The History of Ballet

Ballet can be traced back to early Italian Renaissance when lavish dances that incorporated many arts were performed in banquet halls and based on the dances of the day. During the first ballets, poets recited their writings, artists painted and singers sang. It was more of a collective celebration of the arts, so to speak. However, ballet as we know it today, was polished by the French. It was the French Pierre Beauchamp who developed the five positions of the feet, still used today as the basis for all ballet moves.

Professional ballet did not make its debut in history until the 1600s under the reign of Louis XIV. Louis established a professional dance organization called the Acadamie Royale de Danse. When the organization was established, most dancers were men. Even the female roles in ballet were performed by men dressed as women. The first female dancer in the history of ballet did not perform until 1681 in a ballet entitled “The Triumph of Love” or “Le Triomphe de ‘lamour”.

It wasn’t until the 1700s that the idea of ballet linked with music came about when ballet was combined with opera. Often, ballet would be performed between courses at an opera and eventually within the opera itself. Only later did the two separate and ballet became its own entity.

French dancer Marie Camargo revolutionized ballet when she sent the costumes of the dance into history. Until Marie shortened her skirts and wore slippers on her feet, dancers wore elaborate costumes and headdresses for ballet. Marie changed all of that. Pointe shoes were introduced around 1830. These shoes allowed a woman to float in her dance, which was ideal, as many roles of the female dancer were that of spirits and other unearthly beauties.

Russia quickly caught on to the beauty of ballet and soon, in the 1900s, dancers were attending ballet schools from a young age, training to be professional ballet dancers.

Ballet came to America in the early 1900s via ballet dancer George Balanchine. He started the American Ballet, now known as the New York City ballet. The style of dance quickly caught on, and now contemporary American dancers are as integral a part of ballet as Russian and French dancers and choreographers.

Ballet as seen today is a combination of efforts from history. The evolution of costumes, roles, music and story are now consistent in classical ballet. A classical ballet will always have scenery, often rotating throughout the story. A ballet will always tell a story. Usually, the story of ballet revolves around a tale of lovers with a problem that must be resolved. Often, as with the Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, the story is one that audiences are familiar with. Others, they are not. In ballet, the whole story is set to music; the music is created by a composer. And, while costume styles may change, the female ballet dancer, or ballerina, will always be seen in point shoes, allowing her to raise up on her toes as though floating on air.

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