Children begin ballet for a variety of reasons, often because a parent feels it will develop grace or better posture, or it could be that, because of some genetic weakness, injury or illness, the doctor has recommended lessons as remedial exercise.
Without a doubt, ballet does serve well as exercise, but before this recommendation is too quickly given, parents should be made aware of the complexities involved if this course is followed. For while much can be said in favour of ballet training, the offshoot consequences can be unsettling, disruptive, damaging and even tragic. Few out of the vast numbers of children enrolled in ballet classes will make dance a career, and fewer still become that magical creature, a ballerina or premier danseur. But once bitten by the bug, ballet can foster unrealistic ambitions which, left unfulfilled, can well end in disappointment, heartache, loss of confidence and direction. Especially if other developmental activities have been excluded during the years of training and there is nothing to take its place, the loss of a cherished dream can then be devastating. Prolonged trauma and suicide are not unknown.
That said, ballet is a challenging and rewarding body discipline that develops both coordination and mental acuity as well as an ear for music and pleasure in responding physically to it. From an exercise point of view, its main benefits are muscular strengthening and building cardiovascular stamina, with flexibility coming in as a not particularly strong second; almost entirely, dancers who are flexible are blessed with the makings of a flexible body when they come into the world. As for postural improvement, a great deal depends on how the dance form, often described as “unnatural,” is taught. And that brings up the first point to consider: how suitable for ballet training is the child’s body and what difference does that make?
In one sense, ballet is taught as a technique comprised of “positions” and traditional “steps,” or movements, which anyone can learn, so one might assume that body type is irrelevant. However, the “technique” of executing those positions and steps correctly requires certain physical characteristics without which they are very difficult, or even impossible, to do. Indeed, professional ballet schools audition prospective students on the basis of physical make-up for that very reason. The ability to “turn out” like Charlie Chaplin, for example, which involves full outward rotation of the hip joints, is considered a sine qua non for being a successful ballet dancer, as is hyper-extension of the legs, which allows the feet to rise effortlessly into the air.
Other structural characteristics are also looked for in the ideal ballet body. For girls, the torso should be short relative to the legs, which should be long and straight (knock-knees or bow-legs do not make an aesthetically-pleasing “line”), the neck should be long and the head in good proportion to the body, the bone structure small and not exceeding 5’7” in height, the hips narrow, the breasts and buttocks small, the feet relatively short with squared toes, the arms pleasantly-shaped and non-angular, and the overall constitution tending toward slimness. (For boys, still in the minority, flexibility and “turn-out” are big pluses, but other requirements are not as stringent as for girls.)
Much of this falls in line with the unfortunate, present-day feminine ideal of “slim is beautiful,” and this in itself can be a cause of considerable anguish and self-dissatisfaction for those of stockier build who are constantly reminded that they must lose weight, an obsession that can carry on throughout life. With such specific qualifications, which may be present in younger years but which can change dramatically in puberty, it’s easy to see why neurotic tendencies can take hold. Com-petition, too, despite friendships that can be close, is ever-present, demanding a degree of maturity that the young do not often possess.
Professionalism aside, parents often mistake a toddler’s natural enjoyment of movement as reason for ballet lessons and enroll them in a local school that, for economic reasons, typically has a more open door policy. However appealing this may be to the parent or child, it is not advisable for children to start ballet too early. Wrong patterns of body development, reinforced over years of training, can be not only difficult to overcome later on, but can also lead to permanent aberrations: pronated ankles, enlarged toe joints and deformed toes. So beware the school that would put a 5 or 6-year old into pointe shoes! That should come only after several years of solid training in soft ballet slippers.
The ideal age to begin ballet is 8 or 9 while the body is still pliable enough to be molded but the mind sufficiently developed to comprehend and apply instructions in relation to the body. This is not to say that dance need be delayed until this age. There are other forms of dance that can satisfy the desire and are equally good as exercise – tap, folk dance, Highland and what is offered to the very young in some schools, rhythmic, or creative dance.
But what should also be started in the beginning years of ballet and which would help greatly in facilitating its technical demands is “bodywork.” The emphasis here is not on learning and perfecting dance technique, but on learning how to work with, and even alter, one’s body so that technical demands are more easily met. In this sense, bodywork makes the body more suitably “fit” for ballet and, by emphasizing proper body mechanics, provides a good foundation for future body use regardless of what path lies ahead.
Of course, not all children get ballet into their blood, but if a child does genuinely want to pursue it as a career, the wise parent will support the decision but try to encourage other interests as a safeguard should the decision be reversed. And that holds true even if the ambition is fulfilled. The young professional dancer rarely considers life after dance, but at some point it inevitably must be faced, and the ones who have broadened their interests or developed secondary aptitudes will make the transition to “the real world” with the least amount of grief.