As a species, dance comes naturally to us. You only have to play music to a baby to see this theory formulate. Historically, we know that dance has been used for thousands of years throughout religion and social culture. Ballet as we know it emerged in Italy around the 1500s. So, in terms of the vast timeline of the human race, ballet could be deemed quite new as an art form. If this is the case, why is this dance genre considered the most important technique for dance training today? And what does ballet training give to a dancer so thoroughly that other techniques may not?
Take away skin and muscles, our skeletons are all almost identical. It is therefore our job as parents to ensure our children are receiving all the right opportunities to strengthen those muscles which keeps our “alignment” in check. We may refer to this in everyday life as our “posture”. Our spines should be lengthened and our pelvis’ upright, not tilted. In ballet, the student is trained to strengthen their abdominal muscles to ensure this is maintained. The muscles underneath the shoulder blades are strengthened through the use of ports de bras (carriage of the arms), keeping our shoulders back and our neck and head in line with the spine.
In opposition to most other physical activities, ballet training focuses on both strength AND flexibility. These two attributes usually oppose each other; I have yet to meet a flexible body builder for example! Correct alignment allows us to move more freely both in dance and in our everyday lives. Poor alignment results in injuries… how many fellow parents do you hear of having back problems, hip problems, knee problems? All due to alignment issues.
It is scientifically proven that ballet is healthy exercise not only for our bodies, but for our brains too. The obvious explanation would be to say this is down to dancers having to remember sequences of movements. Yes, this is right, however looking deeper, dancers actually combine “cerebral” thought (careful thinking and mental effort) with muscle memory. Different parts of the brain are constantly engaged and combined. When a dancer learns a new move, the teacher has to break it down into components. They may spend a series of days/weeks/months learning one aspect of the move before adding another layer, and another, before finally mastering the entire step. This allows the dancer time to process the movement mentally, as well as embedding it into their bodies physically. Our job as teachers is to allow the children the room to understand fully what muscles are being used, the feeling of executing it right, and also exploring what the “wrong” way would look like. This is why I stress to parents over and over again why it is DETRIMENTAL to a child’s dance training that their teacher be qualified, yet it still baffles me that upon initial enquiry about our dance classes, the first question parents tend to ask is what day/time do you offer the classes, and what are the fees. Hardly ever, “what are your qualifications?” Which I deem to be the most important. Our teacher profiles can be read in full here: https://www.littlelondonballet.com/our-teachers
I’ve often been told by parents that I carry myself with “grace” (you are all too kind!) The truth is, as I have danced practically all my life, of course I hold myself well when I walk. I don't slouch, it feels unnatural and unhealthy. When I pick up a pen from the floor I pilé or ponché. I wouldn't dare not stretch the muscles behind my knees or leave my toes unpointed. Taking all of this into account, to have “grace” is characterised by the quality of the movements. Of course the opposite attribute would be awkwardness; being uncoordinated, tripping over your own feet… even dancers have their off days when this happens to them, however thats exactly what they are… OFF DAYS! Indeed, ballet training educates an individual on how their bodies move in a variety of different dynamics, trains advanced co-ordintion skills and explores the variety of movement the dancer's bodies are capable of.
I think in terms of taking class, ballet has to be deemed the fundamental spine of a dancer’s training. No other technique has been around as long, and so hasn't been through the evolution which ballet has. Ballet perfects the dancer from head to toe, from strength to flexibility and from turning to leaping. Classical ballet classes (at professional performers level) look like this:
Here the dancers complete a series of exercises holding onto a physical barre to support the dancer in finding their centre, warming up the correct muscles etc.
As the dancers move into the centre of the studio, without the support of the barre, the muscles should now be ready to complete similar exercises such as pliés, now with only their bodies to support them.
This French word means “Slowly, with ease”. The dancer competes exercises consisting of slow, controlled movements. A great deal of strength, balance and fluidity needs to be combined here.
Here, the dancers focus on a series of turning combinations. There are many different types of pirouettes in ballet. To turn successfully, the correct posture must firstly be achieved, along with the correct technique of momentum to actually “launch” the dancer around, and around, and around.
As grand finale to the ballet class, this section incorporates the big jumps into combinations where the dancers aim is to achieve height, power and precision.
For the purpose of this blog post, I have majorly simplified the above, however it should give you the reader a good idea of how refined the ballet class is, and how each section acts as a warm-up for the preceding one. This rigorous structure allows the dancer to achieve refined elegance and that “effortless” movement quality we all adore whilst watching ballet.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL:
This is why I stress, a ballet teacher must be sufficiently qualified teacher, not just an experienced dancer. Through our teacher training, we are taught to demand precision from our students. In ballet, there is a black and white right and wrong, which wouldn't be as strict in say, freestyle dance. At Little London Ballet, we follow the IDTA syllabus which, as you look throughout the grades, you see a structured progression of leading from the very basics of ballet technique in Preparatory, to a full professional class in the performers syllabus at Intermediate level+. Building a great dancer is like building a house, you have to start with solid foundations before adding the bricks, the roof and finally, the decorations. Without the solid foundations, eventually the rest will crumble.
If all this wasn't enough, instilled in ballet dancers is the tradition of discipline, formality and respect. Something which I feel is lacking in our children's upbringings due to multiple factors, if you were to compare their generation to say ours as parents, or better still, their grandparents. I will be talking more about this in my next blog post.
Author of this Blog is Emma Del Monaco - Principal @ Little London Ballet.
She is a dynamic, warm, fun teacher and lives her own life as a shining reflection of the values that she has based her school on. She is an amazing colleague, friend, wife, mother and approaches her dance with equal passion and joy as she does life.