When we hear the term ballet, many have a certain preconceived notion that has much to do with slow music, graceful moves and frankly a good nap. Eye rolls are expected at the mere mention of ballet to many dance students. "It's boring," "it's too slow," and "I don't like the music" are common complaints. But for those of us who know... ballet is challenging, exciting, immersive, addictive and beautiful. So I'd like to share some things you may not know about this beloved genre.
1. Ballet is the foundation for many of the genres commonly taught in dance studios including jazz, modern, lyrical, and even hip hop. I explain it like this. You could not write a paragraph without first knowing the alphabet, and then how to make words and sentences. Ballet is the alphabet of dance. The terminology, alignment, and concepts learned in ballet class are those used in pretty much every other dance class at the studio. Learning how to position the body for correct and successful leaps, turns, jumps and other advanced "tricks" comes from knowing the basics of ballet. Anyone can memorize choreography, but to really look like a dancer, you'd better get yourself to a ballet barre.
2. Ballet has been around far longer than any other genre taught in most studios. When it comes to the standard dance studio offerings of tap, ballet, jazz, lyrical, modern, hip hop, theater etc... ballet takes the prize, having evolved for centuries. Many dance forms we currently study, including American tap and jazz styles, have their roots in American history. (More on this in another post.) But not ballet. With its origins reaching back as far as 15th and 16th century Italy, ballet is truly the grandparent of all dance genres. And ballet dancers are truly partaking in history by participating in and promoting this ancient art form that has been passed from dancer to dancer for centuries.
3. Ballet dancers are impressive athletes. According to a recent article in Pointe Magazine, elite ballet dancers took longer to fatigue doing repetitions of step-us and vertical jumps than pro football players doing the same exercise. The physical and mental discipline required of a ballet dancer is virtually unmatched in any other activity, and dancers strive to look beautiful all the while. The late George Balanchine commented, "Someone once said that dancers work just as hard as policemen, always alert, always tense. But I don't agree with that because policemen don't have to look beautiful at the same time."
4. Each pair of pointe shoes is individually hand made and no two pairs are alike. Ballet dancers use pointe shoes to stay up on their toes. There are only a handful of manufacturers producing pointe shoes and a pair can cost upwards of $100. The toe is a stiff box constructed of layers of fabric, cardboard or paper hardened with glue. The shoe is generally covered in satin with a leather sole and cotton lining. Dancers need to sew their own ribbons and elastics on the shoes after purchase. Each dancer has her own preferences for sewing placement and technique making the shoes even more individual to the dancer. One ballerina could never borrow another dancer's shoes. Once worn, they shape to the feet for a completely customized fit. A professional ballet dancer can easily go through several pairs of pointe shoes in a week.
5. Ballet class improves memory function. Each ballet class begins the same way, whether you are at your local studio or a prestigious company school. Students hold the barre with their left hand and begin a series of exercises in a set order that warm up the body. Each class is different, with the steps being presented in various patterns and numbers of repetitions. The dancer must make full use of her short term memory to execute the patterns presented and then repeat them on the left side. Simultaneously, the dancer is learning a whole vocabulary of French terminology that is expected to be retained lesson to lesson, giving the long term memory a work out as well. Dancers are gifted at memorizing strings of choreography that can last several hours in a full-length ballet.
6. Ballet class is a mental vacation akin to meditation. This one is my favorite and something only ballet dancers know. An hour or more in ballet class requires total concentration and focus. There is no room in your brain for worries, to-do lists, or relationship troubles; there is room only for tendus, plies, and jetes. A dancer emerging from ballet class is also emerging from 60 minutes or more of moving meditation. A clear mind and a new perspective are two of my favorite benefits of taking a ballet class.