In ballet, there are so many terms that either sound alike, look alike or seem eerily similar. They're the set of words that always get switched in your brain or make you think a little harder on which is which. Stress no more! We are here to help you see and feel the difference in seemingly similar ballet terms.
Photo: Audrey Hepburn, 1950s
De côté: Sideways. Used to indicate that a step is to be made to the side, either to the right or to the left.
À la seconde: To the second. A term to imply that the foot is to be placed in the second position, or that a movement is to be made to the second position en l'air. À la seconde is one of the eight directions of the body in the Cecchetti method.
The difference between the words: De côté indicates where the movement is headed. À la seconde indicates where the movement happens (for ex: grand battement à la seconde. It happens in the body position of à la seconde, but the standing leg does not actively move to the side).
Détourné: Turned aside; a pivot turn on both points or demi-pointes. A complete turn toward the back foot and reverses the position of the feet.
The difference: At the barre or in center, détourné is a pivot that reverses the feet. A soutenu has a closing mechanism of the feet before sustaining and turning around. These can be tricky because they feel very similar, but focus on the closing mechanism: are you bringing your legs together to close first? If so, that means it is not détourné since détourné is an immediate pivot.
Failli: Giving way. A fleeting movement done on one count. A springing jump that moves from fifth position croisé through effacé then landing in fourth position croisé.
Tombé: Falling. A movement in which the dancer, with the working leg raised in the air, falls forward, backward or sideways into a fondu on the working leg.
The difference: Failli requires a body direction change. Tombé gives you the freedom to fall where you need to or where you would like to.
Croisé: Crossed. One of the directions of épaulement. The crossing of the legs with the body placed at an oblique angle to the audience. The disengaged leg may be crossed in the front or in the back.
En croix: In the shape of a cross. Indicates that an exercise is to be executed to the fourth position front, to the second position and to the fourth position back, or vice versa. (Ex: battement tendu).
The difference: Croisé tells you in what body position you execute a movement. En croix tells you how the movement will be executed. Think: Croisé = How it will look. En croix = How it will be done.
Sissonne: Named for the originator of the step. It is a jump from both feet onto one foot with the exception of sissonne fermé, sissonne tombé and sissonne fondu, which finish on two feet. Sissonne may be performed petit or grand.
Glissade: Glide. A traveling step executed by gliding the working foot from the fifth position in the required direction, the other foot closing to it. Glissades are done with or without change of feet, and all begin and end with a demi-plié. There are six glissades: devant, derrière, dessous, dessus, en avant, en arrière (the difference depending on the starting and finishing positions as well as the direction).
The difference: While sissonnes and glissades require both feet all of the ground and both moves have the potential to change feet positions, the difference between these moves is how they start. Sissonne takes off with a spring from both feet simultaneously. Glissades require the brushing of the working leg while the supporting leg remains on the ground. You don't push off with both feet evenly in a glissade but you do with a sissonne.
Balloté: Tossed. This step consists of coupé dessous and coupé dessus performed in a series with a rocking, swinging movement. The step may be performed with straight knees at 45 degrees or with développés at 90 degrees. The direction of the body is effacé with the body inclining backward or forward with each change of weight.
Balloné: Ball-like or bouncing step. A step in which the dancer springs into the air extending one leg to the front, side or back and lands with the extended leg either sur le cou-de-pied or retiré.
The difference: For balloté, both legs come in before reaching out, and on the reach out the supporting leg meets the ground. Balloné springs up first (unlike balloté) with both legs extending in the air and lands in fondu with the working leg either at sur le cou-de-pied or retiré.
Coupé: Cut or cutting. A small intermediary step done as a preparation or impetus for another step. One foot cuts the other away and takes its place. May be performed sauté or as a terre à terre step, croisé or effacé.
Sur le cou-de-pied: On the cou-de-pied. The working foot is placed on the part of the leg between the base of the calf and the beginning of the ankle.
The difference: Coupé is an action - meaning there is movement involved - not a position. Sur le cou-de-pied is a position or placement of the foot in relation to the ankle. In the Russian School of Ballet, sur le cou-de-pied can be done either wrapped (unconditional) or pointed (conditional).
Relevé: Raised. A raising of the body on the points or demi-pointe. There are two ways to relevé: In the French School, relevé is done with a smooth, continuous rise while the Cecchetti method and Russian School use a spring. Relevé may be done in first, second, fourth or fifth position, en attitude, en arabesque, devant, derrière, en tournant, passé en avant, passé en arrière and so on.
Élève: Pupil, student. The apprentice dancers at the Paris Opéra are known as "les élèves" or "les petits rats." Note: Many dance teachers use the word élève to mean rising onto demi-pointe without using a plié. But this is not supported by any ballet dictionaries or books. Élévation is the ability of a dancer to attain height in dancing, and all written records say all steps of elevation begin and end with a demi-plié.
The difference: Here we have a problem of teachers misusing a ballet term. In America, élève has certainly been adopted to describe the French School's method of rising (smooth and continuous, without a spring). But according to all text books, relevé is the proper term to use when describing a rise.
Balançoire: Like a seesaw. A series of grand battements executed with a continuous swinging motion through the first position to the fourth position front and back. As the leg is thrown forcefully forward, the body leans backward, then as the leg is thrown backward, the body leans forward.
En cloche: Like a bell. Refers to grand battements executed continuously devant and derrière through the first position.
The difference: Both moves involve grand battements, but balançoire involves the upper body leaning backward and forward whereas en cloche does not involve the upper body in a swinging motion.
Batterie: The French technical term for beaten steps. A collective term meaning the entire vocabulary of beats: any movement in which the legs beat together or one leg beats against the other (the actual beating is done with the calves).
Battu: Beaten. Any step embellished with a beat is called a pas battu. For ex: Assemblé battu.
The difference: Batterie is a general term and it is not added to other terminology in order to describe a beat. Battu is the term added to other terminology to describe that the move will include beats.
Changement de pieds: Change of feet. The term is usually abbreviated to "changement." Changements are springing steps in the fifth position and changing feet in the air and landing in fifth position with the opposite foot front.
Changer de pied: To change feet. Indicates the feet at the end of a step will have reversed their position.
The difference: Changement de pieds is a springing step where the feet change in the air - both feet off of the ground. Changer de pied does not have to occur with both feet in the air. It simply describes when and if the foot is changing at the end of a move. For ex: Glissade changer would mean you foot in front changes at the end of the glissade and glissade sans changer would mean that you glissade without changing the feet.
Dessus: Over. Indicates that the working foot passes in front of the supporting foot.
Dessous: Under. Indicates that the working foot passes behind the supporting foot.
The difference: These words help you know which direction you are moving, which helps when it comes to reversing combinations.
Photo: OffBeatBallerina.com (Check out her Vocab Games for Dancers!)
Épaulé: Shouldered. A term of the Cecchetti method to indicate a pose in which the dancer stands at an oblique angle to the audience in an arabesque position (the second position arabesque, Cecchetti method) with the body facing one or the other of the two front corners of the stage.
Épaulement: Shouldering. The placing of the shoulders. A term used to indicate a movement of the torso from the waist upward, bringing one shoulder forward and the other back with the head turned or inclined over the forward shoulder. The two fundamental positions of épaulement are croisé and effacé. Épaulement gives the finishing artistic touch to every movement.
The difference: Épaulé is an active position while épaulement is movement from the torso upward which happens during all exercises.
Fondu: Sinking down. A term used to describe a lowering of the body made by bending the knee of the supporting leg.
Plié: Bent, bending. A bending of the knees rendering the joints and muscles soft and pliable and the tendons flexible and elastic.
The difference: Saint Léon wrote, "Fondu is on one leg what a plié is on two."
Temps levé: Time raised or raising movement. A term of the Cecchetti method. This is a hop from one foot with the other foot raised in any position.
Temps lié: Connected movement. An exercise used in centre practice, is composed of a series of steps and arm movements based on fourth, fifth and second positions.
The difference: While they may sound similar, these moves are very different. Temps levé is a hop, meaning the foot is leaving the ground. Temps lié works through demi-plié while transmitting weight from one position to another. There is no jumping involved in temps lié.
Passé: Passed. An auxiliary movement in which the foot of the working leg passes the knee of the supporting leg from one position to another (for ex: développé passé en avant).
Retiré: Withdrawn. A position in which the thigh is raised to the second position en l'air with the knee bent so that the pointed toe rests in front of, behind or to the side of the supporting knee. (Note: When placing the toe to the side of the knee, this is also called raccourci).
The difference: While many teachers teach passé as a position, it is actually a movement of the foot passing the knee; Retiré is the position.
À terre: On the ground. This term indicates: 1) that the entire base of the supporting foot or feet touches the ground; 2) that the foot usually raised in a pose is to remain on the ground with the toes extended. (Ex: arabesque à terre).
Par terre: Along the ground. (Ex: rond de jambe par terre).
The difference: À terre is used to describe a held position whereas par terre describes a movement.
We hope this helps with some of the confusing moves that feel eerily similar or sound similar. It can be difficult to remember the intricate differences in some of these terms, but once you set them clearly apart in your mind, it will help you anticipate the movements better. Performing with confidence is key and being braced with knowledge will help your dancing on stage.
All definitions are from the Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet by Gail Grant.