The history of classical dance

Italian "balletto" in the 15th century

Classical dance traces its origins to Italy, during the 15th-century period known as the Renaissance. It was essential for noblemen and noblewomen of that era to be able to dance and move their bodies elegantly.


Ballet was democratized at weddings and important ceremonies organized by the nobility, where dancers were meant to entertain the guests. The word "ballet" comes from the French, who adapted the Italian word "balletto" which itself was a variation of "ballo", meaning "to dance".  

The emergence of classical dance in France during the Renaissance

The movement quickly spread throughout Europe, especially France, where ballet was an instant hit. The emergence of classical dance in France is due in large part to the support it got from the royal families. Indeed, when Catherine de Medici (who hailed from Florence) married the Henri II, the heir to French throne, in the 16th century, she came with her enthusiasm for dance and imposed it on the court. Hence, ballet in France was born.

It is said that the very first court ballet took place in 1581 at what is now the Louvre Museum. "The Comic Ballet of the Queen" by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx lasted five hours and most of the dancers were men! Its performances later served as the basis for the comic ballets by Lully and Molière.

The Baroque period and the advent of the
Académie Royale de Danse

During the Baroque period in the 17th century, classical dance was already known as an art form unto itself. In 1661 Louis XIV formed the Académie Royale de Danse which would later become the ballet of the Opéra National de Paris.


The five classic positions were codified by Pierre Beauchamp (1631-1705), a court dancer and choreographer. He also developed a dance rating system.

The Age of Enlightenment: ballet springs to life

The Age of Enlightenment marked a turning point for classical dance, as it shifted toward a far more expressive and artistic discipline. Jean-Georges Noverre created "ballet d'action" - also known as pantomime - in 1760 with the reforms described in his "Lettres sur la danse" ("Letters on Dancing"): dancers' movements should express feelings that help the ballet to be understood. Gluck's "Don Juan" in 1761 was the first pantomime ballet developed according to Noverre's writings.

Romanticism and the codification of ballet

The Romanticism period (19th century) saw a major acceleration in the codification of classical dance. Ballets became more romantic, more airy and more elaborate as the role of women changed. They came to the forefront, as men shifted into the background.


Tutus and pointe shoes were worn for at the Opéra de Paris for the first time in 1832 for a performance of "Sylphide".


This period was also influenced by Marius Petipa, a Frenchman who had lived in Russia for several years. He was responsible for many masterpieces that laid the foundation of classical dance. These include "La Bayadère", "Swan Lake", "The Nutcracker" and "Don Quixote". 

The modern era, or classical dance as we know it today

Classical dance has been modernizing since the 20th century. It grew into what we now recognize as ballet thanks to iconic choreographers like George Balanchine and William Forsythe.


The language of ballet is universal: French words are used all over the world to refer to most dance movements, including glissade, pas-de-bourré, pirouette and arabesque.

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