Ballet History – Beginning the Journey

Have you ever wondered how ballet first came to be? So have I! I thought it would be good to explore a little early ballet history with you.  This is not a comprehensive study but a good starting point.

How it all Began

Ballet can trace its absolute roots back to Renaissance Italy in Europe. The first dance treatise (formal piece of writing), De Arte Saltandi et Choreas Ducendi (The Art of Dancing and Directing Choruses), by Domenico de Piacenza, or Ferrara appeared in approximately 1416. This used simple letters to describe the vocabulary of movements used at the time. Dance was performed in the courts of noblemen and royalty, and there are records as early as 1489 in Tortona, Italy where a ballet named balletto conviviale was staged by Bergonzio di Botta.   Around this time the emergence of Opera overshadowed ballet in Italy to a great extent but the fire had been lit and Italy exported a number of ballet masters, dancers and choreographers over the years!

This dancing spread into the rest of Europe and really took off in the courts of King Louis XIV of France.   Ballet de Cour was nothing like the ballet we know today. It was an evening of entertainment including music, dance and verse. What people saw and participated in was mainly floor patterns of movement rather than complicated or delicate steps. Women wore gowns right down to the floor and their feet were not seen at all.

King Louis XIV started dancing ballet at age 12 and continued until he was 32. He was known as The Sun King after the character, The Rising Sun he played in the ballet, La ballet de la Nuit (The Ballet of the Night), bringing in Honour, Grace, Love, Riches, Victory , Fame and Peace. In these early days, a lot like today, entertainment was used as a means of promoting particular points of view. Much of the ballet that King Louis XIV was renowned for was concerned with underlining the importance and authority of the aristocracy. At age 32 and substantially larger than he was in his youth, his felt need to show dignity outweighed his desire to dance although he still participated in ballroom dance (alongside the duties and the affairs of State). Without the endorsement of the king, ballet suffered a waning in popularity among nobles. In 1661, King Louis XIV opened L’Academie Royale de Danse with 13 dancing masters to “re-establish the art in its perfection.” This school, while being the first of its kind, only lasted until the French revolution and so was not significant in the development of ballet as we know it today. The King founded the Paris Opera Ballet in 1669. From 1671, the Paris Opera was called, L’Academie Royale de Musique. An attached school, L’Ecole de danse was established in 1713.  This was where French ballet technique developed.

Ladies Wait Your Turn!

For the first nine years of the Paris Opera Ballet men, often using masks, played all the roles, both male and female. It had been fine for the Ladies of Court to be part of the ballet but now ballet had been moved to the theater. To be seen publically on stage was an unheard of disgrace. The first female ballerina to break the mold was Mademoiselle de la Fontaine, known as The Queen of Dance. Her career started at age 26 – when most of today’s ballerinas are at least thinking about what their next career move will be after their performing years are over. She performed for nine years and then retired to be nun. Again change had been brought in and dance continued to move forward.

Point Your Toes!

Ever wonder who we have to blame for this phrase being hurled at you in the rehearsal room and dance studio? Men had to show their feet right from the beginning, performing wonderful technical jumps called entrechat-quatres (on-tra-shah-cat). The ladies did not perform these since no-one could see what their feet were doing. Showing even the tiniest part of your ankle was considered scandalous as though appearing in public with no clothes on! Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo changed all this.


La Camargo                                                                                                  Marie Sallé

La Camargo, as she became known, created a very big stir when she shortened her dress so that just her ankles could show. She wanted to show off the fact that she could perform these jumps accurately and delicately with great vivacity!  Marie Sallé, her celebrated rival, took it one stage further by wearing a dress of light muslin for her role in Pygmalion, also wearing her hair down for performance and removing heels from her ballet shoes! Where Camargo was famed for her energy and technique, Sallé was famed for her eloquent miming. So Camargo and Sallé, we have you to thank for girls being able to develop their technique and for giving our teachers those wonderful words, “Point your toes!”

Light as a Petal!

At this stage, all ballet was still performed in soft shoes and not en-pointe. Let’s jump forward 100 years or so. Technique was continuing to be formulated and solidified. The French school was now really established. Folklore abounds with stories of how pointe work came to being. I like the idea of the dancer who stepped in wet glue on the set of a production and didn’t realize until it dried and became hard. Posing on pointe in her hardened toe became her party-trick amongst the other dancers and a ballet master saw and developed this. Hmm – I wonder. The first pointe shoes certainly were not like the safe equipment we have today. Having no shank, the ends of the toes were simply hardened to form a very small box. Dancers’ feet needed to be STRONG! It is not known for certain when pointe work was first performed on stage although Marie Taglioni is often credited with it for her role in the new ballet, La Sylphide, in 1832. Here pointe work was first used to show the ethereal floatiness of the spirit world as opposed to the humans. Taglioni danced the entire ballet en-pointe. The story is about James, a Scotsman who on the eve of his wedding to Effie, falls in love with a Sylph/spirit instead. His struggles to keep the Sylph with the help of a witch called Madge only end in the death of the Sylph, and Effie, the girl he was supposed to marry, marries someone else! Another method to show the lightness of the spirit world (before men had started to lift their ballerinas) was where a posing point was built on stage and made to look like a delicate flower about 18 inches or so from the ground. The ballerina would step up onto it en-pointe and appeared so light that the flower’s petals were not crushed!

Tutu Romance

La Sylphide marked the passing into the Romantic Era. This was a period in history (approximately 1800-1850) that art depicted hopeless romance where there were very few happy endings like in the above story! This era also brought in the romantic tutu. This was not the crisply starched tutu of classical ballet – that was still to come later. Elegant in form, and bare-shouldered, the bodice was tight to the body and the bell shaped skirt fell to below mid calf. This style dress is still used today in traditional ballets like La Sylphide, Les Sylphides, and Giselle, to name a few, and is like the costumes used for Snow and Flowers in The Nutcracker.

Well this is just the beginning. I hope you enjoyed this short journey into the very beginnings of ballet history. What about the Italian school, the Russian school, Great Britain, and the US contribution to ballet? Stay tuned for a future update and… “POINT YOUR TOES!”


The Encyclopedia of Dance and Ballet, edited by Mary Clarke and David Vaughan, published by Peerpage Books

The Magic of Dance, by Margot Fonteyn, published by Alfred A Knopf, Inc

Introduction to the History of Ballet, from 1580 to The Sleeping Beauty, by the Royal Opera House, published on iTunes U

Picture Credits: for wikkipedia entries – Louis XIV, La Camargo and Marie Taglioni; – Marie Sallé