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A Beginner’s Guide to Ballet

Where To Begin

It really is this simple. As simple as it was for you to pick up this booklet, it is just as easy to
enjoy ballet and other interesting dance forms. There are no special methods or tricks that
you need to be taught. There is no in-depth research to be done. The big secret that
dance-lovers are in on, is that there’s no secret at all. The journey is all yours. You just have
to be willing to take the ride.

Dance is the human body moving. In one form or another, dance has been a part of our
history since the world began. Primitive societies used dance to celebrate the planting and
harvesting of their crops. Kings and Queens of the 16th century celebrated royal weddings
with great entertainments that included wonderful displays of dance. The 19th century
brought people to the theatre to
watch dance as a way to escape
their harsh realities for a few hours.
Today a variety of media and
technology utilize the pleasing
aesthetics of moving bodies.
Music videos, commercials and
video games continue to keep
dance a part of our everyday lives.
So why then are we still
apprehensive about going to
dance performances? Artists of the Ballet in The Sleeping Beauty

The biggest stumbling block to the public enjoyment of dance is the fact that people feel
that they don’t understand what is going on. In Paris, 1913, crowds rioted in the streets
after the premiere of Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. This reaction demonstrates
the anger and frustration the audience felt because they did not understand the dance set
before them. Sadly this confusion still exists today. To avoid frustration and
embarrassment many people close themselves off to dance completely. They, therefore,
miss out on the way dance can be pleasurable, provoke thought, enhance creativity and
overall enrich their lives.

You may have heard comments like “I don’t understand it” or “It just doesn’t mean anything
to me”. To the uninitiated, dance is all the same. But now, at the beginning of a new
century, the range of styles, philosophies and techniques is so varied. Canada’s vibrant
dance scene offers a wide variety of viewing options. If you don’t like one choreographer’s
or a particular company’s work, chances are there is another work that you will enjoy.
The key is not to pressure yourself. There is no right or wrong interpretation. Regardless of
whether or not a dance performance meets your particular tastes you are going to get
something out of it. The combination of movement, gesture, set design, music and lighting
all work together to take you on the journey. The adventure begins the moment you sit in
the theatre and the lights begin to dim. As the performance surrounds you, you may feel
excited, relaxed, anxious, distressed, curious or amazed. It’s your experience, and the
interpretation of it is all yours. With each movement your imagination is able to soar to new
and potentially unknown places without fear or trepidation because you are open to the

If you are still not convinced that you can enjoy dance then some practice may be in order.
First try looking at moving bodies you are familiar with. You can safely examine the way a
baseball pitcher throws a curve ball or the way a hockey goalie makes a save. The
movements of many athletes follow organized pathways that elicit emotional responses from
their spectators. Dancers are also athletes who through hard work and discipline move
their bodies in an organized or choreographed way. What you see on stage can be just as
accessible as watching a sporting event, and because there are no rules in dance, there are
countless possibilities for response. Why not set your mind in motion alongside of the

To simplify things further try to keep in mind the following items when watching dance:
Things to look at
> the movement and emotions expressed by the dancer(s)
> the combination of patterns, shapes and dynamics on the stage
> the relationship between the music, the movement and the dancers
> the colours, textures and elements used to enhance the movement
Questions to ask yourself
> How does dance make me feel? Do I recognize any of the gestures or symbols
used by the choreographer?
> Does the dance remind me of other moments or events in my life?
> What can I take away from this experience?
Things to remember
> Expose yourself to dance in a variety of
> There are no right or wrong
interpretations of what you see
> You will get something from it
> Do not pressure yourself - enjoy it

Let your imagination soar.

Guillaume Côté in Cinderella

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Brief History Of The National Ballet Of Canada
With more than 60 dancers and its own orchestra, The National Ballet of Canada ranks as
one of the world’s top international dance companies. It was established as a classical
company and is still the only Canadian company to present a full range of traditional full-
length classics. In addition to its classical repertoire, the company also embraces
contemporary works and encourages the creation of new ballets and the development of
Canadian choreographers. In its 55-year history Canada’s premier company has performed
for over 10 million people.

The National Ballet was created in 1951 when English dancer Celia Franca was asked, by a
group of determined volunteers, to come to Toronto to establish a ballet company for
Canada. Within the year Miss Franca had founded The National Ballet of Canada and the
company presented its first performance at Eaton Auditorium in Toronto on November 12,

The premiere performance by the National Ballet included Les Sylphides and the
Polovetsian Dances from Prince Igor. This young company featured Principal Dancers Celia
Franca, Irene Apiné, Lois Smith, David Adams and Jury Gotshalks in its early repertoire with
George Crum as their Music Director.
Celia Franca
With its first rehearsal studios in historic St. Lawrence Hall the company continued to grow
and flourish under Miss Franca’s direction. New repertoire, guest artists, television
appearances and extensive touring gave the company international recognition.

In 1964 the National Ballet moved to the newly opened O’Keefe Centre (now the
Hummingbird Centre). In 2006 the company began a new era in the magnificent Four
Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The company has toured extensively across
Canada, the United States and throughout the world including performances in Germany,
The Netherlands, Israel, Hong Kong, Japan, Italy and Mexico.

Karen Kain, C.C., Artistic Director

An international dance artist of the first rank, an ambassador for her art form and her
country’s cultural presence, Karen Kain has, for over three decades, personified and distilled
the essence of classical ballet for audiences in Canada and abroad. Born in Hamilton,
Ontario, Ms. Kain joined The National Ballet of Canada in 1969 and was promoted to
Principal Dancer in 1971 following her debut as the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. She
subsequently embarked on an extraordinary international career that saw her dance many
of ballet’s greatest roles with some of the foremost dance companies in the world and work
with some of contemporary ballet’s most important choreographers. Upon her retirement
from the stage in 1997, she assumed the role of Artist in Residence, and then Artistic
Associate, with the National Ballet. She was named the company’s Artistic Director in 2005.
Karen Kain

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Some Of The Things You May See In A Ballet Class Or

Just as you have to learn your ABC’s in order to read and write, dancers have to
learn the basic exercises and positions of ballet in order to perform choreography on the
stage. They practice these exercises every day in order to keep their bodies limber and in
top performing shape.
The language of ballet is French. The terminology was originally developed in the
court of Louis XIV during the 17th century. Today, wherever in the world a ballet class is
given, the names of the steps are given to students in their original French.

half-pointe to a full extension. While

Barre exercises
executing numerous variations of tendu
All dancers begin their day with class exercises, the dancer is continually
where they warm up and perfect working on the proper turn-out of the legs
technical exercises. They start with and feet.
approximately thirty minutes of barre
exercises. The barre – a horizontal rail
fixed to the wall of a dance studio or free- Dégagés are the same brushing
standing on two parallel bars – is used as movement as tendus, but in dégagés the
a balance-check. All ballet exercises working leg leaves the floor slightly when
begin and end with one of the five basic extended.
positions of the feet. There are also
Rond de jambe
complementary arm positions. The
positions are executed with the legs and This exercise increases the turn-out of
Artists of the Ballet in Ballet Class
feet turned out from the hip socket. They the legs. The toe traces a semi-circle on
allow for greater flexibility, range of the floor around the body. The working
movement and also for a beautiful and leg moves steadily with the toe on the
long line of the body. ground from the front to side, side to
back and then past the stationary heel.
Pliés at the barre are the introductory
exercises of any ballet class. These are Frappés prepare the legs for jumping.
essentially knee bends that warm up the The raised foot touches the other ankle
legs and ankles and improve elasticity. and from the knee down, the leg is
They assist the dancer in turns, pointe thrown strongly out to the side.
work and landing jumps. Petit battement
This exercise prepares the legs for more
complicated and intricate steps. The heel
Tendus are leg and foot stretches that of one foot touches the other ankle. The
help elongate and strengthen the lower part of the leg moves out and in
muscles of the legs and torso. They are very quickly. This is made more difficult
executed to the front, side and back with when the dancer rises on the supporting
the foot brushing along the floor through leg.

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Grand battement legs are fully stretched and the feet are
pointed, creating a sharpness and length.
Free, high kicks of the leg are called
Jumps begin and end with a plié. The plié
grand battements. The leg is thrown in
serves many purposes, most importantly,
the air and then brought down to a tendu
it prevents injury and allows for height in
position with great control and with as
the jump.
little movement as possible in the upper
body. These exercises loosen the hip Stretching
joints and keep the legs flexible.
Dancers must be extremely flexible to
Arabesque execute many of the difficult movements
without hurting themselves. To increase
At the end of the barre exercises,
and maintain their flexibility, dancers
dancers test their balance by letting go of
stretch their muscles every day, during
the barre and rising on their toes. One of
class and between rehearsals.
the most common positions for dancers
to test their balance is the arabesque. In Pirouette
an arabesque, one leg is stretched
Pirouette is the name given to the many
behind the body. The leg can be on the
kinds of turning steps in ballet. To
ground or in the air at a 90-degree angle
execute proper turns, a dancer must
or higher. The weight of the body is on
begin with a strong preparation, a plié
the supporting leg. The arabesque shows
and a pulled-up body. During the turn,
off the body at its longest and most
the dancer’s head must quickly snap to
extended line from the fingers to the toes.
the front so they can focus on one spot
Centre work at all times. This spotting technique
prevents dizziness. The arms are
The barre exercises are always followed
positioned in front of the body at waist
by centre work. Many exercises at the
level to keep the body balanced and
barre are performed during centre work
assist with the turn.
without the support of the barre. These
exercises include pliés, tendus and Grand pirouette
fondus. New exercises are also
Grand pirouettes are very complicated
introduced including pirouettes, adage
turns. In many ballets, the dancer
exercises and allegro exercises.
Artists of the Ballet in Ballet Class
performs a grand pirouette called a
Adage exercises fouetté. During this series of turns, the
working leg whips out to the side and
Adage means slow, soft, lyrical and
then into the knee as the dancer turns on
sustained movements. A series of steps
the supporting leg, rising on pointe at
are combined in adage exercises to
each revolution. Dancers often perform
develop these special qualities in the
32 fouettés in succession. Male dancers
dancer’s body. Adage creates the illusion
perform an equally challenging turn called
that the positions flow into one another.
a pirouette à la second. The dancer starts
Allegro the pirouette and extends his leg directly
As in music, allegro in ballet involves brisk to the side of his body and maintains his
and lively movements, usually jumping momentum by rising at each or every
steps and sequences. In all jumps the other revolution.

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Behind The Scenes
Before a ballet is ready to be performed on stage hundreds of hours of work take place
behind the scenes.

Ballet dancers are an elite group of athletes. They train for many years before becoming
professional dancers and once they join a company their training does not end. Dancers’
bodies need to be extremely strong and flexible to execute the demanding technique of
ballet so they must practice and rehearse every day to keep their bodies in top physical
condition. For every minute of dancing you see on the stage, there has been one hour of

The setting of the stage helps to evoke the time,

place or atmosphere. All of the sets, scenery and
props used by the National Ballet are made at the
company’s production workshop, a large building
the size of an airplane hanger. Scenic artists,
carpenters and electricians work together, from the
What Lies Beneath?
drawings made by the set designer, to bring the
In daily ballet class, setting to the stage. Lighting design is added to
rehearsals and enhance the production.
performances, a dancer’s Sets being refurbished for The Sleeping Beauty

body is pulled and Often the same person who designs the set of a production designs the costumes. The
stretched in many designer creates a drawing of the costume and then the National Ballet’s wardrobe
different directions. When department makes a pattern, chooses material, sews it together, decorates the costume
executing grand leaps and finally fits it on the dancers. Ballet costumes have to be carefully reinforced so the
and jumps, their feet, dancers can move easily and not worry about them coming apart while they are dancing.
knees and backs are
subject to further abuse When dancers rehearse in the studio a pianist
by landing on very hard plays the music for them. It is usually at the
concrete floors. As a dress rehearsal that the dancers hear the
remedy, most dancers orchestra for the first time. It is also at the
dance on specially dress rehearsal that they have their final
constructed dance floors opportunity to try on their costumes, work
to absorb the impact of with the props and scenery, and practice the
jumping. This floor is steps on the stage. Everyone’s hard work is
called a “sprung floor”. rewarded the moment the curtain rises and
Members of The National Ballet Orchestra
the ballet begins.

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Pointe Shoes
Developed in the early 19th century, pointe shoes are worn by female dancers to enable
them to dance on the tips of their toes. Though they look just like a slipper, pointe shoes
are made of hard leather to help support the foot and the outside of the shoe is covered
with pink satin that is sometimes dyed to match the dancer’s costume. To keep the shoe
on tightly, dancers sew satin ribbons to the sides and tie them securely around their ankles.
When dancing, sweat and body heat soften the shoe quickly and it can no longer hold the
dancer’s foot. Typically, dancers can go through one pair of pointe shoes each

Male dancers typically do not wear pointe shoes. They wear ballet slippers or special ballet
boots that are flexible enough for them to move in.

A Pointe Shoe
Makeup For The Stage
If you stood onstage without any makeup on your face, the audience would probably see a
blur instead of your face because the strong lights would wash out all your facial features.
To highlight and accentuate their eyes, cheeks, noses and other features, all dancers, male
and female, wear makeup when they are onstage.

Sometimes stage makeup is exaggerated so that the dancer will look like a specific
character or creature for a particular production. False noses, eyelashes and moustaches
can all be used to enhance the effect. Very complicated makeup can take up to 2 hours to

What Is A Tutu?
Avinoam Silverman in The Nutcracker
A tutu is a special kind of skirt worn by dancers in many ballets. When the first ballets were
performed in the 15th and 16th centuries, female dancers performed in the courts of royalty
wearing floor length gowns with heavy decorations. These cumbersome outfits greatly
restricted their movements.

In the early 1800s, with the development of the pointe shoe and the many stories about
fairies and nymphs, the Romantic tutu became popular. This skirt came below the dancers’
knees, and gave them a dreamy, ethereal look, while allowing them to move more freely.
As ballet technique developed becoming more and more complicated, the tutu was
shortened to a length above the knee. This bell shaped tutu is known as a Classical tutu. It
was much easier to dance in and the audience could see the positions of the legs and the
dazzling footwork.

Choreographers and costume designers in the 21st century now choose costumes which
best suit the purpose of their ballet. This means that depending on the ballet, you may see a
Greta Hodgkinson in Swan Lake
Romantic tutu, a Classical tutu or no tutu at all.

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A Guide To Mime
In a ballet performance there are typically no words spoken from the stage. The dancers
must tell the audience the story (if there is a story) using only their body movements and
gestures, which they execute to the accompaniment of music. Often mime is used to relay
specific elements of the story.

Here is a sample of some of the mime gestures you may see on a ballet stage.

Baby Stop Sad

Make a cradle with arms and Hold up hand, Let fingers trace tears as
rock them to and fro palm out they fall down the face

Come Dance Die

Arms are stretched out and Circle the hands around Bring arms up to the side of
the palms are facing up, with each other the head, then bring them
the hands gesturing a warm above the head down quickly so that the
welcome hands, fists clenched,
are crossed in front of the

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Beg Mercy Marry Thank You

Hold arms out, palms Point to wedding-ring finger Make a deep bow, with arms
together, as if praying with index finger of right raised, palms to face

I Love You

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Guillaume Côté and Heather Ogden in Swan Lake

Do You Need More Information?

We hope that this guide has answered many of your questions about ballet.
If you need more information please visit our website or contact:
Education and Community Outreach
The Walter Carsen Centre for
The National Ballet of Canada
470 Queens Quay West
Toronto, ON M5V 3K4
416 345 9686 x 359

Photographers: Cylla von Tiedemann, Christopher Wahl and Bruce Zinger

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