Ballet in the Romantic Era

We’ve talked about ballet in the Romantic Era before, but it’s such an important part of the art form’s history that it’s worthwhile to take another, better look at those years.


After the death of King Louis XIV, ballet continued to develop and evolve over the remaining years of the eighteenth century. Partnering was expanded to include simple lifts and movements that accentuated the strength of the men. Women also figured into the art form more and more prominently.

salle Marie Salle

In 1734 the expressive French dancer, Marie Salle, took her place as the first female choreographer of ballet. While visiting London, she choreographed a ballet to the story of Pygmalion (for those of you who don’t know, it’s the basis of the musical My Fair Lady). Not only was she breaking ground by being a female choreographer, but she began another dance revolution that would further change the face of ballet: she modified the costume.

Up until this point, ballet costumes were throwbacks to the Noble heritage of the art. The dancers were dressed in court attire, which ended up being cumbersome and unnatural. Marie Salle removed the pannier (hoops under the skirt), shirt, and bodice. She danced in only her corset, petticoat, and a light muslin dress that hung like a toga (as Pygmalion is Greek).

18thcentury 19thcentury

18th Century                      19th Century 

Little by little, choreographers began to remove the hoop skirts, corsets, wigs, and masks. With lighter attire and an exposed face, ballet was able to become more expressive, with movement that was much freer. Without these changes, the Romantic ballet of the nineteenth century could never have developed as it did.

With more freedom of expression, dancers and choreographers of the Romantic Era strove to create a marriage of the dynamic technique of the previous era with the dramatic storytelling that was prevalent during the mid-1800’s. The basic subjects of the Romantic ballets came from the perceived conflicts between beauty and ugliness, good and evil, spirit and flesh – realism and fantasy.


Marie Taglioni

The Romantic Era of ballet is commonly said to have been ushered in by the famed ballerina, Marie Taglioni, and her choreographer/teacher father, Filippo Taglioni. Marie was considered the quintessential Romantic ballerina. Her style, grace, and dramatic capabilities made her the prototypical ballerina of the era.


In 1832, in an effort to show off his daughter’s skills, Filippo choreographed his masterpiece, La Sylphide. Marie danced the title role, floating about the stage in a costume consisting of a full skirt made of tulle and a white bodice. The theme, setting, costume, technique, and Marie Taglioni’s personality ushered in the golden age of Romantic ballet.

Others would follow suit and begin creating ballets centered around the now familiar concept of reality versus fantasy. Ballet technique would adopt the rounded arms, softer movements, and ethereal look that was seen in La Sylphide. The costume worn by Marie would become the standard for the era, becoming known as the Romantic tutu.

Another important ballet convention was being developed due to the focus on being able to dance ethereally. Portraying spirits, the dancers needed to be able to float and fly. For a time, wires were used to suspend the dancers momentarily. Over time, ballerinas began to want to create the impression of floating without the aid of special effects.



The result: dancing en pointe. Ballerinas began to dance more and more on the very tips of their toes. Starting as a brief elevating to the tips, and gradually growing to more and more prolonged dancing on the tip of the toes, pointe work was swiftly developing. It wouldn’t be realized as we know it today for many years. In fact, the point shoes of the romantic era weren’t the solid-blocked footwear that we know today. During the Romantic era, they were nothing more than normal ballet slippers that had been stiffened by rows of darning in order to offer the foot a little more protection. The rest of the work of getting en pointe was done by the ballerina and the strength of her ankles!

Marie Taglioni was, of course, at the forefront of the development of  pointe work. The style and themes creating by the Taglioni family had a profound effect on the ballet world, and still remain popular even today!


Fanny Elssler

Of course, not all dancers and choreographers see the dance floor in the same light. As popular as the spirit, Wili, and Sylph approaches to ballet were during the mid-1800’s, ballets choreographed to display exotic cultures were also widely popular. Marie Taglioni’s biggest rival, Fanny Elssler, was center stage for this type of ballet. Her specialty was theatricalized folk dancing with a ballet base. Fanny appeared on the Paris Opera stage in 1834, and temporarily eclipsed the resident ballerina, Taglioni, which engendered their lifelong rivalry. Best known for her fiery performance of La Cachucha, a Spanish dance in Le Diable Boiteux, Elssler was best remembered for her sensuality where Taglioni was known for her spituality.

Rivals with different dance styles, the two ballerinas were opposite sides of the same coin. Technical expertise, dramatic awareness, stylistic mastery all became requisite of any woman wishing to be called Prima Ballerina, and it all started in the Romantic Era.

grisi2Carlotta Grisi


But the question becomes, what’s more appealing: sensuality or spirituality? The answer: Carlotta Grisi. This ballerina is known for her ability to perform as both the sensual and the spiritual dancer. The reason for this is simple: she debuted the title role of the what is generally considered the most challenging ballet in the classical repertoire: Giselle. The dual role of the sensual and playful peasant girl in the first act, and the ghostly spiritual Wili in the second act still presents a challenge to ballerinas today. For Grisi, however, it catapulted her into fame! She was suddenly on par with Taglioni and Elssler, eventually pulling in a salary of 20,000 Francs! Remember, this was the 1800’s. That was a lot of money!


The result of Carlotta Grisi’s admirable duality is that ballerinas of today no longer specialize in one type of character, one style of dance. The best ballerinas are versatile, able to slip into any role in any ballet with ease, whether it be Giselle, La Sylphide,  or  Don Quixote.

The heyday of Romantic ballet was during the 1830’s and 1840’s. The end of the era is far less clear. There was a slow tapering off of interest in the Romantic style as focuses changed and the art form became an international cultural staple when ballet made the migration from Western Europe to Russia and the Americas.


Some scholars believe that the final Romantic masterpiece, and the end of the era, is Arthur Saint-Leon’s Coppelia, which premiered at the Paris Opera in 1870. The ballet is about a young woman who pretends to be a life-sized doll come to life, as part of a prank on the doll maker. Filled with folk dancing from different nations, the ballet falls into the second category of the Romantic era: bringing the exotic to the stage.

Scholars widely agree that the era only lasted from around 1830 to the end of the 1840’s, with a gradual demise. The reasons for this are varied, but we’ll discuss that in a moment.


It’s hard to pinpoint the exact end of the Romantic era of ballet, and equally unclear as to what led to the demise of the era. Some scholars attribute the heavily biased focus on female dancers as the cause, the decline in the importance of the male dancer possibly being correlated to the decline of the Romantic era. Others attribute its demise to unrest in various parts of the world: the American Civil war in the 1865, the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the Russian Revolution in 1917 being a few. And perhaps the Romantic era never truly ended, as many of its conventions and styles still persist even to this day: pointe work, female dominance in ballet, dramatic story telling, etc.

The Romantic Era of Ballet, while undeniably the most important, was also one of the shortest, spanning only two decades before tapering off. Whatever the true reason for its demise, this era saw the development of ballet into the art form that we know and love today. From Taglioni to Grisi, from Bournonville to Saint-Leon, some of the biggest names in ballet history come from this short, ableit pivotal era.

GISELLE group1


Next in history: Ballet makes its way to Russia.

4 Responses to “Ballet in the Romantic Era”

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