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A look at Ballet Dancing

In Western culture, and increasingly in Eastern culture, the ballerina is often seen as the romantic standard of beauty and grace. However, very few people ever do become professional ballet dancers. The reasons for this are many, and they will be addressed in this article.

First of all, the basics: ballet dancing was first developed in Italy during the 15th Century as a way to entertain royalty and nobles. While Romantic Era music is now considered traditional for many modern ballet performances, then-contemporary folk or court music was likely the most commonly used by the first ballet dancers.  Ballet dancers were originally all male, but females began practicing ballet professionally sometime around 1681. Ballet eventually spread to various other parts of the world, becoming particularly popular in France, the United States, and Russia. Nowadays, physical expectations of dancers are also very extreme. This has unfortunately resulted in many dancers, particularly females, becoming vulnerable to or developing eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. This is another reason why many people eventually abandon the dream of being a ballerina, aside from the intense levels of training, discipline, coordination, and talent which the art form requires.

Another reason why many people do not become ballet dancers, or are discouraged by other people from becoming ballet dancers, is the extremely little job stability which is available within the trade. Inexperienced dancers do not usually make very much money, if any, and their careers tend to be very short. There are also concerns like the sometimes unreasonable demands about height, weight, and of course raw talent. While one can’t really blame people for wanting to hire the most talented dancers, eating disorders are unfortunately a very big concern within the ballet world, creating a morally ambiguous backdrop in which some parents question whether or not they should even let their children take ballet lessons in the first place.

Most professional ballet dancers begin at roughly age 7. A common misconception is that girls will be wearing toe shoes almost right away, though dancing en pointe too soon can actually damage young or not particularly well-muscled feet and legs. As a result, it will usually be at least two or three years before a female dancer is wearing toe shoes. A girl generally shouldn’t try to get en pointe before age 9-12 at the soonest, and that only with the aforementioned years of training.

Expectations for males are often less rigorous, but not always so. While male dancers do not have to go through the difficult training procedures associated with dancing en pointe, they often have faster or more acrobatically demanding performances (or variations, to use the ballet term) which feature demanding lifts or jumps. See Mikhail Baryshnikov or Li Cunxin for examples of male dancers particularly well-known for their powerful jumps.

Regardless of gender, the stress of the training and performance always takes a great toll on the dancers’ bodies. This is one of the reasons why even most professional dancers do not have a ballet career which lasts more than five or ten years. Despite this, teaching or some other job in the arts does seem to be a very common choice for retired dancers. Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin is one example of a dancer who eventually became a writer, and his powerful memoir “Mao’s Last Dancer” became a near overnight best-seller. A movie adaptation was released in 2009, which features some of the most beautiful dancing as well as being a memorable window into the international ballet world.

Ballet dancers generally train for no more than a few hours per week when they are children, but for the more determined and physically mature students, this can eventually extend into dozens of hours per week. By the time a dancer is hired by a ballet company, he or she will usually be expected to train or take class for about 40-60 hours per week.  Despite the artistic freedom which is usually given to the choreographer, a ballet class can often be a rather grueling, tedious, and repetitive place to be.

Ballet is comprised of what are essentially 10 total foot and arm positions, with additional specialized movements such as lifts, jumps, and spins. Ballet dancers spend years and years trying to perfect each of these skills, though some become more well-known for certain types of performances than others. Injuries during training or performance are very commonplace, and something as simple as too many broken toes can sometimes be a career-ender. Despite this, most professional ballet dancers describe their work as a passion and almost can’t imagine being happy doing anything else with their lives.

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