With my personal Superbowl, the Prix de Lausanne 2014, currently underway, I’ve been thinking a lot about the pros and cons of a ballet education.
There’s been a lot of criticism of ballet in recent years (due in part to the gross misrepresentation of ballerinas in “Black Swan”, I suspect). I’ve heard a lot of new parents dismiss ballet as a “catty” and “all-consuming” activity, preferring to enrol their children in hip-hop or contemporary dance classes, or sports instead. Additionally, I’ve been on the receiving end of some very strange questions regarding my time in ballet - “Did you have an eating disorder? Were you forced to go to class? Was your teacher mean? What’s the point of ballet anyway?"
"What’s the point?” is the question most people ask. I think they perceive ballet as a dying art form - antiquated, boring, and superfluous. They look at ballerinas and classical music as remnants of another time; resistant to progress and modernization. Yet I see the art form as an essential nod to our capacity for imagination and strength of character, especially when it comes to children.
A classical ballet education can provide a child with significant benefits, both physically and intellectually:
Athleticism. Watch any ballet dancer work at their craft and it becomes immediately apparent. Ballet helps a child develop good posture, strong muscles and bones, flexibility, and control through regular physical activity - just like sports. However in ballet, young dancers are taught to become intimately acquainted with their entire bodies. They become aware of minuscule changes in the arrangement of their vertebrae or the length of their arms. The benefits of this bodily awareness translate to other physical endeavours including many (if not all) sports. Additionally, an acute awareness of one’s body may facilitate the early diagnosis of health issues such as scoliosis, arthritis, hypermobility syndrome, etc., and help in monitoring and mediating their symptoms.
Musicality. Defined as “awareness of music and rhythm”, ballet provides the developing child with a strong connection to tempo and musical structure. There are many documented benefits to a musical education and, in combination with practical lessons on an instrument, ballet can provide an added facet of physicality. Being able to feel and echo the music through one’s body can ultimately enhance one’s enjoyment or performance of it.
Self-Discipline. As it’s very core, ballet encourages independent, goal-oriented behaviour. Whether it’s getting from level one to level two or striving for the ideal in a pointe class, it teaches children what it takes to achieve their goals - hard work and regimented practice. It also nurtures self-esteem and respect as they see themselves achieving and surpassing their goals through sheer force of will.
Confidence. The highlight of most ballet classes is the final performance, where the students get to show off their hard-earned skills to an adoring crowd of family and friends. Giving children the opportunity to perform in front of large, supportive groups encourages confidence and develops self-esteem. This performance experience inevitably helps when they are required to speak publicly in school, or should they choose a career in the public arena or the performing arts. This is especially true for introverted, shy children who may not have the opportunity to perform or speak publicly before their teens.
Cultural Appreciation. When I was a kid I had Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev on my iPod instead of NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys. I grew up with a thorough knowledge of classical music and its history, mainly due to my music and dance education. The power of classical music was not lost on me - I felt the emotion and understood the technical skills behind it. Because the classic pieces of music were made accessible to me, I felt comfortable exploring the history, literature, art, and politics of the periods I was listening and dancing to. I have been able to enjoy a wider range of music and literature as a result and I have felt the benefits of my enriched education acutely. As I ventured into science at university and graduate school I felt well-rounded, rather than excluded from conversations with my liberal arts friends.
Furthermore, training in classical ballet is similar to training in classical music or studying classical literature. It provides a base from which many different projects can stem. What would John Green's A Fault In Our Stars be without his knowledge of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar? Similarly, classical ballet provides the technique, strength, and body awareness that is required to branch out into other forms successfully. (read: If you want to be a trendy contemporary dancer, take your ballet classes)
Creativity. Having a creative outlet is incredibly beneficial and rewarding. Ballet allows children to express themselves creatively and bring form to their imaginings through the fairytales of classical ballets or the acrobatics of modern dance. It accomplishes all this while keeping children active in a constructive and focused way. For parents, it can often seem like a godsend for excitable, unfocused children.
Memory. Being able to learn and internalize complicated choreography requires special cognitive ability. Ballet training can greatly improve kinaesthetic intelligence and memory, as well as a child’s ability to process information and translate it quickly to their body - an important skill.
Socialization. Young ballerinas and ballet dancers form fast friendships and bond over shared trials and tribulations. They benefit from positive role models in the form of each other, older dancers, and their teachers. Additionally when young dancers begin partnering, they learn to trust one another and work together, as well as how to interact with the opposite sex in a respectful way.
With regards to every parent’s worry that ballet is all-consuming and requires sacrifice and self-harm, I say; that is simply not true. As with any activity, you and your child have full control over the intensity with which you pursue and develop their talent. Not every child will become a professional dancer, and not every child needs to compete. Not every child needs to perform in the final recital if you find the pressure to be too much! There need not be thousands of dollars spent on costumes, and toes certainly don’t need to sacrificed learning pointework in order to glean the benefits of a ballet education. The beauty of ballet is that one’s progress is ultimately one’s own responsibility and therefore one’s own choice. As long as you remember to make sure your child is having fun, everything will be fine.
(Yes, that is me at the top-center-right… circa 2003)
You should put your boys in ballet!
Look up Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Vaslav Nijinsky, Joaquin de Luz, George Balanchine, Roberto Bolle, Jerome Robbins, Rex Harrington, Guillaume Cote, Carlos Acosta, Desmond Richardson, David Hallberg, and - my personal favourite - Ivan Vasiliev, among others.
Also check out Boys.Do.Ballet.Too and this great video by the West Australian Ballet.