The Everyday Dancer
October 2011 - The Times
To dancers, what we do is second nature - or at least, a nature learnt through a decade of training - and so our everyday life is hard to understand, an esoteric world open only to misinterpretation. Attempts over the years to portray our lives - from Degas' 19th century ballerinas backstage at the Paris Opéra, through The Red Shoes, to Black Swan - have had limited success, emphasising the discipline and the hard work but choosing, for the most part, to interpret them as obsessive and dangerous. The notion persists that dancers spend every waking hour in pain, bodies at breaking point, their smiles a barely masked grimace. Commentators on Degas' Little Dancer Aged Fourteen - on show at the Royal Academy - continue to see a 'terrible reality' and 'the pain and stress of ballet training endured by a barely adolescent girl'.
Ballet technique is certainly extreme, but it's not, in itself, dangerous: with expert teaching and daily practice, its every demand is safely within the capacity of the healthy human body. There is no need to break bones or tear tissues to achieve ballet's positions: a normal skeletal structure assumes them with ease. It's the conditioning of the muscular system - to hold, or move between, those positions - that takes the work.
Over the course of my dancing life, I worked my way through at least 10,000 ballet classes. I took my first at the Janice Sutton School of Dance in Skegness - just after my seventh birthday - and my last thirty-six years later, at the Royal Opera House. In the years between, class formed the prelude to my every day.
It starts early, this daily ritual, because it has to. It takes at least ten years of high quality, regular practice to become an expert - in any physical discipline - and for a ballet dancer, those ten years have to take place before the effects of puberty set in, while maximum flexibility can still be achieved.
At first, it was just Saturday mornings; before long, my parents were ferrying me to after-school classes most days of the week. Four years later, I became a boarder at The Royal Ballet School, where the hours in the day could be maximized and ballet classes squeezed in among the demands of the academic schedule.
Those first classes were remarkably similar to the last. In fact - give or take the occasional evolution - ballet class is little changed since 1820 (when ballet technique was first codified) and easily recognisable in any country across the world. Starting with left hand on the barre, the routine unrolls over some seventy-five minutes, from pliés and tendus through to grand pirouettes and allegro. No-one avoids class: it's ballet's great democratiser, the stars of the company working at the barre alongside the newest recruits, each levelled by participation in this same daily rite.
Class serves two distinct purposes: it's the way we warm our bodies and the mechanism by which we improve basic technique. In class after class, dancers manifest the clichéd truth; that practice makes perfect. Through repeated tries and frequent failure, we develop and refine the neural pathways necessary to control accurate, fast and smooth movement and through daily repetition, we strengthen the muscles required in jumping, spinning or lifting our legs to angles unfeasible to the average spectator.
But the human body is designed to adapt to the demands we make of it (provided we make them carefully and over time). The process of improvement involves stiff muscles along the way (as anyone who goes to the gym will understand) but all those years of class add up to a fit-for-purpose dancing machine. This level of physical fluency doesn't hurt: it feels good.
As technology strips the last vestiges of activity from our lives, perhaps the dancer's physicality is ever more difficult for most people to imagine. But don't be misled: there is a difference between hard work and hardship. Dancers have an everyday familiarity with the first. Hardship, it isn't.