October 01: World Ballet Day

Misty-Copland

Misty Copeland. Third African-American soloist for American Ballet Theater. Misty details the challenges of finding work and recognition as a minority dancer with a different body type in her biography.


Across time zones and across cultures, it’s World Ballet Day and the tutus and pointe shoes are out of the closet for a full 24 hours on BBC’s live stream of the event… And I’m two days late posting this  (^-^)” My schedule being what it is at the moment, I was absolutely exhausted. I didn’t even give it a go at the home made barre.

Perhaps my favorite BBC footage:

My own journey with ballet came late in life, just a little over two years ago. I can’t say exactly what prompted me to take up the barre as my mistress. For twelve long years I’d slaved away for Euterpe at the altar of music and composition. At 17, I chose my confirmation name as Cecilia solely for the fact that she was the patron saint of music. To chair as first flute in my high school orchestra was the single most defining point of my life.

And as a young gymnast and student of karate, I’d scoffed at the dainty little girls in the studio next door all lined up in a row, decked out in girly pink leotards and slippers, practicing their tame plie and tendu combinations while I was learning how to fly in the air or how to disarm a potential assailant. The sexism ran deep in those days of my younger self. I know better now not only because I have been educated and have become the wiser for it but also because I now have first hand experience on how bitchy a plie can be to execute properly, let alone a properly turned out tendu.

For those who have never taken up ballet, not even in their younger years, let me tell you: the struggle is real. Fine motor skills and incredibly muscle control are necessary to attain even a modicum of grace. The impact on the knees and insoles is unbelievable. Ballerinas will be some of the strongest people you will meet, psychologically and physically.

Somehow or other, twelve years after my first music lesson, I found myself trading up Euterpe’s golden stand for Terpsichore’s wood-floored studio one balmy summer night at the university. It could’ve been anything: yoga, hip hop, coding classes. For whatever reason, it became ballet.

tanaquil

Tanaquil Le Clercq. Her career ended tragically when she contracted polio at the height of her artistry at age 27. She became a prolific teacher in her later years.

Early the week of my first lesson, I’d gone to the local dance store with clammy hands and a sudden fear of judgment. When you think about ballet, about beginner ballerinas, the image is almost always of a mommy & me class or of a preteen or adolescent. It’s almost never of the 20-60 year old woman who has seen the world and wants to continue discovering new things about herself.

There were girls nearly half my age being fitted for their first pointes, a moment as defining of a ballerina’s life as it had been for me to attain first chair-ship in high school wind ensemble. It took me an hour of pretend browsing through racks of clothes, peeking over at the veteran employees, before I could pluck up the courage to ask for help. In the end, I purchased a simple, black leotard and skin colored tights (even as I was embarking on the greatest self-experiment of my life, I still had misgivings about the color pink) but there would be no avoiding it for the shoes; amazingly, my worn out leather Bloch slippers are now my life and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. 

From day one of abdomen ass-kicking at the hands of ballet and the perfectionist Madame Darcy, I fell madly in love with feeling so incredibly vulnerable and yet so alive. I’d never moved my body as a dancer. Still, that first night’s experience was an enlightenment. I felt human again.

The glittering world of ballet is quite possibly one of the most feminist dance forms around, which sounds crazy to say considering how little girls are groomed from a young age to attain a near impossible physical ideal. But comparatively, in ballet, it is the woman and not the man who is the centerpiece and leader in the dance. The scene of stardom is dominated by a slew of incredible prima ballerinas across history while only a handful of male dancers have been able to push past to the ranks of single name status world-renown. And not for a want of talent or grace or strength, either, as the male body is comprised of more muscle than its female counterpart. Still, while every generation or so produces a single male dancer who achieves the same level of worldwide stardom as their female counter part, it seems as if there are easily five or ten times as many women on the international scene who achieve that same level of recognition or higher. There are prima ballerinas (cream of the crop) and then there are prima ballerina assoluta (a title for only the most exceptional of the cream of the crop), one which applies only to women. As far as I know there is no male equivalent. Perhaps it’s the ephemeral pointe work, the selling point of ballet, which applies only to women that produces this fame effect.

For those dancers or aspiring dancers who are not completely convinced about ballet, the evolution of this dance form is still in process. Many fear that ballet is too rigid an art form to be popular in the new age of spontaneity and fluidity. Also, the main repertoire revolves around The Classics (classics that were classics even during you great grandmother’s time): Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Coppelia, etc. Very few living ballerinas have had choreography created solely for them. But this changing.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2f-AvMve1N

I hope that more and more people discover the arts, in all its forms, and take a moment to truly appreciate them. It almost feels as if every year, more and more programs are cut simply on the premise of being unrelated to business or generating money and there useless.

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