I was tired. I could feel the muscles in my leg twitching as I fought to push it higher into arabesque. The music seemed to last forever and when it finally did end, the entire class seemed to breath a joint sigh of relief. We were happy to have completed the adagio, but Madame was not convinced. “We will do it again” she said sternly, arms crossed. “But this time, I want you to dance”. She wanted us to dance? We exchanged confused glances and shrugs – what did she mean? So, we did the whole exercise again and again after that. After our third attempt it was clear that we were not understanding what she meant by “dance”.
Madame silently walked to the centre of the room and proceeded to do the whole exercise herself, without the aid of the barre. Each movement began with a graceful port de bras, she took an easy breath before each cambré and no matter what movement she was doing her body always seemed to project upwards and outwards. When she finished, she said “ladies, when I give you an exercise I don’t just want you to do it like robots. I want you to dance it – dance the exercise!
The dancing begins at the barre and not only in the centre. You have to perform, even if you’re just doing a basic tendu.”
Up until that point I guess I had never really thought about barre work as dancing, as strange as that may sound. I had always of thought of it as a kind of preparatory stage before the actually dancing began in the variations in the centre. But I guess one of the things that differentiates ballet from other “sports” is that the emphasis is always on aesthetics and performance. At no point do you just do an exercise for the sake of gaining muscle or increasing stamina – every exercise no matter how basic it is, is also intended to improve the beauty of your lines, the quality of your jump, the weightlessness of your movements. The goal is always to improve your performance.
“We will do it again.” Madame slowly walked back to the front of the room. “But this time ladies, dance it!”
So, that’s what we did. It’s amazing how the way you think about an exercise can change everything about how you execute it. I kept catching glimpses of myself and the others in the mirror. Our movements suddenly became softer and more fluid and our facial expressions looked less anguished and more relaxed. And although the exercise was basic, I “danced it” like it was a mini variation and paid more attention to the transitions between movements. The music ended and everyone brought their arms back into bras bas.
“Yes, ladies” said Madame, content at last. “Now, that was dancing!”