At the end of the middle ages there was a renewed interest in Greek things. This focus on the "classic" past led to the Renaissance. It was during the Renaissance that society started to focus on the individual rather than the whole, and as a result, it was during this time that the male and female dancers became an "ideal" man and woman, as they are today.
The most prominent advancements in dance during the Renaissance occurred in the city-states in present-day Italy. There would frequently be huge pageants to celebrate such occasions as the birth of an heir or an empire-building marriage. At these events dancers were both members of the aristocracy and hired performers that were hired to perform and impress the nobility of neighboring states.
In France, when one of his knights married one of the queen's gentlewomen, King Charles VI performed in a masque or morisco, (masked performance), called Bal des Ardents or Burner's Ball. This occasion is infamous because as he was playing a Wild Man of the Forest in a big hairy costume made of flax and pitch, and at one moment when he separated himself from the other five "wild men" to talk to a duchess, a torch held by an onlooker set the other five dancers on fire. When the fire spread to the king's costume the duchess smothered it with her train. All but one of the other five dancers died from their burns.
During the 1400s there were quite a few men who are considered to be the earliest "ballet masters." We only know of the ones who wrote about dance, as the work of the others has been lost. Some of these men, Domenico da Piacenza, (or da Ferrara) and Guglielmo Ebreo, (also known as William the Jew of Pesaro), were well known as dance teachers and choreographers throughout Europe. Domenico is probably the best known ballet master of the era as he wrote down a lot of his work.
In Domenico's De Arte Saltandi ed Choreas Ducendi, (On the Art of Dancing and Conducting Dances), he chose the word ballo over the word danza, both of which mean "dance"
in Italian, and the dances he choreographed became known as baletti or balli, (singular: balletto)7. Because of his word choice, Domenico is probably responsible for the word "ballet" as it is recognized and used today.
During this era costume was nothing like one would currently expect to see at the ballet. The dancers wore "contemporary" court fashions. This meant full wigs and bloomers for men, with hard shoes and heavy long-skirted gowns for the women.
The court spectacles of the day were amazing. In one performance, the cast of hundreds was directed by Raphael's father, in another, all of the scenes and stage machinery were made by Leonardo da Vinci.8
In 1489 at a banquet in Italy directed by Bergonzio di Botta a dance, called an "entrée," introduced each course in the meal. Some people consider this the first ballet.
In the mid 1500s there were huge shows, called spectaculi put on in northern Italy. They not only had dancing, but equestrian demonstrations and mock combats. It is from these shows that the word spectacle, used by the French to talk about a ballet, comes.
When the Italian Catherine de Medici married France's Henri duc d'Orléans French and Italian court dancing began to run together, and in her later years Catherine put on huge spectaculi for all sorts of events as the "Queen Mother" of France. One of the more notable ones is Le Ballet des Polonais, (The Polish Ballet), put on for some visiting Polish ambassadors in 1573.
Then in 1581 Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx staged the Ballet Comique de la Royne for Queen Louise of France. This traditional "first" ballet is said to have had an audience of ten thousand and have lasted from 10 P.M. until 3 A.M. At this point ballet included more than dance; it was called ballet-comique because it included elements of speech and drama, (comique means drama - not comedy as we may think), and this is also why it lasted so long.
Also in 1581 Fabritio Caroso published Il Ballarino, a technical guide to ballet of the time. This held Italy's place in the world as a major dance centre.
As ballet advanced and became more dance and less speaking over the next fifty years it stopped being something that was only offered in court and was offered to paying audiences. Also during this time, the nobility, including King Louis XIII, performed in roles ranging from the hero to the lowest scum in the ballet, lending prestige to the portrayal of evil parts.