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My First Steps

By David Allison

As part of my ongoing, wide-eyed, fully-amateur discovery of the world of ballet (specifically the remarkable artistic output of Ballet BC) I decided to get up close and personal with the creation process.

So I signed up for, and have just come home from, my first ballet class. I have two feelings about it: ouch and ouch.

Even though the class was called Ballet 101, and was arranged by Ballet BC Up specifically for non-dancers like me, those first steps in the world of ballet left me hurting in two ways. Both my body and my pride took a beating.

To set the stage, think about any ballet class you’ve seen in a movie. Exacting rows of ballerinas stand with one arm suspended out front in a graceful curve, heads held high, faces calm and placid. And just like those movies, our class started with a series of very simple barre exercises.

But unlike those movie moments, in our class there wasn’t a placid face in the room. Those seemingly simple barre exercises? Turns out they are bloody difficult.

There are these little foot kicks (front front side side back back and rest) that look simple enough when the teacher demonstrates. But nothing here is as simple as it appears. Those kicks are supposed to be made in a precise sequence which is frustratingly hard to remember. Your arms are meant to simultaneously sweep around you, which adds to the confusion. Then there’s a knee bend, and a deeper knee bend, and a back tilt and your arm sweeps in another direction while the kicks get ahead of you and suddenly the sequence is over but your feet are supposed to be somewhere that they are not. Before you can correct your final position the whole thing starts again, but backwards, or forwards but with the other foot first, or something.

After the first ten minutes you are overwhelmed and sweaty. Your glutes and inner thighs ache, and your back twitches in unfamiliar places. You realize you are going to be very sore the following morning.

It’s hard work, and it’s humbling.

As a competitive person, I hate being bad at things in front of people. My friends still tease me about the ten sessions of private yoga instruction I took before I would attend a regular yoga class, for fear of humiliation. Being bad at ballet in a room full of complete strangers is more-or-less my worst nightmare.

But things can always be worse. In addition to the two artists who were our teachers, Rachael Prince and Tara Williamson, Ballet BC dancer Peter Smida showed up and took the class with us. Peter is my pal, so now it wasn’t just strangers in the room. Peter made it all look like a casual Saturday morning walk in the park, while I felt like I was zipped into one of those Sumo-wrestler suits you can rent for parties. My ego was very quickly and thoroughly bruised.

So all you can do is laugh.

You laugh at yourself. And everyone else laughs at themselves. And soon you are all laughing at each other, and the whole room is laughing. You are connected through your incompetence, so now you can’t help but have fun. With the tension released through the magic of communal embarrassment, you accept that you are destined to stagger through the next hour with the grace of a drugged elephant. This acceptance allows you to think about more important things.

For example, it’s common after a dance performance to stand around with other members of the audience and chatter about how it all looked so effortless. I now understand first-hand just how difficult it is to create that impression. Even making the tiny little barre exercises look effortless was way beyond me, let alone anything more complex.

I also experienced the physical precision ballet requires. Just lifting a foot or an arm or a leg is actually quite a complicated thing to do correctly. You must lift that limb at a particular angle, in time to the music, with no margin for error. It’s a miracle that dance happens at all.

Ultimately I left my first ballet class thinking about passion. Professional ballet dancers must combine physical exertion and precision into a 20-minute piece of choreography. It’s not enough to just get through those 20 minutes without making any mistakes. Dancers must make it look effortless, or there won’t be any space for the art. One elephantine thud will break the spell and be all anyone thinks about; the opportunity to share something important with the audience will be lost.

Dancers must be passionate about their work to get past those first steps, to make the difficult seem easy. It’s the only way that the the real truth of what they are trying to say will shine through. Ballet BC dancers are masters at this, and if my hamstrings weren’t painfully throbbing from my first dance class, I’d execute, in my own graceless but well-meaning way, a deep bow of respect.

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David Allison tries his hand at barre exercises.