I don’t pray. Not outside of a casually tossed off “Please, God,” a figure of speech I use when I’m running late, or running low on an essential ingredient in a recipe. Please, God, let them be running behind, too, or, Please, God, let me have enough tomatoes. I don’t pray, but I come the closest to prayer in the moment right before the beginning of a ballet.
The lights dim and the conductor walks out. The audience applauds, dutifully welcoming a person we will doubtless ignore for the next few hours. The curtain is down, and the lights dim further, and then, just before it rises, there is a still, almost sacred moment in which I close my eyes in the dark and say a…“something” of thanks. It’s not a prayer, exactly, but it’s not not one, either.
If you have a daughter and you live in the United States, there’s a good chance you’ll attend a spring dance recital some time soon. At the end, after hours of watching tiny children bob up and down and stumble adorably around the stage like tiny drunks in matching tutus, followed by several more hours of increasingly well-coordinated routines by older and more able students, there will most likely be speeches. In one of those speeches, someone will thank all the people who did not appear on stage. The parents, the teachers, the backstage crew. It takes so much work, that someone will inevitably say, to make a show like this happen.
It’s not a prayer, exactly, but it’s not not one, either.
They are not wrong; in fact, they might have no idea just how right they are. It has taken almost four centuries of work to make a show like this happen.
Ballet began in Europe’s royal courts in the 17th century. It spread from France and Italy to Russia and England, then to those countries’ many colonies, which is how, hundreds of years later, I came to learn the French terminology of ballet — plié, tendu, fondu — from teachers with broad Australian accents. For hundreds of years, people have danced ballet, watched ballet, taught ballet, made equipment for ballet, written and played music for ballet, built stages for ballet, sewn crystals onto costumes for ballet.
Each of those people had to be trained by someone else, and their training had to be subsidized by parents or by governments or by philanthropists who believed it was worth spending money on. In Russia, ballet survived Stalinism because Stalin himself enjoyed watching ballet and decided the artform should be kept alive, albeit in a shape that suited his political needs. In the United States, ballet flourished in part because the Soviets excelled at it, and the U.S. was determined to beat the Communists at their own game.
In other words, ballet has survived for centuries because hundreds of thousands of people decided that it should.
That is what culture is, after all: people deciding, en masse, that something matters. Ballet is the result of almost 400 years worth of people all around the world — dancers, set designers, the people who make pointe shoes by hand, and all the people who trained all those people — deciding that this old art form is still worth their time.
In those tiny silent moments of thanksgiving in the dark, I am grateful to be there, of course, grateful that going to the ballet is a regular part of my life when for most people it’s a rare treat or something they never get to do at all. But more than that, I’m thankful that there’s a there in the first place. Thankful that so many people decided, for so many years, that ballet matters.
To an objective outsider, there’s no reason why it should. Ballet — and I can see this even as a subjective insider, someone who grew up learning ballet and taking its existence for granted — is genuinely strange. There is nothing natural about the style of movement it demands: hips turned all the way out so that the feet form one straight line, spines arched all the way back until the dancer is folded almost in half, legs pulled apart beyond a hundred and eighty degrees while the knees hyperextend and the feet curl into veiny bananas. And that’s before you strap the girls and women into shoes made rigid with glue and ask them to hoist themselves up so that all their weight is bearing down on just a few of their toes.
Ballet is genuinely strange.
It’s strange in its customs, too. In beloved story ballets like Swan Lake, Giselle, and Sleeping Beauty, the stage is often filled with ahistorically cheerful peasants, who all seem to spend very little time working and a great deal of time dancing in the town square to celebrate the nuptials of some royal person or another — or, and this is more common, dancing for no reason at all. Then there’s the ballet mime you need to know if you watch one of these ballets. At the very least, you need to know three movements often used to describe women in story ballets: beautiful (one hand sweeps around the face in a circular motion), engaged (the right hand points at the left hand), and dead (the wrists cross in front of the body and the hands clench into fists).
Then there’s the sheer opulence of it. The gold curtains, the red velvet seats, the hundreds of costumes, the thousands of crystals all hand-sewn onto tutus. The entire experience drips with money that could have been spent on something more essential to human survival. America’s major ballet companies employ between thirty and fifty ballerinas each, and it took hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise each of them, $20,000 of which was spent on pointe shoes that were thrown out after a few weeks or even a few days. If you don’t love ballet — and even if you do — it can be hard to justify its continued existence.
For me, it’s enough, most days, to bow to the wisdom of those many thousands of people who came before me. Not all of them, of course: preserving ballet was probably Stalin’s only good idea. But in the moments when I can’t help but look at the silly mime or the jewel-studded costumes and think, as many first-time ballet-goers do, what is the point of all this?, I remember that generations of people built this beautiful, unnatural thing for me to love and laugh at. Maybe I should trust that they knew something I don’t.
I think about the wisdom of ballet’s past a lot more than I used to, because last year, I started teaching ballet for the first time. It has been about seven years since I took ballet class regularly, from an elderly French man who once told a room full of adult ballet students we were dancing so gracelessly that he was amazed we hadn’t all fallen into the street on the way to class and gotten run over by a truck.
On the night before I taught my first class I spent an hour at the kitchen counter, the closest thing my apartment has to a ballet barre, putting together a series of exercises for the next morning.
I stood in fifth position, my right heel pressing gently against my left big toe as my hips strained to turn outwards, away from the center of my body. I pulled in my stomach and straightened my back, taking comfort in the familiar sense of stacking everything into its proper place: head on top of neck on top of shoulders on top of spine. I could see in mind’s eye all the images my many teachers invoked over the years to help us understand what the correct posture would look and feel like. Imagine someone is pulling you up by your bun. Imagine a beam of light shooting up through the crown of your head. Imagine your spine is hanging long from a meat hook. Imagine.
I came home from teaching the next day with an aching back and a hoarse voice, but utterly exhilarated. I had forgotten what it is to be a teenage girl who loves what she loves with dedication and without irony. Watching the girls in my class, with their unwavering focus and their determination to get the steps right no matter how many repetitions and tiny corrections it took, I remembered what I used to know about dancing.
I had forgotten what it is to be a teenage girl who loves what she loves with dedication and without irony.
We like to belittle teenage girls, to imagine them all to be vapid and foolish. “Teenage girl” is shorthand, in most circles, for someone who is venal, or vain, or both. Grown men like to mock the way teen girls talk, ignoring the substance of what they have to say if it’s littered with too many “likes” and “ums.” Perhaps it’s because they fear that very focus and dedication, and feel the need to nip it in the bud, lest adolescent girls grow into adult women with the temerity to say and do things of substance, um, like, however they damn well please.
A teenage ballerina sounds like the purest expression of the empty-headed teen queen cliché, but of course, most teenage ballerinas are already thrillingly focused, observant, and hardworking. They giggle and mess around before or after class, and sometimes, when they catch a phrase of music coming through the wall from the hip hop class next door, they pretend to twerk. But when they get to work, I get to watch their seriousness and satisfaction as they carve out a mastery of their own bodies. Doing that, and bearing witness to it, seems more and more like a political act.
Ballet is a quest for a perfection that doesn’t exist, but still, there are precious, perfect moments. After what feels like hundreds of attempts, a pirouette goes just right, all the muscles and bones stacked up perfectly, so that you feel like you could keep spinning for hours.
When that happens, I say a not-prayer, the same one I sometimes find myself saying in the dark when I’m watching an especially beautiful pas de deux, or when a dancer I love to watch takes a sweaty, exhausted curtain call. Please, God, let this go on forever.