Tl;dr Ballet isn’t always what it seems. For me, ballet class is a place of rebellion, self-reflection and self-growth, and claiming my nobinariness.
I love ballet.
Loads of people tell me something along the lines of “I started with ballet and then doing modern dance was part of my rebellious phase”. Which is cool, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that ballet was (and still is) my rebellion.
I’m an Irish dancer. And I’m lucky, because I left competitive Irish step and ended up with an amazing, noncompetitive teacher. She valued not only Irish step, but all the traditional Irish dance forms that came before it. I learned how to dance the history of Irish dance.
She was also a modern dancer and encouraged me to experiment, improvise, and explore movement outside of what is technically Irish.
Somewhere in my teens, I got bored. Because I was a teenager. Not because she was a bad teacher. The traditional hornpipes my teacher loved were dorky, my hard shoes made me look ugly, and I really didn’t get why we were rolling around on the floor when we were supposed to be bouncing up and down on our toes.
So, I refocused my energies on ballet. And yes, I know the narratives around ballet – everyone looks exactly the same and can lift their legs up past their heads. That’s not what it was for me.
Ballet, for me, has always been a place of personal growth. Barre work, in particular, requires so much inner focus that I stop thinking about the fact that other people could be Looking at me. It forces me to recognize the limits of my body, and to conceive of my body in different ways.
For someone who had simply been taught to do things, up until that point, learning how to do things and learning that the how was different for different techniques, that was my teenage rebellion. It was away to reclaim my body, find out what was happening in it, and how I could use it to do what I wanted with it.
And it was the first time I had to fully use my self-awareness without a private teacher carefully watching to make sure I didn’t injure myself. Because I was “quick to pick things up”, I was constantly thrown into intermediate/advanced ballet classes that I was not prepared for. I had to learn how to break information down for myself and make decisions. Yes, the teacher said “double pirouette”, that means I’m going to do the most solid single I have ever done. Yes, there are complicated arms to that petit allegro, I’ll just put my hands on my hips and try to get the first step because it’s way too fast.
I learned how to measure my success against myself – maybe I didn’t get the combination and lost my balance halfway through, but I landed on the correct foot, so I obviously got something right. Maybe I completely faked the grand allegro, but I was always going the same direction as everyone else. I knew there was no way I could ever “measure up” to anyone in the way I expected myself to in my advanced Irish step classes (once again, my teacher is amazing, I was just a teenager), so I didn’t try. I took care of myself.
At the same time, this gave me a lot of determination. I was in a situation I wasn’t prepared for, but I sure as hell was going to give it everything I had. Recently, I’ve been learning that I don’t always have to do that, and it’s been good to let myself relax and simply be a beginner, but my determination and commitment to the vaguely ridiculous effort that was advanced ballet class is something I really value in myself. Instead of taking a break when the other group was going, I would follow along, or practice. I learned how to manage fear – if the teacher was telling us to do something I thought I couldn’t do, my rule was “try it cautiously, no matter how scary it is”. I surprised myself a lot. Sometimes, I didn’t, and I had to make use of my self-awareness to do my version of the thing safely. Even though I wasn’t prepared, I learned how to keep up with something that was way over my head.
Another piece of information that is not widely known – a leotard is a really effective way to compress boobs. I have an interesting relationship with my boobs that I don’t want to get into the details of, but, long story short, they suck, they cause dysphoria, and putting a leotard on over a sports bra was one solution to the problem. In other dance classes, I have weird moments of thinking I’m female or get really annoying dysphoria attacks, but that never happens in ballet class. I do get misgendered, and find it incredibly frustrating when the “men” get to do the fun exciting jumps while the “ladies” prance about like fairies (not even cool skippy fairies! Just useless, flappy arms fairies!), but ballet class was and still is a place where my gender and I can co-exist peacefully.
I don’t have to perform gender in ballet class – the dress code is pre-determined, and if I go to a class that doesn’t have a dress code, it’s still acceptable to wear the general ballet dress code (I wear leotards less now because they’re a pain, but I’ve found other acceptable dance clothing alternatives). I stand at a barre and I do my exercises to my best ability in the way that works for my body. I’m never going to fit the standards for either a male or female ballet dancer, so the standards applied to me are my own, even from the worst teachers (who I generally walk away from).
And in some ways, my training makes me a nonbinary dancer when I enter ballet class, because Irish dance is the complete opposite. In Irish, slipjigs, the really big swoopy jumps, are usually danced by women while the clashy, bangy hard shoes that people use to stand on their toes is seen as masculine (probably because of the noise, also they are seen as masculine, but, in practice, are danced by everyone). My strength in ballet is big jumps, usually performed by men, but I also love pointe, something usually reserved for women.
The thing is, ballet doesn’t always have to be the way it looks from the outside. My mom just started beginners’ adult ballet and, as far as I’m aware, she’s having a blast. I’m never going to be an official Ballet Dancer or even come close to dancing like one, but there’s still so much I get out of class. I once overheard a modern dancer complaining about the dance program at her school – the modern dancers were required to take ballet every day while the ballet dancers only had to take modern dance once a week. I agree with her – it’s condescending to assume modern dancers need ballet more than ballet dancers need modern.
But, for me? I’m already sad that the contemporary dance program I’m attending next year only has 3 classes of ballet a week (as opposed to 4, for contemporary).
I hate putting different styles of dance in competition, because that’s silly, all styles and techniques are amazing. But, at the same time, for me, there’s no question – as long as slipjigs aren’t in the running, I will always choose ballet.