Skip to main content

Ballet, the beginnings of the dance

Italian ballet had its beginnings in Italian Renaissance dance.

Italian ballet had its beginnings in Italian Renaissance dance.

On pointe.

On pointe.

Italian Renaissance dancers performing for the French court.

Italian Renaissance dancers performing for the French court.

.Modern Italian ballerina - more acrobatic

.Modern Italian ballerina - more acrobatic


Ballet - as a young child I began ballet lessons when I was four years old. Of course, I thought I was a ballerina princess dressed in my leotard and purple tutu. I progressed through the years and was in many dance recitals and gave up the purple tutu for other colors, but I never forgot the basic steps I learned, the first through fifth positions for feet and arms. I danced ballet until about ten years old when I decided I wanted to concentrate all my time on piano.

I highly recommend giving dance and/or music lessons to children when they are small as it helps them to learn to focus and helps them to learn to practice that art in order to progress. It teaches discipline and perseverance to children which are important qualities for them to learn outside of school. I value today what I learned in ballet nearly forty years ago.

Today, I exercise to to a video from the New York City Ballet and it is haws wonderful stretching and exercises for the body. Although I have given up the tutu, I still wear the leotard although I would never let anyone see me in it today. I practice in the privacy of my home and these exercises are great for the body and help to tighten and sculpt the body form. These exercises, when done correctly, also help to maintain great posture.

Ballet as a dance form has been around for centuries, but exactly where did it begin?

Ballet's beginnings are in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th and 16th centuries and was the 'hot' dance of the Venetians.

Ballet originated as an outgrowth of Italian court pageantry where aristocratic weddings were huge and lavish celebrations. These pageantry's included court musicians and dancers who collaborated to provide elaborate entertainment for the Italian court and included the nobility joining in on the dances. Ballet began as a participatory dance form.

Tutus, ballet slippers and pointe work were not used in Renaissance times and would come later to the formalized and stylized dance as we know it today. The performers dressed in the fashions of the times, and the women wore formal gowns that covered their legs to the ankles. The choreography for these Italian ballets were taken from the court dance steps.

The term ballet is French but its origins are from the Italian balleto, a short form of ballo (dance) and the Italian ballare (to dance).

The first great Italian ballet master was Domenico da Piacenza (c. 1400-c. 1470) who was trained in dance and responsible for teaching court nobles the art. Then came Bergonzio di Botta, who arranged elaborate dance entertainments for the celebrations of marriages, specifically, the marriage of Galeazzo (Duke of Milan) to Isabella of Aragon in 1489,

Botta's dances were linked to the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece and each dance corresponded to a different course for the marriage dinner of which there were many.

The ballet comico was also created and formed in Italy by Balthasar de Beaujoyeiux and was known as a ballet comique (ballet drama), the Balthasar de Beaujoyeiux's Ballet Comique de la Reine in 1581.

During this time, Italy became the established center of technical ballet and Italian ballet evolved with the publication of Ill Ballarino written by Fabritio Caroso and was a technical manual on court dancing, both for performance and social gatherings.

This was the go-to manual for any court in Italy wanting to incorporate ballet into their court performances. At first these ballets were performed during intermissions or between acts of an opera (which also began in Italy) to allow the audience a moment of relief from the dramatic intensity of the opera.

By the mid-17th century, Italian ballets in their entirety were performed in between acts of an opera. Over time, these ballets began to stand alone as performances and became just as important as Italian opera..

La Scala Theatre Ballet is the resident classical ballet company at La Scala (the opera house) in Milan, Italy and was founded in 1778. It is the oldest a most renowned ballet company in the world. It was in the Sforza family's (Duke of Milan) court in the 16th century that classical ballet was born as an art form. Italian ballerinas were and are classically trained even today.

Scroll to Continue

So how did ballet become so closely associated with France and take on French ballet terms and vocabulary?

Louis XIV performing ballet in Lully's "Ballet de la Nuit" (1653) in the French court.

Louis XIV performing ballet in Lully's "Ballet de la Nuit" (1653) in the French court.

Italian MarieTaglioni (c.1831) the pioneer of pointe work, performing in France.

Italian MarieTaglioni (c.1831) the pioneer of pointe work, performing in France.

Modern French ballerina - more romantic.

Modern French ballerina - more romantic.


Ballet made the great leap from Italy to France through Catherine de'Medici, an Italian aristocrat from the de' Medici family of Florence, Italy, and who had an intense interest in the arts, who married the French crown prince and heir to the throne, Henry II.

Catherine brought her enthusiasm for dance to France and provided the financial support for it in the French courts. But, Catherine was quite saavy and her glittering dance entertainments supported the aims of the French court politics.

The first ballet de cour was choreographed by Italian Balthasar de Beaujoyeiux, whom Catherine had brought from Italy. His choreography consisted of social dances performed by the French nobility along with music, speech, verse, song, pageant, decor and costume.

Ballet went on to evolve as a performance art form in France during the reign of Louis XIV who was passionate about dance and began formal dance lessons and performance dancing at the age of thirteen. Under Louis XIV, ballet grew leaps and bounds in France.

French Pierre Beauchamp, a master ballet dancer codified the five formal positions of the feet and arms through which all balletic movements move. He was Louis' personal dance teacher and his favorite partner in ballet de cour in the 1650's. At this time, only men were permitted to dance in performances in the French court, so two males as dance partners was not considered strange at all. It was Beauchamp that was the great French ballet master and responsible for the creation of courtly ballets in the 1650's and 1660's during Louis' reign.

However, Louis brought Jean-Baptist Lully, an Italian violinist, dancer, choreographer, and composer from Italy to France in 1652 to add his artistry to the court's dances. Lully was responsible for enlivening the staid court dances by adding more movement and jumps to the ballets. He began to put women in the ballets on stage, but men where still the principle dancers. Ballerinas as we know them today would come later in ballet history.

Lully frequently starred Louis in his ballets and Louis' title Sun King actually comes from his role in Lully's Ballet de la Nuit (1653), a twelve hour ballet in which the king danced five different roles. This ballet was quite lavish and Lully's main contributions to the ballet were his nuanced compositions and dance movements.

Lully's understanding of movement and dance along with music permitted him to compose especially for ballet with musical phrasings that complimented the dancer's physical movements.

He also collaborated with French playwright, Moliere and along with King Louis XIV, Jean-Baptise Lully, and Pierre Beauchamps and the combination of their different talents, they shaped ballet to what it is today.

It is because of these four men that ballet has become so closely associated with the French.

By the 19th century, ballet masters began to gradually turn the spotlight away from the male dancer to the female dancer, and the ballerina, as we know her today, was formed and became the the principle performer on the stage. The ballerina became the most popular dance performer in Europe and Vienna, Austria became the important source of ballet coaches.

With the emergence of Marie Taglioni, an Italian ballerina (c.1831), pointe work was first added to the ballerina's repertoire. Pointe work was a new technique in ballet and the specially made ballet slippers, with wood blocks and padding to support the toes, permitted the ballerina to dance on the tips of her toes. This gave the ballerina prominence as the principle stage figure. Now the spotlight was on the ballerina.

Taglioni was the pioneer in pointe work and was the first to dance it in Didelot's ballet, Zephire et Flore. Her elegance in dancing on her toes, added to the ballerina's loveliness and breathless quality of the ballet dance.

Now, ballerina's began to wear costumes with pastel colored, flowing skirts that bared the shins. With the emergence of the Romantic Period in literature and poetry, women in ballets were portrayed as fragile, unearthly beings, ethereal creatures who could be lifted effortlessly and almost seemed to float in the air.

The leading European professional ballet companies were established during the 19th century also. Some of them were:

  • Kiev Ballet (Russia)
  • Hungarian National Ballet
  • National Theatre Ballet (Praque, Czhech)
  • Vienna State Ballet (Austria)
"Dance Class" painted by Edgar Degas.  The dancers exemplify the tutus worn by ballerinas in the 19th century.

"Dance Class" painted by Edgar Degas. The dancers exemplify the tutus worn by ballerinas in the 19th century.

Agrippina Vaganova combined French and Italian ballet to conceive her own Russian ballet method, one of the strictest ballet methods in the world.

Agrippina Vaganova combined French and Italian ballet to conceive her own Russian ballet method, one of the strictest ballet methods in the world.

The short tutu as we know it today was created and first used in Russia.

The short tutu as we know it today was created and first used in Russia.


Ballet came to Russia from France in the 18th century. The first ballet school in Russia was the Imperial School of Ballet (1738) and was located in St. Petersburg. This ballet school was begun under the instruction of Jean-Baptist Lande from France.

Years later the Kirov Ballet (today called the Mariinsky Ballet) and the Bolshoi Ballet companies were formed in Russia and are well renowned today throughout the world.

It is in Russia that we have the birth of the female classical tutu as we are familiar with today. A short, stiff skirt supported by layers of crinoline or tulle and it began to appear at this time in ballets all over Russia. It became so popular that eventually the short tutu was used by ballet companies throughout Europe. It was noted for revealing the acrobatic leg work of the ballerina.

The Russian Imperial School of Ballet eventually incorporated the Vaganova system of ballet instruction, the most strict ballet instruction in the world even today, developed by Agrippina Vaganova.

Agrippina Vaganova (1879 - 1951) was a Russian ballerina and instructor who graduated from the Imperial Russian Ballet School (1897) in St. Petersburg and danced with the Imperial Russian Ballet. She retired from the ballet company 1916 to pursue a teaching career in ballet.

In 1921 she returned as a ballet instructor to her previous school, now renamed the Leningrad Choreographic School. She taught ballet for thirty years and developed her own ballet technique and training method to teach her technique.

She mixed the elements of traditional French technique from the Romantic Era with the athleticism and virtuosity of the Italian technique. Her training system involves the entire body in every movement with equal attention paid to the upper body, legs, and feet. Her training includes the development of lower back strength and arm plasticity with the strength, flexibility, and endurance required for ballet.

She believed this approach increased consciousness of the body, thus creating a better harmony of movement and a greater expressed range for the ballerina. Vaganova wrote and published Basic Principles of Russian Classical Dance (1948), which outlined her training method and ballet technique. She died in 1951.

The Vaganova method of ballet today is the most widely used ballet teaching method in Russia. It is also used in Europe and in North America.

The next great Russian to influence ballet was Sergei Diaghilev who founded the Ballets Russes in 1909. He brought ballet back to Paris, France where he opened his ballet company. It was made up with dancers from the Russian exile community in Paris after the Russian Revolution.

Famed Russian ballet dancer, Mikhail Barishnikov, was Diaghilev's protege, who went on to become director of American Ballet Theatre in New York City in 1980.

Vaganova Method of Ballet

  • Contemporary ballet
    Contemporary ballet is different from classical ballet. While I studied classical ballet as a child, and today, classical ballet is still my preference, there is a new form of ballet that began in the 20th century and is still going strong today,...

French Ballet Terms

Although ballet had its beginnings in Italy and an Italian ballerina was the first to perform pointe work in a ballet, the terms for the ballet positions and dance are maintained in French even today. At four and five years old, little ballerinas begin learning the French terms and names for the dance positions they perform.

Here is a list of the most common ballet positions in French and with English definitions:

adagio - a succession of slow and graceful movements which may be simple or complex.

arabesque - standing on one leg with raised leg extended in a straight line to rear and foot pointed (4 positions used)

attitude - a position on one leg with the other lifted in back, the knee bent at a 90 degree angle and well turned out so that the knee is higher than the foot.

balance - a rocking step; an alternation of balance, shifting the weight from one foot to the other.

demi-plie - a half bend of the knees. All steps of elevation begin and end with a demi-plie.

entrechat - a step of beating in which the dancer jumps into the air and rapidly crosses legs before and behind each other.

extension - used to describe the ability of a dance to raise and hold her extended leg in the air.

jete - a jump from one foot to the other in which the working leg is brushed into the air and appears to have been thrown.

pas - a simple step or a compound movement which involves a transfer of weight

pas de deux - a dance for two

pirouette - a whirl or spin - a complete turn of the body on one foot, on pointe or demi-point

plie - a beat or bending of the knee or knees. This is an exercise to render the joints and muscles soft and pliable and the tendons flexible and elastic and to develop a sense of balance.

pointe - the raising of the body on the tips of toes. Used from c. 1830 on in ballet. There are three ways of reaching pointe: by pique, by releve, by saute.

pique - executed by stepping directly on the pointe or demi-pointe of the working foot in any desired direction or position with the other foot raised in the air.

releve - raised or raising of the body on pointe or demi-pointe. A traveling step.

saute - added to the name of a step when the movement is performed while jumping.

tendu - stretched. From the first or fifth foot position the working leg is extended to either the front, side or back gradually along the floor until only the tip of the toe remains touching the floor.

The ballet terms and positions performed

Tango by Italian Ballet

© 2014 Suzette Walker


Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on December 30, 2014:

Peter Grujic: Thank you so much for reading this and I am glad you enjoyed it. Ballet is my favorite form of dance and fortunately I danced it when I was a young girl. Thanks so much for your visit.

Peter Alexander from Pittsburgh on December 27, 2014:

I really liked this article- well written. I have a great passion for ballet and always will. I never tire of learning new and exciting things about ballet

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on May 07, 2014:

MsDora: Thanks so much for your lovely comments and for reading this. I love ballet, although I know it is not everyone's favorite type of dancing. I love the precision of the dance and the lines it presents in the dance. I took ballet as a child and to this day, I love to do ballet exercises. I am so pleased you enjoyed this hub and thanks so much for your visit.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 05, 2014:

I totally enjoyed this presentation on the ballet. You offered interesting details on its origin and the impact of various cultures. Great article! Voted Up!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 18, 2014:

Dim: Wow! I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this and that it brought back fond memories for you. We forget today how much work ballet was and all the practice and exercises we had to do. I loved taking ballet and to this day I love it and love to attend ballets. So glad to hear you played the piano also. Thanks so much for your visit and your precious comments.

Dim Flaxenwick from Great Britain on February 17, 2014:

WOW! This brought tears to my eyes as it brought back memories of my feeble attempts at Ballet from the age of 6.I too went on to concentrate more on playing the piano.

Your hub is so thorough , such depth of interest that l had to read it twice.

There is so much l didn't know. Thank you for a fantastic hub (and thanks for the memories.)

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 03, 2014:

Nell: I write in spurts. I get ideas that stack up all at once and then I can go a week and not think of a topic to write on. LOL! I can't believe all that you write with all your Bubbles - three and four many times a day. That is remarkable and then you write on HP too. I can't write that much, but I tip my hat to you, Nell. I am so sorry to hear you had to give up ballet lessons. My mom made be choose between dance and piano and I opted for piano. I studied piano until I was 18, but a concert pianist I would never make - nor a professional ballerina. LOL! I am more talented when it comes to writing, I guess. Thanks so much for reading this and I appreciate your remarks!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 03, 2014:

cmoneyspinner: Thank you so much for your kind comments. I am glad you like my work. You also have an impressive body of work, too. I always enjoy your hubs. I am behind on commenting on those I follow, but I will get to your latest hub soon. Thanks so much for taking the time to read my hubs and don't feel you have to apologize for anything. We are all busy here on HP!

Nell Rose from England on February 03, 2014:

Now your talking! lol! what a great hub! and I see that you do ballet exercises too, so do I! I went to ballet for about 10 years, and was really disappointed when I had to leave because of lack of money at that time, many of my friends went onto stage work in london, I was gutted! great article, and you are certainly writing fast these days! lol!

Treathyl FOX from Austin, Texas on February 03, 2014:

@suzettenaples - Though I may not have time to visit and/or leave comments behind, I appreciate your HUBs. It's an impressive body of work you have here, nice lady.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 03, 2014:

Anne: Thanks for your visit and for reading this. I knew Louis XIV was into ballet, but I had no idea to such a large extent. A 12 hour ballet - I don't know if I could view a 12 hour ballet performance. That is a bit much! LOL! Yes, I think Louis was more interested in ballet than in running his country. So glad you enjoyed reading this.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 03, 2014:

bobkaiser: You are so right. Dancing does help to bring young men and women together in a pleasant way. Square dancing is a type of dance I have never done before, but I certainly would be game to learn to dance it. Thanks so much for visiting and for your insightful comments.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 03, 2014:

cmoneyspinner: Oh, that is so sad to hear! I was living in Ohio and NJ at the time I was taking ballet and you would have been welcome in my ballet class. That just breaks my heart and no it would not have been a waste of money. All children learn something from dance lessons even if they are not the best of dancers. I have seen the Harlem Dance Theater perform on TV and they are amazing. I agree that the arts should always be part of school curriculum - it is so important for students to be able to express themselves creatively and it is important to humanity to learn the arts. Thank you so much for reading this and I appreciate your insightful comments.

Anne Harrison from Australia on February 02, 2014:

What an amazing article, thank you. I had no idea Louis XIV performed in ballets…might explain a lot about French history! Voted up

Joseph Kaiser from Daytona Beach, Florida on February 01, 2014:

I remember when I was in kindergarten, I learned to square dance, many years later I am very surprised square dancing at least where I live never caught on, it's a good way for young men and young women to mingle and meet!

Treathyl FOX from Austin, Texas on February 01, 2014:

As a child I remember my mother telling me that she couldn't sign me up for ballet classes because she couldn't find anybody who wanted to teach a "colored child" ballet.

No matter. It would have a waste of my mom's hard earned money. I was glad for the piano lessons which served as the alternative.

However, I am very grateful that the Harlem Dance Theater now exists but even more appreciative that the art form was developed by pioneers during the Italian Renaissance. I very much enjoy watching a good ballet performance.

I wholeheartedly agree with you that the arts should be a part of the school curriculum. Education is really incomplete without it.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 01, 2014:

Faith: I am so happy to hear you gave ballet, tap and jazz lessons to your daughter. I bet she was adorable as a dancer. I hope your granddaughters take dance lessons also. I think it is great exercise for little girls (and big girls too! LOL) I was a hoot in my purple tutu and when I was four I was fixated on that color of tutu. I don't know why. I am not so cute in my leotard today! LOL! Thanks for your visit and your comments, Faith. Always appreciated.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 01, 2014:

Jackie: I think you are right. At some point we all want to be ballerinas. I was fortunate to have parents that gave me dance lessons and I have never forgotten that or my basic ballet steps. I am so glad you enjoyed this and thanks so much for your comments.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 01, 2014:

Ruchira: Thank you so much for your visit and I am glad you enjoyed reading this. Ballet is my favorite form of dance and I just love it. It is so exquisite and full of poise as you say. Thanks for your comments.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on January 31, 2014:

Yes, all little girls should get to take ballet and see what comes from that experience! My daughter had ballet, tap and jazz and enjoy it very much. I hope my granddaughters start soon! My oldest looks like a ballerina with her shape and body build. I was never able to take ballet lessons as a child, but sure would have loved to do so. I can see you in your tights : ) I can understand how great it is for one's body with all the stretching and great posture no doubt!

Excellent hub, very informative. Up and more and sharing.

Have a great weekend dear Suzzette,

Faith Reaper

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on January 31, 2014:

I think most little girls want to be a ballerina! I didn't get to be but a friend did and I got to enjoy it through her and I did get into dance later and do not remember a contest I didn't win so I guess in a round about way it really had an affect on me.

Loved all your info!

Ruchira from United States on January 31, 2014:

Wow this was such an elaborate hub on ballet. I find this kind of dance so exquisite and yet full of poise.

I loved reading about the different countries and their characteristics. thanks suzette for an informative article :)

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on January 31, 2014:

Colin: You are too sweet! To have something of mine hang over your bed is an honor for sure! I thought you might enjoy this one - thanks so much for your visit and for your kind comments. You are the best! Ohio time 11:55 am and deep in snow! LOL!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on January 31, 2014:

Bill: I salute you for seeing the Nutcracker Suite each Christmas. You have good taste in ballet! I didn't know all this myself until I researched it. For example, I didn't know the short tutu came from Russia originally and I should have known that. Perhaps I did and have forgotten it. It has been a long time since I danced ballet. LOL! Thanks so much for your visit and comments - always appreciated.

Mr. Stewart of Colin aka the Epi-man on January 31, 2014:

I think I will have to frame your fabulous Hub presentation my sensational Suzette and hang it over my bed. In the meantime I will post your labor of love on my FB timeline with mad delight and obvious pride as you know I simply adore the ballet myself.

Once again you have reached new journalistic heights with your world class research and passion for the subject. I love your personal touches as well which draws the reader in through your own personal point of view. Thank you sincerely for fulfilling a personal dream hub of mine

and delivering a Christmas present to me 11 months ahead of time. Canada time 11:15am

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 31, 2014:

I readily admit to ignorance here, Suzette. I see The Nutcracker every holiday season and that's it for my ballet education. Thanks for the information and have a great weekend.

Related Articles