What’s in a Word?

I have a poem coming out in the near future at Strange Horizons (pause for congratulations – thank you, thank you) and because they also do a podcast, I read it aloud to my writers group so they could point out any snags in the way I read before I record it.

One of the lines references a grand-jeté, a ballet move. When I read it, I was thinking of both pronouncing it well in French — difficult, because despite years of studying French, my accent is poor — and making it understandable. I suspect I failed at both, because almost everyone mentioned it.

And it was also clear that some in my group didn’t know what a grand-jeté was. It appears that not everyone was forced into ballet classes as a small child.

I first took up ballet because the doctor recommended it due to my weak ankles. It was not a successful form of exercise, since the ballet teacher put me in toe shoes even though I was six, which probably did even more damage to my ankles.

I took ballet again when my sister did, for reasons that are no longer clear to me, though I eschewed the toe shoes and recitals. In truth, even had I been more physically talented — and while I am a person who needs a lot of physical activity, I am not especially talented at it — I had absolutely the wrong body type for ballet.

I am too tall, too large-boned, and at what is a good weight for my body type, far too fat. My height is in my torso, so my legs are relatively short. I’m not very flexible.

Ballet is rigid in many respects, despite the need for dancers to be flexible. Only certain body types need apply, especially when it comes to women. It is certainly unforgiving. And it tears up bodies, particularly women’s bodies, at about the same pace as American football does men’s.

While I have enjoyed watching ballet, I prefer modern dance, which has more respect for the human body in all its diversity. Modern dancers continue dancing into old age; ballet dancers quit in their 30s.

All that said, I have always wanted to be able to do a grand-jeté, which is a great leap in the air with the legs in a split. It looks like flying. It is a glorious move. And landing, particularly in toe shoes, requires great balance.

But none of that is what dawned on me when people commented on the reading. What dawned on me is that I assumed everyone knew what a grand-jeté was.

And they don’t.

I think most people know of ballet, but only those who took classes or who go to the ballet likely know the various terms, all drawn from French, that are used for the different positions and moves.

Ballet classes are a province of the middle class and above. They were a big deal in my youth and judging by the number of dance academies I see in various towns, probably still a thing.

They were mostly for girls — boys who take up ballet get mocked, though they are, of course, necessary for performances and the greatest of them are lionized. (Nureyev, Barishnikov.)

Ballet wasn’t taught in school, though, so if you were poor, it was not an option. And one suspects that there are many cultures in which obsession with a particular form of European-derived performance art was not an important part of life.

Perhaps poems and stories using words like grand-jeté require footnotes, though it is also true that these days most people do have a computer in their pocket for looking up things they don’t know.

I spent a good many years reading the sort of English (which is to say British) novels in which the authors used Latin or French (and sometimes even Greek) without bothering to translate. There was a snobby assumption that the “right” readers would not need translation, because educated people should know those things.

This is not generally true of American fiction, which tends to translate everything because we Americans assume that people only know English. Though nowadays I see more Spanish in otherwise English books, which I personally like, but which might make them less accessible.

I like finding unknown words and words from other languages in my fiction. My Spanish is better than my French and my Latin is limited to expressions from the law (res judicata, res ipsa loquitor), but I can usually guess things from context.

I’m also a science fiction reader and fond of the made-up words and concepts that are slipped into such work.

But all those things can be exclusionary. And I don’t like the idea of fiction or poetry being exclusionary.

So I am pondering where the line is between exclusion and the pleasure of trying to figure things out from context.

No answers yet, but at least those who read this post and later read my poem will know what grand-jeté means, even if they never paid any attention to ballet in their lives.

5 thoughts on “What’s in a Word?

  1. Your ballet teacher put you in toe shoes at six? Your ballet teacher–not to put too fine a point on it–was an idiot. You don’t put anyone in toe shoes who hasn’t had a number of years working up to them–say, for a really gifted student who started at four or five, maybe around ten or eleven. There’s a generation of women who were forced into toe shoes too early and blamed themselves for their failures. But six is… insane.

    That said: I loved ballet when I was small, but between having shortened calf muscles (a remnant of walking on my toes when I was little) and a natural disinclination for regimentation, it didn’t love me. As my older daughter said when she quit ballet at 7: it’s too bossy. I did not understand, at that age, the importance of “bossiness” in order to work up to physical skills. I wanted to gain immediate access to the grace and strength of a ballerina. Oddly, it didn’t work so well.

    1. My teacher was certainly an idiot, or at least someone who didn’t care. Maybe she made money selling the toe shoes. Fortunately we moved to the country before I turned 7, so there were fewer options for dancing lessons.

      The doctor was also an idiot — or rather, doctors back then had so little understanding of appropriate physical training for girls that they were not worth listening to. And of course my parents didn’t know any better.

      Ballet is “too bossy,” I think. I suspect most classes in dance and other activities for kids need to be less bossy and more playful. I have seen good teaching in martial arts that included a focus on discipline (sitting quietly while things are demonstrated and showing respect for teachers and each other), but I think the training in the actual skills was more relaxed. My favorite experience of watching kids training was seeing more experienced kids teaching new ones how to fall from a hip throw and carefully lowering their partners to the ground.

      But of course, if you want the kids to perform, you boss them around and try to mold them into something that may or may not be right for them. And it becomes more important to teach kids to throw someone hard to the ground instead of teaching them how to take care of their partner.

      1. My younger daughter took hip-hop dance classes at a school in the Mission–introduced to us by a teacher who had taught a similar class at her elementary school (they spent their budget for PE on dance classes… there was a reason we liked that school). Ayesha, the hip-hop teacher, had a smile that could power a small city, and that way that very good teachers have of corralling the energy and the love of small humans and getting them to work together, not expecting lockstep, but inspiring them with a wish to Get It Right. (It didn’t hurt that they were doing a dance choreographed to “Thriller” and got to act all scary).

        1. Yet another example of how it’s the teacher who is ultimately important, not the specific subject or art form. In elementary school had a great music teacher (from whom I later took voice lessons). In high school I had a fantastic math teacher, which is why math doesn’t scare me even though I haven’t studied it since. I’ve studied under some great Aikido people. Interestingly, I had only one outstanding English teacher in school. Fortunately, I had other paths to reading and writing and the mediocre teaching just made me more convinced that my own choices were better. I think great teaching for purposes of inspiring people to try something new is most important in the areas where we are most uncertain. I wish I’d had a great teacher for something physical — dance, martial arts, sports — when I was a kid.

  2. Universally, all my gym teachers were uninspiring (at least one was a serious bully) and so I did nothing more physical than ride a bicycle once I got done with ballet at age 7. On the other hand, every stage combat teacher I had was terrific: encouraging, tough, funny, and imaginative. I was also an adult when I started doing stage combat, but they got me doing things I’d never thought I was capable of.

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