What would you think if someone told you that he or she is a ballet dancer and loving it? I’ve seen a bunch of different reactions, but two are most common. Some look at you like they’ve just lost any kind of respect for you. You can literally watch them drawing a picture of you in a pink tutu tiptoeing down a hall in their heads while they wonder why you’re obviously such a freak. Why? Because no normal young woman would walk around in a pink tutu and a pink leotard with rhinestones and glitter like the ones you can find at the supermarket before Halloween. Honestly, no one would. Not even a professional ballerina.
Sometimes people tell you what an awesome hobby that is, often followed by “I couldn’t do that though”. Not only dancers are still attracted by the scenes you sometimes see on TV when there’s a ballerina in a gorgeous dress every girl would like to wear, maybe not to school, but just for fun, and she’s turning in her pointe shoes and can get her leg high up in the air when some of us would already be unable to walk the days following an attempt to get the splits.
What they see is the ballerina on stage, the one that’s made it to a company, a professional dancer. They see the beauty that ballet is but what they still can’t feel is the beauty that every dancer feels when he or she is training. It’s the feeling of straightening your spine and stretching your legs in order to get as close as possible to perfection. I’m not writing a love letter to all the ballet schools who train the ballerinas that will be on the stages in ten years, although those are great, too, but they’re not what I want this piece to be about. I want to fight against the prejudice that portrays it as an art form that could never be just a hobby.
“It’s not exhausting.” Sometimes, you can cheat a little. If you never even try to turn out your legs, which is the number one rule in ballet, then it’s definitely less exhausting. If you don’t try, you might make it through a barre warm-up without getting out of breath, but once you start jumping and doing across the floor, I promise you that you will sweat. It’s not exhausting in the way running or other sports are exhausting, but it demands lots of strength and focus and makes you touch your limits again and again.
“It’s old-fashioned.” Breathing has also existed for as long as humans have been around and we’re still doing it. On one hand, it’s beautiful that it’s a little old-fashioned, because it feels so pure and untouchable like you’re able to enter a different world. On the other hand though, it’s also the base for every other style in dance: It’s such a difference between watching a jazz dancer with ballet training and a jazz dancer who doesn’t know what a barre is.
“It’s just for super strong and flexible people.” I know a dance teacher who once offered beginning ballet class for adults and no one wanted to take it, so that she joked that at some point they would start doing it for fitness reasons and attend ballet class in their old Zumba outfit once that trend ends. Like in any sport, there are different levels and if you have to start, you will just start at the bottom (sounds more negative than it’s meant to be), so no previous training is required.
“Twelve is too old to start.” If you want to become a professional dancer, sometimes twelve might be a little late, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to start dancing or maybe even to train in order to become a dance teacher one day. You can start at any time and the reason “Starting that late is non-sense” is absolutely non-sense, because it can also do so much for you, your body and your confidence besides the opportunity to turn it into your job which anyway only few get.
“It takes hours of training each day.” If you want to become a professional, yes. Dancing is an art form, but training in dance is a hard sport and it requires lots of time. If you just want to know what it feels like to be a ballet dancer, work against those back problems or get a nice workout, one hour per week is already good enough and many studios offer programs that require few training hours for teen and adult beginners.
“All tutus are pink.” This is honestly the most common stereotype I know about ballet. In classes for children they mostly are, because young girls enjoy jumping around in pink tutus. Most teens training in ballet are so tall that the shops don’t even offer pink leotards in their sizes but instead they wear leotards in black, dark red, blue or other colors – the shops offer a wide range of different leotards, with arms, without arms, showing lots of skin on the back or with lace on the front. In most professional companies ballerinas can where whatever they want to class and none of them wears a pink leotard with a pink tutu. By the way, if you’re trying ballet class for the first time, a tight leggings, a pair of socks and a comfortable top is all you need.
When you enter a ballet class, you enter a unique world with old traditions. You’re welcomed into a society that will accept you, simply because you love the same thing as they do. It’s the feeling of walking down the street to class in a leotard and sweat pants, of straightening your spine in school just because you like the feeling and maybe even of putting a Bands-Aid on those blisters. It’s shopping for leotards, watching ballet videos on youtube and more. It’s the moment when, no matter how good you are, how matter how hard or often you train, just because of your love for this sport ballet turns from a hobby to a lifestyle.
While it’s an art form and an awesome way to entertain people, it’s also a sport. Classes are exhausting and stretching, sit-ups and barre work need to be done. In a way, it’s a workout that requires both physical and also mental work – focus, much more focus than running or football requires. Focus is what makes you continue as you cannot listen to your body saying it can’t continue when your mind is full of French words for different steps. It’s a workout for both your body and your mind and it trains many muscles that other sports never even consider.
Last but not least, there’s the feeling of standing next to the barre, holding on to it while you’re pretending you weren’t holding on to it, so that your teacher doesn’t know that you really should work on your balance. And then, you lift your arms in that beautiful round circle, your leg sneaks up to your knee and you extend it. You see your reflection in the mirror and you straighten your spine a little more, focusing on a point in the mirror to support your balance. You follow your hand as the circle your arms draw goes lower and your leg comes down to shoot up again for a battement while you can barely breathe. At any given moment, it’s perfectly defined how each of your movement should be and there’s always the chance to point your feet more, to straighten your spine more, to gain even more beauty.
This is what’s so incredible about ballet: It’s the emotions that you feel when you’re doing it. There’s no other place where you can feel the confidence, the beauty and the thrill ballet offers.