Ballet, derived from the original Italian words, ballare and ballo, with balleti or balleto being the diminutive of ballo is defined as a dance in the classical form, which embodies grace and precision (Ballet, n.d.; Kraus & Chapman, 1981). Ballet, as a dance, represents creative expression through movements of the body using formalized steps and gestures in flowing patterns. Ballet is expressed with music, often classical in form, with the use of costumes, set design and using groups or a company of dancers. Ballet is, essentially, a dance performance (Kraus & Chapman, 1981).


Click on any of the topics below to learn about the origins of ballet and methods of ballet.

Records indicate the origins of the use of the term ballet date back to as early as the 13th century. Most commonly, however, the organized ballet dance is recorded as early as the 15th century, in Italy and took place in many celebratory events such as weddings or balls (Anderson, 1986). The ballet in 15th century Italy and France was a different form of ballet than present time (Kraus & Chapman, 1981). The emergence of the Renaissance allowed the arts to be of interest and experimentation rather than domination for purpose. With this new freedom, the wealthy and members of the royal courts supported the performing arts for both entertainment and education (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Lee, 1999).

The wealthy and those of royalty involved themselves in early forms of ballet and presented the dances in the royal courts (Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Kraus & Chapman, 1981). The purposes of their involvement in the court dances were not only to entertain, but also to educate those in the court in learning grace and proper social behavior (Kraus & Chapman, 1981). The first organized court dance performances entertained and amused the rich (Clarke & Crisp, 1973). But as a result, progressed into a more choreographed and further appreciated forms of performing art (Lee, 1999).

Venetian Palace, Italy
    In the 14th and 15th centuries, Italian courts were the first in which dance masters developed forms of dance instruction. The Italians were the first to embark in court-organized dance (Kraus & Chapman, 1981). Contributing to the reasons for that were because of their obsession, “…with protocol and ceremony” (Kant, 2007, p. 9). During the early Renaissance, rank was of significant importance. With rank comes the meaning of spatial relationships with others. With dance being among the education and entertainment of the elite, this created a, “…presentation of power and rank through rituals and ceremonies” (Kant, 2007, p. 9). And although the first court dances were presented in order to separate the wealthy from the poor, it is significant in history because of the resources they had in creating the ballets. If the wealthy did not show an interest in mastering and perfecting the performance of court dances, ballet would not have developed into what it is today (Kant, 2007; Kirstein 1970; Kraus & Chapman, 1981).  

Italy was known for being the first in conceiving organized court dances or the beginning of ballets, but France was known for perfecting and improving ballet (Anderson, 1986). In the late 17th century, during the later part of the reign of Louis XIV, ballet had peaked into popularity (Kraus & Chapman, 1981). It was during this period that ballet became complex and academics developed into a more precise style and fundamental form of instruction. This contributes to the reasons why ballet instruction is given using French terms (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Clarke & Crisp, 1976).

Although it was not until the reign of Louis XIV that ballet peaked into popularity, the first ballets were developed in France in as early as the 16th century (Anderson, 1986; Kraus & Chapman, 1981). The first ballets were also known as court ballets or Masques for the reason that the dancers wore masks. The Masques were presented to the court using symbols and imagery with the purpose of communicating to the audience (Kant, 2007). The dances were seen, as a language in which the symbols or mime and imagery that was choreographed by dance masters was a communication in itself. Displaying virtuous behavior ideally portrayed that communication (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Lee, 1999).

Italian masks

In Italy, it was a common belief that the dancer’s movements were a, “…manifestation of a person’s soul” (Kant, 2007, p. 16). A dancer’s ability and also responsibility was to represent moral or virtuous behavior through movement. The way a dancer portrays virtuosity was through movement that was both graceful and precise, in which they were also able to, “…affect the emotions of those who watched…” (Kant, 2007, p. 16). This belief was carried over to 16th century France, in which dancers were taught with the ideals of moral behavior in mind (Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Kant, 2007).

The 16th and 17th centuries for France embodied the incorporation of Italian beliefs being portrayed using symbols and imagery. During these two centuries, Henry IV performed in over 80 ballets and Louis XIII performed in a leading role in the ballet titled, ‘La Delivrance de Ranault’. It was not uncommon during Louis XIII’s reign that the performances were repeated several times the same night by traveling to local mansions and the City Hall, ending with dancing with the women of the townspeople (Kraus & Chapman, 1981). Ballet during this period, even though it had formal instruction through dancer masters and was performed in ballrooms, was still not considered a professional art (Greskovic, 1998; Kraus & Chapman, 1981; Lee, 1999).

Statue of Louis XIV

It was not until the reign of Louis XIV that ballet drastically improved and was seen on more of a professional level. Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, reigned in the 17th century and was a passionate ballet dancer. He danced into middle age and only stopped performing when his weight gain did not allow him to dance gracefully (Anderson, 1986). His nickname, the Sun King, was coined after his involvement and role in the ballet, ‘Ballet de la Nuit’ composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully, an Italian composer (Kraus & Chapman. 1981; Lee, 1999; Mandadori, 1980). He began his involvement in ballet at a young age and progressed in performing lead roles of 26 grand ballets as well as being involved in other forms of dance (Clarke & Crisp, 1973). It is Louis XIV’s personal involvement and passion that influenced his later role in the forming of professional ballet (Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Greskovic, 1998; Guest, 2006; Kraus & Chapman. 1981).


King Louis XIV desired for ballet to be seen on a professional level and as such founded three of the most well known first formal academies of dance in France during his time. Académie Royale de Danse (Royal Academy of Dance) was founded in 1661 and was one of the first institutions in France to provide professional dance instruction (Greskovic, 1998; Guest, 2006; Paris Opera Ballet, 2008, para. 1-2). The second academy, Académie Royale De Musique (Royal Academy of Music), also known as Académie d'Opéra or the Paris Opéra Ballet, was founded in 1669 and was geared towards opera, music and classical forms of ballet (Anderson, 1986; Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Greskovic, 1998; Guest, 2006; Lawson, 1973).


The Paris Opéra and Royal Academy of Music

The third academy, founded in 1713, aimed to provide instruction towards younger students from poor families. The name of this academy was Le Ballet de l'Opéra, or the Dance School of the Opera and Paris Opera Ballet School, which still exists today. These three formal academies laid the foundation for the, now universal, language of ballet instruction in French (Kraus & Chapman, 1981; Lawson, 1973; Paris Opera Ballet, 2008, para. 1-2). Ballet and dance instruction, during the beginning reign of Louis XIV, was at a decline. However, with the development of the Académie Royale de Danse, this helped revamp the need for professional instruction. The academy allowed dance masters to not only keep the interests of instruction using symbolism as a means of creative expression, but allowed them to teach and perfect technical problems. This later attributed to the famous ballet dancers of the 18th century (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Kraus & Chapman, 1981; Lawson, 1973; Lee, 1999; Paris Opera Ballet, 2008, para. 1-2).