Ballet Exercises for Beginners
Ballet is one of the most graceful, yet physically challenging, art forms in the world. Each movement requires strength, coordination and control, and only through years of proper training can a student master the complex and difficult steps required in ballet. Once beginners have mastered the basic movements and techniques, they can begin to link these steps together in choreography, creating a beautiful piece of performance art.
The plié, meaning to bend, is one of the most essential movements for a beginning dancer to understand, since most steps in ballet utilize this movement. A plié can be done in several positions of the feet or even on one leg. Start with your feet turned out in first position, meaning the heels are touching and the toes are pointed out to the sides between 60 to 90 degrees. Slowly and with control, bend the knees without lifting the heels off the ground. The knees should be pointed out to the side. Then straighten the legs and return to the starting position.
Plié exercises are generally done at the barre, but can also be done away from the barre to help with strength, posture and balance.
Tendus and Dégagés
Tendu exercises help beginners to understand the pointed position of the foot that is essential in ballet. Start with the feet in first position and slowly brush the foot along to floor in front of you until your foot is in a pointed position. The foot and leg are turned out and the toe is gently resting on the floor with a strong pointed foot. Return to first position by brushing the toes and foot back along the floor. A tendu, meaning to stretch, can be done to the front, side or back.
A dégagé, meaning to disengage, is similar to a tendu but the toe is raised slightly off the floor. The movement is much quicker and stronger than a tendu, but must be very controlled. Dégagés can also be done to the front, side or back.
Tendu and dégagé exercises are usually done with the barre as part of the warm up, but it is also common to see similar exercises done in the center of the room without the barre to help beginners learn balance, control and coordination.
A relevé, meaning to rise, is when the heels are raised off the floor, either with or without a springing action. When first learning this movement, dancers start with their feet in first position and slowly raise the heels off the ground, then with control press back down to first position. This raised position of the feet is referred to as three-quarter pointe. This movement is also learned at the barre and then brought into the center of the room to work on balance and control.
Relevés strengthen the feet and calf muscles, and is used as a preparation for pirouettes (turns) and for pointe work.
A sauté, meaning to jump, is the first jumping exercise a beginning dancer will learn. It's a small jump that starts and finishes on two feet. Begin the movement with a plié. Using the momentum of the plié, push off the ground so the feet are fully pointed underneath you in the air. When landing, finish back with the feet in first position and in a controlled plié position. The jump can be repeated from that plié position. All jumps in ballet land in a plié position.
Jumps are traditionally done as part of the center practice, but many teachers ask students to use the barre when they are first learning sautés to help get the body off the ground with the feet in a pointed and turned out position in the air.
Every class will finish with a révérence, which is a bow or curtsy. This acknowledges the work of the teacher and pianist, and is a sign of respect and thanks. A basic révérence can include a step to the side with the other foot placed behind in a pointed position, then a graceful bow or curtsy. This movement is then repeated to the other side.
Elaine Wiltshire has been working as a journalist since 2006 and is now a freelance writer and editor. She trained in Cecchetti ballet for 20 years and is now a certified yoga instructor specializing in yoga for athletes. Wiltshire is also the publisher of Scrum, Ontario's rugby magazine.