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History Of Ballet

By Cameron Cunningham, Executive and Artistic Director of Reverent Rhythms. 

Origin of Ballet:

Ballet, as we use the term today, originated in Italy. The word Ballet stems from the Italian word “Balleto” which means “little dance.” The art form of ballet originated from the social dancing and choreographic display of movement that took place in the Italian renaissance courts of social gatherings. This movement artform included the appropriate behavior and clothing to use when in the courts and even your physical proximity to royalty, such as bowing or stepping movements (The origins of ballet - Jennifer Tortorello and Adrienne Westwood., 2016). They had to maintain an upright posture because of the clothing they wore and balanced on the balls of their feet because of the heels on their shoes. Ballet masters were then hired to teach the proper technique of these social dances to the courts (The History of Ballet., 2016).

Those who were able to properly grasp the court's etiquette gained higher social standing. As this choreographed social gathering movement etiquette of proper stepping and bowing continued to develop in Italy, it eventually migrated to France for further development. Upon the marriage of Italy’s Catherine De Mdice to France’s King Henry the II, the development of ballet shifted countries in the 1600’s. Through the development of more lavish royal celebrations, the appointed dance masters began to teach social dancing routines to young nobles. The focus began to shift from social gathering dancing to a performance art. The dance master then began to incorporate more storytelling into the performances. Once Louis the 14th was crowned king, he began to incorporate a more strict training regiment to ballet as he also promoted the continued theatrical growth of the art. Louis the 14th is responsible for what we know today as ballet. Louis performed 80 roles in many ballets, typically as the lead. He trained in ballet, fencing and horseback riding - all influencing the movement of the codified ballet technique we know today. Louis was responsible for the founding of the Royal Academy of Dance, where he promoted his personal ballet instructor Pier Beauchamp as the head ballet master. Pier was responsible for organizing and solidifying the five main positions of ballet that we still use today (which stemmed from the positions of fencing). Pier collaborated with Jean Baptiste Lully the director of the Royal Academy of Music and Moliere a famous playwright at the time to create large scale theatrical ballet productions. In 1669 a separate ballet academy was founded, the Paris Opera Ballet. To this day, the Paris Opera Ballet is the oldest Ballet Company in existence. Ballet moved away from the royal courts and into the theater! 

The romantic movement  with folklore and ethereal characters continued to develop. The culture developed an interest in mysterious, dramatic and traumatic story lines within the theater which established the direction of large scale ballets. As the popularity of theater attendance grew and ballet continued to become increasingly desired as the major medium of entertainment, more countries began to adopt similar techniques and develop them with their own flavor. Major influence from Russia affected one branch of ballet development (The origins of ballet - Jennifer Tortorello and Adrienne Westwood., 2016) During the Cold War, America developed it’s love for art through  films and movies whereas the Soviety Union, Russia, continued to develop its trade in Ballet. The Russians took, and still do, major pride in their culture through the arts and sports (Why Russians Are So Good At Ballet). Although ballet was born in Italy and codified in France it was truly developed as a sport in excellence with a political undertone in Russia. The art of Ballet quickly became strongly associated with the heart of Russian culture during this time. 

Ballet arrived in the United States in the 1900’s with a large wave of Russian immigrants after the Russian imperial government was overthrown and years of civil war followed. This gave way to a communist party that ruled the country for quite some time. With this came an attempt by the government to close theaters and rid the country of any aristicat culture. Many of the Russians who migrated to America during this time were theater professionals. All of Russian performers were closely watched and restricted by the Russian government at the time. George Balanchine gave birth to ballet in America as a Russian choreographer upon co-founding the School of American Ballet in 1934. Russian ballet has influenced just about all dance in American to this day. The soviet Union is also the reason for a sudden increase in male Ballet dancers. The Soviets attempted to gain political power through their theatrical performances. Upon Soviets allowance of performance touring, the western world was exposed to such ballet performances and technique (Why Russians Are So Good At Ballet).

Ballet continued to develop in America and was a direct representation of the political atmosphere of the time. “Early classical ballets such as Giselle and La Sylphide were created during the Romantic Movement in the first half of the 19th century. This movement influenced art, music and ballet. It was concerned with the supernatural world of spirits and magic and often showed women as passive and fragile. These themes are reflected in the ballets of the time and are called romantic ballets. This is also the period of time when dancing on the tips of the toes, known as pointe work, became the norm for the ballerina. The romantic tutu, a calf-length, full skirt made of tulle, was introduced… Marius Petipa’s The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, by Petipa and Lev Ivanov, represent classical ballet in its grandest form.” The focus began to shift to showcasing athletic feets of techniew including pointe work and high extensions. This is when the ballet tutu shortened from what was previously used in the Romantic period to a classical tutu (A Brief History of Ballet - Illustrated by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre).

Seirgei Diaghilev, a Russian choreographers of the early 20th century, along with Michel Fokine, moved past the confines of classical ballet and began to experiment with movement and costumes in a new light. Collaborating with  Igor Stravinsky on the ballet The Rite of Spring, Diaghilev caused a riot by the audience because of the ballet's controversial content! The Rite of Spring was much unlike the romantic and classical ballets that preceded it, as it contained human sacrifice, dissonant music and odd new movement. George Balanchine then began to introduce Neo - Classical ballet. Balanchine was considered by many to be the innovator of the contemporary “plotless” ballet. His ballets had no definite storyline which was a huge shift from the original royal commissioned ballets of france. Balanchine was created with the purpose  to use movement to express the music and to illuminate human emotion and endeavor (A Brief History of Ballet - Illustrated by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre).


 “Today, ballet is multifaceted. Classical forms, traditional stories and contemporary choreographic innovations intertwine to produce the character of modern ballet” (A Brief History of Ballet - Illustrated by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre).

Major Styles of Ballet Technique:

There are six major ballet techniques that are practiced today. Most ballet instructors have a strong training in one or several of the following...

  • Bournonville Method, Danish Style

    • Diagonal épaulements, in which the body turn towards the working foot

    • Basic use of arms

    • Pirouettes from a low developpé position into seconde

    • Fifth position bras en bas for both beginning and end movements

    • Beautiful ballon (“the illusion of imponderable lightness”)

  • French Method, Modern Codified Technique

    • Fluidity

    • Elegant and clean lines

    • Technical precision

    • Gracefulness

    • Fast footwork

  • Cecchetti Method, Italian Style

    • Ballon

    • Elevations

    • Balance

    • Strength

    • Poise

    • Eight port de bras

  • Balanchine Method, American Style

    • Deep pliés

    • Extreme speed

    • Athletic dance quality

    • Pirouettes en dehors from a lunge in fourth position (with a straight back leg)

  • Vaganova Method, Russian Style

    • Flexibility

    • Strength

    • Endurance

  • Royal Academy of Dance Method, English Style

    • Free movement

    • Character dance

    • Incorporation of classical ballet

    • Merging of the French, Cecchetti, Vaganova, and Bournonville methods

(Different Types of Ballet: Styles & Ballet Terminology - The Grand., 2020).

List of Classical Ballets You Should Know:


Different Styles of Ballet Resources:

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