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Men in tights on the football field battling each other with calculated brutality and jumping into each others' embrace with screams of orgiastic pleasure whenever a point is scored are presumed to be heterosexual models for American youth. On the other hand, men in tights on the stage romantically dancing with women, tenderly carrying them overhead in apparently effortless lifts, are presumed to be gay.

But the gauge for manliness has not always been brute force. In other times virility was idealized through grace achieved by control and refinement of physical strength. And by that measure, ballet dancers are virile indeed.

Although it has sometimes proved embarrassing to those who periodically attempt to construct a macho image for ballet dancers, the enduring and persistent connection between ballet and male homosexuality is undeniable. This connection is undoubtedly related to ballet's remarkably masculine provenance. Unlike dance in general, which early on celebrated the fecundity of the female, the ballet was initially designed to celebrate male power.

Origins and Early Development of Ballet

The first ballet star was Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), the sun king, who danced in extravagant fêtes with his court at Versailles. In 1661, Louis established the Académie Royale de la Danse, to teach his courtiers to dance, and to train ballet masters and choreographers, who then disseminated this form throughout Europe.

Until 1681, boys danced the female roles in professional ballets. Moreover, the physical technique unique to the ballet is directly based on the elegant but physically demanding martial art of fencing with the épée. An element of this discipline is grace under pressure. To show any sign of strain or physical effort would be beneath the dignity of a nobleman, as it is even today for a danseur noble.

Ballet's floor patterns were based on social dances of the French court, such as minuets and gavottes, while the dancers' movements were based on the very high style of the king's courtiers, who were accomplished swordsmen. Bows, flexibility of the wrists, épaulement (or carriage of the torso, in fencing a device to protect the chest from the opponent's épée) and "turn out" (or twisting the leg in the hip socket so that the foot is turned sideways, in fencing a device to improve balance), are examples of the martial arts techniques that became integral to ballet.

These basic techniques allowed for revolutionary developments later, as, for example, the addition of pirouettes and grands jetés, the multiple turns and big jumps always so appreciated by audiences.

By the 1720s, professional ballets were being given in opera houses all over Europe and women began to emerge as stars, notably Marie Camargo and her rival Marie Sallé. Their theatrical costumes became lighter than the heavy court costumes, and high-heeled shoes were supplanted by soft slippers, allowing freer movement. An undergarment, the forerunner of tights, became standard stage wear as skirts were shortened to expose the legs. Over time, skirts went as high as they could go, ultimately culminating in the tutu.

Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), a celebrated French choreographer, advanced the art of ballet through his ideas for the ballet d'action, or ballet with a plot and with mythological, heroic, and pastoral themes. Masks were discarded and spoken words were dispensed with, leaving the story to be told through movement, mime, and facial expression.

Noverre visited England, where he was dubbed "the Shakespeare of the dance." He became ballet master at the court of the Duke of Württemberg in Stuttgart and later worked in Vienna with the composer Gluck to create Iphigenie en Tauris (1779), and with Mozart, who wrote "Les Petits Riens" (1778) for him. He also taught ballet to Marie Antoinette; and when she became Queen of France, he was appointed ballet master at the Paris Opera.

Men of the Vestris family were stars of the ballet stage for three generations, notably Gaetan (1729-1808), his son Auguste (1760-1842), and his son Armand (1787-1825). Auguste had great physical technique; the height of his jumps was tremendous and his entrechats and pirouettes exhibited new virtuosity.

Carlo Blasis (1803-1878), ballet master of Teatro alla Scala in Milan, invented the ballet position attitude, based on the statue of Mercury by Giovanni di Bologna. This statue is almost as famous in gay iconography as Michelangelo's David. Blasis also published the first textbook for ballet dancers and teachers.

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