Ballet Body, Ballet Spirit

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 fucking 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.

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2 responses to “Ballet Body, Ballet Spirit

  • Anne Nanni Moss

    Chere Ms. Jimenez,
    You are right on point–please enjoy the unintended pun. 😉 And may I just digress to say how much it is you do have to say and how well you say it, a gift. And thank you for using it for the better and sharing it with your fellow soul sufferers, mama. I agree that dance in general is a celebration of a very innate and universal form of human communication and connection. I dance because I have something I want to ‘say’ to the audience. I want to give them something, a part of me maybe? a part of my joy or my pain and dolor? Whatever in fact it is, it is deep and meaningful and dear. It is genuine, unaffected, honest. And that is the pleasure in dancing, as the dancer or the spectator. The dancer emotes, and the spectator is allowed into the private world of those emotions and feelings and vicariously lives them through the nimble dancer–a private exchange. A private exchange is what makes a dance or dancer great. It is the sincerity of movement (which in the case of ballet, may too be coupled with decades’ investment in refined, laborious technique) that also moves the onlooker. The body is only a vassal, your God-given tool by which to live your life and if you so wish also to dance. Authenticity is key. As a kind, we humans have gone from the prisitine, plastic uniformity of the 50s increasing to the 90s, where looking out of the ordinary and ‘cultural’ was vilified. As best you looked like everybody else around you (i.e. American and specifically caucasian), the better! Nowadays, I feel that the tide, at least in mainstream fashion, is turning. Looking different and unique is the name of the game. A handmade purse of sustainable fibers and semi-precious stony embellishments from India or a gaudy, technicolored scarf from Tibet or simply something right from home likr antique boots unabashed to show their age are the stuff we are buying and the stuff we are wearing. We appreciate deformity, fraying wrinkles in the leather purse, surprise, age, shape, color–in short, differences. We embrace culture. Now it seems most of us Americans are noticing and have grown sensitive to that void and are actively trying to fill it. Now anybody who is anybody has a culture, roots, dirt, connections–the opposite of the shiny, well-fenced 50’s nuclear family. And we as dancers can only hope that this inclination and intrigue will find its way into the ballet world. In my opinion, given a white dancer or black dancer, a skiny or not-as-skinny dancer, the more beautiful of among them is the person that can best emote through the technique of the dance. The beautiful blond can bore me if her voluptuous cousin out dances her. Period. And I mean dance as in to dance, to really dance. That is what I want to see happen to ballet, and I’m glad you were so bold as to summon it from us.
    Sincerely xoxox ❤

  • Emily Gallivan

    Hello Ms. Jimenez! I’d just like to thank you and commend you on your incredible talent for writing, teaching and inspiring. I had you as a teacher at Boston Ballet Summer Dance Program this summer and I have kept up with your blog since the program ended. You are incredible and so many of your posts here have been enlightening and touching. I don’t know what else to say except thank you, reading your blog has helped me feel better as a person and by extension as a dancer.
    Sincerely, Emily Gallivan

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