History of Ballet – How did Ballet start?

Italy – Origin:

Ballet comes from the Italian word “ballare,” which means “to dance”.

Elevate DA Appreciation Series - Ballet History - Renaissance Court Dance
Renaissance Court Dance. Sourced from https://dancetimepublications.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/REVISED-REN_Dance_8_31_12.pdf

It began in 15th – 16th century in Italy during the Renaissance period as a court dance, in grand estates and palaces. It was the aristocratic money that dictated the ideas, literature and music used as ballet was for the aristocrats’ entertainment and political propaganda, and predominantly performed by men. Tutus, ballet slippers and pointe work were not yet used. The choreography was adapted from court dance steps.

Ballet was participatory with the audience joining the dance at the end. Steps composed were small hops, slides, curtsies, promenades, and gentle turns as dancers wore sumptuous restrictive clothing such as heavy headdresses, masks, formal gowns and layered brocaded costuming to re-enact mythology which is heavy on gods and heroes. Ballets were first included in to the midst of an opera to allow the audience a moment of relief from the dramatic intensity.


France – Classical Ballet:

Ballet de Polonaise 1573
Ballet de Polonaise 1573. Sourced from http://danzistica.blogspot.com/2009/04/le-ballet-des-polonais-1573.html

When an Italian aristocrat, Catherine de Medici (1519 – 1589) married the French King Henry II, she introduced early dance styles into court life in France and offered financial help. She commissioned the first formal ‘ballet de cour’ or court ballet, Ballet de Polonaise in 1573 to honour the Polish ambassadors who were visiting Paris upon the accession of Henry of Anjou to the throne of Poland. And later along with her compatriot, Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx commissioned Ballet Comique de la Reine 1581 which was the first court ballet that integrated poetry, dance, music and set design to convey a unified dramatic storyline.

In the late 17th century, terminology and vocabulary of ballet was then formalised and codified in French. French choreographer, dancer and composer Pierre Beauchamp codified the five positions of the feet and arms.

Famous ballet dancer and choreographer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632 – 1687) often cast the King Louis XIV, a passionate dancer, in his ballets. Lully with Moliére, a French playwright created the comédie-ballet genre; a spoken play with intermission containing both music and dance. The first example was Les Fâcheux. Lully also created the tragédie en musique genre; French opera which was based on stories from Classical mythology or the Italian romantic epics, which covered nobility and grandness, and the stories may not necessarily have a tragic ending.

Elevate DA Appreciation Series - Ballet History - King Louis XIV 1653
King Louis XIV in Lully’s Ballet Royal de la Nuit 1653. Sourced from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_ballet

King Louis XIV who performed many of the popular dances himself, established the Academie d’Opera in 1669. The forerunner of the Paris Opéra Ballet, which paved the way for ballet as a profession. Ballet soon started to develop from the courts to theatre-stage performance-focused art form, although was initially associated with opera. Gradually, professional dancers were hired. 

Before 1681, there were no women ballet dancers. Men danced the feminine roles. The first major woman dancer was Marie Anne de Cupis de Camargo (1710 – 1770), who danced 1726 – 1751 and was one of the first dancers to wear slippers instead of heeled shoes and also the first woman to execute the entrechat quatre.

The 18th century was a period when ballet became an independent dramatic art form on par with the opera. Previously, ballets were only performed in between the acts of an opera. Several choreographers developed ballet as a story-telling medium, mainly still with mythology but addition of nobles and princesses, peasants and romantic rendezvous. The technical standards of ballet advanced and central to this was the work of Frenchman Jean-Georges Noverre (1727 – 1810). He argued that ballet should be technical but also emotional with simple and understandable pantomime and, unified plots with supporting scenery and music. The birth of Classical Ballet.



Ballet then spread to other nations. The Royal Danish Ballet (1748) and the Russia’s Imperial Ballet (1738), now known as Mariinsky Ballet, also formerly known as Kirov Ballet were founded.

Elevate DA Appreciation Series - Ballet History - Jean-Baptiste_Lande
Jean-Baptiste_Lande, founder of the Russian Imperial Ballet. Sourced from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Baptiste_Land%C3%A9

In Russia, ballet expanded widely as the state decided to make ballet an official art form with centralised planning and the shrewd use of resources. Teachers from France and Italy were brought in. At Russia’s Imperial Theatres and ballet schools, the Italian pantomime and traditional court ballet of Louis XIV’s reign were not only conserved, but nurtured and evolved further.

Ballet reached a high level in Russia partly because it was the most popular form of entertainment among the Russian aristocrats whereas opera was number one among the nobility in western Europe.

Russians of all social strata have also long been obsessed with dancing. Young Russians saw ballet as the quickest route to national and international glory, and the state strongly supported the development of promising dancers.


Change – Romantic Ballet:

Elevate Appreciation Series - Ballet History - Marie Taglioni as Flore in Charles Didelot 1831
Marie Taglioni as Flore in Charles Didelot 1831. Sourced from https://australianballet.com.au/ballet-101/short-history-of-ballet

The 19th century was a period of substantial social change. Ballet shifted from the aristocrats that had dominated earlier periods to the growing middle class. 

Romanticism or also known as the Romantic era, was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and a rejection of the Age of Enlightenment. The Industrial Revolution, about 1760 to between 1820 and 1840, was a period of development which saw massive changes to the way people lived and worked. It was a time when the goods manufacturing moved from small shops or homes to large factories. People moved from rural areas to big cities to work. The movement focused on art, science, reasons, literary, music and rationality. Cities were expanding with people leaving the countryside and scientific reasoning had taken over from the old religious belief and superstition.

Romantics tried to escape industrialism and turned to idealised imagination and nature. Young artist wanted the freedom to express in an unconstrained and individual way. They rejected the original classical ideas of order, balance and harmony; and turned to human themes of tragedy, love and loss as a source of inspiration.

Romantic Ballet was created, focused on sensuality and spirituality. Preliminary dancing on toes with only satin ballet slippers darned at the tips of the toes became popular at this time. The romantic tutu, a calf-length, full skirt made of tulle, was introduced. It was at this time, most creation was danced by female dancers, and male dancers were no longer an equal star. Technical proficiency rose, lighter costumes to portray elaborate and difficult movements, greater leaps to portray lightness, removal of masks and headdresses to allow expressive face, arms became softer and rounder to create delicate and elegant feel and forward tilt to create the sylphlike look.



During the latter half of the 19th century, especially after 1850, the popularity of ballet flourish in Russia and Denmark although it was beginning to wane in France.

Elevate DA Appreciation Series - Ballet History - Students-of-the-imperial-ballet-school-1891
Students of the Imperial Ballet School (St Petersburg) in Petipa’s Fairy Tale 1891. Sourced from https://bachtrack.com/article-ballet-focus-influence-italian-virtuosity-russian-ballet-july-2017

Masters such as August Bournonville (1805 – 1879), Enrico Cecchetti (1850 – 1928) and Marius Petipa (1818 – 1910) created great ballets in Russia. This made Russia the leading creative center of the dance world as ballet continued to evolve. When Frenchman Marius Petipa was appointed as the ballet master of the Mariinsky Theatre in 1871, he began to create some of the world’s most-loved ballets over four decades; The Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadere, and in collaboration with his deputy Lev Ivanov (1834 – 1901), they created Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. Mikhail Fokine (1880 – 1942), Vaslav Nijinsky (1889 – 1950), Léonide Massine (1896 – 1979), Bronislava Nijinska (1891 – 1972) and George Balanchine (1904 – 1983) were all the products of the Imperial Ballet School, and began their dance careers at the Mariinsky Theatre, as did Tamara Karsavina (1885 – 1978), Anna Pavlova (1881 – 1931), Adolph Bolm (1884 – 1951), Alexandra Danilova (1903 – 1997), Lydia Lopokova (1892 – 1981) and countless others.

In the 20th century, after the Russian Revolution 1905, many of Petipa’s choreographic notations were smuggled to the west and are still preserved and used to infuse modern ballet stagings.

Elevate DA Appreciation Series - Ballet History - Anna Pavlova
Anna Pavlova 1881–1931. Sourced from http://tutuetoile.com/ballet-costume-history/

In 1909, the Russian ballet moved to France, where the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev (1872 – 1929) rooted in Paris and toured throughout Europe, the United States and South America. It was recognised as the most influential ballet company of the 20th century where it transformed the future of ballet in the world. The company which was softly premiered in Russia brought together collaborations between artists, composers, choreographers, dancers, and fashion designers, with familiar names such as Picasso, Stravinsky, Balanchine, Nijinsky, and Chanel, among many others. It looked at both Russian and Western traditions in the form of stories, movements, music and design and turned them into one unity. The company’s famous principal choreographer was the original Fokine while his student Nijinsky emerged as the most prominent principal dancer. 

The classical tutu, much shorter and stiffer than the romantic tutu, was introduced at this time to allow freedom of movement, reveal ballerina’s legs and show the difficulty of footwork and movements.

More new companies were formed worldwide including The Royal Ballet (1931), the San Francisco Ballet (1933), American Ballet Theatre (1939), the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (1939), the New York City Ballet (1948), the National Ballet of Canada (1951).


References & Further Readings:

https://www.atlantaballet.com/resources/brief-history-of-ballet https://slate.com/culture/2013/03/bolshoi-ballet-acid-attack-why-do-russians-take-ballet-so-seriously.html http://factsanddetails.com/russia/Arts_Culture_Media_and_Sports/sub9_4c/entry-5047.html https://www.pbt.org/learn-and-engage/resources-audience-members/ballet-101/brief-history-ballet/ https://californiaballet.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/ballet-in-the-romantic-era/  https://medium.com/@BalletAustin/giselle-a-truly-romantic-ballet-f9ef0a2b51e8 https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_ballet https://kglteater.dk/en/about-us/arts/the-royal-danish-ballet/?section=27785 https://australianballet.com.au/ballet-101/short-history-of-ballet https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trag%C3%A9die_en_musique https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Com%C3%A9die-ballet https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giselle https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Beauchamp https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_ballet https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/diaghilev-and-the-ballets-russes http://www.ballets-russes.com/history.html http://factsanddetails.com/russia/Arts_Culture_Media_and_Sports/sub9_4c/entry-5047.html https://bachtrack.com/article-ballet-focus-influence-italian-virtuosity-russian-ballet-july-2017 https://dancetimepublications.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/REVISED-REN_Dance_8_31_12.pdf https://www.slideshare.net/nicolegilbert969/the-ballet-tutu http://tutuetoile.com/ballet-costume-history/