Europe is the founder of ballet and continues to produce highly professional dancers and exquisite ballet companies (Kant, 2007). The most common countries that celebrate ballet are Italy, France and England, particularly France, which is home to the Paris Opéra Ballet (Guest, 2006; Paris Opéra Ballet, 2008, para. 1-2). With Italy, France and England being the most famous European countries that celebrate and encourage ballet, it is important to be knowledgeable of the history that led them their success (Anderson, 1986; Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Kirstein, 1970). Italy is most known because they are the originators of ballet (Anderson, 1986; Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Italian Dance, 2009, para. 4-7; Kant, 2007; Lee, 1999), France perhaps being the most successful because of the founding of ballet schools and the further perfection of ballet teaching and England because of the modified teaching style and being open to performing over a larger area in order to gain a wider audience (Greskovic, 1998; Guest, 2006; Kraus & Chapman, 1981; Kant, 2007; Mandadori, 1980).

Click below to learn more about the history of ballet throughout different regions of Europe

Italian Ballet

As the originators of ballet, the development of it began in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries in which court dances became organized and produced in celebratory occasions such as weddings or balls (Kant, 2007). The Italians were also the first to develop forms of dance instruction using dance masters who choreographed and used floor patterns (Kant, 2007; Kraus & Chapman, 1981). The court dancers eventually developed into ballet (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Kant, 2007; Lee, 1999).

By the 16th century, ballet had improved dramatically. Italy developed more difficult and unique choreographies, which progressed into a higher need of skill and memory. The incorporation of symbols was also implemented, in which music, dancer’s gestures, expressions, and dance was used as a way of interpreting the meaning of the ballet. The meaning of ballet also extended beyond the dancer’s interpretation of the choreography and the role they played. The meaning of ballet and the roles in which the dancers played also meant interpreting and performing the ballet with movements that displayed morality (Kant, 2007; Lee, 1999).

Venetian Palace, Italy

In 16th century 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). As it was the responsibility of the dancer to perform and display virtuous and moral behavior, the style of ballets were often classical or traditional in form (Kant, 2007; Lee, 1999).

In the beginning of Italian ballet, the purpose of being trained in it was to be considered of a higher social class, which meant when you were trained you had proper social upbringing. But, by the 18th century, ballet in Italy became more of a professional career. In the following 19th century, Italy became involved in the romantic style of ballet and contributed many romantic style choreographers and ballerinas. And by the 20th century, the style of Italian ballet had reached many other parts of Europe as well as North America. Italian ballet is best known for being classical in style and conservative in performances, choosing more traditional ballets versus contemporary or modern (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Italian Dance, 2009, para. 4-7; Kirstein, 1970).

French Ballet

The history of French ballet has by far had the greatest influence in ballet throughout the world (Clarke & Crisp, 1976). The first ballets in France were developed as early as the 16th century and were known as court ballets or Masques (Kraus & Chapman, 1981). The Masques were presented to the court using symbols and imagery with the purpose of communicating to the audience. The dances were seen, as a language in which the symbols and imagery that was choreographed by dance masters was a communication in itself. Displaying virtuous behavior ideally portrayed that communication (Anderson, 1986; Kant, 2007; Lee, 1999).

Italy’s belief that the dancer’s movements were a, “…manifestation of a person’s soul” (Kant, 2007, p. 16) and that a dancer’s ability and also responsibility was to represent moral or virtuous behavior through movement was carried over to 16th century France, in which dancers were also taught with the ideals of moral behavior in their dance movements (Kant, 2007; Lee, 1999).

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 ” (Lee, 1999). 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).

It was not until the reign of Louis XIV, in the 17th century, that ballet had peaked into popularity (Greskovic, 1998; Kraus & Chapman, 1981; Mandadori, 1980). 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, 1976). And because of the improvements in instruction and style in the 17th century, ballet was beginning to be seen on more of a professional level (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Guest, 2006; Lee, 1999).

Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, 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. 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. It is Louis XIV’s personal involvement and passion that influenced his later role in the forming of professional ballet (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Greskovic, 1998; Guest, 2006; Mandadori, 1980).


Statue of Louis XIV

The Paris Opéra and Royal Academy of Music

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. 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; Greskovic, 1998; Guest, 2006; Lawson, 1973; Paris Opéra Ballet, 2008, para. 1-2).

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 the Paris Opéra Ballet School, which still exists today. These three formal academies laid the foundation for the, now universal, language of ballet instruction in French (Guest, 2006; Kraus & Chapman, 1981; Lawson, 1973; Lee, 1999).

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 (Anderson, 1986; Greskovic, 1998; Lawson, 1973; Paris Opéra Ballet, 2008, para. 1-2). 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 (Clarke & Crisp, 1973). This later attributed to the famous ballet dancers of the 18th century (Anderson, 1986; Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Guest, 2006; Kraus & Chapman, 1981; Paris Opéra Ballet, 2008, para. 1-2).

French ballet in the 18th century began to change with newly emerged criticisms of how France taught and performed ballet. The French form of dance up until the 18th century was known for being centered towards the wealthy as being performers and the performance being centered towards the king, with less emphasis on the plot. This was known as the grand ballet, which lacked the opportunity for an individual dancer to express their unique abilities. With these types of criticisms, the French began to change the style of teaching and performing ballet (Kant, 2007).

France began to change the way ballet was being practiced. Ballet was no longer a function; it was a form that allowed dancers to transfer emotions and allowed the audience to see the beauty in the human condition. The new purpose for ballet in France was to move the audience. With the reform of ballet’s purpose also came the loss of the heavy and uncomfortable costumes. In order for a dancer to express his or herself, they place more demands on their body and need to be free to move. With this, the heavy costumes in French ballet were no longer necessary and the dancer’s movements and bodies began to be more appreciated (Anderson, 1986; Kant, 2007).

With the reform and appreciation of the dancer, France became further recognized for having dancers that displayed both elegance and nobility (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Kant, 2007). The dancers who trained in France were taught to have proper posture without being stiff. Training in ballet was now established and structured with rules in how a dancer should move. France could now boast of the French vocabulary, the established rules of instruction and standards of training that was being used on an international level (Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Kant, 2007).

The 19th century presented the famously recognized romantic style of ballet in which plots involved the female dancer as the leading role (Greskovic, 1998; Kirstein, 1970). The plot often involved a story of love and characters that were not of the real world such as fairies or swans (Anderson, 1986). Giselle was the defining moment in the romantic ballet of France. It was the romantic story of a young girl who falls in love with an already-engaged man and is so devastated when she finds out that she kills herself (Kant, 2007; Lee, 1999).


The man she was in love with, Albrecht, visits her grave, begging for forgiveness. He is trapped by other ghosts who had died and been robbed of their own wedding, taking revenge against any they encountered. The ghosts have forced Albrecht to dance until his death (Clarke & Crisp, 1976). Seeing the distress, Giselle takes his place, thereby breaking the spell. Albrecht and Giselle are reunited and dance together (Kant, 2007).

With the production of Giselle, this changed the way audiences viewed ballet (Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Kirstein, 1970). It was now becoming separate from other forms of art. Nonverbal forms of communication such as mime became standard. Pointe work emerged as well as the romantic style tutu (Kant, 2007). Romantic ballet transformed France by developing lead roles, introducing female roles as leads and separating the roles for men and women (Kirstein, 1970).

The 20th century in French ballet brought in a change of competition with the international ballet company, the Ballet Suédois. This ballet company was Swedish in style and brought on a more open attitude towards dance, also using experimental and modern forms of ballet. This influence brought the challenge for France to be more diverse and use forms of expression in dance. But, by the end of World War II, many of the theatres and opera houses that housed the ballet performances were destroyed (Kant, 2007).

During the war, ballet was halted and with the destruction from World War II, this created a new challenge of rebuilding ballet that helped define the country and modernizing it once again to fit the new culture (Kant, 2007). With the rebuilding, foreign and newly successful companies created greater influence on French ballet. The foreign companies and dancers came from countries such as the United States and Soviet Union. Ballet, not only in France, but throughout the world, has taken pride in being a universal art. As such, France welcomed the foreign countries (Anderson, 1986; Kant, 2007).

The 20th century in France brought on new challenges. But with those challenges also came the realization that ballet in France will always hold to its traditional roots in teaching and performance styles (Kirstein, 1970). Ballet in France will constantly face new challenges of modernization and conforming to the current trends of culture (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Lee, 1999). But, France will always be known as the creditors for founding ballet instruction and being consistently successful in portraying the ideals of ballet (Anderson, 1986; Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Greskovic, 1998; Kant, 2007; Kraus & Chapman, 1981; Lawson, 1973; Paris Opera Ballet, 2008, para. 1-2).

English Ballet

With the introduction of court dances in Italy, came the introduction of English masques. It is legend that Henry VIII introduced the Italian style masques to England in the 16th century in which dancers performing wore masks. Elizabeth I was also known to be partial to Italian dancing and participated in it herself. With the introduction of Italian dancing during these periods, English dancing was marked with success in how skillful dancers were at jumping. The English masque performances extended well into the 17th century (Anderson, 1986; Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Kant, 2007; Lee, 1999).

Hampton Court Palace, home of Henry VIII

The English masques consisted of three parts. The first part was a display using mimics showing forces of misrule. The second part involved the rich and royalty dancing formally in display of them settling the chaos. The last part of the masque involved the participation of the dancers and the audience (Anderson, 1986; Kant, 2007). The masques involved dancing that was choreographed and silent in form. With the masques being presented to an audience, this also challenged the concept that only the performances were supposed to be shown to the King (Kant, 2007; Lee, 1999).

The English masques were the introduction of formal dance to Britain (Kant, 2007; Lee, 1999). But, it wasn’t until the 20th century, about 400 years after introducing masques, that ballet made a countrywide impact. England was known for being deeply religious and it was that influence which excluded the ballet form of dance from thriving (Kant, 2007). But, with the 20th century came the founding of Sadlers Well’s Ballet in 1928, later called the Royal Ballet (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Kant, 2007; Kirstein, 1970; Kraus & Chapman, 1981).

The Royal Ballet is the most well-known ballet company in England. It was founded by Dame Ninette de Valois and consisted of two choreographers, Dame Ninette de Valois and Sir Frederick Ashton. Both combined teaching skills with influences from Italian, French and Russian forms of ballet and an added modification of English teaching. With the choreographers’ modification of the performance to fit within the English culture, it allowed the Royal Ballet to widen its audience and perform at theatres of many locations (Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Lawson, 1973; Lee, 1999).

The Royal Ballet and English style of teaching ballet takes great influence from the English background of poets, novelists and dramatics, adding more character into the dance, also referred to as narrative ballet. This differs with the influence of French ballet, which focuses more on behavior. The English are very traditional and as such, this influences the style of teaching and performing ballet (Kant, 2007; Lee, 1999). Every movement has to have quality and meaning. Every step has to have purpose and be coordinated with the flow of music. With strong influences on tradition, English ballet is classical in methods and performances, preferring ballet with plots or ballets that are literal (Kant, 2007; Kraus & Chapman, 1981; Lawson, 1973).

Classicism is what defines the Royal Ballet, particularly with the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton. As one of the main choreographers of the Royal Ballet, Ashton placed emphasis on each movement in ballet, giving, “…subtle detail throughout the movement made by the whole body…” and making his dancers give each movement, “…expression when they reach the stage” (Lawson, 1973, p. 163). Ashton and the Royal Ballet placed great emphasis on academics and the purpose for each movement (Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Lawson, 1973).


Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, England.
Home of the Royal Ballet

The Royal Ballet defines English ballet in the cultures strong traditions (Kant, 2007; Lawson, 1973). The ballets are classical in style, purposeful in movement and stay away from choreography that distracts from the original plot of the story. As the Royal Ballet became established, more modern ballets were performed (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Clarke & Crisp, 1976). However, this was often met with confusion or bewilderment from audiences (Kraus & Chapman, 1981). Although it was not until the 20th century that English ballet was developed, particularly with the founding of the Royal Ballet, its influence can be compared to its competitive countries of France, Italy and Russia, all having formed their ballets centuries beforehand (Kirstein, 1970; Lawson, 1973).

Famous and Important People in European Ballet

Louis XIV (1638-1715)
King of France in the 17th century (i.e. the Sun King) who sought to bring ballet to a professional level. He himself participated as a ballet dancer. During his reign, he also helped transform ballet from court ballets to formal instruction and professional level performances (Greskovic, 1998; Guest, 2006). The founding of three famous ballet schools were formed during his reign and are known as the Académie Royale de la Danse (Greskovic, 1998) (Royal Academy of Dance or the Paris Opera Ballet) (Greskovic, 1998; Guest, 2006), L’ Académie Royale De Musique Et De Danse (Royal Academy of Music) and the Le Ballet de l'Opéra, or the Dance School of the Opera (Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Guest, 2006; Kraus & Chapman, 1981; Lee, 1999; Louis XIV of France, 2009, para. 1-2).

Jean Dauberval (1742-1806)
Credited in being a reformer and using ballet d’ action, a narrative style of ballet. A choreographer who specialized in character dancing for France called demi-caractire dance, which can be described as the beginnings of mime dance (Greskovic, 1998; Jean Dauberval, 2009; Lee, 1999).

Charles-Louis Didelot (1767-1836)
Student of Jean Dauberval and producer who first used pointe work in a performance as well as using simple lifts and lyrical groupings. He can be credited with the first to ever use pointe and made the distinction between male and female dance steps and roles. His choreography originated in London and also included stays in Russia (Charles Didelot, 2009; Clarke & Crisp, 1973).

August Bournonville (1805-1879)
Famous choreographer for the Royal Danish Ballet, who developed forms of romantic ballet. Emphasis was on placing the body so that sudden turns in performances can be immediately visible (August Bournonville, 2009, para. 1-7, 9-14; Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Grekovic, 1998; Lee, 1999).

Gasparo Angiolini (1731-1803)
Leader for the Viennese ballet in Italy. Influenced by English ballet, he sought to eliminate any unnecessary artificiality in ballet and combined dance with gesture and music. He was sensitive to the music used in performances, making it more emotionally connected (Gasparo Angiolini, 2009; Greskovic, 1998).

Jean-George Noverre (1727-1810)
French ballet master who focused on dramatic movements in classical ballet. His ballets contained a lot of action and expressiveness, further reforming ballet into using mime (Guest, 2006; Jean-Georges Noverre, 2009; Kant, 2007; Lee, 1999).

John Weaver (1673-1760)
Influencer of Noverre and Angiolini, Weaver used expressivity in ballet. A choreographer for ballet in England, he was credited as being one of the first to use ballet d’ action or narrative ballet. Without the resources to use expensive sets and costumes, he had to rely on the dancers’ abilities in the performances, further influencing the appreciation of the body’s qualities (Greskovic, 1998; John Weaver, 2009; Lee, 1999).

Filippo Tagliono (1777-1871)
Famous Italian choreographer who was the first choreographer for La Sylphide, a romantic style ballet. He can be compared to August Bournonville in style, but differs in teaching the dancers to have independence and to work and acquire talent for their own sake. His most notable dancer was his daughter, Marie Taglioni (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Filippo Taglioni, 2009; Greskovic, 1998; Guest, 2006).

Marie Taglioni (1804-1884)
Famous Italian dancer taught by her father, Filippo. Talented in romantic style ballet, Marie became one of the first female ballet stars. She was known for having natural talent and ability to perform movements that were technically difficult (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Lifar, 1938; Marie Taglioni, 2009).

Dame Ninette de Valois (1898-2001)
Although not originally from England, she was the founder of the Royal Ballet in England (Ninette de Valois, 2009) who combined French, Italian and Russian style ballet (Lee, 1999). With the combinations of those influences, she also altered the style of ballet to fit within the culture of England so that the Royal Ballet could attain a wider audience. One of her main goals was to hold and keep an audience, taking opportunities to perform at several theatres. She also focused on the English dancers by modifying their capacity and bringing out their individual qualities. The English ballets were also modified to keep with strong English traditions, focusing on more classical styles of ballet, but also incorporating narrative styles (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Kant, 2007; Kraus & Chapman, 1981; Lawson, 1973; Ninette de Valois, 2009).

Sir Frederick Ashton (1906-1988)
Choreographer who worked alongside with Dame Ninette de Valois. He focused on and was most well known for being a choreographer in classical ballet for the Royal Ballet in England (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Frederick Ashton, 2009). Ashton focused on expression through each movement, using subtle detail. He had high attention to detail, but also chose not to use difficult technique to impress anyone. Ashton was also known for bringing humor to English ballet (Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Frederick Ashton, 2009).