Guide to Ballet Training, Part 1 (for novices)

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Part I

I think useful information on ballet schools is a bit hard to find on the Internet. Information about the process, what to do, expect, avoid. It’s not truthful when you do find it. You just jump in. But there is a process if your child wants a career in dance. There are many factors, but if you are starting out as we did, there are some things you should know, and if you ever need someone to talk to, you can always ask me what to do. I’ll try to help. That may not be the best recommendation, as I am certainly no expert-no one can be-but at least I am not politicking for anyone. Yes, my daughter is in ballet. I think this is her sixth year, maybe going on seven, I may have lost track.

According to my teachers eleven was a fine age to start then (9 or 10 being the youngest to begin seriously), but you are always hearing professional dancers (and non) stating they started nearer their birth. In my opinion, it is wrong for dancers to tell other dancers that, because they should know better. I think the Russian methodology is the best, for one thing, most of their dancers can concede to the age of around 10, because that is the earliest those schools take them and they begin, seriously, to study ballet. You have to wonder about the truth of other statements when the serious study of anything cannot begin much earlier, and certainly not ballet. They do say, and correctly, too, that they studied or took other dancing, gymnastics, etc., and this is probably true, but even they know it is not like ballet and is different. It might have helped them, but they do not feel the need to relate that usually because the training at those schools is so formidable as to put into the shadows any previous lesser instruction. There is really no comparison. Why? This will become apparent in a later section of the article.

I think there is a truly correct and comprehensive method to the study of ballet. I am always searching for that in schools, teachers, pictures, videos, performances. It is what you have to learn to look at first. I do not think my daughter would have known, starting out, what was good for her, and I am aggressive about what I desire and look for in any educational situation which affects my children. I have 3, and I went to my first audition, with my son, at SAB, about twenty-one years ago. He was not accepted, but continued to dance in Russian schools in NY until he was about 12 years old. He lost interest in it and the outside pressures of being a boy in ballet just became too much for him. He did learn some things about ballet, and sitting down to watch a ballet performance now, brings all of that back to him. He has always been a dancer, though, and never shies from performing. He is a ham. I have followed ballet for about 40 years.

I know how to go about looking, though I was not a professional dancer, I danced, and the choices were easier when I was growing up, and I was lucky to get good instruction. I had opportunities to dance professionally, but I finally realized in college that I did not want to become a dancer exclusively. In all ways, that decision is very personal to the dancer. Proper instruction, correct instruction is probably the most important piece of the ballet, or dancing, puzzle. I do not know how I was so lucky to have had the teachers I did, when I did, and where I did. Part of the reason this occurred, because although my mother did not accompany me at all, she had schooled me in the basics of ballet and dance knowledge, cautioning me extensively, prior to my going out and signing up for classes and because she bought me books, or gave them to me, and I read them. I was not averse to reading or listening. She also researched and made suggestions where I could go, and I went there and she turned out, and they turned out, to be right for me. After that, I found things on my own. It is cyclical. Things change in ballet schools sometimes as often as they do in public schools, and programs-one year it is good, the next, not so. It depends on who is teaching there at the time, the program, mission or philosophy, and some other factors. More variables affect parent and student over time, but initially, it should not be too difficult to find good training, despite the vast differences between schools. I think this constant “polishing” of the process, program, and elevator effect does not benefit every generation or level of dancers at the same school, for usually, in this country, in most cities and towns, there is nowhere to go for top ballet training you find. The problem is continuity, but it is also cost, change, greed, and outside influences. But when it gets to a point, you have to take it into your own hands and find what you are looking for-what your child needs.

You can go to the horse’s mouth in New York City, but what if you are not accepted at ABT or SAB? Well, because it is New York City, there are other good teachers and schools to go to. It is an international and cosmopolitan city and there is no dearth of dancers there.You can also find good ballet teachers in other places, but it is a crapshoot sometimes. You do not necessarily know. They can be in the strangest and most unlikely places, or they can be right around the corner-for the time being, anyway. That is why I look for Russian now. It is just so much easier. I do not have to look at French, American, or British systems, because my daughter now makes the decision on where she wants to study and what. As a parent, Russian just makes more sense, because Russia has a system of ballet training- the Vaganova method. It focuses on correct placement, the correct technique and levels, but most importantly, probably, to me, as a parent, it also is designed to reduce the possibility of injury in what is a very difficult art. I said art. Not sport. It is not athletic. It is discipline. It is part science of movement, part muscle training and part art, then mostly art.

Some parents do not always care about injury enough. Some parents do not realize the risk of injury. Some parents will not accept that their child might not have the facility required for the correct and plausible performance of ballet, or have children who have not had good training or training in time. Some parents were dancers and know exactly what to do! I think a lot of Russians have come to the U.S. and other places to teach ballet in the Vaganova style and for whatever reasons, it is a wonderful opportunity to learn ballet with them as they truly know more about it, are passionate about training, and knowledgeable. They have to start somewhere, and sometimes their options are not always the options extended to those teachers at the actual Vaganova schools where the children are handpicked, out of hundreds or thousands, for the opportunity to study ballet at a state funded school. Here, we bring our (often) faulty children, without any gymnastics, bad feet, poor attitude, inflexible backs or legs, poor posture, and even more frequently, our money, to ballet schools, without having had even a physical, or x-rays, to determine their capability for such a regimen, and demand them to make stars out of them. This is NOT how it is in Europe, and worse we bring our sense of  entitlement.

In America, it is about the students you get whose parents can afford (or not) ballet training, the mentality is different, and until recently, due to so much promotion, and competitions, such as YAGP, ballet was not in the headlines. Only by promoting it, has it become more popular, for boys and for girls, or considered a career option. Respectable. A sport (to make it acceptable to some Americans). And a sense of it being far less demanding, complicated and fickle, than it really is. In America, until people become more aware of its difficult requirements, many people will continue to frown upon it, as they are basically uncultured and working-class people, who have considered for several decades, ballet as a starving art form, or dance as being “gay,” or not an intellectual pursuit, nor as having the prospect of wealth. In some cases, it is a middle class parent who aspires to have their child succeed as a team dancer, or competition dancer, who enrolls their child in ballet, gymnastics, and theatre, modelling, etc., and for ballet, this focus is not correct. It is not a good formula, not one based on knowledge of the art of ballet, what is required, the prospects, but only the early physical success and a trophy as proof. A ballet dancer’s career spans a lot longer time than most professional athletes, actually, and unlike sports, but as in theatre, maturity is required, and artistry. Artistry is not acquired in early stages of youth, such as the understanding of the emotions and stories involved in some mature ballets, or the sense of freedom required, by many years of practice, to express oneself uniquely in performance of mature subject matter, and to do so fluidly. It is this part of ballet, I believe, where most dancers with physical potential actually fail in ballet. They are not artists and perhaps never will be.

Ballet is competitive, but first it is discipline. As it was designed, it was discipline for the longest time and then possibly, much later, some success might be possible. Maybe. It is easy to forget, in the little ballet studio, that there are a world of other dancers out there, and that they might have several distinct advantages over Americans, in general. Training is number one. Ballet, of course, had its starting point, too, like all dancers, but then a Golden Age (occurring almost 200 years later), and more structure (another 100 years), then becoming almost scientific (50 years), and again a resurgence (50 years), again (20 years) and again now (20 years). There is a phenomenal (and interesting) history to the art of ballet, but it was never Shun Yen, or gymnastics, or jazz, or a sport- at anytime in its development. It never should be or will be really viewed as an art and a sport, or it will truly cease to be ballet. The movement to even discuss this is one to capitalize on the financial opportunities and promotion of it as a commodity and everyone seems to getting into that game, but the step to make it an Olympic sport, like discus throwing is absurd.  This might improve everyone’s physical health, increase advertising demand, create paycaps for “artists” or make it acceptable overall to men, and others, but it will do absolutely nothing for the art of ballet. Ballet like that is without art. It is without stories, music, entrepreneurs, shows,E and in that arena, no true art is possible. Just gladiators and lions.

Everybody dances (if you go to New York), but in many places in between the coastal cities, the only dancing done is at weddings or a folk ensemble at school, or not at all, depending on your sex, religion, persuasion and coolness factor. It was not until I went to New York, in college, that I had occasion to go to clubs in the city where all the men (almost) got up and danced. Where I grew up, all of the above applied. The only professional or aspiring dancers you saw were in local companies or at weddings. It was a physical impairment of men, that they “could not dance,” would claim they “had no rhythm,” and no one made an effort to persuade them. NO one challenged any of these false hoods. Even now, it is extreme to label a child as “trans” when it is normal to go through questions of individual sexuality. Dancing has nothing to do with that, except it is still seen, in the US, and other places, to be largely “feminine” to express oneself, and there is still a morbid (private) fear, in this country at least, to be considered feminine, or unmanly, in any regard, with young men. So ballet will probably always suffer due to the few boys who manage to find their way into it. It is no less athletic for girls, but in ballet, boys can excel more obviously in many areas where other boys, outside of ballet, just do not and cannot ever hope to reap the benefits from. So in one sense, I see a practicality of noting that ballet is the most athletic, and totally physically demanding of any physical activity they can do, in a sense. Only to encourage boys to try it because there are a lot of really bad male dancers out there, and people are always saying they are “really good” and they are not, and I think this leads to resentment by some females, who are, much better, really, and have to work much harder to get noticed. They have to be perfect, but a boy can definitely “have a career” if he is mediocre. A girl has to be beyond perfect.

In my time, or slightly before it, one dancer, Jaques D’Amboise, made the attempt, and temporarily succeeded, in making ballet a course option in New York City public schools, but that was not successful, unfortunately. He started a foundation, however, to educate inner-city (and all) children and their parents, the public, and everyone else, about how positively dance had helped him off the streets, gave him options to pursue a career in ballet, and the theatre, and how he learned to dance. He has tried, chiefly, all of his life, to share that information and knowledge about dance, and he has been somewhat successful in spreading the word, but mostly he has been successful at providing an afterschool environment that gives children the chance to try dance and to see if they like it. That’s all you can do. If they are successful, he helps them pursue it further. Lost momentum. NO. It was the beginning of change, which takes time. He is correct in all that he says about dance, and for this reason, if no other, dance should be available to study to anyone who wants to pursue it, free of charge, just like sports in most schools, but it is not.

In most countries, there is the respect for ballet that there is in Russia, and not just ballet, but arts. There is great funding to the arts in other countries, but as in so many other ways, we are behind in many of these areas. They are just more cultured and differently structured. Most foreign countries at were once aristocratic political systems. As such, the monarchies investiture in the arts, or their countries people, was to educate and make available to them entertainment, education and culture that otherwise they would not have the ability to underwrite-in fact his was one of the very large platforms of government, besides, security. It is a matter now of patriotism and history, especially as it relates to countries which had a formidable part in the creation or perpetuation of ballet. it is part of their iconoclasty-they cannot give it up, or be seen to, as people then say, “Why do we continue to have a monarchy?” And there is also a gradual uncovering of that, or change, such as in Russia, where the ballet has increasingly, or at least more purposefully, taken the backing of the highest bidder. But as a result of it having being made available to everyone, at least in the past, or the effort to continue its conference, everyone there at least understands its importance, artistic significance, or has some underlying understanding of it and accepts it, etc…and many more people pursue culture, are actually cultured, attend shows and are involved in the making of art on many different levels, not for the money, but for the art. It is seen as part of a good education, education at all and is underwritten or subsidized. It is getting increasingly harder for those countries to even afford to keep ballet companies together in this economy.

In this country, frequently, it is the private contributions which make the performance of it or viewing of it possible to people without a lot of money, and it is nearly always a political nightmare to get funding or to make new art. The states do not support artists, art or the training up of artists. I think one of the reasons we have government is to decide what is good for everyone and necessary and if art is not, then very little else matters. Art is like the hyacinth for the soul. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy and philistines. How can the parents of these people know where to take their child for ballet, when in today’s culture, what they want is a cheap afterschool program for its babysitting possibilities. It does not mean that if the child is exposed to dance, somehow, that they will not become enamored with it. Most likely they would respond to some form of art, and along with humanities, reading, other forms of culture, such as the making of other kinds of art, this exposure cause us to search within ourselves for deeper feelings and emotions, answers and humanity. These are requirements for people, and in art, all of the shared commonalities of people exist. It is a higher plane of functioning, not on an intellectual level, but on an emotional and expressive one. That is why, in our country, these independently run ballet schools are so very important. All together, whether they act accordingly, they are responsible for the education of our children, edifying them about the importance of art in society and life. They do a big part of the job with no subsidies, no review boards, networks, administration, doctors, child psychologists, theatres, funding or even newspapers or promotion. With no one willing to champion them. Some of them are frauds, some of them provide healthful physical activity and a needed outlet in a community, and some of them provide a basis from which to pursue art, but we cannot make those schools Sports Authorities in an effort to create a funding tunnel, because in the history of ballet, when the technique and art suffers, the ballet loses historical importance, great artists, and attendees. People come to expect more in viewing ballet-more acrobatics, more violence, more intensity, more stimuli, and this is not art.

But most of all, you take your daughters or sons to ballet to learn character, discipline, and whether you know it or not, etiquette, respect, music, following directions, beauty, grace, strength, work ethic, survival, and working as a group. Many of the same things you learn in karate or sports, school or church, theatre or art, you learn in ballet. It is important to know why you take them, to know what they need to learn, and when, and most importantly, it is important to know whom is doing the teaching, and if you do not know that you do not really know anything at all. I have heard of more than one famous dancer who was taken to ballet to use muscles after a debilitating illness or injury, and who became devotee. A brother who accompanied sisters, a YMCA after school programmer who got the bug, the late starter, the street dancer or troubled youth, and most times the student of the little local school whom has been accepted to a top program (frequently in another country) which ought to , in itself, exhibit the problem in a nutshell. It offers something you do not find in any other place. I do not mean teamwork or competitions, or glamour. In fact, ballet is not glamorous at all, particularly, unless you consider a sweaty, calloused, haggard, starving, and beat-up artist, glamorous. I feel it is mostly a discipline, first, and an art second, and possibly a profession, and somewhat glamorous, third. In the end, no one will probably remember you and most likely you will not ever be a household name, unless you are on Instagram, or model, are self-promoting, and then you are not really a dancer, are you?

Not all dancers become artists, but all dancers become more disciplined, somewhat. I think this depends largely on the training because part of it is ballet etiquette and philosophy, part of it is physiology, and another part is perseverance, determination, hunger, hard work, reaching the sublime art of ballet and mastering that, and it continually learning, working and training. It just never stops. It is frought with injury, if you start out wrong, and just gets worse as you try to correct those things that should have been nipped in the bud, all the time with the studio turning a blind eye and just continuing to take money, pushing and over training at a very early age. It starts out as non-competitive, though in many countries, I could not say that, because there, they expect it to lead to greatness, or not. But again, they have a system and if you are accepted into it, there are reasons that you were, and according to them you have the facility for ballet, and then they provide the training. As you get older, it is much harder to get a consensus, and in some ways, to professionals, more obvious to see who is possibly talented and who is not. Competitions, in a way, make this worse.

But no matter when you come away from ballet, as an aspiring professional or not, you keep what you learned for the rest of your life, whether you continue to dance or not. You will always be a dancer. If you have been dancing for at least a few years, you are already a dancer, no matter whether you are famous or not, and more and more people pursue dance, or parts of it, for exercise, and movement, as adults and as non-dancers, than before and in some ways this is good, some ways not so good, or misleading. Perhaps this is okay if you understand what it is not, but it also takes away from the whole purpose of ballet training, if only part of the form of it is followed, or part of the technique, such as in Barre classes is done (badly), but it is not proper ballet training, is bound to cause injury through repetition, so it is ballet, but without any or all of the safeguards involved, without experienced or knowledgeable teachers, taught en masse, like gym class. That is not ballet. NOT ballet. NOT BALLET. Why not go to one of the MANY adult ballet classes offered at studios for that purpose. There is nothing wrong with barre exercises, but it is a component of other parts which are important. It is dangerous to give it credence, even a foothold in the world of a fitness craze mentality. These people will have children and will say, “I know something”-a little knowledge is sometimes very dangerous.

I do not believe that doing barre makes you a dancer and to an actual ballet dancer it is hard to separate it, explain it, impossible to rationalize, or to even acknowledge it at all because it should go against everything they have ever learned or will learn. Ballet dancers are snobs, sometimes. This is good and part of ballet, but it is also a discredit to the world of people who could be supportive of ballet and whom for that very reason sometimes, are not. Ballet should be for everyone, to a point. These types of activities also send the false message to average people, “You, too, can look like a ballet dancer, have a “ballet” body, be a part of that, do pointe, etc.,” and they are selling an image, a club, as false a claim as any claim could be, marketed as a sport, unintentionally or not, and untruthfully, that barre makes you as good as a dancer, and worse that anyone can dance, any part of dance, and that they will be accepted (eventually) into a dance class and be able to do all of the movements required. I do not have a problem with saying “they can obtain a good body,” but I do have a problem with them saying “a ballet body.” They are just exploiting the word “ballet.”

In that sense, dance training needs to be begun properly, with the correct outlook and perspective. This is really true no matter the age it is started. Often students who have “danced” for many years find they are not right for ballet or not accepted into a serious ballet training environment or company. This happens for a few reasons. 1) The training for ballet has not been correct or prolonged 2) Other training has taken place which you cannot easily get rid of the effects or muscle memory of, without great effort, and 3) great effort is required for serious study of ballet, focus, observations and correction, over time, 4) Enough money is not available, and 5) Companies have many dancers applying and they can only take one, or a few. But, with that goal in mind, if that is the plan, private or not, it cannot be accomplished any other way than as above stated, for only then will you even be in the running, and very few people will succeed among the very best. Only a literal few have come from other backgrounds entirely and been successful in ballet. In that sense, alone, it is viewed as an art. If you cannot get past the guardians-you cannot get past them. So, what, at a local school, or primary school do you need to look for so as not to further reduce your chances? Good teachers and guardians, or choreographers.

End of Part 1


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