Ballet /’bæleɪ‘/ (French: [balɛ]) is a type of performance dance that originated in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th century and later developed into a concert dance form in France and Russia. It has since become a widespread, highly technical form of dance with its own vocabulary based on French terminology. It has been globally influential and has defined the foundational techniques used in many other dance genres. It has been taught in various schools around the world, which have historically incorporated their own cultures to evolve the art.
Ballet may also refer to a dance work, which consists of the choreography and music for a ballet production. A well-known example of this is The Nutcracker, a two-act ballet originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a music score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Ballets are choreographed and performed by trained ballet dancers. Traditional classical ballets usually are performed with classical music accompaniment and use elaborate costumes and staging, whereas modern ballets, such as the neoclassical works of American choreographer George Balanchine, often are performed in simple costumes (e.g., leotards and tights) and without the use of elaborate sets or scenery.
Dancing ballet is extremely popular throughout the world, and studying ballet can help develop strong bodies, spatial and temporal awareness, and improve coordination. People who study ballet also retain flexibility throughout their adult lives, making this technique the basis of training for all types of dance. While dancing ballet takes dedication and requires serious training, you can learn the basics to prepare yourself for further study. Learn to get ready for practicing, the basic positions, and some of the first techniques you’re likely to encounter in ballet.
History of ballet
It was originated in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th and 16th centuries before being spread from Italy to France by an Italian aristocrat, Catherine de’ Medici, who became Queen of France. In France, it developed even further under her aristocratic influence. The dancers in these early court ballets were mostly noble amateurs. Ballets in this period were lengthy and elaborate and often served a political purpose. The monarch displayed the country’s wealth through the elaborate performances’ power and magnificence. Ornamented costumes were meant to impress viewers, but they restricted performers’ freedom of movement.
In the 20th century, ballet had a wide influence on other dance genres, and subgenres of ballet have also evolved. In the United States, choreographer George Balanchine developed what is now known as neoclassical ballet. Other developments include contemporary ballet and post-structural ballet. Also in the twentieth century, ballet took a turn dividing it from classical ballet to the introduction of modern dance, leading to modernist movements in several countries. Famous dancers of the 20th century include Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Rosella Hightower, Maria Tall Chief, Erik Bruhn, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova, and Arthur Mitchell.
Costumes for ballet
Costumes play an important role in the ballet world. They are often the only survival of a production, representing a living imaginary picture of the scene.
During the twentieth century, costumes transitioned back to the influence of Russian ballet. Ballerina skirts became knee-length tutus later on in order to show off pointe work and mainly the technique of ballet dancers. During this era, costumes focused on the importance of a ballet dancers work and dance practice. Colors used on stage costumes also became much more vibrant. Designers used colors such as red, orange, yellow, etc. to create visual expression when dancers perform on stage.
Ballet as a music form progressed from simply a complement to dance, to a concrete compositional form that often had as much value as the dance that went along with it. The dance form, originating in France during the 17th century, began as a theatrical dance. It was not until the 19th century that ballet gained status as a “classical” form. In ballet, the terms ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’ are chronologically reversed from musical usage. Thus, the 19th century classical period in ballet coincided with the 19th century Romantic era in Music. Its music composers from the 17th–19th centuries, including the likes of Jean-Baptiste Lully and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, were predominantly in France and Russia. Yet with the increased international notoriety seen in Tchaikovsky’s lifetime, ballet music composition and in general it spread across the western world.
Glossary of Ballet Terms
Classical Ballet – a traditional style of ballet which stresses the academic technique developed through the centuries of the existence of ballet.
Modern Ballet – a type of ballet from the twentieth century. To this day, modern ballet looks to re-invent itself and reach out in an ever-increasing facet of creation and movement.
Ballerina – a female dancer in a ballet company.
Danseur – a male dancer in a ballet company.
Choreographer – a person who composes or invents ballets or dances.
Ballet Master or Ballet Mistress – a person in a ballet company whose job is to give the daily company class and to rehearse the ballets in the company repertoire.
Choreography – describes the steps, combinations and patterns of a dance.
Balletomane (bal lay toe mane) – A ballet fan or enthusiast.
Pointe Shoes – The satin ballet shoes used by dancers when dancing on their pointes (toes). Pointe shoes are reinforced with a box constructed of numerous layers of strong glue in between layers of material. Pointe shoes are not made of cement or wood.
Tutu – the short classical ballet skirt made of many layers of net. A romantic tutu is a long net skirt reaching below the calf.
Pas de Deux – a dance for two.
Adagio (u da zhe-o) – is a succession of slow, soft, lyrical and continuous movements. Adagio creates the illusion that the positions flow from one into another.
Allegro (a leg grow) – allegro in ballet involves fast and dynamic movements, usually jumping steps and sequences.
Barre – a horizontal bar (usually made of wood) along a studio wall for class exercises. Every ballet class begins with barre exercises.
Centre Practice – a group of exercises similar to those at the barre but performed in the center of the room. These exercises are done without the support of the barre and are normally performed with alternate feet.
Arabesque (Ah rah besk) – a position on one leg with the other leg raised behind the body and extended in a straight line.
Attitude (ah tea tude) – A variation on the arabesque. The extended leg is raised behind the body but bent at the knee at an angle of 90 degrees.
Assemblé (assam blay) – Lifting off the floor on one leg, and landing on two. Legs assemble at the same time and return to fifth position.
Croisé (quo say) – A dancer stands with legs crossed at an angle to the audience. The disengaged leg may be crossed in the front or in the back.
Grande Jeté (grand jeh tay) – a big jump from one foot to the other in which the working leg is brushed into the air and appears to have been thrown.
Plié (plee ay) – means bent, bending – of the knee or knees.
Turn-out – The dancer turns his or her feet and legs out from the hip joints to a 90-degree position.
Pirouette (peer o wet) – a rotation or spin – a complete turn of the body on one foot, on point or demi-pointe (half- pointe).
Tour en l’air (tour on lair) – a turn in the air – usually a male dancer’s step, although ballerinas may do them to depending on the choreography.
Basic Ballet Steps
The first thing to master in terms of ballet steps are the five positions of ballet. From these five positions, you can learn the following movements:
‘Plier’ is the French word for bend, and this dance step refers to the bending of the knees. There are two types of pliés: grand plié and simply plié. Grand plié refers to bringing the body almost all the way to the floor by bringing an extreme bend into the knees; in this movement, the heels of the feet come off the floor, whereas in a regular plié the heels should stay firmly planted on the ground, and the bend in the knees is only half as deep as the grand plié.
From the French word for ‘stretch’, tendu, like plié, comes in a few different varieties. A tendu is simply executed by extending one foot across the floor either to the front of the body, to the side, or to the rear. When sliding the foot, it is important to pay attention to your knees and feet; when your foot reaches the tendu position, the knee should be completely straight, and only the toes of the foot should have contact with the floor. This step is called a tendu, but there are also more advanced types for once you have mastered the basic ballet steps.
This ballet step means ‘lifted up’, which refers to the fact that this movement is either done on pointe shoes, or, for beginning dancers, on half-pointe (on the balls of your feet). Elevés are more difficult in some of the five positions than others, and should be practiced in all positions, as well as both while holding onto the barre, and without holding on (with arms in the position that corresponds to the position the feet are in). In addition to ‘elevé’ is ‘relevé’, in which the end position is the same (lifted up), but is executed from plié instead of simply from a straight leg.
Before you start learning ballet leaps and difficult balancing steps, coupés are a good step to get one foot off the floor without being exceedingly difficult. From the French word meaning ‘to cut’, coupés are a quick action in which one foot is lifted off the ground in order to produce a changing of weight from one foot to the other. Learning this quick changing of weight executed in an artistic and graceful way can help you transition into ballet movements and ballet leaps.
Perfecting the Steps
The only way to improve in ballet is to practice frequently and to consider the progress you are making with a critical eye. Ideally, you will have a good ballet teacher to remind you to turn out from the hips and to keep your heels on the floor in plié. If you do not have a ballet teacher, learning even the basics of ballet demands considerable discipline and tenacity. Start your practice sessions with a long warmup in order to reduce injuries and discomfort, and play your favorite ballet music in order to keep yourself motivated for long practice sessions.
Learning the art of this classical dance form is not a quick or easy practice; developing one’s technique in it takes several years of practice and a lot of discipline and repetition of the basic steps. The most important principles of technique to start with are the principles of turnout, alignment, and pointed toes.
Virtually all steps and movements in it are done in a turned out position, which is to say that the feet are pointing more to the sides of the dancer’s body than to the front. Turnout can be achieved either through the ankles, the knees, or the hips; of these three, only turning out from the hip joint is correct. This point is extremely important to remember in order to reduce the risk of dance injuries. The ankle joint and knee joint are not built to rotate, while the hip joint is. Learn to turn out from the hips and you are already on your way to learning basic ballet steps.
The entire body should be aligned in ballet. For beginners, the important things to consider are the spine and the legs. Make sure your shoulders are back and relaxed, and that your hips are tucked underneath your torso. As for your legs, it’s important to keep your knees straight (but not locked), unless you are executing a step in which the knee is bent.
The signature of ballet dancers is pointed feet. Work on this slowly to avoid cramping, and be sure to not rotate your ankles in order to produce a more impressively pointed foot. This is an illusion, and one than can lead to ankle injuries.