Can you imagine a party where every movement, from the slightest gesture to walking across the room, and every visual detail, from furniture to hemline length, were governed by a complex system of rules and procedures? For centuries, such rituals were commonplace for European nobility. And while they’ve gone out of fashion, we recognize the components under a familiar label: ballet. Ballet, from Italian “balletto,” or little dance, originated in Renaissance Italy as a combination of social dance and choreographed display at aristocratic gatherings. In many aspects, it was a way of controlling people in court with acceptable forms of behavior, such as the manner in which people stepped, bowed, or took someone’s hand.
It also involved rules governing everything from attire to where one could walk or sit in relation to the King. Over time, the study of ballet became a central element of court life, and proper grasp of the etiquette could make or break one’s success as a courtier. Many of these court gestures can still be seen in modern ballet techniques. Ballet was brought to France in the 16th century by Catherine de’ Medici, the Italian wife of King Henry II. As celebrations became more lavish, so did the dance, with dancing masters teaching elaborate steps to young nobles and story elements providing a unifying theme.
The focus shifted from participation to performance, and the form acquired more theatrical trappings, such as professionally designed sets and a slightly raised platform or stage with curtains and wings. But it was in the 17th century court of Louis XIV that ballet was refined into the art we know today. Louis himself had been trained in ballet from childhood. His early role as the sun god Apollo at age fifteen cemented the central role ballet would play during his reign. It also earned him the title of Sun King, with his splendid golden costume and choreography that promoted the idea of the king as a divinely ordained ruler.
Louis would go on to perform 80 roles in 40 major ballets, either as a majestic lead, or sometimes playing minor or comedic parts before emerging in the lead role as the end. He trained daily in ballet, as well as fencing and riding, and through his example, dancing became an essential skill for all gentlemen of the era. But Louis XIV’s main contribution to ballet was not as a performer. His founding of the Royal Academy of Dance in 1661 shifted control of ballet from local guilds to the royal court.
As director, he appointed his personal ballet master and frequent performance partner Pierre Beauchamp, who codified the five main positions of the body still used today. Through is collaborations with Jean-Baptiste Lully, the director of the Royal Music Academy, and famed playwright Molière, Beauchamp helped establish ballet as a grand spectacle. And in 1669, a separate ballet academy was founded.
The Paris Opera Ballet survives today as the oldest ballet company in the world. Ballet moved away from the royal court to the theater and survived the democratic revolutions and reforms that followed over the next century. With the advent of the romantic movement, fantasy and folklore themes became common motifs. And though the influence of ballet in France would decline, other countries, such as Russia, would play a major role in its further development. Fortunately, today most of us don’t have to learn a complicated set of steps just to socialize at a wedding. Instead, we can go to the theater to see professionals who spend their lives training rigorously