I have been hearing from studio owners who seem to be having trouble explaining the need for ballet training to parents of competition dancers. It can be very hard for someone who is not a dancer to fully appreciate what ballet training – REAL ballet training – does to one’s body, one’s mind and one’s life. I’m hoping that my thoughts on this question might clarify the matter for both parents and students.
We have all heard that “Ballet is a foundational training technique” and that “Taking ballet makes everything better”. And these statements are not exactly true. Ballet training is a foundational technique for a small, select, group of dance forms; forms that are often characterized as “western concert dance” (i.e. Modern, Lyrical, some forms of Jazz, Theater Dance). Ballet is NOT a foundational technique for Hip Hop, Tap, Folk Dances, any non-western dance forms; in fact, There are many more dance forms that have NO foundation in Ballet than the forms that do. But Ballet is foundational to many of the forms of dance in which our dancers compete and studio owners are wanting their students to immerse themselves in Ballet training. But simply telling them that it is a foundation does not explain to them WHY.
The discussion that follows refers ONLY to,Western Concert Dance forms based in Ballet.
Firstly, dancing is physical. We, as teachers, don’t just teach steps; we train dancers. Everyone has seen professional dancers; everyone knows what they look like and what they can do. People without TRAINING are not capable of doing what a trained dancer can do. Period. I can explain in 5 minutes the mechanics of a fouetté turn or a brise volle, but try as they may, without training, a student will never be able to perform these steps correctly. NEVER. Ballet training has been scientifically designed over the last 350 years to produce the physical strength, flexibility, placement, balance, agility and technical ability needed to dance at a high level. No other genre of dance has this history, wealth of information or breadth of knowledge. None. And no other genre can produce the same result. The modern techniques of Graham, Horton, Limon and Cunningham; and the jazz techniques of Mattox, Giordano and Luigi can all boast that they are comprehensive training methods…and they are. But the practitioners of these techniques, the experts in these techniques all agree that without a solid professional ballet foundation, the dancing will never be what it should: strong, secure, clean, clear, expressive, beautiful dancing.
I have a colleague who was quite a good jazz dancer. She taught at some good schools and believed she was dancing at a high professional level. But she almost never got hired for performing jobs. Once, when auditioning for a Broadway show, the choreographer pulled her aside and said “You are beautiful, but you need ballet. I can’t hire you for this show but you should train in ballet for two years and then come find me.” She never followed through with his suggestion, and she never worked professionally again. This is only one instance, but it makes my point.
There is also the ritual of ballet class; a ritual that connects us as dancers. There is the daily routine of walking into the studio, placing your left hand on the barre, clearing your mind of all the extraneous noise and focusing on the work. I know I am lucky in that I trained exclusively in New York, and because of that, I can trace my lineage, from teacher to student, directly to Cecchetti and Vaganova. But we are, ALL OF US, part of a distinguished line of teaching that has been lovingly passed down, from teacher to student for over 300 years. This chain of knowledge enriches us as artists in a way that no other technique does, and since most of the parents have not experienced this for themselves, they will simply have to trust us on this point.
Many parents will argue: “My child is not going to be a professional dancer.” Well most of the students we teach are not going to be professional dancers…including the ones who want it with all their hearts. This is a brutal business. That is a fact. There aren’t nearly enough jobs for the myriad of aspiring professional dancers. But the ballet training we are providing reaches far wider than the competition or the professional stages. We are teaching the value of tradition. We are teaching the value of art. We are teaching the value of education and hard work and study and discipline. And there are great life lessons to be learned from doing something (like training to be a dancer) to its fullest; the right way and without short cuts.
The day I walked into my first ballet class, the day I placed my hand on that barre for the first time, the day I struggled, at 26 years old to execute my first tendu and demi plié, my life changed forever. And every day we, as ballet teachers, are hoping to change lives: the lives of recreational dancers, competition dancers, adult beginners and preprofessional students are all enriched by SERIOUS ballet training. Why would anyone want to deny themselves or their child this opportunity?