At it’s finest, ballet evokes grace, beauty, dignity, elegance, assiduousness, refinement, humility, respect and spiritual purity in an individual who is willing to endure its demands in a course of serious study. I’m not saying it will make you a saint. I’m saying that it will reveal these qualities within you in moments. And these moments, if consciously recognized and embraced may bleed into other areas of your life. In this way, like a rock transforming into a crystal, the art of ballet may be used as a tool for transformation.
Ballet is not the only way to embody these qualities. It is just one way and it may or may not suit any particular person’s style. However, I’ve suspected that people get turned off of ballet because when they see it on stage, it often appears that these qualities are reserved for a particular race, economic status and body type and leave many feeling excluded.
My first experience of ballet was in a poor little studio above a liquor store with a bloated linoleum floor and no mirrors. We danced to the musical strains of a scratchy old record player. My first teacher was black. The other students were of all races. There was no sense of elitism or prestige. Nevertheless, authentic beauty and spirit reigned in Miss Joan’s little classroom and I loved her.
As the 21st century world seems, at least according to the tv commercials, to be more inclusive of race, body type, sexual preference and, you know, all those things that outwardly make us different, the world of ballet seems to be, like the fashion world, tightening its grip and promoting exclusion in the area of body type: only the thinnest, finest facilities need apply.
At a recent concert, I was appalled to hear a ballet school director lean over and whisper with regret that one particular girl, though talented, had a poor body. I couldn’t for the life of me see what he was talking about. The young dancer’s body was fine, in fact better than fine to my standards. I nodded kindly to the director’s comment as one would to a child’s ramblings or a crazy bum on the street.
Beautiful bodies have always been prized in ballet. But what is desired now takes things to a whole different extreme. Women should have the proportions and flexibility of a rhythmic gymnast. Certain stars of the ballet world have made this look fashionable at the expense of other kinds of bodies that are perfectly able to dance ballet and have other strengths. It seems to me that there used to be room for variations in body type as different types were designated for different roles. Not everyone plays the princess. But it seems nowadays, to get your toe in the door, it has to fit within a narrower and narrower aesthetic range.
I remember a young woman who I trained with who had, even for that time, a difficult body for ballet. Nevertheless, she was an extraordinary talent. You simply could not deny her. She went on to become a soloist with a reputable company. But in today’s world, I just don’t think she would have a chance. That is so, so sad to me. Do I really want to teach in and represent a world that would not allow her to dance? Honestly, I am starting to hate it. I think the ballet world is literally starving itself to death.
I want to make it clear that I am not against a beautiful, easy body. I just think that the ballet world has strayed from what ballet is actually about. It is not about the body itself. The body is just a tool, like a hammer. We fools are all sitting around admiring the beautiful hammer instead of the beautiful house it could make. And the thing is, the more houses you make, the prettier your tools get.
For any body that approaches ballet, easy or challenging, the task is the same: to go through the body in order to transcend the body. I have noticed that often those with easy facilities get stuck at the physical level. Because the physical level is easy, they never encounter the struggle, the pain of the spirit breaking free. But the struggle is in fact there for anyone who attempts ballet. If you have not found it because you have an easy body, it just means that you are not digging deeply enough. Those with more challenging bodies encounter the struggle to transcendence immediately and recognize that struggle as essential. In other words, when you are in so much pain, in order to continue your practice, you have to connect with something else. Something higher, spiritual, energetic, whatever you want to call it.
That is the goal in the practice of ballet. You are not the picture. You are merely the frame that houses the picture, whether you have a pretty frame or a mediocre frame. Either way, the frame must be transformed in the process of training so that it has the strength and stamina to house the picture. (That is what teaching and mentoring is about. I wonder if this emphasis on body type is partly a result of lazy teaching).
And the picture that you are framing…well, that’s the light. Your body is from that light. It is beautiful and worthy in the eyes of that light and that light loves to flow through you.