (soh-TAY): A small jump on two legs, landing on both legs. Tutu: A ballerina's skirt, sticking straight out from the hips like a pizza.

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Finding the Correct Ballet Stance

Article / Updated 10-28-2019

Most world-class ballet dancers, from the tender age of four or five, have been taught to hold themselves in a certain way, with a certain posture. They practice and practice their ballet posture until it becomes second nature. Unfortunately, this way of carrying themselves gets misinterpreted thousands of times a day as snobbery, from fast-food joints to street corners worldwide. The fact is, many ballet dancers are rather shy about what they do. (You would be, too, if everyone mistook you for a snob.) But the ballet stance that inspires this misconception is a basic part of classical ballet technique, for men and women alike. Don't worry, though — if you're old enough to read this, you are in no danger of having this stance become permanent. You'll be able to turn it on and off at will. One of the big goals of ballet is creating the illusion of elegance and poise. A certain confident ease of motion perpetuates this illusion. But that's exactly what it is — an illusion. Deep down, every ballet dancer is just as neurotic as you are. Locating your center If you were to videotape a world-class ballet dancer in action, and then stop the tape at any given frame, the ideal dancer will always appear graceful and balanced. This remarkable phenomenon applies to other pursuits as well — tai chi, for example, or thumb wrestling. The key to this appearance is centering. As a potential ballet dancer, the first thing you need to do is find your center — the position in which you can rest in total balance. Here's how the pros do it: 1. Stand at the mirror, facing sideways, with your feet parallel to each other. 2. Engaging your thigh muscles, straighten your knees — but without pushing back into your knee joints. 3. Lift your abdominal muscles upward and back towards your spine. This is called pulled-up position. Imagine that you are placing your ribcage over your hips. Think of your neck as an upward extension of your spine. Your shoulders are relaxed downward, and your chin is slightly lifted — hence the haughty air. 4. Curve your arms so that they are rounded and just in front of your thighs, and bring your weight forward into the balls of your feet. You should be able to lift your heels slightly off the floor (see Figure 1). At first, you may feel as if you are about to fall forward onto your face. In fact, go ahead and give yourself permission to fall forward a few times. But with practice, this alignment becomes much more natural. Now that you have found your placement, or center, you are ready for anything. All ballet movements begin from here, allowing the upper and lower sections of your body to work together as one. Figure 1: Finding good placement for ballet technique. Adjusting your posture for balance In addition to aligning your spine, you need to be able to adjust your posture for different ballet positions. In order to maintain balance while your legs and hips move in a certain direction, your upper body moves in opposition to your lower body. For example, say that you want to lift one leg behind you. In order to maintain balance, the weight of your upper body has to adjust slightly forward. When lifting your leg to one side, you adjust your body slightly to the other side to create balance. When lifting your leg to the front, you adjust your body slightly to the back. Got it? Of course, these adjustments are very small. But the smallest adjustments make all the difference and lead to safe dancing. Distributing and transferring your weight When finding your center, you have to transfer your body weight a little forward, onto the balls of your feet. From this position, if you want to lift one leg off the ground, you must shift your weight more to the standing leg for solid balance. Standing on one leg Start with your heels together, toes pointing outward. Keep your arms at your sides, low and rounded, with your fingers almost touching your thighs. Now shift most of your body weight to the balls of your feet, while keeping your heels down. Lift your left leg off the ground, bending your knee outward slightly. Now, pointing your left foot, place it in front of your right ankle (Figure 2a). Notice how much you must shift your weight to your right foot to maintain your balance. Figure 2: Shifting your weight to create balance. Now return your left leg to the starting position and repeat this exercise on the other leg. Shifting onto one leg Begin by bending your knees as far as you can while still keeping your heels on the floor (Figure 2b). Lift your left leg, just as you did in the preceding section, bending your knee outward. Point your left foot and let the toes touch your right ankle as you straighten your right knee. Bring your arms in front of you, rounded at the level of your ribcage. The goal — eventually — is to arrive in this position with your arms and legs at the same time. Notice that the weight shift to the ball of your right foot is more extreme than before. That's because your right leg has gone from bent to straight. After you master this shift, do the movement on the other side. You don't want to develop a lopsided technique! Balancing on the ball of your foot Here's the ultimate test in the transferring of weight. This exercise is similar to standing on one leg, but with a twist — this time, you balance not just on one foot, but on the ball of that foot. Begin with your knees slightly bent, heels together, toes pointing outward. Keep your arms at your sides, low and rounded, with your fingers almost touching your thighs. Lift your left leg, with your left knee pressing outward, foot pointed, with the toes touching your right ankle. Meanwhile, rise up on your right leg, straightening the knee Now here's the really tricky part: As you straighten your right leg, put your weight onto the ball of your right foot (Figure 2c). Caution: Don't fall! You may need to hold onto something as you practice this weight shift. To balance in this position, you must send your weight way over to the right — but without leaning. Finding out exactly how much adjustment to make is a matter of practice. That, by the way, is one of those understatements that applies to the entire art of ballet. Don't be dismayed if you don't get the hang of it right away — it takes a lot of practice. And don't worry if you find it much harder to balance on one foot than the other. Everybody has that problem. Keep in mind that when you go to the ball of your foot, your balance must be very precise. After all, you're balancing the entire weight of your body on about 4 square inches. It's like trying to hold up a broomstick by balancing the end in your upturned palm. It may take a very long time to find the balance — with the help of strong abdominal muscles to keep yourself stabilized. But when you do find that balance, it feels effortless. And that's the most glorious feeling in the world. The strange thing is, with the right adjustments, you can balance in any position. So here's the bad news — although you may find a balanced position, the position may not be "correct" in the classical sense. That's why every ballet studio is plastered with mirrors from floor to ceiling. Dancers are constantly checking their positions — all positions, all the time.

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Ballet Moves: Demi-Pliés

Article / Updated 01-24-2017

The first ballet exercise at the barre is the small knee bend, or demi-plié ("duh-MEE plee-AY"). This article shows you how to perform a demi-plié from first, second, fourth, and fifth positions. The word plié means "bent," and demi means half — just as demitasse means half a cup, demi monde means half a world, and Demi Moore is half a Moore. When you do a demi-plié, you bend your knees as far as you can while still keeping both heels planted on the ground. That little caveat is the key. It means that the depth of a demi-plié varies a little for every single dancer — as you're about to find out. Your challenge now is to execute a demi-plié in four of the basic positions. Demi-plié in first position Stand at the barre in the starting position — but with one exception: Bring your legs into first position. Turn your feet out only as far as is comfortable. From here, slowly bend your knees as far as possible, while keeping your heels on the ground, with your knees directly over the middle of your feet. While you descend, your lower right arm (from wrist to elbow) moves outward and slightly up, no higher than the level of your hips. This beautiful motion gives you the illusion of floating (Figure 1a). Now unbend your knees, moving back up to the starting position — and bring your right arm back down to its starting position as well. Your arms and legs should always arrive at their finishing positions together. Congratulations — you have executed a bona fide demi-plié. Repeat it four times. And now, as much fun as this is, it's time to move on. Figure 1: Demi-pliés in first and second positions. Demi-plié in second position From first position, transfer your weight to your left leg and slide your right foot sideways along the floor. As you do this, allow your right heel to lift up, until your right foot is fully pointed, with your right knee straight. Your right foot should remain turned out during this motion — that is, your right heel should stay forward, just as in first position. While you point your right foot, bring your right arm up through middle fifth position, and then open it up to second position. In switching from one leg position to the next, you have unwittingly accomplished a very tricky, yet essential, ballet move, called a battement tendu ("bat-MAHN ton-DUE" —literally: "stretched out"). You can read much more about this move later in this chapter. Now lower your right heel and transfer your weight evenly to both legs. Your heels should be in line with one another. Ideally, the distance between them should equal the length ofyour own foot; but the move is a little easier with the feet a bit farther apart than that. Now that your legs are in second position, do a demi-plié. Bend your knees slowly, keeping your upper body straight, and lower your hips halfway down to knee level (refer to Figure 1b). Don't stick your rear end out. As you descend this first time, lower your right arm. Now straighten your knees, but continue to lower your arm. Now repeat this demi-plié any number of times, moving your right arm just as you did for first (leg) position. Demi-plié in fourth position You may have noticed that we skip third position, and there's a reason for that. It's safe to say that nobody ever does demi-plies in third — except by accident. From second position, begin by pointing your right foot. This time, draw a quarter circle on the ground, from the side to the front, without moving your hips. This is called a demi rond de jambe ("duh-MEE ROND duh JAHMB") — literally, a "half round of the leg." (Yeah, yeah, we know — we call it a quarter circle, the French call it a half. It's art. Give us a break.) Keep your right heel turned out as much as you can, within the realm of possibility. Lower your right heel in front of your left, about a foot in front. (Again, the distance ideally equals the length of your own foot.) Meanwhile, bring your right arm up through middle fifth position and open it out to second position. Check to make sure that the weight of your body is evenly distributed over your legs. You are now in fourth position. Now for the demi-plié. Once again, bend your knees as far as possible with your heels firmly on the ground. Make sure that your knees are pointing outward and are placed over the middle of your feet. Move your right arm as you do in the demi-pliés in second position (Figure 2a). Concentrate on keeping your hips parallel to the front, without twisting — easier said than done. Figure 2: Demi-pliés in fourth and fifth positions. Demi-plié in fifth position To go from fourth to fifth position, begin by pointing your right foot, keeping it turned out as far as you can. Now close your right foot directly in front of the left, gently touching toe to heel. Lift your right arm through middle fifth position, and open it out to second. There you have it — fifth position. Even in the unlikely event that you were born with mega-turnout, don't try to press your right foot flat against your left. A move like that can damage something important — your knees, for example. In fact, your fifth position may stay "open" for years. It takes a long time for a dancer's hips to loosen up enough, and the muscles to strengthen enough, to hold the ideal position. Patience, young grasshopper. While your right leg moves from fourth to fifth position, your right arm has something to do as well. Lift your right arm through middle fifth (arm) position, into second position. Okay now — time for the demi-plié. All the same rules apply, and the arm movements are the same in second position (refer to Figure 2b). Because of the strange contortions involved, the demi-plié in fifth position is the shallowest bend of them all. But perseverance pays off.

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Basic Guidelines of Choreography for Ballet

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

When you decide to choreograph your own ballet dances, you have complete freedom of expression for your choreography. And that's as it should be. But artists of all kinds have found that they flourish best when they voluntarily submit to certain limitations. The series of ballet gestures, for example, is a "limitation" that somehow sets the imaginations of the great ballet choreographers free. The ideas in the following sections, culled from centuries of great choreography, give you a framework for your freedom, a vehicle for your own artistic vision. All forms of expression are valid — but these ideas can help you get started successfully. Finding your inspiration — music or theme What makes a choreographer want to create a particular dance in the first place? Most choreographers say that they are usually inspired by one of two things: the music or the theme. When you hear a certain piece of music, are you swept away in an ecstatic whirlwind? Do colors and shapes and movements immediately suggest themselves to you? Are you lost in time and space? If so, we know a good doctor who can help. But failing that, the piece sounds like a good candidate for choreography. If there's one basic rule of choreography, it's this: The gestures should somehow reflect the music. What sets the successful choreographers apart is that their gestures embody the music beautifully, as if each musical phrase had been written just for them. An example most people can visualize is the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker. As the celesta begins to play its tinkly tones, the ballerina dances nimble, delicate little steps, seeming to flit across the stage. Although different choreographers may have set different steps to this music over the years, nearly all of them have tried to create something appropriately delicate. You might like to know that in the professional world, every single minute of dance onstage is the result of approximately two hours of choreography and rehearsal. But hey, don't let that stop you. Another form of inspiration is the need to tell a story. Storytelling is one of our oldest pastimes, and dance has always come in handy for that purpose. Does a certain story call out to you, just needing to be expressed somehow? Then why not make that the basis for a dance? When telling a story in dance, first decide whether you want to create a simple narrative from beginning to end, or something more complex. Say, for example, that your theme is the story of Hansel and Gretel. Just think of all the ways you could tell that story. You could opt for the linear approach, showing Hansel and Gretel wandering through the forest, dropping breadcrumbs, getting lost, happening upon a candy house, and getting fattened up. Or you could start at the end of the story, with the kids leaping breathlessly onstage to tell you what they just experienced. Or, your dance could simply focus on character at one point in a story. How does the wicked witch feel when the kids bake her alive? Maybe she could do an interpretive dance to let us know. This expression of one instant in time, telescoped out to show the emotional weight it contains, is the basis for 99 percent of all poems, operatic arias, and popular songs — and it works for dance as well. Knowing how you want the choreography to look Great choreographers almost always talk about their "vision" of their work. Choreographers are proud of their visions and will tell you about them until you ask them to stop. Quite literally, choreographers create an image of the dance in their minds before attacking the nitty-gritty of the choreography. Whether or not they envision the actual steps at first, they can imagine the overall "look" of the piece. From there, they can begin to choose the steps that best fit that vision. The vision can include costumes, set, and lighting designs — although in the professional world, special designers are hired to flesh out the details of this portion of the vision. Working from this internal vision, choreographers then write down their ideas using dance notation — or simply dance it themselves on videotape. Developing a vocabulary for the dance The same basic step can be danced in many different ways. So when you choreograph a piece, you have a nearly infinite number of steps to choose from. The vocabulary of the dance refers to the particular gestures and movements that you choose to use — the ones that seem to reflect your own character and make up your personal style. The order in which you put the steps is important, too. The steps should seem to flow from one to the next. For example, an arabesque looks good when followed by a failli. But it looks bad followed by a backflip. You just feel these things. After you begin to experiment with various sequences, you're likely to find some that feel just right for you. When that happens, you can repeat those sequences again and again — thereby creating a vocabulary that you can call your own. George Balanchine, for example, was famous for following a sauté in arabesque with a jeté. That was his trademark — just as Bob Fosse made a name for himself with bowler hats and turned-in legs (also known as pigeon toes — think Cabaret). Using your full dance space Here's another useful rule for choreographing your own work: Use the full amount of space that's available. By the end of the dance, every area of the stage should have been stepped on at least once. You should even consider using non-traditional areas — where you'd never think of dancing. Staircases, hallways, railings, and other levels of flooring come to mind. (Or puddles — as Gene Kelly discovered in Singin' in the Rain.) The unexpected is often where the most inspiration lies. When covering your space, we suggest varying the shape of your dance. If you begin with a move on a diagonal; then try adding a circular pattern later. Or vice versa. Stretch your imagination — and keep your audience on their toes. Ending the dance as you began One way to make a dance feel artistically whole is to "come full circle." And one way to accomplish this is by starting and ending the dance with the very same pose. An even more advanced version of this technique is to end in a slightly "evolved" version of the starting position. For example, if the dance is a duet, consider switching the parts at the end, so that the woman ends up as the man began, and vice versa. This technique gives the dance a feeling of completion, and it can sometimes be quite poignant and moving. Who knows — you may have your audience in tears. In a good way.

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Finding the Right Practice Space for Ballet

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

The right place to practice ballet is a place where you feel comfortable. And in order to feel comfortable, you need two different things — space and privacy. When trying something foreign, like ballet, you need to feel totally at ease, with zero intimidation factor. So send away any snickering significant others, and consider locking out the dog, as well. Determining how much space you need Regarding space: At first, you don't need much. If you can lie on the floor with your limbs outstretched, and then stand upright, arms above your head, without hitting the ceiling, you've got it made. But later, as you attempt the turns and leaps of the so-called center floor work, the demands of the space increase. You need more unobstructed room around you in all directions. A 10-x-12-foot room can keep you happy for a little while; after you graduate to more advanced movements, you may want to rent a dance studio by the hour, join a beginner ballet class, or remodel your home. At one time or another, all dancers deal with small spaces, even in the professional world. The backstage area of the City Center Theater in New York City is so small that the wings on the left side of the stage end literally a couple of feet from a brick wall. There is barely enough room for two skinny dancers to move around in the wings during a performance. Other considerations As you're looking for a place to practice, consider more than just the space of the room. The space you choose should also be warm, with no drafts. Your muscles need to get warm and stay warm, even as you strip off your outer layers of clothes. Ideally, you should also have a mirror in the room. Ballet dancers are constantly checking their technique, adjusting their alignment, and admiring their great legs. With a mirror, you can compare your own work with the figures in this book. Also, you definitely need a music system. The control (or remote control) should be close at hand, so you can start and stop the music as needed. You also need speakers good enough so that you hear the music, not the sound of your own heavy breathing. For a "silent" art form, ballet sure makes a lot of noise. Your feet make swishing sounds as you brush them in straight lines or half-circles, rapping sounds as you tap the floor, or smacking sounds after a leap through the air. If you have downstairs neighbors, try to be considerate of their lives. See if you can practice while they're away. Better yet, tell them what you are up to, so they don't have you investigated for suspicious behavior. Who knows — they may get so inspired by your ballet quest that they'll want to come up and join you.

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For Ballet Injuries, Think RICE

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Ballet dancers know that injuries such as pulled muscles and tendons are common — rigorous rehearsals combined with extreme positions can do that. To treat ballet injuries, remember the acronym RICE to aid your recovery: R = Rest. Get the heck off the injured part. I = Ice. Ice your injury for 20 minutes several times during the first day. C = Compression. Wrap up the injury to discourage it from growing. E = Elevation. Lift the injury higher than your heart. Always consult a medical professional about any serious injury.

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The Five Basic Ballet Positions

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

All ballet steps start from one of five positions, and these basic ballet positions involve your whole body — how you hold your arms is as important as what you do with your feet. The following figures show the five basic ballet positions along with variations on arm positions:

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