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Ballet basics: outline of a ballet class

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

A technique class trains your body (and mind) to perform the movements required to dance in that style. Jo McDonald

After you’ve read this article, you’ll know what to expect when you go to class, and you’ll have an understanding of how this technique class will help you realise those visions of yourself dancing like you imagined.

Did you notice the word ‘technique’? 

Yes, a ballet class is a technique class.  It is designed to train your body – and mind – to be able to perform those gorgeous ballet dances you see onstage and to make it look effortless.  Believe me, it’s not effortless.  It’s an excellent workout.

You can also do a ‘repertoire’ class, where you learn ballet dances (also called ‘variations’), but generally a ‘ballet class’ refers to a technique class.

What to expect

It can be daunting to go into your first ballet class without knowing what to expect.  And I’ll admit, when you first start, the movements you do in class may seem a long what from what you expected to be doing.

A technique class trains your body (and mind) to perform the movements required to dance in that style. Jo McDonald

The class will be made up of a series of exercises, which follow a fairly standard progression.  The exercises may be the same from week to week, or vary.  Generally, each exercise will be taught (or revised) by the teacher to counts as the students follow, and then performed to music.

A ballet class is divided into two sections – the barre and the centre.  A good ballet class will have at least half of the class in the centre.

The barre

The barre section is both an inbuilt warmup, and a time to hone the skills for the centre part of the class.

You will start at the barre, with movements to warm up and condition your feet, legs, and turnout muscles.  These include various types of foot stretches, knee bends, leg circles, and leg extensions.  Some of these exercises will be slow and sustained to develop strength and control, and others will be fast and sharp, to develop speed, power, and flexibility.

The barre exercises may be very simple and repetitive in a beginner level class so the dancer can focus on performing the movement correctly.  As the dancers become more advanced, the barre exercises become more complex and are often very beautiful, and will involve longer exercises, arm and head coordination, and more complex patterns of movement.  The barre section can be a very mindful phase of the ballet class, where the dancer tunes into their body and not only improves their strength, flexibility, and coordination, but their proprioception (awareness of where their body is in space).

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The centre section is divided into several subsections, which are performed in a set order so the body is prepared for the more demanding and strenuous movements at the end of class

The centre

The centre section is divided into several subsections, which are performed in a set order so the body is prepared for the more demanding and strenuous movements at the end of class.  It’s generally not possible to include ALL the possible sections in one class, so the teacher may focus on only two or three sections in a given class.

In a more beginner class, each section will be clearly distinct, but in more advanced classes, the different types of movements may be combined into longer enchainment (‘chains’ or sequences of movement).

Port de bras (arm movements)

Many dancers describe ‘port de bras’ as their ‘happy place’.  This section of the class is all about the dancer’s arms, so the dancer can focus on the shape and placement of their arms, as well as moving from one position to another, and doing so with expression.

The arms are perhaps the most entrancing part of watching a ballet dancer move, but they are not just decorative.  Instead, they are highly functional in helping the dancer to balance and to move with efficiency.

In beginner classes, the port de bras section is just about arms, but in more advanced classes, the port de bras will also include some simple foot movements, and even sometimes a turn.

Adage or Adagio

This section of the centre is all about developing strength, control, and balance.  The dancer is usually standing on one leg, with the other (the ‘gesture’ leg) extended to the front, side, or back, or moving between them in various pathways.


The turn section is where dancers focus in on movements that require them to turn, learning a range of different ways to turn (including inwards and outwards, holding the gesture leg in different positions, starting from different positions), and then increasing the number of rotations they can do in a particular turn, and combining the different turns together.

Turns can be done on the spot, or travelling from corner to corner.


Allegro literally translates at ‘fast’ or ‘quick and lively’).  In ballet, it means the jumping section of the class.  Often the jumps are fast, but not always.  Within the allegro section, there are several smaller divisions:

Allegro in ballet are fast movements that involve jumping, leaping, and hopping
  1. Petit allegro – small and quick jumps

  2. Medium allegro

  3. Grand allegro – bigger jumps, which may be slower, to allow the dancer more time to jump higher into the air

  4. Batterie – these are the jumps where the dancer ‘beats’ their feet (in other words, changes the position of their feet from front to back by swapping them over quickly).

Beginner classes will focus initially on the petit allegro, learning the different small jumps (when you take off from two feet and land on two feet), hops (where you take off from one foot and land on that same foot), and springs (where you take off from one foot, and land on the other foot).

Batterie is only included in advanced classes, as it requires a lot of skill, speed, and dexterity, gained from years of practice.

In classes for older adults, the allegro section of the class may be excluded or adapted to be more low impact.

Demi pointe (or pointe)

Demi pointe refers to dancing on the balls of the feet, with the heels lifted as high as possible.  It might be seen as a precursor to pointe (dancing on the tips of your toes in hard shoes designed to support your toes and the arch of your foot), but not all dancers want to dance en pointe, but all ballet dancers will dance en demi pointe to some extent.

Beginner dancers will start learning demi pointe at the barre, using it to help them balance, while developing strength in their feet, ankles, legs, and torso.

Dance (or variation)

A ballet class may include learning a dance (called a ‘variation’) which is designed for a solo dancer.

In an ideal world, you would be able to undertake a technique class to develop the skills, technique, strength, coordination, and everything else required to dance ballet, and a repertoire class, where you focus purely on learning variations.

There often isn’t much time left for learning a dance after you’ve completed the barre and centre practice.  A teacher may decide to spend a period of time (such as a term, or several weeks) focusing on teaching a dance instead of centre practice, which will combine the technique dancers have learnt in the centre section previously.

A ballet class may include learning a dance (called a ‘variation’) which is designed for a solo dancer.


The final part of the class is the reverence.

In a performance, the reverence is an elaborate curtsey or bow performed to the audience to acknowledge their applause.   In a class, the reverence is a way to finish the class, and for the teacher and students to acknowledge their mutual appreciation of each other and celebrate their time together.  Following the reverence, the teacher and students may also applaud each other.


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