There is a saying that has taken a very strong foothold in our industry; a saying that has been on the lips of many dance teachers and on the websites of many dance studios for years:
“Ballet is the foundation of all dance.”
Before I discuss this adage, I would like to explain (for those who are unfamiliar with my work and career) my place in the dance industry, which will clearly influence my point of view. I am most widely known as one of the “keepers of the flame” of the Luigi Jazz Technique. I studied with Luigi for decades, I was certified by him to teach his technique, and I have traveled the world passing on his beautiful method. The majority of my day to day work, however, is as a ballet teacher at The Joffrey Ballet School, Ballet Academy East, New York Film Academy and The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.
So, as I see it, ballet is the foundation of ballet.
There are some genres of dance that clearly have ballet in their roots. This is nothing new. Since the beginning of time, art forms have influenced each other. Many modern dance techniques (but not all), many Jazz techniques (but not all), and some newer genres such as contemporary and lyrical dance, can trace part of their heritage to the traditions of classical ballet. Classical ballet training provides a very specific esthetic, alignment, elongation, placement, strength and form of control that is foundational to ballet and the aforementioned genres that claim ballet in their roots. A dancer of any genre that embraces the very specific esthetic that ballet training produces will benefit from ballet training. (One of my colleagues has stated that Pilates and Yoga can provide the same benefits, and on this point I will respectfully disagree, but this is a small point in this particular discussion.) If a dancer is focused on a career in western concert dance genres such as modern, contemporary, Broadway style theater dance, some forms of jazz, etc., ballet training will help produce the desired technique and esthetic for which most choreographers, directors and producers are looking. Many Broadway shows (not all, it depends on the style) require a ballet audition. I should add that more and more works are being created for very commercial venues that are employing dance forms that are not based in this esthetic; most certainly a positive change.
The esthetic that ballet produces, however, is in no way the foundation of ALL DANCE.
We live on a very big planet and the diversity of cultures that populate the globe is both incredibly rich and incredibly vast. It would be impossible to discuss ALL dance forms. It would be impossible to simply compile a list. I will, instead, discuss a few forms to make a point.
I live in New York City. I was born here and I have spent my entire life here. I must qualify this discussion by stating that I am not well educated in Hip-Hop and street styles but I do live in a major urban center and these styles are all around me. If there are any inaccuracies in this article, I do welcome comments and corrections from my colleagues who were brought up, live and work in the Hip-Hop culture and industry. After all, if I can’t listen, how can I learn?
A number of years ago I was asked to join the faculty of Cora Dance as a ballet teacher. Cora Dance makes it’s home in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. This is not a competition studio. It is a school dedicated to teaching dance to children as a means of passing on art and enriching lives. Period. Seeing the Hip-Hop being taught at this studio was a revelation. This was not the Hip-Hop that I saw in the social media videos coming out of neighborhood studios and dance competitions. This Hip-Hop was a completely different thing. It was thrilling, exciting, innovative, energized, incredibly musical and it literally took my breath away. It was here that I started learning what little I know about Hip-Hop culture, training and how the dance forms are taught and passed on. But the most import thing I realized watching these classes was that ballet was absolutely and in no way part of this art form. In fact, in my opinion, ballet could interfere with Hip-Hop training as the esthetic is so very different. Similarly, it appears to me (please correct me if I’m wrong) that ballet could interfere with certain styles of tap dance. I can’t imagine that ballet could be foundational, or even helpful in any way, to the work of Jason Samuels Smith (with whom I have worked when he was a child) or Savion Glover. The style of Jazz that I teach is clearly rooted in Ballet (as well as the Modern Dance techniques of Michio Ito and Doris Humphries). Luigi acknowledged the ballet foundation in his work and often credited his teacher, the great Bronislava Nijinska. But Luigi’s work (and much of the Jazz taught at dance studios across the country) is just a TINY PART of what Jazz dance actually is. The real beginnings of Jazz the real foundation at the base of the great tree that is Jazz is in African Dance and the dance forms of African Americans. It would be ludicrous to think that ballet is at the foundation of the work of Pepsi Bethel or the performances of the great star Josephine Baker. In my opinion, ballet training would have interfered with the magic that these luminaries brought to the stage. The subject of Jazz and its roots is beautifully discussed in the film Uprooted – The Journey of Jazz. It was indeed an honor and a privilege to have been part of this film.
There are countless dance forms that have been developed in every corner of the world; dance forms that have had no contact with the ballet technique that started developing centuries ago in France, later spreading and continuing its development throughout Europe. These forms are rich and beautiful and varied and have absolutely no basis in or connection to ballet technique.
Those of us who are seeing this article are living in a Eurocentric world. And this does sadden me. Because that world has placed an unfair importance on ballet’s place in the dance industry. It has caused ballet to eclipse the infinite, varied, and beautiful dance forms that populate the globe. And it is a lack of understanding, a lack of open mindedness, a lack of education that has lead to the proclamation that “ballet is the foundation of all dance”. Clearly there is much work to be done, clearly there are things to change. I wish I had more answers, but I do not. I am one ballet teacher in an enormous industry, trying to scratch out a living in the hyper-competitive New York City arena. In an attempt to do this work, to make these changes, ballet has been (in some discussions) vilified. Ballet is not the villain here. Ballet is an art form. It is my hope that the world will see all art forms, all dance forms for their inherent value and beauty. I hope that we can all work to make that happen.