A piano is commonly found in ballet studios, and the piano accompaniment is a vital part of the classes. At one time the ballet teacher was also the accompanist, playing a violin as his students performed their exercises and combinations. Today, if a good piano accompanist is not available, a teacher may prefer to use records, perhaps those made especially for ballet classes, with appropriate bands of music for different dance exercises.
Knowledge of music is useful for the study of ballet. Even students who have not studied music will soon learn to count it; that is, they will hear the musical beat or pulse and will recognize a few fundamental musical rhythms and be able to keep time with them.
During ballet classes the instructor probably will demonstrate an exercise and then count it: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4. The numbers are the beats, with number 1 having the heaviest beat or accent. Those four beats make a certain kind of rhythm called a 4/4 rhythm (or meter). Series of counts repeated over and over are called bars or measures. A series of measures is called a phrase.
Below are listed the musical rhythms that are used most often in beginning ballet classes. They are divided into measures, as indicated by the / mark. The heavy accent of each rhythm is indicated by underlining the number; the lighter accent, by the symbol ‘. Each example is four bars long. Count these rhythms out loud; then try clapping or walking to them, accenting the first count of each measure.
- 2/4: 12/12/12/12/
- 4/4: 123 4/ 123 4/ 123 4/ 123 4/
- 3/4: 1 2 3/ 1 2 3/ 1 2 3/ 1 2 3/
- 6/8: 12345 6/ 12345 6/ 12345 6/ 12345 6/
The speed (tempo) of these rhythms can vary from fast (allegro) to slow (adagio). Dance movements use these same terms: fast steps are called allegro; slow, sustained movements are called adagio (or the French form, adage).
Ballet exercises are usually done an even number of times; that is, a step is repeated four or eight or sixteen times. Sometimes a step may be done three times with a hold or pause in place of the fourth step.
Similarly, combinations of steps usually are done four or eight times. This is in contrast to modern dance exercises, which often are done an odd number of times (three, five, seven .. .). Moreover, modern dancers frequently use many different rhythms for one dance phrase such as (1 2 3/ 1. 2 3 4/ 1 2/ 1 2 3 4 . . .). Rarely does a ballet teacher experiment in these ways, although occasionally such experiments may be rewarding.
There are times when a ballet exercise or combination of steps will be learned first in one rhythm, such as 2/4, then tried in another rhythm, such as 6/8. It will look and feel slightly different when such a change is made. A change in tempo will have an effect also; for example, a faster tempo requires smaller movements covering less space.
In order to help students, know when to be ready to begin an exercise, the accompanist will play a few notes of introduction, which the teacher may count aloud. “Tune in” to those cues and be prepared to move at the designated time, not several beats later.
Ballet music rhythm
Beat, rhythm, bar. phrase, tempo — all may seem bewildering to the beginner. A teacher recognizes this and will try to help. For instance, a particular exercise for the leg may be demonstrated and then described by the teacher as “point, lift, point, close.”
The teacher may then count the exercise as “one. two. three, four.”” The music will play the same rhythm. Very soon the student will see, hear, and feel that rhythm as 4/4. And in time he will become equally acquainted with other musical forms such as the waltz (3/4. with the accent on the first beat), the polka (2/4), and the mazurka (also 3/4. but with the accent on the second beat).
Although responding to the musical beat is fundamental to dance, the class room would be dull indeed if the musical accompaniment offered merely a flat, steady rhythm. The student’s ear should be trained along with his muscles. Phrases of movement and music are the goal — not just steps or notes.