The strange custom of dancing on the very tips of one’s toes is not as old as ballet itself. Only after the dance was several hundred years old did this stylized position, which many now consider the essence of ballet, catch on, and one Italian girl at the Paris Opera was largely responsible.
The classic ballet, which in the strictest sense is based on five established positions of the feet, originated in the 15th and 16th century Italian and Spanish courts. Here were performed “spoken dances,” with group and solo dancers who acted out allegorical stories usually based on Greek myths and glorifying the King and Queen.
Wandering jugglers and jesters also danced but theirs was hardly a respectable occupation. It was in France that the classic ballet became a professional art and one sanctioned by the highest nobility. Louis XIV himself danced, and the appellation Le Roi Soleil (the Sun King) derives from a ballet written for him in which he appeared as the sun.
Dance then moved into the theater, and the supervisor of the King’s music, Jean Baptiste Lully, working with Beauchamp, Racine, and Moliere, initiated the form of opera-ballet. This became so popular that in 1713 a dancing school was founded in association with the Paris Opera.
At this time the professional female dancer began to emerge, although her role on stage was still inferior to the male’s. For many years the ladies’ technique remained rough, partly because they were encumbered by floor-length dresses. In the mid-18th century, virtuoso Marie Ann de Cupis de Camargo stunned audiences with the sight of her ankles. This was the first step toward accommodating costume to performance.
In 1827 an unlikely young lady from Italy, Marie Taglioni, danced at the Paris Opera and launched a new style in the dance. At 23, Taglioni was frail, sallow, by no means a beauty. She did not ooze the feminine charms of her predecessors, like the voluptuous Maria Medina Vigano, for whom Beethoven wrote a minuet.
Taglioni was ethereal, otherworldly, more spirit than flesh. She brought an unprecedented lightness to the stage. This was due not only to her physique but to her impeccable technique.
As the daughter of a dance teacher and choreographer, Marie had trained under the finest teachers for many years. Such was her ease and control that she seemed to float across the stage. And to accent the image of moving heavenward, Taglioni danced on the tips of her toes. A few others had attempted this before, but Taglioni achieved it with new grace and artistry. Her style evoked a new feminine ideal, which was no longer blatantly sensual, but refined, abstract, and artificial.
Marie Taglioni danced throughout Europe for 20 years and was widely acclaimed as queen of the dance. A new word was added to the French vocabulary: taglioniser, meaning to dance like Taglioni. Few could get up on their toes as she did, however, because in those days the slippers provided virtually no support. They were made of silk or satin, and the toes were simply stuffed with cotton wool or silk.
The first blocked shoes, enabling greater virtuosity of pointe work, were made in Italy late in the 19th century. Both men and women learned the pointe technique, but initially men refrained from using it on stage as it was considered effeminate.
Increasingly, the diffident male dancer played a secondary role to the airborne female, becoming little more than a porteur for his partner.