Getting It Right: The Art of Ballet

Courtesy of Joseph Philips

Ballet is an art that requires complete commitment, and the willingness to endure pain. This is the most basic truth about dance, and in particular ballet. To excel in ballet you must accept that your body, particularly your feet, will hurt. The technique required to master it is contrary to the way our body naturally arranges itself.

Do ballet dancers complain about this? No, they are perfectionists and masochists. They don’t care about blisters, cracked toenails, or sore muscles. What they want is another inch in extension or turnout, a clean triple pirouette, faster feet.

Ballet is an invention of the Italian Renaissance. It is based on the dancing and pageantry of the Italian court, and the lavish weddings and celebrations of the wealthy aristocracy. Catherine de Medici imported the nascent dance form, upon her marriage to the future King Henry II, to the French court. Later, King Louis the XIV created the Paris Opera from which the first ballet company, the Paris Opera Ballet, was born. Leave it to the French, and the Sun King, to recognize a snazzy idea and to impose their natural sense of style and sublime language in developing it.

Ballet is based on five positions of the feet coordinated with five positions of the arms. All choreography builds from these five positions. When watching a performance I suggest concentrating on the feet. You will get an appreciation for these positions as well as something called turnout. A proper turnout comes from the hips, not the knees. In first position, for example, the dancer stands with both feet on the floor meeting at the heels. The toes point outward. A perfect first position is achieved when the toes are pointing at opposite walls when the dancer looks forward. If you want to try this please keep your knees bent and hold onto a chair because you will fall over. Dancers who have tight hips often blow out a knee because they are trying to force their feet to meet a certain way from the knee down.

When someone says, “a dancer has great lines” they are referring to beautiful technique that highlights the dancer’s body. Sometimes the lines are God-given, but often the arabesque or attitude we cherish has taken many years to perfect.

Spotting is another interesting requirement. If you have ever watched a dancer perform a series of turns you will notice that their head whips around and focuses back in front of them. If they did not do this properly they would fall down. Embarrassing.

Anyone who has seriously studied ballet for any length of time will have certain characteristics.

  1. A tendency toward perfectionism and therefore a proclivity for procrastination until things are perfect.
  2. Ballet dancers are often accused of being snobs. They are and it is completely justified. The dance steps that they execute, to the greatest music ever written, entitles them to a smidgeon of superiority. It doesn’t mean they’re not nice.
  3. They are very picky about what they eat. Unless they’re starving, and then they can eat more than a 300-pound lineman.
  4. They are sexy. And they know it. Can you put your foot next to your ear while standing?
  5. They are fiercely competitive. The opportunities to perform a plum role are few and far between. They will take you out.

Ballet dancers communicate without words or song. They have only their body to convey an emotion. The hours spent in a studio, repeating the same steps and combinations over and over again, searching for the smallest improvements, make the performance appear deceptively easy. The goal is to dance in an effortless fashion, allowing the smooth movement of the steps to inform and to not be a distraction.

To the choreographer a dancer is nothing more than a vessel to express their view, their interpretation, their vision … you get the picture. Dancers accept this fact. Unfortunately, to many choreographers a ballet dancer is a piece of meat. In more elegant words, they are clay to be shaped on a potter’s wheel.

A friend was very interested in what a male ballet dancer wears under his tights to keep his – furniture arranged properly. The device is similar to an athletic supporter and is called a dance belt. I will not explain how it fits, you can Google the specifics. It provides a bit of privacy, as well. Suffice it to say that at one performance I witnessed first hand what happens when a dancer forgets to wear it. It was quite illuminating.

There are many other forms of dance. All of them, except for break-dancing,  hip-hop, and certain cultural dances, are ballet based. What I mean is that although the movements do not conform to the strict technique of ballet, the language used to describe the various steps and those first five positions remain constant. It can be brilliant and exciting when the classically trained dancer/choreographer interprets or performs a piece whose vision flouts the regimented ballet technique. Martha Graham, Bob Fosse, Alvin Ailey and Pilobolus are all examples of daring vision and choreography.

When I was young, I was fortunate to see Rudolf Nureyev perform Sleeping Beauty. He was long past the athleticism of his youth, but he had lost none of his beauty. After the performance, and his third curtain call, our rather loud bravos caught his attention. With a slight turn of his head, and an expressive flick of his wrist turning his palm softly upward, he looked our way and acknowledged our adulation. There is no doubt in my mind that the choreography was adjusted to suit his strengths. He was incandescently beautiful.

And now for your enjoyment …

Author: L. A. Lewandowski

Lois Lewandowski graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in Political Science and French Literature. A passion for life lived well is reflected in her novels, Born to Die-The Montauk Murders, A Gourmet Demise, and My Gentleman Vampire, giving readers a glimpse into the world of the beau monde. Lois lives in Tampa, Florida. Learn more at her lifestyle blog, and her Amazon author page.

10 thoughts on “Getting It Right: The Art of Ballet”

  1. I very much enjoyed your article, Lois, for several reasons. I do understand the dedication, the pain and the striving for perfection that is involved, firstly because of the parallels I draw from a lifetime in the classical martial arts. Also because my wife, Zoë, after four years in classical ballet, trained under Ronnie Arnold in jazz ballet, before beginning a career in the professional theatre, firstly as a dancer.

    1. There are many parallels between martial arts and ballet. They are both grueling, and the mindset of those who seek to succeed in them is probably similar.
      For dancers, the hours at the ballet barre are often therapeutic. When they need to relax, “go inward”, or to fix technique, it is back to the ballet barre that they go.
      I am thrilled to hear that your wife is a former dancer. I studied from the age of four into my early twenties. I have taken the many lessons learned in those years with me as I seek to establish a career in writing.
      Thanks for your comments!

  2. Okay, so Susan J. McLeod turned me onto this article. Loved your take on things and also that you understand that ballet dancers have the absolute right to feel superior. If someone is not grasping this concept, think “feline” and you’ll instantly get the entitlement mindset. As a lifetime devotee of the art, my dancing was thankfully confined to dance studios with no cameras and teachers that justifiably berated me. My outside escapades included attending performances of real dancers belonging to such companies as ABT, NYCB, The Joffrey, and The Kirov just so I could see what things were supposed to look like and so I could leave drool and appreciation at the altar of dance! Thanks so much for your good sense and humor!

    1. Hello nycwriter,
      “Feline” is another great way to describe a dancer’s mindset.
      When I lived in the New York metropolitan area I attended as many different dance company performances as I could. Although many of the companies travel, I miss having access to so many brilliant artists. Florida is not a mecca for ballet. 🙂
      When I was dating my husband I took him to a performance of George Balanchine’s “Jewels.” A previous boyfriend had fallen asleep at the ballet and I knew then that he wasn’t the one for me. Although my husband, at 21 years of age, wasn’t a ballet devotee, he was mesmerized by the gorgeous performance. And he stayed awake, which was a major mark in his favor.
      Thanks for stopping by!

    1. Sorry! 🙂
      Dancers are always a bit sore. It’s part of the territory.
      All the preparation is worth it for those brief moments of performance, and even the personal pleasure of mastering a difficult step in class. Just knowing that you can teach your body to do these steps and turns is a rush.
      Thanks for stopping by.

Comments are closed.