Dance Dictionary

12:05 PM

Brush up on your dance lingo with engaging glossaries of dance and anatomy terms.  Don't forget to explore terrific links and references!

I. Dance Technique

Adage: (French) In ballet, a slow section of a pas de deux or an exercise in a dance class focussing on slow, controlled movements that highlight balance and extension, and require strength and poise.

Adagio: (Italian, "slowly") The part of a dance class where exercises for balance and sustained movement are performed; a musical composition performed at a slow tempo.

Alignment: Creating harmony with the body so that unbroken lines are formed with the arms and legs without displacement of the torso.

Allegro: (Italian) The part of a dance class, divided into petit ("small") and grand ("large") allegro, where exercises for jumps, turns and travelling are performed; a musical composition performed at a brisk and lively tempo.

Arabesque: (French) In ballet, a pose held on one leg with the other leg and both arms extended away and up from the centre of the body; also, positioning of the arms in relation to the legs. As with positions of the feet, each position is distinguished by a number, such as first, second and third arabesque.

Ballon: (French, "balloon") The ability to sustain jumps or movements in the air; the appearance of weightlessness.

Ballet techniques: There are several different ballet techniques or methods, where students learn a set syllabus according to their level and complete yearly exams. The three most common ballet techniques in Canada are Cecchetti, Russian or Vaganova, and Royal Academy of Dance (RAD).
  • The Cecchetti technique was developed by the Cecchetti Society from the teachings of the great Italian ballet master Enrico Cecchetti.

  • The Russian or Vaganova technique is named after and derived from the teachings of Agrippina Vaganova, who was the artistic director of the Kirov Ballet for many years. The Vaganova method forms the core of the program at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and at the National Ballet School.

  • The RAD technique was developed in Great Britain and is the most common ballet technique taught in community dance schools across Canada.
In each technique, names for certain steps and positions of the body are not always the same. For example, the arm position known as "fifth en bas" in Cecchetti is known as "preparatory" in Vaganova and as "bras bas" in RAD.

Barre: (French, "bar") A horizontal pole, either attached to the wall or freestanding, to support dancers while stretching, warming up or doing exercises "at the barre". Barre exercises like pliésbattements and ronds de jambe form the first part of a traditional ballet class and are the basis for all technique.

Barrel jump: A turning jump in the air where the body is parallel with or horizontal to the floor.

Battement: (French) In ballet, the "beating" of either a stretched or flexed leg.
  • battement tendu is an extension of the working leg away from the supporting leg, stretching from first or fifth position along the floor until reaching pointe tendu (when the toes are fully pointed) on the floor.

  • battement dégagé (also known as a battement glissé or a battement tendu jeté ) begins and ends the same as a battement tendu except that it leaves the floor to a height of 15 cm after reaching pointe tendu.

  • In a battement fondu (from fondre, "to melt") both the working and supporting legs bend smoothly as the toe of the working leg touches the supporting leg (either just above the ankle or mid-point on the front, side or back of the shin/calf), then both stretch as the working leg is extended to pointe tendu à terre ("on the ground") or en l'air ("in the air").

  • Like a battement fondu, in a battement frappé (from frapper, "to hit" or "to strike") the working leg bends as it is drawn toward the supporting leg. However, in a battement frappé, the foot flexes when it touches the supporting leg (just above the ankle or mid-point on the front, side or back of the shin/calf), then strikes the floor with the ball of the foot as the working leg is extended to pointe tendu à terre ("on the ground") or en l'air ("in the air").

  • petit battement is a small, accented "beat" of the working leg with the knee bent and the foot flexed or pointed, either against, or in front and behind, the supporting leg.

  • grand battement begins and ends the same as a battement tendu except that it leaves the floor to a height of 90° (a right angle made by the working and supporting legs) or greater after reaching pointe tendu.
All battements may be performed en croix ("in a cross"), which means en avant (in front of the body), à la seconde (to the side of the body) and derrière (to the back). They can also be done en plié (with the supporting leg bent) or en relevé (with the heel of the supporting leg raised off the floor).

Centre work: Exercises performed away from the barre in the centre of the studio. Centre work includes adage and allegro exercises.

Corps de ballet: (French, "body of the ballet") In ballet, performers who do not have lead roles and perform during group scenes or action. In narrative ballets, members of the corps de ballet will perform roles such as peasants, wedding guests and swans.

Contraction: A hollowing and tightening of the muscles in the core of the body.

Danse d'école: (French) A dancing school.

Enchaînement: (French) A "chain" or linked sequence of movements.

Extension: Stretching or elongating the limbs or torso.

Footwork: Isolated and often complex movements of the feet as in flamenco, step dancing or bharata natyam.

Improvisation: Movements that are created spontaneously by the dancer with or without specific direction, either individually or with other dancers. Contact improvisation is a form of instantaneous composition based on immediate response to body contact between dancers. Steve Paxton is the inventor of contact improv.

Inversion: A movement that places the body upside down.

Isolation: A focussed movement of only one part of the body at a time.

Pas de deux: (French) In ballet, a sequence or dance for two dancers.

Pirouette: (French) In ballet, a spin or turn of the body performed on one leg. Pirouettes may be performed en dehors (turning away from the supporting leg) or en dedans (turning toward the supporting leg).

Plié: (French; from plier, "to fold" or "to bend") In ballet, a bending of the knees. This can be done either in demi-plié ("half-plié"), where the heels remain on the floor, or in grand plié (large or full plié), where, except in second position of the feet, the heels leave the floor at the deepest point of the bend.

Port de bras: (French, "carriage of the arms") In ballet, arm movements around the body.

Positions of the feet: In ballet, there are five basic positions of the feet, all with the feet turned out:
  • In first position, with the heels touching, both feet are turned outwards and in line.

  • In second position, the feet remain turned outwards and in line but the heels are separated, with equal weight on both feet.

  • In third position, one foot overlaps in front of the other so that the heel of the front foot rests against the anklebone of the back foot.

  • In fourth position, one foot is still in front of the other but the feet are separated, with equal weight on both feet. In an open fourth position, the heels stay in line. In a closed fourth position, the heels overlap.

  • In fifth position, the feet are turned outwards and overlap so that the feet come together toe to heel and heel to toe.
In contemporary dance, the feet may be in parallel (i.e. not turned out) in first, second and fourth positions, and, sometimes, in fifth position.

Rond de jambe: (French) In ballet, a movement that goes "round the leg". A rond de jambe may be performed in two ways:
  • À terre ("on the ground"), where the pointed toe of a stretched working leg traces a circular pattern en dehors (from the front of the body to the back), or en dedans (from back to front), passing each time through first position of the feet.

  • En l'air ("in the air"), either petit, with the working leg raised just a few centimetres from the ground, or grand, where it is raised to 90°. A rond de jambe en l'air may also be performed as an isolated movement with the working leg raised à la seconde (to the side) and the knee bending and straightening as the toe describes quick circular patterns in the air without moving the thigh.
Sauté: (French) In ballet, a "jump".

Spiral: A twisting movement of the torso around the central axis of the spine.

Spotting: Maintaining a focal point while turning to prevent becoming disoriented in space.

Structured improvisation: Ideas or instructions given to guide improvised movements.

Tilt: In modern dance, a movement like an arabesque except that the trunk leans away from the extended leg toward the floor.

Tour en l'air: (French) A "turn in the air".

Turnout: A way of standing and using the legs that is initiated in the pelvis, where both sides of the body rotate outwards from the hips, away from the spine.

Warm-up: Movements and stretching performed before or at the beginning of a class or performance to prepare the body for more demanding movements and to prevent injury.

Warm-down: Movements and stretching performed after or at the end of a class or performance to release tension from the body and to prevent injury.

II. Theatre Terms

Auditorium: The part or area of the theatre where the audience sits to watch a show.

BackdropA piece of material hung at the back of the stage, often painted with scenes.

Backstage: The area that is off the stage, including wingsdressing rooms, control booths and green room.

Blocking: Placement of the performers on stage in relation to the action, to the sets and to each other for optimum sight lines.

Call a cue or a show: Instructions given to performers and crew members by the stage manager during a performance.

Catwalk: In a theatre, a bridge above the stage where lights, ropes and cables are secured. [See Flies or fly gallery.]

Cue: For dancers, a signal, whether verbal, visual or musical, that prompts them to move; in lighting, a specific combination of light position, colour and intensity; also, an instruction given by the stage manager.

Curtain call: When the curtains are opened ("called") after a performance and performers take their bows.

Curtain fall: Either the end of a performance or the end of a series of performances.

CycloramaA suspended backdrop at the rear of the stage onto which lights are projected.

Crew: A group of technical people who work backstage during a performance.

Dressing room: A room backstage where performers prepare their costumes, hair and make-up before, during and after performances.

Dress rehearsal: The last rehearsal of a completed dance in costume with all lights and sets prior to the première.

Drop: A flat piece of fabric hung from the fly gallery.

Flat: A flat piece of scenery consisting of a wooden or steel frame covered with wooden panelling or canvas.

Flies or fly gallery: The space over the stage and out of view of the audience used to store scenery.

Fly: To suspend sets, lights or props above the stage floor.

Front of house: The entrance, lobby and seating area of a theatre.

Green room: A quiet room backstage where performers can relax between performances and greet members of the public.

House: An abbreviation of front of house ; also used to refer to the audience.

Props: Short for "properties", items or objects positioned on stage or carried by performers.

PlotA diagram or schematic drawing of lighting positions and intensities.

Proscenium archThe arch that forms a frame at the front of a stage.

Rig: To secure or hang lights or sets to cables on bars suspended above the stage in the fly gallery.

Run-through: A rehearsal of a completed work without interruption.

Scenic design: The creation of theatrical scenery, also known as stage or set design.

Scenography: The practice of designing and making scenic elements such as sets, props, costumes and scenery.

Sight lines: Unobstructed lines of vision so that all stage elements are visible from the audience.

Traps: A part of the stage floor that can open and close, allowing performers or objects to appear or disappear from the stage.

Venue: A theatre or performance space.

Wings: Drops or flats at the side of the stage positioned to form corridors to facilitate entrances and exits to and from the stage. Wings also prevent offstage performers and crew from being seen by the audience.

III. Stage Directions

Centre stage: The central or middle area of the stage.

Downstage: When facing the audience, the area closest to the audience.

Upstage: When facing the audience, the area farthest away from the audience.

Stage right: When facing the audience, the area of the stage to the right of centre.

Stage left: When facing the audience, the area of the stage to the left of centre.

Backdrop / Cyclorama:

Upstage Right

Upstage Centre

Upstage Left


Stage Right

Centre Stage

Stage Left


Downstage Right

Downstage Centre

Downstage Left

<----------------------------- b="">Proscenium Arch


IV. Eras and 'Isms'

Bauhaus: An approach to design developed and taught at the Staatliches Bauhaus, an art and architecture school in Germany that operated from 1919 to 1933. The Bauhaus aimed to unify art, craft and technology. It had a major impact on art, furniture design and architecture trends worldwide as many of its key figures, such as Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer and Mies van der Rohe, fled or were exiled by the Nazi regime. Choreographer Oskar Schlemmer, who joined the faculty of the Bauhaus school in 1921, was known for his Bauhaus style of movement called "architectonic dances".

Classical ballet: A traditional style of ballet that stresses established academic technique; ballet that follows 19th-century style and structure. The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake are examples of classical ballets.

Classics: Pieces of music or choreography created in the past that represent a historical period and/or that influence present styles.

Cubism: First coined by a French art critic in 1908 to describe an avant-garde art movement that revolutionized European painting and sculpture in the early 20th century. In cubist artworks, the subjects are broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form so that several different aspects, or faces, are seen simultaneously. The first artists to be identified as cubists were Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. Cubism gave rise to the development of new trends in art such as futurism, constructivism and expressionism. The work of Léonide Massine, a dancer and later a choreographer with Les Ballets Russes, was influenced by the cubist movement.

Czarist Russia: Also known as Imperial Russia, a period of Russian history from the expansion of the Russian Empire under Peter the Great to the end of the reign of the last tsar, Nicholas II, who was assasinated at the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Dancers such as Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky and Bronislava Nijinska first came to world attention during this time period.

Expressionism: The tendency to distort reality for emotional effect or to convey emotional angst. Expressionism is exhibited in many art forms, including painting, literature, film, music and dance. The term was coined by Czech art historian Antonín Matejcek in 1910 as the opposite of impressionism. Some of the movement's leading painters were Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele. The novels of Franz Kafka are often described as expressionist, as is a movement in early 20th-century German theatre centred around Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller. In music, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern wrote pieces described as expressionist. Mary Wigman, one of the leading proponents of German modern dance, also created expressionist works. [ Read more. ]

Gesamtkunstwerk: (German, "synthesis of the arts") Total artwork in which the different arts are united into a harmonious whole so that no single discipline dominates.

Modernism: In a cultural historical sense, the new artistic and literary styles that emerged in the decades before the First World War began in 1914. In this period, artists rebelled against the traditional norms of the late Victorian era to focus on issues of progress, innovation and the rejection of tradition. The lines between high art and popular culture blurred as products of consumer culture became cultural icons and gave rise to new trends in art and design. Dance artists such as Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky and Bronislava Nijinska embraced the modernist aesthetic, moving away from the traditions and restrictions of Imperialist ballet in their native Russia.

Nineteenth century: The period from 1801 to 1900; also referred to as the 1800s. The Industrial Revolution which had its roots in the preceding century continued to expand, and inventions such as the telephone, photography, the steam engine and the automobile were major landmarks. Carlo Blasis, Fanny Elssler, Filippo Taglioni, Marie Taglioni and Marius Petipa were all significant dance innovators of the 19th century during the classical and romantic eras of ballet.

Post-modernism: Applied to a wide-ranging set of developments in critical theory, philosophy, architecture, art, literature and culture that are generally characterized as either emerging from or commenting on modernism. Post-modernism was first identified as a theoretical discipline in the 1980s. In general, post-modernism distrusts claims about truth, ethics and beauty - the so-called "grand narratives".

In dance, post-modernism was a reaction to the first wave of modern dance. It typically features deconstruction of narrative and a cross-disciplinary approach to creation and performance. Post-modern choreographers include Trisha Brown, Meredith Monk, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, William Forsythe and Paul-André Fortier.

Romantic Ballet: The romantic era of ballet lasted from the early to mid-19 th century and is often referred to as ballet's "golden age". The advent of the romantic era in dance can be traced to a performance by Marie Taglioni in the opera Robert le Diable in 1831. Taglioni is said to have appeared weightless and otherworldly on stage. The next year, her father Filippo Taglioni choreographed La Sylphide for his daughter and the romantic ballet was born. The image of women in ballet as ethereal and untouchable, the idea of impossible love, the tension between everyday reality and the supernatural became signature motifs. The use of gauzy white skirts and pointe shoes heightened the illusion of ethereality. Other great ballerinas of the time are Fanny Elssler and Carlotta Grisi.

Romanticism: An artistic and intellectual movement that originated in the late 18th century and stressed strong emotion and the power of the individual imagination.

Twentieth century: Lasting from 1901 to 2000, the 20th century saw a remarkable shift in the way that vast numbers of people lived. The advent of television, birth control, space travel, cellular phones and the Internet came as the result of major technological, medical, social, ideological and political advances. Mass media and telecommunications heralded the spread of American culture across the globe, and through this new connectedness created the image of a "global village". The 20th century saw the rise of both modern and post-modern dance, the proliferation of ballet throughout the world and the recognition of world dance as equal to western classical forms.

V. General Dance and Arts Vocabulary

Aesthetic: Qualities that are considered both beautiful and highly prized; also, a set of principles underlying a work of art.

Agility: The quality or state of being agile, supple and fast moving.

Amateur: A dancer who has not yet reached a professional level of dance expertise or experience, and who may dance for personal enjoyment rather than as a career; also, a dancer who is not paid for his or her work.

Arts council: An impartial funding body that specializes in financial support for the arts. In Canada, there are national, provincial and municipal arts councils.

Artist-in-residence: A respected artist who is employed to create for a particular dance company, theatre or institution.

Arts patron: A person who "patronizes" the arts by making monetary donations, volunteering their time, buying tickets and/or advocating for the art form.

Canon: The same or similar movement performed by dancers one after another.

Cast: All of the performers in a production.

Character dance: National, world or traditional dances, often derived from European folk dances.

Character role: In dance, a performing role that requires strong acting skills in addition to dancing.

Character shoe: A special leather shoe or boot with a heel, worn when performing national or world dances.

Charter member: A founding or original member of an organization.

Choreography: Movement and shaping of the body in space as designed by the choreographer.

Chorus: Performers who do not have lead roles and perform during group scenes or action.

Collaboration: When two or more artists work together in a creative process.

Collective: A group of artists with common artistic goals who choose to create work together.

Company: A group of artists who, with the support of technical and administrative staff and operational funding, create work on a seasonal basis.

Concerto: A piece of music written for orchestra and soloist (e.g. orchestra and violin).

Contract: A binding, legal agreement between two parties that specifies conditions of employment.

Counterpoint: Phrasing of movement in opposition to a rhythm.

Finale: (Italian, "final") The closing sequence or scene in a performance; may include the entire cast performing with high energy or emotion as in a grand finale.

Impresario: (Italian) A person who is responsible for securing finances, making programming decisions, and assembling cast and crew for a public entertainment. For example, Serge Diaghilev was the impresario of his company, Les Ballets Russes. The role is similar to that of a producer.

Independent dance artist: A dancer who is not employed on a regular basis by a company but works from project to project.

Installation: Visual art that is created for a specific gallery space or outdoor site, comprised of individual works intended to be viewed as a whole.

Interpretation: The way an artist chooses to interpret or perform choreography from his or her own unique perspective.

Kinesphere: The three-dimensional space in which all movement of the body takes place.

Kinetic awareness: Sensory perception of the body in motion.

Lyricism: The capacity to dance in a lyrical manner with emotional intensity.

Marley: A type of smooth, slip-resistant, synthetic flooring designed especially for dancing.

Matinée: (French) A performance during the day, usually in the afternoon.

Mixed-ability dance: The inclusion of dancers with disabilities.

Moderato: (Italian) A musical composition performed at a medium or "moderate" tempo.

Modern dance: Developed in the early 20th century, and usually referring to concert dance in the West. Rebelling against classical ballet technique and hierarchy, and structured costumes and shoes, early modern dance pioneers began to practice "free dance". In America, Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis developed their own styles of free dance, paving the way for American modern dance pioneers Martha Graham, José Limón and Doris Humphrey. In Europe, Rudolf von Laban, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and François Delsarte developed theories of human movement and methods of instruction that led to the development of European modern and expressionist dance.

Motif: A recurring image or thematic element.

Muse: A person who inspires an artist to create.

Musicality: The ability to effectively express the tempo and melodic qualities of music with the body.

Musique concrète: (French) Music made up of "concrete", real-world sounds that are recorded and then manipulated electronically.

Negative space: The space surrounding a body or between multiple bodies that is not occupied.

Notation: A written method for documenting and recording movement; also referred to as choreology. Examples include Labanotation (developed by the students of Rudolf von Laban ) and Benesh notation (developed by Rudolf Benesh).

Pedagogy: The strategies, methods and philosophies applied to teaching.

Performing arts: Art that is performed such as dance, theatre, music and opera.

Phrase: A short series of linked movements or a short passage of music.

Plot: A story or pattern of events that make up a narrative; also, a diagram or schematic drawing of lighting positions and intensities.

Pointe shoe: In ballet, a special shoe with a reinforced toe that allows the dancer to perform on the tips of the toes.

Positive space: The space that a body uses or occupies.

Powwow: A meeting or gathering of North American First Nations that may include dancing and singing.

Première: (French, "first") The very first public performance of a piece of choreography; also, "opening night".

Production: All of the elements involved in a performance, or relating specifically to technical or behind-the-scenes aspects.

Professional: A person who is paid for his or her work and who has completed pre-professional training; the opposite of amateur.

Protégé: (French, "protected") A younger artist who has been trained or mentored by a senior artist.

Rank of étoile: (French, "star") Common in Francophone ballet, a dancer (such as Sylvie Guillem ) who has reached the height of his or her career and fame. Étoile is equivalent to the rank of prima ballerina or danseur noble.

Refus Global: A collective manifesto published in 1948 by Québécois painter Paul-Émile Borduas, founder of the automatiste movement.

Repertoire: The collection of choreographic works that an individual artist or dance company may perform.

Restaging: A new interpretation of an existing choreographic work.

Retrograde: Moving in a direction that is opposite to that of similar bodies.

Score: The piece or pieces of music selected for a particular choreography ; the range of physical movements provided for analysis in Labanotation; also, the instructions provided for improvisation.

Set design: The design of theatrical scenery or sets, also known as stage or scenic design.

Signature work: A work that defines a dancer's or a choreographer's style.

Site-specific work: A work created and performed in a non-traditional setting.

Sprung floor: A specially designed floor that has a quality of resilience. A sprung floor is valuable for dancers as it absorbs some of the strain placed on their bodies during jumps and other movement.

Stage fright: Anxiety or nervousness before or during a performance that may impair a dancer's ability to perform.

Stagecraft: The practice of making or staging a production, involving the creation of sets, props, lights and costumes; the placement of scenic elements, including performers; the timing of action; and the appropriate use of stage conventions.

Step: A movement of the body that involves a transfer of weight.

Strike: Taking down and removing sets, props, lights, etc. after a performance has ended.

Suite: A series of pieces of music with a common theme or motif.

Symphony: A long musical score for orchestra divided into three to five movements or sections.

Tableau: (French) A "picture" created by a group of dancers in stillness.

Taiko: (Japanese) A "big drum".

Technical virtuosity: A dancer's ability to perform complex movements with clarity, ease and zeal.

Technique: The correct means of executing a movement; also, a particular variety or sub-genre of a dance form (e.g. Graham technique is a sub-genre of modern dance).

Theatrical dance: Dance where the primary purpose is presentation before an audience.

Transposition: The act of changing the key of a musical composition.

Troupe: A group of performers, especially one that tours.

Tutu: In ballet, a skirt made of multiple layers of a light, stiff fabric called tulle. A romantic tutu falls between the knee and the ankle, while the classical tutu is much shorter, fanning away from the dancer's body at hip level.

Visual art: Drawing, painting, sculpture and photography.

VI. Additional Reference Material

For more ballet terminology, American Ballet Theatre's online dictionary offers English definitions of ballet technique:

The following reference books are also recommended:

Dictionary of Classical Ballet Terminology by Rhonda Ryman, published by the Royal Academy of Dancing, 1998. Note: provides equivalent terms in Cecchetti and Vaganova techniques.

Dictionary of Dance: Words, Terms and Phrases edited by Susan Macpherson, published by Dance Collection Danse Press/es, 1996.

International Dictionary of Modern Dance edited by Taryn Benbow-Pfalzgraf and Glynis Benbow-Niemier, published by St. James Press, 1998.

International Encyclopedia of Dance, founding editor Selma Jeanne Cohen, published by Oxford University Press, 1998.

Oxford Dictionary of Dance by Debra Craine and Judith Mackrell, published by Oxford University Press, 2000

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