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There is a certain mystique about ballerinas. We think of them as tall, willowy creatures, their hair tightly pulled back in buns, with beautiful, porcelain-like faces and long necks. Ballerinas seem like royalty and the image of Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty clearly defines this ideal.

Ballerinas' movements seem effortless as they balance on the tips of their toes and fly through the air with the greatest of ease. More often than not, ballerinas dance roles representing otherworldly creatures, including wilis, sylphs, water spirits and fairies. All their poise, grace, beauty and ease of movement have been achieved through years of very hard work.

The term ballerina really means a principal or leading female dancer. To achieve the status of ballerina or prima ballerina, a female dancer has to have unique qualities that make her stand out from all the other dancers.

The first female dancers

Though ballet usually is thought of as a female art form, in its early days, only men were allowed to dance.

In 1681, females were finally allowed to become professional dancers and to perform in public. The first ballerinas were French. Two famous ballerinas of the 18th century were Marie Salle and Marie Camargo, both of whom gained particular notoriety. Ballerinas at that time wore traditional court dresses, which had many layers, were heavy and were almost floor-length. Salle decided to be daring. With her hair flowing freely, she wore loose draperies, in the style of the Greek statues. And Camargo, who was famous for her brilliant footwork, decided to show it off by shortening her skirts to just above the ankle which was shocking at the time.

The Romantic ballerinas

One of the most revolutionary events in the history of the ballerina was the invention of dancing on pointe in the early 1830s. The ballerina now took to centre stage, gaining attention over male dancers. Female dancers could look both ethereal and otherworldly, and give the illusion of hovering in mid-air, which appealed to the audience's romantic ideals. As the ballerinas' reign took Paris by storm, male dancers assumed a secondary role as partners.

Ballet costumes also changed dramatically with the use of pointe shoes. To show off footwork and an improved technique, the bell-shaped Romantic dress, made of light layers of tulle, was created. This dress not only allowed for freer movement of the legs, but also enhanced the ethereal quality of pointe work. Ballets, including Giselle and La Sylphide, were created at this time around the talents of such ballerinas as Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito and Fanny Elssler. Ballerinas were wined and dined by kings and emperors and carried through the streets by their fans. Poems were even written about these women celebrating their many talents.

The virtuoso ballerinas in the Russian court

With the development of pointe work in the late 19th century, ballet technique continued to evolve. The emphasis of female dancing shifted from effortless lyricism to powerful virtuosity. The Romantic, bell-shaped dresses were replaced by shorter and shorter skirts (tutus) to show off the legs and footwork of a new generation of dancers. The Italian and Russian ballerinas were particularly renowned for their virtuosity and the centre of ballet shifted from France to Russia.

During the late 1800s, Russia produced very lavish ballet spectacles that centred around the talents of the ballerina, including Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. Ballet technique developed in leaps and bounds, each ballerina wanting to outdo the other in virtuoso feats, among them the famous 32 fouettes that were first seen in the Black Swan pas de deux (duet) in Swan Lake and later incorporated in almost every ballet so that ballerinas could show off their prowess. Famous ballerinas from this period include the Italians Pierina Legnani (the first Swan Queen), Antonietta Dell Era (the first Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker ), Mathilde Kchessinska and Olga Preobrazhenska.

The 20th century ballerina

In the early 20th century, the most famous ballerina was the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova. To us today, Pavlova is a legend remembered for her famous dance The Dying Swan. Pavlova gained fame for her lyricism and beauty and also because she was the first ballerina to travel around the world bringing ballet to thousands of people who had never seen it.

In the early 20th century, Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes introduced many Russian ballerinas to western audiences, including Tamara Karsavina, who often danced with the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky and the famous baby ballerinas Irina Baronova, Tatiana Riabouchinska and Tamara Toumanova. They were called the baby ballerinas because they were only in their early teens when they performed around the world to great acclaim.

Since the first half of this century, ballerinas have continued to emerge all around the world, each renowned for her own particular talents. In Russia, there has been the romantic Galina Ulanova and the fiery Maya Plisetskaya; in England, the beautiful Margot Fonteyn and the dramatic actress Lynn Seymour; in France, Yvette Chauvire and more recently Sylvie Guillem; in the United States, the New York City Ballet has produced athletic, long-limbed ballerinas, among them Gelsey Kirkland, Suzanne Farrell and Merrill Ashley and there are the technical and dramatic ballerinas Cynthia Gregory and Martine van Hamel at American Ballet Theatre. Marcia Haydé of the Stuttgart Ballet was the company's leading ballerina as well as its Artistic Director. And there is the Russian-born, internationally renowned ballerina Natalia Makarova, whose multiple talents have made her one of today's living legends.

There are the female dancers who are Hollywood and Broadway ballerinas. You may have seen Leslie Caron, who became a star in An American in Paris with Gene Kelly; Ginger Rogers, who was Fred Astaire's famous dance partner; Cyd Charisse and Gwen Verdon, all ballerinas who brought dancing to millions through film, television and Broadway.

How do you become a ballerina?

Ballerinas are not created overnight. Like all young ballet students, ballerinas begin their first lessons in ballet studios in their home towns, usually when they are nine or ten years old. If a young dancer shows talent, her teacher might suggest to her parents that she audition for a professional ballet programme. In Canada, there are professional programmes at the National Ballet School in Toronto, The Professional School of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and in Montreal at L'école superieur des Grands Ballets Canadiens. Around the world there are also professional schools at The Royal Ballet School in London, England; the School of American Ballet in New York, which is the official school of the New York City Ballet; the Royal Danish Ballet School in Copenhagen, the Paris Opera School in France and the Vaganova Institute and Bolshoi Schools in the Soviet Union.

A career in ballet

A ballerina's life is not all glamour, bouquets, standing ovations and glittering parties. The discipline and hard work continue throughout her career. Each day, a ballerina must attend daily class and then have a full day of rehearsals. Many ballerinas also travel around the world as guest artists with other companies. They often live out of suitcases and are on long and difficult schedules. But the artistic stimulation of working within a ballet company and meeting and working with great artists provides a unique and wonderful working environment. The creative process of learning and creating in the studio is very exciting and involves hours of intensive work. The final reward is being on stage in front of a live audience.

Like those of male dancers, ballerinas' careers are short. Many ballerinas retire at 40, though some continue dancing right through their 40s and 50s. Their technique might not be as strong as it once was, but these ballerinas have very special talents that move an audience and that can be acquired only through years of performing experience. After they retire, some ballerinas marry and raise families, although more and more dancers are doing that while they are enjoying their professional careers. Some stay in the dance world as teachers, ballet mistresses, directors and choreographers. Others go back to school and become lawyers, doctors, photographers, interior designers, writers. The options are endless for these energetic and disciplined professionals.

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