By Nina Pinzarrone
The terms used to indicate tempo are almost exclusively written in Italian. The slow tempos—grave (slow and solemn like a funeral march), largo (broadly, with dignity), lento (slow), and adagio (slowly at ease)—correspond to ballet movements such as pliés, adage, développé, and fondu. The medium tempos—andante (walking speed), allegretto (lively, but slightly slower than allegro), and moderato (moderate)—correspond to movements such as rond de jambe, pirouette, and battement tendu. The fast tempos—allegro (lively and bright), presto (very fast), prestissimo (as fast as possible), and vivace (vivacious)—correspond to frappé, petit battements, and petit allegro, etc.
To help students relate to the terminology, use examples they can understand. For older students, use the dance movements to illustrate the tempos. For the younger students, try using examples of animals such as sloths, elephants, and turtles (slow), dogs, rabbits, and cats (medium), and cheetahs, falcons, and greyhounds (fast). Acting out the animals’ movements is a fun exercise for creative-movement classes.
Composers indicate the tempo at the top of the staff above the time signature, either by the word (e.g., “Allegro”) or by a metronome marking. The metronome is an instrument (patented by Johann Maelzel in 1815) that produces regular beats so that musicians can keep a steady tempo.
A largo tempo would be 40 to 60 beats per minute (bpm) for the quarter note, while a presto tempo would be 168 to 199 bpm. The low end of a normal adult heart rate is 60 bpm, and most ballerinas do fouetté turns at that speed. A quick way to find 60 bpm is to look at a clock that has a second hand or download a metronome app available for most smartphones.