Through years of teaching dance at various studios across the country, I’ve noticed several not-so-good, but oh-so-common deficiencies in ballet training. Sometimes, they are things that are actually taught wrong, and sometimes, they are things that would elevate the training so much further if the teacher would just take a few minutes in each class to add this into the repertoire. Here are three simple, but major tips that will elevate our ballet classes from amateur to professional: 1) Understand when to use retiré vs. passé, 2) Why use the term relevé instead of elevé in ballet, and 3) Why teachers should regularly introduce students to ballet terms in their written form in ballet class.
Many teachers use passé as a blanket term, when often the correct ballet term to use is actually retiré. So here’s the difference between the two terms, and when each should be used in ballet. Think of a passé as actually passing through. It begins in one position, through retiré position, to another position. For example, from fifth position, the working leg slides up the standing leg to retiré position devant (in front of the knee), slides in a mini arc above the standing knee, to retiré derriere, and then down the back of the leg to finish in fifth position in the back.
Retiré can be a position, or an action. In the retiré position, the working thigh is lifted to 90 degrees a la seconde (in Lehman’s terms, that is to the side), with a bent knee, and the toes are extended to touch the front of the supporting knee. The retiré action, means to draw up the working leg to the retiré position, and return in back down to its original position. Retiré action may also be executed as a petit retiré, in which the dancer begins in first or fifth position, and the thigh of the working leg does not come all the way up to the retiré position at 90 degrees, but rather to cou-de-pied (the “neck of the foot”, with the toe of the working foot above the supporting leg ankle), and returns to its original position in first or fifth.
Elevé is also commonly used, when the term relevé should be used. The French verb elever means “to raise up” or “to lift”, as one can raise a child or lift a chair. However, the ballet term relevé comes from the French reflexive verb “se relever,” meaning to lift oneself. So when referring to rising up on the balls of the feet, the dancer is actually lifting himself/herself, thus the proper ballet term to use is relevé.
When teaching ballet terms, teachers should get students familiar with the terms in their written form. This will help with their proper pronunciation, and help students identify and understand French words, and help them with identifying and learning other ballet steps. For example, take the term “sur le cou-de-pied.” This is a long term. Plus, it’s a foreign language! When a teacher spats this out at an English-speaking student who’s never heard it, it sounds like a big slur. How is the student supposed to remember what to do? For all this student knows, you could be saying “shi lef beekempt”. Huh? But if the teacher writes it out, and explains what each term is, it is not as overwhelming. “Sur” is “on”, “le” is “the”, “cou” is neck”, “de” is “of the”, “pied” is “foot”. Thus the entire term is “on the neck of the foot.” Now it is easier for the student to remember the position that accompanies the phrase. Two other fabulous things happen as well: 1) Now when the student hears the sound “pied” in another position or step, he or she can identify it as having to do with the feet, and 2) The student is learning proper French pronunciation and spelling. Magic! And it just took a few extra minutes of class time.