When a person decides to study dance, in particular ballet, what is the real point of class?
Well, hopefully to elicit dancer-like qualities that resemble the classical form of ballet. ”Hopefully” is stressed here due to the meager success rate in the world of dance. There are many variables outside the classroom that contribute to whether a student becomes successful or not in the dance world. So this discussion limits itself to certain aspects of the classroom that threaten a dancer’s dream of one day being a professional (and healthy) dancer.
Many teachers walk into the studio and assume that all problems can be fixed by calling out the long standing platitudes of “pull up,” “turn out,” and “find your center.” They then proceed to place their hands under the dancer’s diaphragm to encourage the dancer’s ribs farther away from their hips (pulling up). This follows with desperate enforcement of rotating the quadriceps away from the mid-line of body (turning out), and finally to find that mythical center all dancers hear about (find your center).
If a student were to push for an explanation as to what these instructions mean as they relate to an individual dancer, they would find their teachers unable to deliver an honest kinesthetic understanding of how these long standing gems of tradition compel the dancer to dance.
I know this to be true because I was one of those annoying students who dared to be curious. I questioned tradition, not to be rebellious, but in an attempt to fully understand the real intent behind the instructions my teachers were giving me.
In short, I found the experts’ explanations greatly lacking.
Let’s take the first of our trio of platitudes: “pull up.” In the simplest terms this refers to a military-like posture of the upper body, which creates a commanding effect. It should also give the dancer a greater sense of physical presence, as well summarizing the upper body to make some classical movements easier to physically comprehend and execute.
Unfortunately it is only the cosmetic aspect that is emphasized for the sake of uniformity, which has very little to do with the true art of dance. Nor does it recognize the individual anatomical nuances of each dancer. Instead a singular and often misunderstood concept is given to everyone – giving only the fittest a fighting chance of surviving.
I call it the Cinderella approach. You know, everyone attempting to force on a shoe that doesn’t fit. To my dismay most in the dance world still insist on passing Cindy’s slipper around. Some students seem to magically fit into the slipper. They’re called “natural” dancers. Well, they might slip into the slipper easily enough but this has nothing to do with the actual ability or talent to dance. Some who are slightly out of sorts with the slipper but have this burning drive to dance will wince their way through the process to defeat the odds. This type will suffer great anxiety, obsessive behavior, pain, and injury only to lead to the inevitable syndrome of dancer burnout.
So how does “pulling up” and the many other classroom platitudes relate to individual variations of body type and temperament? In most cases not well over time. It depends on the severity of the malady. Forcing a person into what is, for them, an unnatural posture is quite strenuous to the bodies’ structure as well as to the mind attached to it.
Most often the Cinderella approach culminates in a shorter career or none at all, due to not dealing honestly with the physiological, psychological, and neurological self. The only answer is to address all the nuances of the individual, instead of continuing to use the “one-size fits all” philosophy that most teachers and schools employ.