Few people today can imagine the ballet without the tutu, yet even fewer know how the two first came together. The history of the tutu, like the history of ballet itself, is full of drama and involves creative contributions from artists and dancers in several countries.
BeautyAlthough no one can be entirely certain, it is commonly accepted that the word tutu is derived from French children’s slang. In France, “tu-tu” is another way of saying “bottom.” The first tutu was said to cross the stage of the Paris Opera when their corps de ballet performed La Sylphide in 1832. This first tutu was longer, falling halfway between the knees and ankles. While the hem of the skirt has risen over the years, the stiffened fabric that gave this early tutu the illusion of volume without the weight remains a key component of tutus today.
TragedyNo story of the theater would be complete without a hint of tragedy, and the story of the tutu is no exception. One of the earliest recorded tutu-related tragedies occurred in 1862, also at the Paris Opera Ballet. During a rehearsal, one young dancer accidentally brushed her tutu against an exposed gas light. The tutu caught fire, burning the girl badly. Although she initially survived the flames, the dancer died months later because of the burns she suffered.
MechanicsToday, tutus are generally categorized as either “romantic” or “classical.” Whereas the romantic tutu is more flowing and can be longer, the classical tutu, first introduced by the Italians in 1870, is higher and often stiff, jutting dramatically out from the waist. Because tutus hide parts of a ballerinas body and occasionally restrict how close a male partner can get to his lady, couples must learn to dance with whichever form of the skirt is required for a performance. The tutu has become so integral to ballet that dancers must learn to work around it.
In recent years, new fabrics have allowed costume designers to recreate the tutu in new and exciting ways. As the 21st century continues, the tutu, like the ballet, remains a wonderful combination of classical form and artistic creativity.