In contemporary society, there are many traditions and traditional clothing items that many of us take for granted without question the reason behind their existence. The ballet dancer’s tutu is one such item. This unquestionably beautiful but peculiar item has a somewhat fascinating history.
The primary purpose of tutus is to allow the entire length of the ballet dancer’s legs to be visible while exhibiting the intricate footwork and legwork that has become synonymous with ballet. The tutu allows free, graceful movement while allowing elegance and an aesthetically striking silhouette.
The tutu as we know it today is somewhat different from the original tutu. Just as with many other items known to us in today’s society, the tutu has undergone a significant evolution throughout its lifetime to become what we see today. The reasons for the costume’s evolution are manifold and will be further explored in the rest of this article.
Why Do Ballet Dancers Wear Tutus?
Every sport or cultural activity in today’s world has one or a series of items synonymous with that specific activity. Generally speaking, most people tend to simply accept these items as they are without questioning the reasons for their existence or why they have been designed the way they are.
Ballet’s tutu is one such item that we have simply come to accept as “part of the territory” when it comes to this dance form, and most do not question it. Many people think that tutus exist simply for aesthetic reasons. This is understandable, as ballet is arguably about aesthetics, especially from the audience’s perspective.
However, there are several reasons for wearing a tutu other than the aesthetic aspect. Tutus evolved alongside the dance form itself. As ballet advanced in terms of technique, so too did the tutu to accommodate the dancer’s needs.
Ballet is all about precise, graceful movement that appears effortless to the audience member. To achieve this effortless impression of lightness and flight, however, a serious amount of complicated technique is involved in the dance form to help create the illusion.
Ballet has a lot to do with the dancer’s silhouette, so any item they wear when performing must accentuate this silhouette. While maintaining the elegance and glamor of a dress, the tutu allows the entire length of the dancer’s legs to be visible.
With the dancer’s legs fully visible, one can appreciate the dance form’s technique, and you can witness the visual effect of the movement and the precision that goes into every small gesture.
Resultantly, the dancer is highlighted and accented while the impression of lightness and flight is maintained. The tutu successfully frames every movement made by the dancer. At the same time, the construction of the costume supports the physicality and mechanics of ballet itself.
In a rehearsal setting (bear in mind that the “real deal” tutus are not worn except for dress rehearsals and stage performances), a practice tutu is worn in preparation for a live show.
This allows the tutu-wearer and fellow dancers – especially male dance partners – to become accustomed to the tutu and the space that it takes up on the stage. It also helps prevent injury to the dancer.
As opposed to a full-length skirt where most of the leg is hidden from view, a tutu ensures that dance teachers can carefully observe technique and make corrections where necessary. This will help prevent injury to the dancer in the long term.
Another role of the tutu is to assist in telling the story. Bearing in mind that ballet has no dialogue, it relies solely on movement, set, and costume to show the narrative. A ballet dancer’s tutu is carefully designed in such a way as to show who the character is and assist in driving the story.
A Brief History Of The Tutu
The first known tutu was worn by Marie Taglioni in a ballet written for her by her father, called La Sylphide. This was also the first ballet to be danced en-pointe. This tutu, which came to be known as the romantic tutu, was made of soft-looking fabric that covered the legs but ended between the calf and the ankle.
This tutu allowed the feet to be seen, keeping the pointe-work in the spotlight, and the bell-shaped skirt created the illusion of fullness without being heavy for the dancer. The romantic tutu boasted a tight bodice and a bare neck and shoulders.
As ballet as a dance form developed, so too did the tutu. In the late 1800s, pointe-work was becoming more ubiquitous across the world of ballet, and legwork was becoming more complicated. Resultantly, the tutu needed to allow free and graceful movement while showcasing the dancer’s legs and their increasingly complicated footwork.
At this point in time, most tutus were cut above the knee to achieve the above.
Around the mid-1940s, hoops were introduced into the fabrication of tutus to allow the skirt to jut out horizontally from the dancer’s hips. This allowed the dancer’s legs to be in full view, allowing absolute freedom of movement while showcasing the increasingly complex footwork associated with the dance form.
As fabric developed, tulle was used for tutus which meant that hoops were no longer necessary. The fabric was sufficiently stiff to support itself in an almost horizontal position.
Overall, the tutu represents the dancer’s development and a certain level of maturity within the ballet dancer’s career. The short, jutting skirt and the tight-fitting bodice allow for the precision of the classical technique to be shown by a dancer who has earned the right to wear such a garment through years of training.
The reason for the existence of the tutu extends to far more than the aesthetic. Tutus go a long way in helping to create the on-stage magic associated with ballet in general.
The role of the tutu is also to frame the dancer’s movements, show the entire length of their legs for their technique to be fully visible, and allow the audience to see the full visual effect of the ballet dancer’s movements and the precision associated therewith.