A Brief History of Ballet

It Began in Italy

“Ballare.” It’s Italian which means “to dance.” And it is in Italy where the history of ballet begins. Terms such as “ballet” and “ball” originates from the word “ballare.” Ballet’s origin can be traced to the Italian Renaissance, where it was just a mere court entertainment. During the 15th and 16th centuries the dance technique became formalized. When Italian-born aristocrat Catherine de Médicis married Henry II of France, the heart of the art moved to France with her. Catherine de Medici introduced early dance styles into court life in France.

In the beginning, the dancers wore cumbersome costumes, masks, pantaloons, ornate headdresses, and accessories. They were beautiful and impressive upon the dancers but restricted their movements. The steps were made of small hops, slides, curtsies, promenades, and gentle turns to accommodate. Shoes back then had small heels and resembled formal dress shoes. Very different than any contemporary ballet shoe we have today.

Over the next 100 years in France, the terminology and vocabulary of ballet was systematically catalogued in French. While Louis XIV reigned, the king himself performed many of the popular dances of the time. After King Louis and fellow noblemen retired from dancing, professional dancers were then hired to perform at court functions.

As the European Renaissance raged, the court dances grew in size. The performances were held on large elevated stages so a larger audience may enjoy the spectacle and grandeur of the dance. The dances were often accompanied by pyrotechnics and music and other effects to enhance the performance.

Ballet’s Popularity Grows

With Italian roots, France and Russia developed their own style. By 1850, Russia was a leading creative center of the dance world. As ballet evolved, new looks and theatrical trends caught on and became fashionable. In early part of 19th century, dancing en pointe (on toe) became popular. Female dancers often performed in white, bell-like midi skirts. Pointe dancing was only for women back then. This inspired a romantic character, representing a delicate but strong heroine, whose goodness and purity of heart, to triumph over hardships.

In early twentieth century, the Russian theatre producer Serge Diaghilev brought together some of Russia’s most talented dancers, choreographers, composers, singers, and designers to form a group called the Ballet Russes. It toured world-wide, presenting a wide variety of ballets.

Here in the States, popularity of ballet flourished during the 1930’s when several members of Ballet Russes left to work and settle in the U.S. Of those former members, George Balanchine is one of the key artists who firmly established ballet in America by founding the New York City Ballet. Another notable figure was Adolph Bolm, the first director of San Francisco Ballet School.

Ballet continues to evolve today.