How does a ballet class work?


August 29, 2014 by Nicole

Photo courtesy of Lisbet Photography,

I think one of my favorite things about ballet class is that I know exactly what I’m getting into. The ballet class is the same anywhere you go, anywhere in the world. It’s a progressive series of exercises that start at the barre and transition over to center floor.

If you’re a beginner (or thinking about it), that can also be intimidating when you feel like you’re the only one who doesn’t know what to do or what’s next. The language of ballet’s exercises is French, and it usually either translates into a literal interpretation of the movement or describes the quality of the movement.

Although some exercises can be done facing the barre, most will be done on the right first, with your left hand on the barre. Then you’ll turn, nearly always into the barre, unless choreography dictates otherwise, and do the same on the left with your right hand on the barre. The leg that is doing the exercise is commonly referred to as the “working leg”, while the leg that you’re standing on is called the “standing leg” (although that’s a little misleading because you’re definitely not just standing on it!).

If you’re considering a ballet class but don’t know what to expect, here’s a quick rundown of what will happen at the ballet barre. Each of these exercises will be given in a “combination”, set to music.

Plié means “to bend” and it’s a bending of the knees to warm up your body, especially your legs, often using port de bras.

[If you’re thinking, “wait – what’s port de bras?”, it’s the placement & movement of your arms in the exercise/combination. It literally means “carriage of the arms” in french. You may also hear “épaulement”, which more specifically refers to the placement of the head & shoulders. Port de bras & épaulement work in conjunction to coordinate the movement of your upper body.]

These can also be called Battements Tendus, but that’s pretty formal. Tendus are focused on articulating through your feet, using the floor and continuing to focus on your core and arm placement.

Dégagé means to disengage – and that’s what you’re doing. It’s the “next step up” after tendus where you repeat the basic action of a tendu but with enough force behind it for your toes to disengage from the floor (you toe does not leave the floor in tendu). These can also be called battements tendus jeté.

Fondu means “to melt”. In essence, it’s a plié on your supporting leg and is often combined with developpe (a straightening of the leg).

Ronds de Jambe à terre
Ronds de Jambe means “circle of the leg” and “à terre” means that’s it’s on the ground. The circle can go en dehors (“outside”, but in this case, clockwise) or en dedans (“inside” or in this case, counterclockwise).

Frappé means “to strike.” During frappé (can also formally be referred to as battements jeté), you will strike your foot against the floor as you extend the leg out to the front, side or back. This action can originate from different positions relative to the ankle depending on the teacher’s technique style (cechetti or vaganova, for example) so don’t be surprised if your teacher demos it different from a YouTube video you watch. (You should always attempt to perform the exercise as it was demonstrated by the teacher.)  These can also be done on relevé. In that case, the foot will not make contact with the floor.

This is a slow sequence of movements and can refer to a number of exercises, usually done in combination. “Adagio” tells the dancer that the steps/combination should be approached with fluidity and stretch versus any sharp motion.

Ronds de Jambe en l’air
Like the earlier Ronds de Jambe exercise, you’re still making a circle of the leg and that circle and be “en dehors” or “en dedans”. The “en l’air” indicates that now it’s “in the air” or off the ground.

Grands Battements
Most people will recognize this movement as a kick. That is what it looks like, but there is some subtlety in the execution. You can almost think of it as a tendu with umph or the letter J – the knees don’t bend and you’re still utilizing the floor.

At some point, possibly before adagio or grands battments or as the final barre exercise, you will usually be given a stretch. This really depends on the teacher’s preferences and they can either lead you through a specific stretch exercise/combination or give you time & music to stretch on your own. (Younger students will likely be led through a specific combination, while adults may be given the open time.)

Depending on the school & style the teacher is working in, or even just time limitations,  there may be more or fewer exercises given in a class, but this should give you a good idea of what will happen at the barre. Once barre is complete, the class transitions into the center. Many of these same exercises are performed in the center and progress into turns and jumps. View what to expect in the center.

If you want to be even more prepared for your first class, you can always view or buy instructional books with pictures that illustrate what’s being asked in each exercise, search YouTube for ballet class-related videos or even ask to observe a ballet class.

What’s your favorite barre exercise? How did you approach your first ballet class?

About the author: I’m a professional communicator with a love of dance, entertainment and constant improvement. You can find me on Google+, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

5 thoughts on “How does a ballet class work?

  1. I have always thought that ballet is so beautiful. I would love to be able to learn how it works. I think it would be sweet to be able to be stronger and more coordinated. I wonder how long it would take to be able to get into point shoes. I really respect people that are able to dance like that.


  2. […] is part II to “How does a ballet class work?”. Part I focused on what to expect at the barre, and now we’ll take a look on what you can […]

  3. Dancing Fly says:

    Yep! Barre work nearly summarised!
    I also recall my very first ballet class 6 years ago at age 24, attending with not much knowledge at all. I was lucky to have a great teacher, who structured her Beginner classes really well. She had specific periods of intakes for totally new Beginners, so that everyone starts at the same time and learn the basics. My first lesson was learning about feet, sitting down. What is flex, what is demi-pointe, what is full-pointe? And we kept repeating these simple feet exercises. And then we learnt the 5 positions (RAD syllabus). And did some pretty simple plies. So class progressed really slowly and steadily. I am so glad to have build a good foundation there. 🙂

    My favourite barre exercise? The very first plies exercise! I find the coordinated movements of plies and simple port de bras very calming. Back at home, while listening to music, I often catch myself imagining plie-ing to the music!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: