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Ballet was developed as an art form in its own right in the French court of King Louis XIV
The origins of court dance-spectacles can be traced back to 14th-century Italy. When Catherine de Medici became Queen of France in 1547, she introduced this style of entertainment to French courts. The performances, or ballets as they became known, were usualy dance scenes linked by a minimum of plot, and often concluded with a performance featuring the King and his courtiers.
Louis XIV of France, who reigned from 1643 to 1715 was a huge dance fan and performed in many ballets himself. It was during his reign that court ballet reached its peak and professional ballet was born. Many of the ballets presented at his court had music written by Jean Baptiste Lully and choreography by Pierre Beauchamp, the man who is generally credited with inventing the five basic positions of ballet.
In Paris in 1661, Louis XIV established the first-ever school to train professional dancers, the Académie Royale de Musique et de Danse. Although parallel styles of dance were developing in Italy and Russia, France was now the world centre for ballet, which is why nearly all ballet terms are in French. Traditionally, all dancers were men. Women's roles were performed by them in masks and wigs. The first female dancer performed in a ballet called Le Triomphe de l'Amour (The Triumph on Love) in 1681.
All dancers during the 18th century were encumbered by heavy costumes, heeled shoes and wigs, but as ballet technique developed, these were discarded in favour of something resembling the costumes we see in classical ballet today. This allowed greated freedom of movement and let the dancers show off their leaps, turns and balances.
Male dancers dominated the late 1700s, but female dancers slowly became more prominent, and dancing on toes (en pointe) began to develop about this time. By the time of Marius Petipa and Tchaikovsky's famous ballets, this had been turned upside down; female dancers (ballerinas) occupied the limelight at the men were largely relegated to supperting, accompanying and lifting them.
Today, ballet is more evenly matched. The techniques of male and female dancers are at higher levels than ever, and the two genders share the stage almost equally, depending on the ballet being performed of course!