Ballet started out not in public theaters, but in palaces. In the late Renaissance and Baroque eras ballet was an elite pastime that the aristocracy enjoyed both as participants and spectators. Italian princess Catherine de Medici, married to King Henri II of France, introduced Italy’s ballet de cour (court dancing) to the French court. Under her sponsorship, in what is widely considered to be the first of its kind, ballet made a spectacular debut in 1581: La Ballet Comique de la Reine, a six hour extravaganza for 10,000 guests , featuring dance, vocal performance, plot, and lavish scenery — a dazzling display designed to impress the nobility of Europe.
From its earliest productions featuring masked and costumed courtiers, court ballet developed into more and more lavish spectacles, from which a codified vocabulary of steps eventually emerged — the same steps and the same basic positions, in the same French terminology, that dancers still do every day in class. One can detect vestiges of ballet’s courtly origins in port de bras designed to show off a large, beautiful lace cuff, in elaborate bows and curtseys, and its inherent elegance and dignity.
Ballet continued to flourish in France under the patronage of King Louis XIV during his long reign (1638-1715). Louis adored dancing, and starring, in court productions —the royale is named for him. However, only aristocrats could enjoy ballet because performances were still private celebrations, and only men could dance with any real vigor because women’s costumes were so restrictive.
Furthermore, being a professional dancer carried a stigma; it was not a respectable job. Professional performers existed, and they danced alongside the nobility, but they were not allowed to dance any roles in which they portrayed a hero or a person of high birth. The professionals were allowed to dance the only part of the peasant, or the servant—never the prince or the queen. Louis XIV changed that in 1661 by creating a school for dancers—a professional training academy, the Académie Royale de Danse —whose graduates would soon replace the aristocratic amateurs. He later established the Academie Royale de Musique, forerunner of The School of the Paris Opera Ballet.
For dancers, the transition from private to public performance required courage as well as talent. Although the court accepted professional dancers, the church did not. Professional dancers were not allowed to participate in any religious rites and sacraments except baptism. Ultimately, dancers refused to be intimidated, and in the late 1600’s ballet did go public, with great success. At last ballet performances were open to ordinary people as well as aristocrats.
Women, however, were at a huge disadvantage both sartorially and socially. They had to wear enormous wigs, towering headdresses, and colossal skirts up to six feet in diameter. Underneath their skirts they wore large undergarments called panniers, that stuck out on each side to make their hips look wider (and therefore their waists smaller). To make their waists look tinier still, they wore corsets so tight they could hardly breathe, let alone move. Men on the other hand wore hose and shorter tunics, which afforded much greater freedom of movement.
But even if they could move freely, women were still not allowed on a public stage. In public theaters female roles were always performed by men. In 1681 the brave Mlle. de Lafontaine dared to defy tradition. We don’t have a picture of her or even a first name, but we know that by being the first woman to step onto the public stage to dance, and dance very well by all reports, she paved the way for all the women who have danced before a paying audience ever since.
Copyright © 2014 by Eliza Minden. All rights reserved.