Ballet classes are divided into two main sections referred to as barre and center. As is implied by the names, the first half of class, barre, takes place at the ballet barre, which is literally a wooden or metal bar that runs the length of a wall that is usually covered with mirrors. The dancers use the barre to help them balance while they do a series of foundation exercises that will warm them up and prepare them for the more difficult exercises performed in the center of the room.
The first exercise performed during a ballet class is called plies, pronounced plee-ays. This exercise is designed to stretch every muscle group in the legs and warm up the body for the leaps and jumps yet to come. The plies also teach the dancer how to create a foundation of support and balance for their upper body.
There are two types of plies, called demi-plie and grand-plie. When performing demi-plies, the dancers bend their knees about halfway, whereas when performing grand-plies a full bend is required. The plies are usually executed in each of the five foot positions in ballet which are referred to as first position through fifth position.
The ballet class music that is improvised or prepared for an effective plie exercise is usually very melodic, often romantic, with a full rich sound that leads into the downbeats of each phrase to create both a musical endpoint and a musical start point. The pianist should play the plie exercise with a wide beat, meaning the base notes can begin slightly ahead and linger slightly past where the strict beat placement would lie. This gives a restrained feeling to the music and enhances the feeling of muscles opposing each other which is characteristic of this exercise. It also keeps the dancers from rushing. This can be accomplished with a grace note, a rolled octave effect, or even an arpeggiated chord leading to the bass note on the beat. It is effective to use a conversational phrasing that moves freely with a great deal of rubato, almost as if the piano is making an important statement over and over with changes and new devel0pments on each repetition.
For an example of plie music you can visit Ballet Class Music and hear free samples by composer/pianist/dancer Don Caron from his First Class Album series of ballet class music.
To here an example of plie music by Don Caron use the audio player below.
For more descriptions of how ballet class music is performed for the various ballet class exercises, read the posts about eleves, tendus, and degages.