Adagio Ballet: Definitions, Variations, Steps & More

The adagio segment of ballet is usually dreaded by ballet dancers, and for a good reason!

Adagio ballet has a very low tempo, so slow that if you are the one on the stage dancing, it would feel like the movement drags for hours. Another aspect of the adagio is that the dance movements must be sustained, fluid, and graceful.

But while the adagio is certainly frustrating and exhausting, it’s where some of the most beautiful and powerful moments in ballet are. For example, the Rose Adage in Sleeping Beauty!

That’s why today’s guide is dedicated wholly to the art of adagio ballet, from its definitions and variations to its steps and more!

What Is Adagio in Ballet?

So, what is the adagio ballet meaning?

The term “Adagio” is an Italian word that means “Leisurely” or “At Ease”.

It’s a common term in both classical ballet and music. When a musical passage or dance segment is marked as “Adagio”, the music and dance speed will usually be slow and relaxed.

In ballet, the dancer will execute the adagio with slow, refined, and fluid movements.

In most classical ballets, the adagio typically serves as the opening section of the grand pas de deux, where the ballerina will perform with the support of her partner (usually male).

The Grand Pas De Deux will be followed by the variations, then ends with the coda.

Adagio ballet combinations

When you take ballet dance classes, eventually, your teacher will let you practice what’s known as adagio ballet combinations.

The sole purpose of these combinations is to help you learn and refine your skill at dancing slow, graceful movements.

Typically, these combinations are built to place special focus on the fluidity and speed of the dancer’s body. They can help you train and improve your control over your leg movements and extensions while keeping your body aligned and tightly controlled.

The combination is practiced at the barre (the bars lining the walls of the practice room for dancers to hold onto) and in the center.

Each combination usually consists of many moves and steps in classical ballet, ranging from arabesque, attitude, and développé to grande rond de jambe and plié.

While it may sound complicated, adagio combinations can be taught to dancers of every skill level.

You can be a beginner dancer; if you ask, your instructor will devise an easy combination for you to practice. The higher the skill level, the more advanced moves there will be in the combination.

Adagio ballet in a Grand Pas De Deux

The adagio usually serves as the intro to the Grand Pas De Deux section in a ballet. It is usually the first movement that the ballerina performs with her male partner.

The pas de deux (translated as “dance for two”) must be a partnered dance. Meanwhile, the adagio can have a more flexible arrangement.

Depending on the adagio ballet variation, the ballerina can dance solo or partner up immediately.

You don’t even have to conform to the “one male, one female” arrangement like a pas de deux. An adagio can be choreographed as a pas de trois (“dance for three”).

For example, in the first act of Tchaikovsky’s famous Swan Lake ballet, the “Pas de Trois” section is an adagio with two females and one male dancer.

Vice versa, the arrangement of an adagio can also consist of two males and one female. The Pas d’Esclave section of Adolphe Adam’s Le Corsaire follows this structure.

Adagio ballet music

Adagio” in music refers to a slow musical section. And this is often the case in classical ballets and their music, such as Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, Adolphe Adam’s Giselle, or Léo Delibes’ Coppélia.

But there’s a big difference between the backing music and the ballet dance.

It’s possible to dance in adagio style (slow, graceful) to fast-paced music. You will commonly see this in contemporary ballets.

The bizarre contrast between the fast music and the dancer’s slow movement can make for a visually impressive performance.

Some Adagio Ballet Steps

The adagio section of the ballet is where the gracefulness and the technical skill of the ballet dancer are put to the test.

During a performance, you will see them using a combination of the following steps.


Attitude is a fundamental move in classical ballet. In it, the working leg of the ballet dancer will lift off the ground.

The leg can be positioned in one of three positions, depending on the choreography.

  • Devant: to the front.
  • A la seconde: to the side.
  • Derrière: to the back.

The leg is extended at a 90° angle outward, and it’s often done so that the knee section is higher than the foot (the lower section of the leg from the knee down is turned down and toward the ground slightly.)

The supporting leg can either be straight, en pointe, or demi-pointe.

This step is inspired by a statue called “Mercury” sculpted by Giambalogna, a famous 19th-century Italian sculptor.


Arabesque is a very iconic pose in ballet. Even for people who don’t know anything about ballet, show them a picture of a dancer striking the arabesque pose and they will tell you immediately that they are doing ballet.

In it, the body of the dancer is supported on one leg. The other leg is extended directly behind the body, with the knee straight.

The supporting leg can either be straight or in a plié (bent). However, the leg that is extending backward must always be straight.

Three styles of arabesque

There are three styles of arabesque, aptly named “First”, “Second”, and “Third”.

  • First Arabesque

In the First Arabesque, when the dancer extends their leg backward, the arm on that side of the body will also be extended backward. Meanwhile, the other arm is either extended to the side or diagonally to the back.

  • Second Arabesque

The Second Arabesque is the mirror opposite of the First.

The arm on the same side as the leg extending backward is raised to the front. The arm on the side of the supporting leg is either extended to the side or diagonally backward.

  • Third Arabesque

In the Third Arabesque, both arms are extended to the front.

The arm on the side of the supporting leg is raised higher than the other arm, usually between the top of the dancer’s head or a foot above the top of the head.

The arm on the side of the leg extending backward should never be raised higher than the shoulders.

Angles of arabesque

The leg extending backward can be raised at several angles. It can be low, where the leg is raised only about 20° off the floor.

Low Arabesque is a popular practice move for dancers who are just learning how to execute this move.

High-angle Arabesque (45°, 90°, beyond 90°) is popular during performances. They showcase the flexibility of the dancers as well as their technical skills.


Développé (French for “Developed” or “Unfolded”) is characterized by the smooth and slow unfolding of the leg.

From the fifth position, the working leg of the dancer is raised, the toes tracing the calf of the supporting leg up to the knee (retiré).

The working leg is extended to an open position en l’air and held there in various directions: to the front (devant), the side (a la seconde), the back (derrière), and more.

Check more: What To Wear To The Ballet? What To Avoid

Tour de Promenade (Tour Lent)

The Tour de Promenade is a slow turn executed on one foot. The dancer will keep on pose throughout the turn, like Arabesque or Attitude. This move can be done outward (en dehors) or inward (en dedans).


Penché in French means “to lean” or “leaning”.

To execute a penché, the dancer will usually have to bend forward over one leg at a steep angle. Then, kick their working leg backward in arabesque at a very high angle (well over 90° and can be as high as 180° from the ground).

When executed properly, the legs of a ballet dancer in penché will form a vertical line from the ground up. This move is extremely difficult and takes a lot of strength and flexibility.

So, only experienced ballet dancers with several years of experience can safely perform this iconic move.


Fondu means “sinking down”.

Basically, the dancer is doing a plié (or bending the leg) on just one leg. While they’re doing it, the body looks like it’s “sinking” toward the floorboards.


Détourné means “turned aside”. It is a fairly basic move and involves spinning a complete circle on both legs, demi-pointe, or en pointe.

During the turn, the feet will reverse. For example, if the détourné starts with the right foot in front, the move will be finished with the right foot in the back and the left at the front.


Dégagé means “Disengage”. The working leg is lifted into the air in an open position, the foot pointed to the front, side, or back.

As for the name, it’s called “Disengage” because it is not exactly a position, rather, it’s a movement. The leg has the distinct look of separating or “disengaging” from one another.

Dégagé à l’arabesque en tournant

The name of this part is a mouthful for those who don’t speak French, but it’s roughly translated to “Disengage in Arabesque while turning”.

The dancer will start off with the front leg extended and raised (croisé devant en l’air). Then, they will execute an outward turn on the flat of the supporting foot.

The body is turned from the waist while the working leg goes through the second position and extended into arabesque croisé derrière (Arabesque to the back).

Rond de Jambe

The phrase is translated to “Round the leg”. To execute this move, the dancer will make a circular movement with their leg. It can either be done inward (en dehors) or outward (en dedans).

It’s usually done as a barre step, but it can also be done par terre (on the floor).

Rond de Jambe en L’air

Rond de Jambe en L’air can be executed by kicking the working leg to a horizontal position, the foot pointed forward. Move from the knee down so that the thigh can remain as still and steady as possible.

The move is usually extended into a second position known as Rond de Jambe à la seconde, where the leg will – from the horizontal position – move to one side of the dancer.

Grand Rond de Jambe

The Grand Rond de Jambe is basically a larger, wider version of the standard Rond de Jambe.

The dancer will start first with a développé devant position. The leg is extended forward from the hip, then moved in a semi-circle to the second position en l’air, and ends in the fourth position in derrière en l’air.

Alternatively, it can also be done in reverse, starting from the devéloppé derrière and drawing a semi-circle with the leg to the front.

Pas de Bourrée Couru

Pas de Couru is translated to “Running Step”. A dancer performing this step will usually look like they are kicking their legs in front of them rhythmically.

As for Pas de Bourrée Couru, instead of kicking their legs, the dancer will make little steps either en pointe or demi-pointe with their legs and feet close together.

On the stage, it will look like they’re “gliding” on the floor.

The name will differ depending on the position they’re done in.

If it’s in the fifth position, the steps will be called en cinquième or pas suivi. If done in the first position and with the legs turned inward, it will be called en première or pas couru.

Tips To Master Ballet Adagio For Beginners

The adagio sure is difficult to master. If you’re practicing it, here are a few tips that you can use to make your performance better.

Hold with placement

One of the biggest challenges with performing an adagio segment is that the movements of the dancer have to be sustained throughout. As a result, it’s absolutely crucial that the dancer has a strong core and proper alignment.

Start your practice slowly and use the barre. Move into the position, mind your placement, and hold for as long as you can to get a feel for it.

The longer you hold it, the easier it’s going to become, and the faster you will be able to move through the lessons.

Plus, as your skill level rises and you become more comfortable with the slow and gradual pace of the dance, you will be able to add more complicated movements to your performance, as well.

Stay balanced

In an adagio combination, even standing still can be difficult because it’s dragged out for so long through the dance. This is why having a good sense of balance is important in adagio ballet.

A good tip for learners is to pay extra attention to port de brás (arm placement) and épaulement (shoulder placement). These two portions of the body affect your sense of balance greatly.

So long that your arm and shoulder placements are correct, you will maintain your balance as you perform.

Holding high extensions

Don’t try to over-extend your body.

For example, while performing développé, it’s very easy for inexperienced learners to push themselves to try and get their working leg as high as possible. It can result in instability.

Instead, for développés, try to keep your hips level and be mindful of your arm placement. If you position your arms just right and keep them relaxed, your body will have extra support.

And with the extra support, you will be able to bring your leg higher by using your energy to extend your leg out via your toes and fingertips.

Adding artistry/Use expression

The leisure pace of the adagio is the perfect opportunity for the dancers to connect to the music and connect themselves. While technical skill is surely important, it’s not as important as in faster sections of the ballet.

Display your artistry through your relaxed, fluid movements as well as your facial expressions!

Time your movements so that they accentuate the music. Create high points, low points, and accents. Even stillness can add artistic value and texture to the scene.

Bottom Line

The adagio ballet is certainly tricky, but it’s a part of the ballet that you can’t skip out on. Rather than shy away from it, look at it as a challenge to tackle.

With practice, focus on technique, and a good instructor, the adagio will feel like a regular dance movement!

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