Common Ballet Creatures

From Wilis to Sylphs, fairies to swan maidens, there are more magical mystical creatures in ballet than even the most fantastical of Grimm’s famous tales. But if you’re having trouble figuring out what you’re playing, why she wears wings, and whether they’re alive or dead, don’t worry—you’re not alone.

Here’s a simple guide to the common creatures seen in ballet:


”Giselle? Oh, that ballet gives me the wilis!” This phrase, to “give someone the wilis” (pronounced “willies”) is relatively common, but few know the tragic tale of the wili maiden.

Originating in Eastern Europe in the late 18th century, wilis are reputed to be the spirits/ghosts of maidens who died tragically before their wedding day. Their ghostly forms rise from the grave at night, killing all men who dare to cross their path. At dawn, the wilis return to their graves, chased away by the rising sun.

In the ballet you can see two different kinds of wilis—the vengeful and the mournful. They are used in various productions, but perhaps most notably in Giselle where the wicked queen of the wilis, Myrtha, takes the lead, and the heroine becomes one of the sad spirits by the end of the performance.


La Sylphide and Les Sylphides are two of the most popular ballets from the Romantic Era. But what about sylphs is so special?

Originally cited in Rosicrucian alchemy literature, sylphs are defined in western culture as “airy spirits.” The elementals are as light as air, look slender and gossamer, and have the faintest and finest little fairy wings of any of the ethereal creatures.

In ballet, sylphs are typically otherworldly-looking fairies, donning floaty white costumes and tempting the lead men with their dainty steps and shimmering movements. They are elusive creatures and almost impossible to hold on to, as leading ballet dancers quickly find out.

Swan Maidens

The myth behind the transforming women in the Dying Swan solo in Carnival of Animals and the Swan Maidens in Swan Lake is both enchanting and mysterious.

Springing out of the mythology of post-medieval Europe, swan maidens became a fixation of fairytales by the nineteenth century. In ballet, the most common story of the swan maiden is presented in Swan Lake, when a young princess wanders into the forest alone. Von Rothbart tricks her into coming closer, then imprisons her in the form of the beautiful bird. From that moment on, she can only become human during a full moon and spends the rest of her days in feathered fretting.

In Swan Lake and other ballets, swans are usually portrayed as beautiful, shy, delicate creatures.


Appearing in dozens of ballets, fairies are by no means an uncommon creature in the classics. They were dreamed up long ago in mythology as goddess-like creatures with magical powers and gossamer wings. Fairies are present in most magical kingdoms in ballet, blessing or cursing characters as they see fit.

One can see entire entourages of fairies in Sleeping Beauty, each one blessing the baby Princess Aurora with different gifts ranging from eloquence in speech to vitality to wisdom. Following the blessings, you can also see an evil fairy: the ominous looking Carabosse. She uses her powers for evil and places the notorious curse on baby Aurora.

Fun Fact:

Though today the Lilac fairy is known to bless Aurora with wisdom, at the time the fairytale was written, wisdom was not considered an important trait for a girl to have. Instead, the fairy gave Aurora the gift of a good ear for music—a quality that was considered much more important at the time for a young princess!


Though many ballerinas that die in the first act turn to wilis or other mystical creatures, there are quite a few that simply remain on stage in ambiguous ghostly form. For example, La Bayadere’s Nikiya haunts her tormented lover by appearing through wisps of opium smoke. Her ghostly form takes shape at his wedding as well, dressed in white like a true ghost.

Ghosts and apparitions are seen commonly in other ballets too, such as Swan Lake.


The image of the all powerful sorcerer or clairvoyant witch is another cliché in ballet. These malevolent beings pop-up in both comedies and tragedies, but their presence almost always marks the rise in conflict for some of the more pleasant characters.

Most sorcerers in ballets are evil and powerful, such as Swan Lake’s Von Rothbart, who lords over the imprisoned swans as they swirl around the lake. Witches are slightly sympathetic, as seen with La Sylphide’s Madge who doesn’t hurt the characters directly, but instead forecasts the downfall of the protagonist through his relentless pursuit of the sylph (much to the chagrin of his fiancée).

Creature Cautions

There are all sorts of magical beings in ballet. But fear not—while some are good and some are bad, there’s really no such thing as an enchanted creature that isn’t fun to dance. So whether you’re an evil witch or a frightened swan maiden, embrace the role and make some magic!

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