Friday, January 4, 2013

100 Reasons To Study Ballet: Part II

My sincere apologies for the long lag between Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. What can I say?  Life happened.  Jobs came and went, work visas were applied for (and need to be applied for again), dual career decisions and international moves were talked over, adjustments were necessary...and time has flown by. This past year has been quite a roller coaster both mentally and emotionally and I've also been physically working through a couple of chronic or old injuries that I've managed to re-aggravate, which has meant adjusting my effort, listening to my body, taking some time off to rest and recover, and learning patience while missing my favorite activities.  Still, ballet class and the predicable routine of barre and centre have been a solid touchstone throughout a rather rocky period.  Whatever else is going on in my life and in my head, I can count on 1.5 hours of pure relief and sweat each day that I'm able go to class.  Thanks to all my ballet friends near and far, virtual and real, for the solidarity and support!

And now, back to the series on 100 Reasons To Study Ballet.  For a recap, see the previous post and the brainstorming tool behind it, The List of 100, as described at this website.  I value this list more every time I look it, and furthermore, I hope that some of these reasons resonate with you and that you'll share your thoughts in the comments! 

21. Body image:  Like many women, I've struggling with body image since puberty, going through phases and cycles of love/hate/acceptance, but I did not learn to fully appreciate and enjoy my body until I became a serious ballet student.  The physical discipline, self-knowledge of my capabilities and my personal anatomy, tuning into my emotional state, and just plain being in awe of what my body can DO have all made me really reframe the way it looks.  Ballet has remodelled the look of my body for sure, but it's also remodelled the way I THINK about my body.
22. New hairstyles: I've always had long hair, and almost always wear it pulled up and away from my face, in a casual ponytail or updo, but taking ballet class has introduced me to the insider's scoop on how to make a proper ballet bun that will stay in place through turns and jumps and look pretty as well.  I admire my classmates' creative ballet hairstyles and always ask for pointers or just plain "That looks great…how do you do that?!?" 

23. Wear tights: I've always liked tights ever since I wore them under my uniform skirts in grade school on fall and winter days.  They make me feel sleek and covered up enough to move without self-consciousness whether I'm swinging on the monkey bars at school, swinging my leg over to get on/off my bike or throwing my leg up in a grande battement at the end of barre. Wearing tights is like feeling naked without being naked (and now I get irritated when I have to wear uncomfortable clothes that won't let me move freely…I have gotten spoiled!).

24. Core work: Forget crunches and sit-ups…having to use your core to keep the middle of the body still and stabilized while the arms and legs do crazy and unnatural movements tends works the core muscles of the midsection like nothing else.  Taking up Pilates to help my ballet also helped me learn how to find and control those little core muscles that stabilize the pelvis and the spine and let me improve my extensions and my ability to hold turnout. 

25. Stage presence: I've never been one to long for the spotlight, and in fact, I've always been overly self-conscious, but thanks to ballet, I have learned how to project an image, an energy, a presence that says something to an audience, even if it's only my teacher or my reflection in the mirror.  However, that ability to be "on" and "in character" also comes in handy in presentations at work, when making toasts at weddings, or being in the public eye at any function.  I may never be 100% comfortable in the spotlight, but I can get close :)

26. Performing ability: As stated above, I'm not a natural performer.  However, I have gained a new appreciation of being aware of how to present myself as a dancer as well as how to project confidence, serenity, and ease on the outside even when I'm not feeling it on the inside.  A year or so ago, I had to give presentation at work on a topic I was not fond of to an audience that was unfriendly to apathetic and I was dreading it.  Five minutes before it started, I gave myself a version of the ballet pep talk, something to the effect of "Put your performance face on, pull it up/project it out, and do a good job…because you are a professional and this is what professionals DO."  Thanks, ballet! 

27. Desensitization: It's true that the scary thing becomes less scary the more you demystify it, examine it, expose it to the light, and just plain get used to it!  I learned to be extremely comfortable with public speaking when I was giving 10 math lectures to university students each week for a period of several years, and I learned to get comfortable with dancing in front of people in form-fitting clothes by going to class 4-6 times a week for a couple of years.  Just do it…and the butterflies will soften. 

28. "Fake it till you make it": This is the middle step between desensitization and real confidence; at first, ballet is so new and overwhelming that every class feels like trying to drink from a fire hose and every centre combination is cause for anxiety, stress, and self-consciousness.  But eventually, the desensitization leads to a waning of anxiety and a calmness where you learn to ignore everything external, tune into your internal dancer.  You just do the work, mark the combination, take apart the movement, do your best with aplomb and presence and trust that it'll come together eventually.  Before confidence sets in, the "faking it" stage gets you prepared, like training wheels for your inner dancer…and believe it or not, many people can't tell the difference from the outside.

29. Confidence:  Trying a new activity can be intimidating, as can facing your physical limitations, navigating a new group of people and new instructors, trying/learning/mastering new movements and enchainments, working on turns and positions of the body and new vocabulary, and squeezing in class between work and other obligations, but every little victory, every incremental improvement, each progression all add up to a growing sense of confidence in myself and my ability to eventually learn it and get it right.
30. Anatomy lesson: By taking on ballet, you learn that you have muscles in all kinds of interesting places and that ballet will target them and make you feel them like never before.  In order to train your body to do ballet movements correctly, you have to understand what parts of the body to use and how to conserve your best energy for the most tasking movements.  You'll learn about your deep outer rotator muscles, your psoas, your gastrocnemius and your soleus, your traverse abdominus and pelvic floor, not to mention all of those little intrinsic muscles in your feet that allow you move each toe separately from the others.  You were born in your body, but you'll meet some new anatomical regions for the first time in ballet class.

31. Joint mobility: Ballet truly makes you use your joints to their fullest potential, challenging you to find your full range of motion and then some!  Fortunately, increased joint mobility not only makes for a nicer line but it also helps to combat the general decrease in joint mobility that comes with age and inactivity.  You will learn LOTS about your hip joints, your knees, your shoulders, wrists and more in ballet class including how to push them and how to be kind to them after the work is done.

32. Learn about feet:  I used to think of feet as those things at the end of my legs.  Learning how to use my feet properly for ballet with full articulation at the metatarsals and ankles, to present them with turnout, and to place my centre properly over my toes was only the start.  When I started pre-pointe and then pointe classes, the importance of foot structure, strength, and being able to control the intrinsic muscles in the feet has ensured that I will never ever overlook the foot again :)

33. Improve balance: Ballet requires you to balance in all sorts of positions that are unnatural and you might say, impossible.  First, you learn how to stand with proper ballet posture, then rise to demi-pointe on two feet, then on to one-leg balances, balances in sous-sus, in attitude, in retire, in arabesque and attitude and during turns and pirouettes.  As body awareness, control, proprioception, and core strength improves, balances magically improve as well.  Or as Johanna has put it, the impossible gradually becomes possible.

34. Epaulement: Epaulement or "shouldering" is essential to the aesthetic of ballet.  Use of this upper body positioning gives the ballet body it's classical spiralling energy and look of movement even when still.  Outside of ballet, you will see use of epaulement in fashion and celebrity photography, where an actress will stand in croise with her hips facing to the corner instead of straight on to the camera, but her upper body is turned to camera and her front/devant leg extended. Ballet students know why: this position lengthens the line of the leg and is most flattering to the body.

35. Eye line:  Dance genres of all kinds use the eye line to emphasis the movement and emotion of performance.  The audience will automatically follow the eye line of the dancer, so use of the proper head and gaze is important to communication and expression. 

36. New body work:  When I started ballet, I also learned the importance of taking care of my body in new ways, to compensate for and enhance the new demands I was putting on myself.  Epsom salts baths, deep tissue massage therapy, chiropractic treatments, physiotherapy, Pilates, foam rolling, active release technique with a variety of rubber balls…I have learned how to effectively ease the strains and soreness to keep myself working at my best.  Although we dancers practice our technique in class, it's important to practice self-care and proper recovery outside of class.

37. Comfortable shoes
: Ballet slippers and sneakers can be pretty darn comfortable; pointe shoes and stilettos can be akin to torture.  After working your feet and legs during ballet class, those fuzzy slippers or soft shoes can feel like heaven.  I also have a pair of gel-padded sports sandals that feel like soft pillows on the bottom of my feet, something I am grateful for after lots of sautés and releves.

38. Uncomfortable shoes:  Pointe shoes are not comfortable. Period.  They don't have to be agonizing either if they are fit properly and the dancer is correctly using her feet and pulling up, but there's a certain discomfort that comes with the territory.  Taking off the pointe shoes at the end of class and walking around barefoot for few minutes feels like heaven.  Also, because I subject myself to pointe shoes during my dancing hours, I absolutely refuse to wear uncomfortable shoes during my non-dancing hours!

39. Serene facial expressions: 
Ballet requires the dancer to perform complex, difficult, and unnatural movements with strength, power, grace, and a serene and happy face.  No gritting your teeth, narrowing your eyes, grimacing with effort…it all has to look like an pleasant walk in the park.  This is HARD and takes practice, no doubt, but it also comes in handy in that boring meeting, at an awkward dinner party, or when giving a presentation or any situation in which being able to project an outside ease that masks an inner effort is required.

40. Flexibility: Overall flexibility is a combination of joint mobility, connective tissue elasticity, and muscle tension and release.  To a certain degree, your flexibility is determined by your biomechanics and your genetics, but each one of us can strive to maximize our given potential with stretching, barre exercises, yoga, Pilates, and other physical activities.  In addition to body flexibility, a dancer learns the type of inner flexibility that lets you adjust to the preferences or demands of different teachers, choreographers, styles, and rhythms.  I've learned to value and pursue this literal and figurative flexibility during my ballet studies, particularly during this challenging last year.

(Note: I realize that this list is very female-centric because it's based on my personal list of 100 reasons but I think much of could apply broadly to dancers of any gender and I welcome insights and inputs from other perspectives).


  1. Loved your list. Thanks for taking the time to write it, looking forward to the next one.

  2. Thanks Anon! I hope you have much joyous dancing in your life :)