Ballet is where it all began. For me and for so many others—including jazz, modern, ballroom dancers and even gymnasts and ice skaters—learning ballet first provides a stable foundation of technique and flexibility to build upon in other disciplines. Even some football players take ballet classes to help them become light on their feet and strengthen joints to avoid injury. Just ask the Jets’ 310-pound DT Steve McLendon.
So what makes ballet so special? There are certainly a lot of answers to that question. Here’s my take on the answer to that question.
Ballet is athletic…
Have you ever seen a ballerina’s calf muscles? How about a male dancer’s arm muscles? Ballet takes serious strength, and it takes hard work to get strong enough to perform in a full-length ballet during which the principal dancer (the main soloist) may be en pointe (dancing on the tips of your toes in special shoes) for almost two hours straight. Taking a ballet class is an exercise in itself—hence the popular trend of ballet barre-inspired fitness classes popping up around NYC—and one of the best full-body workouts you can get. However, most ballet dancers also cross-train with some combination of running, swimming, yoga, pilates, and weight-lifting to get their bodies into tip-top shape for performance season. In other words, ballerinas aren’t as dainty as you may think.
But it’s also artistic.
While it certainly takes an athlete to become a ballet dancer, the best dancers out there are more than just their stretchy limbs—they are true artists. Whether a dancer is performing the same role in The Nutcracker for the thousandth time or creating a new role in a contemporary ballet, there is always a character to develop or story to tell through the body. The dancer may study the music, the movements, or pick the choreographer’s brain to find the emotion in the piece and convey it as sincerely as possible. Though ballet dancers rarely speak on stage, many will also take acting classes to learn how to portray emotions through body and facial expressions.
Ballet is a strict discipline…
Ballet was born in Renaissance Italy and France in the 1500s; however, it wasn’t until King Louis XIV’s obsession with ballet in the late 1600s that the art was formalized. Though there are different schools of technique taught around the world, the basic technique of ballet is the same everywhere (an arabesque is an arabesque).
Much of what makes ballet, well, ballet has been rigidly etched in history for centuries. It’s quite extraordinary to realize how well this art form has endured throughout time.
But it’s also a dynamic craft.
Ballet is a centuries-old discipline, but there is always a way to make it new and exciting. Even in a simple ballet class, though the structure is the same every time, the different combinations of steps are infinite. One thing many ballet dancers love (and sometimes hate) about their craft is that there is always something to work on, always a way to improve. We all strive for perfection, but only elite dancers come close to it. That’s what makes ballet challenging and addicting but also motivating and ever-changing.
Ballet is another language…
Remember how ballet was formalized under King Louis XIV of France? As a result, French became the language of ballet. In learning ballet, dancers learn another language by default since all of the moves come from French words. And I can assure you, it takes years to learn all of that vocabulary. Beyond that, dance is a language all on its own. It takes time to learn how to speak with your body rather than with words.
Yet it can be understood by everyone.
The beauty of ballet (or any style of dance, really) is that you can understand it no matter what language you speak. The movements, the music, the costumes all come together to convey a mood or emotion or story that everyone can feel. In this way, seeing a ballet performance can be a magical experience for the audience.
And what could be more magical than finishing a day of dancing and writing than with a little French dessert? That’s right, I treated myself (and my roommates) to some heavenly macarons. These macarons from Épicerie Boulud had thin shells crisped to perfection, yet a filling so rich and creamy sandwiched between. Paradoxical perfection, if you will. Just like ballet.