February 25, 2012

Princess Power

There are some aspects of ballet that I just don't get. Princesses, Fairys, Sylphides - the entire fairy tale cast. Don't get me wrong, I love to watch ballerinas dance the Auroras, Paquitas or Sugar Plums - but why do grown-up women still have to pretend to be antiquated princesses? Tradition, of course. Respect for the art of ballet. The choreography, the music, the artistry. And let us not forget popular demand. Classical ballet may be considered an elitist art by many, but mostly it's escapist entertainment. As the ballerina is lifted above her prince, our spirits are lifted right along. For a brief moment, disbeliefs are suspended and we delight in the beauty of it all. Ballet is entertainment, but it also feeds our soul. The artist may come in the disguise of an ornamented tutu, but she holds the power to touch us. So I do get it, after all.

What I don't get is me taking on any of these parts. I grew up a tomboy, with a bit of Barbie on the side, but mostly I held my own with the boys. Simply put, I'm not a girly girl. As much as I enjoy watching the classics, it's always from the outside looking in. Even after 20 years of ballet, Aurora and her peers remain alien to me. The aesthetic of the ballerina is akin to that of a doily; pretty and flowery. She is sweet and cute, sugar and spice, and all things nice (not that I'm not a nice person). The Princess as the ultimate bride-to-be, the Jewel of the Crown, to be gifted from father to husband. Come on girls, have we not come further than that? Why still the fantasy role-play?

Okay, it's "just" ballet. We are not making a political or anti-feminist statement when we take ballet class. Au contraire, ballet makes you stronger. To create the illusion of flight without effort, you need a whole lot of muscle and stamina. The pretty ballerina on stage is not just a real woman off stage, she is Superwoman! Hey, why are there no ballets about that? It's about time to have a ballerina with superpowers, instead of supernatural wilis and swanmaids. Vampire-slaying Buffy, anyone? Just a thought..

Yesterday our teacher gave us steps to do from the ballet Paquita, I believe it is known as the first variation. My first reaction: what is up with those arms?? Is the character pretending to create something out of thin air, or is she some sad mental case? It looks lovely in an odd way, but what is the story behind it? And how can I possibly get away with the same? And why do I even care - should I not just try to copy the moves and get on with it? But I do care, albeit too much. That variation is so much out of my comfort zone, I feel like a butcher called in to do a patisseur's job.

The video shows what I'm talking about. I wish I could have found more versions to choose from, but the arms are pretty much the same our teacher gave us (she has danced in Paquita). The "folding arms" start at 01:30, right after the "yawn, just waking up -port de bras". There is also another bit that we have practiced: the "plucking and throwing sequins off my tutu" (00:45 - 00:50). That last part - it's just too pretty for my liking. The other technical stuff is not so impossible. Not that I can do any of it, at least not in center. We have been practicing the pointe balloné - balloné - balloné - developpé (00:30 - 00:34) at the barre, but in my case without the climactic high extension part. The echappé onto arabesqué is under preparation as a traveling sous-sous. Attitude pirouettes on pointe have not been introduced yet, but I once got lucky trying one on my own. The tombé en dedans pirouette with arms en couronne has been done in another class, sort of. But forget anything that comes in mutiple numbers.

It is a real challenge, both physical and mental. Me - I would much prefer to dance something neo-classical or anything contemporary. More earthy, or even edgy. In our other pointe-class we have been practicing a modern piece that is inspired by Forsythe´s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated - and I just love it! It's an exhausting choreography, but exhilerating. You get to break a lot of The Rules, hips forward and such, but it's still gorgeous to look at. Well, at least our teacher is. ;)

Then again, I am a student of ballet. And the classics are part of that curriculum. I should count myself lucky that I even have the opportunity to learn these variations! But how can I get past the feeling ridiculous part? How does one unearth all that Princess Power?


  1. The fairy tale ballet librettos are really popular in the Western world, but if you look at ballet in China, after Mao's rise to power, you'll see ballerinas holding rifles. Here is an image from the ballet "Red Detachment of Women"

    As you can see, it's most certainly not princesses and queens in tutus.

  2. Thank you, Noora for the link. I saw a documentary of this once, it was very impressive!

    But I did not mean to say that fairy tale librettos is all there is to ballet. The Princess story-line relates to what we have been pratcising in pointe class, and my ambigious relationship towards that. I should have tied these two better together.

    I'm kind of missing my inner ballerina right now.. When we get to practice classical variations in the style of Petipa et al, I feel put on the spot. Uncomfortable. Not pretty or princessy. Like I wanna hide in the back.

    Now you can hand me that rifle, thank you. ;)

  3. Even as a grown ups, we still want to believe happy endings. We know there won't be a prince coming to rescue us, but we like to believe that there are happy, ballety pink things in the world. For me, princess stories are all about finding and fighting for a true love. (Even though in real life those misadventures are something more ordinary than fighting with dragons or evil witches.) And you can pretend that love is a key for those ridiculous port de bras, 'cause we are all fools when it comes to love, aren't we? At least until the moment when we find out that our prince is actually a frog with tons of dirty dishes, but they never show that part in ballet. ;)

    1. Minttu, that is a good point. It's been a while since I have been silly in love.. Guess my sarcasm has taken over too much already! I do love a happy ending (or beginning), it gives you hope. That maybe I'll find a frog who likes to do the dishes ;)

      Another friend just educated me that the port de bras might have a background in traditional folk dances, which does makes more sense.

      Still, I have to admit I'm kind of scared to dance this full out. It looks so tender and feminine, and so out of this era. I want to be able to do it justice, and not look like a nut case.

      I will take your advice to heart and pretend to be in love instead. ;) Thanks for commenting and helping a girl out!

  4. As usual, Johanna, you've put something from my experience and thoughts into words so eloquently. I am also a grown-up tomboy, not a girly girl, and have never had "princess dreams", and certainly not as a grown woman! There are women in my classes who want so badly to wear a tutu and I just am thankful that as a recreational dancer, I NEVER will be forced into such a thing! I love ballet for it's physicality and blending of music and motion...I am terrible at role play in real life (thing awful job training seminars!) AND in my hobbies, so I'd never be convincing as a traditional ballerina princess.

    However, one of my friends who trained at one of THE big professional ballet schools in the US and had a short career as a dancer (injuries and the lack of security in both jobs and finances took her on an alternate career path) told me that there are usually two types of female dancers: the ethereal delicate dancer who floats and is uber-feminine and the powerhouse dancer who whirls her way through with power and unabashed determination. Yes, they do tend to get typecast and used for different things, but there are places in the repetoire for both. I'm definitely the latter and it sounds like you may be as well :)

  5. Hi Kaija!

    I have to confess that I'm a little intrigued by the tutu - but certainly not desperate to climb into one!

    Although some floatier and longer tutus are lovely and not too girly, if you leave out the ruffles, laces and those frilly arm-thingys. You know the tutus they wear in Serenade? I would like to dance in one of those. At least once, just for the heck of it! :)

    You are right, powerhouse dancing sounds more like my thing. I'm defintely no ethereal floater ;) It's nice to know I'm not alone in this!

  6. Why not to think queen instead of princess? :)

    I don't think Paquita is as princessy character as Aurora etc. Paquita can be danced with maturity and class, like Raymonda, grand pas classique... I think Lopatkina's interpretation ( is more mature than Somova's. And Paquita has an edgy side to her too as she has lived most of her life part of a gypsy community!

    But I do understand your feelings on doing Aurora etc. I think it's better to forget the original character and do it your own way - especially when you only rehearse some parts of the variation and in a class situation. For example instead of a fairy you can think about fairy godmother (like in Cinderella) and so on! :)

    - N

  7. Hi N!

    You're right! I could pretend to be a queen instead, be all elegant, classy and experienced.. :) Love it!

    I found Lopatkina's interpretation after Somova's, and I gotta admit hers is more sophisticated. She comes across a much stronger character, both noble and womanly. I feel my freak-out fading alreay..

    Although I have to add that my teacher's version did not look girly-princessy at all, it looked like she owned the part. I'm still learning the steps, but now I hope that I can bring my own personality into the dance as well - while remaining in character.

    Thank you so much for your dance-wise guidance, it really made think about Aurora et al in a new way!

  8. who is this dancer, Johanna? sigh, so exquisite. and people wonder why I feel inferior and don't believe their praise! i'm learning a variation from Paquita myself! (look up Leann Fromm paquita 4th on youtube!) i'm substituting emboites for the little bent leg steps she does, and soutenous for her turns in 5th. it IS challenging, but it's also really fun. i like the idea of having something that i can 'perform' again and see how i improve with it. and, honestly, i like having the opportunity to be a beautiful ballerina (or a poor imitation of one, i realize). in life we are not always beautiful, or graceful, or elegant, or strong or proud. but for a minute and a half, when i dance my little paquita variation, i can be.

  9. Hi Shannon,

    the dancer in the video above is Alina Somova of the Mariinsky Ballet.

    There is so much to choose from - I believe there has to be a suitable variation for everyone! :) But not all ballerinas dance all roles, and not all variations are suited for every adult dancer alike. I would love to be a beautiful ballerina, but alas, I'm not.

    In class I do enjoy learning and dancing the steps. I focus mostly on technique and the music, on elongating my moves and extending my lines. It's about the fluidity and quality of movement. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of me looking almost elegant, and it gives me a happy jolt.

    Dancing actual variations and characters is another story, at least for me. Steps I can do, but portraying princesses and be all pretty and beautiful.. Not so much. Mostly I feel akward instead. I have not yet learned how to be confident outside of the comfort zone of technique class. Sometimes I even wish I could dance out of sight.

    Funny, I had never expected this to be so hard. Then again, I had never thought I would get to this pointe. Maybe it just takes some more time getting used to.

    As for that 4th variation Paquita - is a challenge even with the modifications - and a terrific learning experience! Do enjoy the inevitable progress you will be making, and most of all, believe in your inner and outer beautiful ballerina! :)


To That Special Ballet Teacher

To that special ballet teacher, who not only teaches you about technique, but helps build your confidence, nurtures your inner artist, ...