Emily Strickland for Kidvisory.
I never would have guessed that a ballet studio would be where I would spend so much of my life as I grew up. The hours added up without me realizing it, until I actually stopped training and looked back at the vast amount of the magical time spent learning this precious art form. Training in classical ballet defined my childhood, with ballet milestones and growing-up milestones often coinciding with each other. It was never easy, many times it was not even fun, and sometimes it was painful. However, as unglamorous as it often was, I cannot refute the values my training allowed to blossom within me, nor the sheer fun I had. The days I spent learning in the studio were days I would never replace. I trained from the time I was three until I was about seventeen, and I gained so much.
Just like many mothers, mine was eager to watch me cutely jump around in a pink leotard when I was a toddler, so she enrolled me in a ballet class. I was three years old and very shy. I attended a class called “Creative Movement” once every Saturday morning at a small, local ballet academy. Though I do not remember much from my pink leotard days, I have been told stories of my many adamant refusals to go into the studio, as well as the times I would give an ultimatum (at three years old): either my grandmother came into the studio with me for class, or I didn’t go at all! Fortunately, that timid demeanor vanished a few years later.
Creative Movement classes were my first exposure to the wonderful art form to which I would end up dedicating much of my life. The class was made up of three and four-year olds, of varying dispositions and interest levels. I have been told that at this age, my class was hardly learning classical ballet technique. My fellow peewee ballerinas and I could barely go forty-five minutes without needing to run to the restroom, much less have the discipline to learn how to dance. As a ballet instructor, I can attest to the fact that Creative Movement is more about engaging the children with the very basic principles of ballet and dance in general, as opposed to honing artistic abilities. There were benefits to Creative Movement though. Starting at the tender age of three regularized exercise for me, making it a routine part of life. I believe that being ushered into the world of ballet so young was part of the reason I was dedicated to training for so long.
After the days of Creative Movement were through, I continued dancing ballet at the same studio I started at- a smaller dance school that taught only classical ballet. My studio was different than other area studios. The typical local dance studios in my area taught many forms of dance, with no prioritization of classical ballet. Additionally, they participated in dance competitions. My studio did neither of those things. Classical ballet technique was taught strictly, and none of my teachers were interested in making ballet competitive. So, I grew up sheltered from the razzle-dazzle of the dance world and its competitions. No booty shorts, excessive glitter, or outrageous “dance moms” for me. Particularly as a child, from age five or six to about age eleven, my training was conventional both in style and the manner in which the ballet school was run. Hair was expected to be neatly secured in a bun, pink tights were to be free from runs or holes, and leotards were to be black only. Nothing else was allowed to be worn. Tardiness had consequences, even at elementary levels, as did absences. Ballet was of course recreational, (at seven years old I was not actively preparing a career in dance), but with heightened requirements and expectations compared to many other activities my friends did.
The training itself really molded me as a child, both physically and mentally. Classical ballet training is a gradual process in which knowledge and skill accumulate over the course of years. The detailed nature of ballet steps and positions demands a vast amount of time, as well as a true desire to succeed, in order for the technique to be mastered. Patience is expected. I saw the fruits of training for many years even as a child in my studio: the older dancers who had been training for years received soloist parts in our recitals. Seeing these poised teenage dancers in the studio was great inspiration to achieve more in ballet. They provided a vision of what the future might hold if I were to commit to being a good ballet student.
I was already an athletic kid, and ballet put those abilities to the test. It takes a coordination beyond a child’s years to excel in the studio- executing tricky combinations correctly, maintaining the difficult “turned-out” position that all ballet requires, using the head and arms in union with the lower body, all while looking effortless and graceful. Successful ballet training demands that, as well as the maturity to know those physical aspects, apply the information given by the teacher, push oneself to fix mistakes, and keep a level head when things go wrong. I was never the perfect ballet student, but I was certainly eager. Having not been blessed with hips that naturally turned out very much or feet with high arches, starting at a young age I had to push my body toward these ideals. I loved the physical challenge, even if I didn’t have the perfect physical attributes. I still jumped high and tried to move as gracefully as I could. The mental challenge was fun for me too; I liked getting hard combinations from a teacher and having to remember each step.
I was also a very competitive kid, and liked sports when I wasn’t dancing. Ballet training provided me a unique way to release my competitive energy in that I was everyday competing with myself. The physical limitations of my body were fought each day I went to the studio, as the ballet steps I was learning increased in difficulty. Teachers challenged my class as we grew older and more advanced. Some days, I walked out of the studio having ‘won’ and mastered a hard step. Other days, more often than the victorious ones, I walked out having lost, unable to perfect a certain step. Some days this battle gave me ample self esteem, and other days it depleted it all like a balloon being deflated of air. This fight against myself that all dancers go through made me much more self-aware of my limits as well as my potential.
Every year, I had a part in the classical ballet, The Nutcracker around December, and every May or June, I had a part in our spring recital. The productions were low scale, in a high school auditorium, but gave me the opportunity to perform often. Having a performance to work towards all year was a huge part of my ballet training and allowed me to know so many classical ballets as a child, like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. These performances were my favorite part of being a ballet student, even though my parents dreaded the long nights they’d have to spend in the high school, waiting for me to be finished rehearsing or bringing me snacks.
The grandest of all milestones in classical ballet training is the day a dancer is told she is ready for pointe shoes. It is the day her training takes a turn and becomes more challenging altogether. It was after much consideration of my work ethic and commitment that my teacher gave me the ok. I had endured years of being conditioned as a young ballet student, complete with very strict teachers and even one who had a wooden stick she would poke us with when we weren’t standing up straight or turning out! I was just about ten-years old, and was ecstatic to wear pointe shoes. After visiting a podiatrist who examined my growth plates and bones, I went to the dance store to be fitted for my first pair of satin slippers. I was petite for my age, so I had to get the smallest size pointe shoes ordered for me!
The pointe classes I took after getting my first pair were brutal. It is unnatural for ten-year old bodies to be balancing on the tops of their toes, much less dancing there! But, like everything else within the world of ballet, dancing in pointe shoes, or en pointe, has a specific technique to ensure safety. The traditional padding to use as protection for feet in pointe shoes was lamb’s wool or gel-pads, similar to the material of a shoe insert. In order to strengthen our feet and condition them to the feeling of a pointe shoe, my teacher would make us only use one paper towel as padding between our toes and the hard “boxes” of the shoes. Blisters, bruised toenails, and calluses ensued as our feet toughened. We had to “break in” these shoes so that they became supple enough under our arches. This was done through painful exercises using the barre, rolling up to pointe and down, over and over. It was tortuous times like this, with a teacher yelling at me to point my toes as they were squeezed by the hard shoes, that I questioned why I was a ballet student in the first place. It took years, but pointe shoes gradually became a little less uncomfortable for me, and dancing in them became one of my favorite things in the world.
There was a night after a hard ballet class with my male Russian teacher when I cried in my room, upset over how belittled I felt by him when I couldn’t get my pirouette to look right. He had made me repeat the pirouette, a ballet turn, several times in front of my whole class, stopping me mid-turn when it was wrong. He then asked me to stay after class and made me do it some more. I had put on a brave face while being yelled at in the studio, but it broke at home. I remember my parents asking, “Is this worth it if it’s making you this upset?” and it was a valid question. How could an after-school activity like this be worth the time, money, and stress if it was causing a thirteen-year old girl to be so distraught?
Despite the pain that ballet training caused me, I pushed on. Over the next several years, it would only get harder. But, that was also the beauty of it- being a ballet student meant I never had the opportunity to settle, and because of that I was always being forced to discover more reservoirs of potential within me. Those teachers with their sticks and harsh criticisms weren’t the way they were to spite me. They acted how they did as a way to uncover all those hidden pockets of potential they knew I had, the potential to dance a centuries-old style with grace and mastery of technique. Years later, I walked away from my days of training into the professional world of ballet and realized that despite the stress and pain and frustration and hours, I was truly better for it all.
We’d like to recommend few books:
Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina
Determination meets dance in this memoir by the history-making ballerina, Misty Copeland. The story of her journey to become the first African-American principal ballerina at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre.
Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet
Jennifer Homans, a historian, critic, and former professional ballerina, wields a knowledge of dance born of dedicated practice.