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History of Ballet: Timeline & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ballet is a respected tradition around the world, but where did it come from? In this lesson, we'll explore the origins and growth of ballet, and see how it developed into the art it is today.

Ballet

Ballet, a dance-based art form that combines music, movement, and costume to tell emotional stories, has a bad reputation. It's seen by far too many people as something esoteric, un-relatable, and soft. Basically, people think ballet is froo-froo. However, it takes only the smallest glimpse into the inner workings of ballet to realize that this is one of the most grueling and demanding forms of not only art but also athleticism in the modern world. I mean, have you tried supporting your entire body weight on your big toes? Ballet takes a lifetime of dedication, practice and training and the result is simply spectacular. Nothing froo-froo about it.

Origins

The origins of ballet can be traced back to 15th century Italy, when the peninsula was in the height of its period of artistic, cultural, and scientific growth known as the Renaissance. The wealthy, art-obsessed elites of Italian society would hold massive masked dances, which we call 'balls' after the Italian words for dance--ballare. Renaissance Italians believed in perfecting all of the arts, and dance was no exception. Dancing instructors trained the elites in the advanced steps and motions, combining athleticism with art in huge dance parties.

Ballet in France

In the heart of Renaissance Italy was the city of Florence, and at the heart of Florence was the Medici family. These wealthy bankers were amongst the greatest patrons of art the world has ever known, and throughout the Renaissance they used their wealth to secure marriages into nobility across Europe.

In the 16th century, there was a woman named Catherine de' Medici, who was an Italian woman of noble birth and achieved one of the greatest marriages in her family's history to King Henry II of France. Catherine brought the Medici tradition of supporting the arts to France, including her love of dance. In the French courts, a new style of dance slowly began to emerge. It combined the refined movements and fancy costumes of the Italian balls with a more performance-based element, where professionals danced and the nobles watched for intellectual entertainment. The costumes became lighter, allowing for a greater range of movement, and the dances more complex. Catherine hosted the first formal performance of this new art in 1581. It was called the ballet du cour.

A French ballet in 1582
ballet

Ballet du cour, literally dance of the court in French, was the earliest version of ballet, and it became extremely popular in France. All of the French nobles loved it, but none could match the enthusiasm of Louis XIV, who was the king of France from 1643-1715. Under Louis XIV, the movements, costumes, stories, and music of ballet were codified and refined. Dance schools and ballet theaters were built and formally supported by the Crown. To this day, most official terms for ballet techniques are in French. Louis himself was a talented dancer, often called the 'Sun King' throughout his reign due to a role he performed in a popular ballet of the time. Incidentally, as a result of his dancing he was also incredibly proud of his legs and had many portraits painted to show them off.

Louis XIV, showing off
Louis XIV

Ballet in the 19th Century

Ballet remained fairly consistent over the century. By the beginning of the 1800s, however, the Romanticism movement in art that led to musical geniuses like Ludwig van Beethoven was emerging. Ballet was caught up in a new wave of artist enthusiasm. The story became a more important part of ballet, and new techniques were developed. It was in the tradition of early 19th century Romantic ballet that dancing on the toes, or en pointe, first became a standard part of the performance, reserved for female dancers. These dancers also began wearing a knee-length skirt rather than a full dress. It would eventually be called the tutu.

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