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Where Does Ballet Come From?

By Joseph, published on 30/04/2018 Blog > Arts and Hobbies > Dance > The Story of Ballet

While dancing has been around for centuries, where does ballet figure into all this?

There’s evidence of humans dancing all the way back in the Palaeolithic era but this was usually a rain dance, war dance, or a dance to appease the gods.

Ballet laid the foundations for other styles of dancing from modern dance and jazz to hip-hop, and Oriental dancing. However, before you go running off to a ballet school or start applying to ballet companies, you should learn more about the art form.

“Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.” – Martha Graham

Where does ballet come from?

What was ballet before it became what it is today?

Superprof’s on the case!

The Early History of Ballet

Over time, dancing became less a ritual and more an art form. Ballet, as we know it today, originated in Renaissance Italy in the 15th century.

Where was ballet created? Ballet is built upon years of tradition. (Source: Vladislav83)

The Etymology of Ballet

The word “ballet” comes from the Italian term balletto, from ballo, which means “dance”. Ballo originated from the Latin ballo, ballare meaning “to dance”. The word made its way into French as “ballet” and remained the same when it started being used in English.

“A ballet, a work, consists of the choreography and music for a ballet production.” (Wikipedia).

The Italian Balletto

Ballet first appeared as wedding entertainment for Italians. Musicians and dancers were danced to entertain the guests with their pas de deux and entrechats.

When Catherine de’ Medici married Henry II of France, she brought the art form with her and developed it in France. Bit by bit, the balletto became an entire show with choruses, verses, scenery, and costumes, Domenico Da Piacenza was one of the first ever dance teachers in this respect.

Ballet in French Courts

The Ballet Comique de la Reine was performed in Paris in 1581. It wasn’t the first ballet of its type but it was performed at the wedding of Duke de Joyeuse and Queen Louise of Lorraine’s sister, Marguerite de Vaudemont.

These ballets would serve as the foundation for the opéras-ballets and comic ballets of Lully and Molière.

The Codification of Ballet

While the origins of ballet are rooted in Renaissance Italy, it was the French and Russian influences that made it a noble pursuit.

The Role of Louis XIV

Louis XIV was passionate about dancing and was desperate to re-establish dancing as an art form. Dancing’s influence had started to decline by the 17th century.

The Sun King created the Académie Royale de Danse (Royal Academy of Dance) in 1661 and the Académie Royale de Musique (Royal Academy of Music) in 1669. These are now collectively known as the Paris Opera.

The 5 Ballet Positions

Pierre Beauchamp was an influential court dancer and choreographer and codified the 5 ballet positions:

What are the five ballet positions? Do you know which position this is? (Source: Jabore)

  • First position: Put your heels together and position your toes outwards.
  • Second position: Point your feet in opposite directions with a twelve inches gap between your two heels.
  • Third position: Place one foot in front of the other so that the heel of the front foot is close to the arch.
  • Fourth position: There are two types this position: open and closed. Place one foot about twelve inches in front of the other. Open means that your heels are aligned, while closed means that the heel of your front foot lines up with the toes of your back foot.
  • Fifth position: Form two parallel lines with your feet. The heel of your front foot touching the big toe of the other and the heel of your back foot touching the last toe of your foot.

Ballet d’Action

In the 18th century, ballet became a veritable spectacle up there with opera performances. The dancers’ movements and how they chained steps together express feelings and help with the understanding of the piece.

The first ballet d’action was Don Juan in 1761. This is the ancestor of the great ballets of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Did you know…?

At the time, it was unlikely for there to be a famous female ballet dancer.

In classical ballet, women tended to play supporting roles weighed down by heavy wigs and in tight corsets and high heels.

The Cecchetti Method

The codification of ballet started to gain some momentum in the 19th century. A lot was written about the art of choreography and how to teach ballet.

Carlos Blasis is one of the most famous ballet theoreticians. His works, like the Traité élémentaire, théorique, et pratique de l’art de la danse (“Elementary, Theoretical, and Practical Treatise on the Art of the Dance”) influenced dance schools and conservatoires.

He notably influenced Enrico Cecchetti whose method is used today by the National Ballet of Canada.

This method focuses on the ballerina’s body and their technique. Its goal is to teach the foundations of dance while leaving the student the freedom to develop their own style of dancing without imitating their master.

It focuses on fluid movements and a dancer’s centre of gravity. There are 5 levels of difficulty and students can take exams in it.

Rejuvenating Ballet

After 1850, the enthusiasm for ballet in France declined. However, it found new life in Russia.

When did ballet become popular in Russia? It took a while for women to become stars of the ballet. (Source: skeeze)

The Emergence of Ballet

The main principles of ballet were well established: l’en-dehors, the five positions, style, aplomb, and discipline. As you can see, the French influence on ballet is still evident.

La Sylphide (The Sylph) in 1832 marked a change for ballet. Romanticism was the goal. Ballet became airborne and essentially feminine.

Ballet pointes (used for the first time in 1801) allowed the dancers to stand on the tips of their toes and reach even higher. This was also when the dancers started showing off their legs and the tutu appeared.

Their male counterparts were tasked with supporting ballerinas in romantic ballets.

Contemporary Ballet

Marius Petipa was a French who lived almost his entire life in Russia and created a number of classic ballets: Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadère (The Temple Dancer), The Nutcracker, Don Quixote, etc. These are the ballets that most people probably think of.

The term classical started being used to refer to earlier works as the ballets russes emerged at the beginning of the 20th century.

With orchestra music from Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, for example, Russia would dominate the world of ballet throughout the first half of the 20th century with notable examples being The Firebird, Romeo and Juliet, and Cinderella.

Despite the Soviet regime, Russian ballet continued to thrive. Ballet has always been very popular in Russia, especially the Bolshoi Theatre and the Mariinsky Theatre.

In France, ballet was revived and gave birth to neoclassical ballets with Serge Lifar (and the great dancer Lycette Darsonval).

American ballet theatre was helped along by George Balanchine, the creator of New York City Ballet. He was also their Artistic Director for over 35 years.

For many countries, ballet really started to take off in the early 20th century. Nowadays, there famous ballet companies and venues all over the world, including the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet (London), Pacific Northwest Ballet (Seattle), the Bolshoi Ballet (Moscow), Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet (St. Petersburg), Paris Opera Ballet, The Royal Danish Ballet (Copenhagen), La Scala Ballet (Milan), the Australian Ballet (Melbourne), the National Ballet of Canada (Toronto), and the Dutch National Ballet (Amsterdam).

Ballet Today

Ballet is modernising and changing with choreographers like Maurice Béjart, Benjamin Millepied, Pina Buash, and Rudolf Noureev.

The Hierarchy of Ballet

A dance company is organised into a hierarchy. Each person has a particular role and even though the hierarchy isn’t employed everywhere, it’s often used:

  • Ballet master: the director of a troupe of dancers. Nowadays, we also have artistic directors.
  • Principal dancer: the dancer with the highest rank within the ballet company.
  • Soloist: a dancer below the principal dancer.
  • Demi-soloist (or Second soloist)
  • Coryphée: the leading dancer of the corps de ballet.
  • Corps de ballet: the group of dancers who are not soloists.

How can you improve your pointe technique? Pointe technique allows dancers to appear as if they’re flying. (Source: rlbachma)

You won’t find this kind of hierarchy in a Zumba class or in private ballet tutorials.

Teaching Ballet

Ballet is a strict discipline. The exercises you do develop muscle strength, balance, flexibility, and gracefulness. There are 7 main teaching styles for ballet which bear the name of their inventor:

  • The Vaganova Method: the most commonly taught method
  • The Royal Academy of Dance Method: Used by over 12,000 members across 70 different countries.
  • The Cecchetti Method
  • The Balanchine Method
  • The Legat Method
  • The Vestris Method

The rules and vocabulary used in ballet are very rarely changed. The terms used are often the same regardless of where they’re spoken.

Ballet is famed for its aesthetic qualities, it spins, and how quickly the dancers can move their feet.

Find the right ballet tutor on Superprof!

In short:

  • Ballet originated from Italian Balletto in the 15th century.
  • Louis XIV played an important role in making ballet recognised as an art form.
  • France and Russia are responsible for ballet’s popularity and gave us famous ballet dancers and choreographers like Petipa and Diaghilev.
  • Today, most of the words used in ballet are still those used in the French language like “pas-de-bourré”, “entrechat”, and “pas-de-deux”.

That doesn’t mean you have to stop looking for Zumba tutorials, though!

If you’re interested in taking ballet dancing classes for yourself, take a look at our article on ballet for adults.


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