Lately, in the odd moments between writing feminist research papers and studying for Aquinas exams (or, rather, avoiding those things through mad procrastination and science-fiction reading, mostly a lot of Mercedes Lackey and Neal Stephenson), I’ve been musing about why it is that I enjoy ballet so much. It’s not that I’m particularly good at it, my “nice, straight back” aside. I have yet to execute anything like a passable pirouette in class. And there’s no real social interaction as an excuse. After all, you have to admit that half the charm of any social dance is that you get to do it with real, live members of the opposite sex. While in ballet you may dance alongside and, perhaps ideally, in unison with other people, you’re not really dancing with them but next to them. You don’t get to dance with someone else until you’ve gotten higher than I’ll ever go, assuming an obliging member of the opposite sex can be found. Actual men tend to be rather scarce in ballet. So… what is it about ballet that sends me hunting online bargains of cute dance warmups instead slavering over the expensive-but-exquisite goods on the tango shoe websites (ever so nice for Balboa)? What makes me willing to shell out extra money for an adult ballet class, and actually miss part of my university swing club night so I can attend?
So far what I’ve come up with is that ballet is one of the few dance forms where it’s ok for women to look serious. Most dances don’t go well with serious looks. Weekend before last I took a Westie workshop that challenged me in a number of ways, so I was concentrating hard. Towards the end the instructor reproached me a couple of times with, “You’re so serious! Smile!” See, in most dance forms you’re supposed to be happy all the time. “Big smiles, girls!” After all, a bright smile covers a multitude of dancing sins. And if you don’t look like you’re having fun, then, well, you must be doing something wrong. Lindy is very like this. I think of it being a little like Tigger in Winnie-the-Pooh: “Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy, bouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!”
If you’re not being happy, then you’re being sexy. Think Blues. Or Tango. Tango is a very serious dance, but it’s in a we’re-barely-restraining-ourselves-from- ripping-each-other’s-clothes-off sort of way. You can be angry with Hip Hop, but otherwise it’s all looking languidly bored or playing up the sex. There’s very few dances where you get to be just plain serious. Or sad. It’s like sadness is the unacceptable emotion. Women can be happy, sexy, or (rarely) angry, but they can’t be serious or sad.
Not in ballet. This is a dance form in which one of the definitive performances is Anna Pavlova performing The Dying Swan. Death, sorrow, revenge – it’s all there along with the lighter, more acceptable emotions. You don’t have to be happy or sexy all the time, although ballet can definitely be both. When I dance ballet I can be myself, concentrating hard on the muscles I’m using, the line I’m reaching for, not worrying whether I’m looking happy or cute. When it comes time to let the emotions through I can mourn my friend’s rapidly approaching death from liver cancer. I can express how much I miss Joe. I can be myself, my whole self, not just the fun parts of me. And that, I think, is why I love ballet.