I was a self proclaimed “anti-ballerina”, leotards and tights made me feel self-conscious and I was often heard telling people “I wasn’t built for ballet.” No, I didn’t (and still don’t) have amazing feet or great turn out and I’m not super flexible. Nor do I possess any of the ideal physical traits of your stereotypical ballerina. But, I have a new mantra now. “Nobody was built for ballet. Ballet was built for us.”
In 2012, I began studying to become a dance teacher. One look at the timetable was enough to give me nightmares. Three 1.5 hour classes of ballet a week for two years and no hip hop! I walked into that ballet studio tentatively, frightened and admittedly a little bit “too cool” for this.
Two years later I walked away as a changed dancer and student. Now I am training in hip hop and urban dance styles full time but I still take at least one ballet class a week and I encourage you, young hip hopper, to do the same. If you can’t take my word for it, read on for four reasons why:
1. Body Alignment
One of the first ballet classes I had while studying was unlike any dance class I’ve ever had.
For the first half of the class we just stood. There was no dancing. My ballet teacher walked around correcting and adjusting and talking us through what correct body alignment should look and feel like. “Who knew I had been standing the wrong way for the past 19 years?!”
I remember muttering under my breath - but had I not taken that class that year, maybe I would have never known.
Body alignment is the optimal placement of the body that ensures our muscles aren’t working unnecessarily hard to achieve everyday movements like walking and lifting as well as dancing. Injuries, headaches and soreness often originate from a misalignment.
My alignment has since improved but is a work in progress and re-training your body is something that takes time and focus and strength! When we are young and still growing, our bodies are easier to mould and re-train. This is why I always recommend my young dancers start ballet as soon as they can.
“Dancers are the athletes of god” - yes they are. They are fit, fierce and strong, and when I started taking ballet I noticed my strength and fitness levels gradually improving over time.
Thanks to our good friend the plie, my legs became stronger and I could jump higher and dance lower into the ground – how many times a class do you hear your hip hop teacher remind you to bend your knees?
I found new strength in my arms, I could hit cleaner lines in my choreography and I had a better understanding of the muscles involved in holding those positions. The feedback I received from my hip hop teachers was that I was hitting their choreography harder than ever.
My core strength improved which meant I could turn faster, balance for longer and I had better control. For the record, my ballet teacher never asked me to do a sit up or hold the plank position.
Mentally I was stronger too. It took some time for me to learn to not take corrections so personally and to train my mind to embrace each correction as a positive and a chance to improve. Once upon a time a teacher’s critique would have left me feeling low and defeated but ballet has given me a thick skin and the mindset to take on board constructive feedback in dance class and in life.
3. Focus and Discipline
When I was a younger there was no better feeling than learning a new set of choreography and smashing it out from to start to finish. Picking up steps came easy to me and I rarely felt challenged. But that was because I was missing a crucial point - the challenge was right in front of me, I just couldn’t see it: I didn’t understand the concept of perfecting each step in a way that would mimic the choreographer’s demonstration or vision with technical precision and correct technique and so each correction or suggestion that I should practice or go over the steps was met with frustration.
“But I know it!…”
My focus, not unlike many eager hip hop dancers I come across, was the choreography and not the mechanics behind the execution. A ballet teacher once said to me that dancing will never be easy and if it feels easy you are probably doing it wrong. It was in her class when I discovered she was right. I remember walking into her class one day feeling extra confident. I had finally memorised a particularly difficult Rond De Jambe exercise at the barre and I stood at the front of class determined to prove myself. At the end of the exercise she was frustrated and listed all of the things that needed work. It was a long list.
At the time I was convinced she was nit-picking and she was out to get me. I had after all “remembered” the whole exercise however, I hadn’t given any thought to straightening my supportive leg, or maintaining my turn out, or keeping my hips facing the front when rotating my legs to the back and the list goes on and on.
Now I understand that each dance step, no matter how simple it may seem, requires effort from the body and mind. I limit talking and laughing during class (although we are allowed to have fun, it is dancing after all!). I try not to just copy the movements of the choreographer, I listen to the way they describe each action and what muscles they are using and where their weight is sitting. I try to apply each correction given to me and my peers and I go over things so my mind and my body can remember what to do.
Even the simplest warm up exercise deserves your full focus and it was ballet that taught me that.
4. Choreography and Performance
Ballet opened up a whole new realm of movement for me and my “made of wood” body. My sharp and somewhat linear dancing was contrasted to the round and continuous movement I had to adapt to in ballet.
My body learned to extend, to be soft and gentle, to turn and to jump and to use the floor. Suddenly, I had so much more material to use when I was choreographing routines for me and my students. Ballet taught me to embrace dynamics, to go from smooth to sharp and from long extensions into short and snappy movements.
Choreography became more fun for me and I’m sure (or I hope) more interesting for my audience to watch. As far as performance goes, ballet played a huge part in squashing the “competition kid” smile out of me and taught me instead the importance of presence. A great performer can just stand on stage and have the audience enthralled. It’s the eye line, the jut of the chin, the sly smirk, and the connection with the audience. Plastering a smile on my face and glueing my eyes to the lighting box at the back of the auditorium was a habit that was hard to break and one that, admittedly I still need to work on, but my ballet teacher’s constant sing-song reminder of “head and eyes girls!” still rings through my head when I’m in class, on stage or teaching.
It’s now three years since I graduated from that course. Ballet, hip hop and all genres of dance continue to challenge me and even though I am a teacher, there is still so much for me to learn. I maintain that “ballet was built for us.” It really is the foundation of all dance, designed to push us, inspire us, break us at times and allow us to be the best versions of ourselves whether you are a dancer in training or not.
In short, ballet gave me the big kick up the butt I needed and I am forever in debt to that wonderful ballet teacher who gave me some much needed tough love.
Thanks for reading, I’ll see you at the barre!