Student Post: The History of Ballet

The following was written by 8th grader, Colleen, as part of her independent project on ballet, which includes learning how to dance en pointe.

Ballet dancing is an art that has been around for hundreds of years, evolving into the basis for many types of dance that have branched off from classical ballet. While contemporary and modern dance incorporate movements of the time, ballet itself has stayed to generally the same principles and has an almost old-fashioned aspect to it, being centuries old.

Ballet originated in the 15th century as a formal dance in Italian Renaissance courts. Noblemen and women were treated to extravagant events, especially at weddings. The court participated in the music and dance and added to the spectacle. It was royal money that determined the ideas, music and literature that were used in ballet, so ballet was greatly influenced by the aristocrats of the time. In the 16th century Catherine de’ Medici played a big role in spreading ballet to France. The wife of King Henry II of France, Medici hosted ballets as entertainment, encouraging the growth of ‘court ballet’, a performance that included decor, dance, costume, music, and poetry, to create a storyline.

Another big aristocratic influence was Louis XIV in 17th century France. One of his contributions was through the Paris Opera Ballet, which came out of the Paris Opera. Theatrical ballet started to become recognized as an independent art, but still had ties to opera. In French dance schools, his directors were well known dancers, and they explored different styles of ballet. The predominate French in ballet vocabulary reflects this history, but ballet soon spread to other European countries. Styles of entertainment were imitated in other royal courts; Spain, Portugal, Germany, Poland, and other countries soon were having ballets as entertainment for the aristocrats. Some opera companies, which included ballet, would travel Europe, performing in various places.

The 19th century was a period of advancement for the technique of ballet. The ballets created at this time are known as romantic ballets; famous ones include “Giselle” and “La Sylphide.” These ballets depicted the world of spirits and magic, and often included women who were seen as fragile and passive. Ballet costume, such as long romantic tutus and Pointe, started to become the norm for the ballerina. Women danced on the tips of their toes to make them seem magical, airy, and weightless, like they could be lifted right off the ground. In Russia, ballet’s popularity soared, and especially in the last half of the century Russian choreographers took it to new heights. Classic ballets such as “The Nutcracker,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Swan Lake” were composed. The Russians displayed the classic techniques, like high extensions, pointe work, turn out, and precision of movement, to the fullest. Another change was made to the costume at this time, a shorter more stiff tutu than the romantic one was introduced to show off the dancers’ legs and allow for more ease of movement.

Throughout the 20th century dancers and choreographers experimented with the styles and movement even more, going beyond the classics of ballet. Great choreographers such as George Balanchine widened the faces of ballet, founding contemporary styles that didn’t follow a certain storyline but rather, the movements expressed the music and the human emotion. Today there is a wide range of styles that have developed, from contemporary to an almost old fashioned way, but it is a beautiful art that is a big piece of entertainment and art history.