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Recognized as a natural occurrence of human expression, the folklore of dance has existed since the beginning of time. Ballet’s elegant quality of movement and expression was established in these ancient demonstrations of dignity in the human spirit. The culture of ballet has been a reality for over 400 years, yet the tradition of women performing in ballet has only been for slightly over 300 years. It is an art form that has engaged millions for over four decades and still continues to grow worldwide. When one thinks of ballet, most often the first thing that comes to mind is the image of the ballerina, the female performer representing femininity, yet ballet was a male only art form for over 100 years and male dominated for 200 years. The evolution of women in ballet has progressed from non-existencet to being becoming the symbol of ballet. (great introductory paragraph!)

Directly related to the development of European civilization, ballet’s roots can be traced from ancient times up to the sixteenth century. Historians credit ballet’s origin from the Renaissance courts of Italy in the sixteenth century. It then moved into the French courts brought by Catherine de Medici of Italy when she married a duke in 1533[i] who later became Henry II of France in 1547.[ii] Dance in the 1500s was considered to be one of the arts of gentlemen and the first recorded dance was in 1581, Ballet Comique de la Reine, originally Balet Comique de la Royne.[iii] Though it was referred to as a “ballet”, historians do not regard this choreographed dance as the first ballet because it was far from what we know as “ballet” today. (great historical background)

These court spectacles were elaborate amateur theatricals, exclusively male, and performed only by nobles. “Renaissance court dances and eighteenth and nineteenth century ballroom dancing acquired many of its forms from the dances of medieval folk”.[iv] Many of the steps in ballet resembled the same movements exhibited in ballroom dances of that era. It is interesting that only men danced in the ballets and performed the female roles even though women were free to participate in the ballroom dances consisting of the same steps.[v] In this male dominated social order, men wore a mask of a female when performing female parts and dressed in what is known as “en travesti”,[vi] a term that describes performers who appear in roles disguised as the opposite sex. Women didn’t perform in the dances in the beginning not only because it wasn’t considered “proper behavior”, but because their attire of long heavy gowns and shoes with heels made the execution of movements very difficult. (excellent detail!)

As ballet became important in France, King Louis XIII of France participated in court ballets, but it was King Louis XIV who opened the first ballet school in 1661, the Royal Academy of Dancing.[vii] The opening of the school started the codification and professionalization of ballet. It quickly developed as an art, yet it was not until 1681 that women were allowed to enter the school. This change occurred when an aging King Louis XIV retired from performing. The professionally trained dancers from his school became the entertainers for himself and his court’s amusement. Starting in the late eighteenth century and continuing into the beginning of the nineteenth century, the practice of “en travesti” was then reversed because tastes changed and the number of male dancers began to dwindle. Up until 1789, these “ballets” were the court spectacles where performers not only danced, but recited poems and sang songs. Though women were beginning to perform in ballet, men continued to dominate throughout the early part of the 1800s.

The social upheaval of the late eighteenth century, when society began...
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