Ballet Dance

The History of Ballet, and the Difficulty of Defining It

A young ballerina dancing in a studio
Inti St. Clair/Getty Images

The origins of ballet are well-known, but defining ballet is a little more difficult. Almost any definition that's not hopelessly generic and could cover almost anything will also exclude even well-known ballets. It may be that the best we can do with a definition amounts to not much more than Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's comment about pornography, that although he couldn't define it, "I know it when I see it." 

The Origins of Ballet

It's generally agreed that ballet began as a formalized court dance that originated in 15th-century western Europe, first in Italy, then, as Italian nobles and French nobles married, spread to the French courts. Catherine de Medici was an early supporter of the dance and funded early ballet companies in the court of her husband, King Henry II of France. 

Gradually, ballet spread beyond its court origins. By the 17th century there were professional ballet academies in several Western European cities and notably in Paris, where the ballet was first presented on stage rather than in court.  

The Evolution of Ballet

For a time ballet and opera were combined in France, which is how ballet came to be associated with story-telling. When eventually the two art forms were more often shown by themselves rather than in tandem, the idea of a ballet that told a story persisted. 

In the 19th century, ballet migrated to Russia, giving us classics like "The Nutcracker," "Sleeping Beauty" and "Swan Lake." The Russians also contributed importantly to the evolution of ballet technique and with that the dominance of highly skilled female ballet dancers or ballerinas.

Ballet in the 20th-Century

The most important contributors to ballet in the 20th-century were predominantly Russian. The movement starting with Diaghilev, Fokine, and, for a moment, the incredibly talented but equally unstable Nijinsky, who choreographed Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps), with music by fellow Russian Igor Stravinsky.  Afterward, a Russian emigre, George Balanchine, revolutionized ballet in America. Balanchine's contribution, the origination of neoclassical ballet, expanded ballet choreography and ballet dance technique in equal measure.

But What Is "Ballet?"

In most dance forms, the definition of the dance is some combination of who dances it, where it is danced and specific, characteristic dance moves. Defining ballet, on the other hand, is difficult unless one creates a definition that emphasizes its history rather than a specific choreographic vocabulary. What we know as ballet today, which is the neoclassical ballet pioneered by Balanchine, involves dance techniques that bear only the remotest resemblance to the dances that evolved as "ballet" in the Italian and French courts. Although it began as a court dance, dancing in a court environment rather than on-stage, has long ago been abandoned. What we think of as quintessentially ballet features - dancing en pointe and the foot rotations that characterize ballet's five basic positions - were completely unknown for the first three hundred years of the dance's development. Even the idea of ballet as a dance that tells a story has fallen into some disfavor except in the popular revivals of 19th-century romantic ballet. In the 21st-century, important ballet choreographers now incorporate techniques from various "non-balletic" sources. But, although defining it may be difficult, somehow we have a reliable understanding of what is ballet and what is not when we actually see it being danced.