Dancers Rule… or, uh, Dancer Rules

So…. I saw this article on Dance Advantage the other day. I can safely say I’ve witnessed a few of these in my time. And I may be guilty of being a #10 on occasion. Maybe a #6, too. Well, hey, I could try being all perfect and stuff, but where’s the fun in that. Gotta flaunt a few faults! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Before I get much further in this post, I suppose I should throw in a caveat, a note that I may not have been feeling an expansive sense of patience and understanding today. I fear some of my readers may interpret what follows to mean that I am a mean, mean dancer. Please, dear reader, do not take this personally (unless, perhaps, you SHOULD take it personally!). I love adult beginners. I really do. I taught them and it was incredibly fun. I support anyone who takes up something new (or old) and puts themselves out there.

My beef is that… there are some rules. And yes, it’s unfair, but rarely will you find the rules posted on the walls of the studio. A lot of ballet etiquette is unwritten, something that people have picked up over time, whether through childhood experiences or observation. And much of ballet etiquette is subtle. You may see us all laughing, joking, and having a good time and yet there is still this undercurrent of “the way things are done” that rules the studio. Part of what I like about ballet is the formality. The culture, as it were. I could go to another place and take a class at an unknown studio and fit in. And I have.

Some of my pet rules are thus:

1. Know your level. Many adult classes aren’t graded with the same strictness (if any) of the children’s classes and often adults can self-select the class that suits them, both in terms of ability and schedule. But most classes will still have some sort of notation about whether it’s for beginners, intermediates, somewhere in the middle. Sometimes beginner means absolute, sometimes it means you’ve been taking ballet three days a week for three years. You’ll have to figure out what the levels mean for your respective studio. But figure it out. By “figure it out” I mean, talk to the studio, or preferably, the teachers. Tell them your experience and let them guide you. If you are a #7a in the article posted above (“But this class fits my schedule”) and insist on taking a class that is beyond your level that is fine by me, but do not, and I mean do NOT, pitch a fit when you don’t understand 95% of what’s going on. A good teacher will throw you a bone here and there, give you advice of where to stand to watch others, modify steps to make them more beginner-friendly. But if you cop a ‘tude (and I don’t mean a beautiful, turned-out, ballet attitude) no one is going to want to help you… not the teacher, not your fellow students. It just makes you appear disagreeable at best and frightening at worst. I understand that this is hard… but you need to understand that you’re in a class of people who have been practicing this for decades. We didn’t learn it overnight, you won’t either… but we did learn it. An occasional question is fine, but don’t stop every single combination to ask what the steps are, review the order, ask “how many of these do you do” and then give a blank stare and a “Whatever, I don’t really get it,” when the explanation is offered. If you are serious about learning you may have to figure out a way to get yourself to a more appropriate class level or work out a way to modify the class to meet your needs. I’m at this level because I don’t need the explanation and your request for a 5 minute lecture on each exercise is interrupting my flow… and my zen.

2. Know your place. By this I’m referring to the #8s in the room. Ballet studios rarely have an ideal set-up. I’ve danced in rooms where there are odd poles in the middle of the floor, rooms shaped like hexagons, rooms where the floor suddenly drops off. I know you want to get the best vantage point so you can learnlearnlearn! I appreciate your enthusiasm, truly I do. But take these thoughts into account. Barre spacing is kind of like riding public transportation. If you get onto a subway/bus and it is empty except for one person you do not sit directly next to that person unless it happens to be someone you are intimately acquainted with. And even then… you’d still probably pick a seat where you could converse comfortably but still stretch your legs. Same at the barre. Fill the empty spaces first before you start encroaching on another person’s territory. I’ve been working on my extensions. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

In the center your place is NOT front and center. I know you want to see yourself in the mirror and be near the people who know the combination (yes, they are usually at the front of the room). But see, here’s the thing… If you have a habit of flailing about and a seeming lack of spatial awareness, you might be best off somewhere that will be more forgiving. Smack in the middle of a sea of seasoned ballerinas is not that spot.

3. Know your role. Okay, so maybe this is my own neurosis coming through here. I prefer to be seen and not heard. I’ve been around enough to be in on some studio jokes/stories. I enjoy my fellow students. But I’m also happy to remain on the periphery and mind my own business. I figure that if my fellow dancers/teachers want to include me in their outside lives they will do so. I do not suppose to have any sort of role beyond student until such a role is assigned to me. Again, that’s me. I’m an introvert, what can I say. But in all my years of experience with ballet I’ve noticed that there is a culture when it comes to inclusion. It’s not that outsiders aren’t welcome, but you need to earn your place. Those of us who have been through experiences together (rehearsals, performances, field trips) have done the work to forge a bond. You cannot force your way into that bond. Stand back, be pleasant, and the inclusion will come. Your loud stories and intrusive questions make me cringe. Chillax.

4. Do some homework. You’ve fallen in love with ballet? Congratulations! Now you know why we all spend so much time and money on this. There’s a lot to learn. Teachers and fellow students are a great resource, but put in some time outside the studio, too. Get a good reference guide. There are a lot of options out there from the Gretchen Ward Warren bible to basic children’s books. Both have some value to the beginning dancer. There are also great things online, from the ABT video dictionary to BT4D. And blogs, oh get on the blogs… scroll through that list on the sidebar here and check out some Adult Beginner wisdom (seriously, if you want to know how to be a good adult beginner she’s the master), Dance Advantage gems, Pointe ‘Til You Drop pearls. But get yerself edjimicated. It’ll make your in-studio experience all the better.

5. Have fun! Okay, now that I’ve berated the poor, hapless adult beginner who stumbled on this post, please note that I say this all because I want you to have a positive experience. I want you to enjoy ballet, to learn and grow and be the best dancer you can be. You ain’t gonna be the next Pavlova or Baryshnikov. This is the truth for the 99% of us who dance (Occupy ballet!) ๐Ÿ˜‰ So don’t stress about getting it all perfect. Just work at it bit by bit and in a month, six months, a year, a decade, whatever, you can look back and see how far you’ve come. But make it fun. A good attitude, a willingness to step back and observe the more experienced dancer, the patience to get to understand your peers, and the initiative to do some extra work on the outside will pay huge dividends and allow you to get the maximum enjoyment out of the experience. Hell, even if you decide to hang up the old ballet slippers, it will hopefully be something you can look back on with satisfaction. And as an added bonus, your fellow dancers will remember you with fondness rather than having a feeling of “Good riddance!”


6 thoughts on “Dancers Rule… or, uh, Dancer Rules

  1. Excellent post, Rori – and I don’t think you’re mean at all! It’s just like you wrote, in addition to the balletiquette there are many unspoken rules.. Most beginners I know are smart enough to pay attention, but I have seen even more seasoned recreational dancers stumble over The Rules!

    The lady who has taken class for years and years but sadly failed to advance beyond basic level, which is no shame – except that the said lady thinks her place is in the advanced group. Or basic level students who think they can skip years of work because ballet just isn’t that hard.. But then they don’t know a failli from a contretemps, or anything else which needs those years of studies! Or the woman who has danced before, re-started, should know her business (at that level) but feels the need to ask questions before every exercise. Even if the teacher has given clear demonstrations, twice, and everyone else is getting it.

    Fortunately, this particular type of clueless student is in the minority. And there is always the odd chance that The Rules gradually begin to sink in.. You live, you dance and you learn. Or: “We are fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.” ๐Ÿ™‚

    P.S. Thank you, Rori, for the lovely shout-out!

    • roriroars says:

      You’re very welcome, Johanna! Your blog/story is a very testament to how far an adult can go with some hard work… the secret some people don’t seem to get is that the hard work should come in brain and body, not in running one’s mouth!

      I think I’m just grouchy because it seems like we’ve had a surge of clueless types lately. The good news is that eventually they either catch on or get themselves passionately wrapped up in some other endeavor! In the meantime I just need to practice some deep breathing. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. I’m glad this post got people talking. Thanks for this positive and useful response!

    There are definitely unwritten rules in dance and ballet. I will say, though, they are usually just good human etiquette with a ballet twist! ๐Ÿ™‚ And in ballet as in life, it certainly does take all kinds – so all are welcome and wanted. I just couldn’t agree more that a little edumacation goes a long way — thank goodness for ALL the great blogs that are providing it!

    • roriroars says:

      Nichelle, so true about the ballet twist to common etiquette… at least one would think so. There are always those who give credence to the saying, “How common is common sense?” ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Elsa D. Pena says:

    Thank you thank you thank you :,) {{{Hug}}

  4. yt says:

    I need to come back and read this post each time I get into a grumpy mood from my dance classmates. =)

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