Lesson #5: The Language of Dance

Though I have never been inclined toward dance*, in honour of tonight’s season finale (go Jakob!) of my very favourite reality competition show, ‘So You Think You Can Dance’, a little bit of dance.

Autobiographical side note: I know very, very little about dance. Oddly, I know the five foot positions, which is the result of having had a(n informal) dancer for a roommate my senior year of college. She used to do ballet in the living room. To Aerosmith. No lie.** What I know about dance terminology can mostly be taken from six seasons of ‘So You Think You Can Dance’.

What I know about formal dance terms: Unless they’re ballroom terms, they’re in French.

Why dance terms are French (the short answer): Blame ballet.

Why dance terms are French (the longer answer): Ballet as we know it was derived from the 15th century Italian renaissance court dancing and was formalized, as it were, in the courts of 16th and 17th century France. However, it was not until later in the 17th century that it became the a true performance art. Before his rule, the standard of art and dance had been declining, but an avid lover of dance and dancer himself, Louis XIV established the Academie Royale de Danse (which evolved into what is now the Paris Opera Ballet) in 1661. The establishment of a company of professional dancers allowed for the quality and standards of dance to rise and ballet as a performance art was eventually perfected by the Russians in the late 19th, and 20th centuries. However, because of its roots in French courts, the language of it has remained unchanged, which is why, even in contemporary dance, the terms are all in French.***

Two quick parting notes: 1. A piece of common knowledge in the music and dance worlds that I had, until recently, mistakenly assumed was common knowledge period…waltzes are always in 3/4 time. 2. Even the word dancers use to wish each other good luck is French. While actors say “break a leg”, dancers say “merde.”****

*Dear Mom and Dad, thanks for the non-existent flexibility that made me an utter failure at gymnastics!

**It was pretty awesome!

***A nice list of ballet terms can be found here. More information about the history of ballet can be found here (the extensive version) and here (for you lazy/time crunched folks who want the short version).

****A piece of information I picked up working as a stage hand/dresser for a ballet company in Texas a few years ago.

4 thoughts on “Lesson #5: The Language of Dance

  1. Corinna says:

    Thanks for the ballet entry (even though I knew most of it already ;-). You know that dancers usually don’t say merde to wish each other good luck, right? It’s usually cause we ran our tights or ran out of rosin right before we’re supposed to hit the stage.

  2. Nadgob Ekim says:

    I am not a student of French, so please forgive my ignorance. But, doesn’t Merde translate to “shit”? Or is that a similar word? And if so, why would one tell another person to shit prior to going on to perform?

    • disquisitive says:

      It does, in fact, translate to shit. The way I heard it from the dancers I worked with was that it has something to do with when they used live horses in performances way back when and warning each other about where the horse had done their thing onstage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s