Much has been written about why ballet is important. And yet, most of what’s been written – at least that I’ve read – could as easily refer to dance more generally, or to the arts more broadly.

This is not a negative at all. Yet a recent conversation led me to ask; does ballet, as a specific genre, offer something valuable that is less likely sourced in other dance genres, and which might make it worthy of our unique promotion.

The Arguments

I don’t need to rehash the voluminous arguments for why dance in general, is an incredible activity, so I’ll contain this to a quick recap of the major talking points.

Dance can be great for: co-ordination, cardiovascular fitness, excellent in building a balance of full body strength and flexibility, for social bonding, as a form of individual and collective exploration, as a pathway to healing trauma, to develop fundamental life skills such as dedication, discipline, time management, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and to assist in warding off neuro-degenerative diseases associated with ageing. And fundamentally, it’s a readily accessible form of engaging entertainment which is a pleasure and joy to participate in or watch.

We’ve all heard these points before. And so, beyond these many arguments for why dance can be a great activity, what if anything, makes ballet valuable?

Perhaps the answer is, nothing. Perhaps it’s simply a different genre that might better suit the temperaments, culture, and bodies of some more than others. If true, arguably that is reason enough to value the craft. However, I’d like to make an argument for ballet’s unique value and appeal.

A Personal Anecdote

I didn’t grow up doing ballet, or any kind of regular formal dance. The first fleeting experience of a formal dance class I encountered was at my Public Primary school, where for one class a week, through one term during Year 4, my class of approximately 25 students came into a small school hall and learned various folk dances from around the world.

Later, in the early-80’s when Break Dancing swept from American ghettos and streets via MTV into suburbs across Australia, I was pulled along in that tide and found myself dressing in Bronx-style cloths, assuming weird street names (I think I was called “Exion”, but I don’t remember why), catching the Red Rattlers into Sydney’s CBD to spin on “the Marble” on a Saturday afternoon, and throwing myself around on my bedroom floor on an old piece of lino until pain from the many bruises stopped me for the day.

Around the same time, or slightly later at age 14, when I was very keen to kiss a particular girl, I allowed myself to be cajoled into a Friday night jazz class. This was my first regular, formal dance class. I donned leg warmers over black sweatpants and slipped a tight sleeveless shirt onto my skinny frame and attempted to make myself look cool, as though I was straight out of the then popular TV show FAME. I ended up proving myself anything but.

And though I couldn’t see it then, it was all leading to something. To ballet.

The Big Shift

At 16 I moved schools to study at The McDonald College of the Arts in Sydney for years 11 and 12. The wonderful Margaret Markham, then head of the school, took a bet and gave me a chance. Though my then rationale in attending this school was primarily to become an actor – the only pathway forward I found interesting at the time – after a little prodding and pulling of the limbs to assess my physical capacity, I was ushered into what was then a mandatory ballet class.

It’d be a lie to suggest Classical Ballet was anything except excruciatingly uncomfortable. The cloths felt uncomfortable – what the hell is this Jock Strap doing, and why do I have to wear tights that are accentuating my crotch in front of teenage girls – the strict teaching style was confronting, the music was unfamiliar – what on earth is a ¾ beat and where are the words? Yes, I was that uneducated – the stories were at times unfathomable, the French terminology was perplexing, and this movement style with the legs rotated outwards, feet pointed, and a specific structure that all started with holding onto a barre, all felt very uncomfortable. And yet…

Through this diverse array of discomforts, there was something intangible, something I couldn’t then articulate pulling me forward, keeping me in the classes, until finally ballet compelled my interest, then passion, and ultimately my obsession. The fact is, in ballet class, and within the classical ballet stories, was the only place I felt real and could truly be myself.

I appreciate how ironic that sounds. The classical ballet narratives are built on Fairy Tales, ancient myths, tales of 18th and 19th Century European aristocracy, and Shakespearean drama. It’s the original Disney. So, how on earth did these connect and make a latch key, heterosexual, white working class, poorly educated, late adolescent, sports-orientated male from the burbs on the far outer fringes of northern Sydney feel as though this was the only place he felt real?

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Yet it was only on stage, or in a character, or when working on the technique, in class or rehearsal, that I felt seen; that I felt I could explore the size and strangeness of the many uncomfortable emotions I was experiencing during these adolescent years. Ballet, more than any other activity, or any other dance genre, provided me the range and diversity of feelings I needed to explore.

And I really mean “needed”. If it weren’t for ballet, I sometimes think I would have combusted with the volatile energy I had inside. I needed an outlet to pour that energy into; a robust outlet that was capable of absorbing and diluting it, while also allowing me to examine and explore it. Those Disney on steroids stories, those large myths, the size of those Shakespearean tragedies was the only place that allowed me to be who I was. Through those characters, that music, those costumes, and those time periods I was able to find, me.

I needed the distance from “reality” that those stories provided, to be real. Arguably, acting could have also been a conduit, yet I personally found it more difficult to remove my-self from a character when using my voice. Using my voice, be it in song or a story, tends to make me feel like I’m moving toward an intimate reality, and that was something I was shying away from at the time.

Because I didn’t know how to be real in the normal world. Normally, I was required to be smaller, quieter, or harder, more “masculine”, less caring and empathetic; more something, less something else. There was an unspoken mould I was supposed to fit into yet couldn’t see nor fully comprehend yet felt all around me, trying to bend and shape me. And the discomfort of that feeling, was worse than all the discomforts that initially came from stepping into a ballet class.

There was something intangible in the reality of my culture that simply didn’t allow for the expression of the range of emotions that I felt, the range that could be explored through the technique and repertoire of ballet. The lightness of a La Sylphide, the elegance and mystery of a Swan Lake, the power and joy of a Don Quixote, the passion of a Giselle, the romance of a Romeo and Juliet, the fun and magic of a Nutcracker, to say nothing of the incredible diversity within the contemporary ballet repertoire.

In ballet, everything was amped, was perfectly poised providing both distance and an intimacy I could work with, and ballet came into my life at the right time, during those teenage years when I was ever on the cusp of implosion and explosion, trying to hold that tension.

Only in ballet did I find a sense of peace.

So, to answer that question: why is ballet important? Because, now much older, I’m convinced I’m not particularly unique, and that there are many people in the world that have always felt, and feel now, like I did then. Possibly many other young males.

And so, while some people will be drawn to ballet because they enjoy the music, or the culture, the challenge of the movement vocabulary etc. there are some that need it. They need it because it’s the only place they can feel real. Because for them, like me, reality was the mask, reality was the character, the show, the pretend, and classical ballet was where I got to reveal who I truly was. And even if no-one else saw that or understood that; at least I did.

If the only tool you have is a hammer,

it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Abraham Maslow

I argue that it’s important to offer ballet, to offer dance, and it’s not enough to only provide young people outlets via sport. If we only provide and encourage young people – and specifically young males – the outlet and emotional exploration of their internal range that comes via sports, then we shouldn’t be surprised that they come to see the world primarily through the lens of competitive tribal binaries.

Yet provide them the arts, dance, and ballet more specifically, and perhaps they’ll explore a greater range within themselves, and then come to appreciate a greater range within others. I could be wrong, yet I suspect that can only be a positive.

by Josef Brown

Josef is a former professional dancer with The Australian Ballet, Modern Dans Topluluguu (Ankara, Turkey), Sydney Dance Company, Nomad Dance Theatre, and in Musical Theatre.

Josef is the Managing Director and co-Founder of The Library Aesthetic.

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