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1. Ballerinas have always been thin
The cult of thin in ballet is very much a late 20th century phenomenon, spearheaded by the choreographer George Balanchine who preferred a long, lean, leggy look combined with lightening fast speed. Before him ballerinas came in all shapes and sizes, as evidenced by past rendering of them by artists such as Edgar Degas. When he depicted a skinny dancer it was to show her as sickly and poor. Films like 1948ís The Red Shoes starring Moira Shearer also give an idea of how ballerinas, not so long ago, were typically robust and sensual looking. The ballerina as waif is more a dangerous bit of modern fashion.
2. Ballerinas are always on a diet
Most professional ballerinas count their calories; itís a hazard of the profession. But the days of living on Tab and cigarettes is, thankfully, a thing of the past. The obsession with skinny is waning as ballet companies have come to realize that a thin dancer is often a wasted dancer, prone to injuries such as stress fractures and incapable of keeping up with the athletic demands of ballet as it has evolved today. Ballet training more often than not these days includes nutritional counselling in ensuring that ballerinas be in peak physical condition when performing their job.
3. Their pointe shoes are made of wood
Pointe shoes are made by hand, and usually of satin. There is a part of the shoe called the block, on which the toes are balanced, but this is made of layers of fabric, paper and powerful glue, not unlike papier-m‚ché. The shoes are often very stiff when first made, and ballerinas will break them in before wearing them by smashing them violently against the floor, or shoving them into a door jamb and then slamming the door to soften them for the stage. And yet despite all this abuse pointe shoes are very fragile. They generally donít last more than one performance, making them, at around $50 a pair, a costly tool of the trade.
4. Ballet is for girls
Au contraire! In the early stages ballet was solely reserved for men. While it evolved as a court entertainment, ballet is rooted in militaristic manoeuvres. From the 16th through to the 19th centuries, ballet was a tool of discipline used to train cadets at military academies from France to Russia. During the Renaissance, mounted soldiers did ballet on the backs of their horses as part of immense outdoor pageants or spectacles meant to emphasize the might of the ruling monarch. Ballet in those days was manly in the extreme. Women only became involved in ballet towards the end of the 17th century after Louis XIV opened the doors for professionals of humble origins to start performing on stages for a paying audience. Women had to dance delicately, because of the huge hooped skirts they wore as a matter of fashion. They began to rise through the ranks once they started imitating the prowess of men who served as their teachers, eventually surpassing them in the Romantic Era when the cult of the ballerina took off.
5. Ballerinas donít sweat
Grace under pressure is a common phrase used to describe what ballerinas do when they are performing. They are trained to make all the hard work they do on stage look effortless. But believe it, they are working to the extreme limits of human endurance. They sweat profusely from the effort. Their sweat is masked and absorbed by make-up and costuming. Part of their act is to make it look as if lifting their legs above their ears was nothing at all. That smile pasted on their faces is really them gritting their teeth, trying to gasp for air without anyone noticing.
6. Ballerinas donít talk
Ballet is an art of silence where bodies usually do all the talking. At the beginning of ballet history, however, ballet was as equally verbal as physical. Ballet was one component of court-produced spectacles in which music, song and recited verse formed a harmonious whole. Eventually, the dance itself became all-important, and ballerinas became known as these voiceless creatures up on the stage. But they do talk when dancing, to each other and their partners, giving dance advice but also sharing jokes and gossip, as well as the occasional swear word when things donít go according to plan.
7. Ballerinas are swans
Ballerinas have long been associated with all kinds of beast, sprite and starry idea ever since women started performing in ballets, as early as the 16th century. Rarely have they been allowed to be just women. At the beginning of ballet history, the earliest ballerinas -- aristocrats performing in court entertainments -- represented the heavenly spheres and other Platonic ideals. In the 19th century, the ballerina increasingly became associated with winged creatures -- butterflies, sylphs and swans -- which emphasized her new found ability to dance on the tips of her toes, making her seem as if perpetually in flight. The association with the swan in particular has served to underscore the ballerinaís gracefulness, her seemingly effortless glide. The image also connotes innocence, and could be said to be responsible for audiences having a hard time accepting ballerinas who exercise their right to be human, speaking out and protesting when workplace conditions are bad. The image is also problematic for black dancers wanting to dance classics like Swan Lake, a result of audiences having developed a taste for only the whitest of birds. A stereotype just waiting to be plucked.
8. Ballerinas donít have a life outside ballet
Ballerinas from the beginning of time have always had a life outside ballet, getting married, having babies, being mistresses. The idea that the ballerina is a slave to her art is a relatively modern idea, emerging during the so-called Balanchine era of the 1960s, and 1970s when ballet became as much a commercial enterprise as an artistic one, requiring ballerinas to work hard, around the clock, to keep audiences interested in buying tickets. That asceticism is already showing signs of being outdated. Ballerinas today are back to marrying and having children, even as they pursue a performing career. The change in attitude is due in no small part to the strengthening of labor and human rights laws that require employers, including those running ballet companies, to grant maternity leaves to employees with related job security.
9. Anyone can do it
Ballet schools are clogged around the world with legions of pint-sized hopefuls clinging to the barre in hopes of making a career of it. But while many seek to answer the call of the sylph, few are actually chosen. Ballet is a very tough mistress, and only those with the right body type, talent and dedication can really make a go at it. Even then, a career isnít guaranteed. The physical exertion often results in career-ending injuries. And size does matter. Too tall and a ballerina can be told to think of doing something else for a living, because even at 5í6íí those four extra inches handed her by her pointe shoes often makes her tower over her male partners, who then canít lift her above their heads. A ruthless profession, to be sure.
10. Ballerinas are dumb, the proverbial bunheads
Ballerinas are computer smart. They have to memorize huge chunks of choreography, often at a glance. They have to know several ballets at once, often performing works of glaringly different styles, all in a single night. They have to be able to read their bodies (which are solid and real) as well as the rhythms and melodies of music (which are intangible and interpretive). The best are blessed with a rare type of intelligence enabling them to use their minds to move their bodies in extraordinary ways. Geniuses in their own right.Read more about Ballerina >>