By Bob Schwabach
Originally pubished in the Philadelphia Inquirer, March 25, 1973
They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but nobody even cracked a smile when I went to the ballet practice barre.
Maybe that’s because the social cloud has lifted, a lot of men are taking ballet lessons these days. Ah, Diaghilev, thou shouldst be living now — at least it beats your present position.
IN BALLET, it seems, you start out from the fifth position. I have no idea what happened to the first four positions but that’s the way it is. Maybe it’s because I was late for class.
Yes, it’s true. One day in the recent past I went to a ballet class at the Philadelphia Civic Ballet and there tried the matchless patience of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Craig, who run the company and the school, and an instructor named Norman Gabriel. There were other fat people in the class, too.
You start out, as I said, from the fifth position, which besides being the title of a mystery novel, is standing with your feet pressed tightly against each other and the toes pointed in opposite directions. From here it is an absolute cinch to go right over flat on your face, which is probably the sixth position and the reason you do this at the practice barre, which is for hanging onto.
From there you do a demi-plie (pronounced plee-ay) and a grand plie. That means you flex the kneees outward, parallel to the plane of the body (pay attention now), still keeping your feet together like I told you before. You do this halfway and all the way. Holding onto the bar is not only permitted but absolutely necessary.
THESE MOVEMENTS let you make discoveries about the various tear strengths of different muscles in your body which you previously had no clear idea of. Breathe heavily, keep your head straight up and your shoulders back and do not scream, as this will distract the other students around.
After you have done this several thousand times and progressed to the steps, the actual dance steps which will have to be done at some time or other, you know, you will be ready to perform with the company –maybe.
Not a few people never reach this level, because maybe they don’t have the dedication or the ability, or maybe they just really don’t care one way or the other, they just enjoy the practicing part.
This is fine because this has got to be the greatest exercise in the world. All these dancers have great bodies –the guys all look like Olympic swimmers and the girls all look like you allways thought girls should look if only they knew what they were about. Girls in ballet tights look very sexy. (You may not have noticed this before.)
NORMAN CRAG, who is the creative director for the ballet company and has been dancing almost all his life, says that classical ballet started out in the Renaissance and at first it was all men.
This went on for about 10 minutes until somebody discovered girls could dance, too. The popularity of ballet went straight up from there like Automated Widgitronics at the top of a bull market.
Later on, the girls would dress ins skin-tight costumes, and this was, in effect, Mr. Craig acknowledges, the first girlie show.
A lot of operas which now have ballet scenes, Craig says, were not written with ballet scenes. These were added later when the producers found that the young gallants swashing and buckling around Paris would not come to watch some fat and aging diva go through her paces in a language they couldn’t understand anyway.
Fut then when the dancing girls came on, Oh Boy! For two francs extra you could sit right up there on the stage, too, a little off to one side, of course.
CLASSICAL BALLET (ballet just means “to dance”) got a big boost in popularity during the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Louis liked to participate in the ballets himself. Usually he would take the lead.
Later on, Louis got very fat, and in other ways was not so quick on the uptake as he used to be. Young nobles at the court found it prudent to suggest other activities to while away the time and the ballet went into decline.
But you can’t keep a good thing down for more than a hundred years or so, and in the 18th and 19th centuries the ballet picked up again, until we arrived where we are today, with ballet companies in almost every city.
There are still a lot more girls than boys in ballet, though not so much of a difference as there was only, say, 10 years ago. This makes it tough on the girls, because they are having to compete maybe four or five to one for openings in a performing company and the men are competing maybe one to one.
Another problem, says Craig is that the audience doesn’t particularly care what a male dancer looks like but the girls are expected to not only be good dancers but also to be pretty. Thus, while a dancer can dance effectively into her fifties, unless she is very famous there is always the pressure from younger and prettier girls.
The shortage of male dancers over the years has resulted from a social stigma thing, in which most people have said or felt that no man would do this sort of thing unless he were a “queen” or otherwise strange. There’s not so much of this attitude anymore.
At the Civic Ballet classes now there are more men in the beginners’ classes, maybe a third of the class. They are, for the most part, businessmen or students or prefessional people who have decided to take it up for the health and body-building aspects and the certain undeniable grace and fluidity of movement that dancers have even when they are not on stage.
SO, TO RETURN for a moment to where we were before –back straight, knees flexed, toes doing sentry duty in case of enemy attack– after the agony there is, as somebody or other observed, the ecstasy. You feel absolutely great. And on the way to all this vigor and body beautiful stuff you have the rationalizing dividend of learning something other than the sequence numbering in the Royal Canadian Air Force Excercise Book.
Charges for lessons at the School of the Civic Ballet are by the month: Twelve dollars if you want to take one hour a week, $22 a month for two hours a week, $30 for three hours a week, and so on. A mere pittance, to be flung into the air with a graceful half turn of the body and a languid motion of the arm.