Parlez Vous Ballet?


Tis the season when rehearsals for myriad annual productions of “The Nutcracker” are underway across the country. If the beloved holiday ballet is coming to a theater or high school auditorium near you and you’re not a regular balletomane, here’s your chance to bone up in advance with my Q&A about the history and lore of the liveliest art’s classical dance form.

Q. Why are all the ballet terms French?

A. The birthplace of ballet was the court of Louis XIV. He was a dancer himself and he founded the Royal Academy of Music and Dance in 1671. Ballet master and choreographer Pierre Beauchamps codified the basic steps, the five positions of the feet, and the positions of the arms in a work that was published in 1700. We still use that same language. ln ballet classes all over the globe, the French terms are taught no matter what the students’ native tongue may be. Not only that, but other dance forms such as modern, jazz, tap, and hip hop have borrowed many of the terms to describe adaptations of the ballet steps.

Q. I know that a female ballet dancer is called a ballerina, but what is a male dancer called?

A. The correct term is “danseur” although it’s seldom used these days. At the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theater, members are listed as Principal Dancers, Soloists, and Corps de Ballet regardless of gender. In France, lead dancers have the rank of “étoile” (star). For the record, while even tiny girls taking pre-ballet classes are now referred to as “ballerinas,” the term used to be bestowed only on accomplished professionals. There were ballerinas and prima ballerinas. The top of the line was a prima ballerina assoluta.

Q. Why do ballerinas wear their hair pulled up in a bun?

A. We learn a technique called spotting that involves whipping the head around to avoid getting dizzy doing turns. Loose hair and even ponytails can make spotting difficult. In addition, a slicked back do allows the line of the neck, upper body, and back to be seen to best advantage. Also, we sweat a lot! An insider’s note: We affectionately dub young ballet students “bunheads” because they typically wear little chignons festooned with flowers, but grown-up dancers tend to eschew the not-a-hair-out-of-place look for class. They show up instead with hastily assembled French twists or clipped up braids and save the perfect bun for the stage. However, some ballets call for hair to be unbound, most notably the mad scene in “Giselle” and sections of Balanchine’s “Serenade” and “Walpurgisnacht.”

Q. Besides the hairstyle, are there any other rules about dress and appearance for ballet dancers?

A. When we dance, we wear no jewelry except pierced earrings. Anything else, including a watch, might fall off and cause a slipping hazard. We also don’t wear nail polish because it picks up and reflects stage lights. In the summer, we avoid getting a tan because we don’t want strap marks to show when we’re in camisole leotards or tutus. Of course we watch our weight but eating disorders are not as common these days as they once were. The top professional schools have nutritionists and psychologists on staff to counsel students.

Q. What’s the correct way to wish a ballet dancer good luck for a performance?

A. Say “Merde!” It’s the French word for s**t. In France, saying “bonne chance” is thought to bring bad luck instead of good. We give one another “merde presents” for premieres and opening nights. I have shelf full of swan figurines, Nutcrackers, and various other mementos that bring back a flood of happy recollections about performances past.

Sondra Forsyth, Co-Editor-in-Chief at ThirdAge, is a National Magazine Award winner. She writes for major magazines and is the author or co-author of eleven books. She was Executive Editor at “Ladies’ Home Journal,” Features Editor at “Cosmopolitan,” and Articles Editor at “Bride’s.” A former ballerina, she is the Founder of Ballet Ambassadors, an arts-in-education company in New York City from 2001 to2014.

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