When I was eight I had a Russian ballet teacher who thought nothing of whapping me and my classmates in our tummies in ballet class. The message was clear, if unrefined: flatten the belly. He could have said it, of course. Despite his accent he was still understandable and I’d probably have internalized this as a verbal correction. But the physical sting of a slap in the gut was clear, effective, and uncomplicated communication. I worked on tightening my belly every day in class and grasped this as part and parcel of the classical ballet aesthetic: ballerinas have flat tummies. Check.
This also marked the opening of a chapter in which the difficulty of classical ballet began to unfold: it was not really about tutus and tiaras at all, but physical discomfort that sometimes kept me from falling asleep at night, even as a third-grader. It was also fun—were it not I’d have abandoned it. But soon it would also be about blisters on the knuckles of my toes, the first signs of what would become chronic injuries I can still feel, and a daily sweat-induced stink. When my ballerina mom opened her dance bag you could smell it, a pungent mix of rosin, leather, and other seasoned textiles.
Still, I loved fingering the things in that bag: the soft chiffon of wraparound dance skirts, the hockey socks she’d long recomissioned as leg warmers since her days as a young ballet student in Canada in the 1950s, loose hairpins and bandaids, the requisite bottle of Jean Naté (so you could go somewhere in public after class or rehearsal and not clear out the place), and shoes upon shoes: soft leather ballet shoes in varied states of decline with blown-out elastic and holey toes, or pointe shoes with ripped out shanks she had consigned as class or rehearsal shoes, or maybe just thrown into the bottom of the bag to be forgotten. And sometimes shiny new pointe shoes without elastics or ribbons, whose platforms were not yet darned. I loved sticking my nose inside them and breathing in the distinct new-shoe smell of layers of materials glued and hardened to form the satiny toe box, caressing the tidy pleats on the bottom with my fingers. I would soon feel betrayed by my first pair of those clunky shoes that refused to comply with my wishes as my soft leather ballet shoes always had. Damn pointe shoes, you lied: you are not pretty at all.
Ballet must be pretty in the theatre on the stage, though: nobody wants to buy a ticket to see ugly. I used this little anecdote in class all the time with my own young students in lieu of whapping them.
This weekend a photography exhibit opened in London, of images by Rick Guest showing dancers with all the sparkle and glitter stripped away. In his artist’s statement Guest says,
[Dance] deliberately conceals the enormity of effort that goes into its creation … but I think that this does a great disservice to the dancers, and that having a sense of what lies beneath both enhances our experience of the performance and leads to a more profound appreciation of the dancer’s essential being.
Maybe: I’m still on the fence about this. The photographs are revealing and interesting, possibly only to dancers. They do not portray ugliness in the sense of tummies hanging out (there are no tummies on these dancers) or egregious classical technique, but more of the sort that lived at the bottom of my mom’s dance bag: the grit that is part and parcel of being a dancer.
In the third grade there were little boys who routinely said ballet was for “sissies.” That language incensed me and sent me over the top. In those days I’d agree the sparkly veneer was indeed doing us a disservice, that those smarty-pants needed a reality check about the real moxie one needed to be a dancer. It would not have mattered, of course.
But my inclination is not to think of this Big Lie so much a disservice as a gift: learning to show effortless beauty is a life skill that transcends classical ballet (in the classroom or on the stage) and serves us well in our “civilian” lives, too. I try to use a little of that moxie in my own professional life—the unrelenting drive that insists on the best output delivered in the most professional and elegant way possible, even when it is uncomfortable. There are plenty of professionals who missed that meeting.
And what of us glittery “sissies?” Some of us did okay for ourselves.
P.S. If you are inclined to follow the link to the exhibit, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments. If you are not a dancer, do you find the images interesting? Would they enhance your enjoyment of a classical ballet performance?