I vividly remember the first time I stepped foot into a ballet studio. I was 18, a freshman in college, and so excited to have discovered a new world of dance. I was wearing tight corduroy pants that day and coming in off of my psychology 101 class. Curious, excited and not at all knowing what to expect I stepped into the ballet studio.
Now, I wonder how I ever went back after that first day. Shamefaced and humiliated to find that I was the only guy in a class full of beautiful women, doing movement that I had not known previous was possible for the human body to do. And I was trying to “dance” in corduroy, where my teacher and all of the students in the class were wearing tights.
And yet, I did go back. Something about that first class and my early exposure caught my imagination. The pointe shoes, the elongated legs, the fluidity of the students taking their arms in elegant circles. The students’ limbs seemed almost to reach beyond the boundaries of the room.
I continued taking class all of the rest of that year and in fits and starts through the rest of college. Rarely did I step away from the barre, as ballet offered at Reed College was just a twice-weekly barre class – no practice working off the barre, no center work, and no leaps. And yet even that little bit was enough to instill in me an appreciation of ballet that has lasted more than ten years, and that will, I don’t doubt, last the rest of my life.
What’s funny is that I don’t want to dance professional ballet. I have been in one Nutcracker and one Nutcracker was enough! But the joy in ballet that I see has more to do with the capacity of this dance form to transfer and provide value in all forms of movement education. Ballet is valuable everywhere.
I remember stories I was told in those early years about professional football players who took a lot of ballet. I remember thinking, without being exactly sure why, that it was a great idea and more people could benefit. Maybe it was just my own personal experience of getting beat up by the football team, but there was also something very satisfying about imagining bulky football players feeling the fool like I had on my first day.
A Sense of Where You Are
In A Sense of Where You Are, about Bill Bradley’s basketball career at Princeton, author John McPhee creates a vivid and compelling narrative about Bradley’s virtuosic performance. In the description of his rigorous, systematic, and disciplined study of basketball, I see hints of ballet. Bill Bradley was known for warming up by shooting shots from every conceivable position on the basketball court. He would practice before practice a wide variety of interrelated activities – how to hold the ball, basic dribbling, elements of a jump shot – that when put together results in Bradley’s performance as a flawless performer and team member on the Princeton basketball team. For a full and extremely compelling reading, regardless of your interest in the game, I highly recommend A Sense of Where You Are.
Let’s go back to ballet. Ballet brings to the table much of what Bill Bradley practiced. Whereas he had to create a routine that reinforced the skills he was cultivating, ballet classes are structured to teach and reinforce the incremental skills that make up the art. To take just one example, the tendu a leg and foot extension, with toes pointed. This is practiced as part of a combination early on in any ballet class. The tendu is then continued in the form of a dégagé, which is a tendu off of the ground. These two movements then permeate the rest ballet, becoming much bigger, more dynamic movements.
Ballet trains the feet. Don’t get me wrong: so do many other things. But there are few others forms of movement training that as systematically and precisely training humans to use their feet for a variety of purposes. For example, try this exercise:
With bare feet, stand on the ground and jump. Just small little bounces. Now imagine that your feet are solid, wooden. Don’t allow your feet to move or help as you execute these small jumps. If you truly don’t use your feet at all, the jumps have to come entirely from your hips and knees. And while you can move like this, it takes a lot of effort and your don’t bounce very much.
Now try the opposite: articulating through your feet more and more with each bounce. Start with soft pushes through your whole foot, and then make a larger and larger jumps. Move through your foot and allow your ankle to move to facilitate the jumps.
Clearly, it is much, much earlier to jump with the use of the feet. We use our feet all the time and through training and practicing the articulation of foot coming off of the ground, we can create much more power and efficiency in everything we do: tennis, basketball, running, walking, and even sitting in an office chair.
Ballet trains musicality. I am not a great lover of classical music. I would often rather dance to top 40 than to Mozart. But ballet requires a level of attention to music, even in very simple exercises, that I see as valuable well beyond the scope of ballet training. For example, I also train Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). BJJ is not done to music, but rather in quiet amidst grunts on the floor, between two sweaty people. What does this have to do with musicality? Actually, a lot. There is a flow in BJJ, a give and take between the grapplers. For more on this dynamic take a look at Sam Sheridan’s The Fighter’s Mind. This rhythm and patterning is a trained skill. By training musicality, a Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu player can become more attuned to his partner, more able to predict his opponent’s intentions. Training musicality trains these subtler impulses as well.
I’ve recently resumed ballet, after several years away. I was delighted to find that after exactly 2 classes in two years, I am better at ballet then when I left. For the last two months I have been taking ballet class 5-6 times each week. Skills transfer in both directions; all of the forms I have trained in the last several years are making themselves relevant in my newly rekindled love of ballet. I’ll be monitoring my progress on GiveIt100.com. If you’re interested, follow me there.