Ballet began in 15th-century Italy during the Renaissance. Modern ballet is performed by professional dancers who practice daily to perfect technically difficult movements. Although the pointe shoes, tutus and tights often associated with modern ballet dancers weren't popularized until the 19th century, the foot positions and steps that still make up the core of classic ballet were created by Renaissance dance masters.

Lavish Italian Courts

In the 1400s, wealthy Italian nobles staged elaborate court dances to celebrate events such as weddings or the birth of an heir. Families competed with one another, each trying to outdo the last with a more complicated and extravagant performance. At this time, dancers were amateurs -- noble men and women who were part of court society. In one event, the father of famous Renaissance painter Raphael directed hundreds of dancers. A rival event featured costumes, decorations and stage machinery designed by Leonardo da Vinci. As these dances became more complex, accomplished dancers took on the role of teaching the steps and movements to the courtiers prior to the event.

The Rise of the Ballet Masters

The choreographers of these Renaissance spectacles became known as ballet masters, and they were highly respected in Italian society. One of the earliest ballet masters, Domenico da Piacenza, wrote dance manuals describing the steps with diagrams of the figures and patterns created by the movements. Because they were written down, the dances could be recreated in other courts throughout Europe. When writing his manuals, Domenico used the word "ballo" to describe his choreography. The other Italian word for dance, "danza," at the time referred to a dance with a steady, unvaried rhythm. Since Domenico's dances had a dynamic, variable rhythm, he chose the other word for dance, providing the root word for the art that would later be called "ballet."

Catherine Carries Ballet to Paris

When Catherine de Medici married King Henry II of France, she brought the Italian dance tradition with her to Paris. Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx, an Italian violinist and dancer, became her court's ballet master. He created the "ballet de cour," or "court ballet," a theatrical form of dance involving a series of grand spectacles with a unified theme. Beaujoyeulx's "Ballet Comique de la Reine," staged in Catherine's court in 1581, is widely regarded as the first actual ballet. Catherine's patronage, combined with that elaborate five-and-a-half-hour performance, would establish Paris as the ballet capital of the world.

Help From the Sun King

Nearly 100 years after Catherine introduced ballet to the courts of France, King Louis XIV planted the seeds for the standardized modern form. The king was an avid ballet dancer himself, having acquired his nickname "the Sun King" from a golden costume he wore when performing as Apollo in "Le Ballet de la Nuit." In 1661, the king established the Academie Royale de Danse, the world's first ballet school. Pierre Beauchamps, that school's first ballet master, is credited with creating the five basic foot positions still learned by modern ballet dancers. The school elevated ballet from an amateur pastime to a professional endeavor, training dancers who devoted their lives to entertaining visiting dignitaries and members of the king's court.