Nobility travelled from all over the world to Versailles to learn a mixture of dressage, ballet and fencing – highly refined arts that paved the way for classical dance.

The opulent furnishings, gilded halls and scenic gardens of Versailles are legendary. Less known is La Grande Écurie, one of the royal stables that once housed more than 2,000 horses for the court of Louis XIV.

Designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the royal architect responsible for Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, the Écuries were one of the most ambitious livery construction projects ever undertaken by a monarch. Commissioned by the king and constructed over three short years, from 1679 to 1682, this magnificent horse arena became one of the most important features of the court – a place where the arts truly flourished, paving the way for classical dance as we know it today.

Squires, coachmen, postilions, footmen, blacksmiths, saddlers, dancers, musicians and horse surgeons soon made La Grande Écurie a buzzing hive of activity. While hoof beats would have been a sure sign of military exercises in any other royal palace, at Versailles, they were also part of an elaborately choreographed carrousel: a pageant filled with music, ballet and sword work on horseback. Intellectuals and members of the aristocracy travelled to Versailles from all over the world to watch these extravagant spectacles, unique in their size and scope among royal courts, and to train in the highly refined arts they comprised: dance, dressage and fencing.

You may also be interested in:
• The secret seat of the Knights Templar
• A monument to maritime engineering
• The last true knight on Malta

Their proximity within palace grounds meant that each discipline influenced the other. This was not just because fencing, riding and ballet require superb physical coordination and grace, but also because all three (not to mention painting, music and sculpture at the time) were based on the Harmony of the Spheres, the Ancient Greek concept (revived during the European Renaissance) that art, music and bodily movement were attempts to reflect the cosmic workings of the universe based on mathematical principles. Measured ways of walking and bowing, for example, placed court behaviour above that of the tavern or country fair, at once mirroring the cosmos and underscoring the nobility’s social hierarchy through complex rules of etiquette.

Beyond its function as a royal stable, La Grande Écurie allowed for cross-pollination between dance, fencing and horse riding, giving rise to a uniquely creative space. More than 300 years after the monarch’s reign, riders and dancers continue to train at this distinguished arena just beyond the palace.

Pageantry as politics 

The royal stables are made up of a pavilion of more than 30 rooms and three horse rings. The Grand Equerry was an important royal officer in charge of all the king’s horses and equestrian academies; he would have overseen both La Grande Écurie as well as several smaller stables (La Petite Écurie) where carriages and saddlery would have been stored (today, many of these objects are on display at Versailles’ Gallery of Coaches). Horse paddocks, dedicated feed rooms and a washing-down house are impressive features, but the complex’s crown jewel is arguably the Grande Manège, a large indoor arena opposite the Place d’Armes. Here, rich pinewood walls decorated with mirrors provide a visual echo of the larger palace. Dozens of chandeliers illuminate the arena’s vaulted ceilings (which would have once been lit by candlelight), and tiered seating surrounds a sand-covered ring. Since Versailles had no dedicated theatre, temporary stages were often set up around the palace, in the gardens and in the arena, where the royal cavalry was employed as much in peacetime as in battle.

Versailles created a space where artistic crossover was possible

“The horses of La Grande Écurie were used for hunting, war and carrousel spectacles,” said Cécile Berthelot, administrator of the present-day Equestrian Academy. Using pageantry as a form of politics, Louis XIV cultivated a wide variety of pursuits, surrounding himself with the most renowned artists, composers, écuyers (or equestrians) and dancers of the day. No mere spectator, the Sun King was a trained fencer, excelled in music (he played the guitar) and performed classical ballet, but he was also a shrewd politician. Louis XIV understood that art was more than art: dance and sword work, cavalcade and masquerade, these were diplomatic currency – a system of codified rules and social etiquette that reflected the power structure of 17th-Century sovereignty.

Perhaps for this reason, the king assigned royal status to the court’s fencing masters, who often oversaw dance instruction and horse training, according to Catherine Turocy, a reconstruction choreographer of 17th-Century period performance and artistic director of the New York Baroque Dance Company. Such multitasking might be one reason for the arts’ overlapping pedagogy. “Versailles created a space where artistic crossover was possible,” she explained.

Although ballet was first developed in Italy, it was codified at the court of Louis XIV following the marriage of the Italian-born Catherine de Medici to Henry II of France. While various theories exist about the derivation of ballet steps, some dance scholars propose that crossover at La Grande Écurie helped establish formal ballet terms. Individual ballet steps may have been influenced by equestrian exercises and sword work: the pas de cheval, or step of the horse, and the élancé, or darting jump, for example, were likely borrowed from these tandem royal pursuits. Dressage, often referred to as “horse ballet”, shares elements of classical dance, including pirouettes (in which a horse must canter 360 degrees in place) and cabrioles (an upward leap with a backward kick of the horse's hind legs at the height of the jump).

The ballet barre itself was devised from a freestanding horse sling used to teach four-footed creatures their own fancy footwork, while fencing was sometimes practiced on wooden horses. This helped to develop their skills in handling the sword on horseback before proceeding to drills on their mounts. Although ballet, fencing and dressage were evolving as disciplines throughout Europe at the time, it’s likely that each influenced the other at La Grande Écurie because they were taught there in such close proximity.

The similarities between early ballet and the body in combat, particularly as these pursuits evolved at La Grande Écurie, also had a lot to do with their shared biomechanics. “The most important relationship between dance and fencing is how the body moved in time and space during that time period,” said Jeanette Acosta-Martínez, a master of arms who teaches historical fencing in New York City. Both fencer and dancer needed to generate power from the floor, balance the body in long lines and maintain control when shifting weight. Turnout, in which legs and feet are continuously rotated outward, was a hallmark of footwork in assault (a fencer’s bout) and ballet movements, which both benefitted from croisé (crossed) positions relative to the opponent or the audience, as the case may be.

La Grande Écurie even had its own orchestra, which not only provided musical accompaniment for carrousels but also guided the movements of actors and acrobats onstage. The percussive sounds of timpani and drums, overlaid with trumpets, oboes and fifes, would have made for a rather martial soundtrack, but this only underscored the military might of Louis XIV’s reign. Though these carrousels were not social dances (audiences were spectators, seldom participants), they relied on the same conventions of etiquette and choreography. “The formality was shared because it was a cultural convention,” Turocy said.

La Grande Écurie thus informed a uniquely French style of fencing, ballet and horse riding, each characterised by grace, musicality and light-footed movements, principles that became the common basis of most equitation schools across Europe: the idea of horse-riding not just as military training for battle, but as high art and spectacle. “The French school of equitation originated at the Écuries, a tradition that then spread throughout Europe,” Berthelot said.

Even at Versailles, where extravagance was often on full display, dancers, riders and fencers exhibited nimble restraint and an economy of movement as part of this tradition. At the end of any lesson or Écurie performance, for example, it was (and still is) customary to perform a reverence. In an assault, that might mean a special salute; in ballet, a bow. This was a nod to the heavenly spheres, and to the king’s dominion over them: there was power in presentation; allegorical expression in even the smallest of gestures.

Royal traditions flourish

The Palace and Park of Versailles, which includes La Grande Écurie, is recognised by Unesco as a profoundly influential site of cultural patrimony. Variously occupied by government archives and local administrative offices, the stables today are home to the Académie Équestre de Versailles, both an equestrian ballet company and a school that instructs students in riding, classical dance, fencing, archery and music.

Theatrical impresario Bartabas founded the academy in 2003 as a way to preserve the traditions of the palace stables while offering audiences a decidedly contemporary form of spectacle: a pageant with horses, dancers and music reminiscent of Louis XIV’s brilliant carrousels. Students from all over the world apply to train at the present-day Écurie, and instructors are virtuosos in their field. In this sense, the academy retains the aristocratic spirit that defined it centuries ago. Days are filled with morning horse rides and afternoon lessons in foil work (mounted and dismounted), dance, archery and voice training. Applicants to the academy must speak French and demonstrate proficiency in riding and rein handling; most important, they should be passionate about a communal lifestyle.

“The Académie is not a traditional school,” said Marie-Charlotte Tura-Dubois, who originally trained as a groom for Bartabas and who has worked as a rider and instructor at the academy for the past 10 years. “There are no grades or diplomas. It’s a school of life – a quest for knowledge about the relationship between the horses and human beings.” Instruction draws on the palace’s rich history, emphasising the triangular relationship between ballet, fencing and dressage. Performers and animals alike learn to stretch their muscles before performances to avoid injury or fatigue, and to let classical music guide their movements onstage.

Less than an hour from Paris, La Grande Écurie continues to inspire as an unparalleled institution of classical arts. Nowhere else in the world can students learn these specialised disciplines in a setting with such cultural significance. Visitors can watch academy performances and tour the stables, an experience not so very different from the carrousels of Louis XIV’s court. Three centuries after La Grande Ecurie’s founding, the sounds of clashing rapiers, whinnying horses and the soft patter of ballet slippers still echo in its halls.

Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "The Essential List". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.