Ballet Basics: All of the Positions + Movements You Need to Know

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Signing up for your first ballet class might feel like learning a foreign language—and that’s because it basically is! Not only is there a lot of new terminology to wrap your head (and feet) around, but most of it is in French. (The art form began in Italy, but it was formalized in France during the 17th century.) Don’t get overwhelmed. Here, we break down all the terminology, stances, and movements you’ll need to get a literal leg up.

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Ballet positions

There are five basic positions in ballet, all of which include both the feet and the arms. Nearly all steps either start or end here. Unless instructed, legs should be straight and turned outward (knees and toes spiraling away from the body’s center line) with weight evenly distributed on both legs.

First position: Dancer places heels together with toes turned outwards, forming a wide V position (or, ideally, perfectly horizontal). Arms are in a round O shape in front of the dancer’s breastbone.

Second position: Picture this as an “open” first position. Dancer places feet about hip distance apart with the toes turned out and heels aligned, though not touching each other. Arms are slightly rounded but outstretched to the sides, with hands a bit lower than shoulder height.

Third position: Dancer puts one foot in front of the other, with the heel of the front foot touching the arch of the back foot. The same arm as the front foot is rounded in front, like in first position. The other arm extends to the side, as in second position.

Fourth position: Dancer steps one foot forward, about a foot’s length. The front heel should be aligned with the toes of the back foot. The same arm as the front foot is rounded overhead, like in fifth position (see next). The other arm is rounded in front of the breastbone, like in first position.

Fifth position: Dancer puts one foot in front of the other, with the heel of the front foot touching the big toe of the back foot. Both arms are rounded overhead in a tall O shape.

Ballet alignment positions

Ballet shoes

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In ballet, there are eight alignment positions of the body from which all steps are executed. They include the feet, torso, and the positioning of your upper body, neck, and head (the “épaulement”). 

Imagine yourself in a small box onstage facing the audience. Corners 1 and 2 of the box are in front of you. Recall that “downstage” means closer to the audience and “upstage” means away from the audience.

Croisé devant (“crossed to the front”): Dancer faces corner 1 or 2. The downstage leg is pointed forward. The opposite arm is rounded overhead while the downstage arm is sloped slightly to the side. The body and head are slightly inclined toward the low arm.

Quatrième devant (“fourth to the front”): Dancer faces front with one foot pointed forward. Arms are in second position. Head faces the audience.

Effacé (“shaded”): Dancer faces corner 1 or 2. The upstage leg is pointed forward. Downstage arm is rounded overhead while the upstage arm is in second position. Body leans back from the waist and the head inclines toward the higher arm.

À la seconde en face (“to the side/second”): Dancer faces front with one leg pointed to the side. Arms are in second position. Head faces the audience.

Croisé derrière (“crossed to the back”): Dancer faces corner 1 or 2. The upstage leg is pointed backward. The downstage arm is rounded overhead while the upstage arm is sloped to the side. The body and head are slightly inclined under the high arm.

Ecarté (“separated/thrown wide apart”): Dancer faces corner 1 or 2. The downstage leg is pointed in second position. The same arm is rounded overhead while the upstage arm is sloped to the side. The head is raised and looking toward the high arm.

Epaulé (“shouldered”): Dancer faces corner 1 or 2. The downstage leg is pointed to the back. The same arm is outstretched forward on an angle with fingers at eye level. The opposing arm is reaching back and down, turning the torso to show the dancer’s back. The head inclines toward the audience.

Quatrième derrière (“fourth to the back”): Dancer faces front with one leg pointed to the back. Arms are in second position. Head faces the audience.

Ballet movements

Ballet isn’t all positions—it’s also movement. Here are some additional terms to help you feel comfortable and confident. These are just a handful of terms from the language of dance. The more you learn, the quicker you’ll become “fluent.”

Assemblé: Dancer leaps from one foot and lands on two feet, in fifth position.

Plié: Dancer bends both knees evenly. In a demi-plié, you half-bend the knees and both heels remain on the floor. In a grand plié, the heels rise to allow for a deeper bend of the knees.

Fondu: Dancer pliés on one leg while the other is working (which means it’s lifting, bending, or extending as part of the dance).

Grand battement: Dancer kicks one leg forward, sideways, or backward from the hip, floating the leg down to close in fifth position.

Pirouette: Dancer turns the body in a complete circle (or many) while standing on one foot. Dancer can turn inward (“en dehors”) or outward (“en dedans”).

Relevé: Dancer transitions from demi-plié to demi-pointe (on the balls of your feet) or full pointe (on your toes) on one foot or both.

Sauté: Dancer executes a jump of any kind.

Tendu: Dancer extends one leg with a pointed foot on the floor to the front, side, or back.

Now you’re ready to take your place at the barre. But remember: Mastering all of this (and more!) will take time. Pay attention to the teacher’s demonstration, watch your peers, and feel free to ask questions if you become confused. Give yourself some grace—everyone started as a beginner!