Classical ballet is any of the traditional, formal styles of ballet that exclusively employ classical ballet technique. It is known for its aesthetics and rigorous technique (such as pointe work, turnout of the legs, and high extensions), its flowing, precise movements, and its ethereal qualities.
There are stylistic variations related to an area or origin, which are denoted by classifications such as Russian ballet, French ballet, British ballet and Italian ballet. For example, Russian ballet features high extensions and dynamic turns, whereas Italian ballet tends to be more grounded, with a focus on fast, intricate footwork. Many of the stylistic variations are associated with specific training methods that have been named after their originators. Despite these variations, the performance and vocabulary of classical ballet are largely consistent throughout the world.
Ballet originated in the Italian Renaissance courts and was brought to France by Catherine de' Medici in the 16th Century. During ballet's infancy, court ballets were performed by aristocratic amateurs rather than professional dancers. Most of ballet's early movements evolved from social court dances and prominently featured stage patterns rather than formal ballet technique.
In the 17th century, as ballet's popularity in France increased, ballet began to gradually transform into a professional art. No longer performed by amateurs, ballet performances started to incorporate challenging acrobatic movements that could only be performed by highly skilled street entertainers. In response, the world's first ballet school, the Académie Royale de Danse, was established by King Louis XIV in 1661. The Academie's purpose was to improve the quality of dance training in France, and to invent a technique or curriculum that could be used to transform ballet into a formal discipline. Shortly after the Academie was formed, in 1672, King Louis XIV established a performing company called the Academie Royal de Musique de Dance (today known as Paris Opera), and named Pierre Beauchamp the head dancing-master. While at the Academie Royal, Beauchamp revolutionized ballet technique by inventing the five positions (first, second, third, fourth and fifth) of ballet, which to this day remain the foundation of all formal classical ballet technique.
Ballet technique is the foundational principles of body movement and form used in ballet. A distinctive feature of ballet technique is turnout, which is the outward rotation of the legs emanating from the hip. There are five fundamental positions of the feet in ballet, all performed with turnout and named numerically as first through fifth positions. When performing jumps and leaps, classical ballet dancers strive to exhibit ballon, the appearance of briefly floating in the air. Pointe technique is the part of ballet technique that concerns pointe work, in which a ballet dancer supports all body weight on the tips of fully extended feet.
Students typically learn ballet terminology and the pronunciation, meaning, and precise body form and movement associated with each term. Emphasis is placed on developing flexibility and strengthening the legs, feet, and body core (the center, or abdominals) as a strong core is essential for turns and many other ballet movements.
After learning basic ballet technique and developing sufficient strength and flexibility, female dancers begin to learn pointe technique and male and female dancers begin to learn partnering and more advanced jumps and turns. Depending on the teacher and training system, students may progress through various stages or levels of training as their skills advance.
Ballet class attire
Female attire typically includes pink or flesh colored tights, a leotard, and sometimes a short wrap-skirt, or a skirted leotard. Males typically wear black or dark tights, a form-fitting white, or black, shirt or leotard worn under the tights, and a dance belt beneath the outer dancewear to provide support. In some cases, students may wear a unitard — a one-piece garment that combines tights and a leotard — to enhance the visibility of artistic lines.
All dancers wear soft ballet shoes (sometimes called flats). Typically, female dancers wear pink or beige shoes and men wear black or white shoes. Leg warmers are sometimes worn during the early part of a class to protect leg muscles until they become warm. Females are usually required to restrain their hair in a bun or some other hair style that exposes the neck. The customary attire and hair style are intended to promote freedom of movement and to reveal body form so that the teacher can evaluate dancers' alignment and technique. After warming up, advanced female students may wear pointe shoes whereas advanced male students continue to wear soft shoes. Pointe shoes are worn after the student is deemed strong enough in the ankles and can execute the routine to a high standard.
There are several standardized, widespread, classical ballet training systems, each designed to produce a unique aesthetic quality from its students. Some systems are named after their creators; these are typically called methods or schools. For example, two prevailing systems from Russia are the Vaganova method (created by Agrippina Vaganova) and the Legat Method (by Nikolai Legat). The Cecchetti method is named after Italian dancer Enrico Cecchetti. Another training system was developed by and named after August Bournonville; this is taught primarily in Denmark. The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) method was not created by an individual, but by a group of notable ballet professionals. Despite their associations with geographically named ballet styles, many of these training methods are used worldwide. For example, the RAD teaching method is used in more than 70 countries.
American-style ballet (Balanchine) is not taught by means of a standardized, widespread training system. Similarly, French ballet has no standard training system; each of the major French-style ballet schools, such as the Paris Opera Ballet School, Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse, and Académie de Danse Classique Princesse Grace (Monaco) employs a unique training system.
Stage reference points
Some classical ballet training systems employ standardized layouts to define reference locations at the corners and edges of stages and dance studio rooms. In the latter case, there is no audience and a mirror typically spans the downstage wall of the room (e.g., points 1-2 of the Cecchetti layout).