The History of Ballet

The History of Ballet

There is one big clue to the history of ballet – its language! All ballet terms are French – with good reason, because ballet really started at the courts of Louis XIV.

There had been ballets in Europe since the 1400’s. But if a modern ballet fan could see one of these shows, they’d scarcely call it ballet – the dancers didn’t do much more than march and bow. However, our 21st-century audience would recognize some of the steps.

The turn-out and arm positions of ballet developed from the courtier’s combat training – picture a fencer “en garde”, and you’ll see the feet are in fourth position, and one arm is curved in fifth. Every courtier trained as a swordsman, therefore every courtier could dance.

It was at the courts of Louis XIV that these ballets reached their zenith. Louis loved to dance and his enthusiasm was reflected by his court (as you’d expect, if the courtiers knew what was good for them!).

Gradually, professionals took over and the performances moved from ballrooms to public venues. But what really set ballet on its way was when Louis founded a Royal Academy of Dancing, followed by the establishment of the Paris Opera in 1669. From here, the ballet masters fanned out to all the European courts. Royalty across Europe founded their own theatres – but all the dancers used the same technique, as taught by the Paris masters. Which meant they described the steps using the words their French teachers used – a custom that continues to this day.

Over the next 200 years, ballet transformed itself. Costumes became lighter, steps more complex, Jetes and pirouettes were discovered. Marie Taglioni danced on pointe, and created our vision of the classical ballerina – the dark hair drawn back in a bun is her hairstyle, the romantic tutu is her costume.

By the late 1800’s, though, ballet was going off the rails. It was more important to outdo your rival’s acrobatic tricks than to be an artist. Worse, ballet was gaining a bad reputation. To give you an idea, the word “tutu” comes from a very rude French word for a woman’s nether regions, and rich men paid a premium for the front row of the stalls – not to appreciate the performance, but so they could look up the dancers’ skirts. Many of the dancers (who were all female by this time, as all male roles were taken by women) took full advantage of their admirers’ generosity!

Fortunately, in Russia things weren’t quite as bad, and out of Russia came the dancers who would recreate ballet as serious art. They were the true beginnings of modern ballet – the stars of the Diaghileff Ballet.

Marisa Wright writes about dancing, drawing on her experience in many dance genres. Visit her dancewear websites at:

Article Source:

Leave a Reply