At the Barre: Why?

Lately when teaching my youngest students, I find myself asking “why?” Not about them specifically, but about what I’m teaching. Why do I tell them certain things? Why do I repeat the same corrections? …..Because of the history of the technique? The aesthetic? Their physical development? Because it’s what I was taught? ….Well yes, but not only.

Ballet class is so structured. The technique is literally based on hundreds of years of history and development, and the steps are very specific. The vocabulary is strict and to a true bunhead, each step is treated as though sacred, and it is delivered with care. But to be honest, sometimes when I give corrections or advice, I find myself asking, “what am I teaching them in that it HAS to be that way? Is it limiting? Is it debilitating? Is it stifling creativity?” (Preview Answer: No.)

With this certain group of students (and I would say most ballet dancers have heard it at one point or another), I often hear myself saying:

“Point your feet.”

“Straighten your knees.”

“Long necks.”

“Hold your wrists in line with your elbows.”

“No chicken wing arms.”

“Long legs.”

So, why should your feet be pointed? Why should the knees be straight? Why shouldn’t your elbows droop like chicken wings? And I ask myself because kids are the first to question why. If I’m to be a good teacher I have to answer their questions. And there’s a reason I know I give these corrections and it’s more than “to look good.”

But there’s a level of perfectionism that manifests itself in dancers that study ballet, and while I believe that can be healthy in many ways to spur growth and progress, we often berate ourselves when things aren’t EXACTLY textbook ballet or that 180 degree penche was really only like 175….And that’s not healthy.

So how do we manage that perfectionism? How do we let some of it go so that we can have an almost religious experience at the barre? How do we go to that other world and not stare in the mirror and hate everything we do because it’s not good enough, or pretty enough, or get mad because our arabesque doesn’t look like Julie Kent’s beautiful perfect line? How do we watch videos of ourselves and not pick apart everything we did wrong and not want to give up because it doesn’t look the way it felt in our heads?

You trust your training for what it is. Muscle Development and Discovery. The structure of a ballet class is meant to build strong, conditioned muscles that move harmoniously in order to prepare a body to execute classical ballet. The class starts with small, controlled movements to check alignment. Always plies first. To get the joints moving, but also to practice rotation and alignment in the body, from shoulders over hips, straight spine, to the top of the hip and the knees tracking over the ankles then over the toes all in one line. And to that point (pun intended), pointing your toes does not start from the feet, but all the way up in the hips, thighs, knees, calves, and then down to the ankles and toes. Pulling the shoulders down away from the ears and having a long neck means you are activating the muscles in your back properly to utilize your arms and let energy radiate outward, starting with what’s happening inward. The energy present and repetition in practice of what could be considered mundane tasks of the technique, do create more beautiful lines in the body, but more importantly, they create energy to be translated into story telling.

And that energy you felt in your head versus what you saw in the video? Guess what? The audience feels that too. That’s what transports them into your world and makes them feel something. That connects you all together. That’s what makes you an artist. That’s what makes you human. Your training and muscle mastery over the technique you worked on in class, those minute details you have come to understand about how it works and what you’re doing, gave you that opportunity.

We teachers shout the same corrections over and over for things to become muscle memory. For you to utilize your muscles and understand how they work, so thus, when given choreography, when given the chance to link steps together even in a simple combination, you have the vocabulary to create something more. You can do an arabesque, lift your leg back behind you with your knees bent and your foot hanging like a limp noodle, or your can DO an arabesque and reach for the Heavens like it’s a celebration of life feeling every muscle fiber from your toes to your fingers because you’ve trained those muscles to be alive and engaged. By standing in class and doing it that way every day, you allow yourself to have a knowledge of the TRUE power in movement.

So….

Learn to sickle when that sickle says something in your story. Let your elbows droop when you need to say that you’re body is breaking. Let your shoulders come to your ears and shorten your neck because your heart is breaking and your insides are crying. Throw your arms back, back arched, with your head and chest lifted to the skies because you’re embracing the air around you. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about being able to express yourself. To show others your why.

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