Former Royal Ballet dancer Debrah Bull’s new book, The Everyday Dancer, has just been published. She writes in today’s edition of The Times about one of the most important themes of her book: that ballet is a discipline, but shouldn’t damage your health. Here are some of her words.
The notion persists that dancers spend every waking hour in pain, bodies at breaking point, their smiles a barely masked grimace.
Ballet technique is certainly extreme but it is not, in itself, dangerous: with expert teaching and daily practice, its every demand is safely within the capacity of the healthy human body. There is no need to break bones or tear tissue to achieve ballet positions: a normal skeletal structure assumes them with ease. It is the conditioning of the muscular system — to hold, or move between, those positions — that takes the work.
… It takes at least ten years of high-quality, regular practice to become an expert in any physical discipline, and for a ballet dancer those ten years have to take place before the effects of puberty set in, while maximum flexibility can still be achieved.
… In class after class, dancers manifest the clichéd truth; that practice makes perfect. Through repeated tries and frequent failure, we develop and refine the neural pathways necessary to control accurate, fast and smooth movement, and through daily repetition we strengthen the muscles required in jumping, spinning or lifting our legs to angles unfeasible to the average spectator.
… The process of improvement involves stiff muscles along the way (as anyone who goes to the gym will understand), but all those years of class add up to a fit-for-purpose dancing machine. This level of physical fluency doesn’t hurt: it feels good.
The ballerina’s ability to dance on pointe is probably the most alien of all her various talents. There is no other profession, as far as I am aware, that exploits this natural alignment of foot, ankle and lower leg bones: the only other mammal that does it is the horse.
… By the time I retired, I was as comfortable in pointe shoes as I am in bedroom slippers.
read all in The Times
Uncredited photo from deborahbull.com