Ballet is a long-standing form of classical dance performance with a rich history. Over the ages it’s developed into the graceful art we know today. Here is a baker’s dozen facts you may not have known before about this beautiful style of theatre.
Ballet began in the early 1500’s in Italy as an entertainment for noble courts. It was popularized in France by the marriage of Catherine de Medici of Italy to the King of France, Henry II in 1533 and grew popular there and across Europe, leading to the mixture of French and Italian terms used in ballet.
And not just masks. In the earliest forms of ballet, dancers wore lavish costumes and the movements were much simpler and more reserved. Ballet had many of its roots in Italian masquerades, mummer’s plays, and Commedia dell’arte, an Italian form of theatre that involved masked character types and emphasized movement to tell a story.
Ballet was not always the pure dance and instrumental music that we picture today. The earliest versions of ballet mixed the dance with operatic performances and general drama as part of royal entertainment. Still, the beginnings of what we now see as ballet were there in the movements and certain segments of the performance.
Long before the first video game could even be conceived, the earliest ballet was interactive entertainment for court nobility. Dance masters would teach kings and other nobles the steps and they would perform them as part of the festivities towards the end in addition to viewing the performance.
As a devoted patron and fan of dance, King Louis XIV, one of the most famous kings of France, founded The Royal Ballet Academy and The Royal Music Academy. One of the earliest fathers of ballet, Jean-Baptiste Lully, wrote ballets for the French court and cast the king in roles, sometimes multiple roles in the same ballet. And if it surprises you that a king was a ballet dancer, you might also be interested to learn…
Though popular, modern thinking views ballet as an activity for girls and women, in many parts of Europe it was illegal or improper until the late 1600’s for women to dance publicly. So in a ballet performance, even the female roles in the story would be played by young male dancers in wigs and other costumes.
The first official female dancer did not appear until 1681 when a girl called Mademoiselle De Lafontaine danced in Lully’s L’Triomphe de L’amour (The Triumph of Love).
While the creation of the five positions has been attributed to a few different individuals, they were largely codified by Pierre Beauchamps in France during Louis XIV’s reign. One of their main purposes is to keep dancers balanced by allowing them to evenly rest the weight of their bodies between their feet, adding to the grace of motion.
That’s the combined weight of the various dancers they will have to lift up during certain performances and hold up in the air on stage. To do this, the male dancers have to stay fit and have complete body strength in their legs, arms, and torso. It takes a very powerful man to dance in ballet.
In professional performance and practice, a lot of wear and tear happens on a ballerina’s shoes. The turns and leaps of ballet quickly wear through the soft materials and in some extreme cases, a ballerina might need a new pair of shoes after just 1 hour of intense practice of performance.
Pointe shoes are the specialty shoes designed for taking the pointe position completely up on the toes. Even today, in our time of automation and machine building, all pointe shoes are still entirely made by hand by several companies around the world. For professional prima ballerinas, pointe shoes are sometimes custom made by hand to fit the individual’s foot perfectly.
Handmade professional tutus for the ballet can take 60-90 hours of work to completely build and use up to 120 yards of ruffled material. With all of that work and fabric, a full authentic tutu can cost around $1,500, which often makes it an honor and privilege to receive one in a full ballet company.
A prima ballerina may be able to complete 32 fouette turns in a row on the same spot, and some reports say that record holders can do over 100! When turning and keeping in the same spot, the ballerina’s pointe shoes create so much friction that they can become hot to the touch. After this, the shoe is considered worn out and must be replaced for the purpose of performance.
During the complex turns, it’s helpful to have a fixed point to focus on. This is referred to as “spotting”. In some theatres used for ballet, a blue light is mounted at the back of the auditorium behind the audience. Its entire purpose is to act as that point of focus for dancers to latch onto when doing fouettes, pirouettes, and other turns. The point allows them to keep oriented on where the front of the stage is and help them keep balance.
There’s plenty more to discover about the art and history of ballet. If you’re interested, you can find various in-depth books and articles that cover these topics. Use these as a starting point to learn and discover the fascinating world of ballet!