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Why Do I Have to Take Ballet?

By Laura Di Orio.

Becoming a professional dancer is like building a house from the ground up. You can’t start by adding the roof and interior decorations; rather, you must start by creating a solid foundation to support the structure and make it last. Similarly, a dancer must establish that foundation in technique before adding all the “tricks” and performance quality. And that foundation, according to many dance teachers and professionals in the field, is ballet.

“Because ballet has been constantly evolving for over 400 years, it has arrived at a very solid method of developing human movement potential for the stage,” says Stephen Pier, director of the Dance Division at The Hartt School of the University of Hartford, located in Connecticut.

“It’s still the most relevant technical training all around and can serve as a very effective way of organizing and developing the facility of the dancer. Most other techniques or styles have not been around that long. They are too limited to be the sole basis of training, and they haven’t worked out the science and art of dancing to the depth that ballet has.”

All of Pier’s students are required to take daily ballet class during their four years at Hartt. Ballet has proven to inform their dancing, and students have gone on to work in a vast range of professional companies – from Paul Taylor and Joffrey Ballet, to downtown contemporary and Las Vegas.

Like Pier, Dawn Hillen, master ballet teacher who currently teaches in NYC at Steps on Broadway, Broadway Dance Center and Ballet Arts, stresses the importance of ballet as a foundation of training. She says even her non-ballet-focused students have benefited. Some of her students who first started in hip-hop and found ballet later, for instance, said they felt definite improvement in their ability to change weight quickly, hit clean lines faster, focus and stay in the moment, and they became physically and mentally stronger.

Dawn Hillen leads a ballet class at Broadway Dance Center

Dawn Hillen leads a ballet class at Broadway Dance Center. Photo by Fiamma Piacentini Huff.

“You can use ballet to refine yourself,” Hillen says. “It creates a dancer or performer who is centered, balanced, lengthened and physically graceful. Just standing up is an art form, and it is a big part of your first impression. There have been a number of pre-professionals who were not getting work, and once they added ballet training to their daily or weekly routines, they began getting callbacks and jobs.”

Ballet contributes more to a dancer than just refined technique, too. Pier says ballet also imparts skills like “attention to detail, mastery, form, harmony, precision, discipline, social grace and awareness of the group – all skills that help young people succeed in the adult world.”

In addition, Yuka Kawazu, who has been teaching ballet in NYC for 15 years at various studios, including Ballet Arts and Broadway Dance Center, says, “We learn so many things, like patience, discipline, a different language, how to breathe, and we share joyful moments with other dancers.”

For these reasons, it is probably best to introduce ballet early on in a dancer’s training, to establish these skills in his/her dance and life. “If you really have the dancer’s best interest at heart, you must offer a proper ‘diet’ of training, and ballet is a big part of that good ‘diet,’” says Pier. “Not everyone is going to like broccoli if they’re used to eating candy all the time, but you might find some great recipes for serving it more tastefully.”

Still, some students may complain that ballet is “boring” or that learning the basics of technique is “slow.” In actuality, however, ballet is rigorous and demanding and a practice that requires great physical and mental control. To change a dancer’s approach from ballet as “boring” to ballet as “interesting” or “enjoyable,” Pier suggests taking a look at that dancer’s passion. Perhaps he/she is more focused on jazz. Then how can ballet support that passion, and what does ballet have in common with that passion?

Yuka Kawazu corrects a young dancer in her ballet class

Yuka Kawazu corrects a young dancer in her ballet class. Photo courtesy of Yuka Kawazu.

“Sometimes it’s good to show them how many successful artists in that field have studied ballet,” Pier says. “I like to point out in ballet class how different steps or phrases or movements relate to other dance techniques that I know a student is really turned on by.”

Similarly, as a teacher, Hillen says that when students come to her with the “ballet is boring” attitude, she tries to discover what they want, what they value and what drives them, and then she connects ballet to that. 

“The dancer can use this same approach on themselves to link up what they love with what they may need to do that, at first, seems ‘boring’,” Hillen adds. “Ask yourself what you want and what you like and how ballet is actually a means to creating those things.”

Many of Kawazu’s students are young Broadway professionals, and she says they have all come to realize the importance of ballet training to their career. Her teenage students have performed on Broadway in Finian’s Rainbow, Mary Poppins, Billy Elliot, Beauty and the Beast, Evita, Once, The Little Mermaid and more. 

Kawazu says she has had students who didn’t want to take ballet but should of in order to better their performing career. “I tell them that it’s okay to make a lot of mistakes and then they’ll learn,” she continues. “I mix between trying to make ballet fun and teaching more seriously. I would like them to feel that they can get better when they repeat the same exercises a few times. And when they hold their balance or can do the step, I see their face glow. I love that moment!”

In today’s dance world, where dancers are expected to be versatile, it probably doesn’t hurt every dancer, regardless of his/her concentration, to explore other dance forms. But it is the old tradition of ballet that seems to make the difference between dancer and professional. 

“Ballet is the ‘grandmother’ of them all in the Western world,” Pier says. “This system has evolved over centuries and has survived and absorbed every fad imaginable. It has great wisdom and logic imbedded in it, which every dancer should learn about. It’s not important whether or not you think you will become a ballet dancer. It is very important, however, that you become educated about your art and respect all of its various practices and practitioners.”

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Corey Cooley

    May 6, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    this should be required reading by every young dancer every YEAR!

  2. Gregor K.

    May 8, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    I don’t quite understand the objective of this article. Ballet was one of the by-products of French collionalism and is by far not the dance that has been around for the longest (Western bias), yet very rigid in terms of its form. I would also like to take into consideration that the millennia of human evolution and, hence, the clues we can get from biomechanics and science should be prioritized over “dance technique”. Movement analysis systems that stir away from the approach of having a particular aesthetic inform the movement, instead focusing on the efficiency of patterns such as walking, running, falling, jumping seem to be a better basis for training, esp. when the average career of a professional ballet dancer lasts about 12 years, as an extensive study conducted by the Vienna University and two other faculties has concluded. Biomechanics indicate that our bodies can handle extreme degrees of monoplanar movement (as in rotation of the femur in any ballet position, monoplanar flexions and extensions, such as battement) at the joint level by far worse than triaxial, moderate movement and is less efficient in a symmetrical situation than an asymmetrical one in regards to moving (which seems quite obvious if considered). The idea that your spine has to be pulled apart or “space” needs to be created in joints is a dangerous habit that can destabilize the integrity of the skeleton, and at the least, create much frustration in students trying to create space in, say the sacroiliac joint when doing a grand plié á la seconde. This is a common counsel/image found in a ballet class, yet the sacroiliac joint only moves in birthing women.
    I am not trying to be anti-ballet – I just believe that we need to have an informed picture about what it is and what it isn’t. It is not a method whose forms are the most efficient or sustainable, and it is by far not a system that can serve as an analysis for all human movement. Artistically, I believe it can be a great tool in creating an understanding for a specific aesthetic.

  3. Pingback: Why Do I Have to Take Ballet? | Megan Bettis

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  5. Aleksianna

    May 23, 2014 at 6:20 am

    The article assumes that everyone who trains in dance eventually becomes a solo dancers. But what about competitive ballroom dance? Individuals who have a long time training in ballet have problems adjusting to the new techniques. For example, ballet dancer have a center much higher than ballroom dancer. Ballroom requires grounding.
    It surely helps in developing flexibility and strength of the certain muscle groups if ballet is taken parallel to ballroom training. But ballet can not be considered as a required foundation for ballroom training. Pilates, maybe, but not ballet.

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  7. Lluvia

    Mar 12, 2015 at 3:27 am

    Definitely Eurocentric. Another embarrassing article that implies taking ballet is the only way I can “refine myself”. When will we accept that ballet is NOT the mother or “grandmother” of dance, and that – as someone mentioned before me – it the by-product of French colonialism. Ballet is a helpful technique, but it is certainly not the only valuable technique to learn. And in terms of it being the ‘best’ technique for alignment, I also have to disagree. It was not until I took Alexander and Skinner Release that I felt my alignment truly improve. Sometimes, what we are taught in ballet as “discipline” is just out-dated imagery that leads to harmful habits.
    Anyway, this is the quote that enrages me the most: “It is the old tradition of ballet that seems to make the difference between dancer and professional”. It is just wrong on so many levels.

  8. Caity Howard

    May 8, 2015 at 12:57 am

    this comment is for Grover K.
    You obviously are not a dancer if you do not understand, ballet is the basics in all dance and it is not damaging in any way. I have danced for way many more years than 12 and I am certainly not unique in that aspect. Ballet creates controlled, pure muscle that is able to perform extremely well. I suggest you experience this before you go making accusations

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