What do these two activities have in common?
Not a whole lot, to be honest.
And the folks that participate in both rarely overlap.
Having studied ballet for several years (and by “study” I mean approximately 17 years cumulative of taking once/week classes – and still not able to do a split or a double pirouette successfully. I would place myself in the serious fan category) I can say that both activities take a lot of daily work to simply not be terrible, are physically (and mentally at times) demanding, and can also be a great source of expression and fun.
I am having lots of fun here in class, I swear. 😂
In case you have never really thought about ballet other than when the Nutcracker airs each year on PBS, here are some basic knowledge points:
· Ballet originated in Renaissance Italy as a way to entertain nobility. Dancing at this time looked a lot different and less “organized” as it does today. Think court performers with big velvet (I assume velvet was big back then) hats and costumes jumping (rather awkwardly due to the aforementioned velvet hats) around to harp like background sounds to the gentry watching and sipping wine from chalices they hoped were lead-free.
· Classical ballet may be the most common style of ballet. Think: Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty. Traditional steps. Beautiful music. Tutus. Usually some fairy tale-ish love story at the center of the plot, but often the stage is taken over by dancers showing how high they can jump and how many rotations they can perform.
· Romantic ballet is a bit more lyrical than classical – think longer skirts for women (not so much tutus) and deep emotional themes as part of the plot. They also seem to really fancy woodland sprites and nymphs. La Slyphide and Giselle are two famous romantic ballets.
· Then we have neoclassical, modern and contemporary ballet, which are more focused on movement, sound, and creating emotional images rather than telling a story with a plot. Contemporary is usually the barefoot one.
Ballet dancers, like runners value a good warmup. While a runner may be content to just take it easy a mile or two and a few drills before getting after a hard session, a ballet dancer’s day starts with a 75-90 minute “class” in which the first 30 minutes are spent at the barre (that’s barre with an extra r and e) doing a very precise set of movements to warm up, stretch, and strengthen EVERY muscle in the body. Nothing is neglected. If you take up ballet, say, at 35 years of age after a 20 year sabbatical (my hand is raised), you will be sore in places you didn’t realize you had muscle. It is quite a remarkable thing to be re-introduced to your body this way.
It is also fascinating to note that every dancer from absolute beginner to professional in the NYC ballet company does almost the same barre warm up before dancing. The barre sequence goes something very similar to this in almost every studio: Pliés and port-de-bras,Tendus (sometimes divided into slow and fast tendus), Battement Jetés or Dégagés, Rond de Jammes (my personal favorite), Fondus – (not like cheese or chocolate), Frappés (not like a milkshake for all you New Englanders) Adagio, Grand Battement.
If I have lost you, just know that there is a system. And that system is in French.
Ballet dancers, like runners also thrive on performance. At the Cameron Dancenter in Gainesville, FL, where I take class, we have the opportunity each year to perform a piece in the company recital. This is full-on costume, stage makeup, dress rehearsal, stage lights at the Philips Center for Performing Arts, thousands of people watching you for several minutes on stage experience. It is truly awesome. And nerve-wracking and very satisfying. Just like racing. Except one is an artform and one is a sport. Both are extremely athletic, yet one is not competitive. Having both in my life has been one of my greatest joys.
If you have read this far – and are inspired to become more exposed to ballet, Youtube has several great viewing options:
Kirov Ballet performing Swan Lake (I am always moved by this music. Truly stunning.)
The Royal Ballet company class (they make it all look soooo easy!)
The Russian State Ballet performing The Nutcracker (a family classic this time of year)