Bite-sized arts and culture: Shall we dance?

By Eleanor O’Hagan

So, we’ve talked about music and about how operas and symphonies tell thrilling and emotional stories. Now we should probably turn our attention to a huge part of the world of the performing arts: dance! 

As I’m sure you are all aware, there are many forms of dance, but the primary form of dance in performing arts is classical ballet! Since I do not have much experience in ballet, I sat down with a former ballerina this week, and we talked about this art form, what it is and how it brings the world of performing art to life. 

Senior humanities and Catholic culture major Eleanor Blair has been dancing classical ballet since she was just seven years old. The discipline and the artistry of dance is what drew her in. 

“It’s very regimented,” Blair said. “You have your routines to warm up and exercise in class, honing your muscles and preparing for performances in order to become an artist. Plus is pretty cool to dance on your toes.” 

Yes, ballerinas are not just pretty pink tutus and glitter. These dancers go through years of training, including balancing, leaping and twirling on the very tops of their toes!  

This is accomplished through rigorous training, getting muscles used to these movements and special dance shoes called Pointe shoes, which are pretty much made of paper mâché. 

“I was almost 11 when I started doing pointe, and the first year was pretty rough,” said Blair, testifying to the difficult path to accomplishing the art of ballet. 

This part of ballet is often painful, causing dancers’ feet to bleed and blister after almost every practice and performance. So why would anyone do this art? 

“I feel in love with it, so I wanted to be excellent,” said Blair, who highly considered becoming a professional ballerina, giving her entire attention to only school and dance. 

Blair said that even with the rigorous training and possibly becoming hired by a dance company, the dream career of being a dancer would not last long. Because the artform is so rigorous, most dancers are worn out by their early 30s. 

Another issue related to ballet that more people are becoming aware of is the dangers of body image.  

“There is still the ideal of what a ballerina looks like,” said Blair. “She is very thin and she’s got incredible flexibility and also the capacity for great leaps. Her foot work is precise.”  

Many excellent dancers have left or been told to leave the ballet world because they do not meet these impossible ideals.  

“They’re totally unhealthy – they should be focused on their health and being a good artist,” said Blair. 

There is hope for the dance world. While the public and many dancers have this idea of what a ballerina looks like, Blair explains that now there should be more focus on training healthy athletes who are able to be more creative.  

“If you look at the classical ballets from 50 years ago versus standards now, the extensions are higher, and the jumps foot work is more precise and with more beats. People are doing more turns. So it’s not really possible to have the same ideal body type you saw in ballerinas a while ago with the expectations with the athleticism that are expected,” explained Blair. 

The discipline of ballet is in various “schools” or styles of ballet. Each one has the same steps, but the expressiveness of each school differs. 

Variations exist among the head position, finger placement, levels the hands are held at and every muscle of the body, said Blair while explaining the different schools of ballet.  

Depending on the school you are training in, you have to work and train each muscle differently in order to best perfect the art and perfectly express the story you are telling. 

This intensity of the art form brings it to a beautiful mix of art, creativity and athleticism. Blair challenges anyone who thinks otherwise to spend a week trying ballet.  

Which brings us to why ballet is such an incredible way for people starting their journey in the world of performing arts to become more comfortable. By listening to the music, watching the dancers and following the storyline of the ballets (yes, ballets are stories not just dance), you’re experiencing everything in more tangible ways then going to a symphony.  

Just as opera has costumes, people and sets to carry the story of the music, so do ballerinas. 

“It’s pretty incredible watching ballerinas too. Doing these dances for like three hours and making it look easy – that aspect helps too,” said Blair. 

So, are we ready to leap into the world of classical ballet? Luckily the lovely Blair has recommendations on where to start your journey of going to the ballet. 

“The Nutcracker” is a must see, and Blair also recommends her favorite ballet to watch: “Giselle”. It’s a lovely story of love and death. Classic! Happy dancing!