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The Evolution of Ballet - How Did British Ballet Begin?

If you have been joining ballet classes in East London, you might have wondered when British ballet started.

The history of ballet in Britain is long and complex, with many different influences and styles coming together to create the distinct form of dance we see today.

Ballet was a music hall performance art enjoyed in tiny doses as a side-piece in the nineteenth century, but Britain made ballet its own in the twentieth.

Let's have a look at the history of British ballet!

The History of British Ballet

Influences from Russia

Today, you can find ballet and barre fitness classes in East London.

But before, England did not have any interest in ballet. Except for a few performers/brief periods, it was too exotic and flashy to catch on. For well over a century, theatre and opera were unrivalled. By the 1950s, Britain had come to dominate ballet during the Post-War period. But how did this happen?

Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, a troupe of Russian exiles, introduced classical Russian ballet to the rest of Europe.

From 1909 through 1929, they enchanted audiences all across the world. The romantic aura of the Russian style and the exquisite clothing and surroundings enchanted Londoners. Cecil Beaton was taken aback when he first saw the Ballet Russes.

His large stage was only outfitted in two colours—these were the most stunning: organe crag-like wings against a vivid expanse of butcher blue. [Lydia] Lopokova, in a lilac tutu and emerald green, stood against the overscaled background, coupled with [Stanislas] Idzikowsky, in a brilliant blue suit and vivid tangerine tights. (Pages 13-14 of Ballet.)

Despite Beaton being a youngster then, London society (particularly the Bloomsbury group) enthusiastically embraced the Ballet Russes.

Russian ballerinas such as Anna Pavlova continue to draw large crowds in England. English ballerinas were heavily affected by their Russian counterparts, who "Russianised" their names. Alicia Markova was one of the country's first well-known dancers, born Lilian Alicia Marks in London.

Following the Revolution, many Russian dancers relocated to London and began teaching lessons to supplement their income, resulting in many pupils being trained in the Russian style.

Dame Ninette de Valois

Ninette de Valois is often regarded as the founder of British ballet. Edris Stannus is a County Wicklow, Ireland-based Irish dancer. She moved to Kent to live with her grandmother when she was ten and began ballet classes.

Her talent was rapidly recognised, and she was hired as the primary dancer at the Beecham Opera after appearing in pantomimes and other shows (the resident company of the Royal Opera House at the time). She joined Diaghilev's Ballet Russes in 1923 and danced with them for three years.

Unfortunately, she had to cease dancing due to an untreated polio episode as a youngster and the subsequent damage. Fortunately, Diaghilev had taught her the art of company administration, and she continued in ballet in a different role—director.

The Vic-Wells Ballet

In 1931, De Valois established the Vic-Wells ballet company. She set out to create a national repertory ballet grounded in Russian Imperial classics—English ballet, she insisted, must be a democratic art—not imposed from above by an omniscient state, as it had been in Russia, but created from below by 'the practical idealist' and the 'children of the people" (413-414).

Other enterprises existed during the period, but the Vic-Wells benefited from de Valois' grasp of how businesses worked. She was in charge of keeping the company organised and on track.

After the Ballet Russes disbanded, former principals Markova, Anton Dolin, and Tamara Karsavina joined the Vic-Wells Ballet. Finally, she engaged choreographer Frederick Ashton, a rising talent in the industry.

At twenty, he began dancing and swiftly rose to prominence as a choreographer. De Valois and Ashton continued to create full-length classics and new works, contributing to the company's success.

Sadler's Wells Ballet and the Royal Ballet

When the Sadler's Wells Theatre became the company's permanent home in 1939, it changed its name to the Sadler's Wells Ballet and entered an uncertain European period—the Second World War.

Everyone was going through a difficult period. Despite their minimal means, they continued to tour and play around the United Kingdom. During a tour of England, they even performed for Allied troops.

In 1946, the organisation relocated to its current venue, the Royal Opera House. They also founded a smaller travelling company, which grew to become the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

In 1956, after 25 years of dancing and travelling throughout the United Kingdom and Europe, they were given a royal title and dubbed the Royal Ballet.

Today, The Royal Ballet is still one of the most well-known ballet companies in the world, and it is a pioneer in ballet education and performance.


The history of ballet is long and varied, with its roots stretching centuries. The British ballet scene has been a major force in developing this art form, with renowned companies leading the way. Today, ballet is enjoyed by millions around the world, and its popularity looks set to continue for many years to come as adult dance classes in East London continue to rise.

Adults and children in East London can take Ballet, Jazz, Tap Contemporary, Commercial, and Dance Fitness Classes at Adore Dance's purpose-built dance facility in Hackney Wick. Check our schedule for ballet classes in East London today!

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