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Part I
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Copyright © 1995-1999 by Thomas W. Parsons. All rights reserved.

True enjoyment comes from activity of the mind
and exercise of the body; the two are ever united.
--Humboldt
Most accounts of ballet are written by dancers or former dancers. They usually tell you how the author found her way into dance and then how her career went. This makes for good reading, but in all these books I have never seen a description of what it is like to take ballet classes, of how it feels, and certainly never any indication of what might be like for someone with no particular talent who is taking them simply for the sheer joy of it.

I am going to try to convey what that experience is like, and I will tell you how I found my way into this alien, rarefied, sweaty, but delightful world. I'm not going to give a description of ballet classes beyond the most sketchy outline, just enough to provide background for getting the experience across; you can find detailed accounts in many books. (I've supplied a few technical details in footnotes.) And I'm not going to tell you what it's like for a gifted and talented dancer; I'm going to tell you what it's like for a klutz.

If you have never taken a ballet class, it is hard to understand why anyone would want to, unless possibly he or she were stage-struck or aspiring to be a dancer. A description of the things one does in class must leave the reader wondering why anyone in his right mind would want to do them. Indeed, even the actual steps in ballet tend to sound silly if you haven't seen how they look. Why would anyone jump straight up in the air and wiggle his legs back and forth, back and forth, as fast as possible, while he was up there? As H. Allen Smith wrote, "What a hell of a thing for a grown man to do!" But an entrechat is an electrifying sight. The word means "braided" or "interwoven," and when the step is well done the eye is dazzled by the sight of the dancer's legs as they seem to spiral about each other.*
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*The entrechat, I learned, goes quite far back in dance history and probably predates ballet. Mr Fezziwig's "cut," in A Christmas Carol, was almost certainly an entrechat.
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And my own notion of ballet had always been of something that one might do for some purpose--like becoming a dancer, of course, or perhaps in order to enhance one's marketability as an actor or in the entertainment business--but certainly not just for fun, and particularly not for a man. But to be there in the class yourself is utterly different and beyond anything that can be conveyed by a description. I'm going to try, however.

Men find their way into ballet in various ways. The history of ballet records many cases in which men got into it only because they were pushed into it. Ballet is sometimes recommended by physicians as a therapeutic measure for sickly children, for example; or a boy may be pushed into it because his sister is interested in taking classes. This happened to George Balanchine, who was accepted by the Imperial School when his sister went to audition and who hated it so much that he ran away and had to be sent back. Edward Villella was also pushed into ballet because of his sister, and he hated it, too. But ultimately both Balanchine and Villella were seduced by the art. ("Seduced," indeed, is Villella's word.) Villella went on to be a star, in a company that as a matter of policy didn't have stars, and Balanchine went on to be (in my opinion) the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century and one of the greatest of all time.

Some men also go into ballet for the sake of the exercise. It is splendid exercise, perhaps the very best. Dance of any kind is a healthy activity, and one of the safest if you know what you're doing; and ballet, in particular, makes your body much better looking than working out at a gym does: the muscles are developed in a way that keeps the body's proportions pleasing and avoids the absurd and ugly hyperplasias one so frequently sees in gymnasts. Many men have also found that ballet training improves their performance as athletes.

And some men seem somehow just to blunder into it by a lucky chance and become addicted. This is what happened with me, and I've run into a surprising number of other men to whom the same thing happened. I know another electrical engineer who got into ballet at his girl's prompting and who has told me he would take classes seven days a week if he could manage it. Another young man is a composer who has written music for dance; I imagine he felt he could write better if he had the experience of taking classes himself, but he has gotten hooked, and I suspect he will continue taking them indefinitely.

Ballet is at once the oldest and the newest of the arts. The impulse to dance must be at least as old as the impulse to sing--older, perhaps, than the human species; but the first professional ballet dancers appeared on the scene only about 300 years ago. It is also the only high art whose foundations were laid, in recent times, by amateurs, and by royal amateurs at that. The French court put on ballets the way some of our own more recent ancestors put on amateur theatricals or played at charades. Louis XIII and Louis XIV were both enthusiastic dancers, and it was the latter who founded the first formal school, the Académie Royale de la Danse, in 1661.

It is one of the most arduous and exacting arts known to man. Ballet is tough. It engages the entire person, mind as well as body. This makes it harder than most intellectual disciplines, which engage primarily the mind, and harder than most kinds of athletics, which engage mostly the body. Many people will tell you mathematics is the hardest discipline they have ever encountered. But if you do math, you may have to beat your brains out finding how to get from this equation to the next; but in so doing you need only concentrate on the problem at hand. But in ballet you must concentrate on everything (which, when you come to think of it, is a contradiction in terms). It is as if, in math, you had to concern yourself with your posture at the table, and with how you are holding the pencil, and with how beautifully you are writing the symbols that go into that next equation and whether it is centered on its line. And ballet happens in real time; they are playing music and you must keep up with it. In math, if you need twenty minutes to decide what your next step must be, you take twenty minutes. (Isaac Newton once took a full week.) But you cannot delay for twenty minutes as you figure out which foot to move next or which way to turn your head.

A musician must control the body as well as the mind, to be sure, but the control of the body doesn't go into nearly as much detail. You must sit straight at the piano, for example, at the proper distance from the keyboard and with your forearms and wrists level; you must know when to flex the wrists and when to keep them still; you must know how much to curl the fingers as they strike the keys; but that's it: after the first couple of years you don't need to keep concentrating on your posture as you play, and the position of the legs is of no great importance as long as your feet are poised over the pedals. You cannot ignore posture ever when you dance. And when you play the piano, as a dancer who was also a pianist pointed out to me once, the instrument and the executant are separate; in ballet, they are one and the same. "It's as if you had to build your piano at the same time you were learning to play it," she said. I thought this a remarkable observation--although actually a singer could say the same thing--and I quoted it to my wife, Pat, when I got home. She topped it: "It's as if what you were building were a piano in a Dali painting," she said, "that might sag out of shape and require rework if left unattended too long." Bodies are like that.

But it is enjoyable, too, and in my experience the harder you work the more fun you have. Villella was right: it is seductive. The pleasure and satisfaction that you derive from learning even the simplest step make up abundantly for all the work, and every new step mastered brings a new delight. For me, in fact, the enjoyment has always been the main consideration and the healthy exercise only secondary. If it were more generally known how it feels to take ballet classes, the studios would be packed and there would be waiting lists to get in. (Whether exercise to jazz is as much fun, I can't say, but the prevalence of "jazzercise" classes suggests that it may be. If you love fine music, however, the jazz exercise option is pretty much out of the question.) It can also induce a wonderful peace of mind. A friend told me he took ballet classes when he was in graduate school "as a way of staying sane." A young lady told me, one day at the end of class, that she had come there tired and cross, after a sleepless night full of cares, and that the class had restored her good humor. Ballet does such things for you.

Some people have a natural physical gift. They are well coördinated, they have stamina and endurance, they have a good sense of balance, and they find moving to music gracefully a natural and easy thing to do. Certainly this must be true of anyone who becomes a professional dancer. But the person I mean to reach doesn't have these gifts. Moreover, the person I mean to reach probably never thought of taking ballet classes; that is not the kind of thing he does. To him, ballet is a funny art in which ridiculously garbed people dance in outlandish ways, and ballet classes are for little girls who want to learn to move gracefully or who have ambitious mothers. That is the way it looked to me, and I hope that maybe I can implant in such a reader's mind the notion that ballet might be a challenging, rewarding, and joyful experience.

On to part 2...