Nowadays ballet is known for being a beautiful and theatrical dance, with it’s almost-unreal dancers full of glitter, tulle and expressive movements. But there’s more to it besides the scenic designs and the stories it tells. The most accepted and generalized definition is that of a classical dance form, demanding grace and precision and employing formalized steps and gestures set in intricate, flowing patterns, and is combined with other artistic elements such as choreography, art, musicality and even physics principles.
Ballet as we know it today, began as an aristocratic form on entertainment in Italy and France, performed by noble amateurs (predominantly men) in the halls of grand estates and palaces. It has been through a lot of changes since it’s creations in the 15th and 16th centuries. It stopped being and aristocratic art and became an art enjoyable by many in theaters. During the process of becoming and art of amplitude, different schools, methods and styles were created. Catherine de Medici, who’s family is known for having major influence on the growth of Italian Renaissance through their patronage on the arts, was an early supporter of the dance and funded early ballet companies in the court of her husband, King Henry II of France. Gradually, ballet began to extend beyond its court origins. By the 17th century, in several Western European cities, professional ballet academies began to appear and notably in Paris, where the ballet was first presented on a stage rather than in court. The association of story-telling began in France, where ballet and opera where combined for a time. Eventually, this two art forms were shown by themselves instead of a combination of both, but the idea of ballet telling a story continued.
In the 19th century, ballet migrated to Russia, and off came Tchaikovsky with his classical compositions that became symbols of ballet, such as “Swan Lake”, “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nutcracker”. The Russians made an important and historical contribution to the evolution of the ballet technique, mostly known as the Vaganova method, one of the most popular schools known for its high demands on the students and its fusion of the fervent passion of Russian ballet, the athleticism of the Italian method, the classical French style and elements of the Romantic era. The most important contributors to ballet in the 20th-century were predominantly Russian. The movement starting with Diaghilev, Fokine, and, the incredibly talented (and equally unstable) Nijinsky, who choreographed Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps), with music by fellow Russian Igor Stravinsky. Afterward, Russian George Balanchine, revolutionized ballet in America. He styled the American Ballet and co-founded the New York City Ballet. His contribution, the origination of neoclassical ballet through the combination of the standards of the Imperial Ballet method and other schools of movement (adopted during his time in Broadway and Hollywood), expanded ballet choreography and ballet dance technique in equal measure.
Regards studying ballet, there’s a question frequently asked: at what age should you start? There are many convincing arguments for starting ballet classes at an early age, for it is believed that this will bring the best results in long-term progress. The big question that many parents ask is “how young is too young?”. Many children show from early age an interest in music, movement and dance, and there shouldn’t be any reason to not encourage them to explore their interest. A good way of supporting them, is enrolling them on pre-ballet classes, the common age being three years old. The objective is for the child to be introduced on a loosely structured environment of rhythm and excitement, leading them to develop this side of their personality. Besides, it will also help them to develop an instinct of routine by means of regular activity, also obtaining social skills by being involved with other children. Apparently, the “formal” ballet training would be introduced at the age of eight. Most teachers believe that three years old don’t have the necessary attention span, and often prefer parents to wait until the children is at least four years old. Pre-ballet classes have gained popularity, being simple and organized in an easy-going way. Some of them introduce the five positions of ballet, so the importance of proper posture is learned from early on. Most children begin proper ballet classes at the ages between four and eight, their concentration levels being optimal for effective learning. This is usually the best age to work on their posture and to introduce them to the relevant exercises that will prepare them for the rigor of classic Ballet. In Vaganova and Cecchetti methods, the first-year students go by learning and doing gymnastic exercises focused on gradually increasing their core strength and flexibility, developing strong muscles and flexible joints capable of handling the very specific requirements of classical ballet, such as turnout.
With all that being said, there’s probably another question that pops up: how long does it take to become good at ballet? According to the Atlanta Ballet, training to become a professional dancer takes between 8-10 years. Beginning ballet usually consists of 1-2 ballet technique classes a week, and as students become older, around 14, they are heavily involved in about 10-15 classes a week made up of ballet technique, pointe (for women), jazz, modern, partnering, and more. The length of a dancer’s career is very similar to any other professional athlete, depending on the dancer’s individual body and avoidance of injuries. After retiring from the stage, dancers can continue a career as a ballet mistress or master, choreographer, or instructor, or choose a different career altogether. Many dancers today are getting degrees through universities with programs that are tailored around a dancer’s vigorous schedule.
Is ballet good for your child? Absolutely. The benefits of ballet classes are both mentally and physically, extending into different areas of the child’s development (including overall health). Learning ballet improves concentration, focus and discipline, also fostering a healthy lifestyle and attitude of proper behavior that will assist the child throughout their life.
The most known benefits are:
Having to perform in front of an audience, or in front of teachers and classmates, Ballet teaches performing skills that lasts a lifetime. The child becomes adapted to be observed and studied from an early age, and whether or not they decide to continue their dance training during adulthood, the confidence they learn will help them with their public speaking and leadership skills.
Imagine the motor abilities that come with playing piano (handling different tempos with each hand, muscle memory and a compound compass: voice, hands and pedals) but with the entire body: the students will learn to engage their muscles, stand up tall, and coordinate their arms, legs, head, and center. As the dancer advances in their ballet training, they will gain postural alignment and control over the body. These physical benefits are crucial to your child’s health in and out of the dance studio. “Corrections usually take the form of verbal feedback and physical prompting […] widely used in order to help create muscle memory by providing appropriate placement.” (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007). Since the entire ballet form is based on incredible posture, it gives a core strength and body awareness that will give a good posture that lasts a lifetime.
Ballet classes are about following instructions, developing a strong attention to detail, remain focused, and extend the attention span of the dancer. Children who take ballet classes see more success in their school performance, being more likely to be able to focus on a particular lesson for an extended period of time.
Every mistake committed by the dancer in a ballet class, will result in them having to critically think about what they did wrong and how to fix it. Whether the solution is physical (pointed the right foot instead of the left foot) or mental (forgetting what to do from counts 5-10), the ability of identifying the problem, coming up with a solution, and applying it to the next try is an invaluable skill. Also, the mental processing that must be accomplished during classes result in the increased sharpness of cognitive function, stretching the memory and helping with the prevention of Alzheimer’s.
Having to learn the classical ballet terminology gives the children an understanding of the French language. Also, becoming familiar with famous ballets will introduce them to some of history’s most important classical composers. Studying different styles of ballet from across the ages will show them how dance has played a role in history.
Ballet is known for being an intense physical activity, as it requires muscular strength, flexibility, and stamina. The dancers will be encouraged to stay healthy and in shape, so they can achieve the skills required of them as they progress in their training. Ballet classes help children to learn good physical and nutritional habits. Endurance is one of the top benefits too. Ballet dancers gradually improve their stamina and cardiovascular endurance, allowing them to do strenuous things quite easily.
The studios are full of children who have very similar interests. This is a good way for your child to meet new friends and bond over a shared hobby.
Ballet classes become more challenging with time. Having to face the increasingly difficult skills, exercises, and combinations to perform, children get to learn that hard work makes a significant increment in their success. That sense of dedication will stay with your child and extend beyond the dance studio.
Ballet is bound to develop long, lean, flexible muscles. The main goal of barre exercises is to continuously stretch all the muscles. Aside from creating beautiful lines, it helps the dancers to remain free of muscle pain. Flexibility is a key component in injury and pain prevention, so they flexibility your dancer gains in ballet class will benefit them and their body for years. Ballerinas are known for their ethereal grace and exquisite beauty, but underneath lie fierce athletes possessing incredible levels of strength and hardworking bodies that make the steps look effortless, all while giving the illusion of floating around.
At the end of the day, young dancers have the opportunity to express themselves creatively, test their bodies’ potential, and strive toward a common goal. The joy of dance is something that will live in them for their entire lives, whether they choose to pursue classical ballet, try another dance form, or simply light it up on the dance floor at social events.
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