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 taking dance classes London, 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?

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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).

Who Invented Ballet?

While there doesn't seem to be any evidence on exactly who created this form of dance, historians have concluded that the first true "ballet" is likely to have been Le Ballet Comique de la Reine (or The Comic Ballet of the Queen), first performed for the court of Catherine de Medici in October 1581. This event, which lasted five hours, was held to celebrate a wedding and it is thought that the King and Queen both participated in the dance.

The ballet is said to have been choreographed by Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx and was the first performance piece to combine poetry, music, design and dance, as a direct result of Jean-Antoine de Baïf's Académie de Poésie et de Musique. The ballet was inspired by the enchantress, Circe, from Homer's Odyssey.

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The Italian Balletto

As we've discovered, 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

We've already learnt about the Ballet Comique de la Reine, performed in Paris in 1581 at the wedding of Duke de Joyeuse and Queen Louise of Lorraine's sister, Marguerite de Vaudemont.

This ballet and others of its type 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.

Who Were The First Known Ballerinas?

With roots in Italy, 'prima ballerina assoluta' is a title awarded to the most influential female ballet dancers. To be recognised as a prima ballerina is a rare but huge honour for a dancer, traditionally reserved only for the most exceptional dancers of their generation. That is why any prima ballerina assoluta has left their imprint in the history of ballet.

The first recorded use of the title was in 1894 when French ballet master Marius Petipa Italian ballerina, Pierina Legnani, a prima ballerina assoluta. He believed that she was the absolute best ballerina in all of Europe.

Following Legnani's time in the limelight, her contemporary Mathilde Kschessinska was awarded the same title.

Wikipedia reports that

"the only Soviet ballerinas to hold the title were Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya and Natalia Makarova, who defected to the West in 1970. The Swiss-born American Eva Evdokimova became recognised as a prima ballerina assoluta following guest appearances with the Kirov Ballet in the 1970s, when she was named as such by the company ballet mistress, Natalia Dudinskaya. [...]

Other dancers awarded the title include Anneli Alhanko from Sweden, Alicia Alonso from Cuba, Alessandra Ferri from Italy, and Alicia Markova and Margot Fonteyn from England.

The only French dancer to hold the title is Yvette Chauviré.

Though the U.S. has no process for designation of the title, Nureyev referred to the American ballerina Cynthia Gregory of the American Ballet Theatre as the nation's prima ballerina assoluta; however this has never been formally acknowledged. Another not to hold the title is the great Anna Pavlova, probably the best known ballerina in history.

In South Africa, the only ballerina granted the title prima ballerina assoluta (1984) was Phyllis Spira (1943–2008).

Sylvie Guillem as well as Darcey Bussell at The Royal Ballet, London, are considered by some to belong in the league of assolutas and both were, until their retirement from ballet, principal guests artists of The Royal Ballet, which is an honorary title roughly equivalent to the rank of prima ballerina."

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7 Of The The Most Famous Ballets Of All Time

Many of us have never been to the ballet, yet we all know a bit about it and recognise that there is a strong sense of magic associated with watching these trained dancers perform so elegantly. Many movies portray ballet over the years, like Pretty Woman and, more memorably, Black Swan featuring Natalie Portman so we kind of feel like we've been a part of this fascinating world!

Although we once again feel we know these performances already, listed below are several of the world' s most famous ballets.

  • Cinderella

Many different versions of this famous story exist in ballet form as well as TV, but the true original was performed in 1945, in Moscow, Russia. Prokofiev was the composer, with stunning music to which the dancers told the story of the well-known fairy tale, yet with a very humorous tone.

  • Don Quixote

Much older, this ballet show was originally performed in 1869, again in Moscow, Russia, and was based on the book “Don Quixote de la Mancha” by Miguel de Cervantes. The story, if you aren't already familiar with it, follows protagonist Don Quixote on his quest of chivalry as he slays a number of mythical beasts. Although it sounds a bit menacing, the ballet was charming and fun and featured some great music.

  • The Sleeping Beauty

Based on the famous fairytale, featuring Aurora who is cursed to sleep for a century after pricking her finger on a spinning wheel, this ballet was first performed in 1890 in St Petersburg, Russia. We all know the story - princess is cursed, princess is kissed by a handsome prince, princess marries prince and they live happily ever after - but the music really adds another level to this ballet.

  • The Nutcracker

First performed in 1892, in St. Petersberg, The Nutcracker has grown to be one of the most popular ballets of today, and one known by people of all ages due to its ties with Christmas. Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”, it tells the story of a young girl called Clara who gets shrunk to the size of a mouse, alongside her favourite nutcracker who goes to war with other toys against the evil Mouse King. The nutcracker is later transformed into a handsome prince and they go to the kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Confiturembourg) to rule together.

  • Swan Lake

This ballet, which originally had a more lengthy title but was shortened to 'Swan Lake', premiered in 1877, in Moscow. It was dramatically reworked by Marius Petipa and Riccardo Driggo in 1895, and it is their version of the piece that known to audiences today. People didn't particularly like it at first, but it has grown to be Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece.

It tells the story of Odette, a princess who is cursed by Von Rothbart to become a swan by day and a human by night. A prince sees the transformation and falls in love on the spot. They go to a ball together, but Odette transforms back into her swan form the next day. Meanwhile, the prince looks for her and finds another identical woman, named Odile (played by the same woman who playes Odette). Prince Siegfried falls for Odile, leaving Odette cursed to be a swan forever. Siegfried soon realises he has made a mistake, though, and seeks forgiveness but it is too late so the Prince and the Princess kill themselves so that they can be in heaven together.

As already mentioned, Academy Award movie “Black Swan” featuring Natalie Portman was released in 2010 but did you know that it is also the base of the story Shrek, as well as the Disney movie “The Swan Princess"?

  • Romeo and Juliet

This ballet, based on the works of William Shakespeare, is very well-known. Originally performed in 1938 in Czechoslovakia, it was later reworked and revised and opened up again in 1940 in Leningrad, Russia. This ballet is music and movement heavy, and the masterpiece ballet of Prokofiev. This is a ballet that needs to be seen and heard to be fully understood and loved, as words cannot describe the feelings induced when watching it.

  • Giselle

One of the most sought after roles of all time for a ballet dancer is the title character in Giselle! The story itself is based on the poem 'Heinrich Heine', which is about a young peasant girl who meets a nobleman dressed as a commoner and falls in love with him, not knowing that he is of noble birth. When Hilarion, a man who loves Giselle, outs the nobleman, Giselle realises that she cannot be with him and goes crazy before dying.

Adding to the emotion and drama, the second act includes spirits, yet more death, life-saving and then a trip to the afterlife.

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.

Famous Contemporary Ballet Dancers

We've heard about the most famous ballerinas of all time, but how many among them are dancers of our time? Here are just a couple of names you should know about from the world of modern ballet...

  • Olga Smirnova

In 2011, Olga graduated from the Russian Ballet Academy and joined the Bolshoi academy that same year. This young dancer was awarded the best dancer in the world in 2013 by Benois de la Danse.

  • Gillian Murphy

You may have heard of her, this American dancer who became part of the American Ballet in 1996 and after 7 years became a principal dancer. She has played leading roles in works such as Imperial Ballet, Apollo, Clear, and many many more.

There are, of course, many more exceptional ballerinas dancing nowadays, men included, but we simply cannot list them all! You can discover this modern talent yourself, of course, by going to see a ballet.

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.

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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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