The History Of Ballet Dancing

Learn about the history of ballet dancing, including where it began, what the ballerinas wear, and names of ballet steps!

Ballet is very pretty dancing! You probably have seen ballet on television or in the movies. Perhaps you take ballet lessons or know someone who does. We know that the "t" on the word "ballet" is silent, so we say "ballay."

Ballet was first performed in Italy in the early 1600's.

In 1661, the first ballet school was opened in France. It was started by Louis XIV, and only men were allowed to dance. Women first danced the ballet in 1681. They did not look like the dancers of today, because they wore ankle-length dresses!

Throughout the beginning years, until 1789, the performers not only danced, but also recited poems and sang songs.

The dance steps taught so long ago in France are still used today. Most steps still have their original French names.

The basic five ballet positions were created in the 1600's by a French ballet teacher whose name was Beauchamps. These arm and leg positions helped the dancers to balance while still looking graceful. Most ballet steps and combinations begin with one of the basic positions.

Some ballet step names and positions, and their English translations are:

"Devant," which means "in front."

"Glissade," which means "to glide."

"Pas," which means "step."

"Pas de chat," which means "cat step."

"Pas de deux," which means "steps for two," meaning two dancers.

"Pas jete," which means "throwing step."

"Releve," which means "raised."

"Rond de jambe," which means "round of the leg."

"En premiere," or "first position."

"En seconde," for "second position."

For third, fourth and fifth positions: "en troisieme," "en quatrieme," and "en cinquieme."

All the basic positions require the dancers to "turn out" their legs and feet. This takes years of training and practice.

Much of a ballet dancer's training takes place at a "barre," which is the French word for "bar." The bar is like a wooden pole. It is fastened horizontally to the wall about 38 to 45 inches above the floor. The dancers use the bar in many ways. They place one leg upon the bar, by hooking their heel over it. Then, they can do stretching exercises. Sometimes, they stand with their side toward the bar, and hold the bar with one hand. This helps them to balance as they do "plies," which are kind of like deep knee bends. Plies (plee-ays) are done with the back held straight.


The ballet dancers you see on television, movies or at the ballet are usually professionals. The lady dancers, or "ballerinas," dance on their toes. This is called dancing "en pointe." A dancer is usually at least 12 years old before she begins to dance en pointe. She then wears "toe shoes," which are stiff-toed slippers with ribbons that tie around the feet and ankles. Lambs wool is put into the toes of the shoes to cushion the ballerina's toes. Sometimes a foam pad is also worn on the toes.

For performances, the ballerinas wear "tutus," which are short, full skirts, often made of netting or satin material. Sometimes, they wear a slightly longer skirt, which flows gracefully as the ballerinas dance.

Ballerinas traditionally wear their hair in a bun, pinned high on the head.

Male dancers, simply called "ballet dancers," always dance in soft-soled shoes. They do not dance en pointe. The men must be in good shape to be able to lift the ballerinas into the air.

All ballet dancers wear "tights" on their legs. They are like stockings and cover the entire leg.


Ballet on television is nice. You can also "go to the ballet."

When you go to the ballet, you will see a story performed to beautiful music. The dancing is done on a stage. There are lovely costumes, interesting lighting and even sound effects!

When you first get to the ballet, you can get a "program." It will explain what the story is about and who the dancers are. It will also list the "scenes" of the ballet. The scenes are parts of the story. Sometimes, there is an "intermission," during which you can get up and stretch your legs, go to the restroom or get a drink of water. The intermission also gives the backstage crew time to arrange some new scenery for the ballet.

A ballet usually tells a story. There are some ballets that have been performed many times over many years. Although the story of a particular ballet is the same, the actual dance is probably quite different each place you see it.

For example, "Swan Lake" is a famous ballet that has been performed all over the world. The story is always the same, but when it is done in different places it looks very different because it was "choreographed." A choreographer is a person who plans each part of the ballet. They decide which steps will be used and how those steps will be put together. So, each time you see a ballet that has been choreographed by a different person, it will be new to you!

You can see "Swan Lake" six times and never be bored!


You may take ballet lessons, or watch dancers in the movies and on television. Perhaps you will enjoy going to the ballet. Whatever your association with ballet, it is a beautiful, graceful kind of dancing!

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