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Language of Ballet

Updated: 3 days ago


Ballet had its earliest beginnings in the Italian Renaissance as a court dance. After the marriage of Catherine de Médici (an Italian princess) to Henry II (a French king), ballet installed itself in France.

Louis XIV

Louis XIV as Apollo in one of his first performances

Ballet as court entertainment peaked under the reign of Louis XIV during the seventeenth century. Louis XIV himself was an avid dancer, and made his debut at a young age. Ballet at this time was performed by courtiers, with few professional dancers. Subject matter of the performances varied, but the strength, elegance, and grace of the dancers never changed. Dances were developed to showcase the strength and masculinity of the royalty that performed it. 

Ballet was far more than an art form; it was a way of royal life. Ballet was included in any noble education. One needed to have complete control over one's mind, body, and subjects, and this dance taught the strength and discipline to do so. The dance was also a part of how a person moved about in court. It wasn't merely part of performances, but certain bows and other steps were part of how one was supposed to address the king. 

Académie Royale de Danse

XIV was enamored with ballet, as well as many other arts. In addition to being a passionate dancer, he founded l'Académie Royale de Danse (Royal Dance Academy) in 1661 and Académie Royale de Musique (Royal Music Academy) in 1669. Thanks largely to his influence and support, ballet was an essential part of French Opera for nearly a century. 

Mademoiselle de la Fontaine

Mademoiselle de la Fontaine

Prior to Mademoiselle de la Fontaine, only men and boys participated in ballets. But  Mademoiselle de la Fontaine is credited as the first ballerina, and created opportunities for future women to be able to enjoy this dance. 

She made her debut in 1681 at the Paris Opera as première danseuse (first dancer) in Jean-Baptiste Lully's Le triomphe d'amour (the Triumph of Love). Prior to this, female roles in ballets were played by young boys. Girls and women could dance at social events, but never on stage. 

But Mademoiselle de la Fontaine was a success, earning herself the nickname Reine de la Danse (Queen of Dance). Other ballerinas eventually joined her in the spotlight. 

Mademoiselle de la Fontaine danced for a decade, then retired to a convent. 

Language of Ballet

The words of ballet are in French. In ballet, one speaks of moving à terre (to the earth, or downwards) and arriére (backwards). Dancers describe movements as élevé (elevated) and ouvert (open), and perform petit sauts (little jumps) and port de bras (movement of the arms). 

No matter what language a dancer speaks, when they dance ballet, they use at least a few French words.

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