Here is an essay I wrote in 2010 about my thoughts on the importance of Ballet as an art form and beyond.
“Professional dancers become so good at their craft through the dedication of time and effort that the audience can feel very removed from what they see on the stage and cannot even begin to understand how it is done. Ballet is a sub-world from our history that has withstood the effects of time. So much royal pageantry remains within it that for many, watching ballet is like a watching a black and white history documentary. Perhaps because we live in a nation founded upon a fierce opposition to royalty, ballet is immediately stereotyped as alien and effeminate and this affects, subconsciously, the perception of the average person. However, the fact is that although ballet originated in the court of Louis XIV, it was developed and perfected by the many centuries and generations that followed, and through them became so much more than a royal pleasantry.
If only all people knew how ballet can transform a human being. It shows one the hidden abilities of their own body: the raw physical capabilities it has to stretch, lift, and soar through the air. One can truly unlock unimaginable talents that would otherwise lie forever dormant. In essence, it has the potential to make people better than they once were.
Studying ballet teaches us the value of music and some of the mathematics behind it. Waltzes, mazurkas, polonaises, polkas, jigs, three-fours, accents on the one, two or three, phrasing; moving to such sounds teach one basic musical theory through calculable sound waves that enrich the human ear. The purposeful moving of a specific limb, finger or joint on a certain note of a piece to create forceful drama -this is what we do. Dancers eventually learn to count and partake in canons; musical retrogrades, and are exposed to an almost unlimited range of composers both classical and contemporary. It is not a revelation how important music is in the world of humanity; it adds an entirely new dimension by adding a new spectrum of colors to life that one would normally not see. Dance merely takes this dimension and adds another similar yet visual one on top of that of the music, creating something truly unique.
Ballet also demands strong physical coordination and understanding of ones own body through the relationship between such and the mind. This is probably one of the greatest gifts of ballet. Even athletes are not as close to and in tune with their own bodies when compared to dancers. Athletes solely execute incredibly challenging feats, but still; the goal is to execute, no more, no less. Ballet adds a dimension of art to such a task. Execution becomes method, style, attitude, accent, gracefulness and quality of that specific task; all adjectives that appeal differently to each and every person, making all of them definable by taste and opinion, not by a simple “right” or “wrong” (taking for granted of course that the ballet technique itself is being done correctly). The ability to mentally pick and choose the way in which one physically moves on a daily basis is something that dance in general emphasizes and makes one aware of. It gives moving through space and gravity a whole new meaning.
Being an athletic activity, ballet naturally teaches us about the science of our bodies, from understanding nutrition in order to stay healthy, injury free and able to perform at maximum capacity, to learning about our, ligaments, muscles and tendons and physical restrictions. Dancers essentially begin to master and comprehend knowledge of the vessel that is their own physical form. Vitamins, minerals, proteins – the biology and chemistry of our own bodily instrument is comparable to the type of chemical solution used to clean and polish piano keys and strings, or the type of wood used to reinforce or improve the sound of a violin or guitar. Additionally, the technique of ballet is unarguably founded upon the gravity of this Earth, as all physical activities are one way or another. The methods dancers must use of brushing the floor and pushing away to jump and soar along with being on balance during turns and relevés is a direct correlation to Physics. For example, the heels must always be firmly planted in the floor during a plié (the first step one learns in ballet) because it prepares one to have full strength when pushing off for a jump and also allows the tendon to safely stretch to its maximum length upon landing. Practicing correctly everyday will in time force the legs to become stronger but more importantly pliant and stretched. Every single part of the body has a weight that must be controlled and accounted for when trying to achieve balance. When one shifts onto one leg, the arms and head must be dealt with and thus must shift over to one side, forming two points of a triangle over the bottom supporting heel. Dancers must learn this from a very young age if they are to succeed in executing difficult choreography in the future; especially girls who dance up on Pointe. A good dancer knows how to move, but a great dancer knows exactly how to move through space.
Ballet being a language of movement is in itself a form of poetry. What we call story ballets are romantic stories from various folklore traditions, told through a series of gestures and dances absent voice – the beauty of which can sometimes transcend speaking altogether. Even in works that lack an illustrated storyline and characterization, one is able to absorb some kind of interpreted message of some kind; which is reinforced and stimulated by the mental image of bodily movement that the work presents. Perhaps it’s even simply a pose that instills itself within ones memory: a body in a spotlight, surrounded by darkness, arms reaching upward towards the light. Is he yearning for the light, afraid of the darkness? Has he been cast from the light and is now begging forgiveness? Is he shielding himself from that light which he is so afraid of because he prefers the mysterious solitude of the dark? Whatever one’s answer may be, it exists as poetry and prose manifested in physical movement that is delivered with purpose and intention. What someone ultimately takes away from that experience is for them alone to absorb, decipher and feel intimately.
Ballet is in itself a tradition, a code, a belief handed down from generation to generation as many things are; and like all things, it evolves. However, no matter what has changed between now and then, tradition is history that has been handed down to us from the past. Every generation leaves its mark on the artform before passing it to the next. The point however; is that we are honoring this tradition through its practice while at the same time ensuring its continuation through innovation and experimentation. George Balanchine said: “Be reverent, yet relevant.” Through reverence we keep the tradition alive, not because we dislike change or aren’t innovative, but because there is something worth fighting to preserve. There is a certain beauty and mystery in this flame, this preserved rose in a jar from ages past that needs to last for future generations to see and admire. This beauty not only lies in the finished product seen on stage, but also in the focused discipline and effort manifested and empowered by the art itself. When one performs in Swan Lake or Giselle, one is reinterpreting a role that been passed down through history, no matter how recently. Even beyond these traditional stories are the actual ballet steps themselves: reinvented, polished, reexamined and reinterpreted with each passing decade that passes; much like our constitution or our personal beliefs. Ballet is history that we can still touch and in which we can participate.
Knowing history is one thing, but understanding it is a completely differently matter. For example, if one is asked to summarize the medieval crusades, one may define them as four missions that represented Europe’s attempts at seizing the Middle East for economic and religious empowerment – a correct yet factual answer absent understanding. If one doesn’t understand the motivations for why people did what they did in relation to the tendencies of human nature, then there is no true comprehension, just a retaining of facts. In paralell, merely knowing ballet steps doesn’t merit a comprehensive mastery because the technique requires years of perfecting all the steps and the physical transformation of the body associated with doing so. Many careers in life only demand certain degrees of mastery or expectations but not ballet. Ballet has no final plateau because it is subjective, like the rest of artistic culture. (There were in fact nine official crusades whose true purpose for the most part was to strengthen religious faith and obedience by instigating propaganda concerning the remission of sins through the reclamation of the holy land and the conquering of those unassociated with the true faith all due to the window of opportunity created by the rapid deterioration of the Byzantine Empire caused by Turkish invaders).
Ballet teaches us the importance of history because it IS history. So much choreography danced today is older than any of us dancing it now – and the steps within it even centuries older. These stories that we tell using these “ancient” ballet steps are in fact historical themselves one way or another whether they come from myth, folklore or even the bible. History is the blood flowing through ballet and the way it is performed to this day is its soul, ever changing, constantly evolving, and yet eternally present. Is it so surprising that ballet encompasses all of the classes one normally takes in grade school? Mathematics, Physical Education, Biology, Chemistry, Physicals Science, English, History, Social Studies they are all there. They expand the human intellect and help one improve at all aspects of life and human culture: they make people better (in all definitions one can imagine) than they once where.This is the kind of knowledge ballet can bestow, professional or not, all the while touching the soul and perhaps giving one the eventual realization that in a world with so much pain, suffering, complication and an unforeseeable future, there is still absolute, transcendent beauty and artistic wonder within it; one just needs to take a moment to understand and appreciate the aspects of its’ divinity, along with the many other gifts it has to offer.”