So, You Want to Be a Dancer?
1 Dance Like the World Is Watching: A History of Dance
Do you remember the moment when you first thought you wanted to dance? Maybe a friend suggested the idea, or maybe your mom or dad took you to a class to see if you might be interested. Now, do you remember the moment when you realized you must dance? That was the truly pivotal moment, the one when you discovered who you really are. It is easy enough to want something but much harder to turn that desire into a reality. Only those who must have something will succeed at achieving it. You will overcome all obstacles and beat the odds to get what you want.
And if you want to be a dancer, you will face challenges. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to become a dancer. It is a career that demands the utmost in commitment; this is not an easy life. But if you must have it, then you will meet those challenges head-on and you will be fulfilling your passion.
And that is a wonderful life.
Break a Leg! A Dance Career Quiz
1. In my spare time I like to
A. Swim or do yoga
B. Watch movie musicals
C. Go to the mall
D. Make snacks for my friends or help my parents make dinner
E. Read dancer biographies
2. At school, I am known as
A. The athlete
B. The one with the organized calendar and binders
C. The one who talks all the time
D. The one who likes to help when someone gets injured in gym or has a cold
E. The one who is the first to finish an assignment
3. My idea of a great birthday present is
A. A new leotard or jazz pants perfect for dancing
B. Tickets to a Broadway musical
C. A new video game
D. A cookbook
E. A new book about dance
4. My favorite television shows are
A. Any of the dance competitions like So You Think You Can Dance
C. Once Upon a Time or Face Off—anything with great costumes and makeup
D. Iron Chef, Master Chef, or Chopped
E. Sports analysis shows
5. I am happiest when
A. I am in the dance studio
B. I am watching a great television show
C. I am shopping for new clothes
D. I am helping my parents in the vegetable garden or tending to our windowsill herbs
E. I am reading
6. I like to read
A. Sports magazines
B. Anything I can find about dance and dancers
D. Food blogs
E. Nonfiction books
7. My favorite movies are
A. Happy Feet
C. Monsters, Inc.
E. Mona Lisa Smile
8. My favorite place to be is
A. Performing in the school musical
B. In the art studio
C. Working behind the scenes on a school play
D. Eating at a great restaurant
E. At a bookstore
9. My favorite class in school is
E. Social studies
10. I like to listen to
A. Anything that gets my feet moving
B. Broadway show albums
C. Music from famous ballets
D. Online kids-radio cooking shows
E. Podcasts about arts and culture
If your answers are mostly As, Bs, and Cs, then you may be interested in a career onstage or behind the scenes, as a dancer, artistic director, or marketer.
If you answered mostly Ds, you may be interested in being a part of a dancer’s team, as a chiropractor or a nutritionist.
If you answered mostly Es, you may be interested in being an art critic or in photographing dancers.
To Dance Is to Be Human
What is this compulsion we have to move? Are we trying to match our feet, our fingers, our lungs to our heartbeat? Are we trying to connect with the rhythms of the earth? What is this need, this hunger, this passion . . . to dance? The cave paintings and other records of ancient civilizations show dance at the center of human culture. Early people did not consider dance as entertainment but as an essential form of expression. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks incorporated dance into their religious rituals. The Greeks deified dance by honoring Terpsichore, their muse of dance, praying to her for inspiration so that their dances would please and bring them closer to the gods. India and Japan shared this philosophy, and we see their influence centuries later in the works of the founders of modern dance.
The Complex Steps of Asian Dance
Classic Indian dance is made up of three parts: natya, which is the drama of the dance; nritta, which is the rhythm; and nritya, which is the communication of the dance. At first, Hindu dance was taught by gurus or holy men charged with passing on the dances to their students, who would, in turn, pass them on to their students. But given the size of India, there were certain “regionalisms” that crept into the sacred dances. In the southern part of India, the temple dancers were female, their lives dedicated to the service of the gods, so their dancing was soft and alluring. In contrast, the dances in the southwest were hard, and the dancers appeared to be going into battle. The north showed off elegance while the northeast style was delicate and refined. A dancer portraying Shiva, the main god of the Hindu religion, was often cast as the Lord of the Dance, dancing the world into creation.
BY THE NUMBERS: INDIAN DANCE
The movements used in Indian dance are very specific—and numerous. Above the neck, there are:
• Thirteen positions of the head
• Thirty-six glances
• Seven movements of the eyes
• Nine flutters of the eyelids
• Seven quirks of the eyebrows
• Six twitches of the nose
• Seven shifts of the chin
The neck has nine movements, and there are twenty-four hand gestures, in addition to separate movements for legs and feet. All of these must be coordinated with the music into an intentional dance. Far more complicated than patting your head and rubbing your stomach or walking and chewing gum at the same time!
The dances of Thailand incorporate many of the elements of Indian dance but in ways unique to the Thai people. Before a dancer can perform the traditional dances, he or she must pass two tests. The first requires mastery of a combination of nineteen basic movements. The second requires the dancer to demonstrate balance and composure in the body by dancing to both fast and slow tempos. After passing these tests, the dancers are then qualified to dance solos in one of two different types of theater.
Thai men are accompanied by a male singer who narrates the story while an orchestra supports both the dancers and the storyteller. The costumes are elaborate, made of breathtaking gold-and-silver cloth and with traditional spire headpieces; and this style of Thai dancing is only performed at the royal court.
Thai women perform the lakon. The stories for this type of dance came from Thai legends as well as more formal histories. Like the female temple dancers of India, these dancers move in ways that are very feminine, slow, delicate, and refined. And the costumes are stunning, with plumed fans and beautiful fabrics used as props, and set pieces to tell the story.
INSPIRATION FROM ACROSS THE OCEAN
Choreographer Jerome Robbins took his inspiration from lakon, a dance Thai women traditionally danced, to create “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet for the second act of the Broadway musical The King and I.
Japan is known for kabuki, folk dance, and noh, religious and ritual dances. Only flute and percussion are used in noh; while in kabuki a group of musicians plays backstage in addition to an onstage use of the shamisen (a three-string plucked instrument).
As so many dances around the world have begun, Japanese dance began as rituals of the Shinto religion. Danced by priestesses, noh called upon a divine presence and brought peace to dead souls. The serious noh dramas generally included a bit of light, dialogued theater (think comic relief). These intervals were the beginning of kabuki, the people’s art.
Kabuki “officially” became an art form separate from noh when the Shintu priestess, Okumi, danced at a public festival in 1604. This also paved the way for women to perform. Japanese geisha girls, for example, realized their male clients wanted to see kabuki as part of an evening’s entertainment. The makeup of kabuki dancers, female and male, is extreme, including faces painted stark white and robes that are heavily decorated.
Comparing these different cultures, it becomes obvious that we have continued to answer our primal needs through dance, driving our bodies forward and demanding more of them in an effort to improve, outdo, and (here is the key word) revolutionize what has gone before. It is through a series of such innovations that dance has evolved from tribal storytelling and religious ritual to a structured and systematic art of movement—while remaining a powerful communication tool. And in the Western world, it all began with a wedding.
From France to Italy . . .
During the Middle Ages there were only two dances performed in the European courts. One was a kind of chain dance for which the dancers held hands and “snaked” around in a line. The music was strictly in the background; there was no attempt on the part of the dancers to match their movements to it. The other dance was a very sedate dance—partners held each other by their little fingers as they walked and posed. Though there was some effort to coordinate movement and music, there was not much footwork, and it was not very exciting. Dance was in the doldrums.
Then the cultural shake-up of the Renaissance swept away the cobwebs of old manners and thinking. Art, science, and culture were reborn. In 1533 fourteen-year-old Catherine de Medici of Florence, Italy, married French King Henry II. Fireworks, magicians, and twenty-course meals with peacocks parading across the dining tables were common attractions at this time in Italy, so something even more special was needed for such a royal wedding. An elegant dance called balletti was performed in honor of the couple. This dance quickly took hold in France, and newly crowned Queen Catherine used it as publicity for the French court. The French reconstituted the word balletti as ballet, and dance was on its way to becoming a modern art form.
Name: Alex Castillo
Job: Soloist, Los Angeles Ballet
When did you start dancing and why?
When I was seven or eight. My mom had danced, not professionally; she was more of a tap dancer. She took my brother and me with her to class because there was no babysitter. Sitting in the back watching the class, something came over me and I thought I should try it. The first school I went to was more of a competition studio—it was more tap and jazz with “bootleg ballet.” At thirteen, I transferred to Ballet Academy East in New York City. It became my second home. I owe them everything.
Even so dance was merely an interlude during other theatrical works—these performances were rather like today’s football halftime shows: just a diversion while people waited for the main show to resume. But a generation later, when Catherine’s son, Charles IX, founded the Académie de Poésie et de Musique in 1570, dance became popular. In 1581 the queen’s sister, Mademoiselle de Vaudemont, and the king’s brother, the Duc de Joyeuse, commissioned the production of Le Ballet Comique de la Reine to celebrate their wedding. The lavish drama involved singing and acting as well as dancing (think of it as a sixteenth-century Broadway musical), with the entire production lasting ten and a half hours. The choreography followed many precise geometric patterns, which amazed and delighted the French court.
As Europe moved into the seventeenth century, dance became more and more essential to the French court. King Louis XIII, an excellent dancer himself, starred in many court productions. He also wrote the stories for the ballets and designed costumes. His son, Louis XIV, followed quite literally in his father’s footsteps. At age fifteen he danced the central role of the Sun in Le Ballet de la Nuit (The Ballet of the Night). The thirteen-hour production lived up to its name in that it lasted all night, ending with the dawn and the arrival of the sun, literally and figuratively. Thereafter, Louis XIV was known as Le Roi de Soleil, “the Sun King.”
Louis XIV is considered the founding father of classical dance. He founded L’Académie de la Danse in 1661, and it was under his influence that the five basic positions of dance were established. As dance was still the province of the nobility (they were the ones footing the bills for these lavish productions, after all), ballets were performed at court, where there was no elevated stage. Costumes were elegant, and dancers wore the fashions of the day. Their shoes were shoes they’d wear in everyday life, made of velvet or leather. As a rule, women were not allowed to perform; Catherine de Medici was the exception. (When you’re the queen, you can do as you like.)
While the French were perfecting court ballet, across the Alps in Florence, Italy, the Italians had found a new way to celebrate a royal wedding. In 1589 the guests at the marriage of Ferdinando de Medici, duke of Tuscany, to Queen Catherine’s granddaughter, Christine of Lorraine, were entertained by the first opera, La Pelligrina. This lengthy production of seven interludes marked the first time that the dancing actually supported the dramatic action rather than functioning just as side entertainment. Given the success of this new musical genre—and not to be outdone by the Italians—the French grabbed the lead again and founded the Paris Opera in 1669. The opera company was housed in a building constructed specially for it. Just over two centuries later, that building became the setting for Gaston Le Roux’s serialized novel, The Phantom of the Opera. For the first time in modern Western history, the focus shifted away from performances at court, where only members of the nobility could participate, toward a new kind of performer—the professional dancer. A longstanding style and tradition was overturned. The changes were radical. The Sun King, founding father of ballet, now forbade members of his court to perform in any of the operas. If anyone did, that person would lose his noble title. And now, for the first time, women were permitted to assume their rightful place in these performances. The third major change was the introduction of a raised stage complete with a curtain and a proscenium arch frame.
With the building of the Paris Opera House, dance now had an actual theater in which to perform and was finally considered as an art form. The opera house enabled dance to make full use of the theatrical technology of the day, such as trap doors and the special mechanics that allowed dancers to descend from and ascend to the rafters when playing the roles of gods.
As dance technique became more complex, a school for formal training was founded in 1713. The number of professional dancers employed by the Paris Opera expanded from twenty-four to ninety. With the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the first chapter in the history of formal dance closed.
Coffee Really Does Work Wonders
If your parents claim they can’t start their day without their morning coffee, neither you nor they may realize that coffee not only changes their day but there was a time when it also changed the world. Due to putrid water conditions, Europeans of the Middle Ages had to distill their water before it was safe to drink. As a result, they had been liberally downing ale from morning till night, so they were always somewhat off kilter and their days were less productive. With the arrival of a curious bean from Arabia, however, Europe quite literally woke up and smelled the coffee. Coffee houses sprang up all over and became spaces in which people gathered to discuss changes in society and government as well as science and art. The free thinking of the Enlightenment created a revolution in the American Colonies and then in France, and also had an immediate impact upon art in general and dance in particular.
In the 1720s two women, Marie Anne de Cupis de Camargo and Marie Sallé, rivaled each other for supremacy in the Western dance world. Dancing was still “formal,” with women corseted and forced to wear hoop skirts that must have felt like the equivalent of wearing a small circus tent. They also had to wear masks. La Camargo had no interest in obeying the conventions of the day, not only as to what women had to wear but also the actual steps they were expected to perform. The Spanish dancer challenged the status quo by executing the demanding jumps, beats, and tours en l’air reserved for the male danseur. La Camargo cut her skirts shockingly short, to midcalf, to show her exceptional footwork and technique.
Sallé took matters one step further. She didn’t just shorten her skirt, she did away with the restrictive wardrobe altogether. According to one observer, Sallé danced the title role in Pygmallion “draped in chiffon in the manner of a Greek statue.”1
The simple Greek garb gracefully illustrated the lines of her body, and that was its own revolution. Eventually, her continued disagreements with the Paris Opera prompted Sallé to take her art to London, where she felt she could express herself freely.
Although they were rivals, these two women’s efforts completely overturned another century’s worth of dance traditions. The focus onstage now shifted away from the danseur and rested squarely on the danseuse, ushering in the Romantic Era, which the Italian ballerina Marie Taglioni will forever define. Gone were the stiff shoes of the female dancers punctuating their steps by drumming their heels into the floor. Soft satin slippers replaced the hard, noisy shoes to achieve a silent presentation. The transition to pointe shoes was not far behind.
THE FIVE BASIC POSITIONS
Can you master these positions?
First Position: Legs turned out at the hip, feet angled out, and heels touching. Body standing elegantly erect. This is the “resting” position.
Second Position: Legs turned out from the hip, feet positioned under the shoulders, the backs of the heels facing each other but not touching. This position was designed to accommodate horizontal movement.
Third Position: Legs turned out from the hip and pulled together, the heel of the front foot placed at the instep of the back foot, knees flush together. This position is intended to facilitate forward and backward movement.
Fourth Position: The feet separated by the length of one foot, one foot positioned directly ahead of the other. Legs turned out from the hip, the body balanced in between them. This position is used to transition or pass through from one step or combination to another. It is also used to prepare for and complete pirouettes in posé, arabesque, and attitude derriere and devant.
Fifth Position: Similar to third position but with a tighter “fit.” Legs turned out from the hip, the heel of the front foot placed in front of the toe of the other. This position allows the dancer to move freely in all directions—forward, backward, and horizontally.
The next ten years produced two defining ballets: La Sylphide premiering in Paris in 1832 and Giselle in 1841. Sylphide was so successful in Europe that Taglioni traveled to Russia to perform it countless times. The country would later have a major impact upon the world dance stage.
Name: Monica Payne
Job (when not studying!): Ballet student
Dream Job: Dancer, American Ballet Theatre
When did you start dancing and why?
I started dancing when I was three. My mom took me to see The Nutcracker. I remember watching the Sugar Plum Fairy and seeing how happy she was, and knew I wanted to do that someday. Since then I have loved to dance.
Why did you decide to audition for the School of American Ballet Summer Intensive?
For the experience. It’s inspiring. I danced [as] Bluebird from The Sleeping Beauty. It really helped me with my turns.
How do you feel about being required to take a class in the contemporary style of dance as part of your ballet training?
The modern helps the ballet; it gets us to move differently. I like to mix it up.
How do you fit school into all of this?
I think we spend too much time in school. The teacher will give us an assignment and I finish the assignment; and I have to sit there for half an hour and wait for the rest of the class. That’s time I could be dancing.
What will you do after high school?
In a perfect world, I would like to be at ABT. But education is important.
What about your social life? What do your friends think about your dancing?
Some of my friends are cheerleaders; and when I tell them I have to go to class or rehearsal, they say, “Can’t you skip it?” They don’t understand that I have to be here. For them, cheerleading is an activity; for me, dancing is my passion.
To Russia, with Love
Taglioni’s turn in Russia was the product of that country’s effort to “catch up” with European thought, art, and culture. When Emperor Peter the Great took the Russian throne in 1689, he was determined to Westernize his country into its own renaissance. French became the language of the Russian court along with French culture, fashion, and art—which included dance. However, there was no “show” in Russian dance, nothing like the Paris Opera. Rather, dance was considered more a manner of behavior or courtly etiquette. (Sounds like the early stages of dance in France, doesn’t it?) It really amounted to no more than artificial posturing on the part of the Russian courtiers who were, for the most part, less than thrilled at the tsar forcing European culture upon them.
Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth, took the throne in 1741. The new empress loved dancing above all the arts and was an excellent dancer. Her instructor, the French ballet master Jean-Baptiste Landé chose twenty boys and girls, all children of palace servants, to be trained as dancers. Elizabeth increased Landé’s responsibilities as maitre de ballet, and the dance school held in the upper rooms of the Winter Palace became the foundation for the Imperial Ballet School. But it was an “ordinary” French dancer Marius Petipa whose work stirred the pot again and whose choreography is the touchstone for every ballet dancer today.
Petipa arrived in Russia in 1847, not as a European superstar but as a simple twenty-nine-year-old dancer. Yet he rose from the corps de ballet to become ballet master of the Imperial Russian Ballet. As maitre de ballet, he took what was and turned it into what is. He married French foundation to Italian athleticism to create the distinct Russian style seen in the now-legendary ballets The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker.
David Hallberg: A “Big”—Time Honor
David Hallberg has the distinction of being the first American dancer to be invited to perform with Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet. The Bolshoi (the name means “big”) is older than the United States of America; and Hallberg is not only the first American to dance with the company, he is the first non-Russian to do so.
Hallberg was born in South Dakota but grew up in Arizona. His first introduction to dance was the films of Fred Astaire. He taped nickels to the bottom of his shoes and “tap danced” up and down the neighborhood street. His parents bought him his first pair of real tap shoes when he was nine. He brought them to school for show-and-tell when the other boys brought hockey sticks. This set him up for bullying. “I was the only boy in my environment who danced. It made [me] a target. It was very hurtful.”2
Fortunately, the Arizona School for the Arts opened, and Hallberg transferred to it. “I found an environment I fit into.”3
He was now able to focus on dance. Under the guidance of the school’s dance teacher, Kee-Juan Han, his training blossomed. Han was a tough teacher, but the work paid off. At seventeen, Hallberg was accepted to the Paris Opera Ballet School, and he spent one year in France. He was then asked to join ABT’s junior company. After his apprenticeship, he spent three years in the corps before being promoted to soloist. After one year as soloist, he was given the roles and title of principal dancer. While Hallberg was on tour in Russia in 2010, the artistic director of the Bolshoi, Sergei Fillin, saw him dance and offered him the position of premier danseur at the Bolshoi. Hallberg struggled with the decision as to whether he should accept the invitations, but in the end he was able to make arrangements to split his time between both companies.
In Russia, ballet is as popular as major sports in America, like football or baseball. Hallberg’s first performance as Prince Desiree in The Sleeping Beauty was broadcast live to the Russian nation, like the Super Bowl or the World Series are in the United States. Show-and-tell there may be very different than what Hallberg experienced in the States.
From France to Italy . . . to Russia and Back Again
By the turn of the twentieth century, Russian arts supporter Sergei Diaghilev had successfully introduced Russian opera and painting to Western Europe. As the founder of the Ballets Russes dance company, he sent Russian ballet out into the world first via Paris. European dance had now come full circle. The Ballets Russes turned the tables on European ballet. The Firebird was based on a Russian fairy tale. The storyline did not feature a damsel in distress but a brilliant bird. The costumes and sets were exotic; the music by Igor Stravinsky was anything but traditional. The Ballets Russes had the Parisians both on their feet and at its feet at the close of the first season.
By 1917, Imperial Russia was no more. The door to the West bolted shut, and the new communist regime put Russia’s art under lock and key for the next seventy-seven years. In the midst of all this upheaval, however, a thirteen-year-old student of what had been the Imperial Ballet School quietly began plotting his own revolution. Increasingly frustrated by the repression of the communist government, Georgi Balanchivadze first escaped Russia for Western Europe in 1920 and then headed on to the United States, where he would become known as George Balanchine, the man who would reinvent classical dance in ways that no one could have ever imagined.
By 1917, Imperial Russia was no more. The door to the West bolted shut, and the new communist regime put Russia’s art under lock and key for the next seventy-seven years. In the midst of all this upheaval, a thirteen-year-old student of what was the Imperial Ballet School quietly began plotting his own revolution. Increasingly frustrated by the repression of the communist government, Georgi Balanchivadze first escaped Russia for Western Europe in 1920 and then headed on to the United States, where he would become known as George Balanchine, the man who would reinvent classical dance in ways that no one could have ever imagined.
AVOIDING THE PITFALLS OF BODY IMAGE
Dancers are athletes, so there is no avoiding the importance of the body—or that a dancer’s body needs to be fit. There’s also no denying that each ballet company will encourage a certain look among its dancers; so if you’re interested in joining that company, you should study its company’s style and body type.
Some types are very specific, and even the best dancer in the world, if he or she does not look like that type, will not be chosen. The Balanchine ballerina has a certain look: a few inches taller than the average dancer (five feet seven and up), with a short torso and longer-than-average legs. When you audition for NYCB, you are measured thoroughly, right down to the extension of your foot. While most ballet dancers are thin due to the energy used during practice and performance, Balanchine took thinness several steps further in order to achieve uniformity in the look of his ballets. (Watch his production of Serenade and you’ll get the idea.) Balanchine was quoted as stating, “Ballet is woman,”4
and he was very particular as to how he wanted his female dancers to look.
Robert Joffrey, on the other hand, welcomed diversity in his dancers. There is no uniform body type for a Joffrey dancer. Principal dancer April Daly explained, “The Joffrey, because it is so diverse and we do so many different works, you almost need to have different kinds of dancers to do the different ballets. So, there is the tall, there’s the shorter, there’s the more athletic.”5
Height, size, race—Joffrey celebrated the uniqueness of his dancers and knew how to blend them into a cohesive whole without sacrificing their individuality. This was revolutionary.
Eating disorders are a serious issue in dance, especially when a certain look seems to be expected. It is a danger that as the physical demands upon the dancer increase, so does the pressure to be thinner. You want to be careful that you don’t let that look overrun your life.
The average person uses up 1,200 calories a day; the average dancer burns up 1,700–2,000 per day.6
You have to replace those spent calories with consumed calories—food!—in order to keep your body in balance and stay healthy. If you do develop an eating disorder, you don’t just lose weight; your body’s metabolism gets out of whack, resulting in hormonal imbalances, destabilized systems, and other internal complications in your organs. The average age for the onset of an eating disorder is between nine and twelve. If you think you might be tipping toward an eating disorder or fear you are already caught in that downward-spiraling vortex, talk to your family, your dance teacher, or another trusted adult. You will likely want to seek professional help immediately.
Dance’s focus on the body does not have to be negative. Through dance, we celebrate the amazing human form and all that it can do. Dancers strive for the best fitness, which is a healthy goal to have. Sixteen-year-old Monica Payne, a ballet dancer who is featured in a youth profile earlier in this chapter, said, “I focus on eating healthy. We need to give our bodies the right energy. If I’m getting ready for a performance, I try to eat more fruit and vegetables. I ask my mom not to buy junk food.” That’s the right attitude!